The Church’s new handbook of instructions became available to the public on Wednesday, with 9 of the 38 chapters having been completely rewritten and one section of a chapter updated. It is the updated section that has generated the most buzz so far, as it deals with church policies and procedures on moral issues, including same-sex marriage and an entirely new entry on transgender.[1] I will address these topics in two posts, with the transgender policy in this first post. In addressing these topics, along with sharing my own thoughts and observations, I hope to convey many of the concerns and sentiments of the LGBTQ members I have listened to and conversed with on these issues. Rather than just listening to me – a cis-gender, straight male – I encourage you to listen to podcasts or follow on social media (or better yet, meet in person) one of our many LGBTQ members who are sharing their life experiences.

Baptismal Conditions

The first difficult policy affecting trans people has to do with who can be baptized and confirmed a member of the church (38.2.3.3 and 38.2.3.14). Someone who has already transitioned through “elective medical [assumed to mean hormone therapy] or surgical intervention” requires approval of the First Presidency. The only other baptismal candidates who need First Presidency approval are murderers, polygamists, or parolees. What makes trans people so threatening in the minds of church leaders to include them in this category of people who need FP approval?

Here’s the interesting contrast to the above approval process. If a baptismal candidate has not yet transitioned and is only “considering elective medical or surgical intervention” for the purpose of transitioning, there is no approval process, they simply cannot be baptized. So perhaps such people, if they really want to be baptized, would be better off going through the transition process and then seeking First Presidency approval.

Some of you are probably thinking, “what trans person in their right mind would want to join our church given these restrictions?” I am always surprised at how many LGBTQ converts I have met who have gained strong testimonies of the gospel and sincerely desire to become members of our church given all the challenges that poses. They exist, and they are part of us. If Jesus were on the Earth in our day, how would he treat trans people who wanted to follow him and become his disciples?

Medical or Moral Issue?

The new section on “Transgender Individuals” (38.6.21) starts out sounding pretty good:

Transgender individuals face complex challenges. Members and nonmembers who identify as transgender—and their family and friends—should be treated with sensitivity, kindness, compassion, and an abundance of Christlike love. All are welcome to attend sacrament meeting, other Sunday meetings, and social events of the Church.

The policy further states that trans people can be baptized (subject to First Presidency approval), take the sacrament, and receive priesthood blessings. However, that is where the membership privileges stop. Priesthood ordination and temple ordinances – the highest rituals and blessings of membership – will not be available to transgender members who have transitioned.

Accordingly, “Church leaders counsel against elective medical [hormonal] or surgical intervention” for the purpose of transitioning. They also counsel even against “social transitioning” – changing dress, grooming, name or pronouns to present as other than the sex assigned at birth. Any of these attempts at transitioning will be cause for membership restrictions, which appear to consist of prohibiting the priesthood and temple ordinances discussed above.

This is where the policy becomes harmful to an already vulnerable population.[2] Medical and surgical intervention are treatments only available through competent medical professionals. Therefore, transitioning is a medical issue, not a sexual morality issue. Why is the church intervening in what should be a purely medical issue and making it a moral issue? Why does the church feel it is morally acceptable for a cis woman to have breast augmentation surgery for purely cosmetic reasons but holds that it is morally unacceptable for a transgender woman to have the same surgery for critical psychological and medical reasons?

The policy allows for hormone therapy prescribed by a “licensed medical professional to ease gender dysphoria or reduce suicidal thoughts.” Members who receive such treatment can still hold callings and receive temple ordinances – as long as the treatment isn’t for transitioning. This policy seems to completely misunderstand the purpose of hormone therapy as I have heard it explained by trans people. The reason hormone therapy reduces gender dysphoria and suicidal thoughts is because by its very nature it helps a person transition by changing their secondary sex characteristics (the bodily changes that occur during puberty) to match their internally-felt gender. How will church leaders distinguish between hormone therapy used to ease gender dysphoria vs. hormone therapy used for transitioning when such therapy accomplishes both purposes? Again, why is the church inserting itself in a place that should be under the purview of “licensed medical professionals”?

Finally, the handbook has a new subsection addressing Intersex members (38.7.6), which is included in the “Medical and Health Policies” section as opposed to the “Policies on Moral Issues” section that contains the Transgender policies. Is it reasonable to hope that a future revision of these policies will move the Transgender subsection into the Medical and Health Policies section and remove restrictions and punishments, similar to Intersex?

Social Transitioning

Even though social transitioning (changing dress, grooming, name) will result in membership restrictions, the new policy allows a trans member to have their preferred name entered on their membership record and be addressed by that name in their ward. Compared to medical and surgical transitioning, social transitioning is the least extreme measure and not permanent like the other two interventions. So why must the church punish transgender members for taking this step, especially if it is a less extreme measure of easing gender dysphoria or reducing suicidal thoughts?

Social transitioning will also invite awkward policing by church leaders. For instance, a young woman (or someone assigned female at birth) who gets a short haircut, avoids makeup and jewelry, and wears pants to reduce gender dysphoria might not be judged as transitioning. But it is very difficult for a young man (or someone assigned male at birth) to wear a dress and use makeup to not be considered as socially transitioning. I know some parents who have had their trans daughters wear a kilt or Polynesian lavalava to church to avoid unwelcome attention and judgment. How is it justifiable to put these burdensome requirements on our trans members, especially the youth who may be much more vulnerable? Don’t we expect that this will basically push them out of the Church? Is that an acceptable outcome of this policy?

Gender Theology

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new transgender policy is this statement:

Gender is an essential characteristic of Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness. The intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation is biological sex at birth. [Emphasis in original]

Equating eternal spiritual gender (which first arose as a wholly new theological proposition in the Family Proclamation) with biological sex at birth raises many questions, such as: How is it that our imperfect mortal bodies determine, or accurately mirror without fail, our previously existing eternal spirit gender? Is this definition of gender really the original intended meaning understood by the drafters of the Family Proclamation in 1995 or has the Proclamation been invoked here to attach doctrinal authority to this very novel definition of gender? If modern medical science is coming to the understanding that the wholly binary classification of gender was based largely on traditional social structures and beliefs and that, biologically, gender is really more of a spectrum, where does that leave the church’s new gender theology now that it’s hitched to biology?  

Concluding Thoughts

Conspicuously absent is any policy addressing whether a transgender person can attend the gendered meeting where they feel most comfortable (i.e., Relief Society, Priesthood quorum, YM/YW). This is one decision that has varied widely from ward to ward (aka bishop roulette) and will apparently continue to do so.

While all the questions raised in this post may seem critical of the policy, I have heard many trans members and parents of trans kids express that it bodes well for the long term, even as it has painful/harmful aspects in the short term. I have been very pleased to hear that the highest church leaders have met with trans members and parents of trans children to better understand their situation. The church has established a committee to obtain feedback from LGBTQ members and their families, which reports back to church leadership. The fact that leadership is taking this seriously and acknowledging that transgender is a real thing, not a liberal plot or part of Satan’s plan in the last days, will help the make the church a more hospitable place – even though there is admittedly a long way to go.

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[1] The full list of moral policies includes: abortion, abuse, artificial insemination, birth control, child pornography, incest, in vitro fertilization, same-sex marriages, sex education, sexual abuse, single expectant parents, sperm donation, suicide, surgical sterilization, surrogate motherhood, and the new entry on transgender individuals.

[2] Affirmation’s senior vice president, Laurie Lee Hall, who is transgender and a former stake president and church temple architect, stated: “Whenever transgender persons are placed in situations in which they are mis-gendered by others or forced to continue to act in opposition to their identity, such as limiting social transitioning, significant mental, emotional, and physical harm can be caused.”