All the world’s a stage,William Shakespeare, As You Like It
And all the men and women merely players …
I just finished reading Taylor Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism. As Petrey explains in an interview you can listen to if you haven’t read the book, one of his central claims is that there is a fundamental tension in LDS teachings about gender. On one hand, Church leaders currently* teach that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” As Petrey puts it, “[leaders] taught that sexual difference was an eternal characteristic of one’s identity and was not chosen or subject to being lost.” At the same time, those leaders harbor an intense fear that unless proper gender roles are modeled and taught in the home, and policed by legal and social norms in society, sexual differences will evaporate: “Though it was supposed to be eternal and essential, sexual difference could still be weakened or lost if not practiced and reinforced.”
Petrey’s book is filled with quote after quote demonstrating this tension–a fear held by leaders that differences between men and women would be “erased” and we would become a “unisex” society if we do not carefully maintain gendered boundaries they claim God defined through husbands and wives modeling these gender roles in the home and society upholding gender norms in legal and cultural norms. Indeed, multiple Church leaders (including Dallin Oaks) expressed fears that if we allow gay marriage, the human race could go extinct in “a generation”–suggesting that homosexuality is a far more compelling proposition for people than heterosexuality, and making me wonder if the brethren really do dislike women that much after all!
This fear helps explain why Church leaders have been so active in two key political battlefields. First, the fight against the ERA in the 1970’s and 80’s, which they based on a fear that the ERA would erase differences between men and women. And second, the fight against gay marriage in the 1990’s and 2000’s, which was fundamentally rooted not so much in sexual orientation specifically but gender roles more generally: Church leaders’ primary opposition to homosexuality seems to be their belief that homosexuality is a failure in gender norms; i.e., gay men are not performing their gender properly, because a real man should be sexually attracted to a woman. Many Church teachings and approaches to homosexuality among men have focused on a belief that homosexuality in men results from men not having had sufficient male role models and so not “learning” how to be a man. Church views on lesbian women, on the other hand, tended to view lesbianism as a result of sexual trauma. This belief about gender fluidity and sexual orientation also helps explain why the Church for many years continued to insist on the validity of conversion therapy to treat “same-sex attraction”; while the Church does not formally advocate for conversion therapy anymore (asserting instead that the “conversion” to heterosexuality will occur after death), many Church leaders–such as Boyd K. Packer–really never bought into the argument that sexual orientation was not chosen.
This concern about the slipperiness of what is otherwise an “eternal” gender identity was reiterated in Dallin Oaks’ April 2022 General Conference talk, where he cited the Family Proclamation’s claim that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose”. (As an aside, let it not be lost on us that Oaks likely had a major hand in drafting this language, so he is essentially citing himself as an appeal to authority.) He continued, “[t]hat is also why the Lord has required His restored Church to oppose legal and social pressures to retreat from his doctrine of marriage between a man and a woman, to oppose changes that homogenize the differences between men and women or confuse or alter gender.” This is nearly identical to comments in made in a similar talk in October 2018, where he said that “[o]ur knowledge of God’s revealed plan of salvation requires us to oppose current social and legal pressures to retreat from traditional marriage and to make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women. We know that the relationships, identities, and functions of men and women are essential to accomplish God’s great plan.” He likewise alluded to gender confusion in October 2019, where he discouraged “premature labeling” of “children who are uncertain about their sexual orientation.”
While Oaks has now made this virtually identical statement in two recent Conference addresses, he has not (as far as I know) actually defined what it means to “confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women,” nor has he told us what “relationships identities, and functions of men and women are essential to accomplish God’s great plan.” Interestingly, “gender confusion” seems to be a newer focus of his. Oaks’ October 2017 talk, which focused on the Family Proclamation, did not mention general confusion / alteration, but primarily focused on same-sex marriage. Prior to October 2018, when Oaks began what seems to be a campaign to unofficially canonize the Family Proclamation following President Monson’s death and his elevation to the first presidency, Oaks rarely spoke about gay marriage or gender identity during General Conference at all (though of course he was deeply involved in the Church’s campaign against gay marriage from his earliest days as an apostle).
While it’s clear to me what he means when he says we can’t retreat from the doctrine of marriage between a man and a woman, and he has been teaching that for many years, I am genuinely curious what he means when he tells us we must “oppose changes that homogenize the differences between men and women or confuse or alter gender.” Nor do I understand what “relationships, identities, and functions of men and women are essential to accomplish God’s great plan” other than opposite-sex marriage and sexual reproduction. So is that all Oaks is asking us to do, or is there some other component to our gender that we need to be concerned about properly performing? Surely, given that this is a talk where he explains (like he did in October 2019) that people who do not live up to gender norms will not go to the Celestial Kingdom, it would be important to understand what those gender norms are so that we can obey. As Oaks, a lawyer, knows, rules that are so vague that they don’t give people any idea of how to follow them are unconstitutional because they are fundamentally unfair. This new rule not to “confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women” strikes me as unreasonably vague. I genuinely do not know how one would follow it.
- If I am a woman and I want to deepen my voice because I’ve been told I sound unprofessional so I go to speech therapy to do so, am I “confusing” gender? If I am a trans woman and I want to make my voice higher pitched to avoid bullying, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I am a man and I grow my hair out longer because it’s the prevailing style, am I “confusing gender”? If I am a trans man and I cut my hair short as part of socially transitioning, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I am a menopausal woman and I take hormone therapy to help with hot flashes that alters my progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone levels, am I “confusing gender”? If I am a trans woman and I take hormone therapy to help with suicidal thoughts and depression and relieve gender dysphoria, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I am a woman with a career in a male-dominated field like engineering and my husband stays home with our children, are we “confusing gender”?
- If I am a gay person who remains celibate to stay in good standing with the Church, rather than express an attraction to / have sex with a member of the opposite sex, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I am a gay man who wants to remain celibate to stay in good standing with the Church, and I undergo an orchiectomy to reduce my sexual drive to help me stay celibate, am I “confusing gender”? If I am a trans woman and undergo an orchiectomy as part of my transition, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I am a woman and I say a prayer with my hands on my child’s head and ask God to heal her, am I “confusing gender”? If a bishop were to ask a woman to say the opening prayer in sacrament meeting between 1967 and 1978, would he be “confusing gender”? If I am a woman and I pick which family member says the prayer over dinner, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I am a man who gets regular manicures and pedicures because it helps deal with ingrown nails, am I “confusing gender”? If I’m a trans woman and get regular manicures and pedicures, am I “confusing gender”? If I’m a man who wears makeup to cover acne scars, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I’m a woman who grows out my leg and armpit hair because shaving irritates my skin, am I “confusing gender”? If I’m a trans man who grows out my leg and armpit hair as part of socially transitioning, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I’m a woman and I get a masectomy and hysterectomy because I have a strong genetic predisposition towards certain kinds of cancers and I want to mitigate risk, am I “confusing gender”? If I am AFAB and experience gender dysphoria and get top surgery to relieve depression and suicidal ideation, am I “confusing gender”?
- If a girl plays on a boy’s sports team because the sport isn’t offered for girls in her area, is she “confusing gender”? If an AFAB transgender boy plays on a boy’s sports team because he is transitioning and doesn’t want to be “outed’ by playing on a girl’s team, is he “confusing gender”?
- If I’m a polynesian man and I wear a lavalava to Church in Utah, am I “confusing gender”? If I’m a woman and I wear men’s clothing because it’s more comfortable, am I “confusing gender? If I’m a trans woman and I wear a skirt to Church, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I am a Muslim or Sikh man and I decide (against my religion) to shave my beard, am I “confusing gender”? If I’m a Muslim woman and I choose not to wear a hijab after moving to a Western country am I “ confusing gender”?
- If I am a pregnant woman and I wear my husband’s garments because they fit my pregnant body better (I know tons of women who’ve done this!!!) am I “confusing gender”? If I’m AMAB experiencing gender dysphoria and decide to wear women’s underwear privately because it feels more comfortable, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I’m a male artist who doesn’t make enough money to support my family and my wife supplements our income, am I “confusing gender”? If I’m a woman who works not because it is required to make ends meet but because I’m really professionally ambitious and do not like staying home with children all day, am I “confusing gender”?
- If I’m a man who doesn’t want to have children because genetic testing shows they are extremely likely to inherit a fatal genetic defect, am I “confusing gender”? If I’m a woman who doesn’t want to have children because I have serious mental health problems I fear will make me unable to handle pregnancy, post-partum, or parenting, am I “ confusing gender”?
- Were the women who petitioned for and were first admitted to West Point Academy in the U.S. “confusing gender”? Were the women who fought for the right to vote in the U.S. “confusing gender”? Are men who push for paternity leave policies “confusing gender”?
- Are women who refuse to participate in female genital mutilation in cultures where that is expected of them “confusing gender”? Are men who refuse to take on multiple wives in cultures where that is expected of them “confusing gender”?
- Is a grandpa who bakes pies for his grandkids confusing gender? Is a woman who doesn’t wear lipstick confusing gender?
Hopefully this list of examples drives home the idea that many, many gender norms are socially and culturally constructed. The only norms that I can really identify that come from Church teachings are the following:
- Men provide; women nurture. Except that women can also provide and men can also nurture.
- Men preside in the home (as “equal partners” with the non-presiding spouse, whatever that means) and in all Church environments (Oaks made this abundantly clear during the Women’s Session of the most recent Conference).
- Men are to be sexually attracted to and reproduce with women; women are to be sexually attracted to and reproduce with men.
- Men are to serve missions. Women can also serve missions.
- Any actions taken by a trans person in order to socially or physically transition or manifest their gender identity are wrong; the same actions taken by a cisgender person for other reasons are fine.
There historically have been a lot of other norms discussed at Church–like a much stronger prohibition against women working outside the home and much more gender essentialism around the characteristics of women vs. men. But much of that seems to have fallen away as the Church moved away from a focus on the patriarchal family as ideal (the battle over the ERA) to a focus on the heteronormative family as ideal (the battle over gay marriage). As far as I can tell, gender really does seem to boil down to (1) performing priesthood leadership responsibilities and (2) opposite-sex marriage and reproduction.
What’s so ironic about that is that Church leaders consistently counsel gay Church members not to define themselves by their sexuality but instead as a “son or daughter of God.” But it is Church leaders themselves who define one’s maleness or femaleness as boiling down to one’s sexual orientation. It’s Church leaders who are so reductive about our sexuality–even our humanity and identity as children of God. That is the single most important component of a person’s gender performance, which is in turn supposedly “essential” as non-performance will not qualify you for celestial glory.
Don’t get me wrong–I am certainly not suggesting our leaders should be telling us more about how to be men and women. I’m not interested in that because what they’ve said so far is not impressive. What I am saying is that they’ve essentially reduced the plan of salvation and our discipleship of Christ to opposite-sex marriage and reproduction–something that Jesus Christ never taught during his ministry (hence their talks largely simply cite the Family Proclamation, which they wrote, and earlier talks they’ve given). Properly performing gender is center-stage in their version of the gospel, and seems to have a larger role in discussions of “the plan of salvation” than the Author of and Redeemer in that Plan. Even if this focus weren’t homophobic, anti-trans, and sexist–which it is–it is, above all, a spiritually impoverished gospel that resembles nothing I learned about being a disciple of Christ from Christ’s own life or teachings.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is a lot more to performing gender roles than what I’ve said above. If there is, though, I’m definitely missing it.
- If gender is eternal, why is it so slippery? How do you reconcile those positions? Do you agree with Church leaders that normalizing same-sex marriage will mean that the human race will go extinct???
- What exactly does it mean to “homogenize the differences between men and women or confuse or alter gender”? Are there gender characteristics / roles that Church leaders currently teach that I’m missing above? If you’ve been following along with our purity vs. compassion discussions, do rules about gender roles originate in purity culture or compassion culture?
- If appropriate gender performance is so central to God’s plan for us, what do men learn about performing their male roles from their Heavenly Father and in the scriptures? And, more importantly, why don’t women have a female role model? If sexual difference is so fundamental, why are women asked to model their lives off of two men (God and Jesus) and told not to worry about the lack of a female model? Doesn’t that risk women not learning appropriate gender roles and becoming too masculine?
*Church leaders didn’t always teach this, which Petrey’s book details, but that’s outside the scope of this post …