A Response to My Own Essay, Or, Are We Allowed to Do That, Who Cares Let’s Run with It Anyway

Very recently, I had an essay, “Fallen Bodies, Eternal Genders” published in Sunstone, which I was ecstatic and over the moon for. Then my wife said the magazine mentioned my blog which I had let lay fallow for quite some time and I thought, oh dear, I’m going to have to update that or something. What would I write about? And then I re-read my essay and knew that the first thing I would have to write for this blog is a response to my own essay.

I first wrote “Fallen Bodies, Eternal Genders” for Sunstone early April of last year. While the editor (who was so patient and lovely) and I passed some edits and rewrites back and forth, any changes were more to tighten the writing and get it to flow better. In fact, I hadn’t looked at the essay in quite some time when it was published this January in 2015, almost a year later. During those eight to ten months, I ended up increasing the number of transgender people I interacted on a regular basis from “zero” to “definitely not zero” and in the process have learned so much. So much so, in fact, that when I re-read my essay in print form, during some parts I frowned and muttered to myself, “This is so problematic.”

Normally, this is fairly par for the course. We all learn, we all grow, and I’m more than content for other people to point out to me how wrong I am because, well, discovering error is an important learning experience and I am eager to have people correct me because it means I’m getting a little bit more knowledge and experience in my journey in life. However, one of the points I made I felt was dangerous, too dangerous for me to stay silent on and so I’m writing a response to my own essay because I wish to, first, publicly retract my statement, and, second, amend my statement with another statement which I feel is more accurate and less problematic.

I hope that it is a healthy sign of a young and growing academic mind that a mere eight months later you find your essay to have troubling, problematic points. I don’t know if there is much of a precedent of writers responding to their own work, but please don’t mistake this response to my own article as navel gazing or narcissism; rather, I want to address points made by 2014 Ted that 2015 Ted no longer believes to be true (so much so he’s willing to write about it).

Body Dysphoria Is Much More than Just Incompatible Sex and Gender

In the original article, I wrote:

“the biological sex of their body and the gender role they feel called to perform are incompatible with the surrounding culture.”

I depicted the dilemma of the transgender person as someone who wished to perform a gender that was mismatched with their biologically assigned sex. This was born out of well-meaning but total ignorance. No matter how well-meaning the intention, I cannot rest until I publicly declare this idea to be quite inaccurate and even hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. The “official” term of gender dysphoria is much more than just wanting to perform as a different gender; it’s not simply a gender/sex incompatibility but a sex/sex incompatibility. It’s also important to note that health organizations do not view gender dysphoria as a mental disease. It’s a feeling that the body itself is wrong and not just societal pressure or expectations. If US culture accepted that men could perform as women overnight, it still wouldn’t change the fact that a male experiencing body dysphoria would feel his body is the wrong body and desire to change it.

In my well-meaning ignorance, I acted out on my privilege of speaking for transgender people rather than listening to them. I wish to repent of this and sincerely ask forgiveness of any transgender people who I might have offended with my description of gender dysphoria in my essay. So once again, I wish to reiterate: gender dysphoria is more than just a gender/sex mismatch. It is much more complex and deep-rooted than such a simplistic and inaccurate depiction. I won’t speak more on the matter because I am by no means an authority on the issue, and I believe that anybody who wants to know more should speak to those who actually identify as transgender and not to a clueless, cisgendered man such as myself (and don’t listen to just one; speak to multiple people, just like how there is no one definitive Asian person, there is no one representative transgender person, either).

With that said, I do think that as a body of Christ, we need to seriously reconsider our current stances and attitudes towards transgender people in particular and the sex/sexuality/gender “problem” in general. What’s interesting is that our current doctrines could support the acceptance of transgender people and gender reassignment surgery without even my writing the essay suggesting an alternate reading of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Even if we use gender interchangeably with sex, the idea of someone having an eternal sex but feeling like their fallen, mortal body formed incorrectly around their eternal spiritual body is supported by current doctrines as they are. The recent news about the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, her candid, open suicide letter, and the way fundamentalist (and, I would argue, extra-scriptural) Christian attitudes contributed to her distress that ultimately resulted in a teenager taking her life is a crucial wake-up call to re-examine what our own doctrines mean for and act out on transgender people. I sincerely believe that Christ would not want any of his doctrines to drive a person to loathe themselves so much that it would drive them to take their own life. I also believe that we as a body of Christ need to practice Christ-like charity in resisting our urge to talk over them or talk to them but rather to listen to the genuine and heartfelt experiences, tragedies, and sorrows of our transgender brothers and sisters. We are all too comfortable (and smug!) in our overeagerness in dictating and scripting the experiences of others, especially those who seem the most foreign or different from us.

One solid way of learning more about gender dysphoria is by playing the short and simple videogame Dys4ia, created by Anna Anthropy, a transgender game developer and critic. Dys4ia has received numerous acclaim for helping those who have no experience in this regard to develop empathy towards the experiences of those who experience gender or body dysphoria by depicting them in a videogame format. While the subject matter, language, and imagery might be more “crass,” “vulgar,” or “crude” than the average Mormon might be comfortable with, sometimes stepping outside of the comfort zone is one of the first steps to learning more about others. After all, Jesus had some particularly harsh words for those who preferred to associate only with their own while ignoring the sorrows and tragedies of others.

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“If thou art sorrowful” – A homily on trials and tribulations

This is a homily I wrote for Sacrament Meeting this Sunday. It’s the first talk I ever wrote out beforehand (I usually just rely on a constellation of talking points and loose outlines the other times) and got a lot of great responses from it so I thought I’d share it with y’all.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Shultz.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Schulz.

Today’s scripture theme comes from Doctrine and Covenants 136:31, “My people must be tried in all things.” Section 136 is my third favorite section, next to 121 and 93, mostly because 136 is a very practical guide to every day life. It is also one of the few sections not given to us through Joseph Smith but through Brigham Young, on January 14, 1847, according to the section heading, at “the Winter Quarters of the Camp of Israel, Omaha Nation, West Bank of Missouri River, near Council Bluffs, Iowa.” At this point in Church history, their beloved prophet Joseph Smith had been brutally assassinated along with his brother Hyrum, the Assistant President of the Church, by a bloodthirsty gang of thugs just two and a half years before this revelation was given. The previous year, persecution had become so intense that the Saints decided the most rational response was to evacuate an entire city and abandon a temple they had sacrificed so much for, a temple that was fully operational for less than three months. At the time of the revelation, a large body of the Church was camped out at Winter Quarters, where their diet consisted mainly of corn bread, salt bacon, a little milk, and occasional meat, usually from any game they could hunt nearby. There were little to no fruits and vegetables. Scurvy, known as “blackleg” during the time (which gets my vote for most terrifying disease name in the 1800s) was rampant, along with tuberculosis and malaria, all horrifying diseases. Hundreds died that winter (see Wikipedia, “Winter Quarters”). Trials and tribulations no doubt were forefront on the Saints’ minds, and it’s understandable to me if at that point some were thinking after hearing the revelation, “Tried in all the things? You’ve got to be kidding me. What did I sign up for?”

Thankfully, we live in very different times and circumstances, yet of all the problems, controversies, and public media battles and scandals, I would venture to guess that the most difficult question the modern-day Latter-day Saint must grapple with is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The doubt that many experience when grappling with this question stems not from disbelief, as some of the orthodoxy suspect, but from an intense belief in the goodness of God and a selfless love and compassion for all people, a love born from their faith in the promises of the gospel. You will never meet a mean-spirited, uncaring person ask this question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”, unless that person believes himself to be a “good” person who was wronged.

Part of the anxiety we experience with this question comes from this cognitive dissonance, but much of it also comes from the fact we live in a society devoted to and obsessed with comfort. The existence and even any mention of death, disability, suffering, weakness, and helplessness makes us nervous and want to quickly change the subject or shush the speaker on the grounds that such topics are impolite to talk about — unless, of course, you’re trying to sell a new product. Our government, our economy, and our civic ideologies are based upon rugged individualism, maximized personal freedom to do as we choose, and the conceit that everything good that happens in life is a direct result of our own actions and only our actions with the opposite belief that everything bad that happens in others’ lives is a result of their own personal decisions. But the existence of pain, suffering, setbacks, trials, death, disease, and disability destroy our carefully constructed and clever contrivances. In the end, despite our diet plans, medical advances, scientific breakthroughs, and accumulated GDP, the death rate for humans remains stubbornly at 100%, and large portions of our economy are devoted to either trying to escape this sobering fact, or to forget about it through distractions and temporary indulgences.

Perhaps what makes this question so enduring in its difficulty is because many of the more philosophical answers ring as false or trite in our ears when we are in the midst of suffering and pain, especially when it’s ours. Unsurprisingly, trials and tribulations is one of the most popular topics in the scriptures because trials and tribulations refuse to become simply an abstract idea, no matter how hard our current society tries. While suffering and pain is often distributed disproportionately in our world, every human will experience some form of pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, or otherwise. This truth — that everyone must feel pain — and, more importantly, the implications of this truth and what we do with this truth forms the foundational bedrock of almost every religion, faith, and philosophy, our religious faith included.

Our Church’s early history is well acquainted with suffering. Joseph Smith’s life could be described as a continuous stream of devastating personal tragedies punctuated with the occasional spiritual triumph. Our people have experienced historical persecution, have lost lives, property, and sacred places because of this persecution. The Book of Mormon, the keystone of our religion, deals with people “whose lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). The first prophet-author Nephi, in the very first chapter, says he writes this record to “show unto [us] the tender mercies of the Lord [that] are over all those whom he hath chosen” (1 Nephi 1:20) and the final prophet-author Moroni urges the reader to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things” (Moroni 10:3), yet the contents in between these two statements seem anything but merciful. Nephi witnesses his extended family torn apart by jealousy and fear, becoming the basis of two warring nations. Moroni experiences the ultimate conclusion of this family rivalry as he sees his entire people slaughtered and he is left to eke out an existence wandering alone. Ancient scripture gives us plenty of instances where good people suffer and question out loud, culminating in God Himself being born into the world and experiencing first hand rejection and persecution and even torture and execution as the ancient Roman equivalent of a modern-day terrorist despite preaching a message of radical peace and love, an irony crowned by the ultimate irony that it was the leaders of the religion based upon Him who helped to betray Him.

It is easy for many of us born in amazing, unprecedented prosperity, comfort, and opportunity to forget that while we worship the God of Peace and the God of Love, we also worship the Abandoned God, the Forgotten God, the Rejected God, the Humiliated God, a God who experienced all of this and submitted Himself willingly to these experiences with explicit purpose to love us more fully. We believe in a God who weeps because of the hatred amongst His children. We believe in a God who cries out, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” We believe in a God who, when He appears in our own personal lives, does not come to us as a powerful person or a wealthy person but as a prisoner, as the poor, as the fatherless and the widow. We admire prophets who’ve begged the Lord to show himself, to stop hiding, to unstay his hand and listen to the cries of his people. Even “patient” Job declares (and if you actually read the Book of Job, you realize that he is anything but patient), “I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak to the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul…My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. I loathe it; I would not live always: let me alone; for my days are vanity” (Job 7:11, 15-16).

All credits to Charles Schulz.

All credits to Charles Schulz.

The most poignant, memorable, and beloved passages of scripture, both ancient and modern, are passages in which the author questions, challenges, or downright begs God for relief, for comfort, for explanations. In these passages are often revealed the frailty of humanity and its reliance on God, but also revealed is God’s unlovable hand in both mercy and justice as well as power. Even for Jesus, one of his last words in His mortal ministry was the opening line of a psalm, a hymn and prayer, “O Lord, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, see also Psalms 22:1). Even silent acts, such as the woman who reaches out in hopes of brushing her fingertips against just the edges of divinity or the woman who, without words, bathes the Savior’s feet in her tears — these images and other similar stories etch the deepest grooves in our memories and our souls.

But what does this all have to do with the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” At the end of the Book of Job, contrary to popular belief, one of Job’s friends actually does get the better of him. We usually hear the narrative with Job as the silent, eternally graceful and patient sufferer while his friends rail against him and accuse him of sin and tell him to curse God and die (only his wife says that). It is true that Eliphaz relies on simplistic, overly moralistic, “Gospel of Prosperity” heuristics to accuse Job of sin because bad things only happen to bad people. Bildad indulges in his Deistic Nihilism and the worthlessness of man. And Zophar spouts tone-deaf, Hallmark-esque, even nonsensical cliches that don’t even relate to Job’s situation at all! For those who have experienced suffering and received well-meaning advice from people, you may recognize some of these archetypes.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date. All credits to Charles Schultz.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date and prompted me to actually closely read the Book of Job, which is now my favorite Old Testament book. All credits to Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown’s baseball playing theological seminary.

But Elihu, youngest of the bunch, finally tells Job, “Look, bro. You’ve spent this entire time justifying your own righteousness in the face of adversity, but you have spent little to no time sincerely justifying the goodness of God.” Elihu ignores the question that Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job discuss ad nauseum for over 30 chapters: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Instead, he says to Job, “You asked earlier in this conversation, ‘What’s the point of righteousness if you still have bad things happen to you?’ The answer is because righteousness blesses others (see Job 35:1-8, Job 22:2-3). God cannot be unjust, He cannot pervert justice, and He cannot be a respecter of persons. And if you have faith in this God, you stay righteous to the end not because it blesses you but because it blesses others. God will make up for the rest.”

To bring it all back, Doctrine and Covenants 136:31 tells us that “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” But only three verses before, the Lord tells us, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” But “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication that your soul may be joyful” (D&C 136:28-29), mirroring that beautiful one in The Book of Mormon, “men are that they might have joy.” Even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even because of it, we must seek out joy in the kindness of others and exercise kindness ourselves and therein see the righteousness of God.

Brothers and sisters, my faith in God is not knowledge or some secret truth I hold. Rather it is a faith born out of hope and desperation. In the face of seemingly infinite sorrow, pain, and suffering, I cling to the promises of the gospel because no other philosophy, economy, ideology, or theology has worked for me — and I’ve tried to find one that does. I have no other choice. Like the Apostle Peter, if the Lord asked me if I, too, shall go like the others, I have no brilliant logical defense or proof or even experienced some majestic, divine manifestation. All I can reply with is, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) — I hope. Because I have no other options.

It is my hope that in face of adversity, whether our own or others, we ignore our instinct to justify our own righteousness but instead justify and demonstrate the righteousness of God. This is not easy. In fact, it is immensely difficult. But it is exactly what we signed up for according to our baptismal covenant, which, if it means anything to us, “commands us to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). It is my hope that in face of pain and suffering, we can pull together as a ward family and as the family of humanity to find joy in kindness from others and showing kindness to those around us.

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“Gender Is an Essential Characteristic”

“Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

— The Family: A Proclamation to the World


I remember a recent lesson in church on “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” an interesting document released by the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that outlines a fairly direct, conservative summary on current LDS doctrinal beliefs regarding the nuclear family. First released in 1995, most faithful members view it as prophetic in lieu of the many culture wars within the United States concerning how government should define marriage and family, specifically concerning those of homosexual orientation. It’s one of those documents that members rapidly reified; it’s 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.

The lesson we had on the document was fairly standard; marriage is between a man and a woman, families are essential units for society and God’s plan, there are specific gender roles concerning fathers and mothers but they should also paradoxically work as equal partners. Our Elders Quorum President is a thoughtful man and carefully outlined that those who do not find themselves fitting the “ideal” standard of the Church in terms of a monogamous, happy, nuclear family where both parents are happily active in the Church and children scamper around in the yard are very much still important to God and have a space within the Church as a whole; 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 adaption,” this interpretation came from reading between the lines.

But then this phrase caught my attention: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual, premortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Hold on, I thought. Gender? For a social scientist, it’s a very curious choice of vocabulary mostly because of how discourse on gender, sex, and sexuality have evolved within the academy in the last fifty years.

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 the three terms of sex, sexuality, and gender. To put it simply:

  • Sex is the biological makeup of your gender identity; that is, your sex speaks to the specific combination of chromosomes you have in your DNA (and don’t think it’s cut and dry, either; modern genetics have found multiple combinations beyond your 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 role you perform within the social context you live in. That is, you perform as a man or a woman. Contrary to popular belief, we do not determine what gender you are by simply looking in your pants or checking your DNA — gender is not a state of being but a continual state of doing. This is why people get uncomfortable when someone who looks like a male walks down the street in high heels and a dress; he isn’t acting the way the male gender role says he should act. If gender was simply an act of intrinsic being (that is, some essential, indivisible part of a person that you could never take away), then it wouldn’t matter what the man did because he would always remain male; but because he is acting like a woman (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, is performing like a woman).*

Usually, most students, no matter their political stances when it comes to sex, sexuality, and gender politics, can agree that these three things are quite different in nature. While some may believe that gender and sexuality should be tied to sex, the fact that these three areas exist as important distinctions within a gender identity as a whole is often understood without much doubt by the vast majority of social scientists and academics.

And this distinction is not necessarily only understood by academics. Non-academics recognize there’s a big difference between a man who has an XY chromosomal identity and acts like a “stereotypical man” and the biologically identical man who only wears women’s clothes and likes to put on makeup. However, the major problems in our society when talking about these things occur because our culture conflates all three as the same thing when, in reality, multiple variations within each category (as well as how they interact with each other) exist within the human race. All three categories — sex, sexuality, and gender — manifest themselves in a broad spectrum across populations, even in cultures where gender roles are rigidly defined like in U.S. culture.

And this is why the usage of the word “gender” in that particular phrase within the Proclamation is so interesting. Informally, gender as an essential characteristic and eternal identity is interpreted as the classic U.S culture’s man/woman gender dichotomy — that is, a heterosexual, cisgender man or woman who should have natural desires to act in the gender roles thrust upon them by society. This is the colloquial use of the word “gender” in American English. 

But what if we used the academic definition for gender — that is, a specific set of roles and expectations on “proper” ways a man or woman is supposed to behave and think about oneself that is culturally and historically specific and rarely based in any biological “truths” at all — for this one phrase? Suddenly, the meaning of this entire sentence changes radically, and — this is the part that interests me the most — so does the entire meaning of the document. Here are some possible conclusions we can extrapolate from the sentence knowing what we know about the academic definition of the word gender.


Possible Conclusion #1:

If gender is the performative role you act out within a societal context, then what is being referred to within the document as an eternal aspect of identity is not necessarily sex (male, female, or other) or sexuality (sexual partner preference) but which cultural role you want to play in life. “The Family” proscribes two basic gender roles: 

  • “By divine design, 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.”
  • And then of course, “The Family” adds in the paradoxical disclaimer, “In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

The binary of father/mother can then be redefined as provider/nurturer. Both are important aspects of parenting; one could argue that you need one of each in order to have the ideal, well-rounded parenting set. If gender, being culturally constructed and socially situated, is actually eternal, then one interpretation of the phrase could argue that, disconnected from sex and sexuality, a person’s preference for either providing or nurturing is innate and that parents, regardless of sex or sexuality, should negotiate whether they compliment each other in skills and personality. Therefore, the role of father and the role of mother are not connected to the chromosomes within your DNA or the genatilia you carry on your body but your personality/preference. Do you feel you are innately more of a nurturer? Then perhaps you should adopt the ‘mother’ role in your spousal partnership with children, or at least have nurturer as your default mode. If you feel more innately as a provider instead, then perhaps you should adopt the ‘father’ role in your spousal partnership and seek out a nurturer personality for a partner.

Even the paradoxical “separate gender roles but equal partners” statement makes sense in that while we would maybe prefer to specialize in our parental duties, life and its messy situations it throws at you necessitates flexibility in playing those roles — you may feel that you are innately more of a provider than a nurturer, but life may require you to play that role in support of the more innately nurturing spouse; Mormon doctrinal stances on gender, fatherhood, and motherhood, then, are not stances concerning biological, physical attributes, but actually on parenting techniques. This would certainly reflect reality: the role you play in a family is much more flexible (and thus, more able to achieve some kind of equity or parity to its counter-part in a spousal relationship) than your actual chromosomal make-up.


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” and not sex or sexuality, 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 genitilia present (such as the case for intersex children) or with a spirit that wants to perform as a nurturer but was born into a man’s body (which is only unfortunate if the person is born within this contemporary timeframe or some other that unflinchingly and uncompromisingly connects gender with sex). 

Rather than causing all kinds of nasty gender anxiety as it does now with many Americans, Mormons could (invoking the Gender Clause of “The Family”) claim that such mistakes are a result of living in a fallen world and that the person still retains a personality and personal preference towards one performative role or another in society, and that 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.

Transgender individuals, then, also lose much of the anxiety they would normally cause for a cisgender American; there is nothing inherently weird about it at all (potentially) for the Mormon, or at least any more weird than a baby born with a cleft lip or someone with a missing limb. In an eternal perspective, the person may have felt like they were born into the wrong body because their personality, their personal preference for which gender role they feel they want to — no, need to — play in this life, is eternal and remains unaltered despite less-than-ideal physical embodiment. Transgender surgery, then, is no more intrusive on a person’s “eternal identity” than a person who receives eye surgery to correct a physical blindness caused by a mishap in genetic material exchange. And while we do teach that our spiritual personage resembles our physical personage, we would certainly not then suggest that a child born with a cleft lip or missing limbs also was created spiritually with a cleft lip or missing limb and retain those qualities when they are 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 recompense and correction in the end just like anyone else born with a less than ideal physical body (which is, realistically, 100% of us). And just as how we would not suggest a child grow up with a cleft lip forever despite having medical and surgical knowledge to change it because it is “God’s will,” it would then seem unreasonable to deny medical and surgical practices to those who feel they do not belong in the body assigned to them when so many of those who do not receive some kind of physical alteration to soothe their psychic pain and disconnect often struggle with severe depression and many eventually end their life with suicide. In addition to higher suicide rates and depression rates, the statistics on violence perpetuated on transgender individuals in our society is downright horrific and something which I am sure God weeps over every day.

 At the very least, banning such surgeries would then lead to some very uncomfortable theological disconnects, concerning the widespread use of elective plastic surgery within the state of Utah (and its high percentage of use amongst Utah Mormon citizens).


Possible Conclusion #3: 

In regards to homosexual marriage, if we build upon the results of Possible Conclusion #1 (that the concepts of fatherhood, motherhood, and gender are not tied directly to the — very imperfect– physical body we receive in this life), then we could assume that homosexual partners who wish to adopt children could perform a more than adequate atmosphere for raising children as long as they adhere to the principles of righteousness as outlined in “The Family” and that a nurturer-identifying individual and a provider-identifying individual are present. “Children are an heritage to the Lord,” the document quotes from Psalms in its text. That is, children ultimately belong to the Lord, thus the “solemn responsibility” to love and care for children and to raise them within the gospel.

Building on this idea of children being an heritage to the Lord, one member in our class shared a story of how he received what he felt was a distinct revelation from the Lord reminding him that his children, even though they are biological children, were not really his children but children belonging to God; that his role as a parent was to raise the children righteously, children he has received as a loan from the Lord. In the end, he would be accountable for how he treated God’s children; did he treat them with love and respect and care, or did he mistreat them or abuse them or neglect them? The Church outlines in “The Family” how those who do abuse God’s children will find themselves under the strictest condemnation, regardless of sexuality, sex, or gender.

We already know that some heterosexual couples (again, often through biological quirks as discussed in Possible Conclusion #2) cannot physically bear children of their own. In such a case, the Church happily advocates adoption as a possibility for these couples to raise children who are in desperate need for strong family environments. In such a case, the parents are not under any condemnation from the Lord for their inability to have children, something outside of biological control. Nor will the Lord penalize children who live good Christian lives in terms of salvation because they received their guidance from non-biological parents. Thus, again, if we look at concepts such as fatherhood and motherhood in relation to gender as both (a) a cultural role one performs having no causal relation with sex or sexuality and (b) an essential characteristic (unlike sex or sexuality), then homosexual parenting does not seem terribly out of the question. 

Many members argue against homosexual marriage but insist they are not bigots because the Church does not condemn homosexuals as people but the act of homosexuality on terms of “nature” or “practicality”: that the two different but complementary gender roles are not present in a homosexual relationship (based on the assumption that role is connected to biological sex somehow) and that a homosexual couple cannot naturally have children (despite the fact that many heterosexuals also cannot naturally have children). 

In other words, it’s not homosexuality versus heterosexuality as a sexuality identity (because celibate homosexuals can be members in good standing in the Church) but rather homosexuality versus heterosexuality as procreative/parenting act. The Church insists from its members committed, monogamous, loving, loyal relationships built on trust, charity, and a shared faith in Christ for the purpose of raising children, and that those who do not have a chance in this life to raise a family (which are many, both homosexual and heterosexual members) are expected to still live good Christian lives and seek out ways to nurture and raise children outside of the traditional biological family sphere. 

If such is the case, then could we not argue that homosexual couples, despite their biological inability to have children (just like heterosexual couples who are barren and currently in Church doctrinal teachings without sin for their barren state) could make a welcome addition to the equally strong, committed heterosexual parents already struggling valiantly to raise children in a sinful, fallen world? After all, we know that just heterosexuality on its own is not a good predictor for faithful and effective parents (as evidenced by reality TV shows like Sixteen and Pregnant or the mind-boggling number of cases where parents abuse their own biological children in horrific ways). “The Family” insists that it is roles, not biology, that makes good parents. In fact, curiously enough, biology is never mentioned at all!


Some Final Thoughts

Now, I am not necessarily saying that we should interpret “The Family” in this way or that it is the true interpretation (because I am a dirty post-modern intellectual — what does true even mean anyway?). And I most certainly am not advocating that this was the original interpretation as written by the authors. What I am saying is that this is one possible interpretation that could re-position “The Family” as an advocate of homosexual marriage, homosexual parents, fair treatment of transgender peoples, encouragement for thoughtful transgender surgery, and many, many other stances that the Church is currently vehemently against without even so much as moving a single punctuation mark. We would not be compromising any core values because heterosexual or otherwise, we expect all people to keep the commandments, love one another, live in committed, faithful, monogamous 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.” We assert as a Church that all people can and should live by these principles regardless of sex, sexuality, and gender. 

All you would have to do is blink and immediately “The Family” changes from a document that reifies 1950s United States views on sex, sexuality, and gender to an incredibly progressive document that emphasizes the importance of the fact that what you do in your life is of significantly more eternal importance than what you are born into (which kind of the secondary message of the Gospel). In fact, if one reads “The Family” in this way, some strange paradoxes (such as the idea that fathers and mothers are equal partners yet separated because of supposed difficult-to-change-in-this-life biological differences despite many people feeling quite the opposite) are resolved very neatly. I would even argue it becomes a stronger document in terms of internal logic.

To me, what fascinates me so with this reading is not so much that you could possibly read “The Family” in this way but rather how easily one could read it in this way (and how it 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 fact that people need bodies to enter this world and continue to progress soteriologically. The only things stressed in this document is the term gender and the (eternal) roles associated with gender. This document can (whether by intentional or accidental or — dare I say? — even inspired design) pivot completely without changing anything in the text at all. 

Because the truth of the matter is, at this very historical moment, our current “modern sensibilities” require us to twist the text and read in-between the lines in order to make sense of the document (or, at the very least, do so without feeling like we just teleported back into the incredibly sexist 1950s). During that lesson on Sunday, we as a quorum had to perform all kinds of mental gymnastics to assert important gender roles (connected to sex) without insisting that we were sexist or were supposed to just tell our wives what to do or make our wives do all of the housework because God said so. To interpret “The Family” right now causes no small amount of angst, cognitive dissonance, and mental anguish for members who want to be both faithful but fair, who have felt the incredible healing power of the Atonement in their lives but also feel that a woman who wants to have a career and a father who wants to stay at home and raise his children are not aberrations of nature or divine design. 

Almost all of that cognitive dissonance disappears if we use this alternate reading instead. There is no twisting of the text, reading in-between the lines, or tortured interpretation that requires reading paragraphs out of order or completely ignoring some aspects of the text in favor of others (like many members currently do now). By simply using the current academic use of the term “gender” (rather than the more colloquial, U.S.-centric use of the word gender as interchangeable with sex or sexuality) the context and conclusions that follow from the rest of the text dramatically change. Suddenly, instead of a document issued forth by prophets playing defense for old cultural values, it becomes a document of incredible prophetic import; forward thinking and revelational in regards to 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 others; extending the still outstretched hand of Jehovah’s love and mercy to groups historically marginalized, persecuted, hunted down for torture and murder, and denied fellowship and communion with the body of Christ simply because of biological differences. 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 selves but still participate in a Church which they feel in their heart to be true but which currently does not want them to worship as equal partners before the altar of an all-mighty, all-understanding, and all-loving God. 

Certainly, at the very least, this reading opens up some very, very interesting new possibilities for the Church’s future (though the fact that this possible reading exists does not act as a predictor that it is the direction the Church will head).

And at the very, very, very least, it’s certainly an interesting thought to ruminate on.


* Perhaps a quick example will help illustrate this triple-component understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender. I am biologically a male because I have the XY chromosome combination in my DNA. I am in terms of sexuality heterosexual because I am attracted to female humans. I am gender-wise a man, because I perform as a man. I wear men’s clothes, I use the men’s bathroom facilities, and I am expected to be the head of my household, the primary breadwinner, good at sports, in control of my emotions at all times, bad at asking for directions, clumsy or incompetent when it comes to housework, constantly wishing I had a powerful and fast car, and good at math, science, and business but think poetry and Pride and Prejudice is boring. Interestingly enough, most of those gender roles do not accurately describe me at all.


by | January 20, 2014 · 11:22 am

Practice of Meditation

My friend Jill recently starting asking me questions about Zen Buddhism, which has stoked my curiosity once more. I’ve been wondering what to do with this blog for quite some time now; I guess posting various stuff about things from Buddhism for the time being isn’t a bad use of the digital space here.

This excerpt is titled “Practice of Meditation” in Teachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded Edition edited by Jack Kornfield (Shambhala Press, pp. 150-152). The excerpt is from Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, translated by Senzaki and McCandless.

I have a huge man crush on Dogen, and I have always loved his very to-the-point sensible writing style when it comes to talking about meditating technique. In the West, we have a tendency to fetishize the practice of meditation; Dogen’s simple explanation punctures that fantasy and replaces it with something very mundane, but very real. As he writes, “The practice of meditation is not a method for the attainment of realization — it is enlightenment itself.” Now go meditate.

Truth is perfect and complete in itself. It is not something newly discovered; it has always existed. Truth is not far away; it is ever present. It is not something to be attained since not one of your steps lead away from it.

Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself. Your body and mind will become clear and you will realize the unity of all things.

The slightest movement of your dualistic thought will prevent you from entering the palace of meditation and wisdom.

The Buddha meditated for six years, Bodhidharma for nine. The practice of meditation is not a method for the attainment of realization — it is enlightenment itself.

Your search among books, word upon word, may lead you to the depths of knowledge, but it is not the way to receive the reflection of your true self.

When you have thrown off your ideas as to mind and body, the original truth will fully appear. Zen is simply the expression of truth; therefore longing and striving are not the true attitudes of Zen.

To actualize the blessedness of meditation you should practice with pure intention and firm dedication. Your meditation room should be clean and quiet. Do not dwell in thoughts of good and bad. Just relax and forget that you are meditating. Do not desire realization since that thought will keep you confused.

Sit on a cushion in a manner as comfortable as possible, wearing loose clothing. Hold your body straight without leaning to the left or the right, forward or backward. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders, and your nose in a straight line with your navel. Keep your tongue at the roof of your mouth and close your lips. Keep your eyes slightly open, and breathe through your nostrils.

Before you begin meditation take several slow, deep breaths. Hold your body erect, allowing your breathing to become normal again. Many thoughts will crowd into your mind, ignore them, letting them go. If they persist be aware of them with the awareness which does not think. In other words, think non-thinking.

Zen meditation is not physical culture, nor is it a method to gain something material. It is peacefulness and blessedness itself. It is the actualization of truth and wisdom.

In your meditation you yourself are the mirror reflecting the solution of your problems. The human mind has absolute freedom within its true nature. You can attain your freedom intuitively. Do not work for freedom, rather allow the practice itself to be liberation.

When you wish to rest, move your body slowly and stand up quietly. Practice this meditation in the morning or in the evening, or at any leisure time during the day. You will soon realize that your mental burdens are dropping away one by one, and that you are gaining an intuitive power hitherto unnoticed.

There are thousands upon thousands of students who have practiced meditation and obtained its fruits. Do not doubt its possibilities because of the simplicity of the method. If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?

Life is short and no one knows what the next moment will bring. Open your mind while you have the opportunity, thereby gaining the treasures of wisdom, which in turn you can share abundantly with others, bringing them happiness.

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Zen and the Art of Slicing Virtual Fruit

I recently got the Fruit Ninja app a million years after it came out because it was free in the app store because I am a cheapskate like that. My toddler son, of course, quickly discovered this new game and wanted to play with me, so we sat, him in my lap, the iPad in his lap, slicing fruit.

He opened up a new game in Zen Mode, which is, I guess, just a bunch of fruit falling down that you have to slice for a while (which is, in a nutshell, every game mode in Fruit Ninja). However, my son decided to take this Zen Mode and turn it into legitimate, infuriating Zen practice. Every time I would try to slice a fruit, successful or not in my attempt, my son would quietly pause the game, and restart it. Over and over, he did this, and I found myself inexplicably frustrated beyond proportion. Why would my son not allow me to just cut the stupid fruit as it popped up on the screen?

And then I realized, how appropriate for a “Zen Mode” game. Every time I gave into my impulses (impulses conditioned over decades of gaming) to cut the fruit, to mindlessly perform an action without any real cause, reason, or understanding, my son would start the game over. “Again!” I could hear him say in an uncharacteristically gruff voice, forcing me to sit in meditation, watching the fruit fall, resisting the monkey mind to act and simply let the fruit fall.

If you have Fruit Ninja on your electronic whatchamacallit thingy device, I suggest trying this. Set your device on a stand, where you can see it clearly while seated in (half-)lotus position. Open Zen Mode. Let the fruit simply fall. Refuse to take action. Resist your monkey mind. If you are as restless and deluded as me, you will find this non-activity immensely and disproportionately difficult.

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The ethics of writing

While talking about the ethics of representation with a professor of mine, he asked me, “Look, let’s say you get drunk and then decide to drive home. You know you’re not supposed to do it, but you do, and on the way, you fall asleep behind the wheel and crash into a tree.

“You’ll get out of the tree, say, ‘Oh my God, thank goodness it’s just a tree,’ and feel relieved. You’ll have to pay a fine, maybe get a DUI, and you’ll have to pay for repairs, but in ten years, it will probably be a funny story you tell in ten years.

“But let’s say instead of hitting a tree, you hit a person. Suddenly, you feel a whole lot worse and you won’t be telling it as a funny story.

“So the question is, what are you basing your reaction on? The ethics of the action or the ethics of the consequence? Because in both cases, you did the same thing — you got drunk and lost control of your body while driving. But the consequences are very different and out of your control.”

This made me pause. In our culture, we like to think we judge people on the ethics of the action, regardless of consequences. You should not avoid stealing because you might get caught, but because the action of stealing itself is unethical. However, in the two cases of hypothetical drunk driving, our reactions are drastically different (either as the actor or the viewer) because of the consequences, despite the initial action being identical.

Anthropology is obsessed with ethics, mostly because what we do (learning about and then representing people) can have widespread and powerful effects. Anthropology has helped bring awareness to the plight of those who are brutally oppressed by powerful structures and figures, but also used to justify those same powerful structures and figures (such as European colonialism or racism). Therefore, we take our ethics very seriously. We try to do as little harm and as much good as possible.

But, as my professor noted, the consequences of our actions are usually completely out of our control. I may take painstaking action to act as ethically as possible while performing fieldwork and writing an ethnography, which someone may then use for less-than-ethical, even maliciously diabolical purposes. What can I do? Was the decision I made to write that ethnography unethical because of the consequences? Or am I absolved of fault because my own action was motivated and carried out with ethical precision (if that’s even possible)?

Of course, ethics is much messier than this, which is why I seem to be grappling with a constant headache these days. Since I’ve especially decided to start pushing myself, challenging my traditional, pre-conceived notions of what a “proper” ethnography is supposed to look like, my advisors and mentors just shrug and say, “We can’t tell you how to do anything anymore. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.” But, by the way, what you do or not do can have widespread, powerful effects for good or for evil on the people you study, or maybe even some other group you didn’t even think about. No pressure. Don’t inadvertently start a genocide. It’ll make our school look bad and funding might be harder to come by in the future.

In the end, you do what you can, and you try the best you can. Nobody imagined, especially J.D. Salinger himself, that Mark David Chapman would use The Catcher in the Rye as his “statement” after killing John Lennon. And surely, we won’t hold J.D. Salinger culpable or complicit in the tragedy. But at the same time, how do you grapple with it? If Roland Barthes is right, every time you write something, a little part of your commits suicide. No wonder so many writers decide to eventually finish the job their writing started. Ethics, writing, and representation is a dirty, messy business. 

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Emotional hostage

There are those times when, as a father and as a man, you need to grit your teeth and do the right thing. I was faced with that decision tonight. So I gritted my teeth, picked up my bag, and told my wife that I couldn’t handle my son’s cries, and I was going to take a walk. She smiled, gave me a kiss, and told me to have fun.

So here I am now, huddled in the Barnes and Noble down the street, hiding from my son’s current meltdown.

Perhaps, this is not one of my finest moments.

You see, my son has taken me emotionally hostage. It all started a week or two ago during our morning commute. While driving my wife to work, I heard a sound that freezes any parent’s blood. I heard my son choking. Loud gagging sounds struck me from behind like a club to the back of the head. I panicked. “What is he choking on?!” I asked my wife. She glanced to the side out of the corner of her eye.

“He’s just choking himself for attention. It’s no big deal.”


Sure enough, ever since then, whenever he wants attention, my son stuffs his hand into his mouth and starts gagging. Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned to filter out most of his sounds. I learned to ignore most non-essential crying (to save my sanity) within the first six months. I especially learned to tune out whining — that high-pitched, carefully rehearsed screech when I won’t let him climb into the toilet. I was Tough Dad, impervious to his attempts to break me. My wife, still full of that crazy hormone cocktail that makes mothers fall in love with their babies on first sight, suggested that we give in just a little, just to make him happy. I didn’t. I stood strong.

But my son knows that despite my Tough Dad exterior, I love him fiercely. He knows I would fight rabid dogs hand-to-paw for him. I would kill hordes of Nazis to save him. And so, he knew that the only way to get my attention is to make himself sound like he’s in danger, to activate my father instincts.

Thus, the choking.

My wife, on the other hand, now mostly pregnancy/labor hormone free, knows the game. Raising four siblings from infancy does that, I guess. She assures me there is nothing wrong. He simply has found my weakpoint and now he is exploiting it. Hard.

And so here I am, tonight, hiding. We had put him to bed and despite being tired, he didn’t want to sleep. So the minute we close the door, the gagging sounds begin, drowning out the sound of my breaking heart.

My wife shakes her head when she sees me start to bend. “He is in no danger,” she tells me again. “It is all just an act.”

Then the crying shifts. It’s not the usual whining, I’m-tired crying, or the very forced, carefully calculated fake-crying. It is howling, a primal scream that he only makes when he’s hurt. My blood pressure is spiking. My wife is nonplussed, playing Disgea on her Nintendo DS with headphones over her ears.

I am in agony. The timer goes off. My wife goes in to check on our son. The crying immediately stops when she walks in. But after singing a lullaby and walking out, the choking and screaming starts all over again.

“He’s not –?”

“He is not in any pain or any danger. I checked. No fever, no illness. He’s faking everything,” my wife reports.

I am sitting on the couch, alternating between covering my ears and putting my head between my knees. My son continues to scream his I’m-hurt-please-cry. My stomach is in knots.

You spend your entire life after your child is born looking for those signs of humanity. Not just life — the crying and pooping that indicates he’s still alive. You start looking for those markers that say “I am human!” The first time your child laughs or genuinely smiles is magical. When your child experiences his first thunderstorm and he clings to you, your heart melts. And when you first betray your child during his vaccinations and he stares at you, begging for an answer as to why you let these shots happen, it demolishes you.

But deception — it is amazing how quickly a child exhibits deception. And, when your child first hides something from you (say, a piece of paper he wants to eat) because he knows he is not supposed to have it, it deeply disturbs you. For what could possibly be more human than trying to deceive another human being?

His cries are reaching a fever pitch, something almost alien. It is not real, and yet it sounds real and it most definitely feels real. His level of acting is devastating. My son, who can barely put together sounds to make rudimentary words already knows how to lie to his father. As I try to block the horrible sounds out, I remember The Vaccination Incident. We are even, I think through gritted teeth. I don’t feel bad about that anymore.

“I can’t take this,” I say. My wife laughs, my dear wife, my Tough Mom of a wife. “I’m going for a walk,” I inform her.

She gives me a kiss goodbye. “Have fun,” she says as I walk out the door, my tail tucked between my legs, my Tough Dad costume torn to shreds on my son’s bedroom floor.


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