Welcome to the Dialogue Journal’s curated page on transgender topics. Our collection of articles, essays, and personal narratives aims to promote dialogue, education, and understanding surrounding the transgender community. Transgender identities are multifaceted, spanning a range of gender expressions and experiences. These entries help to foster understanding and challenge stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding transgender identities.
Transcending Mormonism: Transgender Experiences in the LDS Church
Dialogue 56.1 (Spring 2023): 27–55
Enjoy an interview about this piece here.
Desiring to better understand how people are navigating these complex identity negotiations, I interviewed seven trans and/or gender nonconforming Mormons between eighteen and forty-four years old living in various regions of the United States as part of my graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York
In 1980, LDS authorities used the term “transsexual” for the first time publicly when they prohibited “transsexual operations” in their official General Handbook of Instructions. They made clear that “members who have undergone transsexual operations must be excommunicated” and that “after excommunication such a person is not eligible for baptism.” Such harsh policies were rooted in a broader ambience of strict boundary enforcement of a male–female gender binary and patriarchal hierarchy. This gender-based power structure relied (and still relies) on biologically and theologically essential claims of sexual difference while paradoxically asserting the perpetual malleability and fluidity of gender performance and behavior. In other words, LDS leaders have simultaneously framed gender as biologically immutable and a contingent product of culture, practice, and environment. However, because the LDS Church among broader conservative movements was focused on the more culturally and politically salient issue of homosexuality, their mentions of trans issues remained scarce for many decades.
In the 2020 General Handbook, LDS authorities added more detail than ever before regarding trans issues. Some additions seemed to show increased compassion and inclusion for trans individuals, while others doubled down on long-standing discriminatory policies that punish transitional surgeries. In addition, they made clear that “social transitioning” would be grounds for membership restrictions (i.e., Church discipline), a new policy that has raised questions about how boundaries of gender nonconformity will be policed in the Church. To make legible an identity (or identities) that currently has little to no semantic or symbolic space in LDS theology, many trans Mormons conscientiously negotiate the relationship between their religious and gender identities, a process that often involves conflict, pain, and despair.
Desiring to better understand how people are navigating these complex identity negotiations, I interviewed seven trans and/or gender nonconforming Mormons between eighteen and forty-four years old living in various regions of the United States as part of my graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. All participants identified as white, politically liberal, and were either current or former college students. They will be referred to with pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. Six of the seven interviews were one-time hour-long conversations via Zoom, and one interview with an individual I will refer to as Juliana (age forty-four) was a written exchange that consisted of several emails. Analyses from the interviews are intermingled throughout with the purpose of highlighting some of the nuances, complexities, and differences that exist across trans Mormon experiences.
In order to present sufficient contextual background, I will first provide a brief history of gender and homosexuality in the post–World War II LDS Church. Next, I will discuss in depth the specific ways in which interviewees were negotiating and making meaning of their trans and Mormon identities in the context of broader trans experiences. I will then describe important evolution on Church policies affecting trans individuals and propose institutional and theological suggestions for creating a more inclusive and affirming space for all sexual and gender identities within the Church. Ultimately, the beauty and diversity of trans Mormon experiences calls for a restructuring of current cissexist and heterosexist Church policies and a reimagining of LDS theology such that moral character and eternal glory are not dependent on one’s gender identity and romantic relationships.
LDS Frameworks on Homosexuality and Gender—An Overview
Before delving into the specific experiences of those I interviewed, I will provide an overview of the ways in which LDS elites have constructed sexual and gender classification schemes that perpetually position non-heteronormative individuals as deficient, oppositional, and/or sinful, a sociological phenomenon referred to by Michael Schwalbe as “oppressive othering.” As gay and lesbian sexual liberation movements gained increased social and political momentum in the late 1950s and 60s, LDS authorities began harshly and publicly condemning homosexuality (and then later transgender experiences) on the grounds that it confuses gender roles and fundamentally defies God’s universal plan.
Because experiences around what we now call “transgender” identity did not have linguistic space until the latter part of the twentieth century, the first mentions of sexual and gender minorities by LDS authorities focused on people they referred to as “homosexuals.” In fact, the first time the words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” appeared in a public speech from an LDS authority was in 1952. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Church leaders had begun punishing alleged “sodomites,” excommunicating members found guilty of “the crime against nature.” They even organized “witch hunts,” where Church officials hunted down and interrogated allegedly homosexual men, enacting harsh disciplinary action upon guilty individuals.
Rhetoric from Church elites around homosexuality became increasingly harsh and public during the 1950s and 60s. Spencer W. Kimball, a prominent mid-twentieth century figure in Mormon leadership, after discovering that several Christian groups had started reaching out in compassion to homosexuals, stated: “Voices must cry out against them. Ours cannot remain silent. To the great Moses, these perversions were an abomination and a defilement worthy of death. To Paul, it was unnatural, unmanly, ungodly, and a dishonorable passion of an adulterous nature and would close all doors to the kingdom.” His stern condemnations were part of a top-down campaign in which LDS leaders framed homosexuality as a viral contagion and serious threat to individual, familial, and societal well-being, one that required urgent treatment and forceful eradication. In line with white, middle-class notions of respectability, Mormon leaders frequently positioned homosexuality as part of the decaying moral fabric of American society and antithetical to happy, successful family life. In doing so, they leveraged a host of “homosexuality causes” that often had to do with poor parenting, sexual abuse, masturbation, pornography, and a confusion of gender roles, among other things.
Exposure to pornography was an especially prevalent explanation. For example, LDS authority Victor Brown once said to a worldwide church audience: “A normal twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy or girl exposed to pornographic literature could develop into a homosexual. You can take healthy boys or girls and by exposing them to abnormalities virtually crystallize and settle their habits.” Echoing traditional Christian fears concerning pornography, as well as middle-class fears about sexual knowledge and experimentation, LDS elites argued that moral transgressions like pornography could literally cause homosexuality. These oppressive frameworks, grounded in psychodynamic theories of sexual malleability and fluidity, paved the way for the widespread practice of aversion therapy and reparative therapy (reparative therapy is sometimes referred to as conversion therapy).
The general assumption of Church leaders at the time was that sexual malleability explained “how someone could . . . become homosexual to begin with” and offered “a plan for that person to embrace heterosexuality.” Aversion therapy, most notably practiced at Brigham Young University at least until the late 1970s, may have consisted of electroshock therapy programs, nausea-inducing chemical treatments, and a host of other dehumanizing methods in an attempt to change the sexual orientation of homosexual people. Reparative therapy and other less aggressive forms of sexual orientation change efforts have persisted for many more decades and are even still practiced today. Under the guise of healing and helping homosexual individuals “overcome their disease” through a variety of treatment methods, the LDS Church justified decades of inhumane and sometimes torturous methods in an attempt to obliterate homosexuality from the Church and American society as a whole.
Central to LDS theology is the idea that gender is an essential and divine characteristic assigned by God in the premortal life. In a semi-canonical 1995 document called “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” top LDS leaders declare that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” They also explicitly outline what they believe to be God-given male and female roles: “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.” Within this patriarchal framework, LDS leaders have grounded female domestic labor and male economic opportunity in appeals to a “divine order.”
This institutional structure is an example of what Raewyn Connell refers to as a “gender regime,” or a particular configuration of power relations based on gendered divisions. She further explains that the construction and maintenance of patriarchal regimes often utilizes “strategic essentialism,” or explanations of origin regarding supposedly innate sexual differences. She concludes that “most origin stories are not history but mythmaking, which serves to justify some political view in the present.”
Although modern LDS leaders on the surface have presented gender as an immutable characteristic that begins in premortal existence, they have also devoted tremendous effort and resources to regulating male and female gender roles through political, legal, and cultural norms. On the one hand, they have claimed that male and female sexual differences are natural and self-evident, but on the other hand, they have provided tireless cautions regarding the perpetual malleability and contingency of gender performance. In other words, if not policed through institutional and cultural norms, gender identity and performativity is always at risk of failure, confusion, or alteration—a phenomenon that has at times been implicated as a cause (and a result) of homosexuality.
Notwithstanding such contradictions, LDS gender schemes have long supported patriarchal frameworks that domesticate and subordinate women while empowering and enriching men. More egalitarian notions of marriage have entered into LDS teachings in recent decades, something Taylor Petrey refers to as “soft egalitarianism,” because men still “preside” over the home and the Church. And since there is such a strong emphasis on conformity and obedience in the LDS Church, many male and female members who internalize these notions of sexual difference and mid-twentieth-century gendered divisions of labor tend to feel close to God and fortified in their faith.
Along with the emergence of rhetoric targeting homosexuality in the 1950s, Church leaders began describing gender as completely interchangeable with biological sex. LDS authorities (perhaps until very recently) have collapsed gender and biological sex into one concept, an ideology that defies well-accepted feminist and anthropological arguments that have distinguished biological sex (meaning male and female bodies) from socially constructed “gender” (meaning social roles and norms that vary dramatically across culture and time). As a result, LDS leaders tend to view gender (including gender identity, expression, and roles) as an immutable and natural outgrowth of biological sex. Similarly, heterosexual attraction/desire is assumed to be a predetermined, innate characteristic of one’s gender or biological sex. Within this scheme of biological essentialism, one that indistinguishably entangles gender and sex, Church leaders have conceptualized homosexuality as a direct result (and a cause) of gender confusion, or a concept nineteenth-century psychologists referred to as “gender inversion.” Spencer W. Kimball put it this way:
Every form of homosexuality is sin . . . Some people are ignorant or vicious and apparently attempting to destroy the concept of masculinity and femininity. More and more girls dress, groom, and act like men. More and more men dress, groom, and act like women. The high purposes of life are damaged and destroyed by the growing unisex theory. God made man in his own image, male and female made he them. With relatively few accidents of nature, we are born male or female. The Lord knew best. Certainly, men and women who would change their sex status will answer to their Maker.
These arguments, which persist in the Church today, rely upon stereotypical depictions of atypically gendered homosexuality and reinforce cultural notions conflating sex, gender, and sexualities. They also rely on assumptions that homosexuality both leads to and results from an “attack” on gender roles, and this rhetoric is part of a broader effort to enforce gender norms and punish gender deviance. Interestingly, Kimball’s language equates homosexual experiences with what we would now call transgender experiences when he refers to homosexuals as people who “change their sex status.” As a result, trans and gay experiences have often been rendered in LDS teachings as “the same” because they both involve a rejection of “divine gender norms.” Not only does this ignore the multitude of gender identities that span gay/lesbian experiences, and the fact that many trans people do not identify as gay/lesbian, it also serves a broader goal of reducing and making illegible sexual minority experiences in LDS contexts.
The Complexities of Trans and Gender Nonconforming Experiences
Throughout my interviews, I quickly noticed that individuals construct what it means to be “trans” very differently. For trans people more broadly, ideas about gender identity, gender expression, coming out (and being out), and the concept of gender itself vary dramatically and sometimes contradict one another. As I portray the personal ways in which interviewees negotiate (and renegotiate) their religious and gender identities, I will simultaneously emphasize the vast diversity contained in the space we call “trans Mormon.”
Juliana’s “Tinted Phone Booth” Analogy
Have you ever had an opportunity to go inside of a tinted phone booth? I remember going inside one of these, and when the door was closed, how small and confining it felt to be inside there. I think of this as something like what it’s like as I try to live inside my body. Being inside my body feels like my skin is like an outside wall of a phone booth and yet the “phone booth” is tinted such that not very many people can see that anyone is inside it. This is how I feel in my body. This is how I feel about my body. My female spirit inside my body yearns to be free. She pushes up against my skin and calls/pleads for help. A few people can hear her calling for help . . . and many cannot.
The tinted phone booth analogy was one of the first descriptions Juliana provided about what her life was like as a “female spirit” trapped inside of a male body. This analogy seemed to capture her experiences so powerfully. She does not consider herself “out” and goes by “Julian” at work, at home, at church, and with her friends. She can count on one hand the people in her life who know about her internal sense of femaleness. Like many other trans Mormons, Juliana must navigate a series of complex, sensitive, and often painful decisions around who she is and who she wishes to be.
Gender Binary Versus Gender-free
Out of the individuals I interviewed, Juliana’s description of being a woman trapped in a male body is perhaps the most familiar and conventional when discussing trans experiences. It is important to note that she was the only middle-aged individual (age forty-four) with whom I spoke, as all others were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. While a significant percentage of people from younger generations do in fact experience their transness in the context of the male–female gender binary, when compared to older generations, it is more common for millennial and Gen Z trans individuals to construct gender identities that subvert or exist outside of the gender binary. Similarly, those of younger generations statistically have an easier time being out about their trans identity, while those of older generations like Juliana are more likely to remain stealth (i.e., hidden) about their trans identity. These generational differences are understandable considering the substantively different cultural and political climates of current and past generations regarding acceptance of non-cisgender identities.
The individuals I spoke with revealed intricate and thoughtful ways in which they were constructing a sense of what it means to be trans and Mormon, and particularly, how they felt about gender itself as a concept. Several conceptualized their trans identity as existing within the male–female gender binary, while others described their gender identity as existing outside of or in between the gender binary. For instance, in explaining her fervent wish to allow her female spirit to be free, Juliana said:
While my name is Julian, my heart wishes so acutely it were Juliana. I try hard to attend and participate in elders quorum [church group designated for men]. My heart wishes, however, that I could be in Relief Society [church group designated for women]. I try to bear numbing internal frustration, in part from a feeling like I need to wear a white, button-up shirt and necktie, by wearing mainly ties that have some pink in them; though my heart yearns to be wearing, instead, a cute dress and a necklace. But it’s so much more than clothes. It’s also sisterly connection.
As demonstrated by this moving excerpt, a sense of being trans for Juliana is inextricably linked to the male–female gender binary. Her sense of self is not only built on the feeling of “being female” but also on deeply yearning to “do female things,” such as attending Relief Society meetings, having pink in her ties, and wearing “a cute dress and necklace.” However, she explains that it is more than simply outward expression and clothing choice. She longs for a “sisterly connection” that would come from surrounding herself with other women.
Sarah (age twenty-three) was assigned male at birth and also experiences her trans identity within the gender binary. She underwent a gender confirmation surgery, transitioning to a woman in 2019. Interestingly, when asked about the concept of gender, she affirmed the LDS Church’s conservative stance that God created two eternal genders—male and female. Thus, she simply believes that God gave her the wrong body: “While I don’t have all the answers about gender, I at least know that God created male and female in his image. As for me and my situation, I don’t exactly know what happened, although I do believe that God made me female and for some reason put me in a male body.” Sarah’s belief that God mistakenly clothed her female spirit in a male body does not disrupt the firmness of her convictions in Mormon theology—in fact, it harmoniously fits within her beliefs about the eternal and essential nature of gender.
Kevin (age twenty-two) identities as a member of the trans community and more specifically as bigender. They described the complexity of their gender identity in this way:
As I got older, I would talk to women, and I wished I was them. And in my sexual fantasies, I found myself, like, desiring to be a woman sometimes. And so recently, I’ve realized, like, that there’s some aspects of being male that I feel I identify with and desire. And then there’s also some aspects of being female that I empathize with and desire. I know a lot of trans people who kind of feel sort of in the middle where they just don’t really feel like they fit in with either. I’ve heard people describe themselves as, like, genderless blobs, and things like that. But that’s never how I’ve felt. I’ve felt more like both genders and like strong pulls to either, instead of, like, being pushed towards the middle. So that’s kind of why I’ve stuck with the bigender label, because it seems to fit that the best.
Unlike Juliana, Kevin feels pulled toward both male and female genders, and their desire to be masculine and/or feminine varies across context and space. In this way, the term “bigender” provides clarity for their experiences and stands in contrast to what Kevin calls a “genderless blob.”
Emily (age twenty-two) describes their gender identity as existing outside of, or perhaps in between, male and female concepts. They explained:
The more that I kind of read about different connections to, like, gender and gender identity, I just kind of realized that I don’t strongly identify or, like, feel really tied to being a girl or boy. Like, sometimes I used to have my hair all pulled up. I used to pull it up a lot, just like in a hat and hide it. And I would get, like, mistaken for a boy. And that, like, didn’t bug me. But it didn’t particularly make me feel, like, super awesome either. It was just like, okay, like, it just didn’t matter. And so I’ve been having a lot more friends that are trans or nonbinary. And I kind of was just like, “Oh, I mean, yeah, that’s how I feel. I didn’t know that.” So, I’m still trying to put words to it. And it’s weird because it doesn’t feel like I necessarily need to change how I look or how people refer to me. Um, but inside myself, I feel like I identify as nonbinary, like, not as strictly a boy or girl.
Emily describes more of a neutrality or even apathy about their gender expression. Being “mistaken for a boy” was neither good nor bad for their self-image. In fact, they further explained that they “don’t feel much of a need to label” themselves at all.
Beth (age eighteen) believes that God is not limited by a gender binary and encompasses a broad spectrum of gender identities.
I absolutely know that nothing about me is a mistake. I absolutely know that people can change and people are capable of love. And I absolutely know that the divine, however you want to see that, however you want to see that divinity, cannot be limited and should not be limited when it comes to gender identity. God is not limited to male or female. Because the divine is all-encompassing. It’s an all-encompassing love and an all-encompassing power that you can sit with and you can adapt to yourself however you want and that you can find strength in.
Many trans Mormons like Beth validate their gender identity with appeals to a benevolent God who “doesn’t make mistakes.” As someone whose gender identity falls outside of the traditional binary, Beth articulately affirms that God is the author and creator of all types of gender identities and experiences. Embedded in this position is a view that God’s concept of gender (or lack thereof) has been tainted by sociohistorical and political constructions that have been organized into limiting male–female gender schemas. Thus, some trans Mormons subvert altogether the Church’s teachings regarding gender, while others explain their experiences within an “eternal gender” framework. This reflects broader attitudes within United States trans communities, where there are some who advocate for an abolition of gender altogether, and yet others who call for an assimilation of nonconforming gender identities into previously existing gender structures. As with Beth and Kevin, many individuals who resist or avoid the male–female binary still use the umbrella term “trans” to describe their identity while also using terms like genderqueer, gender nonbinary, bigender, gender-free, and/or agender to provide added or more specific meaning. However, some gender-variant individuals prefer not to use the term “trans” at all, a phenomenon that further complexifies the usage of these terms and the symbolic and semantic spaces they occupy (or do not occupy).
Several individuals were in committed romantic relationships at the time of interview, including Sarah, who described the difficulty of articulating her sexual identity several times during our exchange. At one point, she explained that her relationship to her trans boyfriend puts her in an ambiguous space when it comes to sexual identity: “To be honest, I am not really sure about what my sexual identity is. Most of the time, I just identify as straight because I’m dating a trans guy, but I sometimes ask myself, am I pan? Or maybe bi?” While Sarah’s curiosity and uncertainty regarding her sexual identity was notable, she did not appear concerned about her difficulty describing it.
Like Sarah, Theresa (age twenty-five), who identities as nonbinary, also finds themselves in a space of ambiguity when it comes to sexual identity. They explained: “And then there have been brief phases where I was like, do I like guys? Do I not like guys? Am I just a lesbian who’s confused? And especially in a society like ours—and I don’t mean just LDS culture, I mean just heteronormative culture in general—it can be very confusing to be sure of what your identity is.” Acknowledging the difficulty of defining their sexual identity, Theresa points out heteronormative cultural pressures that influence the process of identity development and the labels they decide to adopt. It is particularly interesting that they wonder if they are a “lesbian who’s confused,” a common cultural and theological notion that has framed transgender experiences as a hyperextension, an extremized version, or “the final result” of homosexuality. Indeed, both Sarah’s and Theresa’s difficulties in expressing their sexual identities reveal the complex conceptual interplay between gender and sexuality. Their descriptions demonstrate that experiences of sexual desire and identity are dependent upon an ongoing appraisal of one’s own and one’s partner’s gender identity, a phenomenon that reveals the overlapping fluidity and contingency embedded in such categories.
Coming Out Versus Being Out
The individuals I interviewed characterized the concepts of coming out and being out with complexity and variation. For Juliana, who is not public about her trans identity, coming out has been a deeply private process involving careful decisions about when, and with whom, to disclose identity. To bring in again her tinted phone booth analogy, she yearns to remove the tint on the windows or restructure the windows altogether, although she feels she has no choice but to remain “trapped” inside. She explained: “I am nervous to share this secret. What would I do if people no longer accepted me in my current job, or if my children got hurt or shamed? These things worry me terribly. I’m not ready to share this with everyone yet, though sometimes I think many might already know or maybe have put two and two together.” Juliana feels that her familial, social, and professional life would crumble if her gender identity were made public. Interestingly, she presents herself in normatively masculine ways (i.e., wears men’s clothes, uses typical masculine mannerisms), but she still fears that others may be suspicious about her “secret.” I imagine that this hypersensitivity is common among trans Mormons who are not out, an indication of the immense fear and anxiety people like Juliana experience at the thought of others finding out about their identity.
For others, a physical and/or social transition is in and of itself a type of coming-out, or as many trans individuals put it, “being out.” When several individuals I interviewed explained the concept of “being out,” they emphasized that they are not necessarily out by choice. Their altered physical appearances, either because of surgery, hormonal treatment, and/or gender expression, create a constant state of “outness,” one in which their personal decisions around when and with whom to disclose their gender identity become less relevant. Beth described her sense of being out in this way:
I was just out running errands for somebody one time, and I was standing at a tech store, and my back was facing the door and somebody came in. And one of the sales associates was like, “Oh, I’ll be right with you.” And the guy was like, “Oh no worries, he was there first.” And I was like, whoa. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was like, I can’t believe that I was perceived as slightly androgynous. So, I don’t experience gender dysphoria, as much as I do experience gender euphoria, you know, able to present and be perceived as, you know, androgynous, even though nonbinary and androgynous aren’t necessarily equal, but you know, it just makes me feel very happy.
Even though Beth identifies as nonbinary, they frequently explained a desire to be “perceived as androgynous.” This experience of being read as a “he” in the store shows that Beth’s sense of being out is less about verbalizing or declaring their gender identity and more about being perceived in certain ways by others. They describe a feeling of “gender euphoria” as opposed to dysphoria when others are able to correctly perceive their expression of gender in a particular context.
For some, identifying as trans is a crucial and all-encompassing part of their sense of self, while for others, it takes up a small or nonexistent identity space. Several of the trans Mormons I spoke with reflected this broader phenomenon, as they articulated the salience of their transness (or lack of transness) in significantly different and complex ways. To provide a few examples, Emily, who identifies as nonbinary, explained their gender identity in this way:
About a year ago is when I kind of started to question my gender. And it’s kind of weird, because, like, I feel comfortable kind of presenting pretty feminine sometimes, like I have my nails done and, like, long hair and I still go by Emily. But sometimes, I feel comfortable presenting more masculine, like with my hair rolled up. Sometimes people will, like, automatically think that I am trans because I prefer to use they/them pronouns and present in, like, ambiguous ways, but I don’t think of myself as trans because I don’t really have a desire to transition to any specific gender identity.
For Emily, a nonbinary identity is not connected to a trans label. They do not consider themselves to be trans because they lack the desire to “transition” to a specific gender identity, a notion that links trans identity to the traditional gender binary.
Kevin, on the other hand, uses the term “trans” as a way to explain their bigender identity:
I’m still kind of figuring out my gender. But the one [term] that has stuck with me the most right now is bigender. It’s a label that’s under the trans umbrella. And I definitely feel comfortable in the trans community. But yeah, I, like, found that a lot of the people I was closest to and had the most similar case to in my online friends community were often trans. And I found that a lot of the music I liked was the same frequently as people who are trans and I felt connected to the emotions and identity of the music and the themes it was exploring.
Although Kevin describes their identity in tentative terms, they express a comfortability and resonance with the “trans community.” Interestingly, their sense of transness is also connected to the particular emotions and identity of their music preferences, which they have found to be shared by other trans people. It seems that a significant aspect of Kevin’s trans identity is the social comradery and connection that comes from their intimate social circles consisting of other trans individuals. Kevin’s and Emily’s intricate articulations of their gender identities demonstrate the varying levels of salience that gender nonconforming individuals may or may not assign to the term “trans” when making sense of their identities.
It is commonly assumed that trans identity is inseparably connected to an experience of gender dysphoria. However, several individuals I spoke with did not report any feelings of gender dysphoria. Recall that Beth describes a feeling of “gender euphoria” as opposed to gender dysphoria. They elaborated on that concept in this way:
I had this dream one time that I was performing in, like, a drag king sort of setting. And I was perceived as super butch and masculine and that sort of stuff. And then as the song progressed, I transformed into a more and more feminine version of myself. And when I woke up from that dream, I was like, that’s the most whole I’ve felt in my entire life, is when I can accept both of those ends of the spectrum in myself, and I can see all of those complexities and nuances in myself. So, once I started to be a little more aware about that, when people use gender-neutral pronouns for me, or anything like that, it’s just this sense of like, yes, that is who I am!
Beth’s gender identity involves an embracing and harmonizing of masculine and feminine concepts. Rather than experiencing a sense of dysphoria or conflict, Beth feels affirmed and “whole” when they embrace “both ends of the spectrum” in themselves. They went on to explain that their experience of feeling more masculine or feminine depends on the time and context and can often feel unpredictable.
Unlike Beth, Juliana has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a previous mental health clinician. She explained:
Looking in mirrors is painful for me because a reflection looking back at me doesn’t match who I see myself as on the inside. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of this. Thirteen years ago, when my depression reached a point where I was struggling to sleep, I decided to go see a therapist. I explained to this therapist that I’d been waking up in the middle of the night (my sleep would just thin out and I would find myself staring at the ceiling at two o’clock in the morning), just wishing/yearning that I could put on a dress. Often my pillow was wet with tears. After a few months, the therapist diagnosed me with gender identity disorder—a designation that was eventually changed to gender dysphoria.
Juliana experiences immense distress over the painful and incessant dissonance between her assigned biological sex and her internal sense of gender. However, because of social and ecclesiastical fears, she does not feel that transitioning is a reasonable possibility at this point in her life.
From a clinical perspective, gender dysphoria is diagnosed when one experiences significant levels of distress and/or dysfunction, such as Juliana’s experiences described above. Furthermore, having a gender dysphoria diagnosis is often a prerequisite for receiving insurance coverage for gender confirmation surgery and/or hormonal treatment, a structural reality that often leads clinicians to overdiagnose gender dysphoria. Clinicians and researchers continue to discuss complex questions regarding the so-called “etiology” of gender dysphoria. Is one’s sense of dysphoria caused by an inherent physiological-psychological disconnect between assigned biological sex and internal sense of gender, or rather by a culturally constructed system that discriminates against and ostracizes gender-nonconforming individuals? Or a combination of both? Examining these challenging questions helps researchers and clinicians to better appreciate the complex, mutually constitutive interplay that occurs between individual experiences and cultural scripts regarding gender.
Battles over Labels
The specific language gender-nonconforming Mormons use to describe themselves intersects with complex sociocultural and religious factors, including the fact that LDS leaders have for decades sought to regulate the ways in which others conceptualize their experience of gender. They have often discouraged the use of what they view as “permanent” or “fixed” labels in favor of descriptors that signify a temporary and resolvable condition or trial. For example, the label “same-sex attracted” was for decades preferred over gay, lesbian, or queer.68 Only recently has this begun to shift, as the majority of current leaders have become increasingly accepting of the term “transgender” as an identity label.
Another powerful rhetorical technique has been the framing of gender-nonconforming experiences as the result of confusion caused by Satan. Boyd K. Packer said in 1978: “If an individual becomes trapped somewhere between masculinity and femininity, he can be captive of the adversary and under the threat of losing his potential godhood.” For Packer, Satan’s traps lay deceptively between the rigid boundaries of a Victorian gender binary, and if an individual was failing to perform gender “correctly,” they were at risk of losing salvation and godhood. In a more recent speech addressing the worldwide Church, Dallin H. Oaks said: “Our 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. . . . [Satan] seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage, and to discourage childbearing—especially by parents who will raise children in truth.”
Both outspoken and prominent voices on issues of gender and sexuality, Packer (who passed away in 2015) and Oaks have frequently invoked God’s authority to shore up heteronormative cisgender claims, a tactic that simultaneously adds credibility and force to their assertions while also deflecting responsibility from themselves and other Church leaders, the very individuals who have the power to change policies and teachings regarding sexual and gender minorities. In addition, describing Satan as the author of “confusion” around sexual and gender variation is a weaponizing technique that can exacerbate internal shame, depression, and suicidality among LGBTQ+ Mormons. The employment of the figure “Satan” has also contributed to the long-standing framework that cisgender heterosexual identities and relationships are “real” while non-heteronormative identities and relationships are “counterfeit.” In 2015, senior leader L. Tom Perry explained: “We want our voice to be heard against all of the counterfeit and alternative lifestyles that try to replace the family organization that God Himself established.”
These types of top-down messages and battles over language can sometimes discourage Church members from adopting an identity label under the trans umbrella by framing heteronormative cisgender experience as the only possibility allowed by God. Among those influenced by this rhetoric is Mary (age twenty).
And then in terms of gender, this is something I haven’t talked about much with my parents, but I have a friend whose boyfriend is transgender. And my parents have equated it to kind of like, sometimes there’s people who will have a ghost limb, even though their arm is still there, they’ll feel like, Oh, my arm isn’t supposed to be there or something. And my dad would say like, “Oh, even though they have this feeling that this part of their body is wrong, like, a doctor is not going to just cut off their arm because that would harm the person.” And they kind of equate that to, like, gender reassignment surgery, it’s kind of like, even though you feel this way, like, that’s just not the way that things are. So yeah, I think in terms of my family, it’s kind of just like, oh, here are the standard norms set by our family and our religion. And like I said before, how my dad compared it to his friend who cheated on his wife, or also in previous letters he has said, like, he doesn’t want me to use trans as a label, that he would prefer that I use labels like, oh, I’m a child of God, like that’s my primary label.
Having grown up in an environment where transgender experiences were equated to having a phantom limb or cheating on a spouse (a disorder and an immoral behavior), Mary finds it difficult to label their current experiences pertaining to gender. They point out the powerful influence family and religious norms have had on their identity formation, especially their dad’s discouragement of the use of “trans” as a label. Recently, Mary has been “experimenting with [their] pronouns” and considering a “nonbinary” identity label. However, “child of God” as the “most important label” is an idea that has been deployed by LDS leaders who have sought to minimize or erase non-heteronormative identities. Thus, it is crucial that gender-nonconforming Mormons critically analyze top-down messaging regarding labels as they construct a sense of identity in ways that feel most meaningful to them.
A Crucial Ternary for Trans Mormons
LDS gender minorities often navigate complex paths of identity negotiation and formation. While many feel they must make an “either-or” choice between their religious and gender identities, others find (or place) themselves in more ambiguous territory, negotiating a working relationship between these identities. In a 2015 survey of 114 trans Mormons (or former Mormons), 38 percent of respondents said they were on LDS membership rolls and identified as LDS, 43 percent thought their names remained on the rolls although they themselves no longer identified as LDS, and 19 percent said they were no longer members of record. As these results depict, a vast diversity of trans Mormon experience exists, as individuals conceptualize (and reconceptualize) a dynamic and ongoing relationship with God, the Church, and themselves. Below is an illustration of this three-part relationship, or what I refer to as “a crucial ternary for trans Mormons.”
As part of this ternary, the trans Mormons I interviewed were each uniquely negotiating a relationship between their personal experiences, their religious convictions, and their institutional loyalties to the Church. For Sarah, remaining faithful to the Church is pivotal to her sense of self and does not detract from her trans identity. She explained:
I’ve been reading a lot of stuff online from other trans Mormons—or I guess I should say ex-Mormons. A lot of people say something along the lines of “you’re rejecting your trans identity if you stay in the LDS Church.” I really don’t agree with that. I feel like I am a trans woman through and through. While I do have very real fears about even the thought of transitioning, I don’t feel like that detracts from my overall sense of identity. I don’t think people should be so judgmental about what people should or shouldn’t do. Decisions around transgender identity should be left up to the individual.
This sentiment that only by leaving the Church can one fully embrace their gender identity is commonly expressed among trans former members of the Church. However, Sarah, who is deeply connected to her LDS identity, feels that this type of advice fails to acknowledge the personal complexities and individual nature of trans Mormon experiences. Furthermore, such notions create classification schemes that label people as “more” or “less” trans, a framework that often leads to judgment, divisiveness, and misunderstanding.
While several individuals I spoke with had completely disaffiliated from the Church, others were critical about some Church teachings while still describing themselves as faithful members. For example, Emily explained their relationship with the LDS Church in this way:
It’s okay if I don’t go to church one week. And it’s okay to not believe every single thing. Once I decided that, I felt a lot more free to, like, figure out what I actually liked about the Church or how I actually felt and who I was. Because I think that the Church’s structure, as presented to me at least, was very rigid. And so, those problems that came up, I didn’t know what to do with. And so once I was like, oh, that’s okay, I can just choose the things that I like, I felt a lot more like I started discovering my identity, if that makes sense.
Emily grew up in an environment where they felt they needed to accept every teaching and claim of the Church. In recent years, they have embraced a more selective approach, choosing to accept or reject Church teachings according to their personal judgment and experiences. They emphasize what they see as the “beauties” of “the Church” and “the gospel,” while simultaneously expressing skepticism toward teachings they deem as more a product of “human imperfections.” This approach is captured by a long-standing label found in LDS culture (and other faith traditions): “cafeteria Mormon,” i.e., a Church member who accepts teachings they agree with and rejects teachings they do not agree with. Several individuals I interviewed described their relationship to the Church in this way. Kevin, for example, wished they would have adopted a “cafeteria Mormon” approach earlier in life. They explained:
And it’s kind of sad, because I have a lot of friends that are still in the Church but are dating somebody of the same gender. And they’re like, “Oh, well, I just feel like I have a really close relationship with God, and so I know that this is fine for me.” And they’re like, “You can have that too.” And it just feels too late, if that makes sense. Which makes me sad, because I feel like if I grew up feeling like I could have part of it, and I don’t have to believe in every single rigid thing, then I would have been able to stay and have that church community. And have the comfort of going to church and feeling like I have heavenly parents who love me and Jesus to be on my side. But now it kind of feels like it’s too late.
Kevin finds great value in the sense of community facilitated by the Church as well as the core teaching that heavenly parents love and want to help their children, although they feel that it is “too late” to repair the years of damage and trauma caused by their Church membership. Kevin certainly feels like such harm could have been alleviated by a more nuanced and less “rigid” approach to faith, one in which it was okay to accept some teachings and reject others. This type of “pick and choose” mindset that Kevin is describing seems to provide a safer space whereby some trans members can find a home in the Church.
Another idea expressed by several interviewees is that their personal relationship with God transcends or supersedes their relationship with the Church. In the same survey of 114 trans Mormons that I referenced previously, 86 percent of respondents placed more importance on personal revelation than on obedience to Church authority in their religious lives. A theological foundation of Mormonism is that God hears and answers prayers and will give personalized revelation and inspiration to those who seek it. However, the idea that God answers individual prayers and gives specific direction accordingly poses an uncomfortable tension and paradox in LDS theology. On the one hand, individuals are encouraged and even expected to seek answers from God regarding important decisions in their life; on the other hand, conformity and obedience to leaders is paramount to LDS constructions of faithfulness and devotion. So, what happens when one’s personal revelations from God do not align with what Church leaders are teaching to be God’s word? Several trans Mormons I spoke with were asking (or answering) some version of this question. Here is Beth’s thoughtful perspective:
Another thing that is preached so heavily in the LDS Church is that once you leave, you will never find happiness. And that is so untrue. You can find the same spirituality and divinity and happiness in other places because that is inside of you, and not anything that an organization or an institution gives to you. And that was a real turning point for me recognizing that I could still hold to my faith and stand up for equality, and stand up against the institution of the Church. And that’s really I think the phase we’re in right now of understanding that institutions don’t always have all the answers, and that doesn’t make your faith or answers to prayer any less valid or any less sacred.
Prior to this turning point in thinking, Beth grew up in an environment where LDS leaders were given final authority to determine the decisions and behaviors that constitute “true happiness.” They no longer grant that authority to religious institutions and organizations (especially the LDS Church) and instead place moral authority on their own sense of judgment. As they point out, divinity and spirituality are internally discovered and personally governed pursuits, not absolute truths dictated and regulated by religious authorities. In short, Beth privileges their personal judgment and inclinations over the moral and theological assertions of Church leaders.
Institutional Evolution on Trans Issues
LDS leaders periodically revise what is now called the General Handbook, a manual that contains detailed instructions about Church procedure, policy, and doctrine. The first ever mention of the word “transsexual” appeared in the 1980 version of the handbook, where there was a small and somewhat vague section regarding “transsexual operations”: “The Church counsels against transsexual operations, and members who undergo such procedures require disciplinary action. . . . Investigators [prospective members learning about the Church] who have already undergone transsexual operations may be baptized if otherwise worthy on condition that an appropriate notation be made on the membership record so as to preclude such individuals from either receiving the priesthood or temple recommends. . . . Members who have undergone transsexual operations must be excommunicated. After excommunication such a person is not eligible for baptism.” The addition of this section in the general Church handbook was possibly in response to a specific and unusual case involving a Church member who had undergone a male-to-female surgery and desired a temple marriage with a cisgender male. Uncertain about how to proceed, her stake president contacted the presiding General Authority, Hugh Pinnock, who authorized the individual to receive her temple endowment and get sealed to her husband as a woman (their temple wedding was performed in February of 1980). Shocked and surprised by Pinnock’s authorization, the stake president contacted another General Authority, Robert Simpson, who emphatically repudiated what had been authorized by Pinnock.
Five years later, Church leaders slightly softened their hard-line policy about “transsexual operations.” Instead of condemning a person who underwent a transsexual operation to a non-negotiable and final excommunication, there was a subtle change in policy: “After excommunication, such a person is not eligible for baptism unless approved by the First Presidency.” This caveat, while still harsh, allowed for exceptions to be made and individual circumstances to be considered by the highest governing body of the Church. In 1989, language in the general handbook was again softened and revised: “Church leaders counsel against elective transsexual operations. A bishop [leader of a local congregation] should inform a member contemplating such an operation of this counsel and should advise the member that the operation may be cause for formal Church discipline. In questionable cases, a bishop should obtain the counsel of the First Presidency.” It is noteworthy that Church leaders introduced the term “elective” to qualify the description of an operation, although it is still not exactly clear what they meant by it. Also, they downgraded the severity and certainty of punishment by stating that “the operation may be cause for formal Church discipline.”
For the next several decades, the Church did not make substantive changes or revisions to this wording. The 2010 handbook used quite similar language with a few minor modifications: “The Church counsels against elective transsexual operations. If a member is contemplating such an operation, a presiding officer informs him of this counsel and advises him that the operation may be cause for formal Church discipline. Bishops refer questions on specific cases to the stake president. The stake president may direct questions to the Office of the First Presidency if necessary.” It is interesting that the pronoun used in this section is “him,” suggesting that LDS leaders were either more concerned with transwomen (i.e., biologically assigned males who become women) or subscribing to an incorrect assumption that gender confirmation surgeries were disproportionately being performed on biological males. The former seems more plausible than the latter because violations of masculinity pose greater social and institutional threats to the Church than violations of femininity. In other words, because men occupy most leadership and administrative positions in the Church, and are generally perceived as more consequential than women, “losing a man” is worse than “losing a woman.” However, it is worth noting that trans men who attend elders quorum instead of Relief Society may also threaten the ecclesiastical and social order because of their “unholy” ambitions to receive and exercise the priesthood.
One reason that this was the only statement in the 2010 handbook addressing trans issues might be that Church leaders were exhausting more efforts and resources on addressing lesbian/gay issues, especially considering their political and legal efforts to fight against same-sex marriage. However, they did reaffirm in explicit terms that any form of transitional surgery would be grounds for Church discipline, a punishment that bars access to LDS temples (considered the highest and holiest form of worship) and prohibits serving in leadership positions. The fact that a surgical transition (or even considering a surgical transition) compromises one’s institutional standing and access to spiritual opportunities reflects long-standing classification schemes that punish individuals who deviate from cisgender heteronormativity.
In 2020, LDS authorities added more detail regarding the experiences of trans individuals to the handbook. In a section titled “Transgender Individuals,” they began by expressing sympathy and compassion for people who experience “incongruence between their biological sex and their gender identity”: “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.” This beginning section reflects a clear effort to appear more tolerant of trans individuals, especially considering that the Church has attracted negative publicity in recent years regarding their treatment of sexual and gender minorities. While there arguably has been increased acceptance of trans Mormons, statements like this seem to be part of a broader effort to put a kinder and gentler brand on traditional frameworks that maintain the inferiority of gender-nonconforming members. This section is also found in the most recent handbook: “Church leaders counsel against elective medical or surgical intervention for the purpose of attempting to transition to the opposite gender of a person’s biological sex at birth (‘sex reassignment’). Leaders advise that taking these actions will be cause for Church membership restrictions. Leaders also counsel against social transitioning. A social transition includes changing dress or grooming, or changing a name or pronouns, to present oneself as other than his or her biological sex at birth. Leaders advise that those who socially transition will experience some Church membership restrictions for the duration of this transition.”
As in the 2010 handbook, physical transition (which they refer to as “sex reassignment,” a term that many trans individuals feel withholds affirmation of one’s gender identity) is grounds for membership restrictions, including loss of temple privileges and inability to serve in leadership positions. Beth had thoughts about the handbook’s ecclesiastical sanctions:
You know, I was thinking about their recent handbook changes that came out that said individuals that had gender-affirming surgery were no longer worthy for temple recommends and stuff. And I was just laughing a little bit because, like, it’s so arrogant to think that God really did make our bodies cisgender, you know . . . God made my body the way that I am. And so, who is anybody to say that, you know, that God didn’t?
Beth’s frustrations and critiques center on the arbitrary and power-based nature of LDS theological assertions concerning gender. They question why it is acceptable for LDS leaders to tell trans individuals that decisions around their bodies and/or identities are “not of God.” The use of God as an authority figure to bolster certain theological assertions has been leveraged by LDS leaders (and other religious leaders) against sexual and gender minorities for decades.
Interestingly, Church leaders added that “social transitioning” and the use of hormones for the purpose of transitioning are both grounds for membership restrictions, but only “for the duration of this transition.” Several trans Mormons with whom I spoke found these statements to be vague and arbitrary, especially the concept of social transitioning. Among those was Sarah, who shared her reactions in this way:
I don’t really get what they mean by “social transitioning.” It seems kind of arbitrary and hard to measure. I mean, I sometimes enjoy wearing pink and more feminine-looking clothing. I occasionally let my hair grow out long. Does that mean I’m socially transitioning? I feel like there are many feminine men and masculine women in the Church, and it is too difficult to regulate the blurry lines between social transitioning and just wanting to present a little more like the other gender.
Sarah points out how difficult it is to police one’s performance of masculinity or femininity. After all, at what point does a biologically assigned male stop presenting male? And when does a biologically assigned female no longer appear female? Does it have to do with hair length, earrings, makeup, clothing style, mannerisms, all the above? As Taylor Petrey astutely put it, “If biology was so immutable, it wouldn’t need to be ecclesiastically enforced. In spite of themselves, these new guidelines show that for Latter-day Saints, gender is what one does, not what one is or has.” This keen insight exposes the ongoing contradiction in LDS thinking that gender is a biologically immutable characteristic and a social category that requires constant regulation through cultural, theological, and legal norms. In other words, “supposedly essential differences depend on cultural production.”
Such arbitrary sanctions for any kind of transitioning also exacerbate what many trans Mormons call “bishop roulette,” the idea that different bishops have drastically different ways of interpreting Church policies and teachings, interpretations that are often influenced by geographic area, age, and/or political orientation. What may appear as “social transitioning” to an older, more conservative bishop from rural Utah may be deemed a perfectly appropriate presentation by a younger, more progressive bishop from New York City. Due to the unpredictability of local leaders’ perspectives and approaches, many sexual and gender minority members find themselves jumping across congregations until they find a bishop that is friendlier toward them. Theresa described a telling personal example of “bishop roulette”:
And so, I ended up dating my friend who is trans. And I told my bishop that I was dating someone. And he lights up. And I say, “Just so you know, he’s trans,” and his face drops. And I basically didn’t go to the ward after that because I just, I couldn’t deal with it. I was so frustrated. Like, you’re so excited that I’m dating someone until you find out that.
Understandably frustrated and hurt, Theresa tried a different congregation and found a bishop “who was much more supportive” and “happy to hear” that they were in this new relationship. Theresa pointed out that the second bishop was considerably younger than the first, highlighting what they saw as a clear generational effect. Like Theresa, many trans Mormons encounter drastically different and sometimes opposing viewpoints on Church policy and teachings from local leaders, a phenomenon that can often feel confusing, disorienting, and painful.
Although Church leaders doubled down on policies and teachings that encourage individuals to conform to their assigned biological sex, there were segments of the 2020 handbook that offered glimmers of hope for trans Mormons. While any form of transitioning is still grounds for Church discipline, a small note was added about the use of preferred pronouns: “If a member decides to change his or her preferred name or pronouns of address, the name preference may be noted in the preferred name field on the membership record. The person may be addressed by the preferred name in the ward.” Many trans Mormons and advocates were pleasantly surprised after finding this apparent concession in the updated handbook. However, it is important to note that the key term here is “preferred name.” While local leaders will allow individuals to be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns, they will not allow individuals to change their actual name on membership records, a distinction that continues to make clear that any form of transition away from one’s biologically assigned sex is not accepted.
Another policy addition that has been cause for hope among trans Mormons has to do with baptism and confirmation (rituals necessary for entrance into the Church) as well as temple and priesthood ordinances (sacred rituals/steps made available to “worthy” members of the Church): “Transgender persons may be baptized and confirmed as outlined in 220.127.116.11. They may also partake of the sacrament and receive priesthood blessings. However, priesthood ordination and temple ordinances are received according to biological sex at birth.” Before 2020, the question of whether trans individuals could be baptized and confirmed was a thorny issue for local leaders. Some felt it was acceptable while others did not. Perhaps implementing a blanket policy allowing trans people to join the Church through baptism is a step in the right direction. However, it is important to note that section 18.104.22.168 of the handbook clarifies that a trans individual who is “considering elective medical or surgical intervention for the purpose of attempting to transition to the opposite gender of his or her biological sex at birth (‘sex reassignment’) may not be baptized or confirmed.” Therefore, people who have transitioned before desiring to join the Church are permitted to be baptized and confirmed, but only if they have turned away from their past “transgression,” i.e., their decision to transition.
For a trans person who is considered “worthy,” Church leaders make clear that priesthood ordination and temple ordinances are permitted, but only “according to biological sex at birth.” This statement raises intriguing questions about women and the priesthood, a topic that has been controversial within Mormonism for decades. Hypothetically, if a biologically assigned male physically transitioned to female but demonstrated ecclesiastical worthiness to their local leaders, would they technically be allowed to pursue the ranks of Church leadership due to their biologically male assignment at birth? Conversely, if a biologically assigned female physically transitioned to male but was not “visibly trans” in their outward appearance, could they serve in priesthood leadership positions? If either of these scenarios were to ever happen (or have already happened), it would certainly complicate gender roles in the Church and disrupt deeply rooted power dynamics that have long favored cisgender men.
The section on “transgender individuals” in the 2020 handbook has sparked a mix of hope, confusion, and frustration among trans Mormons. Perhaps the most encouraging part of the section is the caveat tacked on to the very end: “Note: Some content in this section may undergo further revision.” As well-known Mormon sociologist Jana Riess put it, “You can bet on it.”
A More Pragmatic and Optimistic Direction for the Church
The fact that Church policies and doctrines are always subject to further clarification and revision can sometimes provide hope for sexual- and gender-minority Mormons. In fact, a core tenet of Mormonism is that God is always revealing new information and direction to the top governing body of Church leaders, also referred to as “prophets, seers, and revelators.” This phenomenon is referred to as “continuing revelation,” which queer LDS writer Blaire Ostler defines as “the percolation of powerful ideas through a robust network of individuals and influences.” Substantive and even fundamental shifts in Church teachings have occurred frequently throughout history, such as when Church leaders in 1978 lifted the long-standing policy that prohibited people of African descent from holding the priesthood and entering the temple. Because that policy was taught by prominent leaders as an unchanging and eternal mandate from God, Church members who desire changes to policies and teachings regarding LGBTQ+ issues see this decision to remove the priesthood and temple ban as a foreshadowing to comparable changes that lie ahead for sexual and gender minorities.
Nevertheless, considering that Church hierarchy is structured around top-down policy-making and ideological regulation, it is important that trans activists and advocates understand the practical realities they face. LDS authorities have for decades asserted the illusion that they do not respond to outside sociocultural pressures and only make changes when God directs (though a critical analysis of Church history quickly reveals that this is untrue). Such a notion that leaders make decisions in a God-inspired vacuum protects them from internal scrutiny and creates attitudes of credulity in the minds of members. In addition, changes to policies and teachings occur at the discretion of male senior leaders, an undemocratic structure of governance that makes advocacy and activism especially difficult.
Understanding these limitations, I believe there are tangible and realistic changes that Church leaders can be expected to implement regarding policies and teachings that affect trans members. Leaders often express that altering Church teachings concerning sexuality and/or gender would contradict or even destroy “God’s eternal truths.” However, recall the ways in which Juliana and Sarah explain their trans identities—i.e., they believe that their “female spirit” is their eternal, God-given gender identity. Many trans Mormons (particularly those whose experiences fall within the gender binary) feel similarly about their gender identities. Because these concepts of gender fit into current LDS constructs of eternal progression, Church leaders could easily and swiftly begin to affirm binary transgender experiences. Blaire Ostler articulated this suggestion in her book Queer Mormon Theology:
The simplest explanation is that trans people do have a fixed, eternal gender which simply does not align with their body and/or gender assignment. Their spirit is “female,” but they were misassigned as “male.” A transgender person can claim to have an unchanged, eternal gender that is not in line with their assignment and still be consistent with the idea that “gender is eternal.” . . . However, while I can appreciate the argument for a fixed eternal gender, it does not address the needs of gender variant and gender-fluid folk. Of course, I do not blame transgender people who use this argument to legitimize their own experiences within the Mormon theological framework.
As Ostler points out, a drawback of the “eternal gender binary” argument is that individuals who identify as gender-free, gender-fluid, genderqueer, bigender, or agender would still be viewed as contrary to or unaccounted for in God’s plan. Nevertheless, while far from ideal, this ideological shift would at least widen the tent of acceptance and affirmation for many trans members of the Church.
Another reasonable change that General Authorities and local leaders might implement is more resources and community support for trans members. Ostler suggests fifteen “ways to be more inclusive,” and one is to “hold special workshops addressing the needs of queer youth.” Currently, there are very few support groups for trans Mormons within the Church—many people must look elsewhere to find them. Given that LDS leaders often express their desire to make the Church a more compassionate and welcoming place for sexual and gender minorities, implementing internal support groups and resources for trans people would be an excellent way to practice what they preach. Similarly, if leaders are truly striving to cultivate a sense of kindness and love for all, they must stop connecting transgender or gender nonconforming experiences to Satan or use any kind of pathologizing or “othering” rhetoric. Instead, leaders and members alike can frame gender nonconforming experiences as different, not deficient. This would fit nicely with the popular LDS teaching that God is the author of diversity.
Advocates who embrace more optimistic thinking for LDS gender minorities call upon Church leaders to reimagine and restructure the theological foundations upon which their religion stands. For trans Mormons, untethering theological frameworks from existing gender classification schemes is ultimately what is necessary for full liberation. However, this push for liberation and equality is currently limited by theological assertions of who is eligible for participation in temple marriages (sealings), the capstone ordinance in LDS ritual and cosmology. Leaders continue to hold to the claim that only a biologically assigned male and biologically assigned female(s) can be efficaciously sealed for eternity in God’s plan. Female is plural because polygamous sealing rituals between a man and multiple women were performed in the nineteenth-century Church and are still performed today if a man’s first wife has died. (The current president of the Church, Russell Nelson, is a good example of this—he is sealed to his first wife, Dantzel, who passed away in 2005, and his current wife, Wendy Watson.)
One reason LDS leaders cling to a heteronormative framework (even though LDS polygamous arrangements are arguably not heteronormative at all) is that heterosexual biological procreation is considered to be an indispensable component of celestial relationships. However, this emphasis on heterosexual procreation is rife with contradictions, as infertile cisgender heterosexual couples who do not have children, as well as cisgender heterosexual parents who adopt, are considered to be in harmony with Church teachings. In fact, when adopted children are sealed to their cisgender heterosexual parents, it is considered just as efficacious and binding as when biological children are sealed to their cisgender heterosexual parents. Conversely, if same-sex couples have children through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, or a surrogate, their family is not worthy of the LDS sealing ritual. Similarly, if a trans individual and a cisgender individual have a child through copulation, their family also lacks legitimacy in current LDS thinking. Indeed, this is perhaps the most egregious contradiction: a cisgender heterosexual couple who cannot have children is considered more legitimate than a cisgender-transgender couple who actually can have children. Thus, the argument is not really about who can and cannot have children and more about a system of marking queer bodies and relationships as inferior to cisgender heterosexual bodies and relationships. Ostler eloquently brings this inequity to light when she says: “The Church does not bar infertile cisgender heterosexual couples from being sealed because they are unable to reproduce. We seal them together and promise them eternal increase even when we don’t know what that will look like. It makes no more sense to prohibit homosexual [and trans] couples from being sealed to each other for the same reason it makes no sense to deny infertile, cisgender, heterosexual couples.” She ultimately argues that “the ability or inability to biologically reproduce with our partner is not what makes a family a celestial family” but rather “our ability to rear children in love and charity,” capacities that are independent of genitalia or sexual and/or gender identity.
Further challenging the notion that heterosexual procreation is superior to all else, Ostler points out that some of the most monumental births of Christianity did not involve heterosexual copulation. For example, according to biblical and LDS temple accounts, Adam was created by two males (Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ), and Eve was produced by three males (Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and from the rib of Adam). Similarly, many Christian and LDS theologians and authorities teach that Jesus Christ himself was born from a virgin mother Mary without heterosexual procreation. In each of these milestone events, there is no account of heterosexual intercourse being a necessary means of reproduction or creation. (Some Latter-day Saints point out that Heavenly Mother may have taken part in the creative process, but there is no mentioning of her in scripture or LDS temple rituals.) In any case, the fact that these divine creations occurred in non-heterosexual ways invites Latter-day Saints to expand their views of divine creation in ways that foster inclusivity and affirmation for non-heteronormative relationships.
For the Church to be a safe, welcoming, and embracing space for trans individuals, leaders need to reconstruct God’s divine plan either without the concept of a fixed eternal gender, or at least with the acknowledgment that all gender identities/experiences are equally valid in God’s eyes. While many mainstream members find this proposal radical and oppositional to divine teachings, such modifications harmonize with the most precious of LDS teachings—love, joy, and equity. Becoming like Jesus Christ (i.e., developing kind, loving attributes and helping those in need) is at the heart of LDS theology, a process that is independent of and transcends human classification systems like gender. An often-echoed statement in the Church is “Christ is at the center,” an idea found in this commonly quoted New Testament scripture: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The implications of this scripture serve as an effective starting point for reconceptualizing LDS theological aspirations without appealing to gender-based classifications. Allowing its essence to permeate the institutional and theological structures of Mormonism would be to allow all individuals, regardless of characteristics like sexual or gender identity, equal access to Church rituals, ordinances, and leadership positions. Instead of organizing a concept of faithfulness based on one’s identity or romantic relationship, Church leaders could construct faithfulness around one’s daily commitment to being a kinder, more compassionate person. Ostler refers to this shift in emphasis as “morality beyond gender,” a better model for “determining whether a relationship” (and I would add identity) “is moral or not.” Here are several important questions she poses: “Does this relationship [or identity] promote love? Does this relationship [or identity] promote joy? Does this relationship [or identity] promote life? Does this relationship [or identity] respect agency and meaningful consent?” She continues by pointing out that “neither queerness nor straightness is what determines morality. All genders and sexual orientations can engage in moral or immoral behaviors.” Thus, far from destroying long-standing theological foundations, such a shift in emphasis would sit at the very heart of LDS teachings, which Ostler convincingly argues are “inherently queer.” Ultimately, LDS theology portrays God as all-loving and compassionate, desiring the happiness and salvation of all human beings. Paramount to such theological frameworks is the imperative to become like God by developing divine attributes of benevolence and compassion. For Church members and leaders to truly live out the splendor of this endeavor, theological and institutional constructions (or reconstructions) must ensure that all gender identities and sexual orientations are given equal legitimacy and value in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Note: The Dialogue Foundation provides the web format of this article as a courtesy. There may be unintentional differences from the printed version. For citational and bibliographical purposes, please use the printed version or the PDFs provided online and on JSTOR.
 “Transsexual Operations,” General Handbook of Instructions (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980).
 Taylor G. Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 1–15.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 173–90.
 “Transgender Individuals,” section 38.6.23 in General Handbook of Instructions: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020).
 Jana Riess, “New LDS Handbook Softens Stance on Sexuality, Doubles Down on Transgender Rules,” Religion News Service, Feb. 19, 2020.
 “Transgender Individuals,” General Handbook of Instructions, 2020.
 J. Sumerau and Ryan Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism: Transgender Perspectives on Gender and Priesthood Ordination,” in Voices for Equality: Ordain Women and Resurgent Mormon Feminism, edited by Gordon Shepherd, Lavina Fielding Anderson, and Gary Shepherd (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 123.
 The racial, political, and class similarities of those I interviewed certainly pose limitations on my research, as trans Mormons of color or trans Mormons who have different political views or educational backgrounds most likely have different ways of relating to their gender and religious identities.
 Michael Schwalbe, Sandra Godwin, Daphne Holden, Douglas Schrock, Shealy Thompson, and Michele Wolkomir, “Generic Processes in the Reproduction of Inequality: An Interactionist Analysis,” Social Forces 79, no. 2 (Dec. 2000): 419–52. See also J. Edward Sumerau and Ryan T. Cragun, “‘Why Would Our Heavenly Father Do That to Anyone’: Oppressive Othering through Sexual Classification Schemes in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” Symbolic Interaction 37, no. 3 (2014): 331–52.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 1–18.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 63.
 Connell O’Donovan, “‘The Abominable and Detestable Crime Against Nature’: A Revised History of Homosexuality and Mormonism, 1840–1980,” last revised 2004.
 Ryan T. Cragun, J. E. Sumerau, and Emily Williams, “From Sodomy to Sympathy: LDS Elites’ Discursive Construction of Homosexuality Over Time,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 54, no. 2 (May 2015): 291–310.
 Cragun, Sumerau, and Williams, “From Sodomy to Sympathy,” 296.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 53–103.
 Sumerau and Cragun. “Why Would Our Heavenly Father Do That to Anyone,” 344.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 91.
 Latter Gay Stories, “BYU Electroshock Documentary | Gay Conversion Therapy Program,” originally produced by Gentile Pictures in 1996, YouTube video, Mar. 25, 2020.
 Gregory A. Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2019), 89–101; Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 192–94.
 Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, 33. Spencer W. Kimball lumped together “the homosexual” with “peeping toms,” exhibitionists, and perverts, employing the disease–cure paradigm.
 Raewyn Connell, Gender: In World Perspective, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009), 72–93.
 Connell, Gender: In World Perspective, 88.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 10–15.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 182.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 97–102.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 123.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 104–37.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 115.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Why Would Our Heavenly Father Do That to Anyone,” 343.
 David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 1–104.
 Juliana (pseudonym), email correspondence with Keith Burns, July 2020.
 Kristen Schilt, Just One of the Guys?: Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 70–100.
 Juliana, email correspondence, July 2020.
 Sarah (pseudonym), video call interview with Keith Burns, July 2020.
 Kevin (pseudonym), video call interview with Keith Burns, June 2020.
 Emily (pseudonym), video call interview with Keith Burns, July 2020.
 Beth (pseudonym), video call interview with Keith Burns, June 2020.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 127.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 115–32.
 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Transgender Mormons Struggle to Feel At Home in Their Bodies and Their Religion,” Salt Lake Tribune, Apr. 7, 2015.
 Valentine, Imagining Transgender, 29–66.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 116–18.
 Sarah, interview, July 2020.
 Theresa (pseudonym), video call interview with Keith Burns, April 2020.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 99.
 Elizabeth M. Morgan, “Contemporary Issues in Sexual Orientation and Identity Development in Emerging Adulthood,” Emerging Adulthood 1, no. 1 (Mar. 2013): 60.
 Juliana, email correspondence, July 2020.
 Schilt, Just One of the Guys?, 61–83.
 Beth, interview, June 2020.
 Schilt, Just One of the Guys?, 67–83.
 Emily, interview, July 2020.
 Kevin, interview, June 2020.
 Beth, interview, June 2020.
 Juliana, email correspondence, July 2020.
 Elijah C. Nealy, Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy with Families in Transition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 106–10.
 Valentine, Imagining Transgender, 71–104.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 120–28.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 197–200.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 152.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 169.
 L. Tom Perry, “Why Marriage and Family Matter—Everywhere in the World,” Apr. 2015, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/04/why-marriage-and-family-matter-everywhere-in-the-world?lang=eng.
 Mary (pseudonym), video call interview with Keith Burns, April 2020.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 169; David Bednar, “There are no homosexual members of the Church —David A Bednar, February 23, 2016,” YouTube video, Feb. 29, 2016. At a young adult Face to Face event, Bednar was asked by a member of the audience how homosexual members can stay faithful in the Church. He began his response with the premise that “there are no homosexual members of the Church” because of the inappropriateness of using homosexual as a label. Note that at the time this contradicted MormonAndGay.org, which used the terms “lesbian, gay, and bisexual” to refer to current members of the Church.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 117–21.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 120.
 Jan Drucker, personal communication, April 2021. This phrase was created in a collaboration with Dr. Drucker, who at the time was one of my graduate professors.
 Sarah, interview, July 2020.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 115–32.
 Emily, interview, July 2020.
 Keith Burns, “Follow the Prophet—But Only When What He Says Aligns with Your Political Views,” Daily Herald, Nov. 6, 2021.
 Kevin, interview, June 2020.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 120.
 Blaire Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction (Newburgh, Ind.: By Common Consent Press, 2021), 16–27.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Trans-forming Mormonism,” 115.
 Beth, interview, June 2020.
 Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, 269–70.
 “Transsexual Operations,” General Handbook of Instructions, 1980.
 Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, 270–74.
 Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, 273.
 “Elective Transsexual Operations,” General Handbook of Instructions, 1989.
 Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, 273–74.
 “Elective Transsexual Operations,” General Handbook of Instructions, 2010.
 Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, 119–25.
 Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, 126–59.
 “General Handbook of Instructions: Transgender Individuals,” 2020.
 Riess, “New LDS Handbook Softens Stance on Sexuality, Doubles Down on Transgender Rules.”
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Why Would Our Heavenly Father Do That to Anyone,” 338.
 “General Handbook of Instructions: Transgender Individuals,” 2020.
 Beth, interview, June 2020.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 16–38.
 Sarah, interview, July 2020.
 Taylor G. Petrey, “If Biology Was Immutable, It Wouldn’t Need to Be Enforced,” Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 21, 2020.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 174.
 Riess, “New LDS Handbook Softens Stance on Sexuality, Doubles Down on Transgender Rules.”
 Theresa, interview, April 2020.
 “General Handbook of Instructions: Transgender Individuals,” 2020.
 Riess, “New LDS Handbook Softens Stance on Sexuality, Doubles Down on Transgender Rules.”
 “General Handbook of Instructions: Transgender Individuals,” 2020.
 Riess, “New LDS Handbook Softens Stance on Sexuality, Doubles Down on Transgender Rules.”
 “General Handbook of Instructions: Transgender Individuals,” 2020.
 “General Handbook of Instructions: Transgender Individuals,” 2020.
 Riess, “New LDS Handbook Softens Stance on Sexuality, Doubles Down on Transgender Rules.”
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 211–24.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 91.
 Sumerau and Cragun, “Why Would Our Heavenly Father Do That to Anyone,” 332–34.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 211–24.
 Cragun, Sumerau, and Williams, “From Sodomy to Sympathy,” 291–308.
 Oaks, “Truth and the Plan.”
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 53.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 54.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 97.
 Ring, “Mormon Leader: LGBTQ Advocacy Comes from Satan”; Stack, “Transgender Mormons Struggle to Feel At Home in Their Bodies and Their Religion.”
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 71–73.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 73–79.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 60–70.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 69.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 169–73.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 69.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 63–64.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 64–66.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 64–66.
 Galatians 3:28.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 94–95.
 Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, 13.[post_title] => Transcending Mormonism: Transgender Experiences in the LDS Church [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 56.1 (Spring 2023): 27–55
Enjoy an interview about this piece here.
Desiring to better understand how people are navigating these complex identity negotiations, I interviewed seven trans and/or gender nonconforming Mormons between eighteen and forty-four years old living in various regions of the United States as part of my graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => transcending-mormonism-transgender-experiences-in-the-lds-church [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-06-04 17:11:13 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-06-04 17:11:13 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=32228 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
On Tradition and a Nonbinary Revolution
Dialogue 56.1 (Spring 2023): 83–89
A couple months earlier, I had written to a friend back in Utah. It was June and she was celebrating Pride. I asked her to send me something. I’d been feeling terribly lonely in the missionary culture and wanted a physical reminder that there were others like me out in the world. She mentioned pronoun pins, and in a moment of rash decision I asked for “they/them” as well as “she/her.” Why not? I guess I thought, what harm could it do?
You probably have an idea of what a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is like. Whether your exposure to missionaries comes from being a member of the Church, meeting them on the street, or seeing the unflattering depiction of them on a Broadway stage, it probably looks a little something like this: clean-cut young men wearing white shirts and ties, with little black placards on their chests and almost unreal smiles splashed across their faces, exuding confidence and absolute faith in the message they are sharing.
You wouldn’t expect a five-foot, frumpy twenty-one-year-old huddled on the floor of their closet in Miami, Florida, holding a small blue pin as though it were the detonator that could trigger the destruction of their whole world. “They/them.” Just pronouns. Just simple words in the language I’d spoken my whole life to indicate a plural or unknown-gendered noun. They shouldn’t have held so much power over me, but they did.
I had known I was queer for a long time by that point and accepted my attraction to women as a trial. (Deep down I suspected God knew it was a trial I would fail, that he had made me queer to ensure I never achieved celestial glory, although now I reject such notions.) But questions of gender identity were much more foreign to me, something I had avoided for years. I had always tried to find other reasons for how out of place I felt among girls. For the discomfort that I felt in spaces that were supposed to be for me. I’d avoided them, as far as I can remember at least; pulling up these memories at all is difficult. I have had many moments of questioning, which I would later push down and forget about until the question resurfaced. I only realized later that it wasn’t the first time when I stumbled across old emails or journal entries, things that are not susceptible to the malleability of memory.
That’s what this moment was. A couple months earlier, I had written to a friend back in Utah. It was June and she was celebrating Pride. I asked her to send me something. I’d been feeling terribly lonely in the missionary culture and wanted a physical reminder that there were others like me out in the world. She mentioned pronoun pins, and in a moment of rash decision I asked for “they/them” as well as “she/her.” Why not? I guess I thought, what harm could it do?
One of my missionary companions was a strong proponent of astrology. At her insistence, as we waited for someone who we knew wasn’t going to show, we had the ward mission leader use his phone to look up my star chart so that my companion could explain to me how the planets and stars affect me. It turns out that although I am born in the middle of Capricorn season, many of the other planets on my chart fall under Aquarius.
I can’t tell you exactly what this means; in the years since, I’ve delved more into astrology, but I am still very new to it. However, I did find it an interesting explanation for a personality quirk of mine that has often vexed me: my contentious relationship with tradition. You see, Capricorns are said to highly value tradition and to hold to it as often as possible. However, an Aquarian is more likely to peel back the wallpaper of tradition, covering the walls with crayon scribbles or splattered paint. My whole life I have found myself stuck between two extremes, holding fast to things that my parents have taught me while desperately dissecting those same values and beliefs in the hopes of discovering something more or simply out of morbid curiosity.
“Tradition” is a very broad term: it can refer to something as localized as eating salmon for Friendsgiving dinner because that’s what was done one year before, or family holiday traditions passed through generations, or culturally accepted traditions like wearing white on one’s wedding day. All of these, to some extent, affect the way we see ourselves and the world around us, and for many of us, the most impactful tradition of all is the religious tradition we find ourselves surrounded by.
Growing up in Utah, I was influenced by the wider, generically Christian, culture of the United States, as well as the Mormon culture that permeated my hometown. There are a number of intriguing, comforting, and entertaining traditions within these ideologies as well as many difficult ones. Among them is the way we view and understand gender—as two separate, binary groups, each with biological and psychological generalizations that help us organize our society. It is quite convenient to be able to look at someone, observe the length of their hair, the broadness of their shoulders, the style of their clothing, and make a few quick assumptions about what they are interested in, what they are good at, and how you should treat them. We just want to know what box people fit in, not necessarily with intentions to restrict or enforce but because we simply want to understand. It makes life easier, and it makes us feel like life makes sense.
Additionally, I have to recognize that at least some of what the feminist movement has accomplished has come from insisting that society stop valuing masculine traits—both physical and mental—over feminine. Clearly defining the boundaries between genders has mattered to so many people, not just to understand others but to understand themselves.
This is one of the reasons that I push back against the oft-said phrase “gender is just a social construct.” Certainly, the ways that we perform and understand gender have been informed by cultures (one only need look at the typical masculine dress across different countries to know that wearing skirts is not an inherently feminine trait). But if gender was something completely made up by society, I do not believe so many people would feel intense dysphoria when assigned a gender that does not truly fit them. I believe that gender is somehow tied to our immortal soul and that our relationship with gender is eternal. That is to say, I believe I was neither fully female nor male when I existed as a spirit before this life, and I believe that after this life I will continue with my nebulous and flowing gender identity. That being said, I know many trans people feel differently, and I suppose it’s one of the mysteries of the world for which we will have to wait until the next life to find an answer—if there is indeed a next life.
Two months after I asked my friend for Pride paraphernalia, the package finally arrived—not due to a delay in the postal service but rather because of my friend’s busy schedule and occasional forgetfulness. I had, at this point, pushed all thoughts of being nonbinary out of my mind, and when I found the pin among the rainbow beads and small flag, my heart stopped. In the superstitious spirituality of a missionary—we have a tendency to give God the credit for every small thing that happens around us—I couldn’t help but take it as a sign.
I put the pin secretly inside the pocket of my scripture case. I looked at it during my studies, feeling a warmth of security that was hard to come by in a strange city, far away from my family and friends. I could never tell my fellow missionaries about it. They were kind enough when I told them I was bisexual—as long as I promptly assured them that I still planned on marrying a man—but I wasn’t sure how they would react to this betrayal of the tradition of our faith.
In the LDS Church, at least in the generations that have most impacted my understanding, gender is viewed as essential. Among the doctrine there are whisperings of a Heavenly Mother, the spouse to our Heavenly Father who helped create us and awaits our homecoming at the end of our earthly trial. She has become more and more discussed in recent years, and as interesting as the concept of a feminine divine is, she is often used as an argument against homosexuality—a way to defend the tradition of straight marriage. For if God is a man who is married to a woman, and we are all supposed to follow God’s example, all men must marry women. She is also an example of the binary nature of gender. For if there are only two heavenly parents—a man and woman—then there is no divine precedent for genders outside of that, at least in the Mormon conception of deity. It is difficult to make an argument for nonbinary or gender-fluid individuals within the way that Mormons understand gender today.
But I have no interest in abandoning the traditions of my heritage, and so I must try.
My traditions are deeply rooted in the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the center is a faith in Christ and belief in a just afterlife, but I also feel a closeness to my pioneer ancestors who fled from the persecution they faced in the eastern United States, coming to Utah and building up a community where they could all be safe. They were traitors of tradition themselves, chased out because they chose to believe differently than Christians of their day. Even now, many who join our ranks are rejected by friends and family for adopting a new tradition, having found that the one they were handed down at birth no longer fit them. History, just like the present, is fraught with the cruel and violent reactions that have emerged as a response to change.
I understand a fear of change. After all, the systems we have created to describe, sort, and understand the world around us are incredibly useful, and to see them break apart leads many to fear the loss of meaning all together. It is this same fear that led Edmund Burke to write his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” The caste system gave meaning to the world he saw around him, and the notion of French commoners deciding that not only was the king’s life no more important theirs but occasionally the slaying of a king could bring great social good—well, he couldn’t comprehend it. He argues that “in order to subvert ancient institutions, [they have] destroyed ancient principles,” and he feared the complete degradation of society as a result. It is a similar fear that many of my loved ones are feeling. It is a similar fear that leads religious leaders to single out an innocent valedictorian for sharing personal experiences and call for metaphorical “musket fire” to defend a university from students who are only trying to live our lives and find happiness for ourselves.
Did Europe lose its moral heart in the years following the uprisings and deconstruction of societal stratification that followed the French Revolution? (With all the colonization before and after that point, it’s hard to know if they had a heart to begin with.) Was Burke right to fear the changes he saw? Europe certainly went through major changes in the following decades, and though many poets would mourn the loss of some romantic simplicity that no longer could be found in the metal- and smoke-filled world of the Industrial Revolution, it led to many working- and lower-class individuals demanding to be heard, demanding rights, and demanding to be treated as proper citizens. For all our nostalgic views of the past, I think most people would agree that valuing each human life as equal, regardless of the station in which they are born, has been an improvement to our society—not a detriment. Not that our society has fully reached that point—there is still great inequity in the world—but there have been great strides taken since Burke wrote his essay. I don’t want to draw too close a parallel between the fight for queer rights and the French Revolution. I am not advocating for chaos and blood, but I do find Thomas Paine’s reaction to Burke quite interesting. He insists that “it is the living, and not the dead that are to be accommodated.” As important as tradition is, and as much meaning as it may have offered in the past, does it not benefit society more to accommodate those currently participating in it?
Note: The Dialogue Foundation provides the web format of this article as a courtesy. There may be unintentional differences from the printed version. For citational and bibliographical purposes, please use the printed version or the PDFs provided online and on JSTOR.
 Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (Project Gutenberg, 2005), 3:334. I came across this passage in Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams, “The Revolution Controversy and the ‘Spirit of the Age,’” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 10th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 202.
 Thomas Paine, “Rights of Man” in The Political Works of Thomas Paine, vol. 2 (Columbus: The Ohio State University, 1817), 3. See also Greenblatt and Abrams, 210.[post_title] => On Tradition and a Nonbinary Revolution [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 56.1 (Spring 2023): 83–89
A couple months earlier, I had written to a friend back in Utah. It was June and she was celebrating Pride. I asked her to send me something. I’d been feeling terribly lonely in the missionary culture and wanted a physical reminder that there were others like me out in the world. She mentioned pronoun pins, and in a moment of rash decision I asked for “they/them” as well as “she/her.” Why not? I guess I thought, what harm could it do? [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => on-tradition-and-a-nonbinary-revolution [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-05-31 19:04:46 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-05-31 19:04:46 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=32230 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
Trans in the Chapel: Attending Church as a Newly Out Transgender Woman
Dialogue 55.3 (Fall 2022): 107–109
Enjoy the following piece in audio form here.
My eyelashes were subtly coated in matte black mascara, on my cheeks a light dusting of dusty rose-colored blush powder, just enough that I could feel comfortable and almost myself.
Enjoy the following piece in audio form here.
My eyelashes were subtly coated in matte black mascara, on my cheeks a light dusting of dusty rose-colored blush powder, just enough that I could feel comfortable and almost myself. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => trans-in-the-chapel-attending-church-as-a-newly-out-transgender-woman [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-05-31 23:56:09 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-05-31 23:56:09 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=30750 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
Archive of the Covenant: Reflections on Mormon Interactions with State and Body
Dialogue 53.4 (Winter 2020): 79–107
In the logic of Mormon theology, an internal lack of faith is in part a result of the mismanagement of my mortal embodiment. Part of the reason that the “born this way” language of the marriage equality movement has had so little effect on the Mormon population compared to others is that it directly contradicts very recent and revered theological claims.
The Family Tree and Nation
“And again, let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts.”Doctrine and Covenants 127:9
Each of the following sections relates to a document that aids in the construction of the Mormon family tree: the birth certificate, the temple recommend, the marriage certificate, and the death certificate. Each of these is a document of high theological and social importance to Mormons. They are not innocent documents; they are created by institutions like the State or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and enable a variety of rituals, like the bestowing of citizenship and the priesthood. I will briefly explore how each document functions in the archive, the ramifications of those functions outside of the archive, and the inability of the archive (in theory and praxis) to encompass narratives of the human experiences it claims. Queerness may present itself in the archive as “scraps,” but it also sits in the space between papers, the glitches in the data, the pew closest to the door. If the archive is organized to hide certain bodies and actions, but not necessarily exclude them, then we can find them without having to look elsewhere. Sometimes, we might even find pieces of ourselves.
The Church has modeled itself after nation—states since its inception in the nineteenth century. Early and contemporary models of LDS authority have assumed heteropatriarchal, Western, democratic structures. Despite early communitarian efforts like polygamy and the united order, the necessity to assimilate for survival has minimized much of what made Mormonism unique and hated, socially and theologically. Communal land ownership gave way to corporatism. Polygamy to the nuclear family. Speaking in tongues to silent reverence. I don’t mean to imply that the Church hasn’t always been patriarchal and hierarchal (it has), only that it has conformed more and more to a specific model of hierarchy that reflects the state structure of the United States. Its biopolitical and disciplinary practices have evolved in accordance. These practices are built with the power of the archive.
I was born into this latter tradition. My grandparents are Church genealogists. Their den is our family archive and they are aging and frail archons standing on strength of faith and heart medication alone. For my tenth birthday, they gave me three floppy disks and an early version of the family history mapping software later popularized as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. My parents had left the Church several years before, but to me the floppy disks were evidence of our belonging to the Mormon faith and to God himself. My grandparents gifted me with maps, stories, charts, and moral lessons, all the details of how my ancestors’ actions in the 1800s resulted in my birth on the edge of the twenty-first century. I believed in the ontological truth that, despite my breaking family and my internal struggle to believe in Heavenly Father as I was taken geographically and morally further and further from my hometown in Arizona, we were Mormon by blood. Our blood was transposed into text on my computer monitor and the words there told me I belonged.
Of course, any relationship involving blood is complicated. The Victorian milieu in which the faith is rooted required theological reconciliations with new scientific reproductive logics. Mormons self-describe as the children of Ephraim, the literal descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. Descendance not only justified adherence to parts of the Old Testament, like polygamy and communitarian economics, but also declarations of sovereignty against the United States government and Protestants who balked at their “peculiar” ways. The Mormon ability to trace one’s family tree to the Bible itself literalized the covenant, asserted Truth, and justified violent colonization of Native Americans. But not all converts, particularly the theologically all-important Native American ones, could trace their ancestry to Ephraim within the historiographical structures of the Church. Blood had to be created and re-created in accordance with the proclaimed universal theology of the Book of Mormon.
The Mormon faith quite literally created its own blood. In their struggle to maintain whiteness, nineteenth-century Mormons developed the ability to speak the language of proto-eugenics in the dialect of faith; that is, how to maintain essential difference and substance-specific convenance with God while conforming to their own claims of universalism and democracy. In addition to the constant infusion of good (read: white) blood into the Mormon community through the labor of conversion, Mormon blood was made through ritual.
For those to whom the blood of Israel was not given by their parents, it was created through baptism. Joseph Smith stated that “the effect of the Holy Ghost upon a Gentile, is to purge out the old blood, and make him actually the seed of Abraham. That man that has none of the blood of Abraham (naturally) must have a new creation by the Holy Ghost.” Out with the old, in with the holy. Intermarriage with non-Ephraites did not endanger purity because the option of baptism made Mormon blood as universally viable as O negative. The transmutation of blood ensured that lineages went unbroken and the logic of the Book of Mormon was preserved. New branches could be continuously grafted onto the family tree.
Of course, this new plasma need only be made for those who cannot claim Ephraim through their own agency. A white person, specifically one raised in the Church, can justly assume a blood connection within Mormon genetic logics whereas converts of color cannot. The process of acquiring holy blood requires purging of the natal past and adopting of a new celestial pre-mortality. In this light, conversion is not only about interiorized faith, like other Protestant Christian traditions, but a new formulation of bodyhood that is inextricably connected to voluntary natal alienation and the adoption of a specific population of dead.
This is why my grandparents are genealogists. The “archive fever” experienced by Max and Maurine is a sickness of spirit, a longing for the eschaton. It is homesickness for their pre-mortal lives with Heavenly Father. As living Mormons, they have a responsibility to the dead: to provide them with the choice of exaltation only possible through baptism. The work of the family tree, in the faith, is not only to reflect on one’s righteousness as a descendent of Abraham—even if it feels like that is what they’re doing most of the time. Investigating the family tree provides the information necessary for baptisms for the dead. It is to make all aware of the possibility of their place in the family tree, if not by their own blood then by transfusion and transmutation.
The Birth Certificate and Authority
I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. My birth certificate is blue with the outline of the state faintly in the background. The floral border is interrupted in the bottom left corner for a circle containing the logo for the Arizona Department of Health Services, the keepers of the state’s natal archive. The department requires that certificates list the hospitals children are born in, the time and date, their given names, the names of their parents, and their parents’ birthdates. In contrast to the newer birth certificates being adopted post–June 2015, there are two slots for my parents and they are labeled “MOTHER” and “FATHER.”
It seems to me that the mission of queer and transgender millennials like us is to make as much of the listed “data” on our birth certificates irrelevant as possible. It’s our way of proving to ourselves that the state can’t really know us. I, as a non-binary person, can never have my felt gendered experience reflected on paper without a change to the foundation of Arizona’s stance on gender assignment. And, to be honest, I would not want the state to know, or attempt to approximate, my internal and external conceptualization of my soul and body.
The birth certificate functions as a declaration of an individual’s categorical belonging with the family. This applies to both the biological family as well as the categorization of archived documents into “families.” Cataloguing methods are designed to preserve lineage following heteropatriarchal logics of reproductivity, ownership, and capital. Correctly identifying biological relationship and sex is central to the identification of heirs and thus the relationship between the living and the dead. Incongruencies between one’s birth certificate, license, and other documents places one at social and legal risk with the living. Each piece of identification that bears a separate name, gender marker, or photo reduces one’s archived existence to “scraps”: fragments of experience that are an incongruous inconvenience to the state’s overarching project of population management. For example, a trans person’s birth certificate, license, passport, and school ID cards might each show a moment in their process of self-development that are related only through their own retroactive narrativizing of their life and the continuity of their internal self, not through their physical bodily presentation. These documents as a collection are largely incomprehensible to a cisheteronormative taxonomy of experience. There are obvious real-life benefits for binary trans people to change their birth certificates, even if they refuse the state’s authority to define her gender or sex. Access to healthcare, licenses, adoption, and non-violent treatment by the state itself is much more easily obtained, though not guaranteed, by aligning gender presentation with archived sex. The state accommodates the transgender person in this way as a reflection of its interest in assimilation and the transgender person accommodates the state’s interest in their genital/gender dynamic in the interest of self-preservation: this tension is worked out in the archive and its bureaucracy.
Of course, this job is never done. Socially constructed gender and sexual identities are phased out, continuously complicating the ability of the archive to maintain categorical continuity and cohesion and periodically demonstrating its own inherent inability to not only encompass but to even conceptualize the ephemeral queer (or genderqueer). Various states have attempted to solve this archival difficulty through the creation of bureaucratic processes to change the original marker (thus denying the mistake at the source) or including third-gender options. These band-aid solutions are obviously insufficient to cover the festering wound splitting the state’s interest in population management and individual and communal interests in self-definition. These problems exist on their own without even beginning to broach the complex topic of genital variety and intersex conditions that largely disprove bifurcated models of sexed bodyhood.
Regardless of these complications, the birth certificate is a key component of baptisms for the dead. Place, date, and time of birth, gender, and parents’ names are necessary for everyone baptized by proxy. This information can be gathered elsewhere, but it is most conveniently located in the forms provided by, and required by, the state for each person born on its soil. This alliance with the state enables the ritual to be as prolific as it is today. However, this dependency reveals itself to be as fallible in its reliance on the information as it is coherent with Mormon conceptualizations of bodily truth. Thanks to many of the trans-normative and homonationalist projects of largely white, middle-class activists in the United States, the state archive has revealed itself to be willing to incorporate and work with certain kinds of queer and transgender people. But while the state may be willing to accept “deviancy” in specific, elsewise conforming gendered situations, the Church is not.
In 1995, the leadership of the LDS Church published “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” in Ensign and Liahona and read it aloud on the globally televised annual general conference meeting. In defense of cisheteronormative logics it unequivocally states:
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.
This statement theologically essentialized gender to the body as signaled by sex. The assumption of sex as gender, already taken for granted in discourses of the state and the Church, was sanctified. The proclamation goes on: “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.” And later that: “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, . . . observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live.” The proclamation rhetorically connects religious and civic duty. If one of the responsibilities of essentially gendered souls/bodies is “lawful” marriage, then the Church relies on the state to provide mechanisms with which to manifest each person’s “divine nature and destiny.”
As such, the state determines which life-path each Mormon child will take at birth. The Church relies on the state to reconcile the sex/gender relationship and adheres to that decision as a matter of theological principle. Deviations from gendered predestinations are explained through individual accountabilities to God’s plan rather than as a problem of the limitation of the archive’s ability to encapsulate the full range of gender and sexual experience. Divinely/legally inspired marriages also require divinely/legally inspired gender role affiliation in their children. The LDS Church’s self-published A Parent’s Guide states:
Gender identity involves an understanding and accepting of one’s own gender, with little reference to others; one’s gender roles usually focus upon the social interaction associated with being male or female. Parents can help children to establish during these years a good foundation for later intimacy by helping them understand true principles about how a son or daughter of God should relate to others in his or her gender roles.
Parenting children to adhere to their gender roles relies on the determination of the state as catalogued in the archive, as well. This paragraph also reveals the circumvention of the body that the essentialization of gender to the soul allows. Gender identity becomes about “understanding and accepting of one’s own gender” (gender here meaning biological sex) as assigned by the state. The Church trusts in the state specialist and archives to reveal the correct gender of each child and borrows the state’s archival authority to reinforce its theological claims. As Judith Butler states, “There is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body.” This is especially true for restatements of state-sponsored biological truths. The state’s revealed gender becomes the yardstick by which each person’s moral virtue is measured as well as the justification for biopolitical discipline enacted upon children’s bodies for the sake of later heterosexual reproduction and celestial exaltation. Additionally, the Proclamation makes the state a necessary mechanism for revealing vital characteristics of a person's soul.
The recent shifts in state policies discussed above indicate an increasing tendency to regard gender markers as symbolic rather than as literal, a view that is incompatible with the relationship the Church has developed with the authority of the archive. Symbols, as Talal Asad discusses, call for interpretations, which are multiple in nature as criteria for their interpretation is socially expanded. Interpretations of the gender marker as “symbol” can be equated to gender performance, e.g., my birth certificate loudly declares “FEMALE” but my baggy pants, compression bra, lack of makeup, disposition, and my fingers intertwined with those of a woman make old ladies do a double take at the “WOMEN” sign on the restroom door when I walk in. This is the cisnormative logic through which many activists and the state justify the ability to change the symbol when the interpretation of gender in performance does not meet any credible criteria for the symbol or better aligns with the opposing one.
For Mormons, however, the gender marker indicates proper forms of disciplinary practice that are not as open to interpretation. There is a specific “way” in which to properly inhabit a gendered body and to parent one’s children to become properly gendered people. “Disciplinary practices,” Asad states, “cannot be varied so easily [as symbols], because learning to develop moral capabilities is not the same as learning to invent representations.” Gender performance among Mormon people obviously varies, but gender variety is less accessible because of the threat of social repercussions that are directly tied to the theological connection between gender, soul, and sex. Parental and ecclesiastic disciplining in accordance with documented gender creates the very capacity for correct gender identification. The birth certificate is not up for interpretation or for revision. Rather, the Church draws on the legal authority of the state archive to indicate the ways in which one should exercise their God-given agency.
The Temple Recommend and Agency
The temple recommend is a formal document given by a local bishop or other male lay leader that indicates one’s worthiness to enter a temple. It is invariable proof of the piety and bodily purity that is required to take part in temple work such as celestial marriages, family sealings, and baptisms for the dead. Certain acts taken upon and by the body violate this purity permanently while others require waiting periods and proof of penance. Most permanent offenses are those that relate to gendered “violations” of the body that conflict with the requirements set forth by the birth certificate.
Handbook 1 is the official guide for local bishops on the management of their congregations. There is no formal ecclesiastic training in the Church, but it does provide a copious amount of literature on how to handle certain situations from budgeting to apostasy. Handbook 1 specifically outlines the moral requirements for entering a temple. It is in the temple recommend that the Church shifts its focus away from the state archive and toward its internal archive. Stake presidents and bishops have access to files on members that record their tithings, Church involvement and responsibilities, baptisms, marriages, sealings, etc. These are no more outstanding than those kept by other Christian denominations with centralized organization like Catholics or Episcopalians. However, the details in these files and their interpretation by the bishop control access to the rituals that determine one’s validity for exaltation after death. Handbook 1 and Church policy situate stake presidents and bishops as literal archons of their local archives. In addition to acting as “presiding high priest,” “he oversees records, finances, and properties.” One of the duties interwoven between the responsibilities of high priest and record-keeper is to control access to the archive as well as its ritual use.
In the foundational text Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida gives an embellished, haunting image of the archons:
The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians. They do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate. They are also accorded the hermeneutic right and competence. They have the power to interpret the archives. Entrusted to such archons, these documents in effect speak the law: they recall the law and call on or impose the law. To be guarded thus, in the jurisdiction of this speaking the law, they needed at once a guardian and a localization. Even in their guardianship or their hermeneutic tradition, the archives could do neither without substrate nor without residence.
I’ll admit that even as I construct the image of a local bishop as the Mormon archon it is difficult for me to imagine the pudgy, middle-aged Elder Johnson as a mythic Greek angel with glorious wings and omnipotent power over treasured information. However, seeming innocuousness is one of the key ways in which hierarchical power operates. What is at stake here, as Derrida states, “is nothing less than the future.”
Temple work, including sealings and marriage, but most pertinently baptisms for the dead, is necessary for the exaltation of the soul to the highest realms of heaven and the achievement of godhood. In addition to the literal, physical gathering of Zion as required by the tenth article of faith, souls are gathered through rituals that seal heteronormative family units for time and eternity. Although in Mormon cosmology souls preexist their mortal containers, the mortal world is where humans forge the bonds that God the Father desires they preserve for all time. Only in the temple can these sacraments be achieved; only the bishop can give you access to the temple.
As I said before, certain serious transgression can temporarily or permanently disallow one from entering the temple. In these situations, it is up to the discretion of the bishop/archon as to whether the person has adequately repented. Serious transgressions, defined as “deliberate or major offense[s] against morality” include murder, rape, abuse, adultery, “homosexual relations (especially sexual cohabitation),” and various forms of theft. Additionally listed, each with their own separate paragraph for expansion, are abortion and “transsexual operations.”
On the topic of “transsexual operations,” Handbook 1 specifically advises that “Church leaders counsel against elective transsexual operations. If a member is contemplating such an operation, a presiding officer informs him of this counsel and advises him that the operation may be cause for formal Church discipline.” Furthermore, “A member who has undergone an elective transsexual operation may not receive a temple recommend.” Rhetorically, two interesting things happen here: 1) the hypothetical “transsexual” in question is already assumed to be a “him,” ostensibly referring to a transgender woman, and 2) like the Church’s stance on homosexuality, it is not the thoughts of gendered difference that make one unworthy to enter the house of God, but the physical actualization of those thoughts on the body, in this case through the specific act of surgical cutting. The controversial trans theorist Jay Prosser emphasizes this moment of cisnormative thinking in his book Second Skins: “More than the potentially dramatic somatic effects of the long-term hormone therapy that necessarily precedes it, sex reassignment surgery is considered the hinge upon which the transsexual’s ‘transsex’ turns: the magical moment of ‘sex change.’” The pre-operative or non-operative binary transgender person, much less the genderqueer or gender deviant, has not seriously transgressed. They may even be worthy of temple admittance if they do not “elect” to change the genital aesthetics that inspired the state’s original sex categorization—that is, to challenge the authority of the archive, and by extension the Church and God himself.
Ironically, the system set forth by the Church could, on paper, admit me and several of my friends into the temple. Despite years of hormone therapy and even more years disregarding hegemonic standards of gendered and sexual behavior, if they have not undergone operative changes to the surface of their body, they technically don’t qualify as transgender. In a certain Mormon imagining, I have been in a committed, heterosexual relationship with a man, even though she was a transwoman. I am sure my family found this comforting. However, when my older cousin was married, I stood outside the temple with the youngest children and the more distant friends and waited for the newly celestially sealed couple to emerge. My partner chose not to come because she would have had to conform to masculine standards for the ordeal just as I had to shave my legs and don a pink dress for the first time in a decade, acting through a femininity that was not my own.
After the temple ceremony, my younger cousin drove us to the reception in my grandfather’s ancient Cadillac. The windows on the Cadillac didn’t roll down and the air conditioning was broken. The scene was as stereotypical of Arizona as the fact that the reception took place on a local, Mormon-owned farm. The highlight of the night was a fat pink pig that ran through the middle of the outdoor dance floor. Two children and the owner of the farm chased it, apologizing loudly and making more of a scene than necessary. Soon after, I sat at the head table with the other bridesmaids who, though unrelated, knew the bride better than I ever will. My uncle gave a speech. He waxed romantically about the righteousness of a temple wedding, the strength of faith that it takes in the face of an increasingly secular society to remain celibate before marriage. Typical of his personality, the metaphor was financial: marriage is an investment you bank with God himself. “Living with your loved one before marriage,” he concluded, “is like shoplifting from God.” My grandmother caught my eye and sighed sadly. After dinner was served, she encouraged me to rethink my cohabitation with my then-partner and return to the Church.
Reflecting on this incredibly uncomfortable experience demonstrated to me that the theological implications of gendered Mormon worthiness go beyond identity politics. Deviation from the destiny laid out for me by the state’s gender assignment is, theologically, a result of my own God-granted agency. Performance of sex/gender, body/soul congruency is a method of becoming closer to God himself, a vital part of Mormon subject formation. Demonstrating pious gender/soul/sex/body congruency is not about simple identification, as in humanist discourses of gender. Rather, it more closely follows the model of agency discussed by Saba Mahmood in Politics of Piety; the moral disciplining of the Mormon body creates the piety, worthiness, and pleasure in conforming to the gender roles, not the other way around.
In the logic of Mormon theology, an internal lack of faith is in part a result of the mismanagement of my mortal embodiment. Part of the reason that the “born this way” language of the marriage equality movement has had so little effect on the Mormon population compared to others is that it directly contradicts very recent and revered theological claims. Any deviation from assigned gender performance cannot be based on an internal sense of self because the soul, the interior of all interiors, is gendered before birth. The physical body simply forms in accordance. Therefore, gendered “maiming” of the body, through medical procedures like abortion or gender-affirming surgery, is so polluting of its purity that it directly betrays the internally and eternally gendered soul. Such pollution can only result in the denial of a temple recommend. Jasbir Puar might argue that in these forms of religious regulation, the Church is enacting control as well as discipline because “while discipline works at the level of identity, control works at the level of affective intensification.” While the Church would discourage my identification as “queer” because it buys into a secular rhetoric of sexual orientation and desire, the true problem is the misuse of my bodily capacity and agency. As Church leader Dallin H. Oaks has stated, homosexual relations are “a confusion of what it means to be male or female.” In discouraging identification with the Other through the language produced by the queer community and forbidding physical enactment of sinful internal desires, the Church seesaws between discipline and control, identity and affect, public declarations of self and private desires.
The Marriage Certificate and Periodization
When historians speak of the non-normative Mormon past, they often use the term “peculiar.” The epithet was a popular way to signal the oddity, even the spectacle, that Mormonism posed to the mainstream Protestant American East in the nineteenth century. In his famous book The Angel and the Beehive, Armand Mauss proposes that Church history can be described in periods of assimilation—changes to more resemble other American Christians—and retrenchment—self-described opposition to Protestant and secular American values. This ebb and flow of reliance on and opposition to norms reflects external pressures, usually from the state, for the Church to conform to American hegemony. Mormons have taken up a difficult historical position: simultaneously being white and struggling for whiteness; being actively pushed out of Missouri and then pushing Native Americans out of what is now Utah; striving for both mainstream acceptance and religious particularism. In the late nineteenth century, the conflict between Mormons and other white Americans culminated in an ultimatum posed by the government: stop practicing polygamy or leave. Many, including members of my family, fled to Mexico when the Church leadership issued a statement declaring that polygamous unions were no longer compatible with the faith.
The history of polygamy was largely covered up by Church historians between its denouncement in the 1890s and Leonard J. Arrington’s term as Church Historian in the 1970s. He is often recognized as the first person to “open up” the Church archives to non-members and to release more sensitive information regarding the history of prominent figures like Joseph Smith. Today, some of the archives are also digitized; the Church curates the Joseph Smith Papers, where one can find documents relating to the early history of the Church. Some information on your (the reader’s) family members, Mormon or not, can be found on the Church-members-only FamilySearch.org or its more popular, “secular” cognate, Ancestry.com. While not owned by the Church directly, Ancestry.com is owned and operated by Mormons who became invested in genealogy through their faith. The site allows users to create profiles for deceased relatives and find, label, or upload their own documents that prove relationships between the dead.
Each profile, however, only allows one spouse per person. Ironically, figures like my great-great-great-grandfather have multiple profiles, one for each spouse. Some contain all available information about him on the website, and some do not. The problem of polygamy (or of monogamy, depending on how you look at it) pervades the site’s cataloguing system. The inability of the Church to either hide or reconcile its own past is evident in this discrepancy. As a result, the lives of some of the most important and influential early members are distorted and misrepresented. The heteronormativity that the Church today so desperately clings to in its mission to both be accepted by outsiders and bring outsiders in skews its ability to catalogue its own peculiarity. This crisis in the catalogue is like the one posed by the ever-changing standards and practices of gender and sexuality that make cataloguing and finding queer experience so difficult. It’s clear here that the organization of the archive itself is political: if Mormons were to design a user interface that allows more than one spouse, they would reignite the spectacle, or for some even confirm the suspicion, that they still believe in and practice polygamy. Instead, the spouse for which there was a legal marriage certificate is featured on the profile. Spiritual marriages with no proper legal documentation are disregarded.
There is no solution for this problem in terms of Ancestry.com that does not expose the website’s affiliation with the faith, risking its profit and user rates in the process. However, Church officials and members find comfort in the largely accepted historical divisions between the “early” Church and the “modern” Church. Mormonism is centered on the claim of ongoing revelation. Beginning with Joseph Smith, the mantle of First President has been passed down with all theocratic authority over the Church. It is similar to the power of the pope: not entirely unchecked (quorums of apostles also contribute to theological, political, and official positioning), but incredibly effective. Their claims to sovereignty simultaneously rest on liberal humanist discourse embedded within the teachings and culture of Mormonism as well as in the careful periodization between Mormons who were “peculiar” and Mormons who are almost unbearably normal.
Mormon leadership’s claim to sovereignty lies in this historically insufficient and politically intentional archival organization. Kathleen Davis argues that modern claims to statehood are based in logics of juridical precedent in which the details that affirm historical presence and ownership are acknowledged while details of transhistorical difference between the past nation and present nation-state are grounded in a carefully constructed division. This division, in her study, marks the difference between the “medieval” and the “modern” in categorizations and interpretations of English literature for British national interests. In the case of the Mormons, however, demarcating the “early” Church from today’s Church separates the faith from the racialized and politicized practice of polygamy that historically barred access to whiteness and normative sociality, according to scholars of race and Mormonism like Max Perry Mueller and W. Paul Reeve. The Church’s periodization takes President Wilford Woodruff’s declaration against polygamy as its turning point. Rhetorically, the 1890 Manifesto, and the loss of one of the key tenets of the faith, marks an early commitment to assimilation and the entrance into the privileges of nineteenth-century whiteness that had eluded the faith community since before Missouri.
There’s a nebulous community of people in the United States that I lovingly refer to as the Bitter Ex-Mormons. Many of them (us) are academics, punks, activists, queers. Whether our difference from our families is innate, manifesting from the inside out, or our own agential misgivings, failing to internalize exterior discipline and control, most of us consider ourselves traumatized or disgraced by the Church. Many us no longer identify as “faithful” or “practicing” Mormons, but as “ethnically” or “culturally” Mormon. Mormons and non-Mormons outside the community tend to take this phrasing offensively; after all, it’s understood that there is no one whiter than Mormons, and “ethnic” is often perceived as coded language for “brown.” Non-Mormons think that by using this term we’re playing into the Mormon claims to victimization, appropriating the aesthetics and pathos of histories of ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination. These non-Mormons tend to associate Mormon history with polygamy, which is more easily imagined as a story of Mormon patriarchal violence against women than as a story of state violence against Mormons, or even as part of the history of the creation of a racially coded Mormon culture.
Polygamy is still the fascination of historians and feminist theorists of Mormonism today. Often, the field recreates the centuries-old question of “was polygamy good for Mormon women?” Reading through this literature, from the 1800s polemics like Metta Victor’s Mormon Wives, which calls polygamy “a thing more loathsome and poisonous to social and political purity” than slavery, to Salt Lake Tribune articles that vehemently deny or affirm just how many wives Joseph Smith sealed himself to before his death, can become tiresome. The history of Mormon sexual deviance (it was, in fact, so deviant as to “require” government intervention and the incarceration of practitioners in Utah) presents a specific kind of pleasure to a Bitter Ex-Mormon like me; the ability to cross-identify with my own ancestors is the only chance I feel I have left to identify at all with my biological family, to reclaim Mormonism for myself on my own terms.
The first Mormon in my family, Parley P. Pratt, was a famous early apostle. He wrote several hymns and the famous A Voice of Warning, was an excellent missionary, and even ran a newspaper in New York City in the mid-1800s called The Prophet. I got a job at the Brooklyn Historical Society shortly after moving to New York. Their archive and library consist only of Brooklyn history, including a prominent genealogy section. Out of sheer habit, I checked the P’s for any record of my line. I audibly yelped when I found a manila folder labeled “Parley Parker Pratt” on the bookshelf. I opened it and carefully slid the only item, an actively disintegrating, small blue book, onto a nearby table. This first edition copy of The Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt is older than the building that houses it. I go back to visit it occasionally when I’m homesick; I must admit that’s not very often.
There’s a special joy in my family’s legacy crumbling in my fingers, a perverse pleasure I take in watching the memory of the man who I learned to respect highly as a child sit idle and unnoticed on a shelf next to the Pratt family that really matters in New York. Carolyn Steedman in Dust states that “there is a particular pleasure in willfully asserting of a text so intimately connected by its authorship to the practice of deconstruction.” In this case, I find pleasure in the intimacy of the life and death in that book; it is literally deconstructing itself before my eyes, a process I encourage every time I lay the oils of my queer fingers on its pages, even as I find new ways to bind my own narrative to the one it houses on the bottom shelf of the genealogical section.
It was this draw of the archive that first inspired my interest in genealogy when I was a child, the reason I was gifted floppy disks of dead peoples’ personal information while my cousins received gift cards to the mall. Today, I love to declare to my friends, “I’m a better Mormon than anyone else in my family.” It’s a joke, mostly, because by today’s standards, I’m a horrible, awful, unworthy Mormon. But in the archive, I found the connective tissue between my life and the lives of my ancestors and began, unwittingly, to identify with them in new, more peculiar ways than I ever imagined possible as a child.
Most notably, about five or six years ago I became interested in the women in my lineage who were in polygamist marriages. When I came out as queer in my first year of college, I also started practicing polyamory. This more recently developed attack against monogamy is usually cited as specifically juxtaposed to the heteronormative institution of marriage, but I was inspired to “convert” to it because of the autobiography of my great-great-grandmother Bertha Wilcken Pratt. After an abusive monogamous marriage to a man in Salt Lake City, she was granted divorce by the Church and moved to Chihuahua, Mexico to marry her sister’s husband, Helaman Pratt. In the account of her life she wrote shortly before her death in 1947, she said, “Now began a great contrast between this marriage and that other one. I have been recognized, respected, loved, and esteemed as much as any wife could desire without infringing upon the rights of others.” Before I read this, it had not occurred to me that being loved could infringe on anyone else. Since then, it is all I think about when I talk to my partners or anyone else that I or they become involved with. There is something I find conceptually queer in considering love, like the Foucauldian concept of power, as something that exists in a dynamic between entities rather than as something one can simply have, give, or take away. In a way, it is a more significant formation of love because a dynamic is something you must continuously choose to maintain and nourish rather than relying on stagnant incarnations of past selves’ desires. Polygamy and polyamory force us to ask ourselves: do we want love to be an object?
In all reality, Bertha Wilcken Pratt would think me a sinful and disturbed woman—a woman, specifically, even though I haven’t thought of myself as such in years. I have no delusions about the relationship between me, as a living polyamorous queer partner, and her, a deceased heterosexual polygamist wife. I allow myself to be enchanted by this trace of a familial connection between us and extrapolate that trace to a political stance because, as Zeb Tortorici says, “that process of extraction [of queerness from the archives] is more effective if we understand all that we seek through them, and all that we are never quite able to locate, uncover, or grasp within the archives themselves.” I knew going into her story that I was looking for family. I may never be able to find a “real queer” in my family archive because the Mormon archive is built on the heterosexual logics of reproduction as resembled by the family tree itself. This archival structure forbids any affirmation that my experience of my gendered sexual body is comparable to those of my ancestors. However, when I take into account that family history archives are mutually constituted by Mormon theological and state legal conceptualizations of how humans should relate to one another (and themselves) and not necessarily how they did, I open the possibility for myself to reclaim pieces of the past that the Church itself has surrendered in its own mission of self-preservation.
My joke-not-joke that I am the best Mormon in my family is not appreciated by my cousins or grandparents. Unlike my family, I have not abandoned the communitarian economics, non-monogamy, or vegetarianism that were so important to nineteenth-century Mormons. Sodomy aside, my lifestyle is arguably more “correct” than the socially isolated capitalist, monogamous, middle-class lives of my cousins when compared to those of our common ancestors like Bertha. Neither my family, nor the modern Church, can get out of the archive what I as a queer person can. In fact, they go to great lengths to cover up the same past I revel in.
The Death Certificate and Consent
“Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple . . . a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.”Doctrine and Covenants 128:22–24
Baptisms for the dead, like polygamy, are Mormon practices that are rooted in the often-unused parts of the New Testament, what we might call a highly curated archive. Early Church leaders like Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery led the Church in the revival of these practices as part of the larger return to a select covenant with God. While speaking of the logics of physical resurrection, Paul asks, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” In section 127 of Joseph Smith’s Doctrine and Covenants, where the ritual is most discussed, he places emphasis on the importance of record-keeping: “When any of you are baptized for your dead, let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms; let him hear with his ears, that he may testify of a truth, saith the Lord.” In the cases of the birth certificate, the temple recommend, and the marriage certificate, the power of the state archive is drawn upon to supplement the power of the Church itself. The records of baptisms for the dead, however, institutionalize a separate archive. This archive is carefully guarded from secular intrusion by being created and stored in the temple itself.
Organizing and performing ordinances for the dead still rely on the outside archives, however. For baptisms or sealings of the family to be done, state-archived information like birthplace, death place, dates, parents’ names, names of spouses, and dates of marriage are necessary. The state information is drawn upon and, through ritual, transformed into another, more sacred archive. This archive deals in the dead exclusively. In a much more literal way than Achille Mbembe intended, these rituals “keep the dead from stirring up trouble” in the present. A posthumous baptism does not automatically convert a deceased person to Mormonism. Rather, the theology states that it gives their post-mortal soul the opportunity for conversion in the afterlife. Eternity, through the archive and its uses, is collapsed onto the present. The dead retain their ability to consent, make decisions, and relieve their spirit even after death.
Surprisingly, baptisms for the dead cause relatively little legal trouble for the Church. It’s difficult to imagine that the state, which so carefully presents itself the ultimate life-binding force, would meddle in the politics of dead people that the state itself did not kill. This sacred archive is part of the larger project of preparing for the eschaton. “Early” Mormons were millenarians to the core, helping along the coming of the rapture through conversion and the literal gathering of Zion. Baptisms for the dead are a continued part of this project, a solution for the Church’s inability to convert all of the living. A posthumously baptized person can accept or reject the offer of salvation, but they cannot accept or reject their presence in the archive. They are necessarily implicit in the always-already political, sacred, or secular organization the state, the Church, or the lay archivist subjects them to.
Luckily for the Church and the state, it seems that most people are not interested in excusing themselves from inclusion. The intense interest in genealogy that has made its way to mainstream American culture reveals that people are increasingly interested in “where they’re from.” Queer negativity theorists like Lee Edelman would argue that this information does nothing more than play into heteronormative logics of reproductivity and “legacy” and distract from contemporary political concerns by rooting them in historical violence and nostalgia. But it is unlikely that queer theory will detract from the spectacle of death or the greater and more violent spectacle of heterosexuality.
Mormon baptisms for the dead are one of the more eyebrow-raising contemporary practices to the American public. Particularly, my fellow leftists scoff at what seems like an overindulgence of ancestral white pridefulness. At the same time, we read Marx and talk about him as if we had coffee with him last week. We speculate as to what Audre Lorde, Mikhail Bakunin, or Malcom X would do if they were alive now. We argue about archives and museums. We want the mummies to go back to Egypt. We want reparations. We are all obsessed with the dead. Some of us imagine we don’t believe in the afterlife, but there is no denying we believe in something that provides the basis for our righteous indignation when our dead are disrespected. Some people pay the county clerk for a death certificate or search FindAGrave.com for their death tourism, some of us visit Haymarket or Stonewall.
When my cousin and I were eight and six our great-grandfather Emerson Pratt, Bertha’s middle son, died. His funeral was the first I ever went to. It was an open casket, and my cousin and I were too young to understand the severity of Old Papa “moving on.” We became obsessed with his lifeless body. Someone had brought over a stool for the children to step up and kiss him goodbye. We stood next to each other on it.
“I think he’s wearing makeup like a girl,” she cried.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Yeah! Look!” She wiped some blush from his cheek and showed it to me. We both started laughing loudly at the absurdity of our Old Papa, a man, with makeup on. Our mothers were appalled. They stormed over and pulled us away from the casket and out of the room of women hiding their crying faces in their black shawls. My aunt was the real disciplinarian: “You cannot talk about Papa’s makeup!”
“Because you shouldn’t disrespect the dead.”
Two questions spring from the existence of the archive, both state and Church: does the archive control us? Do we, in our un-categorizable selfperceptions and actions, exist in the archive in any meaningful way at all? For queer people, the desire for inclusion is always in tension with the desire to fundamentally change the operations of society. Is it enough to have a marriage certificate, or should romantic and sexual relationships be defined in new ways that better reflect our lived experiences? When do we declare our gender and to whom? How can we effectively disregard sex? What does it mean to be “Mormon” without a temple recommend? Documentation that supports the heteropatriarchal structure of both the Church and state enforces its power and persuades us to work toward reform, recategorization, and recognition rather than disruption. The family tree, birth certificate, temple recommend, marriage certificate, and death certificate are all part of this cycle. And surely we can all, regardless of identity, find ourselves and stories like ours in the archive if we work hard enough. The theological and political question that is then posed to us is: how should we use the archive as we construct our own worlds around us? As queer people, what do we fight for?
Note: The Dialogue Foundation provides the web format of this article as a courtesy. There may be unintentional differences from the printed version. For citational and bibliographical purposes, please use the printed version or the PDFs provided online and on JSTOR.
 See Robb Hernández, “Drawn from the Scraps: The Finding AIDS of Mundo Meza,” Radical History Review 122 (2015): 70–88.
 See W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 See John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
 Joseph F. Smith, comp., Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1938), 150.
 Modern “Lamanites” can also assume covenant descendance. “Lamanites” is the term used in the Book of Mormon to describe Native Americans. In short, the Lamanites and Nephites were two tribes of Native Americans, each descended from Ephraim. The Lamanites killed the Nephites and fell from God’s grace and, as such, he cursed them with dark skin.
 Hernández, “Drawn from Scraps.”
 Hernández, “Drawn from Scraps.”
 Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83, no. 2 (Apr. 2013): 94–111.
 Sweden is one country that has recently added a third, gender-neutral option that is assigned in case of intersex birth or upon request of the parents.
 See Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
 See Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007).
 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (emphasis mine).
 It is important to note here that it is assumed based on the binary sexing system that intersex bodies are entirely disregarded or assumed to be “corrected” into one of the two gendered categories. In 1995, medical and popular understandings of intersexuality were limited, however this situation has changed drastically since without a reflecting statement or any guidance from the Church.
 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” emphasis added.
 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” emphasis added.
 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 10.
 Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 79.
 Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 79.
 Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010).
 Handbook 1, 1.3–6.
 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, translated by Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 2.
 Derrida, Archive Fever, 14.
 Articles of Faith 1:10.
 Handbook 1, 22.214.171.124.
 Handbook 1, 126.96.36.199
 Handbook 1, 188.8.131.52
 Handbook 1, 184.108.40.206.
 Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 63.
 Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005).
 Jasbir K. Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017), 122.
 Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
 Reeve, Religion of a Different Color.
 For information on this process, see the Reynolds v. United States Supreme Court case of 1879.
 Wilford Woodruff, “Official Declaration 1,” Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979 edition), 291.
 The impact of Leonard J. Arrington and his fall from the graces of Church leadership is described in various essays appearing in Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History, edited by George D. Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992).
 Polygamy was a financial difficulty and thus only a certain few men were able to provide for multiple wives. Polygamous marriage was also considered to be a sort of “special calling” that some men were especially instructed to pursue as part of their religious duty to God.
 Drabinski. “Queering the Catalog.”
 Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
 For recent scholarship on the racialization of early Mormons, see Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color, Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), and Peter Coviello’s Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
 Reeve, Religion of a Different Color, 186.
 Devan Mark Hite, “The ‘Queer’ God(s) of Mormonism: Considering an Inclusive, Post-Heteronormative LGBTQI Hermeneutics,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 64, nos. 2–3 (2013): 52–65.
 Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, Mormon Wives: A Narrative of Facts Stranger than Fiction (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856).
 The concept of “cross-identify” I take from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now,” in Tendencies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 1–20.
 The title page of the primary source is missing, so here I refer to the republication information: Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1874).
 Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 10.
 Wilcken Pratt, “Bertha Wilcken Pratt.”
 Zeb Tortorici, “Archival Seduction: Indexical Absences and Historiographical Ghosts,” Archive Journal 5 (Nov. 2015).
 1 Corinthians 15:29.
 Doctrine and Covenants 127:6.
 Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and its Limits,” in Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, et al. (Dordecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 24.
 Samuel M. Otterstrom, “Genealogy as Religious Ritual: The Doctrine and Practice of Family History in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” in Geography and Genealogy: Locating Personal Pasts, edited by Dallen J. Timothy and Jeanne Kay Guelke (New York: Routledge, 2008), 137.
 For example, see Stephen Best, “On Failing to Make the Past Present,” Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 3. (Sept. 2012): 453–74.[post_title] => Archive of the Covenant: Reflections on Mormon Interactions with State and Body [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 53.4 (Winter 2020): 79–107
In the logic of Mormon theology, an internal lack of faith is in part a result of the mismanagement of my mortal embodiment. Part of the reason that the “born this way” language of the marriage equality movement has had so little effect on the Mormon population compared to others is that it directly contradicts very recent and revered theological claims. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => archive-of-the-covenant-reflections-on-mormon-interactions-with-state-and-body [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-07-14 13:38:50 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-07-14 13:38:50 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=27476 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
A Queer Heavenly Family: Expanding Godhood Beyond a Heterosexual, Cisgender Couple
Dialogue 55.1 (Spring 2022): 68–97
Still, the creation of a genderless god erases gendered experiences, whether the gendered experiences are those of a transgender or cisgender individual. Claiming that a genderless god is inclusive is parallel to claiming that “colorblindness” solves racial issues.
Although the concept of Heavenly Mother is empowering for many women, the focus on God as a cisgender, heterosexual couple also limits who can see their own divinity reflected in the stories told about God. First, with Heavenly Mother as the only female divinity, divine expression of womanhood is restricted to motherhood. This excludes many women, including women struggling with infertility, women who do not wish to become mothers, and transgender women who experience motherhood differently than fertile, cisgender women. Second, the focus on Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother’s male-female relationship emphasizes heterosexuality to the point of heteronormativity. Third, the emphasis on gender and sex binaries in the Heavenly Mother/Heavenly Father pairing enshrines cisnormativity as divine and excludes identities that do not fit neatly into these binaries. Together, heteronormativity and cisnormativity exclude LGBTQ+ people from narratives of godhood. Both the exclusion of women and LGBTQ+ people are serious issues for a theology that claims to be broad and expansive enough to include all of God’s diverse children. Some theologians tackle the first problem by adding additional female divinities (like Eve and Mary) to offer divine examples for multiple forms of womanhood, but this approach continues to enshrine cisnormativity. Others try to address the second and third problems by focusing on erasing differences between male and female, such as by creating a genderless god. Still, the creation of a genderless god erases gendered experiences, whether the gendered experiences are those of a transgender or cisgender individual. Claiming that a genderless god is inclusive is parallel to claiming that “colorblindness” solves racial issues. Refusing to acknowledge diversity doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or impact people’s lives; it simply excludes anything beyond the cultural default from conversation. Both approaches have value, but neither one can solve these issues on its own. Additional embodied female deities are not necessarily queer-inclusive, while a genderless god lacks the intimate understanding of menstruation, childbirth, miscarriage, and more that many women find comforting in an embodied Heavenly Mother. Inclusivity requires acknowledging and celebrating diversity. Whether a single god or a group of additional embodied deities, conceptions of God must be gender-inclusive or gender-encompassing in a theology that includes all God’s diverse children.
In an attempt to combine these two approaches, I follow religious scholar Caroline Kline’s suggested approach of adding nuance to the Heavenly Father/Heavenly Mother pairing by “bringing forward and theologically developing other divine groupings and formations,” including a spectrum of genders and sexualities. Given the Mormon belief in apotheosis, there is space within our theology for an extended heavenly family that includes LGBTQ+ gods and a broader representation of womanhood. However, intellectual conversations about theological theories do not easily become part of lived religion. Theological storytelling translates abstract theological theories into concrete, easily visualized examples that can be internalized as beliefs. In order to make this theory accessible and to provide an example of how including LGBTQ+ gods might change our concept of godhood, I offer a short theological story reimagining a queer-inclusive extended heavenly family. Although they may not be the gods most Latter-day Saints are familiar with, these additional figures and groupings are part of our greater heavenly family. Understanding queer stories of godhood expands limited or narrow concepts of divinity to include all of humanity.
To be clear, through theological storytelling I seek to find clarity regarding previous, imperfect, and exclusionary constructions of deity, not to create new doctrine from scratch. Teachings of Church leaders are filtered through their personal biases and historical context. Consequently, these teachings are not, and cannot be, objective. In that sense, all the truths that Mormonism claims to teach of God are constructed through and limited by human perception. The process of questioning and exploring alters the limits human biases place on understanding the nature of God, allowing perspectives to shift and uncover previously unseen truths.
Who is Heavenly Mother?
The doctrine of Heavenly Mother is rooted in the literal interpretations of scripture describing God as a Father and theistic anthropomorphism by leaders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If we are children of God the Father, early Church members reasoned, then there must also be a God the Mother. Joseph Smith taught Zina Diantha Huntington Young and Eliza R. Snow that they had a Mother in Heaven. Other Church leaders have since also taught of the existence of Heavenly Mother, including in official documents such as the 1909 First Presidency statement and the 1995 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
Unlike the traditional Christian interpretation of gendered terminology relating to God as metaphorical, Mormons interpret gendered pronouns very literally. Brigham Young taught that all humans were “created . . . in the image of our father and our mother, the image of our God” and indicated that this was consistent with the biblical account of both “male and female” being made in the image of God. Thus, Adam was created in the image of Heavenly Father; Eve was created in the image of Heavenly Mother. Additionally, both heavenly parents have “[bodies] of flesh and bone as tangible as man’s.” According to Mormon understanding, this means that “God the Father is a male with a male’s body and God the Mother is a female with a female body.” Because “all men and women are in the similitude of” gendered and embodied heavenly parents, Church leaders assume that human bodies are similarly gendered in a binary manner.
Although some Church leaders consider “God” to include both heavenly parents, in practice the word “God” is often understood to refer to God the Father and is accompanied by masculine pronouns. For example, the four 2020 general conference talks that mentioned heavenly parents only used that phrase once while using “God,” “Lord,” or “Heavenly Father,” and masculine pronouns throughout the rest of the talk. More often, Heavenly Mother is not named but is implicitly included in a conversation focused on God the Father with the phrase “heavenly parents.”
Whether explicitly included in conversations about God or included in the term “heavenly parents,” the focus tends to be on Heavenly Mother’s roles as wife or mother, how Heavenly Mother is the ideal every woman should strive to become, and how Heavenly Mother can be used to enforce complementary gender roles.
Heavenly Mother is the wife of Heavenly Father and nurturing mother of all humanity. President Boyd K. Packer taught that before birth, each human “lived in a premortal existence as individual spirit children of heavenly parents” and suggested that “in the development of our characters our Heavenly Mother was perhaps particularly nurturing.” Similarly, Susa Young Gates taught that “our great heavenly Mother was the greater molder” of Abraham and that she has played similarly nurturing roles since, providing “careful training” and “watchful care” to every human. President Spencer W. Kimball taught that Heavenly Mother is “the ultimate in maternal modesty,” then asked, “knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less”?
Heavenly Mother is the “eternal prototype” of womanhood, the ideal that every Mormon woman is expected to become. President Russell M. Nelson taught that “as begotten children of heavenly parents” humans are “endowed with the potential to become like them, just as mortal children may become like their mortal parents.” Women are taught that they specifically have the potential to develop the traits and attributes of Heavenly Mother. For example, Vaughn J. Featherstone explained that “women are endowed with special traits and attributes that come trailing down through eternity from a divine mother. Young women have special God-given feelings about charity, love, and obedience.” Similarly, Glenn L. Pace told women that when they stood before Heavenly Mother they would “see standing directly in front of you your divine nature and destiny.” Note that these teachings also exclude men and nonbinary people from being nurturing or inheriting attributes from Heavenly Mother.
Church leaders have also repeatedly taught that Heavenly Mother’s gendered roles and attributes are complementary to Heavenly Father’s and that humans are expected to perform similarly complementary gender roles. According to several Church leaders, neither Heavenly Father nor Heavenly Mother could be complete or could become a god on their own. The 1916 First Presidency declaration “The Father and Son” taught that it was only together that heavenly parents could have children or attain exaltation. Similarly, Richard G. Scott taught, “In the Lord’s plan, it takes two—a man and a woman—to form a whole.” Whether Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father or a mortal couple, “husband and wife are not two identical halves, but a wondrous, divinely determined combination of complementary capacities and characteristics.” Just as Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother could not become gods alone, human males “may never hope to reach the high destiny marked out for him by the Savior in these encouraging words: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ without woman by his side; for ‘neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.’” According to David A. Bednar, the complementary gendered roles and responsibilities “of both males and females were needed to implement the plan of happiness. Alone, neither the man nor the woman could fulfill the purposes of his or her creation.” Performing separate and complementary gender roles is seen as a way for humans to imitate Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father.
How do teachings about Heavenly Mother harm women and LGBTQ+ members?
There exist three major weaknesses in the current theological conception of Heavenly Mother. First, Heavenly Mother, a singular being representing the potential of all her daughters, reinforces stereotypes of motherhood as the only path to divine womanhood. Second, focusing on Heavenly Mother in the context of her marital relationship with Heavenly Father enforces binaries that exclude non-heterosexual relationships from potential godhood. Third, because narratives about Heavenly Mother’s and Heavenly Father’s gendered embodiment promotes cisnormativity, transgender, nonbinary, and intersex individuals are excluded from potential godhood.
In Heavenly Mother, women are given one example of female divinity. The writings and speeches of official Church leaders portray Heavenly Mother as a pedestalized, silent, childbearing partner to Heavenly Father and nurturing mother to all humanity. This framework has troubling implications for women who do not wish to or cannot have children. As Blaire Ostler observes, “The inherent nature of Heavenly Mother implies all women would desire eternal motherhood. In this sense, motherhood becomes the gatekeeper of a woman’s godly potential.” Because narratives about Heavenly Mother equate motherhood with womanhood and female godhood, the only avenue toward divinity for women is through motherhood. In contrast, men have God the Father and Jesus, giving them two examples of male divinity, Father and Son. But women have only Heavenly Mother, a God described and named in terms of motherhood. Within this theological conception of womanhood, women who are not mothers are excluded from seeing themselves in God.
Pairing Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father as a husband and wife who could only become gods as a couple suggests that heterosexuality is essential to godhood. This view of heterosexuality is based on 1 Corinthians 11:11, which states “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord,” and teachings of Church authorities. Extrapolating from his belief that God is Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother together, Erastus Snow taught, “There can be no God except he is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, or ever will be a God in any other way. We may never hope to attain unto the eternal power and the Godhead upon any other principle . . . [than] this Godhead composing two parts, male and female.” This teaching was later affirmed by other Church authorities, including Hugh B. Brown, James E. Talmage, Melvin J. Ballard, and Bruce R. McConkie. If Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother became gods in part through a heterosexual relationship, can non-heterosexual individuals also become gods? Because focusing on Heavenly Mother in the context of a male-female partnership shifts narratives about God from that of an individual to that of a heterosexual couple, this narrative enforces beliefs that heterosexuality is a prerequisite of godhood. Consequently, Heavenly Mother’s heterosexual relationship is used to exclude non-heterosexual individuals and couples from potential godhood.
The narrative of Heavenly Mother’s and Heavenly Father’s gendered embodiment is used to promote cisnormativity through a process called “cisgendering reality.” This cisgendering of reality, in turn, excludes non-cisgender individuals from potential godhood. The term “cisgendering reality” is defined as “the process whereby religious leaders and members socially construct and maintain cisnormative interpretations of the world through their ongoing teachings, rituals, and other faith-related activities,” such as by erasing, marking, or punishing transgender existence. Most contemporary religious cosmologies and theologies, including Mormonism, are “devoid of and ignore transgender existence. Rather than describing our world, they breathe life into an imagined world entirely composed of cisgender people” even though transgender people exist in Mormonism and have existed throughout human history. They are similarly devoid of nonbinary, intersex, and gender-fluid individuals. By ignoring gender variance to create and enforce a binary male/female view of God and God’s children, religious narratives cisgender reality and “provide the symbolic material necessary” to judge “what is and is not acceptable to God.”
Cisgendering reality within Mormonism is specifically associated with narratives asserting that only male and female beings exist, that God created men and women to occupy distinctly separate and complementary roles and responsibilities, and that any empirical realities that do not match these storylines should be rejected. The Church teaches that, as the literal, embodied spirit children of gendered and embodied heavenly parents, humanity consists of people who are either a “male with a male body” or a “female with a female body.” But this ignores the existence and experiences of intersex, nonbinary, gender-fluid, and transgender individuals throughout history. If all humans are made in the image of God, that includes intersex, nonbinary, gender-fluid, and transgender humans. Individuals are also expected to perform complementary gender roles based on their gender as assigned at birth—women are expected to become mothers (like Heavenly Mother) while men are expected to “preside, provide [for], and protect” their family. When Heavenly Mother is added to discussions of Heavenly Father in order to “emphasize male and female distinctions without any mention of other potentially moral options and define gender variance of any kind as an assault on the sanctity of God’s plans,” the result is the cisgendering of reality through the rejection of the empirical evidence and the lived experiences of gender-nonconforming individuals. As philosophy professor Kelli D. Potter points out, the “idea of a natural or inherent binary sexual difference in LDS discourse makes a legible ‘sex’ the prerequisite to personhood,” meaning that non-cisgender individuals are “illegible as children of God [with] divine potentials.” Using Heavenly Mother’s embodiment to cisgender reality withholds the potential of godhood from transgender, nonbinary, intersex, and gender-fluid individuals.
Mary Daly, a feminist philosopher and theologian, once said, “If God is male, then male is God.” I would argue that it is also true that if God is heterosexual, then heterosexual is God, and if God is cisgender, then cisgender is God. The current conception of the feminine divine as a single being who is revered in the context of her relationships as part of a cisgender, heterosexual couple excludes the LGBTQ+ community from godhood unless they eternally perform a cisgender, heterosexual relationship.
How have other scholars approached these issues?
Many Mormon studies scholars and theologians have sought to address these three major weaknesses in the current theological conception of Heavenly Mother. Their approaches include exploring non-biological reproduction and multiplicity of passageways, reintroducing kinship sealings, and adding additional female divine beings to our doctrinal pantheon. Scholars outside of Mormonism have also developed theology that expands godhood by feminizing the Holy Spirit or queering the Godhead.
Taylor Petrey criticizes feminist theological writings about Heavenly Mother in “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother” because they promote gender essentialism, reduce all women to one female god, reinforce binaries, and idealize heterosexuality. Petrey argues that expanding the pantheon of female deities cannot solve the problems he outlined because additional female figures only continue to reinforce gender binaries. Instead, he suggests multiplicity to create passageways between male and female in order to expand the concept of God beyond binaries and examines the gender transgressiveness of Jesus. While I agree with Petrey that the concept of God should extend beyond binaries, I also recognize that some women benefit from worshipping a God who intimately understands biological processes like menstruation, miscarriage, pregnancy, and menopause. Embodied representation of diverse identities and experiences is essential to developing an inclusive theology.
In response to Taylor Petrey’s article, religious studies professor Caroline Kline observes, “How deity is constructed has implications for our own eternal futures. If God is a married heterosexual couple, then how can we create theological space for LGBTQ people in heaven? How can we find theological room for LGBTQ people to form eternal partnerships with those of their choice and act as partnered Gods to enable new generations of humans to grow and progress and reach their eternal destinies?” I would add, if God is cisgender, how can we create theological space for transgender, intersex, and nonbinary people in heaven? How can we embrace their existence and celebrate it as sacred and divine? Noting the importance of an embodied female God to many women, Kline suggests that perhaps future theological work will “retain Heavenly Mother as equal to Heavenly Father, but nuance this male/female pairing by bringing forward and theologically developing other divine groupings and formations.”
Multiple scholars have explored other divine, feminine groupings or formations. However, these additional female deities reinforce traditional beliefs about gender and sexuality that effectively exclude the LGBTQ+ community from godhood unless they perform cisgender heterosexuality. To expand the Mormon concept of female divinity beyond Heavenly Mother, Margaret Toscano has suggested a female trinity of Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit, as well as a variety of female divine figures including the Bride, Zion, Eve, and Sophia. Other non-Mormon scholars, including Margaret Barker, have also explored the Holy Ghost as feminine. Although these theological writings do not limit divinity to a heterosexual couple, they don’t explicitly expand the concept of God to include queer individuals or relationships. These additional female divinities are either unembodied (like Zion and the Holy Spirit) or are based on biblical characters like Eve and Mary, but, because of the ongoing cisgendering of reality, they are assumed to be cisgender, meaning that they do not make divinity more inclusive for nonbinary, intersex, transgender, and gender-fluid individuals. In order to be queer-inclusive, additional embodied deities must be explicitly non-cisgender or non-heterosexual.
Scholars outside of Mormon studies have explored expanding divinity through queering the Godhead. For example, Nancy Wilson and Robert Williams write of Jesus as a gay man. In Indecent Theology, Marcella Althaus-Reid imagines Christ as a young lesbian, a transgender person, and as a lover kissing and cuddling Lazarus after raising him from the dead. Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus In Love tells the story of a bisexual, transgender Jesus who is in relationships with both the apostle John and Mary Magdalene. Gavin D’Costa, Marcella Althaus-Reid, and Patrick Cheng also explore the Trinity as a polyamorous grouping. Each of these writers creatively and effectively expands divinity to include queerness in non-Mormon theology.
Nevertheless, there is space within Mormon history and theology to include LGTBQ+ identities. Historically, Mormon teachings about gender and sexuality have actually been fluid rather than fixed. Past teachings about gender include that each individual chose their gender before birth, that gender would be eliminated after death, and that each person’s gender was assigned by God. According to contemporary teachings, gender is “an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Exactly what constitutes gender remains unclear, however, as gender sometimes appears to refer to biological sex, prescribed gender roles, or gender expression throughout Church documents. The meaning of the “eternal” nature of gender is similarly vague. According to Blaire Ostler, “Eternal does not mean static or unchanging. Eternal means ‘existing forever’ or perhaps ‘endless time’ and to exist in Mormon theology is to be in a constant state of change or evolution. Some might even call it eternal progression.” Thus, the teaching that gender is eternal does not mean that gender is static. Kelli D. Potter similarly argues that “the Mormon emphasis on divine and human embodiment can be quite affirming” for nonbinary transgender individuals because “being male and female is a matter of degree” and sex and gender can be “subject to constant change due to the impermanent nature of embodiment.” Given the multiple meanings of both “gender” and “eternal” within Mormon theology, it is possible to understand gender as both nonbinary and changeable.
Past teachings about relationships and sexuality have undergone similar shifts, including banning then permitting interracial marriage, limiting the purpose of sex to procreation then expanding it to include pleasure and emotional bonding of spouses, determining what sexual practices were acceptable in marriage, and declaring polygamist marriage a requirement for the highest degree of heaven. As Kelli D. Potter notes, “Orthodox Mormons are not forced by their theology to reject gays and trans folk; instead they are forcing their theology to reject queer and trans folk.” Thus, though queer people and relationships may not be explicitly welcomed today, the historical fluidity of teachings about gender and sexuality leaves room for continued exploration in Mormon theology.
One future shift the Church could make to be more inclusive is broadening who and what relationships can be sealed in the temple. In “Queer Polygamy,” Blaire Ostler offers a way to include all—straight or not, cisgender or not, monogamous or not—in godhood through a model of queer polygamy. Building on her research of early adoptive sealings and Joseph Smith’s sealings to already married women, Ostler argues that sealings could be offered for relationships of kinship, friendship, or love. This model of queer polygamy can include sealings for an infinite number of marital, sexual, romantic, and platonic relationships. Importantly, Ostler points out that “the family is far more than just one mom and dad. It is siblings, cousins, spouses, aunts, uncles, friends, grandparents, and the generations of persons who came here before you or me.” Family is not just a cisgender, heterosexual couple. I see no reason why our heavenly family would not be just as expansive and inclusive.
In “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Taylor Petrey points out areas where our theology may already have space for the queer community, including in the abstractedness of celestial reproduction compared to biological reproduction, the historical practice of sealings as kinship, and the complexity of eternal gender. According to Petrey, “contemporary Mormon discourse distinguishes between homosexual desires and sexual practices, permitting the former but rejecting the latter.” As a result, homosexual relationships are excluded as a legitimate dimension of Mormon LGBTQ+ experience. Since heterosexuality is already idealized within Mormonism as an eternal male-female relationship, Petrey defines homosexuality in terms of relationships rather than only desires and practices to give homosexual and heterosexual relationships equal footing. Petrey suggests the possibility that homosexual relationships may be allowed the same blessings of sealing as heterosexual relationships.
Like Kline and Toscano, I am not ready to erase Heavenly Mother because I see value in imagining an embodied female God who is an equal partner to a male God. Yet, as a queer woman, I also see the need for a more LGBTQ+-inclusive theology that goes beyond the additional female divine figures Toscano writes about. Thus, I follow Kline’s suggestion to theologically develop other divine groupings and formations while focusing on relationships like Petrey. I follow Ostler’s example to imagine a sealed celestial family based on relationships of kinship, friendship, or love—eternal relationships that are not limited to only cisgender, heterosexual couples.
Both gender and sexuality are innate parts of an individual’s identity—what makes them who they are—like their sense of humor, creativity, or curiosity. If queer people were to be transfigured, changed from their queer selves to something non-queer after resurrection, we would no longer be ourselves. Therefore, I accept the premise that gender is an essential characteristic of an individual’s eternal existence and assume that sexuality is similarly essential. Following Potter’s suggestion, I “reject the gender binary and . . . allow that being male and female is a matter of degree with various combinations being possible in a similar way to biological sex.” Thus, in this exploration of godhood, I assume that gender and sexuality both exist on spectrums and that an individual’s gender and sexuality may be fluid rather than static.
The theological basis for a diverse, inclusive heavenly family is apotheosis, or the idea that an individual can become a god. Apotheosis has been taught by multiple prophets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, starting with Joseph Smith and continuing on with modern leaders, though it is now described as exaltation.
Joseph Smith taught on several occasions that as literal children of God each human has the potential to achieve godhood. In 1832, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon experienced a vision depicting the afterlife, including that those who are faithful on earth become “gods, even the sons of God” in the afterlife. On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith taught more about theosis in a funeral sermon (known as the King Follet Sermon) that explained his beliefs on the nature of God and on mankind’s ability to become gods. Of God, Smith said, “He once was a man like one of us and that God Himself, the Father of us all, once dwelled on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did in the flesh and like us.” Later in the sermon, Smith counseled the audience, “You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods in order to save yourselves and be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done—by going from a small capacity to a great capacity, from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, until the resurrection of the dead, from exaltation to exaltation.” Thus, according to Joseph Smith, (1) our God was once a mortal living on an earth like we are now, and (2) our God is one of many gods who have lived mortal lives as part of their eternal progression.
Other Mormon prophets have also taught apotheosis. Lorenzo Snow penned the succinct couplet “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” Joseph Fielding Smith more explicitly described the role of the extended heavenly family in apotheosis. God’s father “passed through a period of mortality even as he passed through mortality, and as we all are doing. Our Father in heaven, according to the Prophet, had a Father, and since there has been a condition of this kind through all eternity, each Father had a Father.” Our Heavenly Father has a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and so on, each of whom experienced a mortal probation prior to godhood. Presumably, our Heavenly Mother also has family members and progenitors who experienced their own mortal probations before becoming gods.
Modern Church leaders frequently talk about apotheosis in terms of exaltation and ongoing relationships. “Exaltation” refers to a future state in which humans have become like God and live as God does now. A key part of the discussion of exaltation is the continuation of loving and familial relationships. According to Doctrine and Covenants 130, the relationships we have here on earth will continue in heaven, “only they will be coupled with eternal glory.” Thus, relationships will continue after death, but in an improved and glorified way.
This relational focus of exaltation is emphasized in the Gospel Topics essay “Becoming Like God.” The essay states that Church members imagine and desire exaltation “less through images of what they will get and more through the relationships they have now and how those relationships might be purified and elevated.” Similarly, Dallin H. Oaks described the importance of continuing family relationships as part of apotheosis. “For us, eternal life is not a mystical union with an incomprehensible spirit-god. Eternal life is family life with a loving Father in Heaven and with our progenitors and our posterity.” It is the continuation of our relationship with God and our relationships with those we love that will make exaltation—and thus godhood—joyful.
To ensure the continuation of relationships past death, Joseph Smith introduced a sealing ritual. The types of relationships that have been eligible for sealing have varied since the introduction of the sealing ceremony. From around 1842 until 1894, men could be adopted through sealing to another man without the need for genetic relationship or legal adoption. The purpose of this adoptive sealing was to connect them with someone (usually an apostle, General Authority, or local Church leader) who was already sealed. This grafted their family line to the family of God. Sometimes these adopted sons even took their adoptive father’s last name, though these adoptive sealings were not accompanied by legal adoption. Some women who were already legally married were simultaneously sealed to other men. For example, one-third of the sealings Joseph Smith participated in before his death were polyandrous, i.e., sealings to women who were already married and who continued living with their legal husbands. Today, heterosexual couples may be sealed in temples, and biological or legally adopted children may be sealed to their parents. The sealing ritual has not always been limited to legally married, cisgender and heterosexual couples and their children. Expanding the sealing ritual to include all loving relationships and all family formations is a vital step toward meaningful inclusion of both queer and unmarried members.
Although they may not be permitted by current policies, Blaire Ostler and Taylor Petrey convincingly argue for why queer sealings and queer people fit into the theological frame of Mormonism. Both point out that a primary objection to the possibility that queer relationships can be eternal is the question of procreation. And yet, how can we presume to limit an infinite and powerful God to biological procreation when (with modern technology) we ourselves are no longer limited to biological procreation? Ostler also observes that “the purpose of sealing isn’t to legitimize sexual behavior; the purpose of sealing is to legitimize the eternal and everlasting bonds that people share with one another.” These bonds exist wherever there is love, including in queer relationships. Petrey points out that both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon teach that God does not withhold salvation based on one’s gender, race, or status. Why, then, would a God who “denieth none that come unto him” withhold sealings or exaltation based on an individual’s queerness? If gender and sexuality are essential characteristics of one’s eternal nature, and if God does not deny salvation based on gender, race, status, or sexuality, then queer people will be exalted as queer people.
If we believe God—our heavenly parents—once lived on an earth as we do now, then they are not the only gods. Our heavenly parents also have parents and siblings and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends from their earthly experience who are now gods. Together all these gods form a heavenly family, an extended family of gods. Like humans on our earth, this heavenly family is diverse. There are members of the heavenly family with many different eye colors, skin tones, hair textures, gifts, talents, and abilities. Some members of the heavenly family are queer. The loving relationships members of the heavenly family formed during their mortal experiences have continued but are now “coupled with eternal glory” and godhood. The variety of loving relationships that exist on our earth, including queer relationships, is reflected in the diversity of loving relationships in the heavenly family. This heavenly family includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer gods. Thus, the heavenly family is queer, or at the very least includes queerness.
As important as developing theology on an intellectual level is, it is only the first step of creating a Mormon theology broad and expansive enough to include all of God’s children. New theological ideas, like this theory of a queer heavenly family, have little lasting impact without theological storytelling to connect theories and ideas with emotion and belief.
Stories provide a way for theological ideas to connect with emotions and impact what we believe and how we live our lives. As Colleen Mary Carpenter writes, “New ‘images’ of God that don’t fit in the old stories have no anchor, no hold on our hearts. They exist in the rational corner of our minds but not in the worshipping center of our existence, the core of our being where we meet God. That core has been shaped by a lifetime of story, song, and symbol, and if we rationally wish to change it, then we must seek out new stories, new songs, and new symbols.” Stories are the bridge between the theological theories of the mind and the beliefs of the soul.
Theological storytelling, or midrash, is a common practice in Jewish rabbinical tradition. Wilda Gafney, a Hebrew Bible scholar and theologian, explains, “Midrash interprets not only the text before the reader, but also the text behind and beyond the text and the text between the lines of the text. In rabbinic thinking, each letter and the spaces between the letters are available for interpretive work.” These gaps in the text or story aren’t errors but opportunities for revelatory storytelling. Midrash doesn’t overwrite existing scripture; it “reimagine[s] dominant narratival readings while crafting new ones to stand alongside—not replace—former readings.” In effect, midrash is part of an ongoing conversation focused on discovering the relationship between God and humans.
Borrowing from the Jewish tradition of midrash, modern theological storytellers like Carpenter, Gafney, and Rachel Held Evans creatively retell biblical stories to explore modern questions and expand understanding of both themselves and God. Through their retellings, they “rethink the religious traditions in which they live, to find glimmers of truth submerged in existing tradition.”
The story of godhood as told within the existing tradition of Mormonism is the story of a cisgender, heterosexual couple. In the text behind and between the lines of this story—the spaces between words—are gaps created by the absence of LGBTQ+ people in our theological storytelling. If we are to develop and practice a theology truly broad and expansive enough to include all of God’s diverse children, the story of God as a cisgender, heterosexual couple must be accompanied by additional stories—stories of gay and loving gods, of joyful transgender gods, of radical queer acceptance by other members of the heavenly family.
Inspired by the theological storytelling of Carpenter, Gafney, and Evans, I offer the following short but queer-inclusive story of our Heavenly Family.
The heavenly family is queer. Sure, our heavenly parents are in a heterosexual relationship, but the heavenly family is bigger than just our heavenly parents. It includes parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even close friends.
One of our Heavenly Father’s parents is nonbinary. Heavenly Father calls them Zaza, a gender-neutral term of endearment for a parent.
Our Heavenly Mother and her brother are both straight, but their older sister (and our Heavenly Mother’s best friend) is a lesbian goddess celestially partnered with her transgender wife. They preside as gods over a world they created together.
Heavenly Father has an asexual uncle. He was never interested in marriage, but he is sealed to several close friends with whom he collaborates on creation and constantly teases. He always knows how to make you laugh if you’re feeling down.
And Heavenly Mother’s grandfather is gay. Together he and his husband have created some of the most intriguing and beautiful animals known to the extended heavenly family.
One of Heavenly Mother’s cousins is polyamorous and has three spouses. She presides over a world in partnership with her wife and two husbands, all gods together. They like being able to split up responsibilities among four people instead of two.
Of course, these are only a few members of the heavenly family. Our heavenly family is so large it would take me more than a day and a night to tell you about each member. But most importantly, no matter the differences in whom they love and choose to lead a celestial life with, all members of the heavenly family—queer or not—are welcomed and celebrated at heavenly family reunions.
I do not offer this as a definitive theological story but as an example of how our concept of godhood might change as we add divine LGBTQ+ groupings and pairings to our existing theological story. Perhaps there are glimmers of truth in this story, too.
Why does heavenly queerness matter?
Stories of godhood don’t matter because they change the nature of God. They matter because they change our understanding of what divinity looks like, of where there is potential for godhood. They shift how we think about who God is and who can become God. By expanding our concept of godhood, this theological story of a queer heavenly family replaces exclusion with hope and offers a way to see godliness in all humanity, including the LGBTQ+ community.
Theological storytelling of a queer heavenly family offers hope instead of exclusion. If the only story of godhood is that of a cisgender, heterosexual couple, then most LGBTQ+ members are excluded from achieving godhood unless they choose to eternally perform a cisgender, heterosexual relationship. Within Mormon theology, if one is excluded from hope of godhood, one is also excluded from being with loved ones after this life (and, consequently, joy). When the story of godhood includes a multitude of different groupings and pairings in a queer heavenly family, then that story offers hope of godhood and eternal, loving relationships to all.
The story of a queer-inclusive heavenly family offers a way to see godliness in all humanity. The prophet Joseph Smith taught, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” If I, a queer woman, only know the story of God as a cisgender, heterosexual individual or couple, how can I see godliness in myself? If a straight, cisgender person only knows the story of God as a cisgender, heterosexual individual or couple, how can they see godliness in their transgender friend, their gay neighbor, their nonbinary child? We are all created in God’s image. Recognizing our divinity leads to greater respect, compassion, and affirmation of ourselves and one another and offers everyone hope for godhood and joy. Without a diverse heavenly family, anyone may struggle to see godliness in themselves or in their earthly family or friends. With a theological story of a queer Heavenly Family, potential for godhood expands to include all of humanity.
As Blaire Ostler observes in “Heavenly Mother: The Mother of All Women,” if all human beings have “the potential to be a God in Mormon theology, Godly esthetics should reflect the image of all Their children.” Through apotheosis and the possibilities of queer sealings (as established by Blaire Ostler), we can imagine a beautifully diverse and inclusive heavenly family. By expanding our concept of godhood and telling new stories of a queer heavenly family, we offer a theology of hope rather than exclusion to LGBTQ+ members.
Although my primary purpose in imagining this heavenly family is to theologize an LGBTQ+-inclusive godhood, this concept of an extended heavenly family also benefits straight, cisgender women and, indeed, anyone who is unable to or uninterested in eternally performing a traditional form of male/female gender roles in a heterosexual relationship. It offers many examples of divinity that are independent of complementary male/female gender roles. The theological story I write is both limited and inspired by my own experiences as a queer Mormon woman. I hope others will create their own theological stories of additional pairings and groupings based on their individual identities and experiences. Just as knowledge of their potential for godhood “transforms the way Latter-day Saints see . . . [cisgender, heterosexual] human beings,” perhaps theological storytelling of a queer-inclusive heavenly family will transform the way Latter-day Saints see LGBTQ+ human beings.
 Cisnormativity is “an ideology that assumes and requires all people to be sorted into only male-man and female-woman categories despite the existence of many other options in the empirical world throughout recorded history.” J. E. Sumerau, Lain A. B. Mathers, and Ryan T. Cragun, “Incorporating Transgender Experience Toward a More Inclusive Gender Lens in the Sociology of Religion,” Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review 79, no. 4 (2018): 5.
 LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other gender and sexual identities not listed, including nonbinary, gender-fluid, intersex, asexual, and pansexual. Throughout this paper, I will use LGBTQ+ and the word “queer” interchangeably.
 Caroline Kline, “A Multiplicity of Theological Groupings and Identities—Without Giving Up on Heavenly Mother,” By Common Consent (blog), Sept. 2, 2016.
 Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward, Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2000), 107.
 Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies 36, no. 1 (1996–97): 100.
 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 2010, 129.
 Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, edited by John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954), 51.
 Doctrine and Covenants 130:22.
 Kelli D. Potter, “A Transfeminist Critique of Mormon Theologies of Gender,” The Lost Sheep in Philosophy of Religion: New Perspectives on Disability, Gender, Race, and Animals, edited by Blake Hereth and Kevin Timpe (New York: Routledge, 2019), 316.
 First Presidency, “The Origin of Man,” 78.
 Erastus Snow, Mar. 3, 1878, Journal of Discourses 19:269–70; Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, 51.
 For the four examples mentioning “heavenly parents” in 2020, see the following speeches:
Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan,” Apr. 2020; Jean B. Bingham, “United in Accomplishing God’s Work,” Apr. 2020; Dallin H. Oaks, “Be of Good Cheer,” Oct. 2020; Michelle D. Craig, “Eyes to See,” Oct. 2020.
 In all the general conference talks from 2000 to 2020, there were 12,444 mentions of “God,” 2,407 mentions of “Heavenly Father,” eighty-three mentions of “heavenly parents,” three mentions of “Mother in Heaven,” and none of “Heavenly Mother.” Mark Davies, “Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks, 2000–2020,” LDS General Conference Corpus.
 Susa Young Gates, “The Editor’s Department,” Young Woman’s Journal 2, no. 10 (1891): 475.
 “Our Mother in Heaven,” Millennial Star 72, no. 39, Sept. 29, 1910, 619–20. As the editor of Millennial Star at the time, this unsigned article has traditionally been attributed to Rudger Clawson.
 Kimball, “The True Way of Life and Salvation.”
 Eldred G. Smith, “Exaltation,” in Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year 1963–64, (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1964), 6; James E. Talmage, A Study of the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982), 442–43; Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 516–17.
 “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” Improvement Era 19, no. 10 (1916): 942.
 “Our Mother in Heaven,” 619–20.
 Erastus Snow, Mar. 3, 1878, Journal of Discourses, 19:269–70.
 David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 79–80.
 J. E. Sumerau, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers, “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality,” Social Currents 3, no. 3 (2016): 296.
 Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers, “Cisgendering of Reality,” 295.
 Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers, “Cisgendering of Reality,” 300, 305.
 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
 Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers, “Cisgendering of Reality,” 300.
 Potter, “Transfeminist Critique,” 323.
 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 19.
 Taylor G. Petrey, “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” Harvard Theological Review 109, no. 3 (2016): 315–41.
 Taylor G. Petrey, “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” 315–41.
 Kline, “A Multiplicity of Theological Groupings and Identities.”
 Kline, “A Multiplicity of Theological Groupings and Identities.”
 Margaret Merrill Toscano, “Put on Your Strength O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother,” in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, edited by Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 427–35.
 Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 21, 81.
 Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2000), 116, 122.
 Kittredge Cherry, Jesus In Love (Berkeley, Calif.: AndroGyne Press, 2006).
 Cheng, Radical Love, 57–59.
 For an in-depth exploration of the fluidity of gender and sexuality in modern Mormonism, see Taylor G. Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 214.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 43.
 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
 Potter, “Transfeminist Critique,” 322.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 20, 27, 48.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 130–32.
 Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay, 213–14.
 Note that though Official Declaration 1 states that the Church is “not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice,” polygamy has not fully been disavowed. Though polygamy is not practiced on earth, eternal polygamy is still practiced in the sense that a man may be sealed to and expect to eternally be with multiple wives. For example, Russell M. Nelson is sealed to both Dantzel (deceased) and Wendy (his living wife). Blaire Ostler, “Queer Polygamy,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 52, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 33; Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1.
 Potter, “Transfeminist Critique,” 320.
 I recognize that one can be homosexual without being in a homosexual relationship, just as one can be heterosexual without being in a heterosexual relationship. My focus on relationships is not meant to exclude unpartnered people but to validate queer celestial relationships of kinship, friendship, and love.
 I base this assumption on Alma 34:34, which teaches, “that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.” In other words, we will essentially be the same person after death, including our gender and sexuality. I also recognize the influence of Blaire Ostler’s blog post “Celestial Genocide,” which states, “Suggesting queer folks will be turned into cisgender, heterosexuals in the next life is the equivalent of the celestial genocide of queer folks.”
Blaire Ostler, “Celestial Genocide,” BlaireOstler.com, Sept. 19, 2020.
 Potter, “Transfeminist Critique,” 322.
 Doctrine and Covenants 76:58.
 Smith, “King Follet Sermon.”
 Lorenzo Snow, “The Grand Destiny of Man,” Deseret Evening News 52, no. 207, Jul. 20, 1901, 22.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, “Exaltation: Joint Heirs with Jesus Christ,” Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, edited by Bruce R. McConkie, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955), 249.
 Fielding Smith, “Exaltation: Joint Heirs with Jesus Christ,” 241.
 Doctrine and Covenants 130:2.
 Joy is an important part of Mormon theology and is related to both humans’ purpose on earth and what God desires for their children. Joseph Smith taught, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.” Similarly, the Book of Mormon teaches that “men [and women and nonbinary people] are that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). Joseph Smith, in History of the Church, 5:134.
 Gordon Irving, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830–1900,” BYU Studies Quarterly 14, no. 3 (1974): 3.
 Irving, “Law of Adoption,” 4.
 Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 38.
 Blaire Ostler, “Queer Polygamy,” 41.
 See Galatians 3:28 and 2 Nephi 26:33; Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” 129.
 Doctrine and Covenants 130:2.
 Colleen Carpenter Cullinan, Redeeming the Story: Women, Suffering, and Christ (New York: Continuum, 2004), 3. This author now publishes as Colleen Mary Carpenter.
 Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 4–5.
 Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 3.
 Carpenter Cullinan, Redeeming the Story, 67.
 Transgender people identify with a different gender than was assigned to them at birth. In this example, this goddess was incorrectly assigned a non-female gender at her mortal birth, but her eternal gender is female. She is also a lesbian because she is a woman and is attracted to other women.
 Polyamory is the practice or ability to have more than one loving sexual relationship at a time, with the consent of all involved. Though there is some debate about whether polyamory belongs under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, I include it in this theological story because of both its similarities and differences to the polygamist history of Mormonism. Both traditional Mormon polygamy and contemporary polyamory include multiple sexual partners, though Mormon polygamy only allows a man to have multiple female wives while polyamory allows individuals of any gender to have multiple partners of any gender. Polyamory is also distinct from Mormon polygamy because of the focus on the consent of all parties involved. In contrast, Doctrine and Covenants 130 provides a loophole that means the consent of prior wives is not required in Mormon polygamy.
 Smith, “King Follet Sermon.”
 Ostler, “Heavenly Mother,” 181.
 “Becoming Like God.”
2022: Charlotte Scholl Shurtz, “A Queer Heavenly Family: Expanding Godhood Beyond a Heterosexual, Cisgender Couple” Dialogue 55.1 (Spring 2022): 69–98.
Although the concept of Heavenly Mother is empowering for many women, the focus on God as a cisgender, heterosexual couple also limits who can see their own divinity reflected in the stories told about God. First, with Heavenly Mother as the only female divinity, divine expression of womanhood is restricted to motherhood. This excludes many women, including women struggling with infertility, women who do not wish to become mothers, and transgender women who experience motherhood differently than fertile, cisgender women.[post_title] => A Queer Heavenly Family: Expanding Godhood Beyond a Heterosexual, Cisgender Couple [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 55.1 (Spring 2022): 68–97
Still, the creation of a genderless god erases gendered experiences, whether the gendered experiences are those of a transgender or cisgender individual. Claiming that a genderless god is inclusive is parallel to claiming that “colorblindness” solves racial issues. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => a-queer-heavenly-family-expanding-godhood-beyond-a-heterosexual-cisgender-couple [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-06-29 00:09:51 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-06-29 00:09:51 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=29135 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
I Am a Child of Gods
Dialogue 55.1 (Spring 2022): 99–118
Mormon feminists should consider how to better include intersex, nonbinary, and trans women in their ambitions. Queerness is more than homosexuality.
“Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.”D&C 132:20
The doctrine of Heavenly Mother is cherished among Latter-day Saints. She is birthed from necessity in a physicalist theology. Though she has feminist roots, her theology in Mormonism is laced with latent gender essentialist and complementarian theories. Both have been used in modern Mormonism to exclude the LGBTQ+ community from Mormonism. The assertion that God is composed of one fertile, cisgender, heterosexual couple, namely Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, is a narrow interpretation of the broadness of Mormon theology. Though gender essentialist interpretations of Heavenly Mother are queer-exclusionary, her presence in Mormon theology opens the door to a robust polytheism that includes an entire community of gods, diverse in gender, race, ability, and desires. In this paper, I argue that if we are all made in the image of God, God is significantly larger than a fertile, cisgender, heterosexual female and male coupling. Through deification, we all have the potential to become gods. In Mormonism, our theology cannot be fully understood unless it is developed within the bounds of the concrete, material, physical, and practical experiences of our human experience. Theosis, or the process of becoming gods, implies a polytheism filled with generational gods as diverse as all humanity.
The doctrine of Heavenly Mother can be traced back to many early Saints, including Eliza R. Snow, W. W. Phelps, Edward Tullidge, Orson Pratt, and Erastus Snow. The earliest references to Heavenly Mother in Mormon theology were found in poetry and theologically committed to physicalism, also called “materialism.” In Mormonism, heavenly beings and families are material like our earthly bodies and families. Not only that, our earthly existence functions as a pattern for a heavenly existence.
One of the earliest and most popular affirmations of Heavenly Mother comes from Eliza R. Snow, polygamous wife to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Her status in the patriarchal order of the Church gave her significant credibility in her poetry and theology. For many, Eliza R. Snow’s poem “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother” is the most notable beginning of Heavenly Mother in Latter-day Saint worship. Today, Latter-day Saints now sing Snow’s poem in a hymn called “O My Father.” In this poem, Snow potently infuses theology with “reason”: “Truth is reason; truth eternal tells me I have a mother there.” In the first and second verses, she writes about her premortal existence and her longing to return to an “exalted sphere.” In the third verse, she “reasons” that heavenly families must be patterned after earthly families, which include mothers and fathers. She asks, “In the heav’ns are parents single?” To this she replies that the thought of a single parent “makes reason stare!” This seems to defy all reason to Snow. Single parents existed in Snow’s social world, so the allusion to needing both a mother and a father is likely a biological one. The thought of a single Heavenly Father asexually creating all these spirit children is so strange that the “truth” of her “reason” is that we must have “a mother there.” Lastly, the final verse concludes with her desire to meet both her Father and Mother after her earthly probation is over. Snow’s poem is a testament to Mormonism’s commitment to physicalism. In Mormon theology, the earth and heavens are physical or supervene on the physical. In this case, if it takes a fertile cisgender man and woman to make children on earth, it stands to reason, in Snow’s mind, that it takes a fertile cisgender man and woman to make children in the heavens.
Edward W. Tullidge, literary critic, newspaper editor, historian, and influential Latter-day Saint, also wrote about the union of man and woman as a necessary component of celestial glory. In his poem titled “Marriage,” he uses Heavenly Mother to promote complementarian themes and views on gender differences. In short, men and women, in Tullidge’s view, are complements and are perfected through one another. In the first verse of his poem, he uses couplings and pairs to demonstrate that it is by design that man and woman are created for one another. He muses that, when unionized, “two lives, two natures, and two kindred souls” are completed. When separated, they are only parts, “not two perfect wholes” but only incomplete halves to a whole. For Tullidge, “sexes reach their culminating point” when they merge as one. In the second verse, he explicitly states that sexes will never end and asks rhetorically, “Himself sexless and non-mated God? A ‘perfect’ man and yet himself no man?” Here, Tullidge is suggesting that a perfected god cannot be a sexless god. According to Tullidge, sex is a material reality on earth and will continue into heavenly realities: as he writes in the poem, God’s “works on earth” are patterned on “things above.” This is another demonstration of the early Saints’ commitment to physicalism. Finally, in the last verse of the poem, Tullidge concludes with a reference to theosis. In wedlock, couples become like the “first holy pair” and may become “parents of a race as great.” In summary, Tullidge’s poem “Marriage” demonstrates that earthly realties and lived experiences of Latter-day Saints are seen as a pattern for heavenly imaginings.
In both Eliza R. Snow’s and Edward W. Tullidge’s creative works, the doctrine of Heavenly Mother appears to be rooted in the idea that “[God’s] works on earth, but pattern things above.” For Snow, the thought of having a mother on earth and no Mother in the heavens made reason “stare” due to her physicalist views. Tullidge’s praise of the “universe” and “great nature” is another manifestation of physicalism in Mormon theology. God, the heavens, and celestial glory are not a metaphysical paradise beyond the scope of our reality. Again, physicalism is a very important philosophy embraced by early Saints that led them to believe that God must be composed of a fertile, cisgender man and woman.
The completeness of God through the union of man and woman was a common teaching in this period. For instance, in 1853 Orson Pratt affirmed, “No man can be ‘in the Lord,’ in the full sense of this passage, that is, he cannot enter into all the fullness of his glory, ‘without the woman.’ And no woman can be ‘in the Lord,’ or in the enjoyment of a fullness, ‘without the man.’” A couple decades later in 1878, Elder Erastus Snow avowed, “If I believe anything God has ever said about himself . . . I must believe that deity consist of man and woman.” David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido argue that Erastus Snow’s God is not a “hermaphrodite,” but a God composed of male and female through marriage. In a footnote they argue, “The passage reads much clearer within Mormon discourse and Snow’s own declarations if read from a perspective describing social unity in marriage.” Again, even our contemporary interpretations of early Mormonism are committed to physicalist interpretations of our theology.
These sentiments would persist throughout Mormonism in the following years. In the Mormon imagination, Heavenly Mother is a practical necessity and could not be erased even though some began to question her status as a deity. In 1895, George Q. Cannon contended that “there is too much of this inclination to deify ‘our mother in heaven.’ Our Father in heaven should be the object of worship. He will not have any divided worship.” Here we can see that though Heavenly Mother is an essential part of Mormon theology, her robust and equitable inclusion in worship is at times repressed by patriarchal authority. This continued all the way to the late twentieth century. In a general conference talk by President Gordan B. Hinckley in October 1991, he affirmed the doctrine of Heavenly Mother but simultaneously excluded her from explicit worship through prayer. In his words,
Logic and reason would certainly suggest that if we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven. That doctrine rests well with me. However, in light of the instruction we have received from the Lord Himself, I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven.
For Hinckley, Heavenly Mother is a matter of “logic and reason,” just as Snow suggested in her poem written over a century ago. Throughout Mormon history, there seems to be a persistence among patriarchs to keep Heavenly Mother under control as a necessary but hidden cog in a physicalist theology.
All along the way, Mormon feminists have championed the inclusion of Heavenly Mother in Mormon discourse. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper to give a robust history or analysis of Mormon feminism, it is worth noting that Mormon history is deeply influenced by Mormon feminists both past and present. Mormon feminists have been both friend and foe in the development of a gender-expansive theology. While non-queer feminist interpretations of Heavenly Mother broaden the story of God to include cisgender, heterosexual women, they often also promote gender essentialist interpretations of godhood. Mormon feminists have written poems, articles, essays, and even entire books on Heavenly Mother that further the goals of monogamous, cisgender, heterosexual women but fail to include or comprehend the needs of queer women, and often women of color. At best, non-queer feminist works have attempted to be queer inclusive with sincere intentions but with little understanding of how to actually do it. At worst, feminist works have weaponized Heavenly Mother against the queer community, furthering our exclusion from church pews, temple worship, and ultimately celestial glory with our families.
Non-queer feminists might more thoroughly follow their own physicalist philosophy to more inclusive vistas. In the history of Mormon theology about her, Heavenly Mother generally isn’t queer-inclusive, not because feminist theology is wrong but because it is incomplete. It’s no wonder why some critics suggest that the inclusion of queer genders and relationships in Mormon theology could destroy the very foundation of the Church when the ultimate archetype of God in Mormon culture is shaped by gender essentialist, binary, ableist, monogamist, and complementarian biases.
Monogamy is one way that some Mormon feminists have constricted the possibilities of a theology of Heavenly Mother. For instance, Carol Lynn Pearson’s The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy advocates for a single Heavenly Father and a single Heavenly Mother in an eternal pairing. In this monogamous, cisnormative, heteronormative relationship, she strangulates theological veins that could lead to the inclusion of a multiplicity of diverse gods, including queer genders, queer pairings, and queer groupings. The potential of polygamy could be an opportunity for lesbian, bisexual, trans, infertile, asexual, non-monogamous, and intersex Heavenly Mothers.
Gender essentialism is another limitation that Mormon feminists have placed on teachings about Heavenly Mother. As pointed out by religion scholar Taylor Petrey, many feminist theologians fail to see how their theological ambitions lack queer representations, just as the patriarchs fail to include women. Margaret Toscano wrote in response to Petrey’s criticism: “If there is one regret I have about Strangers in Paradox that I wrote with my husband Paul, it is that we didn’t make homosexuality visual and theologically viable in Mormonism.” While this sentiment is appreciated and represents an improvement on the standard feminist rhetoric in the Church, it suggests a limited focus on homosexuality rather than a more capacious vision of how to include queer women and people in Mormon feminist theology. Mormon feminists should consider how to better include intersex, nonbinary, and trans women in their ambitions. Queerness is more than homosexuality.
Queer Mormon women are women. Feminist and queer approaches should work together to accomplish shared goals of inclusion. These tensions about which women are included in feminism is a long-standing one. Sojourner Truth confronted the hypocrisy of white feminism as far back as the 1850s in her unforgettable speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” These criticisms have been echoed by many women of color throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To advocate for some women and not all women hardly seems like a feminism worth championing and does not embody the notion that “all are alike unto God.”
People are very good at fashioning God in their own image. This observation is not intended as a slight, nor is it intended to discourage anyone from equitable representation in godhood. My observation that we fashion gods in our image is not an affront but an invitation for LGBTQ+ Saints, Saints of color, single Saints, infertile Saints, and disabled Saints to tell the story of God too. We are all made in the image of God and thus, as believers of Mormon theology, are called to champion the creation of gods as diverse as ourselves.
God is “they” in Mormonism. Many Mormon feminists, Church leaders, and scholars of religion alike have insisted that God is plural—not simply “he” or “she” but “they.” Even modern prophets have referenced Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father as “them.” Dallin H. Oaks is just one example of this when he wrote in an Ensign article, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.” Though God and heavenly parents have both worn “they” pronouns, the preceding analysis has shown that it is more often than not used to represent a fertile, cisgender, heterosexual, male and female pairing.
While many agree that God is “they,” few consider the ramifications of a “they” God beyond cisnormative, heteronormative, and mononormative assumptions. As previously discussed, many early Mormons considered God to be “they” by earthly reproductive default. For many feminists, God is “they” because women lack divine representation. Yet, for many queer Latter-day Saints, God is “they” because God is a community composed of diverse genders, orientations, abilities, races, bodies, and families. God is “they” because if we are all made in the image of God, “they” is the only pronoun we have in English to adequately signify the plurality and diversity that exists within our heavenly family. God is “they” because God is a community as diverse as our earthly existence, with a diversity of Heavenly Mothers.
Under the umbrella of “God” there are many possible parental formations and familial dynamics, as exemplified in our earthly life. The union of man and woman does not need to mandate heteronormative ideas concerning reproduction, sex, or marriage. It mandates the possibility of multi-gender alliances, partnerships, and cooperation, just like here on earth. Keep in mind that Zion was called Zion because the people were of one heart and one mind. The intimacy of being joined together in heart and mind is not limited to heterosexual relationships between men and women. Zion is bigger. Even families sealed in the temple share more than genetic material.
If life on earth is a pattern for life above, we can see that there are many different family formations on earth right now. Yes, there is the mono-cis-hetero nuclear family model, but there are a lot of other different family groupings too. There are also eternal polygamist groupings. Many Church authorities, from Joseph Smith to President Russell M. Nelson, have been sealed to more than one partner. President Nelson’s eternal family includes two wives, two mothers, two lovers. Some families have two moms, be they polygamist or lesbian. Some families have two dads, be they gay or stepfathers. Some families are single-parent families, and some families have no children. Some families have biological children while others have adopted children. Family relationships in mortality are varied, but under cis-hetero supremacist ideas, we are taught that some of these families are less than, imposters, or counterfeit. Yet, once again, Snow and Tullidge set a powerful precedent when it comes to celestial glory. If life on earth is a pattern for life above, life above is just as diverse as the socialities that exist here among us on earth, and that includes queer families and genders.
Furthermore, in Genesis 1:27, we are symbiotically created in the image of God, both male and female. People have read this passage of scripture and quickly assumed that this excludes queer, trans, or nonbinary genders, but that hasty reading of scripture is incomplete. In Genesis we also read about how God created night and day—two contrasting polarities separated from one another through lightness and darkness. At first glance it might seem like the division between day and night creates a clear binary. However, in the following sentence, it states that God also created evening and morning. Night and day, both necessary and lovely, are opposites resting at the ends of a broad spectrum. In transition between them is morning and evening. Yes, God created night and day, but God also created dawn and dusk. Dawn and dusk are no less godly than night and day simply because they are transitions. The same is true of humanity. God created man and woman—two lovely binaries made in the image of God. Yet in transition between them are nonbinary bodies and spirits. Though we are rare, we are no less godly. We are the dawn and dusk of humanity. There is a spectrum of transitions between lightness and darkness, day and night, earth and water, man and woman. We are all made in the image of God—intersex, nonbinary, and trans—because God created more than binaries.
Each of us is the coeternal image of God. In a physicalist theology, we are literally made in their likeness. God is a community intimately intertwined with the materiality of every living entity. God is life eternal—wholly, singly, and plurally. Any other reductive, androcentric, cisnormative, heteronormative, ableist, or white aesthetic of an all-encompassing God would be an incomplete, even harmful, representation of God’s plurality. The community that is God is reflected in all life, not just men, women, or even humans. God told Moses, “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?” It stands to reason that an endless God, at the very least, has the potential to include queer bodies, queer genders, and queer families in our coeternal nature. We have the potential to be just as diverse and endless as God through theosis.
Theosis, or the process of becoming gods, is at the core of LDS religion. It undergirds all other doctrines and policies of the Church. It does not dishonor God to emulate them. Quite the opposite. Our emulation of God is our highest respect and worship. Again, as stated by Dallin H. Oaks, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.” If it does not dishonor the Father for men to emulate him, use his priesthood power, and strive to divinity, then it does not dishonor the Mother that her daughters should emulate her. Likewise, queer folks in no way dishonor God when we emulate and worship them in our works, worship, and theology. Quite the opposite—it’s a manifestation of our highest respect, faith, works, and reverence.
In Mormonism, gods create gods in worlds without end, and no god exists independent of their community, heritage, or posterity. We are taught this through scriptures, hymns, and temple ritual. Even beyond the Mormon Godhead being composed of three separate beings, including a God composed of a full spectrum of genders, marriages, alliances, relationships, and partnerships, Mormon theology can be taken even further.
In Mormonism, God is a community of generational beings. Godhood is not a one-time occurrence. From early Saints to modern prophets, we all have the potential to share in the same glory as our heavenly parents. We do temple work because the hearts of the children turn to their parents. The spirit of Elijah, also defined as the spirit of familial kinship and unity, demands the plurality of gods. Being a child of God isn’t just a theoretical or metaphysical proposition but has a material lineage and posterity. In the taxonomy of gods, we are the same species as God. We are all made in the image of God with the potential to join the endless network of gods above and partake of our heavenly inheritance. Our theology is so much grander than a single Heavenly Father or Mother. God is expansive, dynamic, generational, and endless. Yet at the same time God is as familial, personal, and physical as a great-grandparent or great-grandchild.
God wasn’t always God but became God. God was once a child of God, too. God also has heavenly parents. Likewise, those heavenly parents have heavenly parents, and those heavenly parents have heavenly parents. Not only that: if our children make it to godhood they will become gods too, and their children will become gods, and their children’s children will become gods. Gods birth gods in an eternal, interconnected round. God is an eternal, never-ending cycle of creation without beginning or end. As Joseph Smith taught, “The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end.” If our prophets, scriptures, and rituals are to be taken seriously, God is not just God, but Gods—communally, generationally, and endlessly.
Mormon theology leads to the inclusion of innumerable, diverse, generational gods reflected in our earthly experience. This concept is beautifully and artistically iterated in the hymn “If You Could High to Kolob,” with text written by W. W. Phelps. In this iconic hymn, philosophy and poetry articulate the doctrine of generational gods. According to this hymn, no one knows where gods begin, nor if they will end.
If you could hie to Kolob
In the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?
Or see the grand beginning,
Where space did not extend?
Or view the last creation,
Where Gods and matter end?
Methinks the Spirit whispers,
“No man has found ‘pure space,’
Nor seen the outside curtains,
Where nothing has a place.”
Phelps’s poetry echoes the teachings of Joseph Smith. He taught, “If [we] do not comprehend the character of God [we] do not comprehend ourselves.” Joseph Smith is inviting us to understand that God is so much more than our limited perceptions, not just of gender, orientation, or anatomical differences, but of space, time, and eternity. The image of God includes the whole of humanity. Not just one Heavenly Mother, but many diverse, unique, and exquisite Heavenly Mothers. Not just one Heavenly Father, but many diverse, unique, and exquisite Heavenly Fathers. Not just one pairing of heavenly parents, but many diverse pairings, even groupings, of heavenly parents—polygamous or otherwise.
God is so benevolent and grand that we all could have a place in the community of gods if it is the desire of our hearts. We are taught in Doctrine and Covenants that we are not meant to passively wait for godhood to come to us. Mormonism is a religion of praxis—a religion of doing. Faith without works is dead. To become gods requires us to bring to pass righteousness of our own free will without idly being told what to do and to be anxiously engaged in good causes. Godhood is a fruition of our desires and efforts. As taught by Jeffrey R. Holland, if we want to become gods, we must do godly things with our godly desires.
We’re the church that says we’re gods and goddesses in embryo. We’re the Church that says we’re kings and queens. We’re priests and priestesses. People accuse us of heresy. They say we’re absolutely heretical, non-Christians because we happen to believe what all the prophets taught and that is that we are children of God, joint heirs with Christ. We just happen to take the scriptures literally that kids grow up to be like their parents. But how does that happen? How does godliness happen? Do we just pop up? Are we just going to pop up out of the grave? Hallelujah, it’s resurrection morning! Give me a universe or two. Bring me some worlds to run! . . . I don’t think so. That doesn’t sound like line upon line or precept upon precept to me. How do you become godly? You do godly things. That’s how you become godly. And you practice and you practice and you practice.
Now is not the time to “procrastinate the day of our salvation.” Now is not the time to idly “dream of our mansions above.” This is not the time to revel in smug complacency about a completed Restoration. The Restoration is still happening. Godhood is still and always will be in a creative and formative process. There is no end to “restoration” in a theology that believes in eternal progression. There is no end to an endless God. The inclusion and creation of queer gods beyond a single paring of fertile, cisgender, heterosexual Gods called “Heavenly Mother” and “Heavenly Father” depends on us when we are both the creator and inheritors of godhood.
In Doctrine and Covenants we are taught that the same sociality that exists here will exist in the next life, only it will be coupled with eternal glory. Our relationships are so important that Joseph Smith declared “friendship” to be “one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism.’” He also commented that, “Friendship is like Brother Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.” Smith knew the value of friendship. When he was isolated from friends he said, “Those who have not been enclosed in the walls of prison can have but little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is.” As he was escorted to his death at Carthage, he said, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself.” Godhood is not simply about couples being sealed, it’s also about friendship. The friendships, relationships, and sociality of what we have here on earth is only a taste of things to come. What we learn here from Joseph Smith is that the community of gods should be linked together on the bonds of friendship for our enjoyment, happiness, and joy.
Sadly, at present, LGBTQ+ Latter-day Saints are not included fully in the bonds of celestial friendship. Queer Saints are abused, excluded, rejected, isolated, ridiculed, and persecuted. We have been taught implicitly and explicitly to hate ourselves, our bodies, our genders, and our orientations. From reparative therapy to folk doctrines of transfiguring queer bodies into straight bodies, fellow Saints work toward our extinction. At best, we are placated by false platitudes of love by those who know little of our world. At worst, fellow Saints advocate for our celestial genocide. It wasn’t that long ago that Spencer W. Kimball was lamenting the fact the homosexuals could not receive the death penalty. The sociality that exists within the Church does not bring us a fullness of joy and happiness and it is not because LGBTQ+ Saints are unworthy of happiness.
The book of Job shows us that not all suffering is a product of sin. Even God’s most “perfect and upright” children suffer at the hands of other. Even though he suffered greatly, “Job sinned not.” As was the belief of the time, Job’s friends insisted that he must have sinned and brought this suffering upon himself. However, Job rejected this assessment of his suffering and stood firm in his beliefs that unhappiness is not always caused by sin.
Likewise, the suffering of queer Saints is not a product of sinful gender identities, expressions, pronouns, surgeries, or relationships. Queer suffering stems from being greeted with prejudice, fear, misunderstanding, falsehoods, skepticism, violence, and ignorance from what feels like every possible vantage point. If ever there were a group of people in need of a friendship, it is queer Latter-day Saints. The sociality that exists among the Saints today is not glorified and will not be glorified until it includes us as equitable members of the community of gods.
Though the Mormon understanding of Heavenly Mother is carving a path to a more inclusive physicalist theology, she is not the only godly archetype in our repertoire. God certainly includes visions of a fertile, cisgender, heterosexual Heavenly Mother, but God also includes so much more. LGBTQ+ theologians, like myself, argue that deification includes us too. We are all made in the image of God, which includes queer, intersex, trans, and nonbinary bodies. Deification includes diverse marriages, children, relationships, families, and socialities, even if queer sealings are delayed by prejudice set against the fulfillment of joy. We belong, if nowhere else, among the gods.
We are not just children of God. We are children of gods in an endlessly creative, dynamic community of diverse deities reflected in our earthly existence. The sociality here is that of the gods. Under this more robust vision of God, cherished hymns like “I Am a Child of God” could be enhanced by using more inclusive terminology. Surely, I am a child of gods.
I am a child of Gods,
And they have sent me here,
Have given me an earthly home
With parents kind and dear.
I am a child of Gods,
And so my needs are great;
Help me to understand their words
Before it grows too late.
I am a child of Gods.
Rich blessings are in store;
If I but learn to do their will,
I’ll live with them once more.
I am a child of Gods.
Their promises are sure;
Celestial glory shall be mine
If I can but endure.
Lead me, guide me, walk beside me,
Help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do
To live with them someday.
 “O My Father,” Hymns, no. 292.
 Edward W. Tullidge, “Marriage,” Millennial Star 19, no. 41 (1857): 656.
 Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer 1, Apr. 1853, 59.
 Erastus Snow, Mar. 3, 1878, Journal of Discourses, 19:269–70.
 David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 70–97.
 George Q. Cannon, “Topics of the Times: The Worship of Female Deities,” Juvenile Instructor 30, May 5, 1895, 314–17.
 Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright, eds., Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Valerie Hudson, “Women in the Church—A Conversation with Valerie Hudson,” Faith Matters (podcast), Dec. 29, 2019.
 Carol Lynn Pearson, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Pivot Point Books, 2016).
 I want to make clear that no one should enter a marriage, polygamous or monogamous, if it is not their desire. Asking women who desire monogamy to practice polygamy for all eternity is just as oppressive as asking homosexual people to practice heterosexuality for all eternity. However, if fear of polygamy causes someone to oppress those who are different from them, they have now become the oppressor they so desperately tried to liberate themselves from.
 Taylor Petrey, “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” Harvard Theological Review 109, no. 3 (2016): 16.
 Margaret Toscano, “How Bodies Matter: A Response to ‘Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,’” By Common Consent (blog), Aug. 30, 2016.
 bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981).
 2 Nephi 26:33.
 Genesis 3:22; Doctrine and Covenants 132:20.
 Tyler Chadwick, Dayna Patterson, Martin Pulido, eds., Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Poetry (El Cerrito, Calif.: Peculiar Pages, 2018), 4.
 Genesis 1:27; Genesis 3:22.
 Moses 7:18.
 L. Tom Perry, “Why Marriage and Family Matter—Everywhere in the World,” Apr. 2015.
 Doctrine and Covenants 130:2.
 Genesis 1:3–5.
 Genesis 1:5.
 Joseph Smith, “King Follet Sermon,” Apr. 7, 1844, in History of the Church, 6:311. “There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven.”
 John 17:3; Doctrine and Covenants 14:7; Moses 1:4; Moses 1:39.
 Moses 1:3.
 Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration.”
 Moses 1:33.
 Malachi 4:6.
 Doctrine and Covenants 138:47–48; Doctrine and Covenants 110:13–16.
 Andrew C. Skinner, To Become Like God: Witnesses of Our Divine Potential (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016), 13.
 Doctrine and Covenants 76:24.
 Hebrews 7:3.
 Smith, “King Follet Sermon.”
 Psalm 82:6; John 10:34–35; Acts 17:29.
 “If You Could Hie to Kolob,” Hymns, no. 284.
 Smith, “King Follet Sermon.”
 Psalm 37:4; Psalm 20:4.
 James 2:20.
 Doctrine and Covenants 58:26–27; 2 Nephi 26:33.
 Holland, “Elder Holland Arizona April 2016.”
 Alma 34:35.
 “Have I Done Any Good?,” Hymns, no. 223.
 Hebrews 6:12.
 Doctrine and Covenants 130:2.
 Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:517.
 Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 3:293.
 Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:549.
 General Handbook, 38.6.15, 38.6.16, 38.6.23.
 Blaire Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction (Newburgh, Ind.: By Common Consent Press, 2021).
 Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 79.
 Job 1:1.
 Job 1:22.
 Job 36:1–12.
 Job 31.
 2 Nephi 26:33.
 Revised version of “I Am a Child of God,” Hymns, no. 301.
2022: Blaire Ostler, “I Am a Child of Gods” Dialogue 55.1 (Spring 2022): 99–119.
The doctrine of Heavenly Mother is cherished among Latter-day Saints. She is birthed from necessity in a physicalist theology. Though she has feminist roots, her theology in Mormonism is laced with latent gender essentialist and complementarian theories. Both have been used in modern Mormonism to exclude the LGBTQ+ community from Mormonism. The assertion that God is composed of one fertile, cisgender, heterosexual couple, namely Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, is a narrow interpretation of the broadness of Mormon theology. Though gender essentialist interpretations of Heavenly Mother are queer-exclusionary, her presence in Mormon theology opens the door to a robust polytheism that includes an entire community of gods, diverse in gender, race, ability, and desires. In this paper, I argue that if we are all made in the image of God, God is significantly larger than a fertile, cisgender, heterosexual female and male coupling. Through deification, we all have the potential to become gods. In Mormonism, our theology cannot be fully understood unless it is developed within the bounds of the concrete, material, physical, and practical experiences of our human experience. Theosis, or the process of becoming gods, implies a polytheism filled with generational gods as diverse as all humanity.[post_title] => I Am a Child of Gods [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 55.1 (Spring 2022): 99–118
Mormon feminists should consider how to better include intersex, nonbinary, and trans women in their ambitions. Queerness is more than homosexuality. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => i-am-a-child-of-gods [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-05-31 23:58:18 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-05-31 23:58:18 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=29136 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
Dialogue 52.1 (Spring 2019): 33–43
Ostler addresses the problems with what she terms the “Standard Model of Polygamy.” She discusses how these problems might be resolved if it is put into a new type of model that she terms “Queer Polygamy.”
According to many accounts of LDS theology, polygamy, also called celestial marriage, is a necessary mandate for the highest degree of celestial glory. Doctrine and Covenants sections 131 and 132 tell us that celestial marriage and the continuation of the human family will enable us to become gods because we will have endless, everlasting increase (D&C 132:20). The Doctrine and Covenants gives a direct warning that if we do not abide by the law of polygamy, we cannot attain this glory (D&C 132:21). Likewise, prophets have stated that theosis and plural marriage are intimately intertwined. Brigham Young, the most notable advocate for mandated polygamy, stated, “The only men who become Gods, even the sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” However, he also wrote, “if you desire with all your hearts to obtain the blessings which Abraham obtained you will be polygamists at least in your faith.” It is interesting that he uses the words “at least in your faith.” Was this to suggest that if a man cannot practice polygamy on earth, he will in heaven? Or is this to suggest a man may never enter into a polygamous marriage, but may live the spirit of polygamy in his heart? Later, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal that “President Young said there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife with Many wives & with No wife at all.” Woodruff also wrote, “Then President Young spoke 58 Minutes. He said a Man may Embrace the Law of Celestial Marriage in his heart & not take the Second wife & be justified before the Lord.” What is to be made of these statements? How can one embrace the spirit of polygamy, the law of celestial marriage, but remain monogamous with one wife or even no wives?
This paper will refer to the sex-focused, androcentric, patriarchal, heteronormative model of polygyny as the Standard Model. At a glance, the Standard Model is highly problematic. Though the Standard Model tends to dominate discourse, a more creative interpretation of what the spirit of polygamy includes may offer new insight into what celestial relationships might look like. I’m suggesting a way to reconcile diverse desires for celestial marriage under a new model I call Queer Polygamy, which encompasses the spirit of polygamy without mandating specific marital relations. I will begin with an expository of the Standard Model of polygamy followed by an expository of the Queer Polygamy Model and demonstrate how plural marriage may be redeemed to accommodate diverse relationships and desires, as Brigham Young suggests. I will then point out five common concerns with the Standard Model of polygamy and how the Queer Polygamy Model address them.
The Standard Model of polygamy is often and reductively described as one man having multiple wives. The man will continue to increase in power and dominion according to the number of wives and children he accumulates. This means he is eternally sealed to all his wives and children as a god, like Heavenly Father, who also must have entered into plural marriage. To attain the highest degree of celestial glory and have eternal increase, a man must enter into polygamy. The Standard Model focuses exclusively on the man or patriarch with little regard to what others, especially women and children, desire.
This aesthetic of God and godhood is problematic for many reasons. This view paints a rather androcentric and domineering perspective of what polygamy might look like. Additionally, this makes God a patriarchal monarch whose power and glory aren’t shared with his family and community but used at the expense of his family and community. If God evolved into godhood as a lone patriarch, his power is not holy but tyrannical. This patriarchal model of God, polygamy, sealings, celestial glory, and heaven are not a vision of glory most of us would aspire to as Saints in Zion. The Standard Model also neglects doctrines concerning the law of consecration, theosis for all, and other communal practices of Zion. The people of Zion live together as one in equality (D&C 38:24–27; 4 Ne. 1:3), having one heart and one mind (Moses 7:8). The Saints of Zion together enjoy the highest degree of glory and happiness that can be received in this life and, if they are faithful, in the world to come. Zion can be thought of as a template for how gods become gods. Yet the Standard Model of polygamy doesn’t resemble anything Latter-day Saints might want to strive for. The God of the Standard Model sounds more like a venture capitalist accruing wives and children for self-glorification rather than the leader of a collective group of Saints living in pure love with one another. Community, diversity, nuance, and even sometimes consent are lost in this simplistic narrative.
I believe queer theology is ripe with possibilities to reconcile our diverse aspirations toward Zion in a model I call Queer Polygamy, a model that can accommodate a potentially infinite number of marital, sexual, romantic, platonic, and celestial relationships. The phrase Queer Polygamy almost seems redundant. Polygamy is inherently queer according to contemporary monogamous marital expectations. It is, by Western standards, a deviation from the norm. The word queer may also seem to imply that a person must necessarily be a member of the LGBTQ+ community for these ideas to apply, but this is not the case. Rest assured, heterosexual monogamous couples are an important subset under the umbrella of Queer Polygamy, just as Brigham Young suggested. A person with many, one, or no spouses may be included in this model. The use of the word queer in Queer Polygamy is to signify a more thoughtful and thorough interpretation of polygamy that would be inclusive of such diversity, and many of its manifestations would be rightly considered queer. You may initially find this model strangely foreign, but I believe it is in harmony with LDS theology, both logically and practically, as both scripture and past prophets have taught. The word polygamy is used to convey the plurality of relationships we engage in and to suggest that celestial marriage and eternal sealings include far more practices than heterosexual monogamy or androcentric polygyny. Eternal sealings among the Saints are inherently plural. Queer Polygamy is not in opposition to LDS theology but rather the fulfillment of the all-inclusive breadth that LDS theology has to offer.
The Standard Model of polygamy is problematic for multiple reasons, as many LDS feminists and queer theologians, like myself, have pointed out. I will review five of the most common problems with the Standard Model, then demonstrate how they might be reconciled by adopting the Queer Polygamy Model. The five common concerns are that the Stand Model does not leave room for the following: (1) monogamous couples;(2) women, and other genders, who desire plural marriage; (3) asexuals, aromantics, and singles; (4) homosexual relationships; and (5) plural parental sealings.
First, an unnuanced reading of Doctrine and Covenants section 132 appeals to a patriarchal and androcentric model of polygyny built upon a hierarchy of men who will be given women, also called virgins, as if they were property (D&C 132:61–63). This exclusively polygynous model is a major concern for women who do not wish to engage in plural marriage without their consent, such as the case with “the law of Sarah” (D&C 132:64–65). By extension, the Standard Model does not leave room for couples who wish to remain romantically and/or sexually monogamous. However, there is room for monogamy in the Queer Polygamy Model. To demonstrate this, I’d like to refer to queer sexual orientations not as universal orientations or socio-political identity labels but as specific practices in specific relationships. For example, I identify as pansexual; however, in my relationship with my sister I am asexual and aromantic. Though I am pansexual by orientation, I engage in a specific asexual, aromantic, platonic relationship with her. This is not intended to mean that our relationship is void of depth, intimacy, love, commitment, and loyalty—quite the contrary. I feel all those things for my sister and more, but we have no desire for a sexual or romantic connection. This does not mean my sister is any less important to me than my husband, with whom I do desire a sexual and romantic relationship; it simply means the relationship dynamics are different between my sister and me and my husband and me. In the Queer Polygamy Model, I could be sealed to my sister in a platonic sealing for all eternity while also being sealed to my husband in a relationship that does include sex. I would be sealed to two people plurally, but I would still be practicing sexual monogamy. Thus, for couples who desire to practice heterosexual monogamy with one partner for all eternity, they may still be sealed to other persons they love plurally and engage in those other relationships asexually and aromantically. It is in this way that we can be sealed to our children. I am not only sealed to my husband, but I’m also platonically sealed to our three children. Not all sealings include sex, nor should they. Plural marriages, unions, and sealings among adults could also include plural, platonic sealings among several persons while the core couple still practices exclusive heterosexual monogamy.
Second, the account given in Doctrine and Covenants 132 does not explicitly address women who also wish to engage in plural marriages alongside their husbands. The exclusively polygynous model of polygamy can create a disturbing and problematic power imbalance among the sexes—especially for women in heterosexual relationships. Under the Queer Polygamy Model, plural sealings would be available to all consenting adults, not just men. As stated above, women are sealed to multiple people, such as children and parents, but I suggest that the policy allow women to be sealed to multiple adults whom they are not related to, just as men are afforded that privilege. Though the scriptures do not state that women may have more than one husband, that does not mean they can’t have more than one husband. In fact, more than one of Joseph Smith’s wives was also married to other men. This shows there is room in our religion for women who desire to be married to multiple men, including heteroromantic, sexual, or asexual relationships. It would be up to the participants to decide the relationship dynamics of their sealing or marriage, just as Joseph Smith engaged in sexual relationships with some, but not all, of his plural wives. There are various reasons for plural marriage and/or sealings that do or don’t involve sex. Granted, legitimizing sexual relationships through sealings and/or ritual is important to avoid promiscuity in sexual relationships. Honesty and open communication are key to respecting the autonomy and volition of all participants—though not all past participants of polygamy practiced it in such a manner, namely Joseph Smith.
Third, a traditional interpretation of the doctrine of celestial marriage does not leave room for persons who do not desire marriage or are asexual and/or aromantic. However, there is room for asexual and aromantic sealings under the Queer Polygamy Model. Sealings of kinship, friendship, and love may be offered between persons who wish not to have a sexual or romantic relationship with others. Plural marriage for asexual persons could take the form of an asexual woman married to a heterosexual couple, or three asexual persons who wish to be sealed together in a plural marriage that doesn’t include sex. Again, sealing and/or marriage is not tantamount to sex. Asexual persons, or persons who wish to remain single, could be sealed to parents, siblings, friends, and other partners without committing to sexualized or romanticized notions of marriage and sealings.
Fourth, the Standard Model is aesthetically heteronormative—leaving out the experiences and desires for homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, and other queer persons. This may be one of the more difficult huddles to overcome, because the common perception of Mormon theology implies there is no such room for homosexual unions in celestial cosmology. I do not see why this must necessarily be the case. I have written several pieces about how we could reenvision our reductive views of creation to include homosexual relationships, creation, reproduction, procreation, and families. In my view, homo-interactive creation, which includes homosexuality, is a required aspect of godly creation. If there is anything evolutionary biology has taught us, it’s that the creation of life and flourishing of the human species is far greater than heterosexual monogamy. I have no reason to think that God wouldn’t use natural means of creation to enable all life, goodness, relationships, parenting, and flourishing. If this is the case, it is possible for plural homosexual relationships to exist under the model of Queer Polygamy.
The Queer Polygamy Model leaves room for same-gender and same-sex sealings, whether they are platonic, such as with my sister and me, or homosexual, such as with two wives. Under the Queer Polygamy Model, plural marriage may include multi-gendered partnerships, such as sealings among sister wives that may or may not allow sexual relations between them. If a man is married to two women and the women are bisexual, they may choose to be sealed to each other and have a romantic and sexual relationship with each other as well as with their common husband. Likewise, a transgender woman might be married to a cisgender man and cisgender woman. If all identify as pansexual, it could be the case that they are all in a romantic and sexual relationship with one another. The takeaway is that gender is irrelevant to whether or not there is sexual activity in plural sealings—assuming there is no abuse, neglect, or harm being done to the participants. The purpose of the sealing isn’t to legitimize sexual behavior; the purpose of sealing is to legitimize the eternal and everlasting bonds that people share with one another, be they homosexual or otherwise.
Fifth, the Standard Model doesn’t leave room for children to have autonomy to be sealed or unsealed to diverse parents. In the Standard Model, children are property of their fathers and have little say about whether or not they may be sealed or unsealed to other parents. For example, a child born into a heterosexual marriage may be sealed to the parents, but if the father is gay, divorces his wife, and both marry other men, the child of the first marriage would have four parents—one biological father, one biological mother, and two stepfathers—but would only be sealed to the biological father and mother. Under the Queer Polygamy Model, the children could be granted plural sealings to both the biological parents and their husbands. The child would be sealed to three fathers and one mother, though the dynamics of the relationships are diverse and fluid among the parents. Essentially a child should be able to be sealed to all the parents they love. This is not the case under the Standard Model, which focuses on who the child belongs to in the eternities instead of whom the child desires to be sealed to. A child should not be forced to choose between fathers by mandates of heterosexual monogamy or patriarchal polygyny. Children with plural parents should be granted plural sealings for those who desire them. No child should have to divorce a parent eternally just to be sealed to another, just as no wife should necessarily have to divorce a husband to be sealed to a second. It is to the detriment of the child to assume they are inherently “owned” by their biological father alone when the child has the capacity to love more than one father and mother. Likewise, a child born to a family with three mothers and one father should have the opportunity to be sealed to all her mothers. Heaven isn’t heaven without all the people we love, and I trust God feels the same. If not, heaven becomes hell.
Now that we have a broader understanding of what diverse families and sealings could look like under the Queer Polygamy Model, the words of LDS prophets about families begin to taste sweet again. The family really is central to God’s plan—it is ordained of God. We are all part of one big family—God’s family. The family is far more than just one mom and dad. It is siblings, cousins, spouses, aunts, uncles, friends, grandparents, and the generations of persons who came here before you or me. The family is about creating bonds that extend into eternity as we connect with one another to become something greater than ourselves. Family is everything, yet too often people perceive family to mean something so narrowly defined. It is really a grand and beautiful quilt that envelops us all. Sealings under this broad quilt might include, but are not limited to, spouse-to-spouse sealings, parent-to-child sealings, law of adoption sealings, friendship sealings, and many more. Under the family quilt of Queer Polygamy, we are all interconnected in an infinite number of complex and beautiful relationships.
The spirit of polygamy is love of community. This is the law we must embrace as Saints in Zion if we are to become gods. The spirit of polygamy encompasses the diverse unions of the gods in all their complexity and intricacies. The spirit of polygamy includes, but also reaches beyond, the legitimization of sexual relationships. The spirit of polygamy means I might be sealed to my best friend regardless of whether or not we also share a sexual relationship. It means children may be sealed to all their fathers and mothers, be they biological or adoptive. It means it takes a village to raise our children. It means I may be sealed to a sister wife, not through my husband but with my husband. It means my husband may be sealed to his best friend while they enjoy a platonic, asexual, aromantic relationship. It means an asexual woman may choose to be sealed with a gay couple, independent of sexual activity, but still have a relationship full of meaning, emotional intimacy, and purpose. The spirit of polygamy means heaven isn’t heaven without all the people we love. It means infinite possibilities fulfilled by our infinite love—just like the gods, filled with a multiplicity of heavenly mothers, fathers, and parents that we have yet to imagine. I cannot imagine any God more beautifully Mormon than a God of both plurality and unity who welcomes all families into Zion as we strive to join the gods above.
 Brigham Young, Aug. 19, 1866, Journal of Discourses, 11:269.
 “I attended the school of the prophets. Brother John Holeman made a long speech upon the subject of Poligamy [sic]. He Contended that no person Could have a Celestial glory unless He had a plurality of wives. Speeches were made By L. E. Harrington O Pratt Erastus Snow, D Evans J. F. Smith Lorenzo Young. President Young said there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife with Many wives & with No wife at all” (Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, edited by Scott G. Kenny, 9 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985], 6:527 [journal entry dated Feb. 12, 1870]).
 Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 7:31 (journal entry dated Sept. 24, 1871).
 “The revelation on marriage required that a wife give her consent before her husband could enter into plural marriage. Nevertheless, toward the end of the revelation, the Lord said that if the first wife ‘receive not this law’—the command to practice plural marriage—the husband would be ‘exempt from the law of Sarah,’ presumably the requirement that the husband gain the consent of the first wife before marrying additional women” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Plural Marriage in Kirkland and Nauvoo,” Oct. 2014).
 In this paper I will use the word queer according to its broad definition as anything strange, peculiar, odd, or deviating from conventional norms or societal expectations. If I am using the word queer as a referent to the LGBTQ+ community, I will use queer persons or queer community.
 “Several later documents suggest that several women who were already married to other men were, like Marinda Hyde, married or sealed to Joseph Smith. Available evidence indicates that some of these apparent polygynous/polyandrous marriages took place during the years covered by this journal. At least three of the women reportedly involved in these marriages—Patty Bartlett Sessions, Ruth Vose Sayers, and Sylvia Porter Lyon—are mentioned in the journal, though in contexts very much removed from plural marriage. Even fewer sources are extant for these complex relationships than are available for Smith’s marriages to unmarried women, and Smith’s revelations are silent on them. Having surveyed the available sources, historian Richard L. Bushman concludes that these polyandrous marriages—and perhaps other plural marriages of Joseph Smith—were primarily a means of binding other families to his for the spiritual benefit and mutual salvation of all involved” (“Nauvoo Journals, December 1841–April 1843,” introduction to Journals: Volume 2, The Joseph Smith Papers). “Another theory is that Joseph married polyandrously when the marriage was unhappy. If this were true, it would have been easy for the woman to divorce her husband, then marry Smith. But none of these women did so; some of them stayed with their ‘first husbands’ until death. In the case of Zina Huntington Jacobs and Henry Jacobs—often used as an example of Smith Marrying a woman whose marriage was unhappy—the Mormon leader married her just seven months after she married Jacobs and then she stayed for years after Smith’s death. Then the separation was forced when Brigham Young (who had married Zina polyandrously in the Nauvoo temple) sent Jacobs on a mission to England and began living with Zina himself” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997], 15–16).
 Blaire Ostler, “Sexuality and Procreation,” personal blog, Feb. 22, 2016; Blaire Ostler, “Queer Mormon and Transhuman: Part I,” personal blog, Dec. 8, 2016; Blaire Ostler, “Queer Mormon and Transhuman: Part I,” personal blog, Jan. 26, 2017; Blaire Ostler, “Queer Mormon and Transhuman: Part I,” personal blog, Aug. 24, 2017.[post_title] => Queer Polygamy [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 52.1 (Spring 2019): 33–43
Ostler addresses the problems with what she terms the “Standard Model of Polygamy.” She discusses how these problems might be resolved if it is put into a new type of model that she terms “Queer Polygamy.” [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => queer-polygamy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-07-19 13:04:52 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-07-19 13:04:52 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=23346 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
Queer Bodies, Queer Technologies, and Queer Policies
Dialogue 54.4 (Winter 2021): 99–109
Reproductive gender essentialism claims exclude trans persons for their gender identity. However, these same arguments, when taken seriously, also exclude infertile and intersex women too. Such a strict definition of “man” or “woman” does not simply exclude trans folks but also any body not fulfilling its biological utility. After all, biological potential and utility is the basis of a biological sex assignment
Though there is a well-established conversation on how reproductive technologies and policies influence cisgender, heterosexual women’s bodies within Mormonism, there is a less established conversation on how reproductive technologies and policies are affecting LGBTQ+ Saints. Granted, the majority of the Church’s attention has focused on non-queer women’s reproductivity and not on the LGBTQ+ community. However, within the last handful of decades the Church has expanded its attention to include specific policies directed at the LGBTQ+ Latter-day Saint community.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explicitly states its position in the General Handbook concerning how and when reproductive technologies are to be used. The morality of a technology is less a matter of the technology itself, but rather of matter of who is using it. Policies outlined in the handbook are directing reproductive technologies toward the creation of a fertile, cisgender, heterosexual, sex binary under the guise of God’s laws. In this brief article, I discuss the Church’s current policies on reproductive technologies as outlined in the handbook and how they affect specifically the LGBTQ+ community.
Reproductive technology is already changing the landscape of gender and reproduction. For instance, such technology allows two cisgender women and one cisgender man to be the biological parents of their child who has the DNA of three biological parents. Uterine transplants allow baren bodies the ability to gestate their offspring. This is not science fiction. This is already happening. If these trends continue, technology could eventually enable trans women the ability to birth and nurse their own children. In time, two cisgender women could produce their own offspring without the need of a sperm donor, and children could have shared DNA with both their gay, cisgender fathers. Advancements in reproductive and medical technologies are not just changing the aesthetics and sociology of gender but also the biological utility and function of sex.
Biological sex classification is predicated on assumed reproductive function. According to Aristotelian essentialism, which is the basis of most gender essentialist claims, function is key to essentialism. As Aristotle explains in his biopsychology, an eye is only an eye if it fulfills the measure of its creation, to provide vision. If an eye cannot see, it is an eye in name only. In Aristotle’s words, “The eye itself is the matter for vision; and if [vision] departs, there is no eye any longer, except equivocally, as in the case of an eye in a statue or a painting.” According to essentialism, an eye must have the ability to see to be considered an eye in actuality. If not, it is only an eye in potentiality. However, if a blind eye has its vision restored, it is again an eye in actuality. To be considered an “actual eye” is a matter of function and utility in Aristotle’s essentialist philosophy.
When function is at the center of gender, reproduction takes on a special role. Under gender essentialist philosophy, biological sex is a matter of reproductive utility, at least in potentiality. A woman must have the potential ability to reproduce to be considered a woman. A strict gender essentialist might even claim that she would have to actually reproduce to be a “actual woman.” Her biological assignment is predicated on her reproductive ability, and an infertile woman is not an “actual woman” but only a woman in potential. If she cannot reproduce, an infertile woman is a woman in name only, like a statue or painting. She may look, talk, and sound like a woman, but if she doesn’t serve the biological utility of a woman, she is not an “actual woman.” Likewise, an infertile man or even childless man is not a man in function. To be a biologically “functioning” man or woman would require fertility and the fulfillment of that utility. In the stricter interpretation, a man would have to reproduce in actuality to be considered an “actual man.” If not, he only has the potential to be a man, essentially speaking.
Reproductive gender essentialism claims exclude trans persons for their gender identity. However, these same arguments, when taken seriously, also exclude infertile and intersex women too. Such a strict definition of “man” or “woman” does not simply exclude trans folks but also any body not fulfilling its biological utility. After all, biological potential and utility is the basis of a biological sex assignment.
There are many parallels with Aristotle’s essentialism, gender essentialism, and Mormon theology. In Mormon theology, doctrine, and policy, reproduction is of supreme importance. Brigham Young warned the Saints about “attempts to destroy and dry up the fountains of life.” He also stated, “There are multitudes of pure and holy spirits waiting to take tabernacles, now what is our duty?—to prepare tabernacles for them.” He continues, “It is the duty of every righteous man and woman to prepare tabernacles for all the spirits they can.” Brigham Young’s encouragement for Latter-day Saints to reproduce is echoed in temple ritual, covenants, culture, scripture, and yes, the General Handbook. We are commanded to multiply and replenish the earth. Providing bodies for spirits is a critical part of Mormon theology and doctrine.
Infertile bodies then pose quite a problem in Mormon theology. They must be “fixed” or at least have the potential to be “fixed,” in the next life or with current reproductive technology, as a matter of both utility and redemption. If God commanded us to multiply and replenish, God must provide a way for all bodies to achieve the measure of their creation. According to scripture, God gives us no commandment unless there is a way prepared for us to accomplish said commandment. In Mormonism, everyone must have the potential to reproduce—even infertile bodies. If one of our earthly purposes is to birth and rear children, technology can and has assisted many faithful Latter-day Saints in that endeavor. As explained in the handbook, “When needed, reproductive technology can assist a married woman and man in their righteous desire to have children.” Technology is among the means Latter-day Saints use to fulfill the measure of their creation.
In a certain regard, infertile bodies have a shared “queerness” with the LGBTQ+ community. Both infertile and queer bodies are not performing according to their sex assignment and biological function, which in the Mormon imagination includes reproduction. Infertile bodies are queer bodies, both biologically and theologically. Many queer persons and bodies are not reproductive whether because they are single or in a nonreproductive relationship. If the purpose of a biological sex assignment is to reproduce via copulation, anything outside that narrow definition and gender essentialist view is somewhat “queer.”
Yet, despite infertile and LGBTQ+ Saints having a shared “queerness,” LGBTQ+ Saints carry the brunt of the queer prejudice. Many LGBTQ+ Saints that are not in cisgender, heterosexual relationships are excluded from reproductive technologies that would enable us to have families, while infertile, cisgender, heterosexual Latter-day Saints are not. Is the technology being used to reinforce cisgender, heterosexual, patriarchal gender assignments or reject or subvert said gender assignments? Prejudice against LGBTQ+ Saints creating celestial families of our own is codified in the handbook by prohibiting not just some kinds of relationships but also who can use specific reproductive technologies.
Though the handbook has made space for technological modifications for cis-male and cis-female bodies and couples, the Church has simultaneously demonstrated repeated resistance to technological modifications of many LGBTQ+ bodies and couples that don’t include cis-male and cis-female couples. As stated in the handbook, “The pattern of a husband and wife providing bodies for God’s spirit children is divinely appointed.” In other words, vaginal-penile penetration is God’s way to bring children into the world, and methods outside this “divine appointment” require patriarchal policing and approval. The collision of biology and technology is pushing against a fragile system which requires constant, meticulous, vigilant, and legalistic policymaking at the highest levels of authority in the Church, even from the First Presidency.
Various reproductive technologies that would benefit queer reproduction are discussed in the handbook. Under the heading “Policies on Moral Issues,” there is a list of “discouragements” that include surrogacy, sperm/egg donation, artificial insemination, and in vitro fertilization. Though these practices are discouraged, they are not entirely forbidden. These specific reproductive technologies are available to some but not all. For example, a cisgender, heterosexual man might require artificial insemination to impregnate his cisgender, heterosexual wife. Under the current handbook, this is permissible. As stated, “When needed, reproductive technology can assist a married woman and man in their righteous desire to have children. This technology includes artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.” Furthermore, their children are “born in the covenant” if the parents are already sealed.
However, the handbook does not simply open the door for artificial insemination, sperm/egg donation, surrogacy, and in vitro fertilization as sanctioned technologies for everyone. Sperm/egg donation and surrogacy are means frequently used by the LGBTQ+ community and therefore require more policing than artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization between a monogamous, cisgender, heterosexual couple. For example, a child born via surrogacy is not born in the covenant. This child requires a separate sealing with First Presidency approval. This ensures the First Presidency can exclude children parented by same-sex couples.
The handbook explicitly states, multiple times, that these technologies are for a cisgender “husband and wife”: “The Church discourages artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization using sperm from anyone but the husband or an egg from anyone but the wife.” This clarification reinforces a cis-male and cis-female application, which is especially potent when combined with other policies and prohibitions on LGBTQ+ participation in the Church and temple. Thus, these reproductive technologies can be used as a corrective measure for infertile cis-male and cis-female married Saints but not used to assist LGBTQ+ Saints in creating celestial families. Quite explicitly, the handbook’s current policies demonstrate that celestial families can be created via technology but only if you are cisgender, in a mixed-sex relationship and/or intersex.
There are many examples of the Church allowing technological transformations for cisgender persons, while disallowing the procedures for trans persons. A cisgender woman is allowed breast augmentation or even labiaplasty, but trans women are threatened and/or excommunicated for similar or even less invasive technological body modifications. Likewise, some trans folks are threatened with ecclesiastical discipline for a mastectomy, while cancer patients are not taught to counsel with their bishop before undergoing a mastectomy. The handbook makes no mention of a cisgender woman who requires hormone therapy for menopause but has an entire section dedicated to policing how trans bodies can use hormone therapy. This fragile system of correcting, policing, and erasing queerness is shaken by the collision of technology, biology, and theology.
Intersex bodies specifically pose a threat to an imagined biological sex binary because intersex bodies are literally born non-binary. According to the cisgender, heterosexual, fertile, patriarchal mandate, intersex bodies and infertile bodies must be “corrected” to fit the imagined biological sex binary of how a man or woman is supposed to function. The gender binary is not just socially constructed, it must be technologically and surgically constructed, medicated, corrected, performed, and strictly enforced. Intersex persons are often erased or ignored in Mormon discourse, or when we are addressed, intersex conditions are treated like a disability. Queerness, in this case, is considered a “challenge of the flesh” that requires technological treatment. From intersex bodies to conversion therapy to in vitro fertilization, the Church has a well-established history of using technology to eradicate queerness as if it is a disability.
Keep in mind that a disability is considered a “disability” precisely because a presumed function is not being fulfilled. If the Church assumes that the purpose of a cisgender woman is to bear children and she cannot, she is, according to essentialism, broken and in need of repair. Folk doctrines suggest that if she cannot be fixed now with technological means, her “condition” can be “fixed” in the afterlife. Infertile cisgender women should certainly be encouraged to use technological transformations to bear children according to their desires, but we should not assume that the purpose of all cisgender women is to bear and nurse children. The problem is not the desire to be fertile, regardless of whether the women is transgender or cisgender, the problem is proscribing how her gender should function and perform. One woman may see her infertility as a “disability,” while another woman may welcome infertility as a convenient form of birth control. The “disability” should only be considered as disability if it hinders the fulfilment of her desires not because her disability is a product of an imposed proscription telling her how to perform her gender.
To make matters more intense for the Church, technology is not going anywhere. Technological developments are not slowing down. From uterine transplants to artificial embryo selection, reproductive technologies are only the beginning. CRISPR is being used to edit genes and will change our species irreversibly in ways we are not even imagining. Cisgender, vaginal-penile penetration could eventually be considered a reckless form of reproduction when technology allows us to alter a child’s genes even before gestation. Yesterday’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality. Technology is radically and rapidly changing our world. The First Presidency, through the handbook that they approve of, have been trying to channel a small portion of that technology into the creation of an artificial cisgender, heterosexual, sex binary under the guise of God’s law, but their method of excluding queerness from Mormonism is slowly breaking down with the rise of queer Latter-day Saint visibility, activism, theology, and sympathy.
To be clear, the legitimization of queer bodies, relationships, and families is not simply a matter of embracing technological advancements. Theology, doctrine, and policy are in a symbiotic relationship with one another. Doctrine feeds our theology, and theology feeds policy. The exclusion of LGBTQ+ Saints is more than simply denying us equal access to reproductive technology within our Mormon community. Excluding LGBTQ+ Saints on the grounds that we cannot reproduce is weakened when technology has clearly allowed both straight and queer couples the ability to reproduce and raise families. Prejudice toward LGBTQ+ Saints did not start with policies in the handbook. Exclusionary policies are reflections of our existing prejudices. The legitimization of queer bodies, relationships, and families within the Church will not happen until we can imagine a more inclusive theology by interpreting our doctrine more compassionately. Technology can hinder or aid us in that endeavor, but the decision ultimately lies within our willingness to include queer Latter-day Saints as worthy members of celestial glory, including glorified bodies.
I suspect that when technology becomes powerful enough to give “men” the reproductive function of “women” and “women” the reproductive function of “men,” not just in social performance or aesthetics but in reproductive function and biological utility, we will see an unprecedented cracking of our taxonomies that the Church is woefully underprepared for. Keeping queerness out of churches, temples, and celestial eternities with the handbook is not a sustainable model. When Church policies, rituals, privileges, theologies, orthopraxis, and even classrooms are segregated according to the false premise of a biological sex binary, the rumbling of queer bodies could shake the very foundation of the Church.
 Melissa Proctor, “Bodies, Babies, and Birth Control,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 159–75.
 Tad Walch, “Church Releases Updates to Handbook for Latter-day Saint Leaders Worldwide,” Deseret News, July 31, 2020.
 “38.6.9, Fertility Treatments,” and “2.1.3, Parents and Children,” General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020).
 Ian Sample, “Three-Parent Babies Explained: What Are the Concerns and Are They Justified?,” Guardian, Feb. 2, 2015.
 Bill Chappell, “A First: Uterus Transplant Gives Parents a Healthy Baby,” NPR International, Oct. 4, 2014.
 B. P. Jones et al., “Uterine Transplantation in Transgender Women,” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 126, no. 2 (2019): 152–56, https://doi.org/10.1111/1471–0528.15438.
 Hippocrates George Apostle, Aristotle’s On the Soul (De Anima) (Grinnell, Iowa: Peripatetic Press, 1981), 20.
 Genesis 1:28; Genesis 9:1; Genesis 35:11; and The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World [Sept. 1995],” Ensign, Nov. 1985: “We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”
 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 12:120–21.
 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 4:56.
 Genesis 1:28 KJV.
 1 Nephi 3:7.
 38.6.9 “Fertility Treatments,” General Handbook.
 For the purposes of this article, I will expand the definition of “queer” or “queerness” to include infertile bodies. Though “queer” has been used to refence the LGBTQIA+ community, I will use “queer” and “queerness” to denote all deviations from a binary, cisgender, heterosexual, fertile body. In the context of Mormon theology, infertility is its own sort of queerness when it deviates from the general pre-proscribed function of biological sex, which is to reproduce. If a man or woman cannot reproduce, their biological functioned is “queer.”
 “38.6.22, Surrogate Motherhood,” General Handbook.
 “38.6.22, Surrogate Motherhood,” General Handbook.
 “38.6.7, Donating or Selling Sperm or Eggs,” and “38.6.9, Fertility Treatments,” General Handbook.
 “38.6.9, Fertility Treatments,” General Handbook.
 “220.127.116.11, Children Conceived by Artificial Insemination or In Vitro Fertilization,” General Handbook.
 Surrogacy is a complicated issue when it comes to women’s bodies, especially impoverished women of color. Though surrogacy is a technology to help people, including gay parents, bring children into the world, it is also ethically complicated due to economic stratification that exploits women of color. There are significant ethical dilemmas to address beyond the scope of this paper.
 “38.6.22, Surrogate Motherhood,” General Handbook.
 “38.6.15, Same-Sex Attraction and Same-Sex Behavior” and “38.6.16, Same-Sex Marriage,” General Handbook.
 “38.6.9, Fertility Treatments,” General Handbook.
 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “After Leading LDS Congregations and Designing Mormon Temples, This Utah Dad is Building a New Life—as a Woman,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 21, 2017.
 Courtney Tanner, “A Transgender BYU Student Could Be Expelled and Face Discipline in the Mormon Church for Having Breast-Removal Surgery,” Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 16, 2018.
 “38.6.22, Surrogate Motherhood,” General Handbook.
 Elizabeth Reis, Bodies in Doubt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
 David A. Bednar, “There Are No Homosexual Members of the Church [Feb. 23, 2016],” uploaded on Feb. 29, 206, YouTube video, 11:37; Gregory Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2019), 89–101, 112, 115; Taylor Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 97, 155–61, 184–85.
 Blaire Ostler, “Heavenly Mother: The Mother of All Women,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 51 no. 4 (2018): 171–81.
 I should clarify it is not exclusively the First Presidency that are creating an artificial cisgender, heterosexual sex binary with technology. There are many other queer antagonists that are doing similar if not identical things. Though I am putting my own community under the microscope, I understand this is not exclusively a Latter-day Saint issue.
 Doctrine and Covenants 76:69–70.[post_title] => Queer Bodies, Queer Technologies, and Queer Policies [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 54.4 (Winter 2021): 99–109
Reproductive gender essentialism claims exclude trans persons for their gender identity. However, these same arguments, when taken seriously, also exclude infertile and intersex women too. Such a strict definition of “man” or “woman” does not simply exclude trans folks but also any body not fulfilling its biological utility. After all, biological potential and utility is the basis of a biological sex assignment [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => queer-bodies-queer-technologies-and-queer-policies [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-07-19 12:55:12 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-07-19 12:55:12 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=28750 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis: Responding to the Empirical Research on Suicide
Dialogue 49.2 (Summer 2016): 1–24
The November 2015 LDS handbook policy change that identified mem- bers who participate in same-sex marriages as “apostates” and forbade children in their households from receiving baby blessings or baptisms sparked ongoing attention to the topic of LGBTQ Mormon well-being, mental health, and suicides.
The November 2015 LDS handbook policy change that identified members who participate in same-sex marriages as “apostates” and forbade children in their households from receiving baby blessings or baptisms sparked ongoing attention to the topic of LGBTQ Mormon well-being, mental health, and suicides. When talking about LGBTQ youth suicides in our LDS community, we need to make sure we are working with the best empirical evidence available, and we need to be certain that the evidence presented is being interpreted correctly. Otherwise poor government policies will be put in place that may offer no benefit or might even exacerbate the problem. This article will look at five questions that need to be considered in this very important public health issue:
- What direct empirical evidence is available regarding LGBTQ youth suicides?
- What is the indirect evidence?
- What is the anecdotal evidence?
- What conclusions can we draw taking into account the limitations of empirical, inferred, and anecdotal evidence?
- What preventive measures should be implemented while we are waiting for more definitive empirical evidence?
What Is the Direct Empirical Evidence
LGBTQ teens are twice as likely to attempt suicide as straight adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Others have found that these youth are also more likely to contemplate as well as attempt suicide, although they also point to other factors that also relate to the risk of suicide including depression, substance abuse, and others.
It is essential to acknowledge that suicidality is multifaceted, and being gay, lesbian, or transgender is not necessarily in all cases risk factors for suicide attempts. In fact, as we will discuss later in this article, LGBTQ people who have supportive families and communities are not at increased risk of poor mental health outcomes. Risk factors for suicide among LGBTQ teens are actually similar to risk factors for suicide among all teens and include hopelessness, major depression symptoms, impulsivity, past suicide attempts, conduct disorder (i.e. destructive, aggressive, deceitful behaviors, and violation of rules), victimization, perceived family support (support from peers does not have the same impact), and the recent suicide or attempted suicide of a family member or close friend. Some of these risk factors, such as family rejection or victimization, might disproportionately impact LGBTQ teens, which would explain their overall higher rate of suicide attempts.
Family rejection leads to an eight-fold risk of suicide attempts among LGBTQ teens. The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) has done some excellent research showing that there is an exponential risk of suicide for LGBTQ teens who come from families that show “rejecting behaviors” such as not addressing issues of bullying and exclusion or endorsing attitudes that exclude members of the LGBTQ community. They even studied what those rejecting behaviors are, and anyone familiar with the Mormon community would recognize those rejective behaviors as sometimes being common in our communities. (A full list of these “rejecting behaviors” can be found toward the end of this article.) Parents’ rejecting behaviors are often reinforced by local Church leaders and Mormon culture. It is important to note that the risk of suicide remains higher for rejected youth well into adulthood. They also have exponentially higher rates of drug/alcohol use, depression, and HIV infection than youth raised in homes that do not show these rejecting behaviors. The FAP research is in line with other empirical studies that show that many of these risk factors for suicide attempts can be decreased by “family-based interventions that increase support [which] reduce hopelessness and depression symptoms.”
Supportive communities and schools reduce suicide risk among LGBTQ teens. Schools with explicit anti-homophobia interventions such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs) may reduce the odds of suicidal thoughts and attempts among LGBTQ students. A study by the University of British Columbia using data from the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey showed that “LGBTQ youth and heterosexual students in schools with anti-homophobia policies and GSAs had lower odds of discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, primarily when both strategies were enacted, or when the policies and GSAs had been in place for three years or more.” This study also found that LGBTQ youth in supportive environments experienced fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts by about two-thirds. Interestingly, suicidal thoughts and attempts also dropped among heterosexual boys and girls in the schools that put these policies into place.
Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University polled 30,000 Oregon teens and found that those living in supportive communities were 25 percent less likely to attempt suicide compared to teens in more hostile communities (as evidenced by the presence or absence of anti-discrimination policies or anti-bullying programs). “The results of this study are pretty compelling,” Hatzenbuehler said in a statement. “When communities support their gay young people, and schools adopt anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that specifically protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempted suicide by all young people drops, especially for LGB youth.”
Suicides have doubled in the past four years, becoming the number one cause of death among Utah teens. Suicide is the number one cause of death of all Utah youth; this is not the case nationally, and Utah consistently ranks above the national average for suicide deaths. While Utah suicide rates are higher than the national average, they are, nevertheless, generally in line with the other Rocky Mountain states. Though this is true, it is alarming that the teen suicide rate in Utah has doubled since 2011, which is not something we have seen in the other Rocky Mountain states, nor in Alaska. Figure 1 [Editor’s Note: See PDF, p. 5, for Figure 1] displays suicide rates (per 100,000) from 1999 to 2014, comparing the fifteen- to nineteen-year-old age group in Utah with the same age group in the United States as a whole as reported by the Centers for Disease Control.
Summary. A clear body of research shows an elevated risk of suicide among LGBTQ teens nationally and indicates the major risk factors for suicide and other poor outcomes. There is no reason to believe that the LDS community is immune to this. Based on this alone, we need to consider that we have a suicide problem in our community. Analysis of the data suggests that the problem is worse in LDS communities than the national average. The youth suicide rate in Utah is the first statistic that implies this. Although the suicide rate is elevated throughout the Intermountain West, no other states have seen the doubling in teen suicides that Utah has had in the past four years. Why is youth suicide in Utah so much higher than the national average? Since LGBTQ issues may be a large factor impacting teen suicides, it would be irresponsible not to address these issues locally, especially when the suicide problem is so acute in Utah, where the highest concentration of Mormons is found. Meanwhile, studies have shown the risk factors for suicide. However, protective factors have not been studied as extensively or rigorously as risk factors.
What is the Direct Evidence?
Mental health outcomes and mortality rates for LGBTQ are the same as non-LGBTQ people in communities that are friendly to LGBTQ issues. In a 2013 study, Hatzenbuehler, et al. found that in communities that are highly prejudiced against sexual minorities, the life expectancy of sexual minorities is twelve years shorter when compared to low-prejudice communities. Causes of the twelve-year difference are not limited to mental health and suicide; they also include homicide/violence and cardiovascular disease. They also report an eighteen-year difference in the average age of completed suicide among LGBTQ people in high-prejudice communities when compared to low-prejudice communities. We can infer from these findings that an elevated risk of suicide correlates with the elevated risk of mental illness prevalent among LGBTQ people living in communities that are hostile to LGBTQ. In a report of the study published in U.S. News and World Report, Hatzenbuehler concludes: “The results from the current study provide important social science evidence demonstrating that sexual minorities living in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice have increased risk of mortality, compared to those living in low-prejudice communities.”
Meanwhile, there is actual evidence that homosexuals are not at any increased risk of mental illness when they are in a less homophobic community. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine by researchers at the University of Montreal (lead author Robert-Paul Juster) shows that “as a group, gay and bisexual men who are out of the closet were less likely to be depressed than heterosexual men and had less physiological problems than heterosexual men.” A Concordia University doctoral thesis in clinical psychology investigated and examined environmental risks and protective factors that counter-balance the severe mental illnesses that LGBTQ youth have and the role of cortisol, which is a hormone that is released in situations of stress leading to physical and mental health consequences. The author found that LGBTQ youth have abnormal levels of cortisol (compared to their heterosexual peers), which contributes to rates of mental illness and then influence rates of suicide.
New research is also emerging that shows transgender people also have normal mental health when they are in a supportive environment from an early age. A study out of the University of Washington published in March 2016 showed that prepubescent children who are living openly as transgender with the support of their families fare very well and have no increase in depression or anxiety compared to other children. This is a striking contrast to prior studies on transgender people that have shown higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. The big difference is being able to live openly at a young age with parental support.
LGBTQ youth are more likely to be homeless. National studies show an exponentially higher risk of homelessness among LGBTQ teens. A 2013 National Conference of State Legislatures report found that between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Providers and outreach workers in Utah have noticed that this also applies to Utah, and they have noted a high rate of LGBTQ teens from LDS families among the homeless teens they serve. A 2014 Salt Lake Tribune article noted: “More than 5,000 youth are estimated to experience homelessness in Utah per year. Of these, at least 40 percent are LGBT and the majority are from religious and socially conservative families, with 60 percent from Mormon homes.”
Utah’s doubling of teen suicides in the past four years corresponds to increased rhetoric by the LDS Church against same-sex marriage. As noted above, data from the CDC show that suicides in the fifteen to nineteen age range in Utah have doubled since 2011. While Utah doubled its rate of suicides among teens, the rest of the country did not see a substantial increase in their suicide rate (see Figure 1). Suicide has become the leading cause of death in this age group in Utah. Of course, correlation does not prove causation, but it is important to look at correlating factors to determine which of these might explain causation. The time frame for this doubling of teen suicides does correspond to an increased focus in the media on LGBTQ issues, especially in Utah as the debate on same-sex marriage played out. That clearly led to a backlash, including frequent Church statements criticizing same-sex marriage or the LGBTQ community. It stands to reason that these statements have reinforced conflicts within congregations and families over the issue and has unleashed an increase of demonstrated homophobia and anti-LGBTQ feelings within families. It can easily be inferred that this chain of events exacerbated family rejection of vulnerable LGBTQ teens, thereby increasing their risk of suicide attempts as described earlier.
Most LGBT youth and young adults lose the protective effects of belonging to a religious community. A study of Mormon men in Utah shows that leaving the Church puts one at a much higher risk of suicide. A 2001 study looked at completed suicides of Utah men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four and cross-referenced their activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The study’s authors estimated the individual’s degree of church activity by observing the level of priest-hood ordination at the date of the suicide. They concluded that leaving the Church raised the risk of suicide among all young men. We also know that LGBTQ people leave the Church or are invited to leave at very high rates (36.3 percent inactive; 25.2 percent resigned; 6.7 percent excommunicated; 3.0 percent disfellowshipped). From these studies we can infer that these LGBTQ young men are among those who have a substantially higher risk of suicide when they lose the protection that membership in a religion provides against suicide risk. If so, then bishops, stake presidents, and family members have reason to worry when an LGBTQ person stops attending church. It seems that the effect of religion on suicidal ideation is mixed. However, a recent study suggests that religion may serve as a protection against suicide attempts, even when LGBTQ people have “internalized homophobia.” This same study shows once again that maturing in a religion increases the risk of suicide among those who leave. It can thus be inferred that LGBTQ people are placed at higher risk when they feel unwelcome in their religious communities and end up losing the protection of religious involvement.
In sum, “it may seem counterintuitive that when individuals chose to leave their religion in order to experience more self-acceptance that they inadvertently experience more risk for suicide.” These studies, observations, and data do not directly answer our questions about LGBTQ suicides, but they raise concerns about the well-being, mental health, and suicide-risk among our LGBTQ teens and young adults. In the above cases, the inferred conclusions are compelling and point to a broad range of evidence that demonstrate a serious problem in our community.
What Is the Anecdotal Evidence?
Anybody who knows a substantial number of LGBTQ people with LDS backgrounds will be astounded by how many have attempted suicide. Those who are in a particular position of outreach, such as the leadership of Affirmation, Wendy and Thomas Montgomery, or Carol Lynn Pearson, have also reported being overwhelmed by the consistent pattern of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicides among LGBTQ people from Mormon backgrounds, particularly among youth and young adults. Clinicians who have worked with teens in Utah including, clinicians from LDS Family Services, have noticed the high rate of despair and suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ teens (as well as adults). Further, polling of USGA (a support organization for LGBTQ BYU students) showed a very high rate of suicide attempts among its members. Informal polling of LGBTQ youth on a Facebook group for LDS LGBTQ youth has also revealed the ubiquitous nature of suicidal thoughts among our LGBTQ Mormon youth.
What Conclusions Can We Draw?
When we put these data together, it is impossible to know exactly how many suicides there are among Mormon youth and how many of these are related to LGBTQ issues. In large part this is because data collected by the government on deaths, including suicides, do not generally indicate the sexual orientation of the deceased. Despite this fact, we have described above some compelling evidence that allows us to conclude that there is a significant problem and make some reasonable inferences. The direct empirical evidence alone is enough to merit a public health response.
The indirect evidence is also compelling because there are such close correlations between suicide and mental illness/mood disorders, as well as homelessness in general, and LGBTQ people have a higher prevalence of these, especially in communities that are unfriendly to LGBTQ issues and concerns. We can reasonably infer from this that LGBTQ suicides are higher in these communities.
In the case of LDS youth suicides, we are forced to pay attention to both indirect evidence and anecdotal evidence because it is so difficult to gather empirical evidence about any suicide cohort because of the stigma associated with it as well as the intense grief experienced by these families. Some families are in denial that their family member is LGBTQ. Furthermore, those youth at highest risk are often the same youth who will hide their sexual orientation, so the family may not even be aware. As one Provo police officer put it: “They don’t leave a note saying they died by suicide because they are gay.” It is often difficult to tell if an accidental death is actually a suicide and so those will be missed by any inquiry. Investigating whether sexual orientation is a factor in suicide is clearly complicated, and state agencies in Utah (and other states) have been reluctant to do so.
Normally we should be reluctant to make decisions based on anecdotal evidence alone. However, when the various pieces of evidence (anecdotal, direct, and indirect) provide a highly compelling picture that strongly suggests that lives are at stake (as can happen in any public health crisis), it is critical to be proactive.
Presently, a public health action is even more compelling because we have identified preventive measures that are low cost, low risk, and have already been shown to be effective. Currently the problem is not a lack of evidence, but quite simply a lack of will. We have sufficient direct evidence that is strengthened by indirect evidence and reinforced by anecdotal evidence. The case is strong. Our inability at this time to provide conclusive evidence (again, given that the government does not track the sexual identity of suicide or other mortality indicators) does not diminish our responsibility to take measures to decrease suicides by decreasing suicide attempts—and that is within our reach. It is also within our reach to address the depression, despair, and isolation that afflict our LDS LGBTQ youth.
Discussion: What Drives Despair?
Depression and mood disorders play a role in many if not most suicide deaths or attempts. But what can we look at from a community stand-point? What are the factors that put people at risk and then put some of them over the edge? Neuroscientist Michael Ferguson pointed out in a recent podcast interview that “as social beings when you’re shunned or you’re excommunicated or you’re rejected from your primary community of attachments, your body experiences [symptoms] like you’re preparing to die.” Humans are social creatures and surviving without our most important social connections was historically impossible for our ancestors. Being cast out was literally deadly. To a social animal such as a human, there are few things worse than ostracism.
Consider seeing through the eyes of an LGBTQ teen. Their emergent sense of self as an LGBTQ person often triggers fear of losing their family if their family finds out. Much of what they hear at church inculcates fear that they will not be part of their family in eternity. An entire future is mapped out for them that they see as increasingly impossible to fit into. If they have any gender-nonconforming behaviors or traits, they face bullying at school and at church, and they often do not receive support from their parents around the issue because they are too frightened to talk to them. Parents sometimes reinforce this at home by making homophobic comments, which confirm the child’s fears that they will lose their family if they come out, and that they might even lose their shelter and education by being kicked to the streets.
Meanwhile, hostile messages surround them at church, school, and home. Like every teen, they start to develop feelings and dreams of love and companionship, but then they receive the message that their desires are evil, and that in order to be accepted they have to follow a path that feels impossible for them. Most LGBTQ Mormons have this experience to varying extents. Many of them work their way through it and survive. However, many have other problems, such as depression or poor family structures. The despair often leads them to risk-taking behaviors such as substance abuse or unprotected sex. These factors stack up and multiply their odds of having a suicide attempt or other dangerous behavior.
In the past, there were messages from LDS Church leaders that could reasonably be interpreted by some as indirectly encouraging suicide. For example, in 1981 President Marion G. Romney wrote that “some years ago the First Presidency said to the youth of the Church that a person would be better dead clean than alive unclean.” He then shared a memory of his father telling him before he boarded the train to leave on his mission: “When you are released and return, we shall be glad to greet you and welcome you back into the family circle. But remember this, my son: we would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue.”
Other statements could be interpreted as encouraging bullying or violence against LGBT individuals. For example, in the 1976 priesthood session of general conference, Elder Boyd K. Packer expressed his hearty approval of a missionary who punched his [presumably homosexual] companion to the floor in response to unwanted sexual advances. He said: “Somebody had to do it, and it wouldn’t be well for a General Authority to solve the problem that way. I am not recommending that course to you, but I am not omitting it. You must protect yourself.”
While messages like this from the General Authorities have thankfully ceased, they remain part of the cultural memory among older members and can still routinely make their way into sacrament meeting talks, lessons, and advice and counsel from priesthood leaders. LGBTQ youth absorb these messages and may attempt to kill themselves because they conclude that they do not have a future worth living or because they believe that this was what their parents would prefer.
To be clear, we are grateful that rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ issues has improved in many ways over the last several years. This positive rhetoric is often difficult to fully internalize (or even perceive as genuine), however, in the context of the other more exclusionary messages that Church leaders continue to send, the most recent and significant of which is the November 2015 handbook policy change that defined Church members who enter into same-sex marriages as “apostates” and forbade baby blessings and baptism to children living in such situations. This exclusionary messaging was only exacerbated when President Russell M. Nelson declared in January 2016 that the handbook policy change was the Lord’s will as revealed to his prophets.
Since the majority of LDS families are indeed strong families whose homes are full of love, parents often assume that they would know if their children were feeling conflicted. It is difficult for them to imagine that their child would be afraid to disclose feelings of despair, isolation, or thoughts of self-harm. This is a prevalent assumption of parents, especially those who focus so much time and energy on their families. But many of these loving parents are sending rejecting messages long before they realize that their child might be LGBTQ. As a colleague of ours put it:
Having a loving family isn’t enough. Parents need to actually sit down with their kids throughout their youth and specifically say “We will love and be proud of you if you marry a boy or a girl or don’t marry at all. Though missions are important, we know that isn’t always possible for everyone and that’s okay too. We will stand up for you and your choices. We will help you the best we know how, no matter what; even if we don’t understand at first. If at some point your life goals feel different than what we currently know about you, we want to discuss that together and understand what your life direction means to you personally. Not being exactly like us should never cause you to fear us being disappointed in you.” Until that conversation is being had in the homes of every LDS family, we will continue to see LGBTQ people suffer in isolation.
Another important source of despair for LGBTQ youth is the political culture in Utah, which is in many ways a reflection of the LDS Church and Mormon community. The Mormon majority in the Utah legislature is widely perceived to be responsive to what the Church leaders support and the Church regularly influences legislation openly, such as when they supported a compromise that allowed passage of a statewide anti-discrimination bill that gave substantial exemptions based on religion. We also saw the Utah State Senate in March 2016 shoot down a proposal to modify the state’s hate crimes laws to include protections for LGBTQ individuals after the Church opposed the law.
Meanwhile, the Utah state legislature has taken steps which are not encouraging to LGBTQ youth. Utah, along with seven other US states, has a ban on teachers discussing any LGBTQ issues in public schools. This makes it very difficult for schools to adopt measures that will help combat bullying and create a safe learning environment for LGBTQ youth. Marian Edmonds-Allen, Utah’s leading advocate for LGBTQ youth, laments the situation in our schools: “State school board guidelines that prohibit ‘the advocacy of homosexuality’ are directly contributing to risk of suicide for youth, both LGBT and straight. Gay-straight alliances, which have been shown to provide a 50 percent reduction in suicide risk for males, both GBT and straight, are becoming even more rare in Utah.”
As the law now stands in Utah, school counselors are not allowed to address relevant issues with LGBTQ youth who report suicidal thoughts, nor are they allowed to give parents helpful information/resources or even explain the problem when their child is feeling rejected due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. One can see how this puts undue stress on LGBTQ teenagers who are left with nowhere to turn for support.
Even more alarming is the glaring lack of resources for homeless teens. Like the rest of the nation, a disproportionate number of homeless teens in Utah are LGBTQ. Whether gay or straight, their lives in the streets and canyons of Utah are bleak. Until one year ago, there was not a single shelter bed available for these youth, which number up to 1,000 at any point in time. Even now there is only one shelter, and it can house only fourteen youth. Laws that supposedly protect parental rights have made it impossible for any law-abiding citizen to offer shelter to any of these children, which means that to survive these youth often have had to turn to prostitution or exploitation by adults. Drugs become an all-too-common escape from their bleak existence, further increasing their vulnerability and dependence upon their exploiters.
Discussion: Did the New LDS Handbook Policy Impace Suicide Numbers?
In the aftermath of the November 2015 handbook policy change (referred to previously) there were significant anecdotal accounts of increased suicide among LGBTQ Mormon youth. This led many to draw direct causal connections between the two events, arguing that the handbook policy change directly caused several dozen youth suicides in the weeks and months that followed. It is important to remember, though, that there was already a major problem with suicide (as well as depression, homelessness, suicide attempts, and despair) among LGBTQ Mormons before the recent policy was revealed. We argue that a better question to ask would be: Are further rejection and homophobia in our communities increasing depression and despair and consequently intensifying the conditions that contribute to the elevated suicide rate in our community?
As stated above, people in positions of outreach such as the Affirmation leadership and the Mama Dragons leadership found themselves dealing with LGBTQ people in distress and often found themselves spending late nights consoling people who were struggling with suicidal feelings. Due to her high visibility in the media, Wendy Montgomery had already had a constant stream of LDS people reaching out to her around this issue to tell her their stories, seek support, and find resources. After the policy was revealed in November, however, she started getting more and more reports from LDS people reporting an LGBTQ family member had committed suicide. She eventually added up these informal reports and found that there were thirty-two deaths from suicide reported to her between November 6, 2015 and January 17, 2016 (the number rose to thirty-four later that month). When John Gustav-Wrathall, the president of Affirmation, reported Montgomery’s numbers on Affirmation.org, a flury of media attention and debate arose.
The data reported by Wendy Montgomery seem confusing because, while she did get a high number of reports of suicide since November 6, it is hard to square these numbers with the state of Utah, which reports that there were only ten suicides in Utah in November and December of 2015 in the fifteen to nineteen age range. We have to be aware that the state will always underestimate actual suicides for several reasons, especially because it will not consider an overdose or an accident a suicide, even though overdoses and accidents are both very common ways of attempting/completing suicide. The Utah numbers also did not include suicides from out-of-state, outside of the fifteen to nineteen age range, or from January. Therefore, the number of youth and young adults suicides is very likely higher than ten. Since the reports sent to Wendy Montgomery were not solicited, precise statistical information is not possible. She has admitted that the reports were not always precise and did not always state when the suicide took place, so it is possible that some of them took place prior to the policy change, factors that may also contribute to the discrepancy.
In sum, there is no direct empirical evidence that indicates that the handbook policy change actually increased Mormon LGBTQ youth suicides. The other direct, indirect, and anecdotal evidence that we have discussed, though, are compelling and certainly strongly suggest a link between these things. It is not difficult to imagine that the impact of this policy change will continue to be felt strongly by LGBTQ Mormons for the foreseeable future.
As problematic as the policy is in our view, we believe that it is also misguided to focus exclusively on the policy change as the primary causal factor of LGBTQ marginalization in the Mormon community. Instead, we should address all of the factors that lead to the marginalization and family rejection of our LGBTQ youth. Focusing on the policy while ignoring these other factors, would do a disservice to the individuals we are trying to protect. Even if the policy exacerbated the problems facing LGBTQ Mormons, the primary problems have been in place for a very long time.
What Can Be Done?
What the existing research has clearly shown is that the single largest factor contributing to the mental and emotional health of young LGBTQ people is family acceptance versus rejection. The Family Acceptance Project has specifically identified “rejecting behaviors” that are associated with mental and emotional harm to LGBTQ individuals. We would do well to ask ourselves if our families, wards, or communities might be doing any of the following:
- Not allowing or strongly discouraging a youth from identifying themselves as LGBTQ.
- Not allowing their child to socialize with other LGBTQ youth.
- Not allowing their child to participate in supportive organizations that will help the youth cope, such as a GSA.
- Not addressing bullying that their children face around being per-ceived as LGBTQ.
- Not protecting their LGBTQ child against derisive comments by uninformed relatives or family friends.
- Engaging in derisive comments about LGBTQ people or demonizing of LGBTQ people.
- Not providing a family climate where a child feels safe to come out to their parents.
- Endorsing statements or comments that make a child fear they will be kicked out of their home or will lose their families if they come out.
The most effective preventions are cheap and easy. We need to educate and support parents and we need to empower our schools to address the needs of our youth. Parents are eager and willing to do what is best for their children. They need to have access to this helpful information through bishops and auxiliary leaders, through mental health providers, and through school counselors. Training needs to happen. Barriers to action need to be removed.
What Should the State Do?
We believe that the state should take more leadership on the issue of LGBTQ and homeless youth. It should participate in efforts to track suicides and suicide attempts and study contributing factors. The state of Utah specifically should lift the “gag rule” so that LGBTQ issues can be discussed in schools and should require schools to adopt anti-bullying programs that have been proven successful in other school districts. It should remove any barriers and promote the creation of school-based GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) clubs, which have a proven benefit for all students (not just the LGBTQ students). It should seriously address youth homelessness and invest in adequate shelters and remove legal barriers that keep agencies and outreach workers from helping these teens.
What Should the Church Do?
We are going to leave this up to the reader. We have identified the problem. The Church’s role in both the way that LGBTQ issues are handled in Mormon practice, policies, doctrines, and culture, as well as in the legislative process in Mormon-dominant communities, is evident. The Church’s influence in the messages that go to wards and communities about LGBTQ people is, likewise, evident. We hope that Church leaders and members alike will consider the consequences of their positions and rhetoric about LGBTQ issues and find ways to satisfy theological concerns without contributing to the despair and tragedies playing out in the lives of our children.
Any discussion of this issue should take into account whether we are helping or exacerbating the problem. In our opinion, this recent discussion has brought much-needed attention to the issue. Sometimes the discussions have been counter-productive, however. We should not let our focus on one single event, such as the new exclusionary handbook policy, distract us from the numerous issues that lead to distress among our LGBTQ youth. We need to accept that the data we have so far do not allow us to precisely estimate the number of youth suicides driven by the Church’s positions and rhetoric on LGBTQ issues, but we also need to recognize that the evidence points to a serious problem. It also points us toward solutions that are effective and inexpensive.
Furthermore, we should be careful to follow proven guidelines about how to discuss suicide without contributing to suicide contagion. Suicide contagion or “copycat suicide” occurs when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to another suicide. Suicide contagion is a real problem when suicides become high profile. We can and must discuss suicide among our youth, but we need to do it responsibly. We refer readers to ReportingOnSuicide.org for guidance on how to discuss the issue in our online as well as personal conversations. We also recommend resources such as the Family Acceptance Project, I’ll Walk With You, and Affirmation.
Finally, we issue a plea for Church members to be a voice for compassion in their individual wards. Speaking out requires courage, but it also decreases pain and saves lives. You may never know who was saved because of something you said or something you did. But it is important to take a stand, speaking and acting with acceptance, understanding, and love. We have an illness. We have a problem. Let’s implement the cure.
Author’s Note: a previous version of this article originally appeared as a blog post by the same name on Rational Faiths, February 25, 2016. Interested readers are invited to see the full blog post since the appendix includes detailed summaries and excerpts of the various studies cited in this article. We extend our sincere appreciation to the following people for providing resources, information, and insights: Dr. Mikle South, Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, Kendall Wilcox, Thomas Montgomery, Wendy Montgomery, Lori Burkman, and John Gustav-Wrathall. We especially recognize and thank the late Dr. Phil Rogers for his generous assistance gathering data from the CDC website and providing us with much of the research discussed in this article.
Editor's Note: The Dialogue Foundation provides the web format of this article as a courtesy. There may be unintentional differences from the printed version. For citational and bibliographical purposes, please use the printed version or the PDFs provided online and on JSTOR.
 Stephen T. Russell and Kara Joyner, “Adolescent Sexual Orientation and Suicide Risk: Evidence from a National Study,” American Journal of Public Health 91, no. 8 (2001): 1276–81; Arnold H. Grossman and Anthony R. D’Augelli, “Transgender Youth and Life-Threatening Behaviors,” Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior 37, no. 5 (2007): 527–37.
 Brian Mustanski and Richard T. Liu, “A Longitudinal Study of Predictors of Suicide Attempts among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 42, no. 3 (2013): 437–48.
 Mustanski and Liu, “A Longitudinal Study of Predictors,” 437–48.
 Tracy Tang, “Gay-Straight Alliances in Schools Reduce Suicide Risk for All Students,” University of British Columbia, Jan. 20, 2014.
 Jennifer Welsh, “Homosexual Teen Suicide Rates Raised in Bad Environments,” LiveScience, Apr. 18, 2011.
 At the time of this writing, the years 1999 to 2014 were publicly available. We do not see the same doubling of suicide rates in Utah among those aged twenty to twenty-four (although it is higher than the national average in that age cohort), indicating that the rapid increase seems to be limited to high school–aged youth.
 Mikle South, “Op-ed: Misuse of Utah Suicide Data Makes It Harder to Address,” Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 6, 2016.
 Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Anna Bellatorre, Yeonjin Lee, Brian K. Finch, Peter Muennig, and Kevin Fiscella, “Structural Stigma and All-Cause Mortality in Sexual Minority Populations,” Social Science & Medicine 103 (2013): 33–41.
 Jason Koebler, “Study: Openly Gay Men Less Likely to Be Depressed Than Heterosexuals,” U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 29, 2013.
 Kristina R. Olson, Lily Durwood, Madeleine DeMeules, and Katie A. McLaughlin, “Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities,” Pediatrics, Mar. 2016.
 Peggy Fletcher Stack. “Program Aims to Stop Suicide, Homelessness in LGBT Mormon Youth,” Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 15, 2014.
 See Google Trends in both United States and Utah, specifically from 2007 to present on LGBTQ topics: https://www.google.com/trends/.
 Sterling C. Hilton, Gilbert W. Fellingham, and Joseph L. Lyon, “Suicide Rates and Religious Commitment in Young Adult Males in Utah,” American Journal of Epidemiology 155, no. 5 (2002): 413–19.
 John P. Dehlin, Renee V. Galliher, William S. Bradshaw, Daniel C. Hyde, and Katherine Ann Crowell, “Sexual Orientation Change: Efforts Among Current or Former LDS Church Members,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 62, no. 2 (2014): 95–105.
 23. Jeremy J. Gibbs and Jeremy Gladbach, “Religious Conflict, Sexual Identity, and Suicidal Behaviors among LGBT Young Adults,” Archives of Suicide Research 19, no. 4 (2015): 472–88.
 Gibbs and Gladbach, “Religious Conflict,” 11.
 Matt McDonald, “LDS Leader’s Comments about Suicides after Policy Change Angers Mama Dragons,” Fox 13, Salt Lake City, Feb. 16, 2016; Jennifer Napier-Pearce, “Trib Talk: Suicide in the Wake of LDS Church’s Policy on Gay Couples,” Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 1, 2016.
 “LGBT Suicides at BYU: Silent Stories,” Understanding Same-Gender Attraction (USGA), Jan. 29, 2016; “‘Just Be There’: A Message of Suicide Awareness and Prevention,” No More Strangers, Oct. 10, 2013; see also Annie Knox, “BYU ranked among the least LGBT-friendly campuses,” Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 10, 2015.
 Of course, anecdotal evidence is not generalizable because of its non-representative sample bias, prejudice, or any number of other factors. However, when the anecdotal evidence becomes massive (as it has to those of us who work directly with LGBTQ Mormons around this issue), then it strongly suggests that something wider may be happening.
 Mike Barker has asked a suicidologist, several LGBTQ advocates, two forensic specialists (none of these people questioned are from Utah), and at least one concerned Utah lawmaker if there are any states that perform what is called a “psychological autopsy” with regard to the deceased’s sexuality as part of the suicide investigation. The answer has been no. In an email, Barker received the following response from The Trevor Project when he inquired about state agencies tracking the sexual orientation of those who have died by suicide:
“This project is currently in the pilot phase. The people involved with conduct-ing the National Violent Death Reporting System have developed a protocol for death investigators to determine the sexual orientation and gender identity of the deceased. They are just beginning training the death investigators on this protocol in the first pilot jurisdiction: Las Vegas.”
 Personal correspondence by one of the authors with a direct family member who wishes to remain anonymous.
 Ann P. Haas, et al., “Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations,” Journal of Homosexuality 58, no. 1 (2010): 10–51.
 Examples include the mormonsandgays.org website as well as Elder Oaks’s October 2012 general conference address entitled “Protect the Children,” in which he stated: “Young people struggling with any exceptional condition, including same-gender attraction, are particularly vulnerable and need loving understanding—not bullying or ostracism."
 Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Mormon Church to Exclude Children of Same-Sex Couples from Getting Blessed and Baptized until They Are 18,” The Washington Post, Nov. 6, 2015.
 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormon gay policy is the ‘will of the Lord’ through his prophet, senior apostle says,” Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 10, 2016.
 Personal correspondence between Lori Burkman and the authors, Feb. 2016.
 Laurie Goodstein, “Utah Passes Antidiscrimination Bill Backed by Mormon Leaders,” The New York Times, Mar. 12, 2015.
 Jennifer Dobner, “Senate Kills Hate-Crimes Bill; LGBT Advocates Blame Mormon Church,” Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 2, 2016.
 See Haas, et al., “Suicide and Suicide Risk.”
 Mark Joseph Stern, “The Tragic Results of the Mormon Church’s New Policy Against Gay Members,” Slate, Feb. 8, 2016; Mitch Mayne, “New Mormon LGBT Policy: Putting Already Vulnerable Youth at Even Greater Suicide Risk?,” Huffington Post, Jan. 28, 2016; Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Suicide Fears, If Not Actual Suicides, Rise in Wake of Mormon Same-Sex Policy,” Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 28, 2016.
 See for example Stack, “Suicide Fears”; Tad Walch and Lois M. Collins, “LDS Church Leaders Mourn Reported Deaths in Mormon LGBT Community,” Deseret News, Jan. 28, 2016.
 Stack, “Suicide Fears.”
 See reportingonsuicide.org and lgbtmap.org.[post_title] => The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis: Responding to the Empirical Research on Suicide [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 49.2 (Summer 2016): 1–24
The November 2015 LDS handbook policy change that identified mem- bers who participate in same-sex marriages as “apostates” and forbade children in their households from receiving baby blessings or baptisms sparked ongoing attention to the topic of LGBTQ Mormon well-being, mental health, and suicides. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => the-lgbtq-mormon-crisis-responding-to-the-empirical-research-on-suicide [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-08-05 16:01:22 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-08-05 16:01:22 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=18896 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology
Dialogue 44.4 (Winter 2011): 106–141
From Editor Taylor Petrey: “Toward a Post-heterosexual Mormon Theology” was actually the first major article I ever published. I did not know what to expect, but it ended up being a widely discussed piece, accessed tens of thousands of times. To this day I still receive notes of appreciation for this article.
Whatsoever you seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever you bind on earth, in my name and by my word, saith the Lord, it shall be eternally bound in the heavens.D&C 132:46
The issue of homosexual relationships is among the most public struggles facing religious groups in America today. The issue is not as simple as gay people versus religious groups, as rhetoric on either side often suggests; but it has become increasingly apparent that there is significant overlap of people who identify both as homosexual and religious. Mormon writing on homosexuality often has had a pastoral character, aimed either at easing the transition for those seeking to leave the Church or smoothing the way for those who desire to remain within it. Those who have thought to advocate change with the LDS Church and culture have focused primarily on “attitudes” toward homosexuality encouraging “understanding and tolerance for homosexual people.” Too often this discussion of homosexuality has focused on either its etiology, or its relationship to the will, though neither the appeal to nature nor nurture resolves the question of ethics and meaning.
Alan Michael Williams suggests that the question that Latter-day Saints must face is “how the Mormon ‘family’ can continue to make sense soteriologically when it does not represent the diversity of American families.” Williams’s question is ultimately a social one—about a soteriology “making sense” in the context of an America where Mormon notions of family look increasingly anachronistic. For Latter-day Saints, the question is not simply a social one, but a theological problem of soteriological significance. The theological and theoretical work that may serve as a basis for reimagining the practices of the Church with respect to homosexual relationships has yet to begin with any seriousness.
What follows is a thought experiment on the question of how Mormons might imagine different kinds of sealing relationships other than heterosexual marriage. Such an experiment neither constitutes Church doctrine nor intends to advocate itself as Church doctrine. Rather, this essay provides an occasion to think critically about the intellectual and theological problems posed by the reality of alternative relationships outside of heterosexual norms. This essay treats the theological resources that can account for and make legible particular kinds of homosexual relationships within Mormonism. I use the term “homosexual relationships” to describe the particular dilemma for Mormon thought. Though contemporary Mormon discourse distinguishes between homosexual desires and sexual practices, permitting the former but rejecting the latter, both desires and practices obscure relationships as a dimension of homosexual experiences.
The opacity of the term “homosexuality” and its multiple and limiting meanings make it particularly unhelpful. The artificiality and historical contingency of our terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” to describe “species” of persons is problematic for thinking socially and theologically. Given that Mormonism imagines ideal heterosexuality, not as desires or practices, but as eternal relationships, could this same framework help us to reimagine the permissibility of homosexual relationships within Mormonism?
The LDS theological focus on marriage is not reducible to “sexuality” since there are many circumstances in which marriages may be entirely celibate, such as the case of physical incapacitation. Nor should we reduce homosexual relationships to “sexuality,” since such an equation also distorts not only the actual practice of such relationships but is inconsistent with our own understanding of the salvific character of relationships per se—not the details of sexual practices performed within those relationships.
Any attempt to think creatively and theologically within Mormonism to reconcile the tension between the LDS Church and those who identify as homosexual must investigate the ideologies and theologies that inform the current tension. Some may feel that no reconciliation is possible, that LDS teachings cannot and should not accept homosexual relationships as intelligible. This position is certainly viable, though it requires defense rather than simply repetition and assertion. We are forced to diagnose either way what is problematic with homosexual relationships according to current LDS theology.
As I understand it, much of the theological objection to homosexual relationships lies in current LDS understandings of the afterlife and the kinds of relationships that will exist there. First, these relationships are frequently understood to be reproductive relationships, at least among those who occupy the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. Second, the ordinance of sealing binds these reproductive families together, sealing only those who can presumably reproduce either in this life or the next. Finally, the heterosexual pairs of men and women should possess the proper “gender,” which is eternal. Homosexual relationships cannot be eternal because they are not able to reproduce by means of natural biological methods and confuse the natural gender they should possess. I will address these claims in order to suggest how it may be possible to imagine sealed homosexual relationships as compatible with key doctrines of Mormonism.
The belief in divine reproduction constitutes a central tenet for many Mormons, in spite of its rather thin canonical support. Even defining what exactly is meant by this belief in divine reproduction can be particularly unclear. At issue is determining exactly what is meant by the belief that human beings are a “spirit son or daughter of Heavenly Parents.” For instance, in a recent essay exploring “common ground” between womanist theology and LDS theology, professors of political science at Brigham Young University Valerie M. Hudson and Alma Don Sorenson asserted: “The primary work of God is to have children and nurture them into godhood.” In a clarifying footnote, the authors backed away from this bold statement with the significant caveat: “Actually, have is not the right word here. In LDS theology, God does not create intelligence; rather, God organizes intelligences to the point that they can be called God’s children, a process that is known as ‘spirit birth.’” The ambivalence on this point is a persistent tension in Mormon thought. That is, the doctrine of spiritual birth stands at odds with the doctrine of eternal intelligences, and to this day Mormonism has not resolved this tension. On the one hand, “spirit birth” is a divine reproduction that mirrors human reproduction, requiring a male and female partner; and on the other hand, “spirit birth” is a more metaphorical “organization” that bears little resemblance to reproduction as a result of sexual intercourse. The former model of spirit birth depends on a heterosexual pair (at least if divine bodies are biologically constrained without access to the kinds of technologies human bodies may benefit from) and is often used as the prototype for the heterosexual family, as the authors quoted above argue. The latter model of spirit birth, however, requires nothing in particular about the sexual or reproductive acts of God, whose organization of spirits likely has little to do with the reproductive organs he or she (or his or her partner) might have.
This doctrine of spirit birth faces a few significant challenges. In Doctrine and Covenants 93—and repeated in many other of Joseph Smith’s speeches, translations, and revelations—individual human identity is thought of as eternal, perhaps in explicit disagreement with the doctrine of spirit birth as it was developing among some of his disciples in 1843–44. The doctrine of spirit birth seeks to reconcile itself with this doctrine of eternal intelligences by positing a four-fold progressive anthropology: from intelligence, to spirit, to mortal body, and finally to a glorified body. In this view, Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother may not be the “parents” of intelligences, but are parents of spirits—in some sense having given “birth” to them. Advocates of “spirit birth” based on heterosexual reproduction generally insist that it is similar, if not identical, to the birth of mortal bodies. As it is frequently imagined, the process of male-female mutual divinization entails not only a sexual relationship, but also a reproductive one in order to populate future worlds. Such a notion may be tied to the promises of eternal increase, “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever” (D&C 132:19) in the revelation given on celestial marriage. In this view of the marital relationship, mixed-sex couples are eternally engaged in the reproduction of spirit children.
While articulating the spirit birth process as providing the intelligence with a spirit in a way analogous to how mortal birth provides the spirit with a physical body, the analogy is strained to the point of breaking. If reproduction as we know it now offers a model for heavenly reproduction so as to exclude homosexual relationships by definition, then must we imagine that male gods deposit sperm in the bodies of female gods (who menstruate monthly when they are not pregnant), that the pregnant female god gestates spirit embryos for nine months and then gives birth to spirit bodies? While some LDS thinkers imagine an eternally pregnant Heavenly Mother, I see no reason why we must commit to this kind of literal pregnancy as the reason for divine female figures. In mortal birth, parents with bodies provide lower-stage spirits with bodies in order to bring them to the same level. However, in this view of spirit birth, divinized parents provide intelligences with spirits, two levels below their own stage of progression. Mortal bodies give birth to equal mortal bodies, yet in this understanding of spirit birth, glorified bodies give birth to inferior spirit bodies. There is no equivalency between the two understandings of birth because they accomplish very different things in very different circumstances.
What would it mean for homosexual relationships if we were to substitute the tentative doctrine of literal divine reproduction for other models of “birth”? For instance, the process of “birth” is not used to describe each of the series of progression from intelligence to spirit to mortal body to resurrection. Resurrected bodies need not be born from resurrected beings but are organized from matter. We need not consider that spirit bodies must be literally born but may be “organized” in an analogous way to the resurrection. Even the model of baptism, which marks a spiritual rebirth, may be thought of as a model for how spirit children are born to divinized parents. In such models, biological reproduction is not needed to explain celestial parentage. Such ideas are certainly not the logical consequence of the notion of divine embodiment.
The issue of God’s embodiment is not as clear cut as it may initially appear. While we recognize continuity in appearance and even substance with the future exalted body, we also acknowledge that it is quite different. As Blake Ostler explains, “The sense in which the Father’s body is like a human body must be qualified.” For instance, a divine body is not constrained by space and time in the ways that mortal bodies are. From scriptural accounts, divine bodies can appear, disappear, pass through walls, and resist entropy. While these scriptural accounts affirm that it is possible for divine bodies to perform functions such as eating and drinking, they also suggest that there is no necessary requirement that they do so in order to sustain life. Why then, do we imagine that sexual union as we know it in mortality is a necessary function for the production of life in divine bodies if these bodies are so dissimilar in every other way from mortal bodies? Could not sexual union be a possibility for divine bodies but not be a necessity for creation, just as alimentary functions may be possible but not necessary?
In addition to the resurrection, the creation provides a better model for thinking about how this “spirit birth” might occur than the process of mortal parturition. In both the canonical and ritual accounts of creation, women are entirely absent. Creation of the earth, organization of the elements, and even the creation of the living bodies of Adam and Eve all occur without the presence of female figures. The creation as we know it is capable of being performed with an all-male cast. This has the effect of not only making women superfluous to creation and salvation, but also of putting a male-male relationship as the source of creativity, productivity, and the giving of life itself.
The story of Adam and Eve in LDS scripture and ritual is often cited as the example of divinely authorized heterosexuality. Yet the creation of both Adam and Eve does not in any way affirm heterosexual reproduction as the method of divine creation either spiritually or materially. Indeed, creation according to God’s “word” is attested in all scriptural accounts available to Latter-day Saints (Gen 1–2; Moses 2–3; Abr. 4–5). Adam’s body is formed “from the dust of the ground . . . but spiritually they were created and made according to my word” (Moses 3:7). Both spiritual and material formation takes place without any sexual union. Furthermore, males alone perform the creation of Adam’s body. Even Eve is “reproduced” from a male body with the help of other males. The Lord penetrates the body of Adam and creates Eve. The capacity for Adam’s body to reproduce by means of another male provides scriptural precedent in the foundational story of humanity to the variety of possibilities available for Latter-day Saints to conceive of reproduction independent of heterosexual union.
Jesus’s birth from Mary may also provide a way of thinking about the process of giving birth that does not involve heterosexual union. While the male-male creation and male-female creation may be found in Mormon thought already, perhaps the model of the virgin birth—of female pregnancy without male penetration—could serve as an example of how female-female relationships might reproduce with only minimal assistance of a male participant, like the sperm donor for the modern female-female reproductive relationship. Though some early speculation in LDS thought suggested that God the Father did have sex with Mary, Mary’s virginity has been affirmed in official LDS doctrine. Rather than seeing the conception of Jesus as a wholly exceptional event, James E. Talmage has suggested that this method of procreation was, “not in violation of natural law, but in accordance with a higher manifestation thereof.” While with Adam we have seen that male bodies may reproduce on their own, or with the help of another male, with Mary we see that female bodies may also reproduce without sexual intercourse. Or perhaps even the model of Adam reproducing Eve parthenogenically might also be a capacity of divine female bodies. Both scriptural accounts offer models of divine creation and reproduction not based on heterosexual union.
Though we have models of reproduction and creation that might suggest their possibility for same-sex partners, we Latter-day Saints face another theological question: Are creation and salvation male-only priesthood activities? The possibility of reproduction in the female-female relationship does not address the centrality of the male-only priesthood in LDS thought. A male-only priesthood represents a significant limitation for female-female relationships, linking the exclusion of women from exercising priesthood power and authority to the exclusion of women’s homosexual relationships. The fact that males can hold the priesthood allows the possibility for male-only creative relationships (like the male members of the Godhead) since priesthood may be held and exercised entirely independent of women in LDS practice. But if women do not have access to the priesthood—whatever we may mean by that term—, would they not be able to create without men? The autonomy afforded to males to create in Mormon tradition comes at the expense of females.
Historical precedents of women healing and blessing notwithstanding, most of the functions of the priesthood have not been exercised by women. Further, promises to women that they would be given the priesthood (or in some sense share it) were conditional on their relationship to their husband. Feminist concerns about the ability of men to act independently in the Church, while women are subject to male partnership as a prerequisite for their actions, are magnified in the consideration for female-female relationships. We may need to rethink women’s dependent status with respect to the priesthood in tandem with rethinking the possibility of homosexual relationships. Thinking through what the priesthood means in an eternal context—which would presumably not include things like the authority to ordain officers, bless the sick, administer sacraments and other administrative or temporally bounded notions of priesthood authority—is an essential task for thinking about whether women might be excluded from the eternal priesthood activities of creating and saving.
If divine creation and reproduction cannot be used to exclude the possibility of nonheterosexual relationships in LDS theology, what about mortal reproduction? How can the command to “multiply and replenish” the earth be fulfilled (Gen 1:27)? In the context of the Church’s endorsement of ballot initiatives in several states to define marriage as between a man and a woman in the 2008 elections, the Church explained its interest in the issue in a document called “The Divine Institution of Marriage” that appeared in the online LDS Newsroom on August 13, 2008. The issue of producing children is presented as a central reason for defining marriage as a heterosexual institution. Its authors reason, “Only a man and a woman together have the natural biological capacity to conceive children.” This argument is repeated later, stating that marriage is “legally protected because only a male and female together can create new life, and because the rearing of children requires a life-long commitment, which marriage is intended to provide.” Marriage should be restricted to mixed-sex couples because “marriage and family are vital instruments for rearing children and teaching them to become responsible adults.”
While from a public policy perspective the Church asserts the necessary link between marriage and procreation, in practice having children is neither a requirement for Latter-day Saint marriages after they have been sealed, nor is the ability to have children a prerequisite for sealing. Neither marriage nor sex is thought of in exclusively procreationist terms. While LDS teaching may consider procreation a religious desideratum, it cannot and should not be a reason to exclude someone from receiving the blessings of sealing, especially if afterlife creation has nothing to do with mortal procreation. There is no requirement or expectation of natural fertility to qualify for marriages, even sealings, in Latter-day Saint practice. There is no reason to exclude nonreproductive couples from the blessings of sealing on the basis of reproductive capacity alone. But this lack of capacity to reproduce in no way diminishes the responsibility to provide for and rear children. Indeed, the wording of this obligation to rear children is not connected to reproductive capacity at all, but rather to the obligations that able couples have to provide children, by means of adoption or other forms of reproduction technology available today, with the education and formation to become responsible adults. Further, it is certainly the case that it is, in fact, possible for nonheterosexual couples to take care of children, either their own from previous relationships, through medical assistance, or by means of adoption. The authoritative teaching that families should care for and rear children into responsible adults suffers no harm if we continue to teach that all families, heterosexual or not, take this as a religious responsibility.
Sealings as Kinship
The LDS rite of sealing is currently practiced as a means of authorizing relationships between heterosexual couples and their children. Past and present practices of sealings also point to ways that we might reconceive of sealing as untethered from the heterosexual biological family. I suggest that the practice of sealing is about ritually producing kinship relations that are not reducible to reproductive couples and bloodlines. Kinship may be defined as the practices of ritually marking relationships of care, trust, and bonding that are greater than friendship or community. That is to say, there are not predetermined relationships that count as kinship, but rather kinship emerges as a special kind of relationship within society. Sexual and reproductive relationships are one way that human societies practice kinship, but by no means the only way. Indeed, the biological basis for kinship is neither universal in human society, nor is it the only way that Latter-day Saints think about kinship. Rather, kinship is a way of making the biological results of sexual reproduction meaningful. Judith Butler suggests, “Kinship is itself a kind of doing, a practice that enacts that assemblage of significations as it takes place. . . .[T]hat norm acquires its durability by being reinstated time and again.” In this understanding, reproduction acquires the significance of kinship rather than being constitutive of it.
Studies of kinship over the last century have emphasized its central role in human society. Psychoanalytic, functionalist, and structuralist analyses of kinship suggested that it was the key to the development of subjectivity and to the very existence of civilization itself. The LDS teaching that “the family is the fundamental unit of society” owes its debt to this modern cultural assumption. The hypothesis that kinship structures require a father and a mother is a feature of some twentieth-century theorists’ work on kinship. This view, built on the Oedipal drama, assumes that the subject comes into being and culture by passing through this privileged social structure. This argument is implicitly used to justify the insistence upon both a father and a mother in “The Divine Institution of Marriage.” In this claim, the relations between the sexes gain significance only through reproduction, which marks reproduction as the foundational element in kinship. The problem is not simply the insistence that heterosexual kinship guarantees the continued transmission of culture, but that the argument is more often that culture must guarantee the continued transmission of heterosexuality.
Recent anthropological work has challenged the assumption that broader models of kinship are identical structurally (father-mother-child) to the modern Western nuclear family. The topic specifically at issue here is whether nonheterosexual kinship may qualify as a recognizable form of kinship. Certainly, there are numerous forms of kinship that do not conform to the reproductive heterosexual family organized by legal marriage. This model for defining kinship does not coincide with the way that kinship relations are established in African American, gay and lesbian, and some rural Chinese cultures, at the very least. Such post-kinship studies denaturalize the biological family as the basis of kinship and complement alternative ways of ordering society.
LDS sealings for nonheterosexual relationships could offer a set of regularizing terms under which such existing social relationships are ritually legitimized. For the Church to acknowledge nonheterosexual unions would be to acknowledge what already happens in practice—namely, that homosexual relationships of care and commitment, including the raising of children, exist. As it stands, the Church legitimizes heterosexual marriage as the only acknowledged way of marking kinship. To expand this definition is not to authorize any and all practices. Rather, same-sex marriage is really modeled on heterosexual practices of establishing legitimacy by means of long-term relationships of filiation. Homosexual activists have not universally accepted this project of privileging state-authorized marriage as the only way of establishing kinship. Indeed, many see gay marriage as a profoundly conservative means of filiation. For the Church to accept gay marriage would be to continue to privilege certain kinds of kinship over others, excluding certain sexual and relational possibilities. The relevant questions for sealing nonheterosexual couples are not the legal issues that link health care, hospital visitation, and tax benefits to marital status. For Latter-day Saints, the sense of purpose and divine partnership, as well as spiritual safeguards and consolation in life and death that sealings endow, are blessings that might apply to kinship relationships beyond the heterosexual, reproductive family.
These broader understandings of kinship practices not only serve as a better anthropological model for the multiplicity of culture, including modern Western culture, but also better explain historical precedents of the LDS sealing ritual, which similarly created kinship in nonreproductive relationships. Though discontinued by President Wilford Woodruff in 1894, many men and women (most often married couples) were sealed to prominent nineteenth-century Church leaders through the “law of adoption” regardless of blood or reproductive relationships. Prior to the Woodruff reform, the adoption sealing was intentionally a means of establishing new kinds of kinships other than familial-reproductive, though utilizing the vocabulary of the family. As Samuel Brown explains, “The Mormon heaven was emphatically not the Victorian hearth of the increasingly popular domestic heaven. . . . Smith’s heaven consisted of one boundless family of eternal intelligences.” The practice of “adoption,” in which men and their families were sealed to other men and their families points to alternative ways of establishing kinship. Instead of sealing genealogical chains, this system of kinship connected new social units of nonbiological families with the ultimate goal of uniting all of humanity into one sacred network. In Orson Hyde’s “Diagram of the Kingdom of God,” he envisions the universal family tree made up of different branches with prophets at the head of each branch. To each prophet is sealed large kingdoms. From each of these branches extend still smaller branches, with even smaller branchings from them. Hyde describes how, in this patriarchal order, “every man will be given a kingdom and dominion, according to his merit, powers, and abilities. . . . There are kingdoms of all sizes, an infinite variety to suit all grades of merit and ability.” This sense of rulership is not meant to suggest that the prophets are the literal fathers of the greatest number of people, but rather that, because of righteousness (not fecundity), their kingdoms are the greatest. In Parley P. Pratt’s terms, the “royal family” is one singular family that consists of “friends and kindred.” This bond is not forged by a genealogical link, but by the sealing itself. As Joseph Smith proclaimed in the King Follett Discourse, “Use a little Craftiness & seal all you can & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven.”
It wasn’t until after Woodruff’s temple reforms that proxy temple sealings were administered for deceased ancestors, including those who had rejected the faith in mortality. In 1894, the Utah Genealogical Society was formed as a response to this new interest in proxy temple work made possible by the new revelation and policy shift. Woodruff explained the new practice which reversed the previous ban on sealing children to deceased parents: “The Lord has told me that it is right for children to be sealed to their parents, and they to their parents just as far back as we can possibly obtain the records, and then have the last obtainable member sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith.” This new practice centered on biological families, but also relied on the earlier notion of kingdoms, with Joseph Smith as the adoptive father of this dispensation. In time, the notion of dispensational kingdoms would recede ever more behind kingdoms based on individual lineage, thus paving the way for the contemporary emphasis on the nuclear family. The new proxy sealings of married couples reduced the need for proxy adoption and also introduced greater flexibility in who could be sealed to whom, allowing for those who hadn’t been members of the Church in mortality to be sealed posthumously to living spouses or for ancestors to be sealed to one another. Less emphasis was placed on getting the earthly sealings absolutely correct, shifting the ultimate decisions about validity of a sealing from earthly ordinances to justice in the afterlife, noting that there “all will be made right.” More important than making sure that one was sealed to a righteous person was performing the sealing itself.
One need not return to this earlier notion of the sealing as kinship for examples of nonreproductive or biological relationships but may rather explore the misrecognition of how the ritual is practiced today to link nonreproductive or biological kin. The clearest example is the current understanding of the theology of LDS adoption after the reformation of the adoption practices in the late nineteenth century. The case of nineteenth-century adoptions as a practice of establishing kinship in ways that are not biologically based poses a challenge to the assumption that biology is the basis of kinship.
Anthropologists have traditionally distinguished between “true” and “fictive” kinship, though this distinction rests on an assumption that privileges the biological relationship regardless of how families themselves treat such children. But the assumption that parents have a different relationship to biological than to “fictive” kin fails to account for how kinship may be extended at all. It is, of course, often the case that families make no distinction between biological and adoptive children and, indeed, often reject the premises of the distinction. In LDS practice, nonbiological children are ritually incorporated into a new kinship structure by means of the sealing following legal adoption.
Perhaps one might suggest in anthropological terms that the LDS sealings of legally adopted children do mark adoptive kin as separate from those “born in the covenant.” The ritual itself certainly marks the crossing of a boundary, but the point is that, after the ritual, there is no meaningful distinction between biological and adoptive kin. In fact, though incredibly rare, it is possible that even those who were “born in the covenant” may be sealed anew to adoptive parents. Rather than consider the biological child who has been born within a LDS kinship structure as already covered by the blessings of sealing a priori, it is possible for this child’s sealing to take place in the adoptive family. Here, the sealing ritually marks how the kinship structure takes precedence over and replaces the biological family.
The case of divorce and the cancellation of sealings further reinforces the principle that biology is less important than the sealing itself. President Ezra Taft Benson explained that the children of parents whose sealing was cancelled “are entitled to birthright blessings, and if they remain worthy, are assured the right and privilege of eternal parentage regardless of what happens to their natural parents or the parents to whom they were sealed.” Benson’s view here represents a continuation of the reforms under Woodruff that emphasized the sealing itself as important, not necessarily to whom one is sealed. Further, it distinguishes biological kin from the blessings of kinship through sealing, promising kin on the basis of the sealing even if biological kin cannot fulfill that role.
When kinship replaces reproduction in the logic of the sealing, we may consider how alternative relationships of care, modeled on, but not identical to parent-child and husband-wife, as well as those not yet regularized or named, offer a better model for understanding both the purpose and possibilities of the sealed relationship, whether those sealings entail a sexual relationship between partners or not. Mormon models of kinship, both past and present, displace and replace the biological and the sexual relationship as markers of kinship, suggesting alternative modes and models for establishing such relationships. The heteronormative notion of family neither corresponds to a universal ideal nor reflects the actual practice of kinship among Latter-day Saints. Understanding sealings as ritually marking and normalizing relationships as kinship offers a more accurate understanding of how sealings have been practiced and are practiced today, as well as how they may be practiced at some future time.
The concept of “gender” remains an important term in LDS discourse about homosexuality and is a necessary site of critical inquiry. The question of homosexual relationships is intimately bound up in conceptualizations of gender differences. The semi-canonical 1995 document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (hereafter “Proclamation”) announces: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” The notion of an eternally persistent gender functions to regulate normative behavior that is believed to correspond to the attributes of an eternally “gendered” subject. “The Divine Institution of Marriage” suggests that same-sex marriage causes “gender confusion,” with the result that “the rising generation of children and youth will find it increasingly difficult to develop their natural identity as a man or a woman.” It further asserts that there are “inherent differences between the genders.” The appeal to a “natural” and “inherent” sexual identity that is at risk of being “confused” presumes a certain kind of sexual difference rooted in heterosexuality. LDS concepts of gender difference are as much about rejecting homosexuality as they are about ordering the relationship between men and women. It is necessary to address the ideas of incommensurable “genders” as the basis of heterosexual priority in the Church.
What exactly is meant by the term “gender” in LDS discourse? Since second-wave feminism divided biological “sex,” meaning male and female bodies, from socially constructed “gender,” meaning culturally assigned social roles, the sex/gender distinction has had a great impact on how the term “gender” is understood in American society. Yet in my reading of LDS statements on the subject, this distinction is not operative, and significant attention to defining the term is absent. The term “gender” seems to be deployed without a single definition of what is meant, leaving the broadest possible semantic range.
Gender as a category is variously applied to cover three separate aspects of human identity, though they are often conflated under this single term. As one example, an official LDS booklet A Parent’s Guide published in 1985 explains: “Gender identity involves an understanding and accepting of one’s own gender, with little reference to others; one’s gender roles usually focus upon the social interaction associated with being male or female.” Parsing this definition reveals that first, gender refers to the morphological bodies of males and females—what is taken to be self-evidently “one’s own gender.” Second, gender refers to an “identity” that males and females are supposed to possess that corresponds with their bodies, including heterosexual desires. Third, gender refers to the differing “roles,” purposes, and responsibilities that some Church leaders understand to be assigned to males and females. These three definitions refer to quite different things, which makes it difficult to know how exactly the term is used in different contexts. When one adds the idea of gender as an eternal characteristic, these three definitions become even more complicated. I will examine each of these three notions of “gender” as they might serve as an objection to homosexual relationships.
First, “gender” is understood to refer exclusively to the morphological differences between bodies labeled “male” and “female.” In this sense, “gender” is a synonym for “sex,” the identifiable bodily characteristics of maleness and femaleness. If we restrict the understanding of “gender” to mean simply bodily difference, it is not clear that homosexual relationships would be impacted at all. Homosexual relationships do not interfere with this minimal definition of “gender,” since male and female bodies persist as such in these relationships. Nonheterosexual relationships, it would seem, do not require a changed belief in an eternal “gender” at all, as long as “gender” is understood to refer exclusively to bodily morphology. In the same way that the sex/gender distinction was deployed by second-wave feminists to argue for a fixed notion of different sexes, while suggesting that the way those differences were given meaning in culture were changeable, one could argue that homosexual relationships also affirm a fixed, eternal notion of sex, while seeing the particular configurations of relationships as variable.
Yet we might be wary of conceding this point too quickly. The notion of a morphological binary system of “sex” rooted in “nature” serves as an attempt to naturalize a particular division. Monique Wittig has argued, “The categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ . . . are political categories and not natural givens.” The notion that sexual difference is political, rather than natural, suggests that the emphasis on the mark of sexual difference as reproductive capacity is rooted in the social and political world, even while appealing to “nature” as an outside authority.
In this way, a theory of sexual difference that claims to be rooted in “nature” is always already heterosexual, thus concealing its political import. One must be aware that the binary division between male and female, taken to be on the order of not only nature, but also God’s will, has as its goal the sanctification of heterosexual sex. There must be strict gendered correspondence between a spirit and a body, it is believed, because of God’s providence over creation. This view of the premortal gendered spirit is often put to use against transsexuality and intersexuality.
The problem with this view arises in explaining not only the real experiences of transsexual persons, but also the existence of intersexed persons whose bodies resist categorization in the gender binary. Anne Fausto-Sterling has suggested that as many as five “sexes” occur in nature. The idea of a natural or inherent binary sexual difference in LDS discourse makes a legible “sex” the prerequisite to personhood, rendering the differently sexed “accidents of nature” illegible as children of God and divine potentials.
The notion of an eternal gender, referring to physical differences alone, also faces significant theological problems. If gender is “an essential individual characteristic of premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” then presumably the premortal spirit of each individual necessarily corresponds in appearance to the body it inhabits as a kind of facsimile. The challenge with such a view is in saying what kinds of bodily characteristics correspond to one’s preexistent spirit. What is the relationship between one’s eternal identity and one’s contingent genetic makeup, including “sex”? What are the characteristics that make up a morphological sex? Is it just the genitals, or are premortal bodies also capable of reproduction? Do things like performed gender differences, relative height and weight, chemistry, hormones, and muscle build also factor into what makes the “genders” eternally different? Do premortal spirits have chromosomes? What defines physical “gender” that it can persist eternally?
The whole question of the relationship of the premortal spirit to the mortal body is at stake in the claim that “gender” belongs to both equally. If any of the particularities of one’s genetic and environmental circumstances may be said to not preexist with a particular spirit in a deterministic way, why then is sexual difference the exception? To assert that “gender” is more fundamental to one’s identity than these other contingent features begs the question: Of the many different features of human identity, why does sexual difference—whatever that may refer to—occupy a privileged place in the account of the eternal nature of the human being?
In the second understanding of “gender,” the term refers not only to particular bodies, but also to an “identity” that is supposed to match to those bodies. What is meant by “identity,” and on what grounds is it done correctly or incorrectly? Gender identity is the relationship between sex, gender, and desire; and it is done correctly when all three align according to heterosexual norms. Early twentieth-century discourse about homosexuality thought of it in terms of pathological gendered “inversion,” suggesting that men and women who engaged in homosexual activity mistook their proper sexual identity as a result of confused social roles.
Current LDS discourse uses the term “gender confusion” to speak about homosexuality. Here, the stereotypical notion of male homosexuals as effeminate and female homosexuals as masculine functions to explain homosexuality. A correct gender identity can only be thought of in terms of heterosexuality. In this discourse, the transsexual and homosexual are indistinct since both have identified with a “sex” or “desire” that does not correspond correctly to their body. Such “identities” are rendered failures—or even impossible—in a framework that recognizes only some identities and is the impetus behind the pathologization of nonconforming gender identities.
Church teachings assert two ideas about gender identity that are in significant tension: first, that gender is an eternal, immutable aspect of one’s existence; and second, that notions of gender identity and roles are so contingent that they must be constantly enforced and taught, especially to young children. To say that one “is” a particular gender by virtue of that individual’s body and also that one’s disposition or identity is of that gender suggests that, in the latter case, gender is not a question of ontology but of achievement. “The Divine Institution of Marriage” manifests this tension by appealing to an “inherent . . . natural identity” with respect to gender, but also positing that nature is so unstable as to require heterosexual marriage to make sure that it can “develop.” In this understanding, male and female “identity” is not secured by the possession of a male or female body alone but must be enforced and made legible as “male” or “female” through practices like heterosexuality. As Douglas A. Abbot and A. Dean Byrd put it, heterosexuality must be “encouraged” in children in order for it to take.
But gender “identity” cannot be both inherent and taught. The contingency of “gender identity” here reveals that it is not, in fact, “natural” at all but rather must be maintained and enforced juridically. Gender is constantly at risk of failing to correspond to the sexed body. As Judith Butler explains, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” The idea that gender is performed, not possessed, reveals just how unstable it is as a category for defining people. Such a view—that gender is something that develops, or is achieved—suggests that there is no true or false gender, nor one that coheres with a precultural “nature.”
The use of the category of “gender” to describe one’s desires and sexual practices has been heavily discredited over the last several decades. Rather, given the vast variability of gender “identities” of culturally recognized “masculine” or “feminine” traits among those who identify as either heterosexual or homosexual, the assumption that any given gender performance corresponds to a particular object of desire is entirely contingent. The old binary categories of hetero and homosexuals—with the caveat of bisexuals—does little to capture the wide variety of gender performance and sexual preference. The experiences of transexuals, transgender, drag, intersexuality, and the variety of gender performances in gay, lesbian, and straight cultures are not adequately understood through the category of gender as a system that matches “masculine” and “feminine” sexual desires to “male” and “female” bodies. The history of this categorization of sexual preferences in connection with gender relies on the same heterosexual matrix that it attempts to explain. Gender simply fails as a category for thinking about sexuality, and LDS discourse should move beyond such an infelicitous conflation.
The third understanding of “gender” in LDS discourse sees it as more than bodies and identity, but also as comprising roles—or as the “Proclamation” puts it, “eternal identity and purpose.” Gendered “purposes” or roles are laid out in the document: “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.” Earlier teachings of Church leaders suggested an even more expansive notion of gender roles that included prescribed ways of dressing and acting so as to appear properly male or female. Like gender identity, gender roles must also be taught to children in order for them to be carried on. This notion of “gender” as roles operates as a critique of homosexual relationships because at least one “confused” partner fails to conform to his or her “proper” gendered identity as masculine or feminine. Such a view of gendered roles may not include any assumed correspondence to capacity, but rather to responsibilities which each gender is meant to assume.
This view may be used to object to homosexual relationships because such relationships may include one or both same-sex parents as subverting the role assigned to their “gender.” In this sense, “gender confusion” is the result, not of the presence of both “masculine” and “feminine” parents, but the failure of these traits to be possessed by men and women respectively. The notion that women are more innately caring and nurturing reinforces the instruction for women to reproduce and be the primary care-givers of their children. In recent LDS discourse, the title “mother” does not refer to a period in a woman’s life, one particular aspect of how a woman’s identity may be performed, or a particular category of women who have children. This view was expressed in its most extreme form by Sheri Dew, speaking as second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, when she asserted that a “woman” is defined wholly as a “mother” since “motherhood is the essence of who we are as women.”
In spite of the emphasis that parents must act as both masculine and feminine (ideally by males and females, respectively), LDS discourse has increasingly emphasized “equality” in the marital relationship. The “Proclamation” teaches both that “fathers are to preside over their families” and that “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” The tension between these two positions—fathers presiding but both parents as “equal partners”—remains largely unresolved. Indeed, what it means to preside and what it means to be equal are left entirely unexplained. When differences are minimized between the sexes, Elder L. Tom Perry can say, “There is not a president and vice-president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family. . . . [T]hey lead, guide, and direct their family unit. They are on equal footing.” Yet while the rhetoric of equal partnership could and would apply to parents of the same sex, when it comes to the issue of “gender confusion” in homosexual relationships, the question of who presides is much more important than the fact that there is an equal partnership. The retention of earlier language about “presiding” alongside more modern emphasis on “equal partnership” reveals the necessity of hierarchical views of males and females in marriage as a necessary aspect of marking same-sex relationships as illegitimate.
The problem with an interpretation in which “gender” refers to roles is that it cannot explain what these roles might be in premortal and postmortal life. The current Relief Society general president, Julie B. Beck, asserts: “Female roles did not begin on earth, and they do not end here. A woman who treasures motherhood on earth will treasure motherhood in the world to come.” Here, a woman’s eternal role is defined as “treasuring motherhood.” Motherhood is connected explicitly to mortal and postmortal realms, perhaps referencing the belief that divinized women will perform the same reproductive functions of “motherhood” as defined by mortal bodies. However, she avoids exploring how motherhood is understood as a “role” for premortal spirits, or even beyond birthing, the roles a Heavenly Mother might expect to perform in postmortality.
These predefined roles apply to men as well. President Gordon B. Hinckley stated that women do not “resent the strong leadership of a man in the home” and that the man “becomes the provider, the defender, the counselor, the breadwinner and lends support and gives support when needed.” Yet in LDS discourse, Heavenly Father takes on the role of a single parent nurturing His children, while Heavenly Mother does little that could be called mothering from the perspective of mortal persons. If we accept a definition of “gender” that suggests that men’s role is being a “breadwinner” and women’s role is caring for children, cooking, cleaning, and other hallmarks of the twentieth-century American family division of labor, this understanding of gender is meaningless in an eternal realm.
Further, the problem with dehistoricizing modern American divisions of labor is that such divisions fail to describe “gender” historically and cross-culturally. Anthropologists and theorists have shown the variability of “sex roles,” showing not only the cultural, but also the historical, contingency of what is considered to be masculine and feminine, which is what precipitated the theoretical division between sex and gender in the first place. Even if one restricts gender roles to reproductive function, stripping away the divisions of household labor or access to public power as contigent features of mortal life, it is not clear that such roles could be construed as applying equally to the three phases of one’s eternal—premortal, mortal, and postmortal—life. The main problems for any theology that begins with a fixed notion of roles, gender binarism, or innate characteristics of what constitute masculine and feminine characteristics is that it rooted in a fantasmatic idealization of such differences rather than any universal instantiation.
Finally, I would like to address the frequent charge that homosexual relationships constitute gender “separatism.” Valerie Hudson has gone so far as to call same-sex relationships “gender apartheid.” The assertion faces a number of problems. In this understanding of same-sex relationships, the only meaningful and politically valuable mixed-sex interactions happen in marriages and procreation. But this assumption that nonheterosexuals cannot or will not engage in meaningful interactions with members of the opposite sex, including parents, siblings, children, co-workers, neighbors, and friends has no basis. The kinds of “separatist” feminist and gay and lesbian movements from earlier eras were more of a response to the injustice of patriarchal, heterosexual culture than a desire to cease all interaction with members of the opposite sex. If learning to interact with members of the opposite sex (or gender) really does hold a privileged position as a means to salvation over learning to master other kinds of relationships—such as those of different social, economic, racial, linguistic, national, or even religious backgrounds—there is no reason to suppose that same-sex companions cannot or would not develop those relationships. But the question of why mixed-sex relationships should be privileged above others must be seriously asked and explored.
At the turn of the twentieth century, as the Church began to embrace the new post-polygamy conception of families and formally ended the “law of adoption” as it had been practiced between adults, Wilford Woodruff prophetically suggested that there were more changes to come: “I have not felt satisfied, neither did President Taylor, neither has any man since the Prophet Joseph who has attended to the ordinance of adoption in the temples of our God. . . . [W]e still have more changes to make, in order to satisfy our Heavenly Father, satisfy our dead and ourselves. . . . [W]e have got to have more revelation concerning sealing under the law of adoption.” The possibility of creating theological space within Mormonism for homosexual relationships rests not on the abandonment of any central doctrine of the Church, but rather on the revival of past concepts, the recovery of embedded theological resources, and the rearticulation of existing ideas in more expansive terms in order to rethink the possibilities of celestial relationships. At the heart of this recovery is a displacement of biological reproduction as the sole way of imagining kinship as well as the model for celestial (pro)creation. In both cases, reproduction fails to offer a universal foundation for meaningful kinship relationships as well as being a doctrinally suspect account of divine relationships. Such a recovery project has the benefit not only of including homosexual relationships, but also of laying a more solid ground for nonreproductive heterosexual relationships and other forms of kinship.
The numerous critiques of the category of gender in recent years cannot be ignored, even if Latter-day Saints opt for a continued emphasis on binary sexual difference. Whether from the critique of gender roles, gender essentialist notions of innate characteristics, or even the notion of biological difference itself, LDS theology faces serious credibility issues by continuing to hold to precritical assumptions about sexual difference. At the same time, however, there is nothing preventing Latter-day Saints from moving past these assumptions in order to more clearly focus on Mormonism’s distinctive teachings about kinship and salvation, which does not require an appeal to the suspect category of gender at all. The unimportance of gender as a category for salvation is significantly affirmed in both ancient and modern scripture: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) and “he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God” (2 Ne. 26:33).
Or perhaps by appealing to the social basis of gender, rather than a supposed eternal standard, we may better make sense of its place and significance in our theological thinking. To admit the social basis of gender does not entail the elimination of gender, nor does it require a leveling of difference toward some androgynous ideal. Quite the opposite. Instead, we may see more of a proliferation of “genders,” released from the constraints of fantasies about a neat gender binary. Just as we do not imagine that only one (or two) races, body types, and hair colors are represented in the resurrection, we may also see a variety of “genders,” understood as either different kinds of bodies, different kinds of identities, and even different roles. We need not abandon the idea of “eternal gender,” but rather we can embrace the possibilities that it opens for us once freed from its artificial constraints. As one LDS manual puts it, backing away from its earlier claims about the fixed nature of gender: “There is nearly as much variation within each gender as there is between the genders. Each human being is unique. There is no one model except the Redeemer of all mankind. Development of a person’s gifts or interests is one of life’s most enjoyable experiences. No one should be denied such growth.” Perhaps LDS ritual and rhetoric may embrace this variation, including homosexual relationships in the blessings of growth offered by sealing.
 For an excellent set of scholarly essays addressing the claim that scripture and tradition prohibit same-sex unions in Christianity and Judaism, see Mark D. Jordan, Meghan T. Sweeney, and David M. Mellott, Authorizing Marriage?: Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006).
 Many of these works have appeared in the form of how-to guides for “overcoming” homosexual “problems.” In recent years, some works have appeared that seek to accept an LDS and homosexual identity side by side. See, for instance, Carol Lynn Pearson, No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay Loved Ones (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Pivot Point Books, 2007); and Fred Matis, Marilyn Matis, and Ty Mansfield, In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-Gender Attraction (Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, an imprint of Deseret Book, 2004).
 Lowell L. Bennion, “Foreword,” in Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation, edited by Ron Schow, Wayne Schow, and Marybeth Raynes (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991), xi.
 As an example, witness the discussion framing of the causality of sexuality as either a genetic question or a question of social conditioning in William S. Bradshaw, “Short Shrift to the Facts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 171–91.
 Alan Michael Williams, “Mormon and Queer at the Crossroads,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 75.
 Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (New York: Dutton, 1995); David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990), 15–40.
 On the degrees of the celestial kingdom, see D&C 131:1–4. Though “celestial marriage” was a synonym for polygamous marriage in the early LDS Church, today it refers exclusively to any marriage sealed in a temple.
 Valerie M. Hudson and Alma Don Sorenson, “Response to Professor [Linda E.] Thomas [on Womanist Theology],” in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies, edited by Donald W. Musser and David L. Paulsen (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2007), 327.
 Blake T. Ostler, “The Idea of Preexistence in Mormon Thought,” in Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, edited by Gary James Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 141.
 D&C 93:29–33: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. . . . For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy.” Hale notes, “While it seems certain that Smith taught that gods procreate, he did not specify that their offspring are necessarily spirits. And it is equally unclear if the alternative possibility, that the offspring of the gods are physical children, would be any more plausible in the prophet’s thinking.” Van Hale, “The Origin of the Human Spirit,” in Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, edited by Gary James Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 122.
 Linda P. Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” in Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, edited by Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 3–21.
 Blake T. Ostler, The Attributes of God, Vol. 1 in EXPLORING MORMON THOUGHT (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2001), 352.
 The reference to the plural “Gods” in the creation account in the Book of Abraham 4–5 may include both male and female actors grammatically. However, in general Heavenly Mother’s creative role is limited to the creation of spirits, emphasizing her role as bearer of children rather than in the governance or creation of the earth. Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven.”
David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 85, extensively document statements by LDS Church leaders on the existence and roles of Heavenly Mother, offering a view that “marshals evidence against some claims that General Authorities and other Church leaders have limited Heavenly Mother’s role to reproduction.” The sources they cite, as I read them, nevertheless tend to remain within a framework in which reproduction is a central role for Heavenly Parents, even if not the only role for women. With perhaps one exception from Charles W. Penrose in 1904, the evidence that they cite from Church leaders that Heavenly Mother is a “co-creator” does not clearly claim that her creative act extends beyond spiritual reproduction.
 Examples are abundant from both Church leaders and in conservative LDS theology. See, for instance, Jeffrey R. Holland, “Helping Those Who Struggle with Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, October 2007, accessed July 19, 2011: “At the heart of this plan is the begetting of children, one of the crucial reasons Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden (see 2 Ne. 2:19–25; Moses 5:10–12). They were commanded to ‘be fruitful, and multiply’ (Moses 2:28), and they chose to keep that commandment. We are to follow them in marrying and providing physical bodies for Heavenly Father’s spirit children. Obviously, a same-gender relationship is inconsistent with this plan.” Hudson and Sorenson, “Response to Professor Thomas,” 329, argue: “God created only two beings at the dawn of human history: a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. We infer that no male-male or female-female relationship can substitute for the critical importance of male-female relations.”
 Camille Fronk, “Mary, Mother of Jesus,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:863–64.
 James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 6th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1922), 81.
 Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Winter 2011): 1–85; Linda King Newell, “The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and the Priesthood,” in Hanks, Women and Authority, 23–44.
 Gregory A. Prince, Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 204–8.
 In the document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” the unnamed authors explain, “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.”
 The introduction to the document identifies its author only as “the Church.” This document, “explains [the Church’s] reasons for defending marriage between a man and a woman as an issue of moral imperative.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Divine Institution of Marriage,” LDS Newsroom, August 28, 2008, accessed July 19, 2011.
 LDS discourse on sexual relations within marriage have come to see the purpose of sex as having to do with both procreation and relationships between spouses. Terrance D. Olson explains, “The purpose of appropriate sexual relations in marriage includes the expression and building of joy, unity, love, and oneness. To be ‘one f lesh’ is to experience an emotional and spiritual unity. This oneness is as fundamental a purpose of marital relations as is procreation.” Terrance D. Olson, “Sexuality,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1306. Much of the shift in emphasis coincides with the acceptance of birth control. See Melissa Proctor, “Bodies, Babies, and Birth Control,” Dialogue 36, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 159–75.
 Joseph Smith was sealed in celestial marriages to women who were well past child-bearing years, like Patty Bartlett Sessions (age forty-seven), Elizabeth Davis Durfee (age fifty or fifty-one), Rhoda Richards (age fifty-eight), and Fanny Young (age fifty-six). Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 4–6. This practice continues today. Of the numerous examples one could note, Elder Dallin H. Oaks was sealed in 2000 to Kristen Meredith McMain, who was in her early fifties at the time, pre-sumably unable to naturally conceive.
 Paul V. Hyer, “Temple Sealings,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1289, explains, “Among members of the Church sealing refers to the marriage of a husband and wife and to the joining together of children and parents that are to endure forever.”
 Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 126.
 For a sustained argument against Levi-Straussian and Lacanian arguments for heterosexuality as a necessary structure for childhood development, see ibid., 118–27; and her Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life & Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 68–73.
 First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
 Notably, Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).
 In previous anthropological theories of kinship, David Murray Schneider, A Critique of the Study of Kinship (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984), 123, has observed: “It is simply assumed that for all human beings, for all cultures, genealogical relatedness (however defined) is of value and is of significance . . . that it is, in short, privileged.”
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.” Ironically, the studies it relies on do not indict two same-sex parented families, but single-mother families, which are fully permissible in the Church. David Popenoe, Life without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (New York: Martin Kessler Books, 1996) and David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1995). However, studies show that there is no persuasive evidence that children of same-sex parents or one homosexual parent face any risks or disadvantages relative to children in heterosexual homes. Child Welfare League of America, “Position Statement on Parenting of Children by Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults,” accessed July 20, 2011.
 For an example of a scholar who sees the only meaningful exchange between males and females in reproduction and heterosexual marriage, see Valerie Hudson Cassler, “‘Some Things That Should Not Have Been Forgotten Were Lost’: The Pro-Feminist, Pro-Democracy, Pro-Peace Case for State Privileging of Companionate Heterosexual Monogamous Marriage,” SquareTwo 2, no. 1 (2009), online journal (accessed July 21, 2011).
 Butler, Undoing Gender, 118–27.
 Carol Stack, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).
 Kath Weston, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (New York: Columbia, 1991).
 Cai Hua, A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China, translated by Asti Hustvedt (New York: Zone Books, 2001).
 Schneider, A Critique of the Study of Kinship, 43–94, focuses his study on the Yapese, who initially did not consider sexual coitus to be significant in establishing kinship.
 Schneider asks the simple question: “Are all genealogies equal?” Ibid., 124. His answer is “no” for two reasons: “One is that the defining features of the genealogy may be variously valued and have different meanings or significance in different cultures. The other is that when the nature and content of the genealogical relationship is taken into account—and these are known to differ from one culture to another—then the assumptions of the equivalence of the parent-child relationship is brought into serious question.” The question is of keen importance for Latter-day Saints who are engaged in the practice of tracing genealogies across time and cultures. If, for instance, our particular configuration of genealogical kinship does not accurately reflect those (configurations) operative in the times and cultures of our ancestors (not to mention our otherwise cultured contemporaries), have we adequately sealed kinship units together, even if they force our own understanding of kinship in a foreign way? That is to say, the genetic relationship is not necessarily the same as the value established in any particular form of kinship. We may think of marriage laws and customs as ways of regulating and normalizing certain kinds of kinship structures, but this is not to say that such customs are universal in practice or even universally desirable. If the proxy sealing practice for those who have died serves to replicate the kinship relationships of our ancestors in order to provide them with the blessings of eternal “families,” we would do well to better understand how their kinship relationships were structured.
 Alan Michael Williams, “Mormon and Queer at the Crossroads,” 67, poses the question: “Is a queer family any less a family because it is queer? Official Mormon discourse has not yet addressed the familiness of these households, even while they are increasing.”
 Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (New York: Free Press, 1999).
 Theodore B. Olson, “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage: Why Same-Sex Marriage Is an American Value,” Newsweek, January 9, 2010 (accessed July 19, 2011).
 While I have earlier defined kinship as a relationship that is ritually marked as other than friendship, it is useful to consider how the adoptive sealing may have functioned to make friendship a basis for kinship, as a disruption to family-reproductive relationships as the only basis for kinship. We may here consider what D. Michael Quinn in Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 66–73, describes the “intense homosociality” of nineteenth-century Mormon culture as manifest in the way that kinship structures were being rethought. On July 23, 1843, in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith taught, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by B. H. Roberts, 7 vols., 2d ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948 printing), 5:517. Here, friendship is posited as the basis of civilization, in contrast to the kinship structures described by later LDS teachers. Rather, Smith suggests that kinship (“brotherhood”) must be established through friendship, rather than the other way around. It is friendship that then serves as the basis for kinship. The significance of such a notion is that friendship, as in nonreproductive relationships, may be seen as equally desirable as kinship relationships, ritually marked through sealing, as a civilizing force.
 Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 53–117. Stapley notes (p. 66) that, in the Nauvoo period, women and men were adopted at roughly the same rate. Most often men and women were sealed as couples, though there are some unmarried men that were adopted by sealing, as well as at least one case where an unmarried girl was adopted by sealing. Willard and Jeanetta Richards adopted a young woman (age eleven) whom they had cared for, for a period. Jonathan Stapley, email message to Taylor Petrey, July 22, 2011. See also Gordon Irving, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830–1900,” BYU Studies 14, no. 3 (Spring 1974): 291–314. See Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Summer 2011) for Samuel M. Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” 3–52, and Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” 53–118.
 Samuel M. Brown, “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, no. 1 (2011): 1–52.
 D. Michael Quinn, Same-Sex Dynamics, 136–40, rightly rejects the idea that such relationships constitute “same-sex marriage.” However, his claim that “this was an institutionalized form of mentor-protégé relationships between Mormon men” downplays the language of kinship—“father” and “son” of such relationships—even though he notes that, for instance, John D. Lee temporarily assumed the family name of Brigham Young, his spiritual father.
 Stapley and Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” 55.
 Orson Hyde, “Diagram of the Kingdom of God, Millennial Star 9 no. 2 (January 15, 1847): 23.
 Parley P. Pratt, “Celestial Family Organization,” Millennial Star 5, no. 12 (May 1845): 193.
 Scott G. Kenney ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833–1898, 9 vols. (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983–85), 2:364–65, quoted in Brown, “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” 1.
 For the relevant events, see Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” 106–12.
 Abraham H. Cannon, Journal, April 5, 1895, quoted in ibid., 108. Stapley notes that, over time, the quest to find one’s dead proved an endless task and the idea of linking to Joseph Smith was eventually dismissed or forgotten: “In 1922, editors removed the instructions about sealing ultimate ancestors to Joseph Smith.” Ibid., 114.
 Ibid., 111.
 Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith, Letter to John D. T. McAllister, April 26, 1894, quoted in ibid., 116.
 Schneider, A Critique of the Study of Kinship, 124, observes, “If there is a bond created in the process of reproduction, that bond must be culturally significant to count for anything.”
 I am personally aware of one occurrence in the past decade where an adopted child who was “born in the covenant” was sealed to the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents were informed by letter how rare their situation was.
 Other examples of kinship that are not based on reproduction or biological relation are prevalent in LDS practice. Many members of the Church are “adopted” into the House of Israel, even while others are considered to be direct descendants. Discourse on Israelite identity has variously been asserted in terms of lineage and in terms of adoption. Armaund Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 17–40. While some versions of this doctrine imagine a change in the “blood” of the adoptee as part of this process, the very possibility of adoption across bloodlines already points to a kinship structure that precedes the reproductive family. Further, the notion of transformation itself, here in terms of transracial identity, as the result of the adoption may offer a model for transsexuals, who might also be ritually “adopted” into a new sex, perhaps as a part of a patriarchal blessing.
 Williams, “Mormon and Queer at the Crossroads,” 67, adduces, “The issue of homosexuality for the Church is, at its core, about gender, as accepting same-sex parented families in full communion would upset the ecclesiastical relationship between men and women rather than necessarily disrupt theological ideas of marriage and parenthood.”
 The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.”
 Ibid. The text repeatedly emphasizes the centrality of a stable, heterosexual framing of gender: “gender differentiated parenting,” “gender differences are increasingly dismissed,” the need for a “clear gender identity,” and the erosion of “gender development.”
 A Parent’s Guide (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), “Chapter 4: Teaching Children: From Four to Eleven Years,” accessed June 23, 2011.
 The fact that the manual is anonymously authored, though presumably reviewed by General Authorities and the Correlation Review Committee, makes it impossible to deduce a more precise definition based on the authors’ backgrounds.
 Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 13–14.
 Ibid., 11–12.
 See also Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 3–44.
 Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” The Sciences, March-April, 1993, 20–24. See also her book-length treatment on the sciences of sexual difference and gender, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
 Presumably intersexed persons are dismissed when President Kimball suggested, “With relatively few accidents of nature, we are born male or female. The Lord knew best. Certainly, men and women who would change their sex status will answer to their Maker.” “God Will Not Be Mocked,” Ensign, November 1974, 8. With respect to transsexuality, Elder Boyd K. Packer has declared, “There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits. Boys are to become men—masculine, manly men—ultimately to become husbands and fathers.” Conference Reports (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 1976), 101. This talk was later published in pamphlet form, Boyd K. Packer, To Young Men Only (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1976).
 For a brief overview of the history of the doctrine of eternal gender and some of the theological problems it raises for intersexual and transsexual persons, see Jeffrey E. Keller, “Gender and Spirit,” in Multiply and Replenish: Mormon Essays on Sex and Family, edited by Brent Corcoran (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 171–82.
 See, e.g., Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, translated and edited by James Strachey, 4th ed. (1962; New York: Basic Books, 2000). The American Psychiatric Association (APA) got rid of its diagnosis of homosexuality as a disorder in 1973. Gender Identity Disorder (GID) remains in the DSM-IV’s diagnostic catalogue, which is used by groups such as the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) as a predictor of homosexuality. NARTH seeks to “correct” homosexuality through psychological treatment. LDS pyschologist and activist against homosexuality A. Dean Byrd has served as president of NARTH. The connection between gender identity and sexual desires and practices remains murky at best. For a critique of the diagnostic assumptions about gender identity, see Butler, Undoing Gender, 75–100.
 This view appears in many recent descriptions of homosexuality in LDS discourse. For instance, “If governments were to alter the moral climate by legitimizing same-sex marriages, gender confusion would increase, particularly among children.” No author, “Strengthening the Family: Within the Bonds of Matrimony,” Ensign, August 2005, 17 (accessed July 19, 2011). See also Boyd K. Packer, “I Will Remember Your Sins No More,” Ensign, May 2006 (accessed July 19, 2011); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.”
 A Parent’s Guide, “Chapter 4: Teaching Children: From Four to Eleven Years,” asserts: “But members of the Church must not be deceived about one immutable truth: there is eternal significance in being a man or a woman. The history of the gospel from Adam to this final dispensation documents equal respect for the roles of men and women and the need for all men and women to develop their gifts to the utmost through living the commandments of God. But within that same gospel framework are some realities about differences between the two genders. This means that there are some exclusive things men are to do and some that women are to do. A most appropriate time for this development is the interlude between early childhood and adolescence.”
As recently as 2009, Elder Bruce Hafen of the Seventy defended the idea that homosexuality is the result of a prepubescent “block” on “normal emotional-sexual development.” He continued, “Adult men who have had such childhood experiences can often resume their normal development by identifying and addressing the sources of their emotional blockage, which usually includes restoring healthy, appropriate male relationships.” “Elder Bruce C. Hafen Speaks on Same-Sex Attraction” Evergreen International nineteenth Annual Conference September 19, 2009. The full address is posted online (accessed July 19, 2011).
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.”
 The notion that youth is a particularly vulnerable time for the “confusion” of gender identity is a frequent theme in some LDS discourse. For example, Boyd K. Packer teaches, “Now, I must speak of another danger, almost unknown in our youth but now everywhere about you. Normal desires and attractions emerge in the teenage years; there is the temptation to experiment, to tamper with the sacred power of procreation. These desires can be intensified, even perverted, by pornography, improper music, or the encouragement from unworthy associations. What would have only been a more or less normal passing phase in establishing gender identity can become implanted and leave you confused, even disturbed. If you consent, the adversary can take control of your thoughts and lead you carefully toward a habit and to an addiction, convincing you that immoral, unnatural behavior is a fixed part of your nature. With some few, there is the temptation which seems nearly overpowering for man to be attracted to man or woman to woman. The scriptures plainly condemn those who ‘dishonour their own bodies between themselves . . . ; men with men working that which is unseemly’ (Rom. 1:24, 27) or ‘women [who] change the natural use into that which is against nature’ (Rom. 1:26).” “Ye Are the Temple of God,” Ensign, November 2000 (accessed July 19, 2011).
 Douglas A. Abbot and A. Dean Byrd, Encouraging Heterosexuality: Helping Children Develop a Traditional Sexual Orientation (Orem, Utah: Millennial Press, 2009).
 Butler, Gender Trouble, 33.
 Butler explains: “Gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” Ibid., 179.
 Ibid., 9–44, 173–77.
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
 President Kimball, “God Will Not Be Mocked,” Ensign, November 1974, 8, stated: “Some people are ignorant or vicious and apparently attempting to destroy the concept of masculinity and femininity. More and more girls dress, groom, and act like men. More and more men dress, groom, and act like women. The high purposes of life are damaged and destroyed by the growing unisex theory. God made man in his own image, male and female made he them. With relatively few accidents of nature, we are born male or female. The Lord knew best. Certainly, men and women who would change their sex status will answer to their Maker.”
 One official manual teaches that proper gender roles are communicated through positive feelings that parents have about gender roles: “We should also help children understand gender roles. This will help a child have a good feeling about being a girl or boy. Parents who feel good about their roles as men and women pass this feeling along to their children.” “Lesson 9: Chastity and Modesty,” The Latter-day Saint Woman: Basic Manual for Women, Part A (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000), accessed July 19, 2011.
 Current official statements on eternal gender suggest a kind of role complementarity, “The nature of male and female spirits is such that they complete each other.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Handbook 2: Administering the Church, Section 1.3.1. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), accessed July 20, 2011.
 L. Tom Perry, “Fathers’ Role Is Anchoring Families,” LDS Church News, April 10, 2004, 15.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, quoted in Kristen Moulton, “Fathers Urged to Lead Their Families,” Daily Herald (Provo, Utah) April 25, 1998, A1, A2, quoted in Camille S. Williams, “Response to Professor Reuther,” in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies, edited by Donald W. Musser and David L. Paulsen (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2007), 288.
 “Girls ought to be taught the arts and sciences of housekeeping, domestic finances, sewing, and cooking. Boys need to learn home repair, career preparation, and the protection of women. Both girls and boys should know how to take care of themselves and how to help each other. By example and by discussion, both sexes need to learn about being male or female, which, in summary, means becoming husbands and fathers or wives and mothers, here or hereafter.” A Parent’s Guide, “Chapter 4: Teaching Children: From Four to Eleven Years.”
 or an excellent history of this division, see Shira Tarrant, When Sex Became Gender: Perspectives on Gender (New York: Routledge, 2006).
 Didi Herman, The Antigay Agenda (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 107.
 Hudson Cassler, “Some Things That Should Not Have Been Forgotten.”
 Wilford Woodruff, quoted in Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” 109.
 A Parent’s Guide, “Chapter 4: Teaching Children: From Four to Eleven Years.”[post_title] => Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 44.4 (Winter 2011): 106–141
From Editor Taylor Petrey: “Toward a Post-heterosexual Mormon Theology” was actually the first major article I ever published. I did not know what to expect, but it ended up being a widely discussed piece, accessed tens of thousands of times. To this day I still receive notes of appreciation for this article. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => toward-a-post-heterosexual-mormon-theology [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-07-14 12:52:25 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-07-14 12:52:25 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=9621 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
After a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology: A Ten-Year Retrospective
Dialogue 54.4 (Winter 2021): 111–137
Ten years ago, my article “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” was published in Dialogue. I did not know what to expect when it made its way into the world, but it ended up being a widely discussed piece and has been accessed tens of thousands of times. The public discussion about my ideas was both critical and appreciative. In the wake of the article, my own research and thinking have also developed.
Ten years ago, my article “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” was published in Dialogue. I did not know what to expect when it made its way into the world, but it ended up being a widely discussed piece and has been accessed tens of thousands of times. The public discussion about my ideas was both critical and appreciative. In the wake of the article, my own research and thinking have also developed. When I first approached this topic, I expected that my interest would be limited to a single contribution. However, in the ensuing decade I now count several articles, a book, and a substantial edited volume on Mormonism, sexuality, gender in my research portfolio. My fascination with this question has endured.
Other things are also different now than they were at the time I wrote the original article. Same-sex marriage is legal everywhere in the United States. The Church has engaged in multiple public campaigns related to LGBTQ issues, including pastoral outreach, updated policies, and a reframed political project on “religious freedom.” In the ensuring years, several other thinkers have approached this question of same-sex relationships and gender identity with theological and historical sophistication. Here, I want to discuss in retrospect the origins of “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” the reception of the article, and the trajectory that my own work has taken. Despite all of these developments, the place of same-sex relationships in LDS thought and practice remains vexed.
Origins and Main Ideas
I was just preparing to go on a mission when Gordon B. Hinckley presented “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a guiding document on LDS teachings on marriage and public policy released just as the same-sex marriage issue had arisen the United States. After I returned from my mission and to my university education in New York City, I became increasingly interested in feminist theory and the new approaches to sexuality and identity in the 1990s. While I was an undergraduate student, the Church had gotten involved in propositions to prohibit same-sex marriage in Hawaii, California, and Alaska. But being in New York City, it all seemed rather far away and I hadn’t really worked out how I wanted to approach this social question.
Heading to graduate school for a master’s degree in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2001, I was consumed with learning the languages and the history of scholarship in that field. When I was admitted into the doctoral program in that field, I began to take more coursework in gender and sexuality. My advisor, Karen L. King, was a leader in thinking about gender in early Christianity, and feminist icons like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza loomed large in my program and in my own thinking. When Amy Hollywood arrived at Harvard, it opened up to me a whole new set of theories and approaches to identity, bodies, and desire. As I started writing my dissertation on how early Christians imagined sexuality and desire in the resurrection body, I turned to feminist theory, especially that of Judith Butler, to help me articulate the issues at stake in these debates.
Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints were engaged in a substantive and contentious exchange about same-sex relationships in the first decade of the 2000s. I closely followed the topic in Mormon blogging, which had attracted a number of rising intellectuals in their twenties and thirties. Of course, the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, accelerating the issue in the United States. But the Church had done quite little to mobilize in Massachusetts. That helped to defer the question for me. However, when the Church formally announced that it would organize to oppose Prop 8 in California in 2008, I found myself deeply torn. By coincidence, I was scheduled to preach at Harvard Divinity School in an LDS-run service at the start of the new term in January 2009, after the election. Early protests had occurred against Latter-day Saints around the country, and I was feeling some dread about how to navigate the issue with my colleagues. I spoke from the heart about my conflicted feelings. The publications director for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin was there and asked to publish my remarks, titled “An Uncomfortable Mormon.”
My discomfort increasingly turned to a set of theoretical problems. I recall two pieces that had an impact on me in the year after the 2008 election. The first was by Valerie Hudson Cassler, at the time a well-respected political science professor at Brigham Young University, titled “‘Some Things That Should Not Have Been Forgotten Were Lost’: The Pro-Feminist, Pro-Democracy, Pro-Peace Case for State Privileging of Companionate Heterosexual Monogamous Marriage.” This was at the time hailed as the most significant, substantive LDS argument opposing same-sex marriage on putatively feminist grounds. I remember having a strong reaction to this piece and feeling deeply concerned about the oppositional framework between feminism and LGBTQ rights.
The second piece was Judith Butler’s short book Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. Based on a series of lectures she had given, Butler addressed the question of kinship in queer contexts. I distinctly remember this book hitting me like a lightning bolt, and I rushed to grab a piece of paper to sketch out the outline for an article that would see same-sex marriage as claim about kinship, suddenly an obvious argument that I had not yet understood in my focus on gender and sexuality. For me, this realization was a potent reframing of same-sex marriage that had been analyzed as a legal or sociological issue, or even a question about sexual ethics. Kinship, for me, unlocked a whole new framework for a new theological imaginary.
The sketch for the article that I put together was extremely compressed. It was just the stub of what would eventually become “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” but I contacted Kristine Haglund, then editor at Dialogue, to see if she thought it had any merit. She kindly sent it out for review, which came back confirming that it was underdeveloped. I’d written it rather half-heartedly, hoping someone else would flesh out my own idea to more productive ends. My reluctance to complete my thought was in part because I was getting ready to graduate from my doctoral program and in search of a job in biblical studies—an extreme rarity for Latter-day Saints. I didn’t want to start establishing a Mormon studies publication record at that stage in my career. In any case, the reviewers and Haglund asked me to fill in the outline. Going on the job market, the birth of my second child, a move to start a new job, and other events delayed the revisions for about a year. The delay allowed me to do more reading, benefiting especially from new research on early Mormon kinship that further confirmed for me that this was a necessary starting point for a theological redescription.
I recall feeling that I was breaking some new ground, though I was building on decades of previous work. While I think “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” marks a distinctive theoretical turn, scholars and activists had been organizing, writing, blogging, and speaking about these issues for years. D. Michael Quinn and Connell O’Donovan had approached the issue from a historical perspective, chronicling episodes and changes to LDS teachings. Other scholars were looking at the question of sexual ethics. The causes or etiology of homosexuality often took special prominence. Others had attempted to carve out some ecclesiastical space for affirming same-sex relationships. Many of these texts and others focused on pastoral concerns about damage to LGBTQ members. Some of the analysis focused on the reputational damage to straight Latter-day Saints by holding on to anti-homosexuality teachings. Others provided an analysis of the legal and social scientific debates.
All of these made major contributions, but I still felt that the ground of the analysis needed to shift. Much of the discussion focused on homosexuality as a set of desires or analyzed the morality of certain sexual acts. I came to believe that the act/desires distinction was not especially useful. The framing of the question as a debate about desires and acts seems to concede the very terms that had been developed in anti-homosexuality culture—seeing “homosexuality” as primarily about “sexuality.” By contrast, male-female relationships occupied a larger conceptual footprint that had built into itself institutional acknowledgment of relationships that were fuller than their sexual dimension. In other words, I wanted to consider relationships and kinship as the potential theological desideratum and saving principle in a post-heterosexual theology, not the kind of sex that people were having.
Second, it seemed to me that there were deep, structural issues in Mormon theology as it had developed that made it difficult to accommodate same-sex relationships. Answering the “clobber texts” or other apologetic or historical engagements seemed wholly insufficient because they did not address the deep ways that heterosexual supremacy had been braided into the Mormon cosmos. The question of sexual morality, or the etiology of homosexuality, or respectability did not address head on the presumed heterosexual reproductivity of the Mormon heavens. Legal or social scientific analysis of the effects of same-sex marriage did little to address the theological questions about reproduction. I wanted to question the received wisdom that reproduction and Mormonism were inseparably intertwined by examining the theological foundations of the idea as it had emerged in recent decades. The first part of my article then interrogated “celestial reproduction” as a supposedly essential feature of Mormon theology. I argued that the evidence for it was quite weak, that there were alternative modes of reproduction not rooted in heterosexuality in the tradition, and that adoption was a well-established theological and social practice in Mormonism that replaced biological kinship.
The next major idea of the paper was a brief history of LDS teachings on kinship and the sealing ordinance. Both historically and today, sealing was not rooted in reproduction but was instead a way of ritually marking kinship as opposed to the biological, nuclear family. Here too I attempted to displace “sexuality” as the defining feature of sealing and instead pointed to care, commitment, and covenant as a potential route for including non-heterosexual relationships. I further suggested that centering heterosexuality in LDS kinship practices was bound to conflict with a wide variety of global and historical kinship practices. Kinship rather than sexuality would accommodate a wider array of historical and contemporary relationships.
Finally, it seemed to me that some critical analysis of LDS ideas of “eternal gender” was a necessary part of this question, for the ways that it was used against both same-sex relationships and transgender identity. I came to see the link between sex and gender, and sexuality and gender identity, as an inevitable part of a post-heterosexual theology. LDS concepts of heterosexuality were intimately rooted in theories of sexual difference. They not only affirmed the existence of two separate sex/genders but also were based on complementarian notions of their interdependence. Such views upheld male-female relationships as superior to others because they were somehow more balanced or complete. I wanted to examine how Latter-day Saints defined “eternal gender” by contrasting it with the dominant view that had emerged in contemporary feminist and queer theory that the sex/gender distinction and the concept of gender itself was historically contingent, not an expression of a timeless ideal. This problem of decontextualizing sexual difference as an immutable feature needed greater theological reflection. Gender essentialism did not hold much philosophical credibility, at least not in ways that matched with Mormon theologizing. Further, I wanted to question whether the privileging of gender as a distinctive feature of human identity was necessary for a post-heterosexual theology.
My arguments were a thought experiment to lay out problems that needed to be solved no matter the answers, and to propose possible solutions to those problems. I wanted to be clear that I was not advocating that my solutions were correct, nor that church leaders or members should follow my arguments. Rather, I wanted to raise critical questions about the best arguments that stood in the way of affirming same-sex sealing and explore their strengths and weaknesses.
The finished article appeared in December 2011 on the dialoguejournal.com website. I wasn’t sure that anyone would read it. The article made perfect sense to me as a someone who had been working closely in poststructuralist thought, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory. Yet I knew that the arguments were a still somewhat dense for most casual readers. The editors at Dialogue gently nudged me to tone down some of the jargon, but it meant something to me to say what I wanted to say in the idiom in which I had been immersed. Their advice was probably right, but I am pleased that the barrier to entry into the article was not so high that no one could make heads or tails of it. The misunderstandings that have emerged in the reception of the article seem to be more strategic misrepresentation than my miscommunication, though there are things that I might say differently now.
My recollection is that there was still some anxiety on my part and the part of Dialogue about the article going live. Kristine Haglund was not only editing Dialogue but also blogging at ByCommonConsent.com and worked out the idea to announce it there. The entry received the innocuous title “Guest Post From Dialogue” and went live on December 9, 2011. In the entry, I wrote a brief introduction explaining that the significance of my article was to offer a model for future LDS theology, to connect mainstream Mormon theology with feminist theology, and finally, to “suggest that we think less about the types of sex that people are having and more about the types of relationships that people are building.” Between the blog title and my tepid post, we all seemed to be burying the lede. Still, the post received nearly two hundred (mostly) substantive comments and was the early place for generating attention about the article.
Over the following days, weeks, and months, there were a number of blog posts responding to me. The article received mentions Slate, the Daily Beast, and the New York Times. Facebook was another hub for conversation as the article was being shared and praised widely. Kaimi Wegner wrote, “Holy cow. Have you seen Taylor Petrey’s new article? It is a must-read.” Richard Livingston wrote on a listserve:
It seems to me that the single most impressive aspect of Taylor’s article isn’t so much the many insightful possibilities that it suggests—which it does very admirably—but rather the questions it raises, or perhaps better, the way in which it raises those questions. . . . Sometimes just clarifying the significance of a single question can be every bit as illuminating as the discovery of a potential solution to some long-standing dilemma, and yet Taylor illuminates the true depth and breadth and scope of multiple questions in this essay. Thus, he isn’t just asking the right question, but he’s asking multiple thought-provoking questions in all the right ways.
I was deeply appreciative of the positive feedback from many LDS readers.
I learned over the next few years that the article was not only being read in Latter-day Saint contexts but was being assigned in courses throughout North America on theology, sex, and religion. One of my former advisors at Harvard mentioned that she assigned it in her undergraduate classes and that “it was the first article I read all the way through in years.” Since then I have received possibly hundreds of expressions of gratitude from friends, family, and total strangers for voicing their own concerns, giving them new frameworks and questions, and for creating space for further conversation.
Not all of the feedback was positive. Several people challenged my ideas, some with greater sophistication than others. I want to point out three responses that I think were particularly important because of their substantive merit or influence on later events. The first came out of the small, but capable Mormon theological community that had been growing for much of the first decade of the 2000s. Joseph Spencer, then a graduate student, had a related expertise to many of the poststructuralist theories that informed my own work. He wrote a letter to the editor to Dialogue, first posted on the website and then in the next issue of the journal, responding to “Taylor Petrey’s carefully executed, unmistakably informed, rightly concerned, and entirely productive essay.” Yet Spencer criticized me for not doing “any actual work on constructing a Mormon queer theory in this essay.” That is, Spencer suggested that my project went too far in abandoning the Mormon elements of a theology by questioning whether “eternal gender” was an essential church teaching. Spencer then took a different tack on this issue, briefly laying out a view of gender essentialism that is both critical and coherent. I remain unpersuaded that a reformed theory of gender essentialism is either a necessary starting point for a Mormon theology, or that it would not also be just as revisionist as my own. Still, Spencer’s idea holds promise about how a coherent version of essentialism might be brought into conversation with LDS thought.
The second piece of feedback arrived in the form of an organized protest. Far-right activist Stephen Graham, founder of the Standard of Liberty, an anti-gay group, planned a protest against me during a conference at which I was slated to speak at Brigham Young University. The conference was on the theme of “The Apostasy,” the proceedings of which were later published in an edited volume with Oxford University Press titled Standing Apart. At the 2012 conference, I was invited to deliver a paper on the concept of the Apostasy in early Christianity. The day before the event, Graham sent an email about me to a list of at least one organization he runs, called UtahsRepublic.org, which advocates for radical changes to public education.
Graham was a known provocateur on same-sex relationships when I came on his radar. His Standard of Liberty organization protested BYU events on homosexuality multiple times. He objected to the BYU Honor Code change in 2007 and warned that BYU professors were teaching “homosexualism” as well as “socialism” and “anti-Americanism.” His email about me suggested that I was “an apostate” who had “written in opposition of male-female marriage and gender as an eternal characteristic” and “called for homosexual sealings in LDS temples.” Graham then instructed individuals to call BYU president Cecil Samuelson on this “urgent” issue and included a copy of the email that he and his wife Janice Graham had sent to Samuelson seeking to de-platform me. Their letter warned:
We represent an organization of like-minded people with a subscription list of nearly 8000. Petrey must not be allowed to speak, as he stands in active opposition to Church doctrine, and as such is apostate, the very topic he is to speak on.
Please respond and let us know how you intend to address this matter.
We will be sending out an email newsletter addressing this issue, and we would like to say that BYU did the right thing when it was brought to their attention that a speaker at one of their conferences was in direct opposition to the Church and its doctrines.
I learned of this specific content of the email later on, but I learned of its effects immediately as the conference was getting started. I arrived in Provo the night before the conference and heard that multiple complaints had been made against my presence at BYU that day. I was distraught at the accusation, frustrated by the misrepresentation of my argument, and bothered by their labeling me as something that I was not.
BYU was scrambling to respond to this protest that had be foisted on them at the last minute. On the day of the conference, the dean of humanities, who had been tasked by President Samuelson to address the matter, scheduled a meeting with me to assess whether I would be a problem for them. The dean expressed concerns about the content of “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” and wanted to be reassured that nothing that I said that day in my talk would cover those topics, among other things. I also learned that undercover officers would be stationed in the audience for my protection in case the protest led to a disruption of the event. I delivered my talk and afterward was approached by Stephen Graham and another man, who I was not able to identify. They grilled me on my views on homosexuality and gave me their perspective that homosexuality was something that someone could change with help. Later that year, Graham would protest other speakers and events at BYU on homosexuality.
The final early response that I mention came in the form of an essay by Valerie Hudson Cassler. As noted above, she entered into debates about same-sex marriage by making a conservative feminist argument against the practice. Since that time, she continued to lay out her views in a series of popular presentations and essays. I had drawn on some of her scholarship and responded to some of it in “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.” But I was stunned by her post in the online blog/journal that she ran called SquareTwo.org. The Summer 2012 issue (published in September 2012) included a piece titled “Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir: ‘A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology’?” While she called my article “thoughtful and thought-provoking,” her argument was that (male) same-sex relationships were misogynistic and that I was engaged in “occult misogyny.” I was and remain hurt by the personal attacks.
Here is the logic of the argument. Celestial reproduction is an essential doctrine that cannot be changed because it is the thing that makes women necessary partners in the plan of salvation. If women do not reproduce then they have no value. Since one option that I put forward—in a variety of post-heterosexual options—does not rely on women’s eternal reproductive role, then I have made women themselves obsolete. “Women are no longer necessary for the work of the gods in the eternities, or for there to be brought forth spirit children: indeed, there need not be a Heavenly Mother, or, for that matter, earthly mothers,” she wrote.
Her criticism was based on a selective misreading. In my article, I laid out theological and scriptural precedents for male-female, male-male, and female-female creative relationships that included both reproduction and nonreproductive generation. I called into question the theological necessity of heterosexuality and heterosexual reproduction based on the existence of male-male creative relationships already in LDS theology. I did not question the necessary existence of women whose existence and importance is both affirmed and self-evident. I pointed to scholars who were examining nonreproductive kinship in Mormon thought and even her own scholarship that had equivocated on celestial reproduction. I question Cassler’s argument that reduces women’s worth to reproductive output as a feminist argument.
Cassler’s perspective relied on feminists who believe in social “parity” between the sexes and a complementarian notion of essential gender differences. Such parity, rather than equality, socially balanced men and women in egalitarian societies. I don’t object to these goals, but I do question enforced heterosexuality as the means of achieving them and the binary ontology that Cassler uses to sustain them. This is one of the other areas of misrepresenting my argument in her response. Cassler suggested that I was putting forward a unitary ontology of gender that erased the differences between male and female. Rather, I explicitly said that I was using a pluralist ontology of gender that did not reduce sexual difference to two options: “To admit the social basis of gender does not entail the elimination of gender, nor does it require a leveling of difference toward some androgynous ideal. Quite the opposite. Instead, we may see more of a proliferation of ‘genders,’ released from the constraints of fantasies about a neat gender binary.” Hardly an heir to Augustinian ontology.
I submitted a reply to Hudson privately. In my email I laid out the areas where we agreed and where there was further area for disagreement, but I also wrote:
I think that you mischaracterize my argument about women’s reproduction when you put quotes around the word “absurd” following a quotation of mine as if it is a continuation of what I have actually said. Of course, I never say such a thing, nor do I think it, and my argument about divine reproduction explicitly mentions both male and female reproductive processes, even in the quote you offer. Further, I spend over a page discussing the problems of women being excluded from creation in our ritual and textual accounts, as well as the dependency of women on male actors in those accounts. I do not single out women’s bodies as messy, dirty, disgusting, contemptible, polluting, let alone does anything I say suggest a “profound contempt for all things female,” as you accuse me of doing. I find this accusation unfair and having no basis in anything I have said.
The essay was quietly updated to correct a few errors, but her response to my email was dismissive. A week later I submitted a brief response in the public comments section of the article. My comment was held “under review” for two weeks and then appeared with her response.
Cassler became the source for a particular misreading of my project. I’ve been frustrated that this argument has been considered a serious response and cited as such. The idea that expanding the heavens to allow for same-sex relationships and non-binary gender identity was somehow anti-women or anti-mixed-sex relationships remains unconvincing. An expansion does not eliminate what is already allowed but draws a bigger circle around what could be allowed. Yet this kind of argument that sees egalitarianism for others as diminishment for oneself has become a familiar form of grievance. Feminists should recognize the pattern of these arguments used against them as well.
These responses, among many others, pushed me to think through some of the problems they raised, even when I fiercely disagreed with them. When I first wrote “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” I expected two things. First, it would not receive much readership or interest outside of a small group of scholars. Second, the ideas in the piece were the only real contribution that I had about the subject and I would soon return to other research projects. Both turned out to be false assumptions. Processing its reception, I found myself back on the topic again and again. Just what was the place of essential difference in Mormon theology, how does one account for reparative therapy, and what role would Heavenly Mother play in a post-heterosexual Mormon theology? On these questions, I wanted to engage broader feminist philosophy of religion to help me.
In 2013 or so, I began writing in earnest what would become “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” published in Harvard Theological Review in 2016. I hoped that one of the leading journals of the field would appreciate these questions and was grateful for their positive evaluation to publish it. In this essay, I tried to tease out the differences between women and heterosexuality that had taken hold in a variety of feminist theologies, including those in LDS circles. In “Rethinking,” I examined LDS feminist theology alongside broader feminist philosophies of religion that also insisted on the need for a divine Woman as the basis of women’s importance, especially in the thought of Luce Irigaray. I examined how the role of “mother” had taken on central importance in these kinds of theologies, how they were tied to particular understandings of gender essentialism, complementarianism, and a reproductive imperative for women. Here, I tried to connect the ontological assumptions about women shared between competing schools of Mormon feminist thought: apologetic feminists like Cassler and critical feminists like Janice Allred.
In this article, I also wanted to offer something constructive in the terms of a “generous orthodoxy.” That is, I hoped to find within the “orthodox” theologies of LDS thinkers some resources for solving the problems of gender essentialism and compulsory heterosexuality. This would extend the analysis of “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” that looked for alternatives to heterosexual kinship and essential gender internal to Mormon thought. I won’t rehearse the arguments in detail here, but I thank Valerie Hudson Cassler’s work on the atonement as one among many instances that showed how divine characters are not defined by binary gender differences. I admit that my essay is still more pointing to a problem, namely, the singular Heavenly Mother who must represent all women, and who does so imperfectly, than clearly answering that problem, in part because of the constraints of orthodoxy I was working within. My solution was to alleviate this strain by weakening essential gender differences and therefore the processes of identification between devotees and divine figures. It was satisfactory to me, but some felt that it went too far.In response to some criticism, I clarified: “My caution is not against a Heavenly Mother, but against using the Heavenly Mother figure to diffuse the homoerotic elements of that tradition, to intervene in a way that creates a heteronormative love as of a different order, character, and quality than the love between others, or to reify the essential difference between male and female bodies, characters, roles, and experiences. My critique is not with Heavenly Mother, but the way which she is put into discourse, the kind of work she is assigned to perform, and the exclusionary rhetoric that creates a binary rather than undoes it.” That still seems right to me.
This article on Heavenly Mother inspired another one that explored a different problem, one that I think may be more fundamental. In “Silence and Absence: Feminist Philosophical Implication of Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” published in Sophia: International Journal in Philosophy and Traditions, I continued to test my thesis that Mormon feminist philosophy had broader interests outside of Mormon studies. In this article, I interrogate the philosophical question of how it is that speech about Heavenly Mother has a liberating impact on women and examine some of the limitations in this theory of language. While there are significant theological and cultural battles within and among LDS scholars and activists on this topic, the analysis of the mechanics of power in Heavenly Mother discourse remains ripe for significant revision, including the reliance upon theological discourse itself.
I note one other important development on spirit birth that runs adjacent to my own project on post-heterosexual theology. As noted above, some argue that the teaching is an essential doctrine to contemporary Mormonism. As I said in the original 2011 article, I am actually ambivalent on the teaching, neither for nor against it as such. I argued that there are post-heterosexual ways of thinking about celestial reproduction and pointed to ritual and scriptural “models of reproduction and creation that might suggest their possibility for same-sex partners.” There, I also surfaced past and present LDS teachings about adoption to suggest that kinship and reproduction are distinct practices in LDS doctrine, and I warned against reducing women’s value to reproductive function.
In early 2011, Samuel Brown and Jonathan Stapley had published important articles examining early Mormon practices of adoption that helped me think through post-heterosexual kinship in my article. These ideas also complicated doctrines of spirit birth. An 1833 revelation to Smith first expressed the idea of an uncreated human essence: “Man was also in the begining with God, inteligence or the Light of truth was not created or made neith[er] indeed can be,” canonized in Doctrine and Covenants 93. The implications are extreme, rejecting creation ex nihilo and denying that God is ontologically distinct from humans, who are co-eternal with the divine. This teaching was repeated in many of Joseph Smith’s speeches, translations, and revelations—perhaps in explicit disagreement with the doctrine of spirit birth as it was developing among some of his disciples in 1843–44. Smith’s famous “King Follet Discourse,” a key text distilling his radical theological developments explained, “God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all.”
In the 2010s, there was a significant debate among historians and theologians on the doctrine of spirit birth. Much of this did not engage the implications of such a challenge for same-sex kinship directly, but their work remains deeply relevant to the topic. In 2012 and 2013, Brown published more on the issue of adoption, including an extensive theological treatment of it in BYU Studies. He called Smith’s adoption project an “attack on proto-Victorian culture,” and expanded on what he and Stapley had hinted at in their 2011 articles, that “the notion of biological reproduction between divine beings as the origin of human spirits was not the only idea that prevailed in early Mormonism. Understanding this aspect of early Mormonism on its own terms may be useful to our era’s engagement of questions of human relationships and identity.” The limitations of the normative biological, heterosexual model of family and kinship poses the opportunity to explore alternative models, and early Mormon adoption theology might beneficially inform such conversations.
Some accepted this overall historical narrative that the doctrines of spirit birth did not originate with Smith. Terryl Givens, for instance, describes the shift to a literalistic notion of spirit birth as a “decisive” shift in the post-Smith period. Others, however, pushed back against Brown and Stapley, arguing that spirit birth traced back to Smith himself. Brian Hales became a prominent defender of a historical link between Smith and spirit birth. Such a notion, he argued, may be tied to the promise of eternal increase, “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever” (D&C 132:19) in the revelation given on plural marriage.However, Stapley convincingly shows that the evidence that Joseph Smith favored spirit birth is incredibly circumstantial and weak. There is no reason to read spirit birth into Joseph Smith’s teaching when other more plausible options exist. In this case, the “continuation of seeds” seems to indicate the bonds that connect one to one’s descendants in perpetuity, not a process of celestial sexual reproduction.
The historical questions are distinct, I think, from the theological issues. Whether Smith is or is not the source for the doctrine of spirit birth does not resolve the question of whether it is a good theological view. While the value of “motherhood” has been a driving feature for a variety of different feminists who promote a robust Heavenly Mother teaching, the version of motherhood imagined there is incredibly restrictive. For instance, it continues to link the title of “mother” to reproductive kinship alone. Medical technology today provides an obvious place to disrupt the notions of motherhood and sexual reproduction, including in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and more. Others have examined “kinning,” the practices of adoption and other kinship relations that establish motherhood in same-sex families, for single women, and in other adoptive contexts.
The emphasis on biological motherhood as the primary role for Heavenly Mother not only reduces her role and function to a conduit but obscures the practices of motherhood as cultural and symbolic actions that define the postnatal relationship. Setting aside older models of “fictive” versus “real” kinship, all kinship practices involve the sharing of material substance to produce enduring connections far beyond genetic links. The sharing of food, space, touch, and so on reveal the ways that kinship is irreducible to reproduction.
Again, while I am still not opposed to divine reproduction within a post-heterosexual Mormon theology, I remain convinced that adoption theology offers a crucial wedge in such a project. In his 2013 article, Brown argued that the notion of love and relationships is actually the ground of Mormon theology. “We all,” he argues, “through our acts of loving intensely as parents, become gods because the pure participation in agape is the definition of godhood.” Brown sees in adoption theology an imputed communal responsibility by making humans interdependent. He explains, “Adoption theology holds out to me the possibility that what matters most are the sacred bonds we create with each other, the spiritual energies we invest in those we care for.” Brown further argues that the adoption theology of Mormonism’s past offers a support for legal adoption today, as well as to “comfort Latter-day Saints facing infertility and support those who adopt or serve as foster parents as part of their personal devotions or life’s work.” Though Brown does not say so explicitly, these same benefits may be provided to same-sex couples for one another and in their efforts to extend their love and care to others. There is no particularly important place for gender in such a theology of love and kinship, even if gender may have value in others dimensions.
In my own thinking over the past decade, I began to consider not just the theological ideas themselves but also the historical conditions that gave rise to them. In the conversations that were emerging from my article, and seeing how the larger conversations about same-sex relationships in LDS communities were going, I sensed a few developments. The first was that even if people could agree that my analysis in “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” was theoretically possible, the weight of the historical tradition of heterosexuality excluded an adequate precedent for change. While my goal was never to argue for the need to change LDS teachings, I became increasingly interested in this historical apologetic for heterosexuality. Was heterosexuality a consistent teaching in LDS history? My theological approach to post-heterosexual kinship was shifting toward an interest in interrogating the historical landscape that had led people to believe that heterosexuality was a central feature in the LDS tradition. I was skeptical. I knew enough about LDS history and American history to be wary of claims about an unchanging “tradition” about gender and sexuality.
I have already expressed skepticism about a historical apologetic that attempts to resolve the authority of a position by tracing it back to Joseph Smith. In this approach to history, Smith or his early followers were the font of authentic Mormonism and we must give especially close attention to their teachings to make an authoritative argument about theology. I learned to be skeptical of the search for “origins” as a rhetorical and historical framework from my studies of early Christianity specifically and in religious studies more generally, where the concept of “origins” has come under significant scrutiny. Such a quest ignores that the “origins” are also embedded in their own historical contexts. I also wanted to disrupt the idea that contemporary Mormonism could (or should) be traced back to its nineteenth-century roots. As my thinking developed, I hoped that I could take on a project that would explain modern Mormonism in its own historical context of contemporary American culture rather than as an unmediated outgrowth of Smith or Brigham Young. The result was Tabernacles of Clay: Gender and Sexuality in Modern Mormonism. I was honored when the Mormon History Association gave it the Best Book Award for 2021.
I am pleased that others saw the need to tell a similar story, most importantly Gregory Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, which covers roughly the same time period but from a different theoretical and methodological angle. My interest in the history of sexuality and gender studies helped guide my approach to this material and shape a narrative that spoke to some of my bigger questions. I have come to see that Tabernacles was working out, in part, a history about an idea that I first recognized in “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology”: “Church teachings assert two ideas about gender identity that are in significant tension: first, that gender is an eternal, immutable aspect of one’s existence; and second, that notions of gender identity and roles are so contingent that they must be constantly enforced and taught, especially to young children.” This tension was not, I believed, insignificant but rather animated much of modernity in general and modern Mormonism specifically.
My sense was that the dominant approach to the topic by previous scholars had assumed three things. First, that the difference between male and female was a fixed and unchanging doctrine, essential to the LDS theological tradition itself and not a subject of historical inquiry. Second, the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality was also a fixed line that stood outside of history or historical change in the LDS theological tradition. That is, on these two points there was no history. These two points informed the third, namely, that LDS teachings derived from Joseph Smith and LDS scripture and therefore did not have a broader historical context. The history of sexuality, by contrast, pushed me to think about the changes in practices and conceptual frameworks on the nature of gender and sexuality. This also helped me approach the question intersectionally to understand the overlapping relationships between ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality.
I took a historical approach to another related project as well. Amy Hoyt and I were putting together the Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender. I assigned myself a chapter on “Theology of Sexuality” that that would discuss LDS treatments of this topic. There, I wrote about three distinct phases of LDS theology of sexuality that, in my view, were radically different from one another. In the first, the era of plural marriage, I surveyed the approaches to sexuality that could be found there. In the early era of monogamy, a strict sexual morality took hold in LDS culture that saw sex and reproduction as inseparable. I then discussed the “Mormon sexual revolution” that emerged in the 1970s and increasingly challenged the relationship between sex and reproduction in a quest for greater sexual satisfaction as its own value. Historicizing Mormon approaches to sexuality, gender, and marriage hopefully offers an alternative to the historical apologetics that often dominate this subfield. Instead of internal histories that emphasize continuity, I invite scholars to situate these ideas in broader trends and contexts and to explore changes and discontinuity.
Over the past decade, a substantial and significant conversation about gender, sexuality, and kinship has continued to unfold in Mormon studies. I am encouraged by the conversations, even when there has been significant and sometimes sharp disagreement, for spurring further research and clarifying issues and arguments. In addition to the theological and historical approaches discussed above, other scholars have taken these issues in new directions. Blaire Ostler’s work has been particularly interested in advancing these conversations, culminating in her recent book Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction. The Queer Mormon Women project by Jenn Lee and Kerry Spencer is adding new perspectives and voices.In addition, there are now more conversations about trans issues that further engage with crucial topics, especially in the work of Kelli Potter. Further, the historical and theoretical work of Peter Coviello should have much to contribute to a reevaluation of bodies, sex, and power in Mormon theology. I am grateful to have contributed something to this conversation and to have tracked some of the development that has taken this work in different directions. What is clear is that there is much more to say, including the coming Spring 2022 issue of Dialogue, which is dedicated to the theme of Heavenly Mother. What the next ten years hold remains to be seen.
 Taylor G. Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 106–41.
 The precise number is unknown because Dialogue has changed servers several times in this period. The article is now also available on JSTOR instead of just the Dialogue website. Finally, the article is a free PDF and may be sent electronically without any tracking analytics. However, in 2015, the Dialogue staff informed me that it had been downloaded more than 20,000 times.
 Taylor G. Petrey, “An Uncomfortable Mormon,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 37, no. 2–3 (Spring/Sumer 2009): 14–16.
 V. H. Cassler, “‘Some Things That Should Not Have Been Forgotten Were Lost’: The Pro-Feminist, Pro-Democracy, Pro-Peace Case for State Privileging of Companionate Heterosexual Monogamous Marriage,” SquareTwo 2, no. 1 (Spring 2009).
 Julie M. Smith praised it: “For the first time ever, I’ve read a defense of the anti-same-sex-marriage movement that didn’t make me cringe.” In “Thank you, Valerie Hudson,” Times and Seasons, Apr. 15, 2009.
 Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
 Samuel M. Brown, “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 1–52; Samuel M. Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 3–52; Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 53–117.
 Connell “Rocky” O’Donovan, “‘The Abominable and Detestable Crime against Nature’: A Revised History of Homosexuality and Mormonism, 1840–1980,” Connell O’Donovan (website), last revised 2004. See the shorter version, O’Donovan, “‘The Abominable and Detestable Crime Against Nature’: A Brief History of Homosexuality and Mormonism, 1840–1980,” in Multiply and Replenish: Mormon Essays on Sex and Family, edited by Brett Corcoran (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 123–70; D. Michael Quinn, Same-Sex Dynamics in Nineteenth-Century America: A Mormon Example (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); D. Michael Quinn, “Male-Male Intimacy Among Nineteenth-Century Mormons: A Case Study,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 105–28; D. Michael Quinn, “Prelude to the National ‘Defense of Marriage’ Campaign: Civil Discrimination Against Feared or Despised Minorities,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 1–52. See also, Armand Mauss, “A Reply to Quinn,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 53–65.
 Wayne Schow, “Sexuality Morality Revisited,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 37, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 114–36; Eric Swedin, “‘One Flesh’: A Historical Overview of Latter-day Saint Sexuality and Psychology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 31, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 1–29.
 R. Jan Stout “Sin and Sexuality: Psychobiology and the Development of Homosexuality,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 29–41; William S. Bradshaw, “Short Shrift to the Facts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 171–91.
 Gary M. Watts, “The Logical Next Step: Affirming Same-Sex Relationships,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 31, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 49–57.
 Carol Lynn Pearson, No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay Loved Ones (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Pivot Point Books, 2007); Fred Matis, Marilyn Matis, and Ty Mansfield, In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-Gender Attraction (Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, an imprint of Deseret Book, 2004). Ron Schow, Wayne Schow, and Marybeth Raynes, eds., Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991).
 Armand Mauss, “Mormonism in the Twenty-First Century: Marketing for Miracles,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 236–49.
 Randolph Muhlestein, “The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage,” and Wayne Schow, “The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: Reply to Randolph Muhlestein,” both in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 1–67.
 Joseph Spencer, “Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45, no. 1 (Spring 2012): xxv.
 Published as, Taylor G. Petrey, “Purity and Parallels: Constructing the Apostasy Narrative of Early Christianity,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, edited by Melissa Wilcox and John Young (New York: Oxford University Press), 174–95.
 Oak Norton forwarding Stephen Graham, “[Utah’s Republic] BYU Speaker today- ALERT for LDS,” email to author, Mar. 1, 2012.
 Peg Mcentee, “BYU Does the Right Thing as Anti-gay Website Howls,” Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 31, 2012; Rosemary Winters and Brian Maffly, “Gay and Mormon: BYU Students Speak on Panel,” Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 30, 2012.
 Cassler, “Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir.”
 Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” 108–9.
 Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” 129.
 Taylor G. Petrey, “Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” Harvard Theological Review 109, no. 3 (2016): 315–41.
 See the clarifying roundtable here: Taylor Petrey, “Heavenly Mother in the Harvard Theological Review,” By Common Consent (blog), Aug. 29, 2016; Margaret Toscano, “How Bodies Matter: A Response to ‘Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,’” By Common Consent (blog), Aug. 30, 2016; Caroline Kline, “A Multiplicity of Theological Groupings and Identities—Without Giving Up on Heavenly Mother,” By Common Consent (blog), Sept. 2, 2016; Kristine Haglund, “Leapfrogging the Waves: A Nakedly Unacademic Response to ‘Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,’” By Common Consent (blog), Sept. 7, 2016; and Taylor Petrey, “The Stakes of Heavenly Mother,” By Common Consent (blog), Sept. 9, 2016.
 Petrey, “Stakes of Heavenly Mother.”
 Taylor G. Petrey, “Silence and Absence: Feminist Philosophical Implications of Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother,” Sophia: International Journal in Philosophy and Traditions 59, no.1 (2020): 57–68.
 Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” 112.
 Brown, “Early Mormon Chain of Belonging”; Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology”; Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual.”
 Van Hale, “The Origin of the Human Spirit in Early Mormon Thought,” in Line Upon Line, edited by Gary James Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 122.
 Samuel M. Brown, “The ‘Lineage of My Preasthood’ and the Chain of Belonging,” in In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 203–47; Samuel M. Brown, “Believing Adoption,” BYU Studies Quarterly52, no. 2 (2013): 45–65; Brown, “Early Mormon Chain of Belonging”; Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology”; Samuel M. Brown and Jonathan A. Stapley, “Mormonism’s Adoption Theology: An Introductory Statement,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 3 (2011): 1–2.
 Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology,” 23.
 Brown and Stapley, “Mormonism’s Adoption Theology,” 2.
 Terryl Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 158.
 Brian C. Hales, “‘A Continuation of the Seeds’: Joseph Smith and Spirit Birth,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 4 (2012): 105–30.
 Petra Nordqvist, “Bringing Kinship into Being: Connectedness, Donor Conception and Lesbian Parenthood,” Sociology 48, no. 2 (2014): 268–83.
 S. Howell, “Kinning: The Creation Of Life Trajectories In Transnational Adoptive Families,” Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute 9 (2003): 465–68; Eirini Papadaki, “Becoming Mothers: Narrating Adoption and Making Kinship in Greece,” Social Anthropology 28, no. 1 (February 2020): 153–67; Janette Logan, “Contemporary Adoptive Kinship: A Contribution to New Kinship Studies,” Child and Family Social Work 18, no. 1 (February 2013): 35–45; Stacy Lockerbie, “Infertility, Adoption and Metaphorical Pregnancies,” Anthropologica 56, no. 2 (2014): 463–71.
 Michael Sahlins, What Kinship Is—And Is Not (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 62–86.
 Samuel M. Brown, “Mormons Probably Aren’t Materialists,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 50, no. 3 (2017): 66.
 Brown, “Believing Adoption,” 62.
 Brown, “Believing Adoption,” 64.
 Taylor G. Petrey, Tabernacles of Clay: Gender and Sexuality in Modern Mormonism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
 In 2021, the award was shared with Benjamin Park, The Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (New York: Liveright, 2020).
 Gregory A. Prince, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2019).
 Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” 123–24.
 Amy K. Hoyt and Taylor G. Petrey, eds., Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 2020).
 Bryce Cook, “What Do We Know of God’s Will for His LGBT Children? An Examination of the LDS Church’s Position on Homosexuality,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 50, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 1–52; Robert A. Rees and William S. Bradshaw, “LGBTQ Latter-day Saint Theology,” DiaBlogue (blog) Aug. 20, 2020.
 Blaire Ostler, “Queer Polygamy,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 52, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 33–43.
 Kelli D. Potter, “A Transfeminist Critique of Mormon Theologies of Gender,” in The Lost Sheep in Philosophies of Religion: New Perspectives on Disability, Gender, Race, and Animals, edited by Blake Hereth and Kevin Timpe (New York: Routledge, 2019), 312–27; Kelli D. Potter, “Trans and Mutable Bodies,” in Hoyt and Petrey, Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender, 539–52.
 Peter Coviello, Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
Ten years ago, my article “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” was published in Dialogue. I did not know what to expect when it made its way into the world, but it ended up being a widely discussed piece and has been accessed tens of thousands of times.
2021: Taylor Petrey, “After a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology: A Ten-Year Retrospective,” Dialogue 54.4 (Winter 2021): 111–136.[post_title] => After a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology: A Ten-Year Retrospective [post_excerpt] => Dialogue 54.4 (Winter 2021): 111–137
Ten years ago, my article “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” was published in Dialogue. I did not know what to expect when it made its way into the world, but it ended up being a widely discussed piece and has been accessed tens of thousands of times. The public discussion about my ideas was both critical and appreciative. In the wake of the article, my own research and thinking have also developed. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => after-a-post-heterosexual-mormon-theology-a-ten-year-retrospective [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2023-05-31 23:54:32 [post_modified_gmt] => 2023-05-31 23:54:32 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.dialoguejournal.com/?post_type=dj_articles&p=28751 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => dj_articles [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) 1
Mormon and Queer at the Crossroads
Dialogue 44.1 (Spring 2011): 53–84
This essay explores conflicting messages within LDS teaching on LGBT rights, when it both opposed same-sex marriage and in the wake of Prop 8 also came out in support of other LGBT rights that display both wrath and mercy. It explores a theory of LDS teachings on homosexuality along these lines, as well as the context of shifting norms around sexual identity.