Transgender at BYU: Living lives despite unclear policies

Provo • Cammie Vanderveur enrolled as an engineering major at Brigham Young University in the ’90s to have access to the Clyde Engineering Building.

The building was open 24/7 and became part of a routine Vanderveur embarked on a handful of times a week. In the dead of night, she’d dress in women’s clothing and walk around campus alone where she knew there was no chance anyone would cross her path.

“It amazes me to this day that I didn’t get caught,” she said.

Vanderveur, who is now out as a transgender woman, attended BYU from 1994 until 2001 while she was pursuing a bachelor’s and master’s degree. She lived as a man, the gender she was assigned at birth, during her time as a student.

Like many of BYU’s transgender students through the decades, Vanderveur returned from a two-year religious mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the intention of beating or curing what she had felt throughout her life. She worked hard. She went to church. She married a woman and had children. With perfect obedience, she thought it would go away.

It never did.

Vanderveur’s story isn’t unique. Transgender students have attended BYU through the decades, mostly staying quiet and living lives deep in the closet as they’ve wrestled with what their feelings mean in a religion and at a religious university that has said gender is a static part of their eternal identities.

Finding Direction

BYU’s honor code, which students have to agree to abide by in order to attend the university, does not directly address the transgender community, although certain aspects of the code can be interpreted as restricting students who are transgender. Students agree to live by the honor code between semesters and both on- and off-campus.

The code’s dress and grooming standards dictate that men must have a neat and clean hairstyle trimmed above the collar, leaving the ears uncovered. It also states men are not allowed to wear earrings or other body piercings.

The code’s housing standards state unmarried undergraduate students who don’t live with their parents must live in either on-campus or off-campus, BYU-contracted housing segregated by sex, unless they obtain a waiver. People of the opposite sex aren’t allowed in the bedrooms of those of the opposite sex, and even bathroom use in the housing of the opposite sex is advised against “unless emergency or civility dictates otherwise, and then only if the safety, privacy and sensitivity of other residents are not jeopardized.”

LDS students must also have an ecclesiastical endorsement from their bishops in order to attend. If they lose it, their enrollment is thrown into jeopardy.

Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for policy at BYU, said transgender students are handled on a case-by-case basis.

The university is commonly placed at the top of various lists as being unfriendly to the LGBTQ community.

LDS Church policy on its transgender members is scarce. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a church document released in 1995, states that “marriage between a man and woman is ordained of God” and that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

The church website MormonAndGay.LDS.org addresses same-sex attraction in members, but there’s no official church website that acknowledges transgender members. Church members can be disciplined for undergoing gender confirmation surgery and members who have had the surgery need permission from the top tier of church leadership before they can be baptized. Church reactions to transitioning socially or using hormones vary on a congregation-by-congregation basis.

Recent relations between the LDS Church and its LGBTQ members have come under scrutiny through the last few years. Two years ago, the church updated policy to state that children of same-sex parents can’t be baptized. This year, the church voiced its support of the LoveLoud Festival in Orem, where proceeds from the festival went to organizations that help at-risk LGBTQ youth. And in October during the church’s general conference, Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church decried the acceptance of same-sex marriage.

In the Shadows

Jami Claire attended BYU from 1981 to 1984, during which time she wasn’t out as a transgender woman. There wasn’t a lot of talk about the LGBTQ community at the time, but there was stress on the university’s dress and grooming standards and conversion therapy was being discussed.

Claire knew she was different at the age of 7, when she’d spend summers on a farm with cousins. She’d spend more time with her female cousins than with her brothers and would sneak around to dress in girls’ clothing.

“I learned from a very early age how to get into things and had like almost-photographic memory and put things back exactly how I found them,” Claire said.

She’d wear her mother’s clothing when her parents were gone and continued to secretly dress in women’s clothing when she joined the Navy.

Claire would secretly wear her wife’s clothing — with the drapes closed — when they lived in Wymount Terrace married housing at BYU. She doesn’t know what would have happened to her if she was ever caught.

“Once we got away from BYU, I started the whole accumulation and purge cycle transgender people do,” Claire said. “You buy things and you get rid of them. I don’t even want to consider how many thousands of dollars of stuff I threw away.”

Claire didn’t consider coming out while at BYU, and only learned the word to match what she was feeling a few years before enrolling there. She did research and read up on medical journals while as a BYU student to learn more terminology.

“That word was not forbidden in the search catalog, so I spent a lot of hours searching in the literature,” Claire said.

Vanderveur also found answers in the BYU library as she researched transgender theories. She sat down with a counselor, who tried to convince her she was gay.

BYU wasn’t Vanderveur’s first university choice, but she agreed to go after her parents insisted she attend for at least a year.

“If I would have known then what I know now, I would have gone out on my own and fought for another university,” Vanderveur said.

Going on a mission made Vanderveur dedicating to finishing at BYU. Educationally, she said it was a great university. But psychologically, it was a different experience.

Vanderveur accidentally outed herself to a roommate in off-campus housing after he caught her wearing women’s clothing in their apartment. The roommate never said anything.

She had an idea of what would happen to her if she was outed while she was a student.

“I was sure that I would be kicked out,” Vanderveur said.

She hasn’t heard of BYU publicly kicking out a transgender student, but said she’s done enough research to know about the “darkest days” of perceived witch hunts for the transgender community.

The thought of bringing up her identity to an ecclesiastical leader without the fear of being kicked out of school is a dream to her.

“It just puts a dark cloud over you,” Vanderveur said. “You feel like you are hiding the entire time.”

Current Questions

Andy Winder is living a different life today than he thought he would a few years ago.

“When I first started attending BYU, I never thought I would transition or tell anyone about it,” Winder said. “I thought it would be a deep secret I kept for the rest of my life.”

Meeting other LGBTQ BYU students, and going through counseling, changed Winder’s mind. He doesn’t feel guilty about coming out, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t fear what might happen to him.

“I was really afraid they would expel me for a long time, and even now, I try to kind of keep under the radar,” he said.

Winder, a senior studying English, went to BYU to cultivate a spiritual background and for the low price of tuition for LDS students. He said professors have been accepting of using his pronouns and preferred name, and if there’s something someone doesn’t know about the transgender community, they’ve been willing to learn.

Winder has been out since last April, but still must live in women’s housing. He has a room to himself, but said he’d prefer to live in men’s housing.

After a first year in college wrestling with complicated feelings, transitioning has made him happier and more emotionally stable.

“I felt really guilty a lot of the time because religion has always been a really strong part of my life, and I felt like being trans was one step worse than being gay,” Winder said.

That first year, Winder didn’t realize there were Mormons who were also LGBTQ. He now knows a handful of transgender BYU students.

One of those is Kris Irvin, a nonbinary, transgender BYU student who first attended the university in 2004 and returned in 2014 after dropping out, getting married, having a child and regretting the decision to drop out.

Irvin didn’t know about the transgender community until 2015.

“When I found out this was a thing, I was like, ‘oh my gosh, that’s me,’” they said.

Irvin said they isn’t questioned because Irvin appears female — the gender Irvin was assigned at birth — and because Irvin is married and has a child.

“My friends definitely worry, and I worry about my friends for sure, and I have had other trans people warn me, ‘don’t be too vocal, because they will come after you,’ and I try to avoid that,” Irvin said.

Irvin has gone by “Kris” for years, even before coming out, so there’s no need to typically correct people about their name. Fall has been the first semester Irvin has been sensitive about people using their correct pronouns, but they haven’t brought it up with professors yet.

“The people that know have been really supportive,” Irvin said. “I haven’t had any negative experiences with students.”

Irvin has struggled with the religious idea of having an eternal spirit gender.

“I always thought my spirit was male and I got lost on the way to my body,” Irvin said. “And when I was 12, a primary teacher told me that wasn’t possible.”

They started wondering then how they could feel the way they did when their spirit wasn’t male. So Irvin committed to going to BYU and faked being a woman.

“And it didn’t work,” Irvin said. “I’ve tried really hard.”

Irvin has gotten it cleared by their bishop to start wearing pants to church and is currently attending transgender Mormon support groups.

Seeking Clarity

“The problem is it is all unknown. There are no guidelines, no doctrine, so you play leadership roulette with your bishops and it is the same at BYU,” Irvin said. “Sometimes you’ll be in a supportive classroom, and sometimes you will not.”

And while there’s hope about a future policy in the church and at BYU about transgender members and students, Irvin believes a policy would be positive for the transgender community. Even with the risk of it being negative, Irvin said it would be worth it so transgender students know where they stand.

“There should be more policy because it’s better to know what sort of consequences you might face than worry about getting kicked out all the time,” Irvin said. “I would hope the policies they put in place were kind.”

Winder has personal interpretations of church and university policy about transgender students. He’s tried talking to the Honor Code Office about policy, but said he’s never had a response to an email.

“The policies for trans students are very vague, and it’s kind of terrifying because you are never sure what the administration is going to say,” Winder said.

That includes not knowing if students are able to transition by using hormones, or if they’re allowed to be out socially. With rumors about transgender women who have gotten in trouble with BYU for presenting as female, it’s possible those policies could vary for transgender men and transgender women.

In general, it’s easier for transgender men to go unnoticed than transgender women. If a transgender woman wears pants and has short hair, it’s not questioned, while it’s harder for a transgender woman to pass as female. It’s also easier for a transgender man to change their voice.

“There is nothing socially stigmatizing about a person dressing in men’s clothes, whether they are male or female,” Claire said. “However, a trans woman, their voice doesn’t change much, if any, when they start on estrogen and possible progesterone. You have to do a lot of voice therapy to affect it at all.”

At 60, Claire has learned how to use nonverbal clues, like moving her hands, when she talks to pass as female. Voice, she said, is the first giveaway if someone’s transgender.

Claire suspects BYU’s dress and grooming standards could be a barrier to transgender women coming out.

Claire came out last winter and has fully transitioned to living as a transgender woman now. She goes to her Florida ward dressed as a woman and attends Relief Society. So far, things have gone fairly smooth.

“At this point, knock on wood, I haven’t been excommunicated,” Claire said. “If they decide to excommunicate me, I am OK with it. I would prefer not to be (excommunicated).”

Vanderveur first came out to her ex-spouse, is out to the majority of her friends and was out at church before she stopped attending. Those things, Vanderveur said, spread quickly throughout a congregation.

Living in BYU housing that aligned with her gender identity while a student would have helped, Vanderveur said.

“I wouldn’t have felt like I was hiding,” she said. “I would not have felt dishonest. It would have changed my religious experience to not being a dark, shaming, guilt one.”

A clear policy from the LDS Church and BYU, she said, would be helpful, even if it was hostile.

“I think it would be helpful in letting the trans person realize there is no hope in them being there,” Vanderveur said.

Her advice for current transgender students at BYU is simple — leave.

Winder’s advice differs; encouraging current transgender students to find a good counselor and other LGBTQ students. He points to LDS LGBTQ Facebook groups as a good resource.

Religiously, Winder is at peace about being out and living life as a transgender man. He eventually wants to get endowments in the LDS Church and be married in the temple, but his bishop isn’t sure that’s allowed.

“I still want to believe in it, but I’m not sure if there is a place for me,” Winder said.

For the handful of transgender students he knows, staying means being present to help others navigate through the uncertainty.

“I am hoping as more of us come out and stay, that there will be a place for trans students,” Winder said.

And for Irvin, staying is worth the risk.

“If I can be there and be visible for somebody else, then it is worth it, even if it’s hard,” they said.