How Should Mormonism Deal with Transgender and Nonbinary People In Their Midst?

The answer to every question starting with “what should the religious response be to X ” should always, always, always be unconditional love, support and concern. Full. Stop. Love is the answer no matter the question. But is that enough? Should that end the discussion? Perhaps, but let’s dive in a little more anyway because I do think it helps, within the context of full love, acceptance and support to understand issues better.

First of all let’s root out some basic definitions, as I understand them. Gender and sexual attraction are different things. Traditionally, we’ve operated within the concept of two distinct biological genders, male and female. Typically, we experience sexual attraction to the opposite gender. Biologically, this sexual attraction serves biological reproduction functions necessary to ensure the biological survival of our species. From a purely scientific Darwinian perspective, we are hard-wired for survival, both individually and as a species. For this reason, the strong majority of human beings fit cleanly into one of the two genders and are sexually attracted to the other. Because it takes so long for our children to mature and achieve functioning independence, we long for long-lasting stable, romantically sexual relationships that endure within stable family structures. Societal, religious, and ethical norms and rules have been setup in order to provide this sort of stability. I think all of this makes sense in the aggregate, but exceptions to the rule abound in nature. I believe individual diversity within humanity also serve important societal benefits as well. Extended family can provide essential support networks. To this end, childless adults can provide additional support especially when the more traditional nuclear family fails in all the ways such families can fail. Our over-reliance on the traditional, nuclear family is a more recent innovation, is not so traditional and has notable and significant flaws. But childless adults can play more than support roles to families. Not having to worry about raising children can free them up to make significant contributions to society in ways not possible for couples rearing multiple children. Bottom line, we need everyone. We need to be careful not to over-simplify the complexities that show up in our world. Most importantly, the exceptions to the rule are every bit as important as the rule itself, and individuals that don’t cleanly line up within traditional or majority understandings or categories should be accepted, accommodated and even celebrated.

Religious theology has at times tried to respond to these issues beyond these purely materialistic concerns. Mormonism’s primary contribution on this issue can be found in “The Family Proclamation to the World”. Let’s dissect this document in detail from the perspective of non-binary and transgender individuals.

We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.

The proclamation begins with a bang. Not only is the family structure essential as a means to raise children in this life, but has an eternal nature that continues after death. The underlying principle driving this belief is that our experiences in mortality are simply a snapshot of something much larger and more enduring. What gets established here continues.

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.

The idea of gendered spirits seems more or less intuitive although difficult to prove empirically. Difficult though not impossible because I’ve seen fairly convincing attempts to find empirical evidence for spirit. I’m less familiar with attempts to prove that spirits might be gendered, but I don’t preclude the possibility. Stated here as a matter of fact, revelation is doing almost all of the work. Assuming gendered spirits, the existence of transgendered outcomes seems to be a very likely possibility. That transgendered people exist would be strong evidence spirits are gendered and that this gender may not always line up with the gendered body. If we assume the world is a complex and evolving system outside the direct, micro-manipulation of deity, then, it seems well within reason that at times, there could easily be a mismatch between the gender of the spirit and body. A church that believes in gendered spirits and gendered bodies has to accept the possibility of a mismatch and then must formulate a theological and practical response rooted in love. My church so far has refused to do this as far as I can tell. Most transgendered people either have to suppress this part of them or leave the Mormon community altogether. In other words, Mormonism has a long ways to go to live up to the ideal to respond always with love at least in this area.

While there’s clear room in this statement for transgendered, there’s much more ambiguity and complexity for non-binary possibilities. Non-binary gender disrupts my initial assumptions about the existence of two genders at least somewhat. If there are male and female categories, then perhaps there are circumstances where someone fits within a spectrum in between. This obviously happens no matter how one defines gender. Biological ambiguity occurs. When each of my four children were born the way we discovered gender was by looking at their genitalia, but there are times when the creation of the genitalia is ambigous and gender identification is uncertain.

Beyond that, though, gender markers extend into cultural expectation, traditional roles and characteristics. Societally speaking, some behaviors are considered more feminine and others more masculine and these behaviors show up in statistically significant ways more common in one gender group than another. But thinking about gender in this way is even more complex because the statistical group differences between men and women is not large and there’s a lot of overlap in the distribution. Plenty of women are stronger, more athletic, and more masculine than even most of the men, especially if you’re on the tail end of the distribution. All men exhibit or should exhibit feminine characteristics and vice versa. Historically, cultural norms and taboos have shamed individuals away from showing cross-gendered characteristics although famously, recent popular culture, especially rock-n-roll have done a lot of work in breaking down those taboos and social norms.

So, what does gender even mean given the reality of this diversity and complexity? What does it mean for someone to identify as non-binary, especially if their biology indicates no gender ambiguity? Gendered spirits complicates this further. What markers indicate gender in the spirit? Chromosomes? Genatalia? If spirits are gendered, it seems that the masculine and feminine characteristics dominate in gender identification and given the range here, I don’t see how spiritual gender is easily categorized into two groups. All of this is speculative because we really have no idea. Even accepting the revelation of gendered spirits, the church provides no details. We are left guessing. And in that ambiguity, we have to accept individual experiences, feelings and best efforts for what they are, always, always, always in the spirit of love, acceptance and accommodation.

Moving on.

The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.

This statement hits on a complex topic in a vague enough way that makes it hard to pin down precisely. Any power that produces life is both sacred and unfathomable. We want to ensure such procreative acts occur within a loving home. Given the genetic connection between parent and child, I think there are benefits for children to feel a loving connection with their biological parents when that is possible. But I do think we need to complicate family structures in ways that make them resilient to dysfunction and hardship.

But most importantly, within this discussion, does the inverse of this statement follow? For adults who can’t procreate or who don’t fit cleanly into prescribed gender categories, what of them? Does the “sacred powers of procreation” the only way to think about intimate sexual relationships?

I’m skipping to the more controversial parts of the Family Proclamation, otherwise we’ll be here all day.

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. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed.

This comment presupposes gender roles that extend beyond biological markers as described above. Here, it indicates that these gender roles are prescribed by God, “by divine design”. I take issue that the father has a leadership, “presiding role” in the home because that idea can lead abuse. The second part of the sentence complicates this quite a lot, however – to do so “in love and righteousness” which basically undermines the word preside. Love and righteousness in parenting implies deep equality giving the wife and possibly other adults involved, opportunities and obligations to preside.

If there are masculine and feminine attributes that naturally show up in higher precentages in their respective genders, and I think this is true, some of the differences described in this passage will show up naturally. Men tend to pursue more lucrative career paths that scale, take more risks and sacrifice more for their careers. Women tend to carry more of the nurturing burdens. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests much of these outcome differences come as a result of discrimination and cultural mysoginy. Definitely men have a responsibility to nurture their children and women need to worry about providing for the necessities of life and protection. Individual participants in a marriage likely have a bias one way or the other, and doubling down on that bias could cause more neglect than what any church should want. A family proclamation should recognize individual preference as natural that deserve accommodation but recognize the need to work harder against those preferences for the benefit of the family.

Given that I believe men and women aren’t significantly different and the overlaps abound, prescribing ordained roles like this has risks resulting in more common abusive outcomes. To that end, the proclamation ends with a clear warning against abuse, hopefully in ways that address this risk.

I hope it’s clear that I think the Family Proclamation has important ideas but doesn’t do enough work to consider binary and transgendered populations. Mormonism is founded on the ideas of continual revelation and adaptation. We need more revelation in this area. In the meantime, I’ll return where I began. The answer is always, always, always love.