A transgender BYU student could be expelled and face discipline in the Mormon church for having breast-removal surgery

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune After a lifetime of feeling like they were born into the wrong body, Kris Irvin came out as transgender three years ago at the age of 28. "I'm trying to be considerate of his feelings," said Kris of their husband Nate, while discussing Kris' body dysphoria and their desires for top surgery to remove Kris' breasts. Kris feels the surgery is not negotiable, but the Irvin's LDS bishop has said that he considers it against policy and grounds for discipline.

It was a few minutes after 10 a.m. and mostly quiet in the Irvins' small blue house on Rocket Drive. Ten-year-old Toby Irvin had just come downstairs from his bedroom. He pulled out a book of world records and flipped through the pages at the kitchen table.

“The heaviest wedding cake ever made was 6.8 tons,” he rattled off, using his inside voice as instructed. “… The oldest person to live was 122. … The oldest dog was 29 years old.”

Kris and Nate Irvin had sent their son to his room an hour earlier so he couldn’t hear their conversation. The one they’ve had before and will have again. The one that might have broken the record for awkward silences, Kris thought while Toby was reading out loud.

The one about how Kris is transgender, how the couple are Mormon, and how those two identities have collided here inside this blue house in Bluffdale, first straining their marriage and now threatening Kris’ standing in the church and enrollment at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the church.

The conflict that has uncomfortably centered around one thing: Kris’ breasts.

‘Isn’t it my choice to make?’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) After a lifetime of feeling like they were born into the wrong body, Kris Irvin came out as transgender three years ago at the age of 28. All their life, Kris has hated having breasts. "I wore three sports bras as a teen to keep [my breasts] from growing bigger," said Kris of their lifelong body dysphoria and their desires for top surgery to remove Kris' breasts.

Kris, 31, has decided to have top surgery, a common procedure for transgender men that, like a mastectomy, removes breast tissue and gives them a more masculine frame.

It is typically distinguished from sex-reassignment surgery, which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discourages. Still, Kris’ bishop has said that he considers it against policy and grounds for discipline.

“I told the bishop that the surgery doesn’t change my sex,” Kris had snapped at Nate, with their son safely out of earshot. “It just removes my boobs.”

“Well, obviously he sees it differently,” Nate responded, irritated. “And so do I.”

Kris, who prefers the nonbinary pronouns they and them, threw up their hands from the armrest of the gray sofa. “Isn’t it my choice to make? Why can’t I make that choice?”

Nate didn’t have an answer, so the argument looped back around like a treadmill. Kris repeated: “I’m not changing my sex. I’m not transitioning. I just want to feel more comfortable.”

The Mormon faith teaches in its proclamation on the family that gender is an “eternal identity.” It has a short paragraph in its Handbook for local lay leaders that says a “transsexual operation” may be cause for formal discipline. That term is generally understood to mean reassignment surgery that changes a person’s reproductive anatomy. But it’s unclear if it encompasses more than that, such as top surgery or hormone therapy. (The church does not penalize members for cosmetic procedures, such as breast enhancements.)

After a lifetime of feeling like they were born into the wrong body, Kris came out as transgender three years ago. Top surgery, Kris hopes, will help relieve some of the anxiety and depression they feel — known as dysphoria — when their outward feminine shape doesn’t match their inner male gender identity.

For now, they wear a tight sports bra and a binder to flatten their chest. Over that, they put on the temple garments that faithful Mormons wear daily. It reminds Kris that, despite the struggles, they love their church.

They see top surgery as a compromise, not as a first step to having reassignment surgery and fully transitioning as male. Kris feels the surgery would give them what they want and the faith what it asks. They won’t identify as “he.” They won’t be in a same-sex marriage.

But they’re up against a policy that even they and Nate don’t agree on how to interpret. And it’s ultimately up to their bishop to decide what it means and enforce it.

“At what point do my breasts determine my level of membership in the church?” Kris wrote in a letter to their bishop.

His response: If Kris moves forward with removing their breasts, Kris will move forward with punishment.

“It’s not prerequisite that the church and church leaders accept elective transgender surgery in order to accept, love and serve LGBTQ+ members,” the bishop, Jake King, wrote back to Kris last month. “I know that no surgery can bring you true peace and comfort in this life.”

Kris shared the exchange with The Salt Lake Tribune. King did not return requests for comment. An LDS Church spokesman declined to elaborate on the Handbook’s guidance for local leaders.

King’s discipline of Kris could include, on one end, restricting their participation in church — not allowing them to take the sacrament, pay tithing, visit the temple or speak during Sunday services — or, as an extreme, excommunicating them. (The latter happened to Laurie Lee Hall, a former LDS stake president who now identifies as a woman.)

Either way, Kris believes, it will almost certainly involve the bishop withdrawing their ecclesiastical endorsement required to attend BYU.

‘Blessed to attend BYU’

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune "I feel male," said Kris Irvin. "My spirit is male." After a lifetime of feeling like they were born into the wrong body, Kris Irvin came out as transgender three years ago at the age of 28. A devout Mormon, Irvin is married to their husband Nate of 12 years and they have a 10-year-old son, Toby.

While many religious universities require faith leaders to refer members for admission, LDS schools require endorsements to be renewed annually to verify that a student is “living by church standards,” according to BYU’s website. Mormon clergy have the power to withdraw those at any time.

At BYU in Provo, if a bishop revokes his endorsement, a student “must discontinue enrollment,” although there is a brief appeal window with the school.

Kris feels they have an impossible choice: Put off top surgery and any hope of feeling more comfortable in their body until they can finish school, or get kicked out but finally have some relief from the constant pain and dysphoria.

They are 30 credits away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English.

Kris started taking classes at BYU in 2004. They dropped out after a bit and returned in 2013. While raising Toby, Kris enrolls in just a few courses each year. They won’t likely be done by spring, when their top surgery is scheduled.

“I’m really close,” they said. “I’m looking into transferring or trying to finish up as quickly as possible.”

Their bishop said in his letter that while Kris may “feel like you have to choose between being you and being LDS,” they should consider their education as one of “the blessings you have in part or entirely because of the gospel.”

“You’ve been blessed to attend BYU and gain additional education,” he said.

“If I ran my own church school,” Kris joked as they reread the letter on their phone, “I probably wouldn’t make it dependent on breast size.”

The school has no formal policy on transgender students and handles “every case on an individual basis,” said university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. Students can appeal if their ecclesiastical endorsement is revoked, but otherwise the university will not know why the bishop has asked the student to leave BYU.

“If an ecclesiastical leader declines to endorse a student," Jenkins said, “they do not share the reason for doing so with the university unless a student gives consent.”

She did not comment on whether the school would uphold discipline in Kris’ case or if any other transgender student had been kicked out of BYU after a bishop withdrew an endorsement. It’s likely some students decide to transfer rather than fight a possible revocation.

Under federal civil rights laws, the university has a religious exemption that does not require it to accommodate a student’s declared gender.

“If they’re not going to recognize me as male anyway, what’s the problem?” Kris asked.

A bishop’s power

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A family photograph album charts Nate, Kris and Toby Irvin's lives as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After a lifetime of feeling like they were born into the wrong body, Kris came out as transgender three years ago at the age of 28.

The LDS faith is hardly unique among Christian religions for having rules against transsexual operations. Evangelicals, for instance, believe gender is assigned at birth and any procedure, aside from those medically necessary, would be rejecting spiritual reality.

But the Mormon faith does stand out for the authority local clergy have to determine whether a transgender student who has an elective surgery can attend one of its schools, said Michael Austin, who graduated from BYU and has studied policies at church-affiliated campuses nationwide. He hasn’t seen that anywhere else.

“I have worked at both a Catholic and a Methodist institution, and, in both places, we welcomed transgender students and did everything we could do to accommodate them,” he said. Austin now works as the executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana.

The Mormon ecclesiastical endorsement, he added, conflates the roles of “spiritual counselor” and the “person who can get you kicked out of school by withholding a signature.” That can make “the students who need [bishops] the most afraid to talk to them at all.”

“There are many ways in which these roles are not compatible," Austin said, “and they may, in fact, be mutually exclusive.”

The LDS Church defended the duties entrusted to bishops.

“Local leaders, who are closest to the members of their congregation, are best suited to provide counseling, offer support and teach principles to guide these individuals as they seek to understand and live the gospel of Jesus Christ and to remain in full fellowship if they desire,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement.

Kris never intended to tell their bishop about their top surgery. But he found their GoFundMe page asking for donations for the procedure. Although he has sat down with both Kris and Nate since then, he hasn’t changed his mind.

Kris believes that a different bishop could have a different response, since LDS policy on transgender members is not well-defined. They call it “bishop roulette.”

“It’s very subjective based on the leadership of that ward,” said Sue Robbins, board chairwoman for the Utah Pride Center. “For transgender Mormons, one will be accepted with open arms and the next one will be excommunicated.”

Robbins, who also is transgender, said the shape of people’s bodies does not determine faith or aptitude. But not being accepted for who they are or allowed to alter their appearance can cause serious depression and suicidal thoughts, Robbins said.

A study by the National LGBTQ Task Force found that 41 percent of transgender individuals have attempted suicide. Kris used to cut their wrists; now, when the unease over their chest is the most severe, they pull a razor into the skin on their breasts, which are scarred from years of dissonance between their brain and their body.

Having top surgery, Robbins said, can be just as medically necessary for mental health as a mastectomy can be for physical health.

The same ecclesiastical power structure has been criticized in cases of sexual assaults.

BYU and other colleges owned by the LDS Church have recently promised amnesty from discipline to students who report sexual misconduct. The change came after the faith was scrutinized for punishing victims if they had broken the campus Honor Code that forbids alcohol and coffee, premarital sex and “homosexual behavior.”

But Mormon clergy are still able to withhold an ecclesiastical endorsement for students who have been assaulted even if the university upholds their sexual misconduct complaint.

‘I would like to stay’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) After a lifetime of feeling like they were born into the wrong body, Kris Irvin came out as transgender three years ago. Kris wants to take the LDS Church's Family Proclamation with the family photo of Kris, Nate and Toby, off their living room wall. "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" is a 1995 statement issued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that defines the official position of the church on family, marriage, gender roles, and human sexuality. "It doesn't allow for intersex people," said Kris about the proclamation.

Nate wants the framed copy of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” to stay up. Kris wants to take the LDS Church document off their living room wall.

The 1995 pronouncement says that gender is “an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” It’s part of the faith’s policy that has put Kris’ standing in doubt.

“I don’t claim to be a great Latter-day Saint, but I do believe in the church and I believe in the proclamation and I believe in the Book of Mormon,” Nate said. “That makes navigating all of this difficult at times. I’m trying to make sure that no matter what I do, though, I do with love and respect.”

He doesn’t agree with top surgery but said he knows that his spouse needs to do what’s best for them. Kris tries to be understanding of how he sometimes feels their needs conflict with his religious beliefs.

“It’s been difficult,” Nate said. “But we’re just trying to press forward.”

Kris and Nate met at BYU at the school’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Club, and today, the shelves surrounding the family proclamation are filled with pictures of them at Disneyland. A sign from “Star Wars” near the front door says, “Bless this wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

“I’m not the same person I was when we got married. That’s just life,” Nate said. “There’s been a lot more changes in our marriage than probably others’ marriages.”

As their conversation wrapped up, Toby came back downstairs and Nate walked into the kitchen to sneeze. It reminded Kris of why they’re making this work even when it’s complicated and hard. When they first told Toby that Kris was transgender, he responded: “I don’t want two daddies because two daddies would sneeze too loud.”

“That’s when I was little,” Toby shouted as Kris told the story.

“I would like to stay,” Kris said. “I would like to raise my son in the church.”