Mormonism and gender issues/Transgenderism

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Mormonism and transgenderism


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Question: If gender is “enforced”, is it true that it can’t be immutable?

ANNOUNCEMENT: Cassandra Hedelius, a member of the FAIR board, will be presenting more on the wisdom of the Church's current transgender policies at the 2022 FAIR Conference. Tickets are on sale now!

Introduction to Question

On February 21, 2020, progressive Latter-day Saint scholar of gender studies and early Christianity Taylor G. Petrey published an opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune entitled “Taylor G. Petrey: If biology was immutable, it wouldn’t need to be enforced”. Petrey took aim at the Church’s then-recently-published policies for transgender individuals. The entire article, no longer than 10 paragraphs, will be reproduced below. Following the reproduction of the article, we will provide commentary on it and respond to several of Petrey’s points. Throughout the article, we will highlight in green the portions of Petrey’s article that we will respond to.

Taylor G. Petrey, “Taylor G. Petrey: If biology was immutable, it wouldn’t need to be enforced”

On Feb. 19, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly released a new “General Handbook,” a guide for church teachings and policies. There were a number of updates, but among them were new teachings about transgender individuals. In addition, the church launched a new website resources on “Transgender.” The new teachings relax earlier church policies in some ways, but remain committed to a belief in a fixed and immutable “sex” identity that is increasingly discredited.

The new changes are significant. In sum, the old policies outlined that “elective transsexual surgery” would result in excommunication from the church. The old policy was more narrow in prohibiting only surgical transition, leaving a gray area for “social” and hormonal transitions.

In contrast, the new policy explicitly discourages non-surgical transitions, but otherwise seems more accommodating. It allows for trans individuals to use their preferred pronouns in church and on church records, to be baptized and attend and participate in church meetings. Those who transition will not be excommunicated, but transitioning will result in restrictions of certain aspects of church membership, including the ability to exercise priesthood (perform blessings and participate in rituals), participate in rituals in LDS temples and receive some, but not all, church callings.

While those who are affected by these policy changes might laud or lament aspects of the new teachings, it is clear that the church is more inclusive than it used to be on this issue, even if it restricts the freedoms that some leaders offered the trans members of their congregations.

The new pastoral website “Transgender” counsels individuals who have transitioned or are transitioning, as well as their families. It advises about the restrictions on church membership, but encourages communities, families, and individuals to be open, supporting, and loving of those who transition.

The new teachings attempt to straddle an impossible compromise. On one hand, church leaders have become increasingly explicit that “gender” is an immutable aspect of one’s eternal identity, going so far as to reinterpret the 1995 Proclamation on the family to refer to “biological sex at birth.” On the other hand, the recognition of the ambiguities of intersex persons (another updated entry in the “General Handbook”), and the admission that “the Church does not take a position on the causes of people identifying themselves as transgender,” leave “biology” an ambiguous arbiter of a supposedly fixed characteristic.

Today, scientists generally reject the idea of a fixed “biological sex,” since there is no single universal biological marker of sexual difference, let alone one that would determine social concepts like what kinds of clothing one should wear or what bathroom one should use.

Though the new policy appeals to “biological sex,” it also reveal the ways that such a concept carries social, not scientific value in LDS thought. While LDS teachings today no longer replicate the false teachings of earlier leaders that transgender identity is a species of homosexuality, and no longer speculate on its causes, the shifting reasons for opposing transgender practices still indicate that bodies alone, or “biological sex,” does not establish gender identity.

The new policy demonstrates this point in stark terms. The discouragement of “social transitioning,” including practices like pronouns, dress and other forms of self presentation, undermine the claim that what is at stake is “biological sex.” The focus on these “social” practices show that “sex” here functions as a social norm, not a biological fact. There is no biological reason for restricting these social practices. The policy reveals that enforcing social boundaries between male and female remains the primary goal.

If biology was so immutable, it wouldn’t need to be ecclesiastically enforced. In spite of themselves, these new guidelines show that for Latter-day Saints, gender is what one does, not what one is or has. The admission that even biology cannot be the universal arbiter of a sexual identity, and the allowance of trans identities in albeit limited ways, reveal that ultimately “sex” here is a fluid social category, not a fixed biological one.

Response to Criticisms

Biological Sex is Not Discredited

The first incredibly obvious point is that biological sex is not being discredited at all. 98% of all people on earth identify as male or female, are genetically-constructed male or female, have male or female reproductive organs, and produce male or female gametes. This represents the truth articulated by President Spencer W. Kimball that "With relatively few accidents of nature, we are born male or female."[1]

How Does Petrey Know that The Brethren Have "Reinterpreted" The Family Proclamation?

Petrey presents no evidence for the assertion that the Brethren have "reinterpreted" the family proclamation.

Biological Sex Can Still Be a Marker of Eternal Identity

Since 98% of all people on earth 98% identify as male or female, are genetically-constructed male or female, have male or female reproductive organs, and produce male or female gametes, biological sex can represent an eternal identity for those 98% of people. It can also represent an eternal identity for transgender people. Indeed, if we have female reproductive organs, female sex chromosomes, and produce female gametes and our brain tells us that we are not a member of the biological sex our body is organized as, then there is clearly an underlying mental disorder. Why is it that the liberal faction of the medical establishment is trying to mainstream conforming our bodies to our mental content rather than our mental content to our bodies? The latter has almost always been typical approach for healing since it helps us bring our minds into acceptance of reality.

There are intersex individuals and they certainly complicate the picture. Perhaps in the future our Heavenly Father will reveal more about how intersex people fit into the plan. Perhaps patriarchs can reveal the underlying gender of a person's spirit. It's not a current practice of the Church, but it is a logical possibility for what can come in the future.

Scientists Do Not Generally Reject the Notion of A Fixed Biological Sex

Scientists do not generally reject the notion of a fixed biological sex. Petrey cites a New York Times opinion piece by Anne Fausto-Sterling, a notoriously liberal and controversial sexologist to represent this "scientific majority" Petrey has in mind.

Scientists and even lay people can recognize that maleness is intelligible by recognizing the ensemble of genetic, biological, and phenotypic characteristics that make up the vast majority of males and females. Men have XY chromosomes, produce sperm, have male reproductive organs, and are organized for impregnation. Women have XX sex-chromosomes, produce ova, have female reproductive organs, and are organized for conception.

The Social Policies of Church Leaders May Have More to Do With Brain Plasticity

Petrey's point that policies against social transitioning show that gender is more about a social practice rather than a biological marker of identity is also dubious. This since we know about the concept of neuroplasticity. The brain can reorganize its synapses to adapt to new environments and learn new habitual behaviors. Doing things that make us learn maleness and femaleness is important for the development of our gender identity. Taking social transitioning as a serious option for transgender care can condition the merely intellectually curious to develop synapses that make them actually believe they are a member of the sex they were not born as. For those suffering with gender dysphoria, it can create or intensify desires for cross-sex hormones, puberty blockers, and "corrective" surgeries to alter their appearance and biological sex. These treatments are not conducive to helping a gender dysphoric individual come to accept and be comfortable with their biological sex which should be the ultimate goal for any in the medical field who have taken the Hippocratic oath.

There are Biologically-Determined, Sex-Specific, Psychobehavioral Differences Between Men and Women

For what it's worth, majority opinion in the scientific community is that there are indeed biologically-determined, sex-specific, psychobehavioral differences between men and women. Thus, even "gender roles" and gendered behavior unique to male and female have a biological basis.[2]

Conclusion

All of these points show that biological sex can be and is a marker of eternal identity and one that is essential to "progress toward perfection and ultimately [realizing our] divine destiny as heirs of eternal life."[3]


Question: Since there are people that are born intersex, experience gender dysphoria, or identify as transgender, does this invalidate the Latter-day Saint doctrine of eternal gender?

The Criticism

Some secularist critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints point to the existence of intersex humans, people who experience gender dysphoria, or people who identify as transgender in order to invalidate the doctrine of eternal, binary gender.

Intersex people are defined as those that:

are born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies."[4]

Transgender people are those that identify with, dress as, and/or have gender-reassignment surgeries performed on them to become, identify with, and or act as a different gender than the one they were proclaimed to be at birth.

Gender dysphoria is the dissonance caused by not identifying with the gender (male or female) that one is proclaimed to be a part of at birth.

It is claimed that this invalidates the doctrine of gender as outlined by "The Family: A Proclamation to the World":

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.[5]

It should be noted here that "gender" is used synonymously with "biological sex".[6]

Our spirits are eternally gendered either male or female

One immediate point to make is that, according to the Family Proclamation above and the Doctrine and Covenants, our spirits are eternally gendered either male or female (D&C 49:15-17). A male or female spirit can still be housed in an intersex body. The existence of intersex individuals does not invalidate the possibility that we have male and female spirits only.

As it concerns transgender individuals, there are four logical possibilities:

  1. Their spirit has legitimately been housed in the wrong bodies by their choice.
  2. Their spirit has legitimately been housed in the wrong bodies by God's choice.
  3. Their spirit has legitimately been housed in the wrong body by the joint agreement of them and God.
  4. There is a deeper mental condition that doesn't allow their brains to accept that they actually belong to the right body.

We don't know which of these actually are happening. It's best to wait for science and revelation to converge. Eventually, we know they will. As President Russell M. Nelson has taught, "[t]here is no conflict between science and religion. Conflict only arises from an incomplete knowledge of either science or religion, or both[.]"[7]

Feelings are not Being

Some may be offended by the last possibility. It does remain a logical possibility.

Brigham Young University professor Ty Mansfield pointed out something important in regard to feelings not forming identity. He related it to sexuality but it can equally apply to gender dysphoria.

“Being gay” is not a scientific idea, but rather a cultural and philosophical one, addressing the subjective and largely existential phenomenon of identity. From a social constructionist/constructivist perspective, our sense of identity is something we negotiate with our environment. Environment can include biological environment, but our biology is still environment. From an LDS perspective, the essential spiritual person within us exists independent of our mortal biology, so our biology, our body is something that we relate to and negotiate our identity with, rather than something that inherently or essentially defines us. Also, while there has likely been homoerotic attraction, desire, behavior, and even relationships, among humans as long as there have been humans, the narratives through which sexuality is understood and incorporated into one’s sense of self and identity is subjective and culturally influenced. The “gay” person or personality didn’t exist prior to the mid-20th century.

In an LDS context, people often express concern about words that are used—whether they be “same-sex attraction,” which some feel denies the realities of the gay experience, or “gay,” “lesbian,” or “LGBT,” which some feels speaks more to specific lifestyle choices. What’s important to understand, however, is that identity isn’t just about the words we use but the paradigms and worldviews and perceptions of or beliefs about the “self” and “self-hood” through which we interpret and integrate our various experiences into a sense of personal identity, sexual or otherwise. And identity is highly fluid and subject to modification with change in personal values or socio-cultural context. The terms “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” aren’t uniformly understood or experienced in the same way by everyone who may use or adopt those terms, so it’s the way those terms or labels are incorporated into self-hood that accounts for identity. One person might identify as “gay” simply as shorthand for the mouthful “son or daughter of God who happens to experience romantic, sexual or other desire for persons of the same sex for causes unknown and for the short duration of mortality,” while another person experiences themselves as “gay” as a sort of eternal identity and state of being.

An important philosophical thread in the overall experience of identity, is the experience of “selfhood”—what it means to have a self, and what it means to “be true to” that self. The question of what it means to be “true to ourselves” is a philosophical rather than a scientific one. In her book Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self, award-winning science and medical writer Rita Carter explores the plurality of “selves” who live in each one of us and how each of those varied and sometimes conflicting senses of self inform various aspects of our identity(ies). This sense seems to be universal. In the movie The Incredibles, there’s a scene in which IncrediBoy says to Mr. Incredible, “You always, always say, ‘Be true to yourself,’ but you never say which part of yourself to be true to!”[8]

Thus, there is big difference between feelings and the meaning or labels that we assign to feelings. Thank goodness that feelings are not being. Couldn't we imagine a time where someone would want to change feelings that they didn't feel described their identity such as impulses for pornography, drugs, or violence? This does not mean that the author is comparing sexual orientation to bad impulses, this is simply to point out that feelings do not inherently control identity. We assign identity to feelings.

These points demonstrate that we all have to seek out something else to determine identity that is enduring, real, and meaningful. Some of us turn to God for that identity. Others may subconsciously or consciously create some form of a platonic entity to ground our morality and identity i.e. "Love binds the universe. Love is my religion". But the basic point still stands—our feelings may be used to form identity, but that identity--the identity based in our feelings that we are having now--isn't enduring; and we must turn to the unseen world to form abiding and real identity.

The Argument from Personal Revelation

There are often claims from members of the Church who identify as transgender and other members of the Church who support transgenderism that they have received personal revelation that they are meant to identify as the gender that they currently identify as and/or that gender is not meant to be binary.

There are often claims from members of the Church who identify as transgender and other members of the Church who support transgenderism that they have received personal revelation that the Church is wrong about this issue and that it will eventually accept transgenderism and so on in the future. Since this is an important theological topic that involves the entire human family and their eternal destiny, this type of revelation does not lie within the stewardship of those that identify as transgender or those that support same-sex marriage, but with the prophet of God (Doctrine and Covenants 28:2-4; 42:53-60; 112:20). We should wait for the Lord to reveal more officially as to what is occuring with transgender individuals. As it regards those that have felt like they've received revelation that gender isn't binary, the Savior told us that the one way we could protect ourselves against deception is to hold to his word (JS-Matthew 1:37) and he announces himself as the source of the revelation declaring that gender is binary (Doctrine and Covenants 49:28). Thus, it is likely that these individuals, if they have indeed felt revelation occur, have been deceived by false Spirits (Doctrine and Covenants 50:1-2) and their testimonies should be disregarded. If someone were to receive a revelation like this, it would be given to them for their own comfort and instruction. They would also be placed under strict commandment to not disseminate their revelation until it accords with the revelation of the prophets, God's authorized priesthood channels (Alma 12:9).

As a final word which we wish to emphasize:

FairMormon joins The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in unequivocally condemning the discrimination of any of God's children based upon gender (or gender identity), race, sexual identity and/or orientation, and/or religious affiliation..

Notes

  1. Spencer W. Kimball, "God Will Not Be Mocked," Ensign 4, no. 11 (November 1974): 8.
  2. Bruce Goldman, "Two minds: the cognitive differences between men and women," Stanford Medicine, Stanford University, May 7, 2021, https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different.html; John Stossel, "The Science: Male Brain vs Female Brain," YouTube, October 15, 2019, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTEi2-FAEZE; David C. Geary, "The Real Causes of Human Sex Differences," Quilette, October 20, 2020, https://quillette.com/2020/10/20/the-real-causes-of-human-sex-differences/; Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences, 3rd ed. (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2020). Indeed, every single cell of our body is influenced by our sex. See Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Understanding the Biology of Sex and Gender Differences; Theresa M. Wizemann, Mary-Lou Pardue, eds., Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter? (Washington D.C.: National Academies Press (US), 2001), Executive Summary, 2, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222291/#!po=1.11111. For further info on male-female neuroanatomy and psychobehavior, see Amber N. V. Ruigrock et. al, “A meta-analysis of sex differences in human brain structure,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 39 (2014): 34–50; Larry Cahill, “A Half-Truth is a Whole Lie: On the Necessity of Investigating Sex Influences on the Brain,” Endocrinology 153 (2012): 2542; “His Brain, Her Brain,” Scientific American, October 1, 2012. For a paradigm of gender compatible with the Gospel, see Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter, 2017), chap. 7. For the most thorough coverage of the literature exploring sex differences in neuroanatomy and psychobehavior in one book, see Charles Murray, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class (New York: Twelve, 2020), 11–127.
  3. The Family: A Proclamation to the World, paragraph 3.
  4. "Intersex," Wikipedia, accessed January 4, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersex.
  5. "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed January 4, 2019, https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation?lang=eng&old=true.
  6. "General Conference Leadership Meetings Begin," Church Newsroom, accessed October 7, 2019, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/october-2019-general-conference-first-presidency-leadership-session. “'Finally, the long-standing doctrinal statements reaffirmed in The Family: A Proclamation to the World 23 years ago will not change. They may be clarified as directed by inspiration.' For example, 'the intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation and as used in Church statements and publications since that time is biological sex at birth.'”
  7. "Elder Nelson: 'There Is No Conflict Between Science and Religion'," LDS Living, April 17, 2015, https://www.ldsliving.com/Elder-Nelson-There-Is-No-Conflict-Between-Science-and-Religion-/s/78668.
  8. Ty Mansfield, "'Mormons can be gay, they just can’t do gay': Deconstructing Sexuality and Identity from an LDS Perspective," (presentation, FairMormon Conference, Provo, UT, 2014).