Eri Hayward is cheerful, even as she drops verbal bombs that demolish mainstream conceptions about being transgender. “I always say being gay is harder than identifying as a heterosexual girl or boy trapped in the other body, at least in this society,” says Hayward, a transgender Mormon woman from Orem, Utah. But her boldness isn’t surprising. After all, she filmed the final days before her sex reassignment surgery in the summer of 2013 for the short documentary Transmormon.
Since its release, Transmormon has racked up a number of awards, including the Artistic Vision Award at the 2014 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. In the process, 25-year-old Hayward has become a transgender poster child, at least to Mormons. But she is a little surprised by the role. “I’m not trying to break any social norms. I’m not trying to break any walls or do anything they don’t understand.”
Hayward doesn’t mean that with a false sense of modesty. Nor is she taking the rhetorical strategy of playing down how dramatic a push for social change is by making it seem more familiar. She really just wants to be an old-fashioned girl. “I’m saying there is something wrong on the outside, fix it, and I will be a conforming member of society,” she says. After years of struggling to articulate that she was transgender, she is more than happy to have people recognize her as a woman—and leave it at that.
Hayward’s political and social views are largely absent from Transmormon, perhaps because (as shown by her remarks outside the movie) she doesn’t see her transition as a larger political or social statement. While Transmormon plays up her Mormon family and background, the documentary never directly mentions the Church of Latter Day Saints’ historically vocal opposition to LGBT rights. Instead, the film focuses specifically on Hayward and her family, stripped of overt political messages or loaded debates. Interviews with Hayward and her parents are intermixed with old family videos and photos to create an intimate and moving story of a family that has accepted their transgender child in the last place you’d expected them to, the heart of the conservative Mormon world.
Ironically, Hayward says she is not devoutly religious. She isn’t even sure she still considers herself a Mormon. “I know the documentary made me seem very religious. I think it’s more about the fact my family, my background is Mormon, and this is what my journey has been,” she says. “Do I believe a lot of things I was taught? Yes. But there are a lot of things that don’t resonate with me. To say I am Mormon would be wrong but to say I am not Mormon would also be wrong.”
While she still maintains connections to the Mormon community, Hayward does not seem too concerned with how she is perceived by the Church. In fact, now she perversely welcomes the LDS Church’s censure because at least it’s a censure that recognizes her as a woman. Hayward lives with her boyfriend, “so I am dealing as a woman ‘living in sin,’” she says with a laugh. “I was having to deal with all these things that were trans related to now it’s related to being a regular skank making bad choices kind of things.”
Now that Hayward has fully transitioned there are new prohibitions regarding what she cannot do in religious settings. However, she feels no need to protest these restrictions.
She was told she and her future husband could not be married in a Mormon temple. “I was perfectly okay with that,” Hayward says. “I had no intention of marrying in a temple. Even if I could go to the temple, but I had to go as a man, I wouldn’t even feel right being there.” She has also lost her right to be a priesthood holder, a religious honor granted only to men in the Church. “I was like, ‘Yeah. That’s no surprise. I didn’t necessarily want that in the first place,’” she says.
While many Mormon men and women have protested the denial of priesthood to women, Hayward is perfectly content with the gender restrictions and sees no need for change. “If they [women] see the priesthood as something they think they should have, then they should find a subset of LDS because they believe in something that does not go along with the mainstream beliefs,” she says.
Her traditional view of women in the LDS Church fits in line with how she sees herself as a normal, traditional woman, the opposite of a rabble-rouser. Despite the fact that being the subject of Transmormon has thrown Hayward into somewhat of the spotlight as a trans advocate, she’s not sure she identifies as one.
“I think in a way we are all advocates to our own beliefs and life, but I don’t think I’m really doing anything that special,” she says. Since Transmormon premiered, Hayward has spoken at panels and lectures throughout Utah with the director and her father, but she sees it more as clarifying than advocating. “If people are interested, I let them see or hear what’s going on in my life.”
In Transmormon, Hayward opens up about the difficulties of coming out, and her family’s candor is as poignant. When she shares her former fantasy of chopping off her penis, her father recalls being told that she “knew it would be okay” because he’d get her to the hospital in time. These deeply intimate anecdotes are what make Transmormon so moving.
She details how coming out occurred in multiple steps over years because she literally didn’t know trans people existed because of her sheltered upbringing. “I didn’t realize there was this group who were trans. I just knew there were gays, and they were men who were very effeminate. I struggled with that for a long time,” she says. In Transmormon, Hayward and her father discuss how she first came out as a gay man in high school and then came out a second time as transgender.
Her parents are incredibly positive and progressive about her transition to being a woman. The documentary is arguably as much about being the family of a transgender person as being transgender. In fact, Transmormon closes not with Hayward, but her father saying that he would not be okay if she were resurrected as a man. “I’d say ‘Where’s my daughter? Who is this boy I don’t know.’” The final shot is of her father choking back tears. “I hope this documentary you’re shooting will be watched by some parents,” he says to the camera. “And that maybe something we’ve said will help them, and through them help their children.”
Still, the documentary never discusses how the Haywards initially handled her coming out. That story is somewhat less rosy in its full form. “I was terrifyingly aware of the fact that my father was vocally against that lifestyle when I came out,” Hayward tells me. “I had money saved up. I was expecting to be kicked out. I was fully prepared.”
Instead of being angry, they were confused. They started attending a Mormon support group that encouraged LGBT people to “come back to God” and return to heterosexuality. In other words, it sounded a lot like conversion therapy, the scientifically unfounded and often emotionally damaging attempt to change gay people into heterosexuals.
Conversion therapy has been slammed by LGBT advocates (and bans on them have been upheld by the Supreme Court), but Hayward has no hard feelings about the support group. In fact, rather shockingly, she thinks these groups can actually be helpful. “There are a lot of people I know personally who tried living LGBT lifestyles, and they decided to go to this support group to find a lifestyle that would make them happier. If that’s the choice they make—choosing not to be gay—then they have a hard road in front of them and they need a support group,” she says.
The term “LGBT lifestyle” sounds like it’s straight out of a Moral Majority informational brochure circa 1984. I ask her about the terminology and whether she thinks being gay or trans is a choice. It’s a view that very LGBT advocates have been willing to admit (Cynthia Nixon being the big exception), let alone voice so nonchalantly. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily choosing not to be gay,” Hayward says. “It’s like mind over body. Maybe there’s an innate desire to be with a man, but they have decided having children with a woman and raising a family is more what they wanted.”
While most LGBT members would find the suggestion to forego their sexual and gender identities to fit social or familial norms an affront to their human rights, Hayward has seen people who have gone this route before. Not judging them for this path is as natural as not judging people for being trans or gay. “I don’t think it’s my place to have that much of an opinion,” she says. “If someone tries it, and they are happy and satisfied, then good. If they try it and it’s wrong, oh well. Start from square one.”
Her unwillingness to condemn groups that are like conversion therapy programs, let alone her tacit approval of them, is jarring to hear in 2014. Her uneasiness with expressing outright support for gay marriage is just as surprising, considering she is a millennial transgender woman. “When it comes to gay marriage, do I think I have the right to tell people they can’t be together? No, I don’t. At the same time, I don’t think it’s necessarily right for a group of people to come in and say ‘Okay all these things need to change,” she says. “If kids are playing with a toy, do I think it’s nice if they share? Yes. Do I think they should? Yes. Do I think they have to? No.”
Hayward says she understands that “straighties feel like they’re being attacked” because marriage is “a cultural ceremony that has been in the heterosexual community for hundreds of year.”
Her borderline apologetic view is, frankly, a bit irksome, though not wholly unexpected based on Transmormon. One of the most fascinating nuggets of the documentary is that her father seems more comfortable with her as a transgender woman than a gay man because it means she will enter a heterosexual relationship.
He discusses “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a statement made by the LDS Church declaring marriage is between a man and a woman. “In my opinion, Eddie is a woman, and so I don’t see a problem with that,” says Mr. Hayward. “I’m hoping the Church leaders will see it that way, and she can get married.”
Historically, that proclamation was issued in 1995 after Mormon Apostle Boyd K. Packer famously said the greatest threats to the LDS Church came from intellectuals, feminists, and supporters of gay rights. The proclamation is akin to a religious Defense of Marriage Act, and, unsurprisingly, LGBT activists aren’t a fan of it.
Even if you disagree with her views, there is something courageous in her Jesus-like patience for those who harbor hate and bigotry. “When I tell people looking for advice with coming out, I say we’ve had our whole lives to deal with these struggles and these complications of coming out,” she says. “When we all of a sudden dump this on someone, they haven’t had the same time to come to terms. We have to give them at least as much time as we’ve given ourselves. To expect someone to change and accept it in a few short days, it’s asking a lot.”