Interview with Eri Hayward

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by Randall S. Frederick

Eri Hayward is the subject of Transmormon, a documentary by Torben Bernhard about a girl who was told by her community that she had no option but to be a boy because of how she was born. The documentary was originally screened at the LDS Film Festival, and has attracted the attention of UpworthyPeople magazineDazedThe Atlantic, and won the 2014 Utah Short Film of the Year Award and the Big Sky Documentary Artistic Vision Award for 2014 as well as generated immediate interest with upcoming festivals like the Level Ground Film Festival. I recently interviewed Eri Hayward about her experiences growing up.

I couldn’t help but notice that dressmaking seems to be this important image in the film. Do you make your own clothes?

I really admire those who wear what they want to because it expresses themselves and not because it is what is expected, or what is “in”. I have been interested in dressmaking since I watched Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as a child. I can remember my first attempts of trying to make clothes where simply wrapping towels and sheets around my sister and myself in an effort to make something similar to, in shape or silhouette, things I had seen in those movies. It went from there to wanting to make clothes for toys and dolls, then finally to making things for myself. I think that clothing as a way of expressing one’s self was something that really struck with me because I often wanted to express myself with cute, frilly, beautiful things but felt that I was not allowed to because of society’s expectations and what not.

Designing and making clothes is an art form. There are some amazing clothes that capture the imagination and make us squeal and fork out tons of money, but when we put clothes on, when we put together an outfit, when we walk out the door in that ensemble, we have used that art to express ourselves and our personality. I think that fashion is multi-faceted, just like the people that create and wear it. It can represent the designer and the wearer in a beautiful combination of creativity. To me, costumes are also really fun but that is to re-enact or imitate a character.

Before coming out, I wore shirts that were often too large for me and a tad strange. My favorite pants were periwinkle with a shimmery sheen to them; it matched with nothing! I guess I liked them because they were not typical boy’s clothes. Those were clothes that were just “boy’s clothes” that I would wear but didn’t put my heart into it like I do now. I really appreciate getting to buy the clothes now that reflect how I feel and I try to never take it for granted.

There’s a touching moment in the film where you talk about feeling like “just an ugly boy.” Do you feel pretty now that you’ve had the surgery? What has your self-image been like recently?

It was something that I really struggled with. Being told that I was not as good looking as my sister or that I was “a good looking man” was not a compliment. Being told that I was a pretty boy or a girly boy was a compliment in my mind.

I struggled a lot with self-image and spent a good chunk of time trying to replicate what was fashionable, what is desired for women to do, applying tons of makeup to look “pretty.” I even struggled with an eating disorder, trying to find acceptance for my own self-image that I hated for so long, but have come to find that what is more important than being pretty is having a beautiful heart and having a healthy body. It was a long journey and required love and support from those around me and from myself as well.

With that said, there are still days when I think my shoulders are kind of broad and my boobs aren’t big enough but all in all I am happy with who I am today.

The film talks about you dating when you were younger. Are you dating now?

I am dating a really great guy who is a little camera shy! He has been such a great support for me and recently popped into a podcast interview with me and my family. That was yet another example of how supportive he has been.

I was talking with the director, Torben, and about this being a really interesting time for trans people because they have “heroes/heroines” to look up to (ex: Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black, or model Andrew Prejic who recently came forward about having her own surgery). Who were your heroes/heroines, growing up?

My very first hero was probably my mother followed closely by Sailor Moon, then Cinderella. They are all wonderful examples of love, friendship, kindness, and caring. Things I try to emulate even to this day. Don’t get me wrong, I am always making mistakes here and there! But my inspirations today are still my mom and Sailormoon. Also, my obaa-chan (Japanese for “grandmother”). My mom and obaa-chan are just all-around amazing people in my mind, but Sailor Moon had the cute and frilly skirts, magical powers, and a group of butt kicking best friends!

Aside from those sorts of fantastic points, the most important thing was that almost every episode ended in Sailor Moon healing the hearts of the villains. An episode that I remember most is where the bad guys are actually girls and the girls are sisters. At the end of the episode, Sailor Moon re-instills hope and love into the hearts of these sisters and they decide to stop being evil and start living a normal human life. I cried. I cry every time I watch that episode because of how beautiful it is. Here these women did all sorts of terrible things, but Sailor Moon still shows them love and kindness when she could have gotten angry and made them pay through the nose!

Cinderella is the same. The most unkind things that she says in the movie are nothing! She calls a clock a kill joy, sarcastically refers to her step-sister’s singing as “a voice lesson.” If we could all be as sweet and kind, the world be almost terrifyingly perfect. I do enjoy shows where we get to punch the bad guys for being stupid, but I think that at some point, we need to rise above the fighting just like Sailor Moon!

You talked about how you didn’t get along well with God as a child. You said that you were even angry with God because of the way you were made. Please tell me more about that.

I can’t remember my exact wording but yes, the relationship was complicated. Being told that the reason I am a boy was because God made me that way was not a brownie point in the eyes of a young trans girl.

I have since come to realize that while it has been a very difficult and a lonely struggle at times, everything that I experienced because I was made a boy has made me who I am today. For that I am grateful. It has strengthened my belief that things may not be how we think they ought to be, but that is only because we cannot see the big picture. Our part is to be good people and let God take care of the why and what is happening in the universe.

One of the projects I volunteer with, the Level Ground Film Festival, is devoted to bridging the intersection of faith and spirituality. How would you explain the current state of the LDS where it concerns LGBTQs?

My experience has been that people are trying to make the best decisions they can based on what they know, feel, and think is right. I am so excited to think that maybe the story of my family can help to pass along the love and support that I was so lucky and blessed to have felt from my friends, church leaders, and family.

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The documentary Transmormon was filmed the week before you left to Thailand for sexual reassignment surgery. Given everything you talk about in the film, I have to ask, do you feel “whole” now? It must be a very magical experience.

It is really funny because I spent so much time dreaming about how amazing and magical it was going to be for me to wake up and look down and to see my brand new vagina, but when it actually happened, I looked down and thought, “Oh….. Yea, I am normal me now!” Being so normal was the magical part!

Getting dressed is also a very “normal” thing now too! I used to tape the unwanted things down and away before getting dressed which, depending on what I was wearing, I would tape differently. It was a whole production. Now, I wake up and throw on some clothes and I don’t have to worry about it or plan ahead as much.

With that said, there are things about vaginas that I was not taught since I did not grow up with one. Vaginas apparently flush themselves clean every so often with discharge. Dealing with those normal issues is also “magical”. I say that sarcastically, but also with a lot of excitement. It can be stressful running to the bathroom with a liner while trying to hold things back, but having talked to girlfriends they have had similar experiences and it is something that we can all laugh about. It feels so normal to be able to join in to the conversation.

You say in the film you wanted “a fairy godmother to come and turn [you] into a  girl and make everything better.” That’s something we hear a lot of trans people saying, but I want you to share more about that. What did that mean for you?

Every little daydream or fantasy that I would escape to was a similar one. I would pretend that I was a princess hiding as a boy because bad villains were out to get me, or that a fairy godmother would one day come to turn everything right one day. Without my imagination I don’t know what would have happened to me.

I think it is a coping mechanism that many children not just trans use to help deal with difficult struggles in life. A child in an abusive home might escape to a fantasy of the perfect family setting. A child that doesn’t have many friends might escape to the love and support of an imaginary friend.

It’s quite the journey you went through, realizing you were actually a woman in a man’s body. At one point you said you felt you were just a gay male. How did you reconcile that awareness — “I’m not gay, I’m a woman” — with your sense of self, your sexual identity/etc., and your faith?

It felt right, but opened a whole new can of worms. It’s funny that a realization like that can bring so much peace and so many questions.

My favorite memory of this process was telling my friend Ian [that I was really a woman]. He came up to me, gave me a hug and said, “Oh honey! We all knew and I am so happy for you!” I had many similar experiences and it helped to just solidify my own realization. 

Earlier, I asked who you looked up and who inspired you. What is it like to now be the subject of a documentary and to be one of those people that kids can look up to and go, “That’s me! That’s how I feel! That’s been my experience too!” Has that realization even hit you yet?

Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet, but it also feels like I am not a person to look up to. Maybe some of the things I have learned, or some of the things I believe could be inspiring.

I have had a lot of people contact me and share their similar experiences and I am so glad to hear from them. I try to message back to everyone because I have been in that seat, feeling alone, not knowing where to go or what to do. But there are a lot of messages and e-mails to get to and I am often catching messages that I opened but never got around to answering. If that happened to anyone who is reading this, I am so sorry!

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