By Ted Lee
Most Mormons are intimately familiar with it: a document released by the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles outlining a fairly direct summary of current lds beliefs regarding the nuclear family. First released in 1995, now almost twenty years later most faithful members view it as prophetic bulwark against the slings and arrows of today’s culture wars. It is not unusual to walk into a Mormon living space and see the document framed and hanging on the wall next to a painting of Jesus.
I settled into my hard, plastic chair for what I expected to be a fairly standard lesson, and my expectations were mostly met: marriage is between a man and a woman, families are essential units for society and God’s plan, there are specific gender roles for fathers and mothers though they should also work as equal partners. “Standard” does not mean “spiritually lacking” or “boring,” either; we had several fruitful discussions on the role of “The Family” in the modern Mormon life: our elders quorum president, a wise, conscientious steward and a thoughtful man, took time to carefully note that those who do not find themselves fitting the “ideal” of the Church (in terms of having a monogamous, nuclear family where both parents are happily active in the gospel and where children scamper around the yard) are still important to God and have a place within the Church as a whole. Some fathers shared personal insights into how they have adapted the teachings in the document to their own individual situations. However, it was fairly (maybe even painfully) obvious that other than the short disclaimer clause of how “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation,” these interpretations came purely from reading between the lines.
But then a phrase caught my attention, a phrase that I had read many times before and never noticed until now: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual, pre-mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Hold on, I thought. Gender? For a student in the social sciences, it’s a very interesting choice of words.
If you take an introductory university-level class on gender and/or sexuality for any of the social sciences (like sociology, anthropology, women’s / gender / sexuality studies, etc.), you will get a primer on three foundational terms: sex, sexuality, and gender. To put them simply:
• Sex is the biological makeup of your gender identity; that is, your sex manifests the specific combination of chromosomes you have in your dna (and don’t think it’s cut and dry, either; modern geneticists have found multiple combinations beyond the simple xx/xy chromosomal makeup with surprising, often counter-intuitive effects).
• Sexuality is your sexual, erotic preference; that is, do you prefer those of the opposite sex? Same sex? Both? Neither? None of the above? However you answer, who (or even what) you’re attracted to erotically makes up the sexuality aspect in gender identity.
• Gender is the most complex idea. It refers to the role you perform within your social context. Contrary to popular belief, we do not determine a person’s gender by simply looking in their pants or checking their dna—gender is not a state of being but a continual state of doing. The word perform is key to understanding the term gender. While most Americans may think of gender as an inherent quality or trait within a person, how we react to an individual’s performance of gender portrays its unstable nature. If one could detect a person’s gender simply by looking at them because it was intrinsic (that is, an essential, indivisible part of a person), then it wouldn’t matter what a man did because he would always remain a gendered male (that is, his biology wouldn’t change); but if a man walks down the street in high heels and a dress, people grow uncomfortable because he isn’t acting the way the male gender role says he should, and, to them, this unexpected performance changes who he is at that particular moment. Because he is performing a woman’s gender (in that specific social context), he is no longer a man at the present time, but has, in a way, become a woman (or, as we would say in academic circles, he is performing as a woman).
Most Americans are consciously aware of some gender roles (such as “men work, women keep house”), but in our society, gender roles saturate everything we do, from the way we talk to the way we sit to the way we think. For example, I am biologically male because I have the xy chromosome combination in my dna. I am, in terms of sexuality, heterosexual because I am attracted to my female human wife. Therefore, in my society I am gendered as a man, which means I must wear men’s clothes, use the men’s bathroom facilities, act as head of my household, work as the primary bread winner, enjoy playing and watching physical sports, control my emotions at all times, refuse to ask for directions when lost, fail to perform housework because of my clumsy ineptitude, wish I had a powerful and fast car, do well in math, science, and business, but think that poetry and Pride and Prejudice are boring. I may not perform all of these aspects, but if I fail to perform enough of them, people begin to become anxious about what I really am.
To make matters more complicated, gender is often conflated with both sex and sexuality. In high school, my failure to enjoy first-person shooter video games, my disinterest in most organized sports, and my preference for reading classical literature would sometimes brand me as a closeted gay man. Some would question (half-jokingly) whether I was really a boy. Logically, none of these personal preferences on literature or recreational activities should be able to change either my dna or erotic preferences, but our cultural logic says otherwise because all of these things are tightly packaged within that complex mass of ideas we call gender roles.
Usually, most students, no matter their political stance when it comes to sex, sexuality, and gender, agree that these three terms are quite different from each other in nature and definition. While some may believe that gender and sexuality should be tied to sex, the great majority of social scientists are willing to concede that these three areas denote important and useful distinctions within a gender identity as a whole. It is also generally accepted that these three categories manifest themselves in a broad spectrum across populations in myriad combinations, even in cultures where gender roles are rigidly defined (such as in the United States).
However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with United States culture generally, does not tend to use gender in the same, very specific, way that academics do. Rather, they use gender interchangeably with sex. Interestingly, usage of the term gender in place of sex exploded after 1995, when “The Family” was first issued. Pre-1995, the usage of gender occurred most often when quoting 2 Timothy 2:23, which reads, “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes.” It should also be noted that strict interpretations of gender as eternal (and sometimes interpreted as inflexible) do not necessarily match historical attitudes. For example, in 1975, the Ensign published an article by two mental health professionals titled “Being a Boy, Being a Girl,” counseling members on how to encourage healthy attitudes towards expected gender roles in their children. The authors write, “We emphasize that all work is honorable and that many activities can equally be enjoyed regardless of sex. It is not unwomanly for a girl to enjoy sports, nor is it unmanly for a boy to be deeply satisfied and moved by music or poetry.” Still, such articles are the exception; more often will you find something closer to the lines of a New Era article from its own editorial staff instructing those who want to submit photos for publication that hairstyles “that leave your gender in doubt” will not be published, along with hairstyles that “obstruct your passage through doorways, or have weird symbols shaved into them.”
It is quite clear that for many Church members and for the Brethren (especially after 1995), gender and sex have become synonymous. In the last few years, several talks in General Conference have presented a softer definition of gender roles, but they still express the Church’s preference that members perform what “The Family” depicts as essential, eternal duties and responsibilities according to their biological sex.
However, as both physical and social scientists have discovered, the subject of “gender” is much more complex than Western society may have originally realized, and the Brethren, understanding this, have taken great pains to account for outliers. “The Family” refers briefly to some of these exceptions, such as those who experience disability or a spouse’s death, but it does not grapple with the biological fact that some children are born with both male and female genitalia, or with the existence of chromosomal combinations such as xxy or xyy. It is silent on how we might accommodate transgender people who sincerely believe that they were born in an inappropriately sexed body, or with those who experience “same gender attraction” or other manifestations of sexuality. How do we accommodate the many faithful Saints who feel called to perform a gender role at odds with the one assigned to their sex: the husband who wants to nurture, the wife who wants to provide?
I will offer two possible ways “The Family” could help address our outliers, both based simply on using the scientific rather than colloquial definition for one word in the Proclamation. These two approaches have the potential to dissolve the many anxieties we have developed in our insistence that gender roles be predicated solely on biological happenstance.
The Potential Dangers of Speculation
Before I begin, however, I want to openly acknowledge that the ideas you are about to read currently live in the realm of pure speculation. In no way am I advocating these as prescriptions for the Church; these are possible paths. I firmly believe that when we begin to think our theological speculation should be doctrine, we stand on very dangerous ground. A (non-Mormon!) religion teacher once told me, “Faith is understanding that you might be wrong but committing to a principle anyway, with the intention to correct yourself if you find yourself in the wrong.” The prophet Alma tells us that hope and humility towards learning must precede knowledge, for “if a man knoweth a thing, he hath no cause to believe” (Alma 32:18).
With that said, however, I do believe that speculation is the initial step in finding clarity and understanding in the gospel. I also believe that the gospel is simple and meant to be understood. Thus, when complications arise, I seek for the simplest solutions. I do not wish to mistake simplicity for truth, but we are told often that the gospel is simple and that it is the minds of fallible humans that frequently attempt to complicate it.
With that disclaimer in mind, my two ideas rest on a single “what if” question: “What if, for that single phrase in ‘The Family,’ we use, rather than the colloquial definition, the academic definition of gender—the definition I laid out in the previous section?” Suddenly, the meaning of the sentence changes radically, and, in fact, so does the meaning of the entire document. Without changing any of the basic principles or laws of the gospel, this single shift provides some reductions and simplifications that can bring our own “outliers” more fully into the fold.
Possible Conclusion 1
“Gender is an essential characteristic of individual, premortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” If we define gender as the performative role one acts out within a societal context, then the line just quoted is not referring to biological sex (male, female, or other) or sexuality (sexual partner preference), but to the cultural and societal role a person plays. “The Family” gives names to two basic gender roles:
• “Fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.”
• “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.”
Then “The Family” adds, “In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”
“The Family” connects the binary of father/mother with the binary of provider/nurturer. Both are important aspects of parenting. One could argue that you need a person performing in each role to create an ideal, well-rounded parenting set. Accepting the proclamation’s contention that gender (using the academic definition) is eternal, one interpretation of the phrase in question is that, disconnected from biological sex and sexual partner preference, a person’s preference for either providing or nurturing is innate. The role of father and the role of mother are not connected to the chromosomes within one’s dna or to a person’s genitalia but to one’s preference towards either providing or nurturing. Do you feel you are innately more of a nurturer? Then perhaps you should adopt the “mother” role in your spousal partnership. If you feel more innately attracted toward providing for your family, then perhaps you should adopt the “father” role in your spousal relationship and seek out a nurturer personality for your partner.
Now even the seemingly paradoxical “separate gender roles but equal partners” statement makes more sense. While we might prefer to specialize in our parental duties, the messy situations life throws at us may require us to be flexible in the roles we play—perhaps you feel that you are more innately a provider type but find yourself forced by circumstance into the nurturer role. Perhaps your more nurturing spouse is being pushed in the provider direction. Mormon doctrinal stances on gender, fatherhood, and motherhood, then, are not predicated on biological or physical attributes but on parenting techniques and attitudes. This stance certainly reflects reality more closely: the role one plays in a family is much more flexible than one’s chromosomal makeup (which someone would find difficulty changing ever, let alone at-will). And the sin in regards to these roles is not in choosing the wrong role but to refuse choosing any role at all. More troubling than the changing attitudes towards gender roles in contemporary Western culture should be the fact that many feel that providing for or nurturing others is something to reject or flee from; we live in a world where willingly taking on responsibilities and obligations for others is depicted as “the effect of a frenzied mind,” and that “every man prosper[s] according to his genius, and that every man conquer[s] according to his strength” (Alma 30:16-17) with no thought for others. It seems almost ludicrous to discourage people from adopting these sanctifying roles because they simply don’t have the right genetic makeup.
Possible Conclusion 2
Because only gender is specified within “The Family” as being “an essential characteristic of individual, premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” (neither sex nor sexuality are identified as being eternal), we can assume that any kind of messy “mix ups” on the biological level are a result of living in a fallen world. Just as some children are born with cleft lips or missing limbs or with different mental capacities, some children are born with both genitalia present (as is the case with intersex children) or with a spirit that wants to perform as a nurturer but is born into a man’s body (which is unfortunate only if the person is born in a time and place that uncompromisingly connects gender with sex, such as in present-day American culture).
By invoking this proposed interpretation of the Gender Clause of “The Family”, Mormons could avoid all kinds of gender anxiety by positing that no matter what kind of mortal, fallen body happens to form around us, we still retain a personality and personal preference from the pre-existence that gravitates towards one performative role or another. Any biological mistakes will be corrected and amended for in either the Resurrection, the Millennium after the Second Coming, or the Spirit World, depending on what flavor of physical resurrection theology you subscribe to.
Under this interpretation, we would consider a transgender individual to be in the same boat as someone born with a cleft lip or a missing limb. Through an accident of biology and the Fall, the biological sex of their body and the gender role they feel called to perform are incompatible with the surrounding culture. Transgender surgery, then, is no more intrusive on a person’s “eternal identity” than eye surgery is on a person who was born with a physical malady arising from the peculiarities of a specific exchange of genetic material. And while we do teach that our spiritual personage resembles our physical personage, we would certainly not then suggest that a person born with a cleft lip or missing limbs was also created spiritually with a cleft lip or missing limbs and will retain those qualities when that person is resurrected. It would then seem reasonable to expect that those who identify as transgender instead of cisgender will, despite the emotional pain they endure in this life, find cause for hope, recompense, and correction in the next life just as would anyone else born with a less than ideal physical body (which is, realistically, 100% of us). We do not suggest that a child should retain a cleft lip or blindness forever because it is “God’s will,” especially when we possess the surgical knowledge to change it. Similarly, we would not deny surgical procedures to those who feel they are badly served by the sex of the body that happened to grow around them, especially when we consider the high depression and suicide rates among transgender people and the horrific violence perpetrated against transgender individuals in many societies.
When considering the plight of the transgender person, I am often reminded of when the disciples asked Jesus when they happened upon a blind man, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer, “Neither had this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him,” (John 9:1–3) should be a stinging rebuke to us today as it was to the disciples then when confusing the accidents of nature and biology with moral failure. A correct knowledge of the Fall and its importance in God’s plan is one of the fruits of the Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Rather than viewing a transgender person’s very real pain as evidence of moral failing, we should take it upon us to find ways to make the works of God manifest in that person’s life as well as our own.
Why Speculate at All?
As a reminder, I am not necessarily saying that we should interpret “The Family” using the academic definition of gender or that my proposed interpretation is the true interpretation. And I most certainly am not suggesting that this was the original interpretation of the authors. What I am saying is that this is one possible interpretation that could reposition “The Family” as an advocate for more compassionate treatment of transgender peoples, as a catalyst for reconsidering the appropriateness of transgender surgery, and as a discussion starter about many other stances that marginalize so many people in our church. And we wouldn’t have to move so much as a punctuation mark to achieve these ends. We would not be compromising any core values: regardless of personal gender identity, we would still expect all people to keep the commandments, love one another, live in committed, faithful relationships, and raise children in love and righteousness. “The Family” says, “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” This proposed interpretation would emphasize the very Mormon concept that what you do in your life is of significantly more eternal importance than what body you are born into.
What fascinates me with this speculative reading is not so much that one could possibly read “The Family” in this way but rather how easily one could read it in this way (and how this interpretation actually seems to make it a stronger document in general). The terms sex and sexuality are never mentioned; in fact, biology is never mentioned outside of the idea that people need bodies in order to enter this world and progress soteriologically. The only things stressed in this document are the term gender and the eternal roles associated with gender.
As an example of how much of a game-changer this proposed interpretation could be, let me tell you a little more about the priesthood lesson I began this article with. It was like a mental gymnastics meet. At one point, we tried to assert important gender roles (still connected to sex) while trying to not sound like we believed we had the immutable right to override our wives’ decisions or sound like we believed that by divine design our wives should do all the house work. One father mentioned that for him “to provide” meant to provide emotional and spiritual support in addition to physical support. Another said that he interpreted “presiding” to mean being present at home as much as possible and to always put home life before any other responsibility. None shared stories of overriding a wife’s feelings on a matter or taking a backseat in spiritually nurturing their children because it is the mother’s primary duty. But we all understood that these ideas and suggestions would most likely not fall under “the norm,” but under “individual adaptation.”
The interpretation of “The Family” we were laboring under, where gender is connected with sex, causes no small amount of angst, cognitive dissonance, guilt, and mental anguish for members who have felt the healing power of the Atonement in their lives but also feel that a woman who wants a career and a man who wants to stay home and raise his children are not aberrations of nature or divine design.
Almost all of this cognitive dissonance disappears if we use the alternate reading I’m proposing. There is no twisting of the text, reading in-between the lines, or tortured interpretation that requires one to read paragraphs out of order or completely ignore some aspects of the text in favor of others. By simply using the current academic definition of the term gender (rather than the more colloquial, U.S.-centric use of the word as interchangeable with sex or sexuality) the context and conclusions that follow from the rest of the text dramatically change. Suddenly, a document that previously seemed to play defense for older cultural values becomes a document of prophetic import clarifying the true spiritual nature of God’s children; bringing peace and healing to multiple groups of people who currently experience lives of pain and hurt inflicted upon them by cultural norms; acknowledging that the hand of Jehovah’s love and mercy is also extended to groups historically marginalized, persecuted, hunted down to be tortured and murdered, and often denied fellowship and communion with the body of Christ simply because of biological differences beyond their control. Whether through intention, accident, or—dare I say?—inspiration, this document could bring succor to individuals who are willing to risk everything just so that they can feel like they are finally accepting their true (one could argue “eternal”) selves but still participate in a Church they feel in their hearts to be true but which currently does not encourage them to worship as equal partners before the altar of an all-mighty, all-understanding, and all-loving God.
In the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that conflating speculation with doctrine is an ever-present danger. I believe wholeheartedly in Elder Packer’s warning that “Perhaps too many of us are strong advocates of our own specialized work or are such strong protectors of our own turf that we face the wrong way.” If it is so dangerous, why speculate with faith and hope at all? Why not stick to the script and avoid any risk? Because our gospel is one of ever-evolving truth. When we taste this truth, it expands our minds, souls, and hearts and enlightens our understanding about how the world works and what our purposes on Earth are (Alma 32:28). Ours is a gospel of revelation, and in order to receive revelation, we must awake, arouse our faculties, and experiment upon the Word (Alma 32:27); we must study things out in our minds. We believe in a God who, rather than keeping us in darkness, endeavors to explain the principles of godliness to his children, who pleads with us to come and reason together with him. We bear testimony that this current dispensation started because a young farm boy went off-script and decided to take his perplexing question to God rather than to the traditions he inherited. We hope for loving Parents in Heaven who watch us with great anxiety and concern, who weep with us and rejoice with us, whose primary sorrow is that their children “are without affection, and they hate their own blood” (Moses 7:29, 33).
Ours is a gospel that teaches us to reach for the eternities and stretch our imaginations, a gospel that promises us something very different from the cruel realities we endure today. It asks us to practice, to strive, to imagine, despite our faults and limitations and imperfections. We read and listen and ponder and ask and wrestle and think and reason and exercise and imagine. And then we hope, and we watch, and we wait.