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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