Kris Irvin, a tweeting transgender Latter-day Saint who pushed for equality, dies at 35

Irvin was a friendly force for other LGBTQ members of the church as they openly talked about faith and identity and top surgery.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kris Irvin is pictured here in September 2019 after they had top surgery. Irvin, an icon in the LDS LGBTQ community, died on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022.

Kris Irvin was a quirky queer Latter-day Saint with an incomparable Twitter presence, a member who challenged the faith to be more accepting and showed up at church every Sunday wearing a bowtie in the colors of the transgender flag and a lapel covered with rainbow pins.

Some would question why Irvin continued to attend, especially after church leaders had threatened to oust them for going ahead with breast-removal surgery to give them a more masculine frame (although that discipline never came). Those who knew Irvin, though, say it was driven by a real belief — and a lot of stubbornness — that things would get better for LGBTQ members like them who love the faith.

Irvin died Sunday, Jan. 23, from causes unspecified by family. But they left behind a legacy of creating a space for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who don’t feel like they belong.

“I’m there to show queer LDS kids that it’s possible to be trans and be LDS,” said Irvin, who used the nonbinary pronouns they and them, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune in September 2019, in comments not previously published. “Even when things are hard and even when people are transphobic or negative or judgmental, this is one reason why I’m still there.”

The 35-year-old Irvin accepted the contradiction of their identity and their faith and chose to live in the gray area, which they arguably made more colorful.

They had an uncanny luck for randomly bumping into church leaders at the grocery store and refused to miss an opportunity to confront them over policy while they picked out their produce. (Irvin once stopped popular LDS apostle Dieter Uchtdorf at a Christmas fair where, Irvin recounted to The Tribune with laughter, they couldn’t stop making “make your yuletide gay” jokes with a lot of winking.)

Irvin shared those experiences with nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter, under the handle @krisis86, where they became an unintentional community icon.

They created an online community of those connected to the church and the LGBTQ community, particularly in Utah, talking openly there about their highs and lows, their divorce, their challenges with the faith, their unrivaled love for possums and “Star Wars,” and how they wanted to raise their son Toby.

(Kris Irvin) Pictured is Kris Irvin in a blue shirt walking in the Utah Pride Parade with their son, Toby, to the right, in this undated photo.

Irvin’s name trended on the social media platform in the state for several days after they died, with hundreds tweeting in mourning.

“Kris held this place for us all that allowed for the weirdness of queerness in our little community,” said friend Blaire Ostler, who is also a queer member of the faith. “They were really just open and honest and authentic, and it was beautiful.”

Irvin and Ostler used to stand together with other LGBTQ Latter-day Saints on a corner outside of the Salt Lake City Temple during the faith’s biannual General Conference. They carried signs that invited congregants to “Hug a Gay Mormon” or “Hug a Transgender Mormon.”

Ostler remembered how people would come up to Irvin, recognizing them from social media.

“Kris was like a celebrity, and they got all the hugs,” Ostler said, laughing as she teared up. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through losing them.”

Becoming Kris

Irvin’s mom, Anna Treviño, said Irvin knew who they were even at 5 years old.

In their little Ogden home, Irvin would watch VHS tapes of “Star Wars” until the movies got worn out and wouldn’t play anymore. Then they’d walk around in bedsheets wrapped like a Jedi robe and challenge their dad, David, to lightsaber fights. Irvin was defiant and fierce then, too, Treviño said.

“Kris always chose an option rather than the ones I would give them,” Treviño said. “If I said, ‘Do you want the pink or blue one?’ Kris would choose another color, and say ‘white.’”

Treviño remembers Irvin setting fire to the carpet accidentally one day and once coming home to find chocolate pudding on the ceiling. Laughing now, Treviño says there was never a dull moment.

When Irvin was growing up, though, they previously told The Tribune, they struggled with feeling like they were born into the wrong body, that they should have been a man.

Irvin wrestled with that and their faith in the LDS Church, which teaches that gender is an “eternal identity.” For a time, they worried God made a mistake, they said. Irvin struggled with depression and dysphoria from their outward feminine shape, particularly their chest, not matching their inner male gender identity.

After a lot of pain, Irvin found a word that matched how they were feeling and came out as transgender in 2015. Irvin told family that they knew since they were 5 years old but never had the language to name it until they were 28 years old.

While there was some relief, that came with its own challenges, too. There were not a lot of openly transgender members of the LDS Church then — there still aren’t; perhaps the most prominent one, Laurie Lee Hall, a former stake president, was expelled from the faith over transitioning in 2017.

(Blaire Ostler) Pictured is Kris Irvin, left, with Blaire Ostler, Peter Moosman and Katherine Herrmann in this photo from April 2019. The group stood outside the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with their signs.

Kerry Pray, a friend of Irvin’s and a former member of the church who left after coming out as gay, said it’s incredibly hard to attend services when LGBTQ congregants are labeled and have a different set of rules. They’re not supposed to be in same-sex relationships; and that can be lonely.

“I didn’t have the strength to fight the church. It was somewhere I was clearly not wanted,” Pray said. “But Kris wasn’t going to leave. They were going to stay and make you think about how you were treating them. … The church needed to change some things. And Kris was going to show that in a very stubborn and loving way.”

While the church welcomes transgender members to attend, transgender members remain limited in how they can participate based on their gender assigned at birth. And the faith strongly warns against any sex reassignment surgery.

Irvin came up against that policy when they decided to have top surgery. The common procedure, like a mastectomy, removes breast tissue and can give a person a more masculine figure. It’s not typically considered the same as reassignment. But Irvin said their bishop, a local leader in the faith, said he would view it as grounds for discipline.

The bishop told Irvin that if they moved forward, according to an email from him that Irvin shared at the time with The Tribune, they could lose their standing in the faith and their endorsement to attend the church’s school, Brigham Young University, where Irvin was 34 credits away from graduating.

Irvin wrote back in an email to the leader and shared a copy of it on Twitter. It said: “At what point do my breasts determine my level of membership in the church?”

The Tribune reported on Irvin pushing back in August 2018.

‘The great unifier’

Ostler said how Irvin handled what became a public battle over a private decision was how they responded to everything. They were “kind to oppressors,” while still standing up for themself and what they believed was right, Ostler noted.

Irvin went forward with the top surgery to feel more at peace with their body, while also trying to accord with the faith’s policies, which they didn’t think they were violating with the procedure. They wouldn’t fully transition to male. To them, it felt like a compromise, they told The Tribune in late 2019.

Before they went in for the procedure in July 2019, Irvin emailed their bishop again, saying they were going to do it and, if there was discipline to come, they wanted to get it over with.

The response, Irvin said, shocked them. “We have decided not to pursue disciplinary action,” the bishop’s email said.

Irvin was relieved, but told The Tribune: “I’m still worried for others like me. The fight is not over.” And they remained hesitant to return to BYU, transferring to Utah Valley University instead.

Afterward, though, Irvin referred to the surgery as a godsend. It was a little funny, but they couldn’t think of a better way to describe it; and it made them feel so much better, they said in a previous interview. They also received letters from Latter-day Saints across the country, wishing them well with recovery.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kris Irvin and their son Toby Irvin thumb through congratulatory get well letters on Sept. 25, 2019, that they received after having a procedure called top surgery.

Irvin was protective and helped many LGBTQ members understand themselves, friends and family say, even when Irvin was going through their own trials, including a divorce that they said stemmed in part from the top surgery. And they continued to question why the church left them on the fringes.

“There were certainly costs for Kris,” said author and poet Rachel Hunt Steenblik, a friend and fellow LDS Twitter celeb. “But they pushed through and became like a shepherd for others.”

Hunt Steenblik shared a poem that Kris wrote and submitted to Hunt Steenblik’s next collection. It asked: “Do you think our Mother held Her nonbinary children for just a moment longer as we said goodbye?”

Hunt Steenblik said several people have reached out to her with stories about Irvin helping them come out or helping a parent understand their child. Menley Hawkes, a friend of Irvin’s, said Irvin helped her come out as bisexual in 2019. Even though her mom didn’t take it well, Hawkes said, Irvin was there for her.

“Kris has always responded in the way that I wish my mom had,” Hawkes said.

Hawkes and Irvin became close. Hawkes would come over to watch “Star Wars,” and Irvin would make their famous spicy mac and cheese with pepper jack. The real spice, Hawkes joked, came from Irvin’s comebacks.

When they went to Lagoon together, she recalled, Irvin challenged Hawkes to a game of Whac-a-mole. Hawkes’ machine was broken and wouldn’t score above 40 points, she said. Irvin teased her, saying: “Don’t blame the machine.” But after Irvin won, they gave Hawkes their large plush Pokémon prize.

Pray remembers Irvin mocking her mercilessly for once serving Brussels sprouts as a side dish to tacos. Irvin ran a humorous Twitter campaign with quizzes and surveys about who else thought that was a bad idea. Pray found it endearing and said Irvin was always funny and up to some kind of shenanigans.

Zachary Ibarra, a gay Latter-day Saint, said he loved how Irvin was somehow everywhere — at every protest or rally they’d just pop up with a smile.

(Madi Hawes) Pictured is Jerilyn Pool, left, and Kris Irvin on Rainbow Day at Brigham Young University in this photo from September 2021.

He met Irvin at a protest at Brigham Young University in 2019 over the school’s Honor Code, which previously explicitly banned “homosexual behavior” (though that wording has since been removed, the school has said the rule still applies). The two would talk about not fitting in.

“Kris was the great unifier,” Ibarra added. “Every single person I can think of in this movement just loved Kris.”

Love for Toby

In all the advocacy that Irvin did, they always made sure to include their now 14-year-old son, Toby.

He would walk with Irvin in every Pride march, even when he was so small that he could barely see above the Mormons Building Bridges banner. Irvin told The Tribune that they wanted him to grow up in the faith but also clearly see the issues within it.

“I want to raise my son in the church,” they said in 2018.

Toby attended church with Irvin, too, and helped as Irvin wrote letters to church leaders. In one to LDS President Dallin H. Oaks, who had given a controversial talk about gender being the “biological sex at birth,” Irvin implored the leader to understand, “We are made this way by divine design.” A copy of that letter was later published in The Tribune.

They signed it, “your sibling in Christ.” Meanwhile, Toby tried to address his letter to the president of the United States, writing, “Dear POTUS.”

Irvin had Toby meet other queer Latter-day Saints, too. In one meeting, about 60 members of the community and allies met at a restaurant in Provo. Pray, Irvin’s friend, described it as “the epic Denny’s takeover of queer people.”

(Kerry Pray) Pictured is a group of Latter-day Saints meeting at a Denny's in June 2019. Kris Irvin is in the right corner with their son, Toby.

Cal Burke, a recent BYU student who is gay, was also there and said he could see how much Irvin loved their son. Burke recalled one time when he was feeling sad and had messaged Irvin for support. Irvin showed up at his place a short while later with Toby and a 9-foot stuffed animal possum strapped in the backseat of their car. They said Burke could hug any of the three of them to feel better.

When Burke came out as gay on Twitter about three years ago, he said, Irvin was also the first person to message him and offer love. Choking back tears, he called Irvin a “warrior for goodness.”

“I never imagined a future where me and Kris wouldn’t walk hand in hand with others in the queer community to a more inclusive Mormonism,” Burke said. “Now, there’s that emptiness.”

Jerilyn Pool, a close friend, said Irvin always said they weren’t ready to be done fighting and if God came for them, they’d duel it out in a Wendy’s parking lot.

As Irvin was in a hospital bed last week, unconscious and on a ventilator before they died, Pool told them about BYU coming under federal investigation for how it treats LGBTQ students. Pool thought that would make Irvin happy and credits Irvin for helping make that happen. In their fight with God, Pool puts that as a point for Irvin.

Treviño, Irvin’s mom, said she wants to make sure Toby remembers who Irvin was and what they stood for. A picture of Toby will be placed in Irvin’s casket, and he picked out one of Irvin’s favorite books that they used to read together to include, too.

‘A force for good’

In their last months, Irvin was often in and out of an emergency room as they battled different medical conditions. They would joke about getting a punch card or frequent flier miles for all their visits. Then Irvin got the idea to work there and help others like them.

They became a hospital greeter and would wear Yoda ears to make the patients smile. And they at times had their hair dyed a neon blue, which they previously said they felt was a small way to make the world brighter.

Now, Irvin will be buried in their favorite Jedi robe with a lightsaber, with funeral services starting at 9:30 a.m. Monday that will be livestreamed. The event will be nontraditional, just as Irvin was.

“Kris loved ‘Star Wars’ and the whole idea of being a Jedi — being strong and being a force for good,” Treviño said.

Their robe will be also covered in the rainbow pins that they wore every Sunday to church.

(Kris Irvin) Pictured is Kris Irvin as they worked an ER greeting shift on Dec. 31, 2021. They wore a Yoda hat to make patients feel happier for New Year's.