On the Family Proclamation, eternal truth, and its relation to transgender concerns

I’m not aware of a more-widely quoted document (other than scripture) in Mormonism than the Proclamation on the Family.  This statement was first presented in the General Relief Society Meeting on Sept. 23, 1995 by President Hinckley in his address.  It is, as per the byline, is a “proclamation to the world” presented and endorsed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The status of the document

In my church experience, I’ve never come across anyone who treats the document any differently than scripture.  A bishop in my college ward even had all of us young married couples memorize and recite it, similar to how seminary students memorize and recite certain scripture verses.

While many members don’t seem to have any qualms with treating this statement as no different than revelatory scripture, it is, in fact, in a sort of unique in-between place.  A helpful guide to seeing what has been canonized in the history of the modern church and the process that is followed can be found here.  In essence, revelation to the church must come through the President of the church, be accepted by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and then be presented and sustained by the general membership of the church.

The Family Proclamation was presented by the Prophet and endorsed by the Council of the Twelve Apostles, but it has yet to be presented to the church and sustained “by common consent” (see D&C 26:2 and D&C 28:13).  Unlike other recent revelations (D&C 137138 and Official Declaration – 2), the proclamation hasn’t been included as an additional section of the Doctrine and Covenants or as an official declaration, even in the recent revision of the D&C that happened earlier this year.

To be fair, any document that has been put forth and agreed-upon by the first presidency and the quorum of the twelve carries with it a certain significance – this is no off-hand, unsupported comment or letter.  And the fact that it hasn’t yet been canonized doesn’t mean that it won’t be at some future point, either.  On the church website it’s included in a prominent position alongside other prophetic teachings such as General Conference addresses and First Presidency messages.

The contents of the document

If you’re unfamiliar with the proclamation or need a refresher, check it out now.  As the title aptly states, the focus of the statement is on the importance of the family unit.  Along the way the document describes how things are to be correctly done in families and also subtly defines what the church views a family to be.*

It’s been my experience in conversations with family members and church leaders on my gender dysphoria, that what people think the Proclamation says and what it actually asserts don’t always overlap very well.  The Proclamation’s teachings on gender have often been the first counterargument to ‘prove’ that I’m male, always have been, and always will be.  The Proclamation makes no such claim, however.  I’ll go into that in more detail shortly.

The veracity of the document

Like I already said, any official statement to the world from the leaders of the only true church likely contains at least some truth.  Ideally, it should contain only truth.  While there’s no scientific test for truth content, there is little in the document that a Christian, moral thinker would have trouble with.  For instance, most selfless people would agree that “treat each other with utmost respect” is a wonderful maxim that exists in all successful marital relationships.  Much of the rest of the document’s assertions are of a similarly-palatable, agreeable nature.

I do struggle with the delineation of gender roles in the Proclamation, however.  According to the document, husbands are expected to provide, preside, and protect while wives are primarily responsible for the care and nurture of the children.  I suspect that these assignments may not be part of eternal truth.  Will families always need to be protected in the eternities?  What forces will assail an exalted couple in the Celestial Kingdom?  The same goes for providing.  Even restricting ourselves only to mortality, there is ample evidence that these labor divisions have been distributed differently in other cultures and eras.  Have people living in societies where social mores differed from the expectations stated in the Proclamation been in the wrong?  I don’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely.

The assertions made on gender roles and what a family is ‘supposed’ to be seem very much to be based on ethnocentric views of the 1950’s cultural ideal.  Not only that, but the blunt divisions are contradicted in the final line of the same paragraph in which individuals are to help one another as “equal partners” in these responsibilities.  If both partners are equally responsible, how is one primarily or more responsible?

Specific concerns with regard to gender dysphoria

As I mentioned earlier, the line “gender is an essential characteristic of individual mortal, premortal, and eternal identity and purpose” has often been used to try to prove to me that my desires to be female are bad and should be viewed and treated as an evil temptation.

The first problem with this lies in what is actually meant by “gender” in this sentence.  Throughout all church teachings I’ve read on the subject, there is little to no clarification on to what is actually being referred to (spiritual sex, chromosomal sex, genitalia, etc.) with this inoffensive term “gender.”  This is most likely because there’s never been a need to make such distinctions – in an undeviant and correctly-aligned person, these factors are expected to line up (i.e. XY chromosomes, testes, male genitals, male spirit, male gender identity, male gender expression, and attracted to women).  Any variation from this model is viewed as a flaw that will presumably be corrected in the resurrection.

Well, as we know, these factors don’t always line up.  People with gender dysphoria or any of a myriad of intersex conditions are living proof of that.  I refer the interested reader to other blogs (note: both contain non-sexual photos of genitalia) for more detail on the reality of physical sex and how the sex=gender={male OR female} model fails.

But if we look past this ill-defined term of ‘gender’ and assume it to mean what most church members see – genitalia and gender expression – there’s still little that I disagree with in the Proclamation’s sentence on gender.  Let’s break down more exactly what it implies:

  • Gender is an essential characteristic of a person
  • Gender existed before mortality
  • Gender exists now
  • Gender will continue to exist after death

Couple this with the other statements or scripture in relation to gender and we can draw some more conclusions:

  • Spirits (spirit bodies) have gender
  • Resurrected bodies (perfected mortal bodies) will have gender
  • There are two gender labels (potentially discreet categories or points on a continuum)
  • Gender may be constant**

Again, it’s tricky because we don’t really know what’s being described by ‘gender’ in these statements.  Since biological sexual traits (gonads, chromosomes, genitalia) are not as clear-cut and easy to separate into the two distinct categories that the church takes as baseline and what ideally ‘should’ exist, what if we take gender to mean ‘spiritual sex’?  This seems to be safe as physical sex can be rife with contradictions.  Spiritual sex would likely not be subject to the same fallen imperfections as our mortal bodies are.  Furthermore, it’s assumed by the church’s doctrine on gender that a male body houses a male spirit without exception, so whether discussing the sex of the body or the sex of the spirit any conclusions reached would be expected to be the same.

The assertions continue to be palatable – spirits are male or female, have always been and will ever continue to be.  I’m comfortable with these tenets.  I can’t imagine my core gender identity flopping between the possibilities.

But remember that this unified model of sex that the Proclamation assumes doesn’t actually have a basis in reality – biological sexual features at any level, along with gender identity and gender expression can be found to line up in a number of ways.  Furthermore, not all of these ways can be viewed as defective variations from an ideal norm, particularly with gender identity.

What the document doesn’t say

So when people use the Proclamation’s sentence on gender to tell me that I’m eternally male, they are having the Proclamation assert something that it happens to be completely silent on: the relationship between the sex of the body and the sex of the spirit.  And it’s not just the Proclamation that hasn’t broached this critical issue – there is no other revelation or scripture that I’m aware of that deals with it.

It’d be nice to assume that a male spirit always has a male body, but that’s simply not been asserted or revealed here in the Proclamation or elsewhere – it’s just an assumption that we make because most males and most females don’t ever have a second thought about the gender of their spirit.

It gives me pause, however.  In fact, the very fact that I exist, that I feel the way I do, clearly shows that we know nothing about the relationship between spiritual sex and all the variation in biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  We have no way of knowing the spiritual gender of a person, and since infants don’t really express any gender at all, we assume it matches up to the anatomy.  When the anatomy is unclear or contradictory, I have no idea what is done.***

Gender being an essential and eternal characteristic in no way precludes the potential fact that the sexes of some spirits and the sexes of some bodies don’t line up.  It’s obvious that they don’t in intersex individuals already – it’s hard to imagine anyone believing that intersex individuals also have intersex spiritual characteristics.  It’s a small (though for many uncomfortable step) from there to realize that no one’s spirit is determined by their body, including those with a contrary gender identity.  How could a spirit which existed for eternities independently of a body be affected or determined in advance by a bodily imperfection that was given later, anyways?

Gender Roles – Based on Eternal Truths?

The other area that I’ve really struggled with in the Proclamation is the rigid delineation of gender roles.  In my years attempting to be the best husband I could be (i.e., one who didn’t want to be a wife), I took to heart the “preside, provide, and protect” mantra.  I put expectations on myself to be the sole breadwinner for my family.  I felt pressure to own a gun or somehow be able to adequately protect my loved ones.  I felt like I was solely responsible for family home evening, family scripture study, etc.

I failed in all these expectations and I hated myself for it.  I don’t much care for guns and I don’t want one.  I have no idea how I’d protect my family if we were under attack and the thought is traumatizing.  I love them dearly and I want them to be safe, but I don’t want to be the person expected to accost a late-night burglar.  I’m not brave or skilled like that.  (Of course, I like to think that if one of my loved one’s life was on the line, that I’d be capable of doing whatever it took to save them – it’s just not a job that I’m comfortable with.)

I am a natural leader and I don’t feel uncomfortable with responsibility, but I don’t want to be the spiritual leader of the family.  I want to direct the family with my wife, even in spiritual matters.  I trust her and I want us to guide this ship together.

And, last but not least, I’ve been completely incapable of providing a sustainable, independent income for my family of seven on my own in spite of my best efforts.  I love my family and I want to work to help us, and I do.  But I frankly don’t want to be completely responsible for providing sustenance.  By the same token, I don’t want my wife to be completely responsible either – like presiding; I want it to be our responsibility, and I want us to work out a mutually-agreeable balance of how we can meet the many demands of providing income, homemaking, and child rearing.

My wife and I tried for many years to live this ideal and it did not work.  I studied and worked, and my wife was the stay-at-home mom and homemaker.  I felt like a failure in my efforts, and I legitimately was a failure – I didn’t provide, protect, or preside adequately.  My wife also became very unhealthy with her efforts to keep a home clean and 5 small children cared for on her own.  For most of our marriage, concerns over our family’s failure to achieve this ideal were primary stresses that we both experienced.

Who is responsible to provide?

I’d like to illustrate a specific example of how the ideal taught in the proclamation has been harmful to Andromeda and me.  Andromeda, as much as I love her, is not a great household manager.  It doesn’t play to her strengths and it’s not something she enjoys doing.  She also tends to get very discouraged with the endless cycle of picking up after others and cleaning the same area over and over, and does much better at home when she has some balancing responsibilities that take her out of the home.  We first noticed this when she went back to school for a few courses during my graduate work.

I, on the other hand, care very much about the state of the house, and complained for many years about how it wasn’t up to my standards when I’d return from school or work.  Because I’d been so busy, though, and because it ‘wasn’t my job’ I didn’t ever put in the effort to have it be how I liked it.  I saw no point in spending my few precious hours at home making it the way I liked it when I knew I’d come home tomorrow to another mess.

We persisted in these Proclamation-authorized patterns until we were forced to throw them out when I failed to find permanent employment.  Most of the work that I’m qualified to do comes in the form of temporary contract jobs.  We knew this after my schooling was finished, but it took some time for contracts to start being offered so I had a few months of being underemployed.  It was a large source of stress (thanks in part to the Proclamation’s insistence that it was my job to bring in most of the money because of what was between my legs) and I considered putting all my years of training and education aside and getting work I didn’t want at a restaurant or grocery store.  I ended up not seeking this type of work as I really wanted to make my education pay off and a position of this sort wouldn’t allow me the flexibility to take future contracts that might come.

So Andromeda looked for work, and found it easily.  She got two great part-time jobs that she loved and continues to work full-time at one of them still.  With her working, the homemaking duties fell to me.  It took a bit to get accustomed to work that I’d never really done and the often unrewarding, unnoticed, and unending efforts that go into caring for kids and a home, but it worked out very well.  I do a great job taking care of the home, and I’m being much more proactive about keeping things the way I like them.  In addition, I learned to better appreciate what Andromeda had done at home without support from me.

We’ve been more honest with ourselves since.  There’s absolutely no reason to believe, in my opinion, that a vagina or additional X chromosome makes one better suited to housekeeping.  People are people, and some people have skills, abilities, or traits that are better suited to the demands or particular jobs.  Since Andromeda and I have rejected the ideal that’s enshrined in the Proclamation and equally taken responsibility for providing for the family and the homemaking and care and nurture of our children, our household has been better provided for.  We’ve increased our income.  We have a cleaner and better-managed home – one that feels safe and pleasant for our family.  We each know our children better and they know us better.  We are parenting better.

Isn’t this what a family should be all about – people loving each other, living together, learning from each other, giving, and working together toward a common goal?  Did our plan to follow the Proclamation’s delineated roles fail because of my gender dysphoria?  How can I reconcile with teachings that claim to be ‘truth’ that go contrary to my personal experience?  Where do I fit in the Proclamation when there doesn’t seem to be room for me in it?

My views

The Family Proclamation is a great document written by men who are really trying to do their best and follow Christ.  I think it contains some eternal truth.  I also think it contains some partial understandings that are partway to eternal truth.  There’s probably some more to be revealed with regards to families, gender, and the meaning of sex and gender roles in mortality and the eternities.  The Proclamation, while great in many other respects, appears to lack some of this understanding.  Perhaps that’s why it’s not been officially canonized.

I’m grateful for the good truths contained in it, however.  I’m also grateful that it’s presented me with an opportunity to do some deep thinking and come to a clearer understanding of families, relationships, gender, and myself.  I wish that I wasn’t in a position to have to reject any of its teachings that are held in such high esteem by the church at large.

 ________________________________________________________________

* This is one of my main contentions with the Proclamation – an ill-defined and narrow understanding of what constitutes a family.  Because this doesn’t deal particularly with transgender concerns, I’ll delve into this in more detail in a future post.

** Whether or not this sentence asserts that gender is unchanging depends on the interpretation of the word ‘eternal’.  It makes sense to view the word used in conjunction with other labels of time as simply referring to all the time that happens after mortality.  It’s possible, though, that it is also asserting an unchanging, constant gender characteristic.

*** I would love to know, however, how the church deals with people that are intersex or have irregular chromosomes.  If you know of reliable stories or data, please let me know.

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4 responses

  1. I’m glad to hear that some of the things I wrote resonated with you in the posting before, even if they don’t resolve anything. And how great to find a kindred spirit in the love of Mahler! What an interesting journey you are on. As difficult as it is, I can’t help but think there is a certain terrible gift you have, in that for you, your motivations for heaven must be unselfish, as you mention. You have to have a “though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” attitude, rather than feeling, as you say, that you are simply pursuing your righteous desires. I think you are living “biblically.” You’ve had to abandon the American-style “aspirational gospel” for the gospel of obedience and sacrifice. You are offering “Isaac on the alter” and you can’t see how God would resolve your sacrifice in a positive way.

    This is a great posting on the Proclamation on the Family, and everything you say makes sense. I’m shooting in the dark here, but I had another idea that may or may not help. I’ve heard some Mormon feminists complain “Jesus can’t understand my suffering, because Jesus never went through the pain of childbirth.” This idea that Jesus, as a man, can’t understand a woman, is one of the unfortunate byproducts of the LDS doctrine of God’s corporeal and gender identity. But I can’t help thinking that someone as great as God really does comprehend the feminine. I can’t imagine that there is not some aspect of God that is not feminine, some dimension of reality where he exists in the feminine. How else could he relate to his daughters?

    If that is true, then the idea of “god” can encompass both genders. Indeed, there are elements of both the male and female in everyone, and as we aspire to become like God, we aspire to understand encompass both the masculine and the feminine. One thing the Proclamation on the Family says is that “men are primarily responsible for….women are primarily responsible for….” But men are also to participate in some nurturing, and women can participate in some breadwinning. You might say a typical man has 90% masculine traits and 10% feminine. Homosexuals and bisexuals have a more mixed or reversed set of traits. But God? He is infinite, so his masculinity is infinite, and his femininity is infinite. And we, at our core, have both within us. As fetuses, we all start out androgynous, until the cremaster muscle releases the testicles.

    When I read through your postings, I have this funny, embarrassing reaction. I feel so slighted as a man! Here you are, a female spirit in a male body, who hates the male body, doesn’t like men, and wants to be a lesbian. I suppose I’m thinking, what’s so bad about being a man, or what’s so bad about liking men, if you are a lesbian? It just seems a little imbalanced, and maybe your unwelcome body is actually inviting you to explore something you wouldn’t normally choose to explore, the beauty and reality of masculinity. There are lots of lesbians who would kill to be in your shoes! It’s not that they want to be a man, or that they like men, but still, on some level, they have a strong sense of their masculinity as women, and I think that many of them appreciate the truth and strength of what “the masculine” symbolizes.

    I remember going to a crowded jazz club in New York, and a lesbian couple sat down next to me. One was a lipstick lesbian, bleach blond hair in 50s style, with Marilyn Monroe mannerisms, and extremely beautiful. The other was very butch, oversized trench, crudely chopped hair, a female version of Javier Bardem! The masculine one sat next to me, and as we were listening to the music, she put her arm heavy around me, and kept whispering in my ear all about the jazz singer we were listening to. Honestly, I’ve never felt so comfortable, so in love with a lesbian, as this ugly, butch dyke, who had the most amazing spirit about her that it just embraced, physically embraced everything and everyone around her. She was the perfect embodiment of the masculine and the feminine, and . This couple really opened my eyes to the rich nature of human sexuality, beyond the cheap characterizations we make of ourselves and others.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth: we are becoming like God, and there is a dimension in which God transcends sexuality, and you have a rare opportunity to explore this transcendence.

    • Thanks again for your comment and ideas. I wanted to respond to a few points you made.

      First, while I consider myself a feminist in the sense that I feel that women are not inferior to men and deserve equal treatment and rights, I don’t subscribe to all the beliefs that many Mormon feminists have. (Though I can understand the feminist concern for knowing what the eternities hold for women as there is no role model and little is revealed). I believe that a male God can fully understand all of his children, male and female. By extension, I believe that Christ can as well, even down to knowing the pain of labor and childbirth. So I agree with you that God at the very least comprehends the feminine.

      As to whether God is actually a couple or a male and female unit, I don’t know. The ‘name’ of God according to Mormonism is Elohim, which is a plural Hebrew word for ‘gods’, but in the modern church God is generally synonymous with Heavenly Father, which sort of precludes any sense of duality. I think the main trouble with ascribing masculine and feminine traits to God or any other individual is in labeling which traits are which.

      At its most basic, a masculine trait is one that is exhibited by males, which as you say, emcompasses a range of both sterotypically masculine traits and stereotypically feminine traits. The same is true of feminine traits. Trying to categorize traits such as ‘aggressiveness’ or ‘nurturing’ either can’t be done or relies on stereotypes, which in my opinion are merely sociocultural artifacts. I don’t know that any traits can be cordoned off easily except for physical sexual characteristics.

      And I don’t mean to slight men at all – perhaps I’ve not been clear, but I don’t hate men or the male body. I’ve had good friendships with men. I don’t find men sexually attractive, but the male body can be beautiful. I’m actually grateful for my body – it’s healthy, allows me to do awesome things, and even its sexual traits are elegantly designed. It simply doesn’t feel right in terms of gender. Its sex feels opposite of what I want and what seems like it ‘should’ be.

      Not only that, I’m very aware of good, fantastic opportunities I’ve had as a direct result of my gender. I’m certain that I would have not been able to have many of the blessings and learning opportunities I’ve had if I had been born female (such as learning from my children and college opportunities).

      I’ve never meant to be ungrateful in my writings or to denigrate my body. Even in spite of my body’s imperfections, it’s been a wonderful blessing. It’s just not the gift I would have asked for.

      Still, I’ve tried to put it to good use, and I’ve tried to show appreciation. I hope I haven’t been overly negative, because I do have many blessings in my life.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

  2. I think your loyalty to the church doctrine is admirable, even when so much about your life invites you to doubt some of the claims. Like you, I believe that God gave us our doctrinal constructs, which include our mortal understandings of things like “gender.” I believe the Proclamation on the Family was inspired. But I have this idea that these doctrinal constructs are only the most narrow sliver of what heaven is really like. The Proclamation on the Family is exactly what it is: a defense of our culturally traditional gender roles, which God uses as templates and metaphores for us on this strange Earth creation of His, and His strange church. But the reality is, “my ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts.” This idea gives me the freedom to speculate wildly, and retain vast contradictions within my belief structure. This sort of freedom may not be good for most people, who need simple “heaven/hell” constructs, like God gave to Book of Mormon prophets. But for people like me, who suffer from an excess of education and scepticism, I need a God who embraces contradictions, because I percieve a world and a church made of contradictions.

    I’m sorry if I read any disgust or lack of appreciation for your masculine body, and I’m glad to hear you recognize it’s advantages, because I think it’s a great thing too, and would be sad to see it go. Also, I should apologize for my overly long responses. If I get the urge to send you another discourse, I’ll send it via email and not sabatoge your posts with my comments!

    • Ha ha, no worries – it’s not like there’s a lot of cross-commenting going on here. I appreciate your responses and some things just take lots of words to say. Good points, all, especially what you say about paradoxes. They’re sort of everywhere in the gospel, really, even from the beginning when God gave contradictory commandments to Adam & Eve in the garden. I wish I understood the reason why better.

      Thanks!

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