Jana Riess: New LDS handbook softens some stances on sexuality, doubles down on transgender members, but bet on more changes

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Members of Mormons Building Bridges march in the Utah Pride Parade in 2018.

A preliminary perusal of the 2020 General Handbook, released Wednesday and weighing in at 806 pages, reveals some areas where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has apparently softened its approach on sexual issues, and others where it is taking a harder line.

On the side of tempering its position, take surrogacy. The 2010 Handbook stated that “the church strongly discourages surrogate motherhood. If parents want a child who was born to a surrogate mother to be sealed to them, the stake president refers the matter to the Office of the First Presidency.” The new combined handbook reiterates this discouragement, but then qualifies it:

“The church strongly discourages surrogate motherhood. However, this is a personal matter that ultimately must be left to the judgment of the husband and wife.” (emphasis added).

Policies about surrogate motherhood began receiving media attention in 2012, when Tagg Romney, a son of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, announced the birth of twins and offered “a special thanks to our gestational surrogate who made this possible for us.”

This is an example of something we’ve seen before in the LDS handbook: a sternly worded prohibition that is slowly moderated over time. If the example of birth control is any precedent for what will happen in the years to come, the policy against surrogacy eventually will disappear. In fact, similar language was used when the contraception policy began to thaw back in the day. By the late 1990s, after leaders' dire warnings about birth control had become less frequent and heated, the handbook privatized the matter as “extremely intimate” and “between the couple and the Lord.” (For more on the gradual disappearance of Latter-day Saint leaders’ fiery denunciations of birth control, see here.)

On the other hand, some policies have either debuted or been reified in the new handbook. The word “transgender” did not appear anywhere in the 2010 Handbook (which did have references to “transsexual”), but here it gets a brand-new, and rather long, section called “Transgender Individuals.”

It will be interesting to see how LGBT allies in the church react to this section, despite the updated terminology. Whereas previous editions of the handbook allowed for a wide latitude on the part of local lay leaders who have transgender members of their congregations, the new handbook is far less flexible, dictating to local leaders what is and is not acceptable. Transgender members, it says, can:

  • Attend church meetings and social events of the church.

  • Be baptized and confirmed.

  • Partake of the sacrament, or communion.

  • Receive priesthood blessings.

  • Use the pronouns and names they prefer in reference to themselves (but see below).

  • Have a calling (a volunteer job in the church) and a temple recommend — if they do not pursue either surgical, hormonal or “social transitioning” to the opposite gender.

Those first few bullet points will likely be welcome news to trans members who have long been at the mercy of “leadership roulette.” I have heard stories of a bishop who would not let a youth do baptisms in the temple simply because they (and “they” is the right pronoun here) were uncertain of their gender identity; I have also heard of a stake president who thoroughly welcomed a trans member, gave her a stakewide calling, and took the time to listen to her story. You get all kinds. In the best-case scenario, the new policy could provide a baseline for preventing local leaders from perpetrating the most egregious forms of exclusion.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The church has released a new General Handbook.

But only up to a point. The reason the trans policy is so long is that it goes into great detail about several kinds of transitioning that are off the table if a trans member wants to enjoy full fellowship (which, as I am defining it here, includes the possibility of a calling and a temple recommend). Whereas the earlier handbooks only discussed the ecclesiastical ramifications of having a “sex change” or sex reassignment surgery, the 2020 Handbook goes further, limiting trans members’ participation if they engage in hormone therapy or attempt a “social transition.”

These parts of the policy are not fully clear. On the one hand the handbook acknowledges that some people are prescribed hormone therapy “by a licensed medical professional to ease gender dysphoria or reduce suicidal thoughts,” but on the other it states that such people are eligible to hold callings or receive temple ordinances only if they are “not attempting to transition to the opposite gender.”

What this seems to be saying is that hormone therapy is permitted, but only if it is taken with the aim of realigning one’s gender identity with one’s birth sex— which is oddly tautological, since that’s not the point of hormone therapy.

My first impression of this policy is that the church did not want to openly prohibit members from receiving medical attention in the form of hormone therapy but wanted to make it clear that any manner of transitioning to the opposite sex will have serious consequences.

That goes for “social transitioning” as well, which is a new topic for the official handbook. Here is what the policy states:

“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 birth sex. Leaders advise that those who socially transition will experience some church membership restrictions for the duration of this transition.

“Restrictions include receiving or exercising the priesthood, receiving or using a temple recommend, and receiving some church callings.”

But just a few paragraphs down, the handbook seems to open a door:

“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.”

Again, I see the church wanting to avoid alienating transgender people and their families, while also doubling down on its now-official interpretation of the family proclamation: “The intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation is biological sex at birth.” It’s fascinating that the issue of transgender members is what is pushing the church to finally define what it means by gender — and to subtly acknowledge that its own definition does not square with the way the word is used by people outside the church, who see gender as a social and cultural, rather than a biological, designation.

What all this emphasis on “social transitioning” might mean is that trans members can choose their own names and pronouns, and even have those preferences recorded in their official membership data, but there will be consequences when it comes to going to the temple or holding the priesthood. This approach appears to be creating a similar two-tier system of membership that pertains to lesbian and gay members: You are welcome to attend, and we recognize that you’re God’s children, but if you want to enjoy the blessings of the temple and of full ward participation, you are not welcome in any way to act on your identity.

Incidentally, in another important language change, the church has finally jettisoned the problematic “same-gender attraction” in favor of “same-sex attraction.” The handbook still does not use the LGBT language, I suspect because in the church’s view that connotes a lifelong identity that it does not yet acknowledge as real or permanent.

For the most part, the policies related to LGBT members are unsurprising, given what the church has been teaching in the past few years, as it has carefully separated out “same-sex attraction” (which is no longer regarded as a sin) from “same-sex relations” or behavior (which is still a sin). The latter may result in a “membership council,” which appears to be the mellower new way of referring to an excommunication or disciplinary hearing.

Same-sex relations, it is hopeful to note, are not listed in the mandatory discipline category as requiring such a hearing, which reverses one of the provisions of the church’s ill-fated 2015 LGBT exclusion policy. In the updated 2020 Handbook, same-sex relations and same-sex marriage are listed along with adultery and fornication as actions that could trigger a “membership council” but don’t necessarily have to. LGBT members who are “striving to live the law of chastity” can receive callings, have a temple recommend, and receive temple ordinances; male members who live celibately may be ordained to the priesthood. They just can’t have sex. And unlike heterosexual Latter-day Saints, who can start having sex when they get married, LGBT members can’t ever have sex, period, because the handbook unequivocally voices its opposition to same-sex marriage.

The new handbook’s provisions for LGBT members may not seem much — a lifetime, or make that an eternity, of celibacy does not sound like a terribly promising foundation in a religion that heavily emphasizes marriage and children — but they were hard-won and long in coming. Greg Prince’s newest book does a thorough job of chronicling each painful step of the church’s evolving stance toward its LGBT members over the course of the past five decades. Reading that, you begin to see development in context. Over this past half-century, the church has moved through phases of electric shock therapy, conversion therapy, shaming and excommunication based solely on sexual orientation. Today’s policy is far less than ideal, but it’s also almost unrecognizably better than it used to be.

Or so I kept telling myself when I read the new trans policy. It’s only an opening salvo, a policy that will be amended as hearts and minds are changed. To me, the most encouraging part of the new handbook’s policy on transgender individuals was the caveat tacked on to the very end:

Note: Some content in this section may undergo further revision.”

You can bet on it.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast Oct. 4, 2019.