By Stephen Carter
The first Book of Mormon metaphor my childhood brain latched onto was the rod of iron in Lehi’s Dream. I often contemplated a painting of it in an illustrated scripture book I had, fascinated by the drama of it: the struggling bodies, the miasmic landscape, the shimmering tree—all connected by a straight, silver line. Iron became a symbol to me of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. You have an unshakable testimony,1 an obedient nature, a clear path to exaltation.
On my mission, I prepared people to make use of this iron, helping them to change so that they would be worthy of it—repent of their sins, learn doctrine, make commitments. You have to be on the right side of the iron to receive its guidance. And then you have to stay right.
The Sunday after the November 2015 policy concerning people in a same-sex marriage was made public, my son came home from church distraught. His Sunday school teacher had spent the class discussing the policy, and that had led to some of the class members expressing their aversion to people in the LGBT community. I talked with the teacher the next week, and found out that his thoughts on the subject were more complex than my son had understood, but my son still refused to go back. I thought he was just expressing his sensitive soul and liberal leanings, but then, a few weeks later, he came out to us as being transgender. My son had become my daughter, and I finally understood why her reaction to the class had been so charged.
Now I had to reconsider my family’s spiritual life.
As I thought about the best-case scenario for continuing to go to our LDS ward, I realized that even if the ward was the model of acceptance and rallied around my daughter, their Mormon iron would still be present. It would start with the many awkward social situations. (How will the young women feel about her being in their class, or bringing her on a camping trip? How would her presence affect the lessons on gender roles, morality, marriage, and motherhood?) It would continue with the fact that she wouldn’t have any role models—no one like her who was afforded all the spiritual goods the Church offers. In fact, she herself would never be afforded all those goods. If she got sex reassignment surgery, she could be disfellowshipped or excommunicated. In other words, though I could see a chance for acceptance in the ward, I couldn’t see a chance for flourishing.2 The LDS iron, which had been a guide and support for me for so long, was suddenly a barrier keeping my daughter out.
When I found out that the rate of suicide attempts amongst transgender teens in Utah is disturbingly high—and that it soars even higher amongst Mormon teens, I decided that those were dice I was unwilling to roll. So we went exploring.
I brought her to the Community of Christ congregation in Salt Lake first because I knew they had a transgender member there. I also hoped that she would feel a little more grounded since she would be hearing references to familiar history and theology. We had a good experience, but my daughter really needed a youth program, which wasn’t up and running there yet, so we tried the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society.
At the beginning of the meeting, a man stood at the pulpit and said a few sentences.
Come, come, whoever you are—you are welcome here.
No matter your age, your size, the color of your eyes, your hair, your skin—you are welcome here.
No matter whom you love, or how you speak, or whatever your abilities—you are welcome here.
Whether you come with laughter in your heart or tears—you are welcome here.
If you come here with an open mind, a loving heart, and willing hands—you are welcome here.
And then, just to make sure that no one misunderstood, he added:
the complete you,
just as you are—
you are welcome here.
The words took me completely by surprise. I started to weep without knowing why. Later, I realized that two things very close to miracles had happened in that moment. First, I knew that I had found a community for my daughter: one that knew how to cultivate her in her uniqueness,3 one that was unabashedly willing to offer her all its spiritual resources, holding nothing back.
Second, for the first time in my life, I had heard someone express unconditional acceptance—not just toward my daughter, but toward me. I had never even considered the idea that I might be completely acceptable, that each part of my soul might have its own beauty, that I could be whole without shame. I felt a little of my Mormon iron melt under the warmth of this unexpected love. “Is this what grace feels like?” I thought.
Iron is the element Latter-day Saints have chosen to make us strong. It has served us well. We’ve become a wealthy, influential, cohesive people. We’ve gathered the character and resources to do a lot of good in the world—and we do it.
But this iron makes our default setting judgment rather than acceptance. This is evident when reading the Church’s official MormonAndGay website. It acknowledges that Church leaders know little about transgender people (which is a refreshing admission), but their lack of knowledge doesn’t mean that transgender members are automatically afforded every privilege a cisgender Latter-day Saint enjoys. It means that transgender members have to wait until LDS leaders decide which parts of them are acceptable.
You have to be on the right side of the iron.
Now I go to two churches on Sunday: UU in the morning and LDS in the afternoon. There’s something I need in each: acceptance in one, my neighbors in the other. When I go to the UU church, I bring what I hope are the useful parts of my Mormon iron (a little organization won’t hurt them).
Then, when I go to the LDS church, I try to bring a message to anyone who feels like they are on the fringes: “You are welcome here.”
It’s a message I hope my daughter can hear someday.
1. As I began writing this piece, the top story on LDS.org was titled, “How to Be Unshakable.”
2. Sadly, a later conversation with my bishop indicated that not even acceptance would be a possibility.
3. In fact, there was a female-to-male transgender person in her youth class.