Friday, December 12, 2014

Gender Incongruence and the LDS Church: Frontier of Understanding (Part 4)



by Russ Peterson:

Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part post. Continued from Parts 1, 2 & 3 herehere and here.


Crossroads

With the recent revolution in thinking about gender incongruence, the world will be increasingly unable to discern our Christianity if it continues to witness the perceived rejection of those who struggle. Thus the Church stands at a cultural crossroads: If it changes its policies toward same-sex marriage or other gender-incongruent situations, the Church risks diluting its focus on the eternal family as it is currently defined. However, if the Church is not perceived as welcoming of gender-incongruent individuals, it will increasingly fail to be seen as a light to the world.

Observing the ever-changing attitudes and values of society—and hopeful for the Second Coming of the Savior—some members of the Church have adopted a defeatist attitude toward the world and the issues set forth herein. Some expect that the Lord will come and save the Saints from having to wrestle with gender incongruence and related challenges.

Church members study the signs of the times and prepare for the return of the Messiah, but ultimately the Lord will come when He chooses. Until then, He has set forth his expectation that, as Saints, we are to study the issues and work out our own salvation. With a perfect knowledge of human development and sexuality, the Lord is neither limited in His capacity to understand nor inclined to judge according to the contracted notions of men. Rather, He loves all of His children and seeks to save each of them. We are not fit for His kingdom until our attitudes fully reflect His. There is much room for growth among Latter-day Saints in the care, love, and welcoming of those with gender incongruence.

When we consider the doctrine that "It is not good that … man should be alone" along with the understanding that gender incongruence (including same-sex attraction) is not purposely chosen, it is clear that for most in the world, the issue of same-sex marriage is viewed not through the lens of righteousness versus wickedness, but rather from the perspective that mutual commitment is worth honoring. Imagine for a moment that the men of the Church were given a commandment to remain single throughout mortality. Would we offer support to them, or would we leave them to carry this burden alone? In either case, what kind of success might we expect? Certainly there is more room for compassion and understanding regarding this issue than is common in our discourse.

Regarding the cultural crossroads at which the Church now stands, we may remember that the Church faced a similar juncture regarding polygamy. When the Church faced a threat to its mission and its very existence over plural marriage, the prophet changed the policy—but not the doctrine—of marriage. The Manifesto clearly outlines the thought process behind the change. Members of the Church were asked to consider whether the entire work of the Church should cease because of the persecution that surrounded the issue of plural marriage. The answer was that the Church would observe the law of the land in order to realize its mission. Are echoes of the past applicable today?

Finally, we return to The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which teaches that "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation." Earlier we considered one circumstance that called for individual adaptation. Are there others? Is there space for us to acknowledge that certain individual and family situations are beyond doctrinal reconciliation here in mortality? Can we grow such that as Church members we support our brothers and sisters with gender incongruence, offering encouragement and love while withholding judgment? Can we do less and still call ourselves Latter-day Saints?

Approaching Zion

As we journey toward Zion, we cannot suppose that God is pleased when our actions or attitudes leave any of His children to wander in the wilderness. As individuals find their place among the Saints they are imbued with a sense of identity and taught of their infinite worth as children of God; they are commanded to be a light to the world and are reminded continually of their heritage.

When gender-incongruent individuals are not welcomed in the Church, it should not surprise us to see them turn elsewhere for identity and support. Those who have adopted trait-based identities are quick to welcome those who long for acceptance, and each time they do we lose another Latter-day Saint.

As a people, we need to understand Church culture and its impact on those with gender incongruence. Beginning with our youth programs, Church culture often favors those who participate in organized sports and who otherwise reinforce our ideas about gender and gender roles. In his essay "Basketball Doctrines," Orson Scott Card writes about this and how our Young Men's programs need to be tailored to meet the needs of all of our youth, rather than just those who enjoy organized sports. Because of its relevance to our larger discussion, I will include two excerpts from his essay. After outlining the problem, Card writes the following under the heading "What Can We Do, Officially?"
"What difference can this essay possibly make? The Brethren aren't going to change … policy because of this essay … Church leaders who love basketball and believe in the old team spirit are simply baffled when they hear people like me talk with such hostility about a game they love so much.
     In fact, their most compassionate answer usually is to try to find ways to force LDS teams to let even the incompetent players have some playing time. When such rules are enforced, of course, they only cause bitterness and resentment of the poor incompetent player, whose blunders cost their team the victory. Incompetent players are only valued when they bring the total number on the floor to five, so the game won't be forfeited. Thus, what is meant as a gesture of 'inclusion' is really just a way of making it even more painful for marginal players.
     And such measures do nothing at all for the boys who simply don't like the game or think of it as a waste of time—which, for them, it is. These young men get a clear message from their local leaders: We don't understand you, and not only that, we don't care enough to try. In some cases, the message is even harsher: We don't like you. And the harshest of all: We wonder if someone who doesn't like sports is really a man."4
Using basketball as an example, Card offers an important insight about Church culture: It mirrors Western culture in assigning value to those who fit well within stereotyped gender roles. But the messages are very different for others whose interests and abilities diverge from those of the masculine "ideal." As he concludes his essay, Card writes:
"Right now the message to young men, from the age of 12 on, is pretty clear. If you're one personality type—the athletic extrovert—you belong! Right on! You're the man! Cool, dude! If you're the opposite personality type—the bookish or artistic introvert—there's another message entirely: Get with the program! Learn to be part of the team! Come out of your shell! This will be so good for you. You're missing out on so much fun and fellowship!"4
Card's point ultimately is not about basketball. Rather it is about how Church culture calculates and conveys an individual's worth according to worldly roles and expectations. Such practices will never reveal the infinite worth of the soul, nor can they lead us to salvation, either individually or as a people. God expects more. He loves His children without measure and "esteemeth all flesh in one" (1 Nephi 17:35). We cannot be saved in His kingdom until we are clothed with charity, which is the perfect and pure love of Christ. And until that charity is manifest by truly loving and welcoming those who are different, the world will increasingly call into question the message and essence of our Christianity.

What is that message? As Latter-day Saints, we teach that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only church authorized to officiate in the ordinances of salvation. As such we refer to the Church as "the only true and living church on the face of the whole earth." We paraphrase this doctrine by saying simply "the Church is true."

We are so accustomed to this phrase that we sometimes forget that "true" also means loyal and faithful. No amount of doctrinal correctness can compensate for failure to be "true" to those who struggle with gender incongruence. This is not an academic matter. In the past, thousands of our gender incongruent brothers and sisters followed well-meaning counsel to marry in order to resolve these challenges. When they have learned that marriage does not resolve gender incongruence, they often face despair that can in turn result in suicide. This is especially true when support is not forthcoming from members and local Church leaders.

Now is the time to honestly reevaluate—both individually and as a Church—our actions and attitudes toward those who struggle with gender incongruence. As we do so, may we bear in mind the following principles:
  1. Although gender "is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity," matters of sex, gender, and attraction are not immune from the effects of the Fall, nor are they always clearly defined in the mortal state.
  2. Gender incongruence generally unfolds outside of individual awareness; it does not proceed from an individual's decision to deviate from the Plan of Happiness.
  3. Gender incongruence is not contagious.
  4. Traditional judgments about gender incongruence—including some perpetuated in Church culture—present an inaccurate picture of a complex challenge faced by thousands of Latter-day Saints.
  5. When those who struggle with gender incongruence feel unwelcome among the Saints, they are apt to turn elsewhere to find a sense of identity and community.
  6. As Latter-day Saints, our Christianity will be incomplete until we truly love and welcome those who are different—including those with gender incongruence.
In the grand design for the exaltation of our Father's children, identity comes before potential. Before we can comprehend our eternal potential, we must first understand that God loves us perfectly as His children, imperfect and incomplete though we may be. Furthermore, although God wants us to become like Him, His desires for our eternal destiny do not prevent Him from loving us exactly as we are at each moment in time.

As members of the Church, we must learn to do the same. As we do so we will find and save many of our brothers and sisters who wrestle with gender incongruence and who have long wandered in the wilderness of judgment, prejudice, and misconception. We must love and welcome them home as children of God, for only then will we have claim on that charity which will prepare us to enter His presence.

4 Orson Scott Card, "Basketball Doctrines," www.nauvoo.com/vigor/issues/16.html#eight (accessed November 10, 2013).

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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.
 photo Line-625_zpse3e49f32.gifImage credit: Brian Smithson (used with permission).

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