Sunday Spotlight is a series where we profile individuals in the Young Mormon Feminists community to hear their stories and get to know them a little better through Q&A or their personal narratives. This week we talked with Jack Steele.
Who are you and what are you up to?
I’m a 25 year old Utah county native. I’m a training manager in Lehi, an absurdist, and a hater of all things frozen. I think most people I’m around would say that I’m a pretty nice guy. (That’s what I would like to think.) I am more of a firebrand, than a diplomat, when it comes to speaking out for people. I have a surprisingly macabre side of me: I have a dark sense of humor, I like to listen to podcasts on disease, I have a passion for the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and my favorite movie is a gothic rock opera. One day, I want to be a cat-person who has, like, twenty cats, with a room constructed just for my cats. I was assigned female at birth, who first came out as a lesbian woman, and then a transgender man, although I am still conflicted about how much I identify as a trans person. I have this conflict in me about my identity, because I feel so much more male than trans, and when I tell people I’m trans, they think of it as being more trans than male. However, aside from others lack of understanding, my feelings on feminism and misogyny are extremely affected by the way I was treated because others thought I was a woman. The way I was taught to see myself, other women, men, and my place in the world, were disproportionately affected because I was perceived as being a woman. I eat green beans straight from the can. I want to be a junior high English teacher one day. I am engaged to a wildly responsible and open-hearted woman. Oppressive or demeaning religious beliefs and practices get under my skin. I love musicals, and have no time for anyone’s ignorant gender stereotyping.
What makes you a Mormon?
Some people would call me “born in the covenant.” When I was eight, I made the inevitable decision to follow the only real option that had been put in front of me. I grew up very devout and devoted to the Gospel, and the Church. I felt that I had a strong connection to God, mostly in the way a relationship with God had been framed to me. One day, I wanted to marry a returned missionary, get married in the temple, have babies, and teach all my family to be good members. As a teenager, I became a strong advocate for those who have been abused. When I was asked as a Laurel to teach a lesson about obeying and sustaining your priesthood leaders, I had some very strong objections, and thus began my journey into Mormon feminism. I have resigned, and so I am technically not a member. But! I am very much still ethnically Mormon. In the words of Joanna Brooks, “it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart.” I am the only non-member in my family and Church teachings permeates my familial relationships. I live in Utah county, and it permeates my political and social experiences. I grew up very, very involved in Mormonism, and I cannot avoid that my own personal experiences, values, and world-concepts have been framed from the way I have been brought up. I “left” Mormonism because 1) I could no longer feel right being in a Church that so persecuted its female and LGBT members, and 2) there is no true place for me, anyway. I am a Mormon, but I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
What makes you a feminist?
I guess I don’t know if I feel really, very comfortable taking on that word. To me, it feels like the word “ally”– self-defined, and self-congratulatory. While I believe that more people need to take on the word as a label for their actions in order that social expectations change for the better, I think that those kinds of words can only identify actions and beliefs, and not people. I can be currently acting in solidarity with. I can do what I can to identify and defy misogyny, androcentrism, discrimination, and the like, but I feel sketchy about assigning myself the label of “feminist” like that. I know I need to improve and learn, because I won’t be able to see where all the flaws in my thinking lie, and to say “I am a feminist” sounds like the journey is over.
Aside from that, what I do know is that since transitioning and gaining a butt-load of passing privilege (which means I am perceived as being a non-trans person, by other non-trans people), men treat me differently. I am more listened to, more often validated, and less boxed into stereotypes. I have gone through a few different transitions in the privilege I am afforded, from being a publicly female heterosexual, to being a publicly female homosexual, to being a publicly male heterosexual. My body and food habits are given less scrutiny. Other men doubt me less. Other men- mostly strangers- are more openly misogynistic around me. Women trust me less. Men touch me less. Men respect my “no’s” more.
And I hate it.
There is no reason I deserve to be treated with less doubt and more respect for my autonomy. I feel like in my identity, I identify as male, but politically, I identify with women. I know how it feels to solicit every date continually to not touch me. I know how it feels to be doubted and corrected in the most basic assertions. I know how it feels to wonder why all the men I work with consistently get promoted ahead of me, and other women that I work with. I know how it feels to be told in the same breath that I am special, and that I need to not insert myself too much. I know how it feels to be taught to only be “nice” and to never speak up. I know how it feels to be told that I needed to restrain myself, but that boys will be boys.
I don’t believe that this is every woman’s experience, but I do believe that there were certain experiences I had because the people around me perceived me as female. I did not know how to articulate my feelings and identity to myself until I was in my early twenties, and based on what I had been taught, as far as I knew, they were right: I was a woman.
I don’t blame women for not trusting men. To be totally honest, I don’t really trust men to know how to show respect, how to believe respectful things. I think it takes a lot of weeding in a garden sewn by a patriarchal and profoundly misogynistic society, weeding that will never be done.
Feminism should be intersectional. From my experiences living publicly as gay, from my experiences living publicly as a woman, and from my experiences being open about my being trans, I have learned certain things about oppressive techniques and patterns. I’ve learned that people can build or break others. I’ve learned how it feels to have a constant stream of microaggressions thrown your way. I’ve learned how it feels for someone to take on the label “ally” to prove to you why they don’t have to support your equal treatment, or to prove to you why you are wrong about yourself. I’ve learned that people who aren’t oppressed need to listen and learn more. I would like to think that some of the things that I have learned have helped me, and will help me improve in the racism, ableism, ageism, sexism, homoantagonism, and transantagonism that has been handed me through centuries of societal practice.
What makes you a Mormon feminist?
I care about what happens to the members of the Church. I love my family. I love my neighborhood-of-origin. I care about the estranged and those who privately or publicly suffer. I care about what is important to them. I care about them being treated as equal and important. Ordination has always seemed to be a blasphemous request, but the more I have thought of it, the more my own sexism has been exposed to me. There is no reason for a woman to not hold leadership, authority, or a special connection to God. I feel this very personally about the Mormon Church.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Right now, that’s very difficult for me to see. Of course, I want to be happily married to my fiancée. I also hope to be graduated with at least a bachelor’s degree. Perhaps I will still be at the job I’m at now, managing the store. I hope to be stronger in who I am. I hope to create more of a culture surrounding me that is safe for vulnerable people. Two years ago, I had a severely debilitating anxiety disorder, and things have immensely changed for the better for me. I want to make that easier for others that are suffering, as I was. I want to be a part of creating a culture where people feel my respect and compassion for them. I want to be an example. I want to learn from other’s examples. I want to reach beyond what I believe I can do.
Any parting words for us?
I guess this is an opportunity to say what I really think, isn’t it. I feel afraid inside of myself to say what I really think, because, well, it doesn’t sound very nice. But here it is. We all have been groomed inside of a pervasively toxic culture that targets non-male people, non-white people, non-cis people, non-hetero people, disabled people, and on, and on. We all have those groomings inside of us, right now, still today, as much and as hard as we will try and have a duty to combat those groomings. Because of that, sometimes what we believe secretly, subconsciously, and publicly, can and sometimes will hurt people. Sometimes, we will hurt people without meaning to. Sometimes, we will hurt people without wanting to. Sometimes, we will hurt people when we are trying to help them. Sometimes, we will hurt people we love. When that happens, it will be okay for those people to be hurt, to be angry, to protect themselves by removing themselves from you. In the meantime, we should be trying to seek out those toxic groomings inside of ourselves. We should be trying to repent, if we ever can. We should be speaking out against those micro and macroaggressions. We have a duty, a responsibility, an obligation to be speaking out against these groomings inside of ourselves and inside of others.