Taylor G. Petrey: If biology was immutable, it wouldn’t need to be enforced

On Feb. 19, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly released a new “General Handbook,” a guide for church teachings and policies. There were a number of updates, but among them were new teachings about transgender individuals. In addition, the church launched a new website resources on “Transgender.” The new teachings relax earlier church policies in some ways, but remain committed to a belief in a fixed and immutable “sex” identity that is increasingly discredited.

The new changes are significant. In sum, the old policies outlined that “elective transsexual surgery” would result in excommunication from the church. The old policy was more narrow in prohibiting only surgical transition, leaving a gray area for “social” and hormonal transitions.

In contrast, the new policy explicitly discourages non-surgical transitions, but otherwise seems more accommodating. It allows for trans individuals to use their preferred pronouns in church and on church records, to be baptized and attend and participate in church meetings. Those who transition will not be excommunicated, but transitioning will result in restrictions of certain aspects of church membership, including the ability to exercise priesthood (perform blessings and participate in rituals), participate in rituals in LDS temples and receive some, but not all, church callings.

While those who are affected by these policy changes might laud or lament aspects of the new teachings, it is clear that the church is more inclusive than it used to be on this issue, even if it restricts the freedoms that some leaders offered the trans members of their congregations.

The new pastoral website “Transgender” counsels individuals who have transitioned or are transitioning, as well as their families. It advises about the restrictions on church membership, but encourages communities, families, and individuals to be open, supporting, and loving of those who transition.

The new teachings attempt to straddle an impossible compromise. On one hand, church leaders have become increasingly explicit that “gender” is an immutable aspect of one’s eternal identity, going so far as to reinterpret the 1995 Proclamation on the family to refer to “biological sex at birth.” On the other hand, the recognition of the ambiguities of intersex persons (another updated entry in the “General Handbook”), and the admission that “the Church does not take a position on the causes of people identifying themselves as transgender,” leave “biology” an ambiguous arbiter of a supposedly fixed characteristic.

Today, scientists generally reject the idea of a fixed “biological sex,” since there is no single universal biological marker of sexual difference, let alone one that would determine social concepts like what kinds of clothing one should wear or what bathroom one should use.

Though the new policy appeals to “biological sex,” it also reveal the ways that such a concept carries social, not scientific value in LDS thought. While LDS teachings today no longer replicate the false teachings of earlier leaders that transgender identity is a species of homosexuality, and no longer speculate on its causes, the shifting reasons for opposing transgender practices still indicate that bodies alone, or “biological sex,” does not establish gender identity.

The new policy demonstrates this point in stark terms. The discouragement of “social transitioning,” including practices like pronouns, dress and other forms of self presentation, undermine the claim that what is at stake is “biological sex.” The focus on these “social” practices show that “sex” here functions as a social norm, not a biological fact. There is no biological reason for restricting these social practices. The policy reveals that enforcing social boundaries between male and female remains the primary goal.

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. The admission that even biology cannot be the universal arbiter of a sexual identity, and the allowance of trans identities in albeit limited ways, reveal that ultimately “sex” here is a fluid social category, not a fixed biological one.

Taylor Petrey

Taylor G. Petrey is an associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College and author of Tabernacles of Clay: Gender and Sexuality in Modern Mormonism (forthcoming).