Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Eternal" Gender

"Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."
In 1995 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published this statement in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." While this proclamation has not been canonized (when one prominent church leader called it a revelation in General Conference, he edited his address afterwards to call it a guideline) most Latter-day Saints view it as inspired. Others, many of whom I call friends, wish it would go away. It was created, at least in part, and has been used as a weapon against gender equality for LGBTQI individuals, and in less obvious ways against women. I have written at length about my ambivalent feelings towards this document, but even after a couple more years to mull over various issues, I still believe it is an inspired and inspiring document, and the reasons why center on the quote, above.

I understand (even if I don't feel) some of the reasons people give for rejecting eternal gender. What can mortal genitalia have to do with who I was before birth, or who I will become after? And what about all the people who feel like their genitalia don't match their transcendent self? And how can God have made it so that our genitalia determine socially arbitrary roles that we have assigned to groups of people? It is idiotic. I haven't captured all of the background or subtleties to these positions, and I'm not going to attempt to argue anyone out of them. I agree with most of them, but I think there may be an alternative view that has merit. This time, rather than asking the believer who is more in line with current church rhetoric on family and gender to set aside the rhetoric and examine the actual words of the document, I ask my friends who are inclined to reject "the Proclamation" to do the same. Let's look at the actual words. I think what we find is a document--original created to retrench our views as conservative, Protestant American--that puts radical Mormon ideas into a nearly official document for the first time in the history of the LDS church.

So let's take on the idea of "eternal" gender.

We don't know what "gender" means

We have no idea what eternal gender means. We know nothing about spirit bodies from before this life, and precious little about resurrected and glorified bodies, except that both apparently have manifestations that look like our earthly bodies to a great degree. If our premortal bodies had genitalia, we weren't using them for making babies. And we have no indication of the role of genitalia in the postmortal worlds other than a few speculations. So if gender is essential to our eternal identity, it must refer to something other than (or greater than) our mortal genitalia. I think it's absurd to claim that celestial sex, gestation, and birth is the means of making spirit children. It may be imaginable in some perverse, intellectual way, but there is no evidence for any method of creating spirit children, and I think the mortal way is extremely unlikely. 
Additionally, lets remember the definitions of eternal and endless we've been given in the Doctrine and Covenants. Certainly these are enduring terms, but they do not indicate unending or unchanging. Instead they indicate attributes of, or association with, Godhood. Gender as we know it now need not indicate gender as it was when we were intelligences, or unorganized intelligence. I personally don't believe we had gender before we were organized into some premortal, personal form. Certainly a molecule doesn't have gender, even if a cell arguably can. We must be very careful in imposing earthly, biological roles on what gender meant premortally, or what it will mean postmortally. Words are tricky things.

Our bodies are good, including their gender

I love how Mormon theology values our earthly bodies. The difference between us and Lucifer is that we chose to be embodied. Devils want our bodies. We sang for joy that we would come to earth and get bodies. God the Father has a body. Jesus was resurrected and still resides within His body. I personally have had a miserable time learning to appreciate my body, with the mixed messages we receive, but the vision is beautiful. The vision is that our bodies, while "fallen", are a step forward. We gained power by coming into this world. We will step into the eternities with our bodies, not shed them to arrive at a purer state. This implies that earthly gender is a beneficial addition to my identity, not a chance problem that needs to be undone. Gender serves real purposes in this life, and why shouldn't there be analogous distinctions in celestial bodies? Why should my body do exactly what your body does? Why should my brain work exactly like yours does? I claim to not understand what those distinctions will be, but homogenization of celestial bodies seems like a step backwards, not a step forwards.

Of course there are diseases that affect the physical expression of gender, and I trust that all such  problems will be fixed at the resurrection, but I caution anyone from applying this expectation to non-pathological gender identity.

Agency and gender identity

No one has ever claimed that we choose to be men or women. It has more recently been established that people don't choose to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered or other orientations. The LDS church has gone as far as to officially recognize this on We don't choose our gender, here, but choice was what the whole war in heaven was about. I'm not going to go so far as to say that we chose every detail of what would happen to us in this life, but if gender is an essential part of our eternal identity, how can it be consistent with the law of agency for God to impose a gender on any of us? Yes, I am speculating, but if gender is eternal, I can imagine no way for us to have distinct genders without our having chosen them. Any other way would be a violation of agency, and God will not do that. He cannot and continue to be God. Of course I speak from a position of privilege, as a heterosexual man, but maybe what needs to be eliminated is not gender from our theology, but my position of privilege.

Unintended gender elevation

Having briefly cautioned against imposing mortal understandings of gender on our extra-mortal identity, reminded us that our bodies are gifts and represent progress and empowerment, and argued that eternal gender represents a choice we made at some point, I arrive at some unexpected, and unintended, consequences of "the Proclamation". Many noticed, when it first came out, that "The Family" identified husband and wife as equal partners. While still favoring 1950s American gender roles, it made one of the most explicit mentions of this equality that we have anywhere in our official documents. Members noticed and embraced it, in a wide variety of ways. Many have used it to say, "look how equal we are in our inequality," but that is far from the only understanding among faithful Mormons. And in a way there is no going back. We have explicitly called wives equal, and opened the door for that equality being expressed in ways other than caring for children (that is only a primary and shared responsibility). I think our younger generations have a hard time reading that while keeping a 1950s perspective. In addition, "heavenly parents" are mentioned in this same official document. Heavenly Mother has received very little air time in Mormonism, but now she is an legitimate player in conservative Mormon conversation, even if we don't know what to say about her and the conversations are still awkward.

But beyond this incremental raising up of women, "the Proclamation" has opened the door for raising up the very people it was intended to keep in their place. By asserting that gender is essential to our eternal nature, and now recognizing that gender is not a choice in this life, "The Family" has created space to argue that some individuals are eternally gay. That this state formerly labeled as a "lifestyle" choice might really be one--but a choice approved of and embraced by God as He empowered these individuals to come into this life with their eternal gender intact. And maybe this is just the start of our understanding of gender. Maybe learning from our gay brothers and sisters is not simply a nice thing to do to make this world a better place, but maybe it's essential to our understanding of the eternities.

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