In an interview with Harvard Divinity School about Pres. Monson’s passing, David Holland (scholar and Jeffrey Holland’s son) made an interesting observation about LDS theology regarding gender and marriage:

LDS theology is particularly intertwined with gender binaries and procreative sexuality—these things lie at the heart of Mormon understandings of divinity—making the church’s navigation of the last decade’s rapid cultural and legal shifts especially challenging and painful.

The social issues that have plagued Monson’s presidency and will continue to be issues in the coming years relate to rights of LGBT people and the role of women. Just as we have heard that “the future is female,” all of human sexuality is less simplistic than we’ve believed.

I include myself in this characterization of thinking too simplistically, but to a lesser degree than generations before me. I came of age in the 80s when we were beginning, slowly, to accept that gay people were born that way and that they shouldn’t marry straight people and couldn’t change their orientation. There was a even gay bar in the nearby city of Lancaster. “Gay” was still mostly a slur, and there were just two acknowledged alternatives: gay or straight. We gossiped about the girls in our school that we knew were lesbians (the basketball team, natch), and the gay social studies teacher who shopped at the grocery store with his partner, and the gym teachers (probably all gay we thought). There were people who were intersex or transsexual, but the odds of knowing one were remote, at least in rural Pennsylvania.

On my mission, I taught a transsexual person very briefly (in 1990), but it was a non-starter for baptism which was too bad because he was a very humble person who wanted to be accepted for who he was. It broke my heart a little. I also baptized a gay young man who didn’t come out to us until after his baptism, and he did not stay active in the church because he got back together with his boyfriend (he got baptized after their breakup). The branch president was supportive of him, but there was simply not a place for a practicing homosexual in our theology. All homosexuality was seen as unnatural sin, and those feelings were temptations from Satan, not innate characteristics. They were a bug, not a feature.

I was talking to my son years ago about a friend of his who is bisexual and therefore doesn’t believe in the church. My first thought was “Why would being bisexual preclude belief in the church?”–and it doesn’t always. My thinking was that it was easy enough for a bisexual person to simply choose to marry heterosexually, even though he or she might be attracted to both sexes. With a few more years to think about it, I more fully understand why it’s very difficult to believe in a theology that considers your personal experience to be invalid. It can feel like a choice between oneself and one’s church.

Binary gender vs. non-binary

Image result for binary genderThere’s a scripture Mormons love to quote about “opposition in all things,” and our theology is full of these binaries: good and evil, black and white, cursed and blessed, believer and non-believer, Jew and gentile, and male and female. But most of these “opposites” aren’t really binaries; they are on a scale or spectrum. Elder Oaks talks about “good, better, best” in describing the gray areas of “good.” Things are not just black and white. There are in between spaces. So it is with gender.

Non-binary gender is any gender identity that is not strictly male or female. There are several non-binary genders, including agender, bigendered, gender fluid, and more. …Nonbinary is an umbrella term that encompasses all identities that are not exclusively male and female.

Where my generation recognized bisexuality, sort of (most probably just thought it was laziness or horniness–not wanting to be restricted to just one gender for sex partners), now we’ve had a pansexual Super Hero (Deadpool) and there are many recognized variations on a scale.

The dictionary states the definition of bisexual as: “sexually attracted to both men and women”. Meanwhile, the definition of pansexual is: “not limited or inhibited in sexual choice with regard to gender or activity.” … Pansexuality implies that there are more than two genders.

In a world with acknowledged non-binary genders, the result is non-binary orientations as well. Pansexuals are attracted to personalities or characteristics across gender identities, not restricted to one sex, nor even to men and women. They may be attracted to intersex people or asexual people or others who share those characteristics.

This is where people in my generation (I’ll be 50 this month) start to get confused. We didn’t acknowledge these genders or orientations growing up.  In fact, I personally remember going from “gay” to “lesbian and gay” to “LGBT” to “LGBTQ” to “LGBTQIA” to “LGBTQIA*” and sort of comfortably settling back into “LGBT.” For older generations who still aren’t sure these identities are innate or “real,” who use terms like “same sex attracted,” it’s even harder to comprehend what the rising generation takes for granted about the complexity of human sexuality.

Image result for binary genderWhen Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza are mistaken for a bickering gay couple by a young reporter, the line “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” became a catchphrase for how the country felt about homosexuality at that time (the mid-90s). If you were straight, you might object to being mistaken for someone who was gay, but not too strongly–you didn’t want to be seen as a bigot; you wanted others to know you were OK with people being gay but that it wasn’t who you were. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was created as an acceptable middle ground solution to allow homosexuals to serve in the military without consequences (historically, homosexual activity among servicemen used to be considered a crime that would get you court-marshaled and sent to Leavenworth).

Contrast that with today’s youth. In the early morning seminary carpool a year ago, the girls I was driving would talk about classmates who were transsexual or gay openly and non-judgmentally. “Oh, that’s David. Last year he was Alicia.” This isn’t a big deal to them. My generation would have been much more judgmental about it, distancing ourselves from the social taint of being different. I talked with another woman in the ward, a mother of one of these girls. She said it had become an issue in their home because they didn’t allow opposite sex sleepovers as a rule, but they didn’t know how that applied when the friend was transgender. She rolled her eyes at her missteps as she used outdated terms from two decades ago that are now considered bigoted. Finally, she gave up trying to explain it.

I was talking with my MTC companion a few months ago, and she said she wondered how much of the shifts in gender identity and orientation (the number of kids self-identifying in non-binary ways) were because these things are now socially acceptable whereas they weren’t when we were growing up. She said she wasn’t sure if these are all equally legitimate identities and orientations because she’s having a hard time keeping up. People were afraid to acknowledge non-binary identities or orientation in the 80s and even 90s in a way that is no longer an issue; the fears aren’t completely gone, but as society becomes more open and educated, we are naming things that previously weren’t named.

Naming is powerful, as Elder Bednar knows. [1] When he said “There are no homosexual members of this church,” he was saying that labels add permanence. Our binary, procreative theology doesn’t want those labels to stick because that undermines our on-record view of eternity. We expect the eternities to be full of male-female heterosexual pairings (and male-female-female-female), procreating to populate new worlds, and while that vision is not fully fleshed out, it’s at least firmly rooted in our theological speculation.

The next frontier: Fluidity

All of this discussion to this point is just about the concept of orientation (or attraction) and identity being on a spectrum rather than a binary. There is also a burgeoning debate over whether sexuality alters over one’s lifetime.

Sexual fluidity is one or more changes in sexuality or sexual identity (sometimes known as sexual orientation identity). There is significant debate over whether sexuality is stable throughout life or is fluid and malleable.

I can’t tackle everything in one article, but this is just to say that once we think we’ve got a workable solution, that doesn’t mean we really have it. The graphic (to the right) showing the Genderbread Person is one explanation of these spectra, but it also doesn’t represent fluidity over time.

The Struggle Is Real

In the church, we talk about people struggling with same sex attraction or struggling with their gender identity (which we claim is eternal in the proclamation) or struggling with gender roles (also as outlined in the proclamation). But why is it a struggle? When we insist on a binary for something that’s really on a spectrum, we are always going to feel pulled from one pole to the other. Individuals who don’t fit the roles envisioned for them–whether that’s gender roles, gender identity or sexual orientation–will either struggle to see themselves in a binary or will throw out the binary model if it doesn’t fit them.

But it’s not just individuals who struggle. The church is also struggling. Another quote from David Holland’s interview talks about the church’s struggle:

[Monson] presided over a period in which the church tacked back and forth between new overtures of openness (e.g., strong support of Utah’s non-discrimination legislation and the launch of a conciliatory church website now titled “Mormon and Gay”) and policies seen as retrograde by many critics (e.g., support for California’s Proposition 8 and the institution of an ecclesiastical bylaw ostensibly prohibiting the baptism of children of same-sex couples before the age of 18). Charged with contradiction by observers inside and outside the church, the tensions among these moves reflect an era in which the church very actively sought ways to retain its commitments to both human compassion and the cosmological significance of complementary female-male unions. Thomas Monson, equal parts personal generosity and cultural conservatism, embodied the contrapuntal notes of Mormonism during his presidency.

. . . Perhaps more than any LDS president before him, President Monson’s administration will be remembered for its signal and often simultaneous moves in both reformist and traditionalist directions.

Just as individuals struggle with a binary, we’ve gone from organized political opposition to gay marriage in Prop 8 in California to fighting for anti-LGBT-discrimination in housing in Salt Lake City. We’ve gone from a church-sponsored website called mormonsandgays (implying church members are a separate group from those homosexuals) to a restyled one called mormonandgay (referring to church members who are gay). We continue to struggle to find our way between “personal generosity and cultural conservatism.”

Image result for binary genderThis is exacerbated by the generation gap and the fact that we are led by a gerontocracy. As I mentioned, people my age who are in-between are sometimes having a hard time keeping up with the social acceptance domino effect. This is even more pronounced for older generations, many of whom haven’t been in the workforce or raised teens for decades (places where we are more exposed to changing social norms). It’s one reason that Trump supporters disdain “political correctness.” Having failed to keep up on social change, they yearn for a day when they weren’t considered bigots for saying things that were perfectly acceptable in earlier decades or even considered progressive for their era. For example, the term “mentally retarded” used to be the “politically correct” term, replacing much worse earlier terms. The word “retarded” means “slow,” but the term has fallen out of favor because it has been associated with negative stereotypes about the disabled (differently-abled? challenged?) and playground slurs and bullying. Similar things have happened with terms for races, disabilities, the sexes, and so forth.

Which brings us to women and gender roles.

Our theological focus on binary roles also means that we have a complementarian rather than egalitarian view of marriage. [2] From Wikipedia:

Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere.

By contrast, most up and coming generations aspire to an egalitarian marriage. From an article in the NYT:

A vast majority of adults under 30 in this country say that this is a good thing, according to a Pew Research Center survey: They aspire to what’s known in the social sciences as an egalitarian marriage, meaning that both spouses work and take care of the house and that the relationship is built on equal power and shared responsibility.

Prescription vs. Description: the role of the proclamation

Image result for binary genderI’ve said elsewhere that the proclamation’s explanation of gender roles is either descriptive (an accurate depiction of how things are) or prescriptive (a recipe for how things should be). If it’s a description, and it’s accurate, who cares? People behave that way naturally, without instruction, or else all would agree that it’s an ideal (prescription). If it’s a prescription that doesn’t fit, though, that people don’t agree is ideal, it’s going to cause people to question its validity, and if you stake your credibility on something like that by claiming it’s God’s unadulterated view of things or that it’s unchanging and eternal, you’re going to lose the confidence and trust of the people for whom it’s not accurate.

One thing you can’t argue with is someone’s lived experience. That’s an argument you’ll always lose in the long run, when individuals learn to trust what they know about themselves more than they trust what others tell them about themselves.

  • Do you agree with David Holland that binaries are baked into our theology, or do you think these can be modified to a spectrum” approach to understanding gender roles, gender identity and sexual orientation if that emerges as more accurate?
    • How do you explain the lived experience of those who say they don’t fit?
  • How do we as a church with members spanning every decade from 10 to 90 stay relevant when there are major shifts in what is socially acceptable?
    • Are these shifts getting more frequent and bigger?
  • Do you think the church does a good job balancing personal generosity and cultural conservatism? Do we err on one side or the other? Defend your answer.


[1] It’s one reason we say “a testimony is found in the bearing thereof.” When you name something or label it, it becomes more real and more permanent. It’s also why we have Fast & Testimony meeting monthly and discourage people from expressing doubts openly. Psychologically, we make them more real in speaking them.

[2] A Gospel Doctrine teacher asked our class two years ago whether we had a complementarian or egalitarian view of marriage, and the class members were very hesitant to answer. Clearly it could be either. After some discussion, the teacher claimed it is egalitarian, which is a vastly superior model in my experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of our General Conference rhetoric lines up under complementarian, particularly since the culture wars have infiltrated our doctrine. I blame the association with Evangelicals who are clear-cut complementarians.