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STERLING M. MCMURRIN LECTURE ON RELIGION AND CULTURE

DR. TAYLOR PETREY holds a BA in philosophy and religion from Pace University, and both an MTS and a Th.D. degree from Harvard Divinity School in New Testament and Early Christianity. He joined the faculty of Kalamazoo College in 2010 and served as the Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program from 2012 through 2016. He was Visiting Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Sexuality at Harvard Divinity School and a Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program in 2016-17. He is currently chair of the Religion Department at Kalamazoo College and has been appointed the next Editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.


“PROBLEMS AND POSSIBILITIES” – TAYLOR G. PETREY – SEPTEMBER 27, 2019 – (video coming soon)

Thank you everyone for coming out tonight, no pun intended. 

And thank you to Mormons Building Bridges, especially Kendall Wilcox and Erika Munson as well those who helped to fund the conference. Thank you to Paul Reeve for his work and those at the Tanner Humanities Center. I’m truly honored to be here, and honored to speak as the Sterling McMurrin lecture. 

I want to talk about an issue, or apparent issue about the place of gender and sexuality in the Latter-day Saint tradition. What I am going to say is not official church doctrine, and I don’t advocate that it should be. But we can think and wrestle together with ideas and consider their problems, and their possibilities. 

I want to begin by telling a couple of different stories. I’ll start with a local story that illustrates a broader point that I want to make about the complicated ways that we think about religion and sexuality. 

In November 2008, there was a controversy between two faculty members who taught in the psychology department here at the UofU. The dispute rose to such a level that it made the newspaper. What happened? 

The dispute was between Lisa Diamond and Dean Byrd, Byrd passed away a few years ago, over how to interpret the findings in Diamond’s award winning-book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire

Diamond’s book tracks the relationships of women over the course of a decade and challenges the utility of sexual labels, concluding that desires are more fluid than fixed in actual practice. LDS scholar A. Dean Byrd was among those conservatives citing her work as evidence for the effectiveness of reparative therapy, psychological efforts to change same-sex desires into heterosexual ones. At the time, Byrd was the head of the ex-gay organization the National Association for Research & Therapy for Homosexuality (NARTH), and was former director of LDS Social Services, the church’s counseling agency that provided, among other things, psychological treatment for same-sex attraction. 

Diamond publicly repudiated the misrepresentation of her work, but Byrd insisted, “NARTH’s view is that people can adapt any way they want and there is freedom of choice….If it says ‘fluidity’ it says ‘fluidity.’ How you interpret it is something else.” To an extent, Byrd’s analysis was correct—how one interprets sexual fluidity is precisely the theoretical question at stake between queer and conservative approaches to sexual difference and sexuality. At the same time, his emphasis on voluntary adaptation and freedom describes a theory of sexual malleability more than sexual fluidity. These concepts are not unrelated—fluidity and malleability are sibling theories of sexual subjectivity that compete, like Jacob and Esau, for the birthright of psychoanalysis. While sexual fluidity attempts to describe the phenomenon of non-binary 

sexual choice and identity in sociological and psychological terms, sexual malleability suggests that choice and intentional practices play a significant role in the formation of a sexual self. 

“Sexual desire can be fluid and changeable.

mormonandgay.churchofjesuschrist.org (2016)

In order to unpack this, I need to do some definitions and broad overview of competing theories of sexual difference and theories of sexual orientation. 

When we talk about fluidity, we are contrasting it with notions of essentialism. Essentialism is the idea of fixed identities, whether gay or straight, as inherent features; or male or female as fixed features. Essentialism often rests on binaries believed to be at odds with one another. 

Essentialism is a popular view, and is not necessarily espoused by only one side. But, I think it doesn’t do the work that some people think that it does. For instance, many people think that church leaders teach gender essentialism and that they have always done so, citing the 1995 document The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Similarly, many think that the church believes the people are inherently heterosexual, and that homosexuality is a choice. 

The debate between gender and sexual essentialism or gender and sexual fluidity is reflected in a number of clashes, between queer theorist academics and gay rights activists, between and among trans and genderqueer communities, between bi-sexual and gay and lesbian communities, and between biologists and social scientists, and between and among psychologists, but also among various religious orthodoxies. 

The debate between essentialism and fluidity strikes at the heart of so many of the culture wars over gender and sexuality—because it is about something very deep, elemental, and foundational to our identities and of those whom we love—What is the nature of sexual difference? What is the source of sexual desire? 

I want to point out the roots Dean Byrd’s advocacy for sexual malleability is not just an anomaly in LDS teachings, but actually defines much of modern Mormonism. Gender fluidity and malleability, have been central to modern Mormon theories of sexual difference. Here, I am challenging the idea that gender and sexual essentialism are the only options in the LDS tradition. 

This quote here is not from Lisa Diamond or any other secular liberal academic or queer theorist. 

I want to suggest that this belief in sexual fluidity also extends to a broader belief in gender fluidity as well in LDS thought. That is because in LDS teaching, male and female identity has not always been defined by the possession of a male or female body (or soul) alone but must be molded like clay to be socially legible as “male” or “female.” LDS leaders advocate for strong social, ecclesiastical, and legal norms guarding gender boundaries because of an express anxiety about the possibility of blurring the lines between male and female. 

I am also talking about both gender and sexuality together, even though they are often separated, and separated for some good reasons. But talking about them together shows how these ideas also also closely dependent on one another. The idea of a fixed male-female binary, for instance, is the primary argument for a natural heterosexuality. Similarly, the fluidity of either gender or sexuality throws both into question. 

LDS leaders have often emphasized that maleness or femaleness are at risk if they are not performed properly—the wrong hair styles or dress can disrupt one’s status as male or female. Sexual and gender fluidity has been a source of great anxiety in LDS thought, because it destabilizes heterosexuality and the supposed gender binary that heterosexuality rests on. 

Yet, this fluidity is not just a danger, but is also a tool. In Byrd’s therapeutic approach, sexuality fluidity is the solution for those wayward individuals to find their way back into heterosexuality or and other approved gender norms with the proper help. 

While the normative values between Byrd and Diamond–representing a conservative and queer approach respectively–were quite different from one another, there was still an interesting overlap that I think is worth exploring.

What if we start LDS theology from a sense of gender and sexual fluidity, rather than a belief in fixed identities? What would it mean to embrace a belief in universal sexual or gender fluidity not as something to try to resist, but as a feature of nature, creation, and culture? 

So, I want to transition to a second set of stories—these are not local controversies, but span millennia of thinking— that I hope will illustrate the issue of problems and possibilities. These are stories we group together as myths. Myths are not necessarily good or bad, so I don’t mean anything derogatory by the term, but it is useful to recognize myths when we are evaluating them. 

A few characteristics: 

1. They have some explanatory value for why things are they way they are or how things are supposed to be. If some difference or inequity exists, the myth can explain why. Why are there so many languages? We have a myth to explain that. 

2. The explanations are not necessarily self-evident, but are in fact plural or polysemous. We are interpreting myths, which are also interpretations of the world. It is interpretation on interpretation. As such, our myths and interpretations are often less explanatory about the world they purport to describe, and more instructive about the character and values of those doing the describing. Our myths reveal something about us in their attempt to reveal the world to us. We make our myths in our own image and likeness. 

The combination of these two features—an explanatory function and the double-level of interpretation—then means that myths are somewhat paradoxical—they seek to explain but the explanations are often out of our grasp, even when we are equipped with sophisticated literary or historical tools. 

Lets focus first on the explanatory function of myths, to express some truth about the world. Even though I hate binaries and my entire being is committed to showing how they fall apart, for the purpose of our introduction here, let me point to two kinds of myths: regulatory and liberatory. Regulatory myths might explain or defend the status quo. Why are some people more powerful than others? Well, because the gods ordained it in creation, or because of some event in premortal life, or because in some dispute between groups the gods sided with one, or because god chose one ancestor for special treatment and his descendants inherit that promise. 

The utopian or liberatory myth functions differently. It does not seek to explain or justify the status quo by appealing to pre-history, pre-mortality, or some before. Instead, these kinds of myths seeks to destabilize the world as it is. It is a myth of reversal, of critique, or challenge. 

One isn’t necessarily good or bad—we might want to defense some parts of the status quo and critique others, but some critiques also might be bad too. Also, myths can function in more than one way, and they can be interpreted in liberators or regulative ways. 

Jesus is a classic example—though he is often used to support the modern invention of the “traditional family”, he also taught to hate your father and mother, the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the smallest mustard seed turns into the largest tree. The Kingdom of God is always unexpected, seemingly unfair to the present order, coming out of left field for those who thrive in the world as it appears to be. These reversals draw on mythological themes about creation or eschatology to illustrate a challenge to the present order. 

The simultaneous existence of the regulatory myths and the liberatory myths show why the homosecular critique of religion as necessarily oppressive is simplistic if not myopic. It buys into the regulatory myth-makers’ view of religion alone and misses the ways that religion lifts up, inspires, speaks back, and gives voice. Thus, liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology, and so on, draw on religion as a way of troubling the oppressive forces in the world. 

So, how can we approach some of the mythology that purports to explain gender and sexuality? 

CREATION MYTHOLOGY

When thinking about gender and sexuality, creation myths have been particular important in different religious traditions to do some explanation but also liberation. 

Those found in Genesis are one particular set of myths, developed and elaborated in the 6th century BCE or so. They are part of a larger Ancient Near Eastern pattern, the likes of which we see in Babylon, Assyria, Ugarit, and others. These are regionally specific in their cultural and geographical context. There is a sense that the events depicted therein happened somewhere nearby—the Euphrates river is mentioned in the Genesis version of this origin story (see Christopher Hays, Hidden Riches, for historical context). 

Now, even if we concede that these myths are attempting to do some explanation of the origins of sexual difference (and not everyone agrees—farming or why snakes don’t have legs, are perhaps just as important themes, and maybe even the most important from the authors’ perspectives), so, even if we concede that gender and sexuality are part of the meaning of these texts, it is not always clear–Jews, Christians, and Muslims have interpreted the creation narratives in Genesis in numerous conflicting ways- to support or oppose marriage itself, to support or oppose celibacy, and so on. 

I say “narratives” and “myths” in the plural in Genesis because there are two creation stories, one is Gen 1 and the other in Gen 2-3, that are different. In the first, a deity called Elohim creates adam- which is a gender neutral term similar to the English world human— adam is “male and female” simultaneously, in the image and likeness of Elohim. In the second, a deity called Yahweh Elohim creates adam by fashioning it out of dirt and then breathing into its nostrils, then creates animals as a failed attempt at a companion, and then finally creates the woman by splitting her from the man in the adam at the rib or side. 

But we already can see that the two different versions might mean all sorts of different things with respect to gender–they might imply equality (Gen 1) or hierarchy between the two creatures (Gen 2). They might imply that sexual difference is an afterthought, and that a non-binary being is the prototype of humanity. They might imply that male-female complementarity is the ideal (first and second), or that a belief in male-female difference is the source of human malady. That is to say, there is no single meaning here. 

In the LDS context, the addition of the Book of Mormon, Abraham, and Moses, or the temple drama some of which retell these stories, only adds to the problem because instead of just two we have four or five versions that cannot all be reconciled. Any interpretation is a selective reading that has to ignore some aspects of the stories and emphasize others. 

HETEROSEXUAL MYTHOLOGY

Now, I start with the creation story because it is so central to one of the myths that claims to derive from that story. I want to deal with some of the common interpretations. 

The heterosexual myth makes a claim about both gender and sexuality. First, it claims that by divine or natural or cultural design, (there are secular versions of this myth), humanity is divided into male and female, and that this binary division then implies that heterosexuality is the divine, or natural, or culturally superior form of sexual exchange. 

The origins of such a myth are relegated to a mythical time, a time outside of history, before the social—whether in pre-history, pre-mortality, divine design, or the unconscious—the goal is the same in each case: to diminish human responsibility for creating and maintaining sexual difference as a social practice. 

Heterosexuality is all there is. It is rooted in prehistoric culture and nature or divine design. 

Such a view supports a popular myth of heterosexual supremacy-civilizations decline when heterosexuality is not strictly enforced. That is because in this myth, heterosexuality IS culture therefore non-heterosexuality IS chaos. 

As the story goes in its more sophisticated secular versions, in a primordial past, labor was divided between two groups—one hunted and one gathered. One produced and one reproduced. One protected and one nurtured. Or we look to the brain or the body as the root of our social divisions. Anything else is preferable to taking responsibility for the systems we have created, systems which have crushed and continue to crush so many in the teeth of its gears. 

But it has a problem: where did non-heterosexuality come from? 

PATRIARCHAL MYTHOLOGY

Now, I want to suggest something a little more damning about this secular myth of heterosexuality, besides its explanatory failures—that is that it is actually a new interpretation, not a timeless one. In fact, the the heterosexual myth is an attempt to soften its earlier form, the patriarchal myth. 

The reason is because the emphasis on male and female difference—the supposed “fact” that supports the heterosexual myth—was (and still is) the primary argument for the patriarchal myth. 

In the patriarchal myth, at some primordial time, whether from God, nature, or culture, men and women were different and that difference suggested that there was an inevitable hierarchy. Where there is difference, there must also be superiority or inferiority. 

In this myth, men are naturally stronger, are suited to the world outside the home, are more rational and less emotional, or whose bodies are less shameful. Or, one could point to the Genesis narrative where it clearly says that the man “shall rule” over the woman. The patriarchal reading of Genesis was repeated in the New Testament, which says that Adam was not deceived and was created first, evidence of an inherent male superiority. The patriarchal myth has far stronger support in the Christian and LDS tradition, in part because these are often products of patriarchal culture. 

So, the heterosexual myth faces an interpretive problem—it actually relies on the same assumptions, texts, and narrative that patriarchal mythology is founded on, though both pretend not to be interpretations at all, but merely representations of what is totally obvious. 

The patriarchal or heterosexual myth give both an aura of inevitability, and an “aura of facticity” (Geertz) that protects against liberatory reforms. 

These are both regulatory myths, or regulatory interpretations of creation myths—they appeal to some original time that has supposedly fixed or settled the question and preclude change. 

VALENTINIAN CHRISTIANITY

In another example of this, I want to point out that 1) the heterosexual or patriarchal interpretations are not the only ones available and 2) that binary sexual difference is not theologically or biologically or socially obvious at all—many people have interpreted these myths from non-gender binary assumptions. 

I’m going to give a small peek into early Christianity—my other research world that helped me think through a lot of these issues. This is a story about a second and third century Christian movement—not quite a separate group—but a movement within Christianity that had a lot to say about creation, gender, and so on. 

Valentinus was a teacher, originally from Egypt but who flourished in Rome, who was quite influential. He had many disciplines who elaborated on this teaching. More specifically, I want to point to a dispute within Valentinianism—that is between different thinkers in this same tradition, rather than contrast Valentinian teachings with non- Valentinians. The point is to show that their own disagreements about gender—whether sexual sameness or difference is primary—give us a sense of just how complex and old this problem is. Most of the texts that we have from this movement are in the Nag Hammadi library, Egyptian Coptic texts, but we also have lots of descriptions of Valentinus and his school from Greek and Latin Christian authors. 

Why Valentinianism as a prelude here? Well, it has a strong tradition of a pre-mortal existence and divine beings who generate offspring in the eternal realm—it isn’t the same as Mormonism for a variety of reasons, but I think that it illustrates something that we can chew on about these mythical structures. Further, it provides an example from the early generations of Christians who were thinking deeply about gender and reproduction, and what it means to ascribe sexual difference to God. 

They end arguing whether or not binary sexual difference is a necessary attribute of divine identity, and whether male-female couples are necessary for divine reproduction. Interesting, right? 

In one version of their pre-mortal existence drama the First-Father, Depth, emits one offspring “by means of Only-Begotten,” namely, the masculine Mind. This emission takes place “as part of no couple, neither male nor female (sine coniuge masculo-femina).” One early Christian author explains how this is possible: “sometimes Father emits with Silence [f] as a consort, then again he is above male and above female.”44 (Irenaeus) 

In a related version of this myth, the Father is described as “neither male nor female.”46 So, you have a being who is both called “Father,” a male name, but who also transcended sexual difference, they can create all alone—even though there is a female consort to create with. So much for the ideal of male-female complementarity— such an attribute is far too small for a divine being. The very structure of the divine in this world cannot be contained by sexual difference. It has to be set aside, calling into question the ontological foundation of sexual difference—it is secondary, arbitrary, created, not eternal. 

Another text from this collection, the Tripartite Tractate, explains that this being does not have a partner because “that would imply a limitation.”86 Rather, it engages in “self-generation.”87 But it goes even further—the first couple, Father and Son, like the first individual, is also not distinctively gendered as either male or female – both Father and Son are described in both male and female terms. This Son is also called “Silence,” “Wisdom,” and “Grace,” using female titles. 

There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

This notion of sexual difference as a hindrance, a limitation, a mark of lower status, wasn’t just restricted to the divine realm, but for other Christians this was the ideal for human beings as well. 

In this most famous passage, Paul says that after baptism, the ethnic markers of Jew and Greek, the social markers of enslaved and free, and the sexual markers of male and female, are differences which go away. They are of no importance. It is an incredible claim about the sameness, not the differences, that unite us in Christ. Unfortunately, we haven’t always lived up to this ideal, and to be frank, neither did Paul. 

But we can see why the Valentinians, who were close readers of Paul, believed that male and female were properties which would not adequately describe God, even a procreative God, or in Paul’s case, would properly describe the baptized. 

This may have had to do with a reading of Genesis. 

Let me drill down briefly into one aspect of this story—Some of the oldest interpretations that we have of these stories (they were actually ignored for a long, long time, as far as we can tell), but when we do get interpretations, they say that the original human being, the adam was created as an androgyne, a creature which is neither or both, or beyond sexual difference. The adam is a single creature, and “they” are male and female. Both Jews and Christians frequently understood Genesis 1 in this way, and then read Genesis 2 as the moment when this male/female creature was divided. 

Looking at Genesis in this way, as an account of an original androgyn human created in the image and likeness of an androgyne God, made sense to a lot of ancient Christians and Jews. 

Was the early Christian view that we have explored here an anomaly in the ancient world? Not necessarily. 

Being neither male nor female, or both, were elements that we find repeated in other ancient myths as well. Now, with a huge caveat that the record is incredibly complex on figures of ambiguous sexed identity in the Greek and Roman world, I want to at least disrupt the idea that this period, or any period, was based only on a male-female normative binary—it is historically false to say that gender has only recently been troubled. 

The notion of the androgyne we have already encountered in our discussion of Genesis- many Christians and Jews imagined the adam in these terms. 

In Plato’s symposium, one of the dinner guests, Aristophanes, tells the story of the creation of human beings—they originally had 4 arms and 4 legs and rolled around all the time and were super happy. The gods decide to split the humans at their side, separating some male-female couples into two, some male-male couples and some female-female couples. Our happiness in life is when we can reunite with our lost half. 

This wasn’t a crazy idea, but was culturally familiar in the represtation of the divine being Hermaphroditus. In the myth, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus, is swimming in a lake when the nymph of a spring falls in love him, embraces him, and prayed to the gods that there bodies would be united into one and never separated. (told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). This is one of six gender transformations in his book, the others all being examples of transformation of one to another, as opposed to both simultaneously. 

There are multiple attestations of the story of Hermaphroditus, and multiple competing versions of the story. 

It wasn’t only Valentinians in Egypt or Rome, or non-Christians, but it was a widespread Christian belief. 

According to the Gospel of Thomas, a second century Christian writing also discovered in the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. 

Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.’

Gospel of Thomas 22 (2nd century CE)

The point is that not only do we have primordial and divine beings that are both male and female, neither male and female, or transition, but also some indication that these were models of Christian piety for some kinds of Christians. 

One can see how this text is interpreting Gal 3:28 or maybe Genesis 1, there is no longer male and female in Christ Jesus, or male and female are one and the same. 

The list can be multiplied from all sorts of Christians. They didn’t all accept this view (this was the subject of my first book), but it was a widespread belief that the ontology of sexual difference was mutable. 

PATRIARCHAL AND HETEROSEXUAL MYTH IN LATTER-DAY SAINT TRADITION

Let’s turn to the LDS tradition. The myth of heterosexuality and the patriarchal myth are familiar. 

But these two myths actually tell us something quite important. First, 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. The transition from one to another has never really been complete, but the abandonment or abrogration of certain kinds of patriarchy is clear. 

We once had a strong patriarchal tradition—once and still—but it has certainly been modified. 

With respect to patriarchal rule: one famous example of this is BYU Religious Education professor Rodney Turner, who wrote a book called Woman and the Priesthood in the 1970s as a response to the feminist movement that was calling for egalitarian marriages. He offered several examples to justify the hierarchy of husband over wife. “The true order of marriage,” he explained, “is patriarchal in design. The husband leads because he is the living embodiment of that priesthood which governs all things.” Continuing, he explained, “There is no more reason for a woman in Israel to chafe under this commandment than it is for a child to resist the guidance of loving parents.”29 The duty of the woman to submit was a part of her social position. He wrote, “As long as a woman is under her father’s roof she owes him her chief loyalty. When she marries, that loyalty passes to her husband.”30 The comparison of the woman to the child undergirded Turner’s belief that there was a natural order to patriarchy. A woman’s humility in submitting even to a husband who was “less gifted or less knowledgeable” was a virtue.31 In another analogy, he explained that the father’s “position in the home is similar to that of a bishop over a ward, a president over a stake, the prophet over the Church or God over the universe.”32 

In this interpretation, the woman is infantalized, the husband is put in the position of God over her. 

Church leaders too once upon a time quoted Genesis, “rule over” passage in the strongest terms. 

These ideas grew out of fashion, but getting around the scriptural justification for them was difficult. Then, Spencer W. Kimball said that the “rule over” language meant “preside.” He saw a difference in the terms. But there wasn’t any justification for this change, he just said it “sounded better.” That was it, and from then on we just stopped accepting the text as written and started accepting a softened interpretation. And we saw in various respects an attempt to soften, if not erase, the worst forms of patriarchy in marriage. 

Now, you still see some of the strong versions of patriarchal marriage, but it is more muted. What came to replace it was a the heterosexual myth, that male and female should be together, not necessarily in a hierarchy. But this was a new invention—one that earlier LDS authorities would have rejected. They believed that sexual difference was hierarchical, not complementary and egalitarian. 

Still, despite its newness, the heterosexual myth was successful to almost invisibly replace the patriarchal myth. The heterosexual myth is capacious enough to accommodate different understandings of the relationship between men and women—both that men preside and also that men and women are equal partners. This is one of the liberator shortcomings of the heterosexual myth even though it does soften some forms of patriachy—it does not on its own present a challenge to patriarchy, but often makes room for it, and sometimes is conflated with it. 

So, we have seen myths come and go. This isn’t the only example of recent changes either. For instance, the myths about racial origins and lineages was once considered essential to Mormonism. No longer. 

What other possibilities could we imagine? What other myths about gender could we draw on that would expand our constrained imaginations? 

RE-GENDERING LATTER-DAY SAINT COSMOLOGY?

We have seen that the Christian tradition itself is not unified on the patriarchal or heterosexual myth—it already has from its origins challenges to the gender binary that we often take as immutable. But Mormonism requires its own distinct reading. 

What LDS thought needs it is not a general Christian theology that can accommodate same-sex relationships. That turned out not to be all that hard to do. One needs to read the Bible in a different way and contextualize its teachings on same-sex relationships as a historical relic and so on. 

But LDS thought starts with a different set of foundational principle, a different understanding of the nature of human relationships, a different understanding of the nature of God. 

So all of this got me wondering, is the LDS tradition so unified? Is the notion of an eternal gender or a singular view of heterosexual superiority the only way of thinking about things? 

In short, NO. 

I think that there are two places to look— 

1) historical understandings of sexual difference in the LDS tradition
2) historical understandings of kinship in the LDS tradition. 

I’m leaving sexuality out of it for now—there is a lot that could be said about changing LDS understandings of sexuality, from birth control to the ethics of pleasure. But I would like to contend that sexuality as a category is not really what is at stake here—and it is a bit of a head fake. Relationships, real relationships, are not about sex. That may be one dimension, one really important dimension, but relationships about about kinship, about mutual obligation, care, love, intimacy, trust, and so on. So, if we are reducing relationships to being only about sex and looking for a precedent there, we are going to misunderstand the precedents and misunderstand what is really at stake here. 

SEXUAL DIFFERENCE IN LDS TRADITION

  • Non-differentiated intelligence organized into gendered spirits 
  • Spirit birth from a Heavenly Mother 
  • God “made male and female”
  • Chose gender in pre-existence 
  • Eternal gender
  • “Gender confusion” 
  • No sexual difference except in Celestial Kingdom 

Historical understandings of sexual difference in the LDS tradition 

I have already suggested at the outset with the story from Dean Byrd and the mormonandgay website that sexuality is ontologically non-binary in LDS thought—but what about male and female? Can we see examples where sexual difference is non-binary as well? Are human beings essentially and eternally gendered, or is sexual difference a minor trait like hair color which may change over the course of one’s life, or eternal existence? 

I have found numerous examples of LDS teachings about the nature of sexual difference, some which emphasize fluidity and others fixity. 

  • Non-differentiated intelligence organized into gendered spirits 

In one version of LDS pre-mortal mythology, humans go through a two-stage creation. First, we all exist as intelligences, which are not in the shape or form or human beings. Then, God and others “organize” us until we become spirits. But intelligence don’t have gender. 

  • Spirit birth from a Heavenly Mother 

In another version, we are not organized, but born vaginally from Heavenly Mother, gestated in her womb as spirit children and we become sons and daughters of God when we are born. 

  • God “made male and female” 

In yet another, all of the canonical versions of creation in the LDS tradition all say that it is God that made male and female, sexual difference is a created, not eternal thing. 

  • Chose gender in pre-existence 

In one version of this myth, taught in general conference and by several BYU professors in the 1960s and 1970s, we all chose our gender in the pre-existence. This was similar to the ideas about race or poverty that LDS leaders once taught—unjust outcomes on earth could be explained by what we chose before we were born. If someone lived in a structurally awful condition, rather than address the problem we could say that they chose that life knowing what it entailed. Otherwise, they reasoned, God would be considered unjust because of the disparate conditions we live in. Therefore, we must have chosen which gender we wanted. Does this idea have some use for thinking about fluidity today? 

  • Eternal gender 

We do have this tradition too, but no one ever explains what it is—roles, bodies, etc. None of these can be stretched through the three or four phases from pre-existenc, to mortality, to the post-mortal life. 

  • “Gender confusion” 

Despite the idea that gender is so fixed that it is eternal, we also have an idea that it can be confused. LDS leaders in the last 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. 

  • No sexual difference except in Celestial Kingdom 

This one I want to reflect on a bit more as an example of LDS teachings about gender fluidity, not just sexual fluidity. 

Is not the sectarian world justified in their doctrine generally proclaimed, that after the resurrection there will be neither male or female sex? It is a logical conclusion for them to reach and is apparently in full harmony with what the Lord has revealed regarding the kingdoms into which evidently the vast majority of mankind is likely to go.

Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (1963), 4:64-67.

Alluding to Galatians 3:28 that there is “neither male nor female…in Christ,” LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith argued that other churches were largely correct in their rejection of a sexed afterlife. The idea that there would be some other sex, a neuter being that is neither man nor woman, as the norm for the vast majority of those in the afterlife, made binary gender the exception for resurrected beings, not the rule. Smith had thought through this issue before and taught it consistently in his ministry. In his 1954 book, Doctrines of Salvation, he made a similar statement about sexual difference as a privilege in the afterlife. He argued that those who do not dwell in the highest kingdom will lose the power of procreation just as they lose their marriages and families. Their bodies are marked and function differently. He explained, “Some of the functions in the celestial body will not appear in the terrestrial body, neither in the telestial body, and the power of procreation will be removed. I take it that men and women will, in these kingdoms, be just what the so-called Christian world expects us all to be — neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings having received the resurrection.” Since the functions of non-celestial bodies do not include reproduction and sexual intercourse, the form of these bodies is necessarily different as well. There would be three sexes, man, woman, and immortal being—an undifferentiated human. His teaching suggested that sexual difference was a contingent, situational experience that only makes sense if there is something beyond sexual dimorphism. 

It wasn’t that long ago that gender was not eternal in LDS thought. 

KINSHIP IN LDS TRADITION 

  • Proto-polygamy and spiritual wifery
  • Plural marriage 
  • Proxy marriage 
  • Married for time only 
  • Marriage for eternity only
  • Convenience Marriage 
  • Adoption (of adults and children)
  • Successive sealing 

The varieties of kinship- we see lots of experimentation and variation that does not look like male-female pairs as the structure of families. 

Proto-polygamy and spiritual wifery Plural marriage Proxy marriage Married for time only Marriage for eternity only Convenience Marriage- one of my favorites- for men who could not reproduce with their wives, BY sometimes assigned another man to have sex with the woman in a convenience marriage. The children would be considered the offspring of the first husband. Adoption (of adults and children) Successive sealings today- where men may be sealed to multiple women successively 

What principles can we draw from this diversity, besides the existence of diversity of kinship itself? 

1. Reproduction is not an essential feature of ritual kinship as practiced by LDS. Whether non-reproductive relationships, proxy reproduction, or adoption, LDS kinship practices have not focused on biological ties as absolutely necessary for parents and children, nor that reproduction between partners is absolutely necessary for marriage. 

2. Male-female sexual difference is not required for kinship. Male examples: Jehovah and Michael as co-creators; Ruth and Naomi; Peter, James, and John; the Godhead or pair or groups who function as kin, and even create with one another.

3. We can even extend this by pointing out that heterosexual reproduction is not the only form imagined in the scriptures: The creation of Adam from dust, Eve’s birth from Adam rib, Virgin Birth of Jesus, and so on. 

Let’s return to Genesis 1-2 and read it through a different lens. The patriarchal interpretation focused on the creation of Eve as a secondary character as evidence of inferiority , and then pointed to the “rule over” passage as confirmation. This is the regulartory reading of this myth. 

As folks transitioned to a more complementarian interpretation, those aspects were ignored, downplayed, or reread. They started to see this as a liberatory story, one that could challenge the patriachy in some way. They emphasized the oneness of the couple. 

Both see the story as primarily a commentary on gender. 

What if, instead of telling us about gender, we read the story as telling us about kinship, that is about the obligations that bind us together with those that we love? Might it provide us with both a regulatory ideal about kinship, while also being liberatory with respect to gender? 

And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 
‘This at last is bone of my bones 
and flesh of my flesh; 
this one shall be called Woman, 
for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 

Genesis 2:22-24 

The first observation of the man is that he is kin with the woman—that they are one. It is not sexual difference, but their sameness that is the most important value. He recognizes her as the same, not as different. Her sameness makes her a suitable companion distinct from the animals. And what drives the connection between the two is this obligation that arises from their sameness. 

King David sent this message to the priests Zadok and Abiathar,

Say to the elders of Judah, ‘Why should you be the last to bring the king back to his house? The talk of all Israel has come to the king. You are my kin, you are my bone and my flesh; why then should you be the last to bring back the king?’ And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh?’  

2 Samuel 19:11-13

Recognizing that the reason that they cling together is because they are the same is useful because it is the same obligation that male kin have toward one another in other texts (and we can set aside the kin obligation between Ruth and Naomi for now). This intimate recognition is gender-neutral, and it also decenters sex as the defining feature of their relationship. 

We know this because it seems to be a common phrase of recognizing kinship—King David’s rebellious son Absalom tried to lead a coup against David—declaring himself king—both Israel in the north and Judah in the south accepted Absalom’s usurpation. After he dies, somewhat strangely (getting caught in a tree) in battle, David attempts to reclaim his kingdom by appealing to the tribes that had abandoned him with these verses. 

Here, the recognition of being bone and flesh suggests to us that when the man saw the woman after she was taken from his side, that they were kin, but he uses language that men could say to one another as well. It is the language of recognition and obligation, not of some ontological difference between male and female. 

PROBLEMS AND POSSIBILITIES

A lot of my scholarship has been to look for gender trouble—I’m not making it up, it is already there—in the LDS tradition and early Christianity. Rather than reinforce an ideology, a mythology, about some kind of “natural” or “normal” sexual and gender dynamics, I am curious about the places where those fall apart, or when and why we have seen boundaries and differences emphasized and when and why we see them relaxed. 

What really defines the questions that I want to raise tonight is the relationship between gender and religion. On the one hand I’ve tried to demonstrate repeatedly (as many others have) that gender ideas in any religious tradition draw on broader cultural ideas—there is not a purely religious view of gender, and not a single way even in the LDS tradition to understand gender. Rather, Latter-day Saints have already adapted to changes in gender and sexual norms, and the current and past norms reflect broadly shared views of their contemporaries from their time. 

In particular, I’ve tried to show that there is a tradition not only of gender and sexual essentialism, but also of gender and sexual fluidity in the Christian and LDS traditions. There is not a single view of gender, but a plurality that is possible. The binary is the only option. Indeed, it is sameness, not difference, that brings humanity together in love, relationship, duty, and intimacy. 

To return to our local controversy with Dean Byrd, “If it says ‘fluidity’ it says ‘fluidity.’ How you interpret it is something else.” Our question is how to interpret it- interpretation being the key problem and possibility. 

As a reminder, I am not expressing what LDS church doctrine is, nor am I advocating for it to change, but we have engaged in a thought exercise by bringing to bear historical and theological analysis of gender and sexuality to the common belief that church doctrine has never changed (it has), and we have wondered together whether any of the precedents based on gender and sexual fluidity might be reinterpreted, reused, or freshly applied to the contemporary situation. Similarly, we might wonder whether the changes in kinship practices, and the focus on kinship instead of sexuality, might provide some resources to resolve the ethical challenges we face. 

I do not know what direction the church will go, but I have seen how it can reinvent itself. My prayer is that divine justice, fairness, and love will be our guide. In faith, hope, and love—the greatest of these of love—let us be of one heart and one mind with those to whom we are bonded. Thank you.