Emmett Claren's relationship with Mormonism began with a sweet and simple love story.
When Claren was about 4 years old, Mormon missionaries visited the apartment that he shared with his dad and brother. His father listened to the message they shared and eventually decided to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later, his dad ended up marrying one of the missionaries that led him into the faith.
Since that moment of conversion, the LDS church has been an important part of Claren's life. Now 22 years old, Claren has served on a missionary trip himself and is eager to continue being a part of the church.
But what he isn't so sure about is whether the church will continue to accept him for who he is.
For the past six months, Claren has been vlogging on YouTube about his gender transition from female to male. As he strives to make sure his physical body better reflects his gender identity, his future in the LDS church is becoming more uncertain.
Mormons consider gender to be a fixed identity that existed before people are born, during their time on earth, and into eternity. One's gender determines the activities a member is allowed to participate in. All eligible adult men are ordained to the priesthood and attend meetings together, while women have their own organization called the Relief Society. Men can give blessings for healing, while women are not allowed to perform that ritual. These beliefs about the roles of men and women in the church have a direct impact on the church's policies towards LGBT Mormons.
While affirming that same-sex attraction is a reality for many people, the church believes that acting on this attraction is a sin. As a result, they are not accepting of same-sex marriages. Last November, the church unveiled a controversial new stance on lesbian and gay Mormons who are in relationships -- calling them apostates who were subject to excommunication.
On the other hand, the LDS church's policy on how to treat and welcome transgender Mormons is still being developed. So far, it's something that is decided locally, on a case-by-case basis. Some local congregations, called wards, are open to having transgender Mormons attend meetings of the gender they identify with, while other wards are not as welcoming. Officially, the church refuses to ordain transgender men to the priesthood. And choosing to have gender confirmation surgery could be "cause for formal church discipline,” according to the church’s handbook.
Claren is planning to have "top surgery" to remove his breasts in April. He says the journey towards fully embracing his gender identity has been full of ups and downs. Still, he's come out of it with a strong desire to stay connected to God. In fact, he says his faith is stronger than it's ever been before.
HuffPost Religion caught up with him to ask about his remarkable faith journey.
HuffPost Religion: Did you ever experience feelings of doubt, anger, or bitterness toward God and if so, how did you deal with them?
Emmett Claren: I definitely did. There were times that I was angry with God. When I came home from my mission, I knew the next step for me in the church was to get married to a man in the temple and start having a family. it just made me feel sick inside because I knew that wouldn't happen for me, because I wasn't attracted to men. My insides were just always turning. I would yell at God and be like, "Why would you put me through this? Why couldn't you have made me normal? Why do I have to go through this living hell." I didn't want to be alive anymore. There was a period when I'd stopped going to church. I was angry and I didn't believe I could be happy at all. Then there was this moment when I realized God doesn't make mistakes. He made me the way I am. If I give up, I wouldn't be able to help anybody. I'm going to embrace this and it's going to be hard, but if I do this, I can help some other people. I can show them you can be true to yourself and still have God in your life. That's when I fully embraced him into my life. I realized I can't do this without him. I need that extra strength. I didn't have a lot of strength when I didn't have God in my life.
There was this moment when I realized God doesn't make mistakes. He made me the way I am. If I give up, I wouldn't be able to help anybody.
Was there a moment in your journey where you really felt God's presence in your life or was it gradual?
Yes, it was gradual. But there was also this moment. I was up at BYU [Brigham Young University in Idaho]. I would go on walks regularly just to talk to God and one day, I went to this garden on campus. I was all by myself and I was crying and depressed and sad and trying to understand, "What am I doing here on this earth, what do you want me to do." ... I was in the garden and praying and this feeling washed over me and it was like, "Okay. I'm transgender and it's going to be okay. God loves me and he has a plan for me." And it was just like a light bulb went off in my head. And I was just thinking, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, this is why I'm here." Gradually it came to me that you're supposed to help people, you're not supposed to be quiet and keep your story a secret. You're going to be strong enough to do this, to share your story. It's going to be scary, but you're going to be strong enough because you have the Lord.
What does church mean to you today?
With the community, it's different because I used to be a sister. You're treated differently. Now, I'm more involved with the LGBT Mormon community because I've been too afraid during my transition to really be a part of my community ... At the church, they have the priesthood and because I don't have the priesthood, I don't want to be involved too much because I don't want to be asked to do something I can't do. I don't want any awkward situations to come about...
My goal is to hopefully just be completely immersed in the community, like I use to be, but as Emmett. I have been going to church [in the meantime]. I choose to sit in the back because I've just been so self-conscious... I want to enjoy the meeting and not be worried about what people are thinking about me. But I intend after recovering from my [top] surgery, I want to sit in the front row. I want people to know that I'm there and that I have a strong testimony. I don't care what people think, I don't want to hide anymore.
Have your friends and parents been supportive?
Many of my friends have been supportive and my extended family has been supportive. My immediate family has not been as supportive, but it's because they're in shock. They're grieving the fact that they're losing a daughter and it's hard for them. It's a new experience. I've had my entire life to come to terms with this whereas they've only had a few months. It's new to them. Every dream they've ever had for me is altered now. It's a difficult change for them, especially because they don't see me at all very much. [Claren lives in Idaho while his parents are in South Dakota]. I'm changing over here, physically very fast. And it's not like they see me every day. It's definitely a change for them. But for the most part, people I know have been supportive and it's really been a blessing.
I think us as trans individuals, we are put on this earth to help break down barriers and break down walls, to change people's perspectives, to get rid of stigmas, to help people get past judgements.
How do you reconcile your own beliefs about God with the doctrine set forth by your church?
I don't know if I can speak for other trans people. In the church, we talk about the fact that when we come to earth, we all have our own trials. I believe being trans is a one of those trials. It's hard, being true to myself despite what other people think. I think us as trans individuals, we are put on this earth to help break down barriers and break down walls, to change people's perspectives, to get rid of stigmas, to help people get past judgements. I've been able to tell people about my story and tell them about my life and it's opened their eyes, where it's like "Holy cow, I didn't understand what it meant to be trans, or how you could be trans and still be a faithful member of the church." To help people understand what it's like to be different and how we can't judge people for being different. We're here to be tested and it's been incredibly hard, but it's made me stronger and in turn it's helped me become more confident and have the strength to keep living today.
I'm not perfect, but I'm trying my best to do what he wants me to do, and I've been praying to be an instrument in his hands. So I just hope that I can make a difference.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.