“Does it bother you when she says stuff like that?” my partner asked me once we returned to my bedroom. “I wish she didn’t do that to you.”
I didn’t have to ask him what he meant, but I’d hardly registered it. The manager of my student housing complex had assigned a new roommate, a nursing major from Iowa, to my apartment several weeks ago. The first day we met, she asked me what a man was doing in women’s housing. After I explained my situation to her, she compared my transgender identity to her pornography addiction.
Later, she asked me if my hormone medication stopped my periods and if I’d want to carry a baby someday since I was “biologically the woman in relationships.” So when she used female pronouns for me in front of my partner, it was actually pretty mild for her.
“I’m used to it,” I said, “but it still hurts.”
I was used to it. After living three years in women’s housing at Brigham Young University in Utah as a transgender man, you develop a thick skin whether you want to or not. I graduated from the Mormon school in August 2018, and when I look back at the years I spent there, I’m reminded of this line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
After I came out, some people asked me why I’d chosen a university run by a religion that excommunicates members who undergo gender-confirmation surgery or enter a same-sex marriage. Like most decisions in life, it wasn’t simple. I was born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and until my early 20s, I had a hard time reconciling my beliefs with my trans identity. I thought that attending a Christian university could help me connect to God and “overcome” my gender dysphoria (the conflict I felt between the gender I was assigned at birth and my gender identity).
And I did, but not in the way my 18-year-old self expected. Freshman year in college was like riding the coming-out roller coaster — first to my therapist, then to my family and finally to my close friends. The more people I told, the less guilt I felt and the more I wanted to transition, especially once I started attending queer Mormon support groups and realized I didn’t have to compromise my beliefs or my gender identity to find happiness. The LDS faith was founded in personal revelation when a teenage boy asked God which church was true and received the answer, “None.” I met many LGBTQ members who believed that someday there would be a place for them in the LDS Church, even if there wasn’t one right now, and I became one of those believers too.
During sophomore year, I received a testosterone cypionate prescription and met my best friend, another trans student who started hormone replacement therapy at the same time as me. We were the first BYU students to do so. Every week as I injected the hormones with an inchlong needle into my thigh, I worried about expulsion. Although the BYU honor code forbids same-sex relationships, it doesn’t directly mention transitioning. Beyond a ban on gender-confirmation surgery, neither the LDS Church nor the university outlined any discipline for trans people. Instead, the university ― and the church ― delegated guidance to the leaders of our individual congregations.
Transgender Mormons have a term for their relationship with church leaders: “bishop roulette,” because what happens to your church standing largely depends on your particular bishop’s opinion of trans people. I had met bishops who saw trans identity as an intersex condition and welcomed trans members with open arms. But I had also heard of bishops who excommunicated trans members for coming out and barred them from attending services in clothing that corresponds with their gender identity.
The lack of clear-cut policies means that a transgender person’s church standing depends on the opinions of someone who, while well-meaning, often hasn’t researched gender dysphoria and may rely on outdated or misguided information. He might cite studies about transitioning and suicide rates that were disproved decades ago, or he might take prejudices he has about trans people to be divinely inspired. I feel it’s a dangerous game to play with someone’s faith and self-worth, but it is what it is.
Trans BYU students are not exempt from bishop roulette, either, especially since the ability to graduate depends on annual endorsements from church leaders. In the past, some students transitioned without any trouble, while others petitioned the honor code to escape discipline for dressing as the gender they identified with or changed apartment complexes to avoid bishops who threatened to expel them. In some ways, it’s easier to be a trans student than one in a gay relationship, because the honor code doesn’t mention gender identity, but most LGBTQ students in general worry that they’re one unsympathetic bishop away from losing their transcripts.
She looked at me as if she wanted to transfer me to a psychiatric ward instead of men's housing. “Of course you can’t do that. It’s not safe!” It’s not safe. This phrase would follow me throughout the remainder of my housing experience at Brigham Young University.
Beyond religious or school standing, one other thing stopped me from transitioning fully: I still lived and, at the time, worked in a women’s dormitory as a resident assistant. I’d come out to my supervisor several months after I began the job because while I enjoyed the work, living on a floor of freshman women was more dysphoric than I thought it would be. While her compassion for me and my fellow RAs went far beyond her duties, she had given me an ultimatum.
“If you transition,” she said, “you can’t be an RA anymore in women’s housing.”
“What about men’s housing?”
She looked at me as if she wanted to transfer me to a psychiatric ward instead. “Of course you can’t do that. It’s not safe!”
It’s not safe.
This phrase would follow me throughout the remainder of my housing experience at Brigham Young University. Although I loved being an RA, I decided to resign and transition after the semester ended ― which meant moving from my single-person dorm room to living with female roommates again. I petitioned the school to let me live in a men’s apartment complex and emailed a BYU housing administrator, who remembered me from my time in residence life and was sympathetic to the challenges of queer students.
But unfortunately, I received the same answers: “It wouldn’t be safe to put you with men. If they know that you’re transgender, they could assault you. And BYU defines gender as a biological characteristic for housing, not an identity.”
While I knew her words were well meaning, I didn’t agree with them. Yes, trans people have a higher likelihood of being assault victims, but I ran a larger risk of being attacked by a stranger on the street than while living with LGBT-affirming male roommates.
“The real danger trans people faced in BYU housing,” I thought, “was the pain of living somewhere that inherently rejects your identity every day.” When I lived in women’s housing, I didn’t have a choice about who I came out to: My roommates, my church congregation and any new friends I made already knew. I think coming out can be a meaningful experience for trans people, and nobody ― not even your university ― should have the power to take that away from someone.
It wasn’t an easy situation for anyone involved. I didn’t want to live with women. My roommates ― understandably ― didn’t want a trans guy in their female housing. But looking back, I like to think we learned from each other in ways that were ultimately for the better, even if the situation wasn’t.
The summer of my senior year, for example, a student from Peru moved into my apartment. We didn’t talk much: She worked while I was at school, and I worked while she took evening classes. But one Sunday evening, we were making dinner at the same time, and after a few minutes of silence, she talked to me.
“You feel like a boy, right?”
I nodded, but I mentally started preparing a list of excuses to leave the kitchen. This conversation resurfaced in my life every once in a while, from “Maybe you’re just a tomboy” to “How do you even know what being a man feels like?” When I first came out, I used to argue, but at that point in the semester, I was too tired.
“I think it’s brave that you go to church,” she continued. “I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong. Everyone’s the same here. They’re all white and they’ve lived in Utah their whole lives, and I get left out a lot too. It’s hard to make friends when you’re different.”
Neither of us really knew what it was like to be the other person ― we’d hardly said more than “hey” or “see ya later” to each other ― but that night, we tried to. I asked her about the hometown and family she left behind to study at BYU, and she asked me how I realized I was born in the wrong body.
She helped me feel less alone, and I hope I did that for her too. College is already a tough enough time of life without facing it on your own. After living in women’s housing for so long, I’d become prone to self-pity. This roommate taught me something: Look for marginalized people wherever you are and try to help them, because you’re never the only one.
Even my Iowan roommate who asked more questions about my genitals than my doctor knew how it felt to be misunderstood. Once, after she came home from her shift as a nursing assistant, she told me, “Before I moved in, I thought my roommates would become my best friends like in movies, and we’d go to parties and flirt with cute guys together. I never had that at home, and I wanted to find it here.”
I’d like to say that leaving women’s housing was a bittersweet moment, but I’d be lying. Despite what I’d learned from my roommates, after three years, it’s nice not to dread coming home.
From that conversation onward, I still kept my boundaries intact with regard to some of her questions, but I could tell that she was trying to understand what it was like being transgender. So I tried to understand what it was like to be her too. We may have come from very different places in life, but we could still learn from each other.
After graduating almost six months ago, I moved in my own studio apartment with a dog ― ironically, a girl. I’d like to say that leaving women’s housing was a bittersweet moment, but I’d be lying. Despite what I’d learned from my roommates, after three years, it’s nice not to dread coming home. Whether I come out to anyone is no longer my school’s choice. It’s mine. That’s a power I’m grateful for every day because I know what it’s like to lose it.
I also appreciate the chance to explore my spirituality without worrying that I’ll lose my degree over it. These days, I’m not a perfect Mormon: I don’t go to church every week, I drink way too many caffeinated sodas, and I use “Mormon” even though we’re not supposed to anymore. But I’m still trying to seek God ― if not in the pews, then on my knees in prayer. And when I feel lost or afraid, I remember this scripture from Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Andy Winder is a contemporary YA writer currently revising a queer romance about a trans girl who enters a televised baking competition. He has written for Bustle and FTM magazine, and he works as a writer for an early literacy nonprofit. You can learn more about his work at andywinder.com or on Twitter at @andyjwinder.