NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Yanna Awtrey spent most of his life with his family in Bulgaria. His parents are Free Will Baptist missionaries. He and his younger brother were so young when they moved there from California that Bulgaria feels like home.
Awtrey's life was on a trajectory he said he wasn't aware he had the choice to step away from. His parents wanted him to attend Welch College in Gallatin – formerly the Free Will Baptist Bible College. So when he turned 18, they moved back to the United States, and he enrolled in the small private school.
Supported financially by his parents, Awtrey, now 21, lived in the dorms. After his freshman year, his family moved back to Bulgaria, leaving him alone in a country that was unfamiliar, in a town where he was alone, with a secret he didn't know what to do with.
He is transgender. And on the day of his breast reduction surgery, he was told he wasn't allowed back into the dorms, to the only home he had.
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Assigned female at birth, as a child, Awtrey said he experienced gender dysphoria, which the America Psychiatric Association describes as "a conflict between a person's physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify."
And although he had never heard the term "transgender," he said he felt "that my body needed to be more than it was. And for that reason, I thought I hated my body. ... I wasn't able to fully become who I wanted to be."
He says he confused his gender dysphoria with poor self-esteem, which ultimately led him to a "trial year" in which he became "hyper-feminine."
"I would say I looked aesthetically pleasing, but even though I knew I looked attractive to other people, I wasn't happy at all," he said.
He recalls a time when his family visited the U.S. and he tried on some masculine clothes.
"The sort of euphoria I felt over that is something that really stuck in my head," he said. "And at that point, I really started to transition, at least in my head, to something more masculine."
He was 14 at the time.
It wasn't until he was 18 that he even met another person from the LGBT community.
A series of betrayals
Awtrey said his mother and father suspected something was different. His mother asked him several times if he was a lesbian, and he said no.
"I told her the truth," said Awtrey, who describes himself as both transgender and bisexual.
"Transgender was never a word used in my house," he said.
It was a sort of don't ask, don't tell situation, he said.
When he came to Gallatin to attend school, he kept his secret. That is, until his roommate in the women's dorm read his diary about a year ago and outed him to school officials.
At that point, he explained, everything was somewhat "unofficial."
"I was under strict rules that I could only attend the college if I stayed with a Christian therapist and if I didn't tell anyone else I was transgender or bisexual," he said.
Then, in January, Awtrey said he started taking hormone pills to start a transition, prompted, in part, by a decision to switch schools. But, he says, his career path changed, and he decided to stay.
"At that point, I had already experienced what I could have, and I didn't want to let go of that," he said.
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So he kept taking the hormones and started planning for a mastectomy or top surgery, a surgery where the breast is removed or reduced.
"My decision," he explained, "was not done through a lack of foresight. It was done out of desperation.
"Since I was 11 years old, I've been suicidal, but since I started hormone replacement therapy. ... I've been suicidal-free for eight months for the first time in a literal decade."
"I felt that everything would be OK as long as the surgery was kept a secret from the college," he said.
But it wasn't kept a secret.
He believes the couple he planned to stay with after the surgery told school officials and his parents about what he did after they read a letter from him explaining why he was getting the surgery.
He went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for the surgery Aug. 2 feeling hopeful.
"That spark of hope and happiness (from taking the hormones) made me crave it more, and that is why I did the surgery on that day, in that year," he explained.
When he got out of surgery, the "euphoria" he felt realizing it was complete was met with the realization that he was no longer welcome to stay with the couple. The woman came to the hospital and told him the news.
That same day, he received an email from Welch College's vice president for student services, Jon Forlines, telling him he was no longer allowed in the dorms.
"Please be aware that because of the choices you have made we will not be able to allow you to come back to the dorm," he wrote.
Forlines offered to arrange for Awtrey to stay in a local hotel for a week and to provide money for food during that time.
"You will need to be thinking about other housing after that," he wrote.
Awtrey, who was crying out in joy so loudly that his nurse told him to quiet down, was now without a home in the dorms. And although the hotel would provide temporary housing, he needed to be with another person for a couple of days after surgery for medical reasons.
So he turned to an acquaintance from a transgender support group who allowed him to stay for a few days.
His mother has not spoken to him since the surgery, and his father has only contacted him to help arrange temporary housing.
Awtrey plans to drive to North Carolina on Tuesday, where he will stay with some family friends. They've agreed to house him through September, while he heals from surgery.
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On Aug. 7, Awtrey went before a disciplinary committee.
Awtrey provided the Tennessean with a recording of that hearing.
Forlines cited paragraphs in the college's student handbook that forbid "sexual immorality and impurity." It requires students to "refrain from ... acts of sexual immorality" and "sexual perversion."
Awtrey told the committee that he hadn't done anything immoral.
"I have not done anything sexual that disobeys the college handbook and the Bible," he said. "So what, for the lack of a better word, would you try me for?"
Forlines told Awtrey that it was the handbook's statement on "sexual perversion of any form" that "triggered him."
"It's not just a matter of a sexual act," he said.
The committee decided to suspend Awtrey for two terms, at which point he would have an opportunity to reapply to the school and go before another committee for a decision.
He was also given an opportunity to appeal, which he declined, saying he felt every staff member would take the committee's side.
In a statement, Welch College said it could not comment on an individual student's case.
But college president Matt Pinson stated, “Welch’s community standards hold that students are to obey God’s revealed will in holy Scripture and avoid behaviors that constitute a rejection of the divine design for human sexuality. Our desire is to show individuals experiencing gender confusion the love and compassion of Christ while bearing witness to God’s design as revealed in holy Scripture for his human creatures as male and female ...
"Welch informs all members of its community of these beliefs, on which its decisions regarding admissions, hiring, housing, etc., are based. We will continue to pray for all people experiencing gender confusion while also honoring the values of this institution and its sponsoring denomination, which are shared by the Christian tradition over two millennia.”
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"Gender and sexuality are intrinsically linked, but that doesn't mean they're the same," Awtrey said.
"I don't think they had anything in the handbook for being transgender, and I do think it was a really long stretch for them to label me in that category, but they did," he said.
Executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project Chris Sanders agreed.
"Sexual orientation is not the same thing as gender identity," he said.
Gender, he said, "has noting to do with your attractions or sexual activity at all."
And sexual immorality, he argued, has to do with sexual "acts," not gender.
Sanders, who holds a theological degree from Vanderbilt University, said in his experience with young evangelicals, most of them are accepting of the transgender population.
"So they are punishing this student," he said of the college, "but it is affecting all the students."
Although legally, there's not much Awtrey can do, he explained, Sanders believes the school's decision will "be one of the factors of decline if the denomination and the school don't adapt."
Sanders also empathized with Awtrey's feelings of powerlessness in a world predestined for him.
"Everything is programmed for them," he said. "When you're in college, you don't have a lot of economic freedom and power. One thing that happens to a lot of young (transgender) adults ... they become homeless when they are disowned by their family. I think a lot of kids are in that situation."
And growing up in the same church for one's entire life and then suddenly being rejected by it can be devastating, Sanders added.
"There's a group that once they realize they're LGBTQ, they still love the denomination and are utterly in turmoil that it won't accept them," he said.
Wilshire Baptist Church Associate Pastor Mark Wingfield has written extensively on the topic of transgender issues and the church. An article he wrote on the topic went viral, and since then he's talked to hundreds of transgender people and has written a book called "Why Churches Need to Talk about Sexuality."
"The most astounding thing to me about Christians who condemn people for being transgender is that I cannot procure in my mind a single verse of Christian Scripture that would be applicable to this situation," he said.
Wingfield argued there are well documented biological reasons why people feel that who they are on the inside is not who they appear to be on the outside.
"Ultimately, did God make a mistake?" he asked. "I have to believe God didn't make a mistake. If indeed we believe Genesis, that humans are created in the image of God, that person is also created in the image of God."
Awtrey said he's learned that "Christianity and the Christian community are two very different things."
"I do think of myself as a Christian," he said. "It's unfortunate that the worst people I've ever met are the people who claim to be Christians ... it's something I've had to work through ... to look toward God instead of toward people."
At the time of his hearing, Awtrey was hoping he had enough credits in biology and theological studies for his associate's degree in both. But he has since learned he is just three credits shy of his biology degree and even further away from his degree in theological studies.
After he recovers from his procedure, Awtrey said he plans to move back to Nashville to find a job as a nursing assistant, which he's obtained certification for.
Awtrey said he didn't think he could change the committee's decision, but he did hope they'd realize their choices have consequences.
"I've been with these types of people my entire life," he said. "I don't think it's beneficial to argue with them because no matter what you say or do, they'll always be right.
"I want people to see that there are consequences and horrible things happen to people that you don't support or show kindness or empathy to."
Awtrey said he keeps thinking about a withdrawal form he was asked to sign when school staff accompanied him to the hotel room the first day.
Signing the form would ultimately mean agreeing that he was withdrawing from school of his own volition. He said he wondered how many other people were asked to sign similar forms.
"No one cared what happened to them," he said.
"I feel personally just ... a lack of dignity and respect has been brought to me and I feel the need to shout out in anger because I feel like an injustice has been brought upon me."
He said he hoped the college would update its student handbook to include issues of gender instead of grouping it in with sexual morality.
"These moral policies are usually about sexual activity," Wingfield added. "Gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate things. If you want to talk about sexual acts, talk about that. You better have another policy saying something about gender conformity.
"This is clearly discriminatory based upon gender," Wingfield said. "You cannot use the Bible to justify that behavior."
Follow Amy Nixon on Twitter: @AmyKNixon.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Transgender student kicked out of Baptist college in Tennessee