Gender, Mormonism, and Transsexuality

The declaration that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” is presumably attempted to rebut the second-wave feminist articulation of the sex/gender dichotomy which sees sex as natural and gender as culturally/socially constructed, and therefore malleable. While it is perhaps unclear that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is theoretically sophisticated enough to be aware of the sex/gender distinction that emerged in the 1970’s starting with the work of Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (1970), it is nevertheless situated in a historical moment in which these terms escape easy definition. Indeed, the definition of such terms is in fact the most contested element of feminist theory, and the failure to articulate any precise definition opens the text up to multiple interpretations.

Millett introduces the sex/gender distinction via the interpretive tradition that developed in the 1950’s and 60’s in the medical and psychological study of transsexuality. Robert Stoller, John Money, and others attempted to give articulation to the phenomenon of transsexuality by noting a gap between actual “sex” and perceived “gender.” Interestingly, in this articulation, these thinkers see “gender” as the fixed, durable element of human identity and “sex” as that which can be changed. The beginnings of transsexual surgeries are based on this theoretical model.

For this reason, there is some irony with the Church’s statement that “gender is eternal” as a rebuttal of Millet’s theoretical revolution in feminist thought. Millet’s misappropriation of the way that the sex/gender distinction was being used in transsexuality reversed the assumption that gender was durable and sex was changeable, or at least more easily changeable than gender. In the Church’s rebuttal of Millet, it implicitly sides with and recovers the transsexual’s conception of “gender,” without explaining why mortal “sex” should also be imagined as eternally fixed.

Indeed, LDS theology can account for transsexuality and the self-description that one feels to be a “male soul trapped in a female body,” or vice versa. Given LDS theological anthropology which conceives of the soul as gendered in some essential way, the misalignment with a particular body is not outside of the realm of possibility (though some GA’s have sought to shore-up this loophole). In the same way that other birth “defects” may be seen as temporal and imperfect representation of the soul, for the transsexual, the biological sex itself is seen as in the very same class of accidental defects which would be restored and corrected in the resurrection. The durability of the soul despite the changeability of the body is a persistent theme in the LDS theological imagination.

The theoretical tension between transsexuality and feminism has been the subject of recent rethinking, most importantly in Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender. Such a tension remains unresolved in the political activism of both groups, despite the philosophical problematization of both versions of a fixed gender or a fixed sex over the last 15 years or so.

The church’s intervention into this debate, whether unwittingly or not, however, takes the side of (earlier) versions of transsexuality. The theological implications of this have been decried by feminists, but at the expense of transsexual (and queer) political and theological agendas. This unfortunate tension fails to see the political and theoretical/theological possibilities that the church’s statement contains.

39 Replies to “Gender, Mormonism, and Transsexuality”

  1. Fascinating stuff, TT. Your contextualization of the discourse surrounding gender and sex is quite helpful in situating the church’s position, but also (as you state) in opening up the theoretical/theological possibilities it contains.

  2. The problem I have with the possibility you raise of a misalignment between body and spirit is that unlike in the case of birth defects, you are talking about the God-directed side of things rather than the natural laws side of things. Birth defects happen because the transmission of DNA is not perfect, mothers are exposed to harmful substances/diseases or deprived of nutrients, and so forth. God is the ultimate author of that system, but seems generally to keep his hands off the clockwork. However, I find it hard to conceive of there being a way for cock-ups to happen in the assignment of a certain spirit to a certain body. When the body itself is abnormal, sure (then there might not be a clear “right” gender of spirit), but when people are claiming that their physically normal body is inhabited by the wrong flavor of spirit, I just don’t see it.

    But more on your topic, I am quite sure that in the process of crafting the proclamation there was someone involved who was fully aware of the scholarly discourses you refer to. Too much brain power involved in these circles to think otherwise.

  3. I think that statement gender’s being eternal was a reflection of President Kimball’s emphatic position that God did not put male spirits in female bodies and vice versa, that there was no “third sex.” I think this was part of his world view that while God might allow for other types of biological “defects”, God would not allow that sort of gender error and, in particular, God would not allow for biological causation of same sex orientation that could not be reversed by self-discipline. “Those who would claim that the homosexual is a third sex and that there is nothing wrong in such associations can hardly believe in God or in his scriptures. If God did not exist, such an unnatural and improper practice might be viewed differently, but one could never justify it while accepting the holy scriptures.” Miracle of Forgiveness at 77.

    Early on in his administration, President Kimball also condemned emphatically transsexual surgery, announcing that it would result in excommunication (I think without possibility of reinstatement). I think this was also based on the same world view.

    The Church has backed off from President Kimball’s inflexible position on transsexual surgery, and also from his position regarding the mutability of same sex orientation.

    Unlike President Kimball’s earlier position, the Proclamation on the Family takes no position about sexual orientation, nor, as TT points out, does it deny that spirit and physical sex/gender may be misaligned.

  4. DavidH,
    Thanks for bringing this into the discussion. I am not sure, however, that Kimball’s statement about homosexuality refers to transsexuality in any way, at least not without further evidence. I think that the confusion of the transsexual and the homosexual is certainly possible, though shockingly ignorant even in 1969. (Interestingly, the term “gender confusion” to describe homosexuality appeared in the 2008 “Divine Institution of Marriage,” reflecting a persistent conflation of misunderstanding of these separate phenomena).
    To my knowledge, “elective” transsexual operations are still grounds for excommunication, though the ambiguity around the term “elective” is grounds for some slipperiness. Further, there is no ban on other transsexual changes short of operations, such as cross-dressing and hormone therapy.

  5. I just checked the handbook of Instructions. I could not find a reference to transexuals in it. I might have missed it. I am not sure if they are excommunicated or not.

  6. I see it on page 113 under the title. When a Church Disciplinary Council may be necessary. Seems like wiggle room to me. Similar to Abortion

  7. TT,

    I agree that President Kimball’s quote in Miracle of Forgiveness does not directly refer to transexuality. By condemning the theory that gays and lesbians are a “third sex” (I am not sure whose theories he was referring to), he was, in my mind, stating that God only made men to be attracted to women, and women to be attracted to me, and there was nothing else, biologically speaking. That God would not make an error, or allow an error biologically to be made so as that a human would be sexually oriented to his or her own sex.

    That “black and white” thinking about biological sexuality I believe also lay behind President Kimball’s early opposition to transexual surgery (which I heard him express while I was in the MTC in 1973). The official printing of his comment reads as follows: “Then we’re appalled to find an ever-increasing number of women who want to be sexually men and many young men who wish to be sexually women. What a travesty! I tell you that, as surely as they live, such people will regret having made overtures toward the changing of their sex. Do they know better than God what is right and best for them?”

    Again, the theory, to my mind, is that God does not make mistakes or allow biological mistakes of gender/sex assignment to be made.

    Of course, the handbook’s current distinction between “elective” and “non-elective” sexual reassignment surgery indicates that God has inspired the Brethren to understand that it may not be as black and white as President Kimball seemed to imply.

  8. Thanks DavidH,
    By doing a quick google search, it appears that the notion of a “third sex” to understand the (male) homosexual was in fact current by the time that Kimball was writing, from Willy’s 1929 book, The Third Sex, which described Parisian and German gay culture. (The term today is used in anthropological literature quite differently to refer to those who are otherwise gendered).

    While I don’t doubt that GA’s including Kimball would have objected to transsexuality on the basis of the logic that you offer, it is still not clear to me from either of the quotes you have provided that this is in fact the case. From the BYU speech, it seems to me again to be a reference to homosexuality when it speaks of those who wish to be “sexually” women or “sexually” men, which again is the popular etiology of homosexuality that he is working with. Here, as you say, the logic is that one’s given biological sex is God’s way of defining proper object choice in sexual relationships. If this reading is right, that Kimball sees homosexuality as a kind of transsexuality, I still maintain that this was out of date research even by the time he wrote MoF.

  9. TT,

    That application of Judith Butler to any Mormon discussion of sexuality would be interesting. She seem the reject the very classifications that are assumed to be eternal in LDS thought. For here the question would not be whether gender is eternal but whether there is really gender. The extent to which we have gender is a basis for oppression.

    While I am part of the feminist camp that reject Butler, I am often tempted to borrow from her when commenting in Gospel Doctrine.

  10. If someone undergoes a sex-change operation, there are other problems with full participation in church (besides the potential for excommunication). Namely – no priesthood and no temple recommends. Converts who have undergone such operations need to have special interviews prior to receiving permission to be baptized, as well.

  11. That is, an elective sex-change operation. Operations to correct birth defects or ambiguous genitalia aren’t addressed.

  12. Mcintire Minute Book, March 28, 1841.

    “God saw that those intelligences had Not power to Defend themselves against those that had a tabernacle therefore the Lord Calls them together in Counsel & agrees to form them tabernacles so that he might Gender the Spirit & the tabernacle together so as to create sympathy for their fellowman.”

    ie. God genders the spirit and then combines it with a tabernacle (gender is not eternal because God “genders” the spirit).

  13. Im not sure what to make of the quote but it sounds as if JS taught that gender is not part of our intelligence or spirit (Joseph uses the two interchangeably here and elsewhere)

  14. TT,
    It appears that you have made the assumption that the writers of the proclamation distinguish between gender and sex as you have. You do this because it makes your argument appear valid, but without substantiating this assumption, much in your argument is weak.

  15. I think they were keenly aware of the distinction of the two terms, and chose “gender” deliberately and forcefully.

    No, I can’t prove it. It’s just a hunch.

  16. God knew the DNA, He also knew the gender, and He assigns a 1:1 correspondence.

    You probably disagree. Because you do not believe that the eternal gender determines what sex God assigns (spirit to body), it must be easier to accept gay marriage as an acceptable alternative. I guess, you assume there’s a possiblity for a masculine spirit being placed in a female body. When I read about Gender being eternal, I hear not only that Gender is eternal, but that God correctly assigned the right gendered spirit to the correct anatomy. Do you have any evidence of this false gendered assignment other than it fits the gay agenda well?

    If you do not believe that, these are good distinctions to make. It would be great to ask any of our general authorities what the authors meant.

  17. If there is “gay agenda” (a term that takes me back), there must also be a “1950s conception of the family agenda.”

  18. MadChemist,

    “God knew the DNA, He also knew the gender, and He assigns a 1:1 correspondence.”

    I certainly concede that possibility, but I am curious as to why you assert this without answering the questions that I pose to Owen: “I am asking why you think the assignment of XY or XX chromosomes is the will of God, but not XXY. Or, why you don’t think that ambiguously sexed individuals represent the will of God, only unambiguously sexed individuals. Or, why God ensures that a female spirit is born into a female body, even if that body suffers from massive birth defects. Couldn’t he have gone a little further?”

    “Because you do not believe that the eternal gender determines what sex God assigns (spirit to body), it must be easier to accept gay marriage as an acceptable alternative.”

    Well, just to inform you about these issues, the question of transsexuality has nothing to do with homosexuality. The general divisions of human subjectivity in recent decades distinguish between sex, gender and sexuality. So far I have only discussed sex and gender since I believe that these are the only two that are specifically addressed in the assertion of the eternal nature of gender. Of course, there was once a time when gender and sexuality were conflated, and I would listen to your arguments that the Proclamation makes this conflation between sexuality and gender in a similar way as it does sex and gender, but that would raise a different host of issues. Let’s stick to the question of transsexuality and avoid sexuality per se.

  19. This is a very interesting post. I’m mormon and lesbian (see my youtube channel), and I’m very interested in learning more about the LGBT community especially as far as the T goes. This post has put transsexualism in a different light for me already. It helps to think that those who are transgender see their gender identity as more permanent and unchanging than their physical sex. If you are interested in contributing to a blog about this topic, I would be very grateful. It’s called LGBT Voices and we have yet to post anything about transgender identities or issues or from an actual transgender voice and I feel it a necessary part of coming to understand the world and all the lovely people who live here.

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