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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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“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.

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* 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.

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by | January 20, 2014 · 11:22 am

Good relationships, bad relationships, no relationships

A friend clued me into this inspiring video about being alone:

It’s a beautiful poem about how to be alone, to live in solitude and with one’s thoughts. I won’t attempt to paraphrase it anymore than that, because it would do a disservice to the poetry of the author, so we’ll move on from here. My friend who had this video in her YouTube favorites is, for all intents and purposes, defined “alone” by her community — she’s a single Mormon in her twenty-somethings. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. She’s not actively looking for one. Yet, despite all of these “hurdles” (at least, as seen by the orthodox Mormon community), she has an incredibly enriching life. She’s surrounded by friends, goes to dance classes twice a week, is constantly starting some new project, and when she’s not doing that, she’s baking tarts or tending to her patio garden. She has turned a word that society often deems ugly — “alone” — and turned it into a flourishing art.

When I watched this video, I immediately thought, I know so many single Mormon friends who could benefit from this inspiring message. For whatever reasons, there will be times in our lives when we will find ourselves alone for a period of time, despite the best of our intentions, actions, and abilities. In such a time, we must learn to flourish. This video is a testament to that.

But then my next immediate thought was, No. This would never be spoken over the pulpit at a singles ward.

It is no secret that there is severe pressure in the Church to get married. We have organized hundreds of congregations dedicated to getting you married. We teach very explicitly that in order to live in God’s presence, you must be married. [1] If you don’t have a “chance” to get married in this life, you will in the next life, but there’s a caveat — you must have done your absolute very best, and, most members I would venture to guess would initially think that if you’re not married, you must not be trying your very best, because, if you were, you’d be married already.

My wife and I discussed this one night over dinner, about how the Church culture tends to promote the idea that, when faced with the absence of a good relationship, a bad (Mormon) relationship is better than no relationship. My wife’s childhood friends are all married — and getting divorced. Not one, not two, not even three, but quite a few of her friends have already divorced their first spouses (some twice now), and my wife is only 24. My childhood friends, on the other hand, are mostly single. Of my close childhood friends, I can count on my hand maybe four or five that have tied the knot, and many of them are not Mormon. Raised in secular liberal Western Washington, I had always been under the impression from my friends that we all agreed that no relationship is better than a bad relationship.

Now, this is no real, reliable data point by any means [2] — there’s a lot of different factors in play here. Socioeconomic factors, for example, definitely come into play. But culturally speaking, one cannot spend any significant amount of time down in the Utah singles wards’ trenches and not come to the conclusion that people want to get married (some desperately). [3]

I feel there are two factors that might drive this idea that a bad relationship is better than no relationship at all. One, of course, is the immense pressure (already mentioned) that our Church pushes on marriage. There is no equivocation in this matter. And this lack of flexibility, when it comes to this position, contributes to the second factor that really brings the situation to it’s flash point (so to speak) — the lack of an alternative, equally noble lifestyle that involves being single.

Let me explain with a comparison. The Catholic Church also stresses the importance of marriage. It is a doctrine that is also a sacrament. It must be officiated by the official priesthood in order for it to be a valid, “Catholic” marriage. They teach that under no circumstances should you have sex before you’re married, nor is cohabitation okay, and that children are incredibly important to the purpose of family.

However, there is one point of deviation in the Catholic culture from us, and that is the monastic life.

Now, I’m not saying that every single Catholic is a nun or a monk, but it does provide them with great role models to look up to. The Catholic history is replete with faithful men and women who were single, but went about doing tremendous good, living a Christ-centered, fulfilling, service-oriented life. These heroes and examples are often saints, and so fully endorsed and promoted by the Church. They live lives of solitude and contemplation, of study and prayer, and of service and action. If a Catholic, for whatever reason in life, finds his or herself single, the Church still can provide the blueprint of an exemplar life to live.

We have no such relief valve. We quarantine singles into specific wards like zombies, and the only way you can get out is get married or just graduate and head back to the family ward at the age of 30, still single. We have even taken single men to task in our General Conferences, saying that if they are not married, it must be their fault. And, of course, there is the famous psuedo-quote by Brigham Young that after a certain age, a single man is a “menace to society.” Meanwhile, single women are “sweet spirits,” people who are, insultingly enough, really good, nice, sweet, demure girls, but (let’s face it) not cute enough to attract the attention of a young man. On top of that, unlike the Catholic Church, we have no alternative single life track that we can point to, saying, this is an equally valid and spiritually accepted life path, a path that says, “You can be single and still center your life around Christ, serve the community around you, and contribute in a meaningful way that matches and can even at times surpass the value of a married couple or family.”

These two factors, (1) the conflation of single status with outright sin or rebellion, [4] and (2) no alternative, healthy examples to point for single people to emulate, not only lead to people making rash relationship decisions, but also lead to alienation of an entire, needful, and necessary demographic, and we are losing them in droves. This isn’t to say that you cannot be productive and single and Mormon at the same time — I have plenty of friends who are. However, the Church does not provide much support or blueprinting outside of vague maxims and platitudes, and can sometimes send incredibly mixed signals regarding our attitudes towards being single. We could do better in providing support for these cherished children of our God, and I would suspect that if we did, people who have drifted away from the Church would have more reason to come back. For all intents and purposes, one could argue that from a sociological standpoint, single people are regarded as a minority group and have second-class status in our Church.

The Brethren recognize this and so widespread structural and administrative changes are coming for the singles program. But as far as their initial efforts show (such as shuffling student wards into singles wards in Utah stakes), I don’t think we’re going to see any alleviation for some of these deep-rooted cultural problems that are pushing our single people away in an incredibly un-Christlike manner.

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[1] The general teachings of marriage as a way to understand God are relatively recent and modern. We often teach that because God is married and is a parent (and we are His kids), then we need to get married and have kids in order to understand who God truly is. However, even this argument runs into serious complications. There are married couples who cannot have biological children. And, yes, some people just do not find the right match in order to undertake such a serious commitment as marriage and child-rearing. We are told that this is no problem because they can have all of those opportunities in the next life (like baptisms for the dead), and we even acknowledge the lack of ability for some people in this life, but stress that (like baptism), you should accept it in this life. However, marriage and baptism is not a very good comparison. In a recent sealing I attended, the sealer made mention that the sealing is the only priesthood ordinance that requires two willing souls — all others require only one. This complicates the issue even further, because you’re not just dealing with one person’s agency, but two. And if you’re not allowed to compromise any person’s agency, it will be twice as difficult to coax people to the altar than even to the baptismal font!

[2] There is a dearth of Mormon sociological data, and that dearth is now being addressed, but such volumes are outside of my price range at this point in time. If any can produce concrete numbers that add to the discussion, I would be glad to receive them.

[3] This phenomenon tends to only happen in areas where Mormon communities are sufficient enough in population to warrant a type of majority status. In areas where Mormon communities are small and not many single people live there, the idea that “no relationship is better than a bad relationship” is more prevalent. Whether the idea that “no relationship is better than a bad Mormon relationship” idea still exists from ward to ward or stake to stake would most likely depend on “outside” forces, such as socioeconomic status, etc.

[4] The single status truly has been relegated to a “sin,” or at the very least, an outright rebellious, even apostate, attitude in life, especially after some of the scathing remarks by the prophet for young men to get their acts into order and get married already. No doubt that when I bring this up, some people may accuse me of trying to justify the single lifestyle, to which I would retort that I am indeed. Since when did being single, a circumstance in life often times out of our control even if only partially, become a sin? We believe in the Word of Wisdom and the unction to be as healthy as possible. Should we start regarding Adult Onset Type II Diabetes as sin? And even in this comparison, I am referring to single status life as a disease or condition. Yeesh, this socialization is difficult to escape.

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Illness, reading time, writing groups

Before I left for a trip to Utah to see my friend Adam get married (grats on the achievement), David and I started a writing group using all kinds of Google tools. However, at the time I also grappled with finals, preparing for the trip, and the fact that I had to re-install Vista on my laptop, which meant that most of the files were tucked securely on my friend’s external hard drive – including all of the stuff I’ve written.

However, I’ve now come back and have fallen ill with something (not sure – flu maybe?). This gives me plenty of time to read, right?

Yes and no. My biggest problem is that I’m not used to reading long text on the computer. Reading on the computer tends to prep me psychologically for short snippets of info, usually via Twitter or blogs. If I need to prepare myself for long term, serious reading, I need to hold in my hands ink spilled onto pressed tree guts. It’s just how I am.

Unfortunately, the printer we have is inkjet, which is both slow and expensive. Maybe James will allow me to use up his relatively inexpensive toner. Hmmm.

Is anybody else like this? Do you need to psychologically prep yourself with some kind of ritual before different types of reading? And now the wifey has come home with bottles of wine from work (she works at a wine importer) so now I must learn about her craft (inventory and internal auditing?).

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