Eri Hayward (pronounced “Eddy”) is transgendered. She lives in the conservative Utah Valley where she is a regular guest speaker at both Brigham Young University (BYU) and Utah Valley University (UVU) about being a transgendered Mormon woman, how to reconcile religion and personal beliefs and experiences.
On July 10th, she will fly to Thailand to undergo surgery to formally change her sex from male to female, and she is documenting her experiences on both her Facebook page and Tumblr.
I sat down with her in Provo, Utah to discuss the interplay of faith and reality in her life and was shocked by some of her answers, but ultimately inspired. Sometimes when we want to change the minds of others, we forget to open our own to them.
ANGELA BACCA: How did you first discover you were transgendered?
ERI HAYWARD: When I first found out what transgendered was and that I was transgendered, I was 19. Up until that point I had come out as gay, after having learned what that was.
At 19, I was watching TV with my grandma in Japan and they have this TV show where they have got a panel of 100 trans people: transsexuals, transvestites, transgendered people and everything in between. They are just being bombarded with questions, which is like what I normally do. My grandma turns to me and says “Oh, this is all about you, this is your life,” I was like “No grandma, I’m gay and that is a different thing.” After watching the rest of the show I realized that I am trans and there is a big difference, and I am on the wrong side.
But, when people ask when I first found out I was trans, I think they mean to ask when I first found out I was a girl. Really, the first time I realized I wasn’t a girl, it was when I was four or five years old and playing house with friends, I was going to be the mom and the girl I was playing with told me I couldn’t be the mother because I was a boy. I thought, ‘what are you talking about, I am not a girl?’ Up until that point I just assumed I would become a mom, like my mother. Being told this, I was shocked. I talked to my parents and they said, “Well, God made you this way [male],” they assumed it was a phase, it wasn’t. Because of the way they approached it, I decided to put it under a rug, bury it underground and ignore it.
For me, instead of ‘Oh, I am trans’ or ‘Oh, I’m a girl,’ it was more ‘Oh, I’m NOT a girl?’
AB: What did you do after you saw the show?
ER: I started doing some research; I had heard a bunch of different perspectives on the show. I got educated on what it exactly meant, so I got diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID).
AB: Were you raised LDS and do you still consider yourself LDS?
ER: Yes, I was. To some degree, I mean, I haven’t been excommunicated. I have had some friends who have done less than I have and have been excommunicated, it’s really case by case.
AB: What type of things?
For some people, it was just taking hormones. Other friends who are gay and have had full-on relations are still attending church. It’s really case by case depending on the bishop. I am lucky, the stake president and the bishop in my area are friends with my parents and seem to be much more understanding.
AB: You speak at BYU, which is a parochial school, a Mormon school. You were also raised Mormon. How does being transgendered interact with the teachings of the Church?
ER: You know, it’s actually not been too big of an issue. BYU is making slow baby steps into trying to become more understanding.
I started speaking at UVU first. I had a teacher who I had taken a class with and she asked me to come back to her class and talk. Another one had wanted me to talk and it kinda snowballed from there. It got out to people that I was doing presentations at UVU so BYU asked me to come. I started presenting in the Understanding Same Gender Attraction (USGA) class. I went there and one of the TAs had attended that and asked me to come to a graduate program class and I spoke there too.
AB: What is the typical reaction from the students?
EH: The students at BYU are very formal. They approach it from a therapy standpoint, it’s like they are doing a psychological assessment of me, which is fine. The USGA group is a little more personal; they ask a lot of questions about family, friends, and personal struggles with being trans. I actually kinda prefer that, I feel like they are getting to know a trans person more than just pretending to psychologically assess a trans person.
AB: Do you feel like you are changing the perception of transgender as a disorder for them?
EH: Well, since I identify as being a transsexual, I feel that my body is incorrect and therefore I need a sex change. For me, I do feel like I have a disorder in the sense that there is something that is not aligning. I don’t know if it is psychological or biological, I am not a doctor and I haven’t done any sort of research.
It kinda depends on if you go off of the biology, because then there would be a problem with my brain. But if there is nothing wrong with my brain then there is a problem with my body and it is no longer a psychological disorder, it is a physical disorder, it’s interesting. For transgendered people, they wouldn’t experience that.
AB: Because you are transgendered you do not have temple privileges as a member of the Church. How does that make you feel?
EH: I have found a really good place where I can balance my personal feelings and respecting other people and their feelings. I struggled with this idea a lot—a lot of times in the LDS culture they say, ‘it’s okay to have these feelings, you just can’t do anything about it.’ If you can still be “perfect” then you can still go to the temple.
It was a real struggle because when I first came out to my parents, they didn’t react in a way that showed they really understood or cared about what was going on.
AB: Did they just think you were acting out?
EH: Well, I came out as gay and it was this big traumatic thing. When I told them I was trans they were sort of numb to any more information I could release on them.
Nothing really changed; nothing seemed to happen. They didn’t seem to be that invested in what that meant. I felt very alone in that situation, I tried to take matters into my own hands, I tried cutting off my penis.
It was a very dark depressing time for me. I was really struggling between this idea that as long as I didn’t change anything on my body and I didn’t make any of the decisions that were “condemned”, I was ok. I could still go to church if I was keeping all those rules. Still keeping all those rules made me really depressed, they drove me to wanting to hurt myself. Sometimes I just really wanted to die. It was this really big struggle between ‘Do I try and do what the Church says or do I try to be myself?’
I finally came to this place where I decided to just try to be myself. If there are people that can, those who have homosexual feelings or are trans, but still feel of their own decision they can decide to follow that path the Church has set [the path where they are accepted as long as they don’t act on their homosexuality]…if they can do that, more power to them.
That is just something I can’t do. In that sense, I have rearranged my priorities. Being alive to me is my priority and I can’t do that, personally.
AB: You probably know other people who have had to make that decision. What happens to people who choose that path, not acting on their feelings?
EH: Well, it is different for everyone. I have a friend who is married, has children, he is open to some about the fact he is actually homosexual, but has decided to live a heterosexual life. He is married to a woman and they have been married for five or six years and they seem to be happy.
Of course they have struggles, like any marriage. I don’t know if to say it is easier or harder, in some ways I feel like it might be easier for him to be in a relationship with a woman versus a man who doesn’t understand women. Of course there are going to be difficulties. I attended a program where they discussed the difficulties from the wife’s side, of being married to a husband who is homosexual. It is very difficult for these women to be in a relationship where their partner doesn’t find them sexually attractive.
AB: Utah is a very conservative state, have you encountered any sort of backlash in your every day life for choosing to pursue the transition?
EH: I haven’t experienced too much, it was definitely more difficult when I was in the ‘gay’ phase. I came out as gay but innately identified as a woman. I started dressing like a girl, telling people I was gay, but I basically looked like a woman. People would stop me from using the restroom, they would say ‘Ma’am, ma’am, you are using the wrong restroom.” I would say, ‘It’s ok, I’m just gay.’
I didn’t understand what was going on with me so it’s no wonder I confused all the people around me. I would have people call me names, take pictures of me in public.
One time I was ice-skating with a bunch of friends, my little sister came up to me and said. ‘There are people staring at you and taking pictures with their phones.’ She was really embarrassed by that. I was so used to it, like, ‘Oh whatever, paparazzi you know? The life of a celeb!’.
But then I started to realize I was making a spectacle of myself and it was not seen as a positive thing. I had built up a tough skin but the people around me, my friends and family, they hadn’t done that and it was difficult for them. For the most part, people in public see me as a girl. When I say I am trans I think people approach that a little bit differently than when I was this ambiguous gay/girl/shemale disaster thing that I was.
I think I really just didn’t understand what it was to be gay, what I was. When I came out as trans I had so many of my gay friends come up to me and say, ‘Oh girl, we have always known, we’ve just been waiting for you to figure it out.’
AB: When you said you felt bad you were making a spectacle, I thought that was an interesting way of putting it, it sounds like an apology. Do you feel you shouldn’t have been acting on your feelings like that?
EH: There are some things that were just me being myself. I definitely was playing it up, I was thinking, ‘Ok, you want a show I will give you a show.’ I used language that was very stereotypically [gay], in the public approach—gays have an interesting approach to profanity, which I actually happen to enjoy, I have heard some very creative strings of words put together.
But that was not something that was normally me. I don’t swear very often. But when I was in those environments I played it up a lot.
AB: When you start seeing a guy do you tell them right away?
EH: I am 100% honest; I do not want any of those Jerry Springer moments. The second I know a friendship could be taken somewhere else I tell him immediately.
AB: What type of reactions do you get from people when you tell them? When guys hit on you?
EH: The most difficult reaction, the most aggressive reactions, usually come from men who are asking me out and want my phone number. As soon as I realize our friendly conversation is headed in that direction, I will say “I am flattered and I would love to but, I do want to make you aware I am trans.” I usually have to then explain what that is. Sometimes guys are really cool and politely decline. Sometimes I get these reactions like… very rude. The one thing I really remember was him saying ‘you aren’t ever really going to be a girl.’
I generally don’t get into arguments, I don’t get offended or aggressive. We did discuss it and he was very adamant that I would never be a woman because I couldn’t have children. There are lots of genetically normal women who for some reason can’t get pregnant. I asked if he doesn’t consider them women. He said they have all the equipment so it makes them a woman. That’s just his opinion.
AB: That is an interesting way to define gender, whether or not you can bear children.
EH: The psychological community defines gender as being something different than sex. That is sometimes really difficult because not everybody shares that same definition or same usage of the term ‘gender.’ While I feel like I have always sort of filled that gender of being a woman, the sex is different.
I realize when it comes to giving birth there are sex organs that are different, so sexually I am different. He is right. Sexually speaking, I will never be completely whole, completely woman. Biologically I still have the X and Y-chromosomes. In that aspect he is right. In the aspect of gender, the role I play in society and will continue to play in society—I already transitioned.
AB: Was there ever a transition per se, or have you always just been a woman in that sense?
EH: I feel like being gay was my transition. I went from portraying myself as a man to portraying myself as this ambiguous form. But even when I was in the Boy Scouts I was very feminine and I was treated that way. If someone wasn’t going to carry their backpack, it was me. I can’t remember putting up a tent. The boys did a lot of things for me. It was just understood that I was just this little, faggoty queer.
AB: Being a child that was obviously different, how did the adults you were around interact with you?
EH: I have always been very friendly and outgoing. Because of that approach people have always been friendly to me. Because I was so effeminate though, I did get made fun of a lot in school. When people made jokes about how girly I was I liked it, it was a compliment to me.
I was sitting around talking with a group of girls. One of them made a comment about how boys were stupid and it didn’t even faze me. But another girl was like, ‘Oh except for you, Eri… but you aren’t really a guy, you are just a classmate.’
That was okay with me too. I preferred being in the classmate zone instead of the boy zone.
AB: When you run into people you knew growing up, are they happy about the change?
EH: They usually are. I ran into this one guy at UVU and after we talked for a long time he said ‘You know, this is a lot better for you, if you don’t mind me saying. You make a much better woman than you ever tried as a boy.’
I said, ‘Thanks, I obviously feel that way too.’ If anyone has had negative reactions they choose not to say them to me because there is just not any point. I respect everybody’s personal opinions.
AB: That is such a mature emotion to have, a lot of other people would get angry.
EH: Well, my family was the same way. I was very sheltered. I had horrible opinions of people who drank or broke the Lord’s laws of chastity. But when I grew up and became more aware of how the world worked I thought, gosh! My parents should have taught me to be more accepting. But because they weren’t raised that way they just didn’t know.
Now I have taught them how to be more accepting. Now that I have taught my dad how to be more accepting things have been fantastic.
AB: You know it is interesting. Even among extreme liberals there is a preaching of being more accepting of different people but at the same time they are not accepting of people who think differently than them religiously or politically. I like that approach, rather than a vitriolic response, you just show them who you are and let those actions speak for themselves.
EH: That is one of the biggest things I struggle with, having a lot of friends who are in the LGBT community and a lot of friends who are [very religious]. There is so much unwillingness to be open-minded from either side, so much unwillingness to understand each other. It’s immature to point the finger at people, I don’t care who started it [the judgment], finish it.
AB: How do you finish it?
EH: When you try, it doesn’t matter if it gets finished. I don’t think that it’s finished, but to me it is. I took a step, I said ‘It’s okay, other people can have their opinions.’ For me it is finished, for them it may not be.
So many people have said that having discussions with me or having me present in class has changed their perspective. All of a sudden they are able to approach this from a bit more of a balanced perspective.
I will let people ask me any questions, about anything they want to know; they just need to be prepared for the answer. It is a more natural change and that is why I have a difficulty saying what I want to have changed. I don’t want anything to change because we are making a conscious decision to make these significant changes. I just want there to be more respect, more dialogue because then those changes will come more naturally.
AB: Do you see a drastic change in the Mormon Church in the future?
ER: This is where it gets complicated because my personal opinion on the matter is different. I think they will continue to move in that direction but I don’t necessarily think they will become 100% open minded to all aspects of the LGBT community– and to some degree I don’t want them to.
I don’t think it is wrong for a group of people to just have different opinions from another group of people. I feel like America was built on the ideal that you can have different groups of people with different ideas living in the same area—but they just need to respect each other. I think there is a way to do that.
AB: What changes would you like to see in the LDS Church?
EH: Personally, I think that more dialogue and more willingness to understand the situation would be nice, however, any changes in the doctrine or the belief system—I don’t think they need to change anything. While there are things I would personally think are nice to change, I wouldn’t want them to do it.
The Church will say things in the spirit of love and acceptance but because they haven’t really made an attempt to understand the situation, it can come off as very insensitive and I think the Church is notorious for accidentally saying things in a way that is insensitive and to some people really offensive, especially someone who is really sensitive.
It’s hurtful to someone who wants to have a relationship with someone but also have a relationship with God and the Church. But, my personal opinion is while it might be nice of them to approach things in a way that is a little more kind, it is their church. You can go find another one.
AB: But at the same time, if this is how you were raised, this is your culture, your community. It can be traumatizing to be pushed away.
EH: Well, to that I say, what are your priorities? Figure out your priorities, that is what I did. I looked at my life and I looked at the things that were important to me and I found a way to have family in my life and have a lot of the cultural aspects of my LDS upbringing and still find a way to be happy.
A lot of people will get fixated on the pain and the hurt, and it just stops them from being able to move on. While it’s no easy task, it is totally worth it.
AB: Are you scared to undergo the surgery? It sounds painful.
EH: Pain? I tried to cut off my own penis with a knife. I am crazy; I don’t expect the pain to really be that big of an issue.
AB: How has your family transitioned with you, because now they are very accepting?
EH: Well I came out as gay first, and that was a very traumatic and difficult experience, especially for my dad to go through. My dad actually wrote an article about this. He talks about how the idea of what they had thought of me had to die, they lost their son. They had a lot of expectations. I was full on lying to them saying I was straight and whatnot and planning on getting married to a woman.
AB: Did you just say that because you thought that is what they wanted to hear?
EH: Oh definitely, not just them but society, the community I was raised in. The few times I had said something I was made fun of or it was really frowned upon. One time I said a boy was cute and my dad’s reaction was like I stabbed him, so I played it off like a joke.
When I first came out as gay, my mom was the one who got angry, but my dad just sat down and cried. I thought it was kinda funny that my dad was the one crying and my mom is the one getting angry.
My parents and I have always communicated on a very mature level. Because of that open dialogue and communication, up until a point I was totally with them, on their side when it came to choices, what was important. I agreed with everything they said.
Any parent who experiences a child making a large decision so different from their own has to face the reality their child is not an exact replica of them. To some degree a parent is going to feel a loss of the child they anticipated but they also have something to gain. They lost their son but they got another daughter, one who is much happier.