Emmett Claren: Trafficking in Stories

EMMETT MICHAEL CLAREN is a FTM transgender Mormon man who has partnered with Vice News on a YouTube video diary of his transitioning process, trying to help and inspire those going through the same difficult experiences. Emmett has a budding career as an actor in television and film with a specific intention of raising awareness of transgender representation in the media. 

There is nothing wrong with me. I know that now. But I didn’t always feel this way. From a very young age I knew I was different. I knew I was a boy, in a girl’s body. And I was depressed and suicidal for years because I felt very strongly that God didn’t love me and that I was a mistake. I didn’t believe there was hope for me. How could I? I didn’t know there were other people who felt the way I did, not until I was in my early twenties. For this reason, I have decided to share my journey with the world. Because there are young trans boys out there who need to see that they can live their life to the fullest as a trans man. And they can do it in or out of the LDS Church.

This topic of “trafficking in stories” is very relatable for me. My personal story has been shared in an effort to educate the cisgender Mormon community. And for the most part it has been a positive experience for me. We have to consider the effect that occurs on those who share their stories. It is scary to be open and vulnerable, especially when someone is just coming out. Yes, their story may be different and inspirational and a story that we want shared so people can see that we exist and that we can exist outside of the stereotypes commonly placed on us. But we must also consider the timing and the consequences both good and bad that will come from that. Publicity can be a great thing. I remember when my story came out, I received so much support from the LGBTQ+ community but also from outside of the community as well. However, there is always opposition. And with the support, there also came the verbal attacks, the hateful messages and comments. I learned that too much publicity can have a negative effect.

I have become very vulnerable through coming out and sharing private aspects of my journey with the world. But the way I share my story is not indicative of how other queer folks should or need to share their stories. It is just one way. Some people share all of the intimate details of their lives with the public. Others are very private and don’t share much at all. And all of that is fine, because it’s our decision to choose how much and what we want to share. Just because someone is being open does not mean that they are required to divulge “everything.” Of course there are things that are just too intimate for the whole world to hear, and our privacy should be respected.

In my experience, I have been asked pretty much every single question out there regarding my gender identity and sexual orientation. From how early did I know I was Trans to if I ever plan on having bottom surgery. I understand that people are curious. The “non-wizard” folk – as I like to call them – tend to be fascinated by people who are different. But if someone asks me about my genitals, I usually respond with, “Okay, if you think it’s fine and normal to ask me about my private parts, then I’m going to ask you about yours.” That usually stops the conversation. I don’t really  understand why people forget about boundaries when a person says they’re Transgender. But I try to remind them that it’s really not appropriate to ask anyone about what’s in their pants. Haha

When a story is shared in this very specific community, the LDS LGBTQ+ community, the ones that seem to get the most attention often have a common theme: a person who identifies with the LGBTQ+ community and is still a believing and/or faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s inspirational. It’s brave. It’s heart and gut-wrenching. It’s different. And it’s rare. Stories like these are shared in an effort to show or prove that yes, you can be LGBTQ+ and be Mormon. I happened to fit this mold and so people started asking me to share my story. And soon, my story was being shared with people around the world. “See, here is a faithful, young transgender man who is Mormon. It is possible!”

But what happens when that faithful young transgender man wants to make a change? What happens when through his journey he starts to feel differently about his faith? What happens when his life takes him through ups and downs and he needs a break and wants to really figure out for himself what is best for his spiritual well-being and emotional health? Suddenly, his story is no longer as “thrilling” to those outside of the Church. He is no longer as inspirational to those inside the Church. How many people who have had their stories shared and sensationalized have wanted to pursue something different, but haven’t because of the pressure they feel to keep up appearances? How many people have put their mental health on the back burner because they felt they needed to always appear strong for those who are following their journey?

I was the poster boy for Mormon Transmen for a while. And even when my comfort level started to shift within the Church, I “kept up appearances” because I wanted to still be able to provide hope for other transmen who wanted to stay active. I also didn’t want to be another statistic; another member of the LGBT Mormon community who left. I did put my mental health on the back burner for a while, because for a while it was more important to me to stay the version of myself that people liked the most toward the beginning of my transition. So I went to Church, even when I didn’t want to. Even when I knew people were going to talk about me behind my back because they knew. I was uncomfortable for a long time, because I thought I had something to prove. And I didn’t want to be perceived as a hypocrite or as weak if I showed my true feelings to my community and to those following my story. I think it is important that the larger community helps to create an environment where people feel safe changing paths throughout their journey. I say this and yet I am not entirely sure how this can be done.

There is a problem when people’s stories are shared in a way that says, “This is the right way to be Trans in the Church.” Or, “This is the only way to be gay, or lesbian, or bisexual in the Church.” “This is the best way.” There is no right or wrong way to transition. There is no right or wrong way to be a member of the Church. It is all a journey, and everyone has a right to their own story and their own path. We may see someone’s journey as not being “quite right” or think to ourselves, “I wouldn’t go about it that way.” I think there’s something within us that wants everything in this world to fit our own ideas of what the world should be or how a person should live their life. I think we are often impatient with other’s journeys because we think that we could do it better. But we must realize that everyone has a battle going on in their mind. And everyone copes differently. We are all doing the best that we can. 

I think that once our stories are shared, it is very common for it to take on a life of its own. People start to spin it in all these different directions, and sometimes it can feel like it’s not even our story that we’re listening to anymore. I say this because I have seen time and time again, people share their story, it gets blown up and shared and sometimes twisted in either a more positive or negative way than it is in reality, and then down the road the person no longer identifies with it. They reject it or have moved on and do not feel the same way. They disappear from the light and don’t want to be asked about their story anymore. I think it is important for us to always remain firm in the knowledge of not only who we are, but also what our story is about. As well as its purpose. Everything that I have shared may be public knowledge, but it is still my story. No one can or will ever have the exact same experiences that I have. No one’s story is ever 100% the same. Our stories can be similar, yes, but life is unique for every single person on this earth. And we should acknowledge the differences in our stories I think as much as the similarities. I believe it’s important for us to figure out what makes us unique, otherwise we lose our individuality. And in my opinion, blending in never helps anyone make a difference in their own life or the lives of others.

Our stories can be used to educate others. They can be used in so many positive ways. They can inspire and give hope. So many young people have reached out to me, and said that me being open about my transition has helped their parents better understand them and the way they feel. Sharing my story has given young trans people tools, words and resources to share with their family members. That’s why I am who I am. That’s why I do what I do. So that someone out there, a closeted, pre-transition version of myself can see my videos and articles and have hope. So that they can show their family and friends what is possible for them. That they can transition. That they can still be a member of the Church. That they can still have a strong and unshakeable relationship with God. That they can be happy. But my journey is not the only way they can have all of those things. I just hope that I can help be a guide. Life is a journey. We take bits and pieces from everyone we meet along the way, and that’s what makes our journeys so unique.

I applaud anyone who decides to come out and share their story with the world. Yes, there are risks of getting hurt. But for me, the risks are worth it when I know that I’m helping to make the world a better and safer place for other Trans people. Knowing that I have impacted Transgender youth in a positive way gives me such a great sense of purpose. I didn’t have anyone to look to for guidance as a young person. I wish I had. I wish I had known that there were others like me, because maybe I wouldn’t have ever tried to take my life. I believe I would have had hope for my future, and I wouldn’t have been so sad and depressed all the time. Maybe my emotional well-being would have been better. Maybe I would have learned sooner that there is nothing wrong with me, and that I deserved to be happy. And that I could be. I believe I would have been much more hopeful as a young person had I known that people like me were sharing their stories. And though I can’t go back and tell my 14 year-old, depressed self that there is hope and a bright future ahead of me, I can make a difference today. And that is what I am doing with my life. I am still sharing my story, and it is always changing because I am constantly growing and becoming a healthier and happier version of myself. I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to be out and open so that the younger versions of myself can see that they can be themselves and live authentically.