Prof points to gender, sexual fluidity in religious writings as blueprint to build bridges between LDS-LGBTQ communities

(Courtesy photo) Taylor Petrey, Dialogue's new editor.

A religion professor dove into Mormon doctrine Friday night and dissected its historical interpretations of gender and sexuality in a speech to kick off a forum on LGBTQ issues within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Taylor Petrey, chairman of Kalamazoo College’s religion department in Michigan, examined how the church’s views around gender and sexuality have changed over time, evolving from a patriarchal one to a heterosexual one and how that change could set a precedent for a future shift.

The speech, titled “Limits and Possibilities: Mormons, Gender and Sexuality," was the first event in a forum hosted by Mormons Building Bridges, a group founded to improve relations between the Latter-day Saint and LGBTQ communities.

The forum, called “A Spiritual Home" and which continues through Saturday at Salt Lake City’s downtown library, focuses on building bridges for sexual and gender minorities within the LDS Church.

Petrey, recently named the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, started his speech with a disclaimer that he wasn’t preaching church doctrine, nor does he think what he says should be church doctrine. Instead, he said, he hoped the address would illuminate the historical interpretations of gender and sexuality in the church and what that could mean for the future.

He said many people believe the church teaches “gender essentialism,” or the idea that gender exists on a binary with men on one side and women on the other, and that the church believes people are inherently heterosexual and being homosexual is a choice.

That’s not true, he said. He pointed to several instances in Christian writings in which gender and sexuality haven’t been defined as a binary.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner as the outer, and the upper as the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male shall not be male, and the female shall not be female: . . . then you will enter [the kingdom].”

That, Petrey said, shows not only that there is evidence of primordial and divine beings who are both male and female, neither male nor female, or in transition between those two, “but also some indications that these were models of Christian piety for some kinds of Christians.”

He pointed to similar biblical passages of gender fluidity in Galatians 3:28 and Genesis 1.

Current Latter-day Saint leaders teach that being gay is not a choice. They say having same-sex attraction isn’t a sin, but acting on it is.

Next, Petrey showed how the Utah-based faith has shifted from a patriarchy mythology (one that interprets scripture as having men rule women) to a more heterosexual mythology (in which men and women are seen as more equal partners).

“In my lifetime, at least, we have already witnessed a major shift in LDS teachings on gender as the church has attempted to transition from the patriarchal order to the heterosexual order,” he said. “This transition from one to the other has never fully been complete, but the abandonment or abdication of certain kinds of patriarchy is clear.”

Petrey pointed to the church’s somewhat recent shift from men being said to “rule over” women, akin to God ruling over the universe or a prophet ruling over a church, to men just “presiding over” women.

This and other efforts to “soften” patriarchal views, he said, would have been rejected by past Latter-day Saint authorities, who saw sexual difference as “hierarchical and not complementary.”

Petrey explored whether there were universal historical notions with Latter-day Saint doctrine on eternal gender and the idea of “heterosexual superiority.”

He said that there are examples of gender fluidity in scripture, such as how in some version of the Latter-day Saint primordial mythology, humans are created in two stages: first as genderless intelligence, which God later organizes into spirits, and that last step is where gender first materializes.

“Despite the idea that gender is so fixed that it’s eternal, we also have an idea that it can be confused," Petrey said. "LDS leaders in the past 50 years have repeatedly suggested that gender is so fragile as to be confused by women wearing pants, or by teenagers, or by learning that same-sex marriage exists.”

He discussed heterosexual relationships and the history of “kinship” relationships, pointing to the different types of marriages in church history, such as plural, proxy, convenience marriages and successive sealings.

Many of these kinships didn’t focus on reproduction, meaning it hasn’t always been seen as essential for a relationship.

He also said that there is precedent that shows that male and female sexual difference is not required for kinship, and pointed to Jehovah and Michael as co-creators or Ruth and Naomi, or Peter, James and John — any groups of people who function as kin or create with one another.

Focusing on nongendered kinship, he said, could be a bridge for the church to become more accepting of homosexual relationships.

“I don’t know what direction the church will go, but I have seen how it can reinvent itself,” he said. “And my prayer is that divine justice, fairness and love will be our guide.”