by Russ Peterson:
Note: This is Part 3 of a multi-part post. Continued from Parts 1 & 2 here and here.
Cultural Beliefs Revisited
Earlier we summarized a set of cultural beliefs within the Church about those whose experiences are different from the gender congruent majority. In light of what we have just considered, let us revisit each of them in turn:
1) Since gender "is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity," matters of gender and sex are always clearly defined in the mortal state.
LDS doctrine asserts that gender is immutable and eternal. This gospel principle suggests an ideal that frequently is not met in mortality. We have considered a few of the many disorders of sex development, along with some of the genetic and hormonal conditions that may seriously complicate matters of sex and gender identity and development. While biological sex, gender, and attraction usually develop according to a pattern that naturally perpetuates life, each is separate. Whether in matters of biological sex, gender identity, or attraction, gender incongruence usually unfolds outside of an individual’s awareness and/or control.
2) A loving Father in Heaven wouldn't create circumstances that give rise to gender uncertainty, gender incongruence, or same-sex attraction.
This is one of the most infatuating and divisive beliefs regarding matters of sex and gender in LDS culture—and certainly one of the most persistent. The belief originates from a misapplication of logic: If the eternal pattern of life and procreation includes perfect agreement between sex, gender, and attraction, how could the children of God—being His creations—experience anything different? Or, in other words, "Why would a loving Father do that to His children?"
The answer is that he wouldn't. And doesn't—any more than He creates war, famine, disease, or natural disasters. Each of these is common to a fallen, mortal state. But the fact that God doesn't create gender incongruence is not to say that many of His children don't experience the same, because they do. Matters of sex, gender, and individual development are not immune from the effects of the Fall.
As a church, we collectively invite nonbelievers to take the proverbial "leap of faith"—to choose to believe in something they have not yet experienced. Many refuse to do so, saying they cannot believe in something without experiencing physical proof. When we say, in effect, that gender incongruence does not exist because we personally haven't experienced it (or because we don't want to believe it exists or because it makes us uncomfortable), are we not essentially making the same mistake? At the very least, we are allowing personal ignorance and biases to interfere with the support and compassion we might otherwise render to our brothers and sisters who struggle with some of the more difficult challenges of mortality.
3) Uncertainty (or confusion) about sex or gender is a Sign of the Times and/or evidence of the deterioration of society.
This has been a common interpretation of the increasing visibility given to matters of gender incongruence, particularly as those outside the gender-congruent majority have been more vocal in asserting their points of view. However, other factors are at play here, and in the interest of our discussion I will observe a few of them.
First, from the scientific community has come the understanding that gender incongruence is neither consciously chosen nor likely to change over time. This understanding has been at odds with the cultural/religious belief (still to be revisited) that gender incongruence proceeds from an individual's decision to deviate from the Plan of Happiness. However, this understanding has prompted a seismic shift in thought about those who struggle with gender incongruence. The effects of that revolution are still being realized.
Second, in our day modern technology increasingly facilitates communication between those with common interests who had previously been unable to connect. This happens not only with regard to gender congruence/incongruence, but also with many other issues, concerns, and interests. Communication networks have provided a voice to many groups who have not previously been accorded an audience in the public square.
Third, when we finally do hear these voices, is it surprising that the gender congruent majority would be uncomfortable with their messages—particularly when they focus on what has been termed "radical self-acceptance"? Or to use the words of one observer: "That's fine if [gay and lesbian individuals] want to live their lives however they want, but do they have to demand that the rest of us accept it and call it normal?"
This question strikes at the heart of the acceptance that gender incongruent individuals seek for themselves. For a frame of reference, recall that several decades ago, left-handed individuals were encouraged (and often forced) to adopt right-handedness because it was viewed as "correct" in the minds of many educators. We might suppose that left-handed individuals disliked this coercion and welcomed the day when they could choose to exercise their preferences without it.
From that frame of reference, we might understand the greater aversion that gender-incongruent individuals have to the messages that they are defective and that they therefore must live their lives according to someone else's determination of what is right for them. For many of these individuals, the process of "coming out" involves an acceptance of self that is likewise a final and deliberate rejection of self-hatred and self-loathing. We might not agree with the message, but from this example hopefully we can understand its context, and how it doesn't stem from a person's desire to be "wicked."
4) Gender incongruence proceeds from an individual's decision to deviate from the Plan of Happiness.
As understanding replaces ignorance, this belief persists primarily among those who cling to tradition over truth, and who prefer to render judgment instead of compassion. Can we pass judgment on that which we haven't experienced? Or can we continue to deny the reality of gender incongruence because we haven't personally experienced it? Does personal discomfort prevent us from rendering Christlike compassion?
Not always but often, discomfort with a particular issue can be an indication of inner conflict. Being at peace with our own individual sexuality can help us think clearly and render support without judgment to those whose struggles might be very different from our own.
In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, we read that "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation." We have considered some of the many different circumstances that call for "individual adaptation." Because of its relevance to our discussion, I will share an example of this adaptation as it applied to one LDS family. Names and personally identifying details have been changed.
From all appearances, Jeff and Sarah* were an ideal couple with an adopted son when the missionaries found them and started to teach them. They were receptive to the message of the restoration and eventually accepted the invitation to be baptized. During the baptismal interview, however, Jeff and Sarah disclosed something very unusual: Jeff had been born female and had undergone surgery for gender reassignment. Jeff and Sarah were both genetically female.
The Brethren were consulted. Jeff's gender reassignment had been contemplated and completed before the couple learned that this practice was contrary to the teachings of the Church. Yet here was a couple that was living as a family and had a child. They desired baptism.
After some deliberation, it was decided that the couple could be baptized but that Jeff—having been born female—could not hold the priesthood, nor could the couple be sealed in the temple. Their family situation, the couple was told, would be worked out in the hereafter. The son grew up wondering at times why his father couldn't hold the priesthood but otherwise the family participated in their ward community.
When Jeff and Sarah's son turned 18, they disclosed to him the particulars of their family situation, including why Jeff couldn't hold the priesthood and why the family couldn't be sealed together. As we might imagine, this was very difficult for the son to accept, and he sought professional assistance.
This is but one example of individual adaptation. While the particular circumstances might have been unique, Jeff and Sarah's situation demonstrates the kind of adaptation that can be made when the situation so requires. Clearly the Brethren have recognized 1) that certain family situations are beyond doctrinal reconciliation here in mortality, and 2) as a result, the best/default answer has to be an acknowledgment that these issues will be worked out in the hereafter.
Though they are important to consider, it is unrealistic to think that exceptions will ever dictate policy standards, especially within the Church. The Church is given to be a light to the world, and the focus on eternal family relationships is not ancillary to its message. Rather, the family unit is the strength of the Church. Such is our doctrine. How, then, do we reconcile the hope of the eternal family with the challenges of gender incongruence that so frequently beset our friends and loved ones here in mortality?
To answer that question I would like to invoke the metaphor of gathering that is central to our history and heritage. We gather with our families; we gather to our wards and stakes to receive instruction and fellowship. And early in the history of the Church the Saints were called to gather and build Zion in the American West.
Though all were called to gather, it was known at the outset that for various reasons some would be unable to reach Zion. Some started the journey infirm with old age or physical health problems. Others became ill from the various diseases that plagued the early Saints because of the impoverished conditions through which they waded on their journey West.
But the call nevertheless was to gather and, as for most pilgrims, the call of the journey was more important than the geographical destination. The call to gather gave the Saints a homeland, an ideal toward which to strive. And there, as the pioneer hymn poignantly declared, the Saints would be blessed.
The modern call to Latter-day Saints is to gather into the safety of the family unit, which is organized in the temple when man and woman are sealed together as husband and wife. Thus organized, the family is the foundation of a Zion society and the strength of the Church.
Those who struggle with gender incongruence are often unable—through no fault of their own—to establish families according to the pattern outlined by prophets and leaders of the Church. In many cases they desire to continue with the Church but they experience significant personal isolation if they do.
There is much we can borrow from our heritage as we contemplate this challenge. Even though many were infirm as they started the journey West, no one was forgotten. It was incumbent upon every Latter-day Saint to care even for those who might not make it, to gather and nurture them according to the covenant they had made to "bear one another's burdens." The old pioneer hymn directly addressed those who would not see Zion but would die in the attempt: "And should we die before our journey's through, Happy day! All is well!" This refrain no doubt gave many a pioneer courage to continue the journey in the midst of suffering and affliction.
What is the modern day corollary? We can learn to say to our brothers and sisters who wrestle with gender incongruence—both in word and in deed—"Even if you aren't able to create a Zion family in this life, and even if you cannot now enjoy the blessings of the temple, we love you and we want you to journey with us. We will not judge or forsake you because of the challenges you face. We will not leave you alone to wander in the wilderness!"
What are the barriers to adopting this attitude and approach? Principally there are two: 1) the residual belief that gender incongruence is the struggler's fault, and 2) the idea that gender incongruence is contagious. Since we have already addressed the first belief we will briefly consider the second.
Because of rhetoric that was popular in the 1960's and 1970's, there is still a vestige of belief that gender incongruence is contagious—that is, that exposure to gender incongruence will somehow cause children or others to wrestle with it in some form themselves. This is borne not of understanding but of fear and uncertainty. Moreover, it has been rejected by the scientific community and also by the Church; however, in our daily practice we avoid those with gender incongruence and fail to actively welcome them in the Church. Often the reasons echo the exclusionary attitudes Jesus encountered and lectured against in His ministry.
We need not worry that exposure to gender incongruence in its various forms will cause these same challenges for our children. We can live and teach our children the doctrine of the eternal family while welcoming and loving those who struggle, and while teaching our children to withhold judgment for those whose situations differ from our own. These two ideas are not incompatible for Latter-day Saints.
The example and teachings of Jesus are instructive here. When the woman taken in adultery was brought to the Savior, He refused to condemn her. If the Savior—who alone had the right and the capacity to render perfect judgment—nevertheless refused to condemn this woman, ought not we follow His example as members of His Church?
Jesus likewise taught the Nephites after His resurrection. Speaking of those who were not among the Church, the Savior instructed:
And behold, ye shall meet together oft; and ye shall not forbid any man from coming unto you when ye shall meet together, but suffer them that they may come unto you and forbid them not.Although the Savior is clear that all are welcome in our worship services, it is also clear that one can be "cast out" without being physically removed from a congregation. It is far more common for individuals to feel "cast out" of our congregations by the aspersions and judgments of others. Can we say collectively that we are true disciples of Christ as long as this is the case?
But ye shall pray for them, and shall not cast them out; and if it so be that they come unto you oft ye shall pray for them unto the Father, in my name.
And ye see that I have commanded that none of you should go away, but rather have commanded that ye should come unto me…” (3 Nephi 18:22-23, 25).
As we work to abandon the notion that gender incongruence is the struggler's fault or that it proceeds from a decision to deviate from the Plan of Happiness, we realize there are a number of other doctrines that apply to this challenge, just as they do to every other:
Bear One Another's Burdens. This foundational covenant forms the very basis of a Christian community. At the time of baptism, we pledge to "bear one another's burdens, that they may be light… to mourn with those that mourn… and to comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:8-9). But if we can somehow dismiss as wicked those who struggle with gender incongruence, saying they have brought upon themselves their afflictions, we feel justified in withholding the support that would otherwise be our Christian obligation.(to be continued) ...
I Give Unto Men Weakness That They May be Humble. The scriptures clearly teach that certain challenges are given to us by the Savior "that [we] may be humble," and to prompt us to seek His healing influence throughout our lives. Why, then, must we sometimes suppose in the Church that some challenges (such as same-sex attraction) could neither be given by the Savior nor (possibly) present from birth? As we earlier discussed, we understand that God is not the creator of weakness and imperfection; these come to us through the instrumentality of the mortal state. We are given no scriptural assurance that a particular challenge will not be ours in mortality; rather, we are promised that if we come unto Him, the grace of Christ is "sufficient… [to] make weak things become strong unto [us]" (Ether 12:27). There is no challenge that is not subject to the healing influence of the Savior.
The Spirit of Contention is Not of Me. Among Church members, few topics seem more likely to ignite contention than gender incongruence. This contention is most often between 1) those who struggle with gender incongruence and tire of being ostracized and judged as "wicked" for a struggle they did not choose, and 2) those who cannot or will not view gender incongruence as anything but sin. We can disengage from battle and acknowledge that some struggles may indeed be with us from birth. Since we clearly teach and understand that no trait or tendency can deprive one of individual agency, there is no reason for contending with someone who feels that any particular challenge may have been present from birth.
Study It Out. The first page of the Church publication "God Loveth His Children" declares that "Many questions… including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life." This may indeed be true; however, this stance is often invoked in an attempt to absolve us of responsibility to diligently seek the answers we need. "Behold," the Lord says in the 9th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, "you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right" (D&C 9:7-8). Although this counsel was given regarding the process of translation, it has been generalized many times by the Brethren as counsel to the lazy: In essence, we cannot expect the Lord to give us answers when we have not diligently studied the issues. We are further counseled to "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling before [the Lord]" (Mormon 9:27). Do we honestly think that matters of gender incongruence fall outside the realm of that counsel, or that the Lord will withhold answers to those who diligently seek them? Indeed He may withhold the answers, but until we have done our part in studying these issues, could it be disingenuous to declare that "many questions…must await a future answer, even in the next life"? Or could it be that we feel that we already have the answer, in the form of counsel that is often given to those who struggle: "Just be obedient."
It Is Not Meet that I Should Command In All Things. The Lord continues His counsel in the 58th section of the Doctrine and Covenants: "for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward." In some geographical areas, Church leaders have established support for those who struggle with gender incongruence. In other areas, this support has neither been established nor is it likely to be forthcoming.
As I have visited with local Church leaders in some of these areas, the reasons given for this lack of support could be summarized by the words of one leader. Speaking to me personally, he said, "You know why the Church can't offer this support." He then proceeded to tell me of two men who met at such a support group and became a couple. I have heard this story more than once.
It is true that support groups can be used for purposes other than those for which the support is offered. But in the Church we don’t withhold support for 12-step addiction programs for fear that participants might meet and abuse substances together. Indeed, we could extrapolate this leader's position to the point of absurdity and conclude that there is no point in meeting together as members of the Church because we are all imperfect and might sin together.
Instead, the Lord has commanded us to meet together because He knows that—in general—we will find that which we honestly seek. Until genuine support can be offered in the quorums and auxiliaries of the Church, there is a place for support groups. Such meetings should focus not on "curing" those with gender incongruence but on offering support and encouragement to meet the challenges of the day.
God Will Hold Us Responsible. In an oft-quoted instruction, Elder John Taylor said, "If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty."
In preceding decades, thousands in the Church with same-sex attraction or other forms of gender incongruence followed counsel from Church leaders to marry. Often these individuals were advised that marriage would resolve their challenges. Years later these members have sought support from local Church leaders often to find such support unavailable because of personal prejudice or discomfort.
Personal prejudice and discomfort are never valid reasons for failure to act. Even if those with gender incongruence are unrighteously judged as undeserving of help, the children of such marriages cannot be. They suffer when their families disintegrate, and their burdens are not infrequently compounded by the suicidal inclinations of their parents, who despair when their burdens are neither lightened nor understood.
Recall Captain Moroni’s lament that "thousands have fallen… while it might have otherwise been if ye had rendered… sufficient strength and succor for them" (Alma 60:5). Could his words apply anew to those who struggle with gender incongruence? President Boyd K. Packer has taught that the priesthood holds "consummate power" to heal every affliction. But if those who hold its keys fail to act according to the repeated requests of those who struggle, of what use are they?
* Names have been changed.
Russ Peterson grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho and is an avid outdoorsman with interests ranging from astronomy to wilderness survival. When not camping or backpacking, Russ is a mental health counselor with interests in gender and suicide prevention. He lives in the Intermountain area and enjoys spending time with his five children. Reach him at rhpeterson <at> gmail dot com.
Image credit: Nathan Jongewaard (used with permission).