My intention for writing this article is to invite members of the Church toward compassion for those who are a little different from what we expect. The Savior “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33). The Savior invites all people to come to him. We should do the same.
Once you realize that a lot of the ways in which people outwardly express their gender are social constructs, you’ll find yourself going down a rabbit hole with no end. For example, does it really matter in an eternal perspective that men wear pants and women wear skirts? No. It’s just a manifestation of cultural norms. Besides, men traditionally wear garments that resemble skirts in Scotland and some islands of the Pacific. The binaries Mormon culture likes to follow about masculine/feminine dress codes at church are meaningless to who we are as eternal beings.
Hair is another example. Does it matter in the eternal perspective that men keep their hair trimmed short while women keep their hair long? Absolutely not. In another place or time, seeing a man with long hair was much more commonplace and “normal” than it is today. It doesn’t matter to our eternal identities how long our hair is. The same could be said about hair on men’s faces, or hair on women’s legs.
More examples include career choices, hobbies, and even scents that culture designate as either masculine or feminine. When you start to closely inspect a lot of the expectations we have about how people outwardly express their gender at church, you’ll realize that a lot of it is meaningless to who we are as eternal beings, and a lot of the ways in which we outwardly display our gender is nothing but a gender performance.
That being said, I hope that a person who does not conform to social constructs about gender would still find themselves in a loving and welcoming environment at our church meetings even though they don’t look like everyone else.
Assigning Gender at Birth
What do we really know about the gender of spirits? The Family: A Proclamation to the World says, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” While this is an important statement, it begs even more questions about the gender of spirits such as:
- Did we choose our gender in the pre-mortal life?
- Did God choose our gender in the pre-mortal life?
- How was gender important to our identity before we had physical bodies?
- What are the physiological differences between resurrected male and female bodies?
- At what point is a spirit assigned to a human fetus? Does this happen before or after the fetus has started developing sex organs?
This last question brings up even more questions, because the way a fetus develops sexual organs is not always as simple as XX or XY chromosomes. I did a lot of reading before writing this article, and it becomes more apparent the more I read that the science world supports the idea that identifying someone’s gender at birth is not always as simple as we usually think it is. Some researchers believe that as many as 1 in 100 people are born with one kind of disorder or difference of sex development (DSD) or another. For example, some children are born with ambiguous genitals. Other children are born with male external genitals and testes, but internally have a womb and fallopian tubes. Other children are born with both XX and XY chromosomes in their body, have both ovarian and testicular tissue, and ambiguous genitalia. Parents of people with a severe DSD have the difficult decision of whether to raise their kid as a boy or a girl, because their chromosomes, gonads, or genitals are not conclusive to a male-female binary.
Wouldn’t that situation be made easier if parents could see their child’s eternal identity and gender? Without that insight, raising that child gender-neutral might be the most compassionate option until the child is old enough to understand and choose for themselves.
If we look at sex at a spectrum, with male at one end and female at the other, chances are a child will be born with chromosomes, genitals, and gonads that put them pretty close to one end of the spectrum or another. The DSDs I described above are some of the more rare and severe cases that put them in the middle of the spectrum, but others included children born with more subtle variations such as a child who has XX chromosomes (generally female), but an excess of male sex hormones, or polycystic ovaries. Such a child would still be easily identifiable as a female, even though they are not all the way to the female side of the sex spectrum.
Fun fact: Adolph Hitler had a DSD which manifested itself as a very small penis with a urethral opening on the underside of his penis rather than at the tip, as well as one testicle. It’s true. Google it… or don’t.
(Also, I recommend reading this article from Nature.com that outlines the many nuances of sex development that science has found. It includes loads of peer reviewed sources that are also worth reading.)
Since there are all kinds of developmental disorders of sexual organs that can happen in the womb, is it possible that we can’t know 100% of the time what a spirit’s gender is by looking at their sex organs, gonads, or chromosomes at birth? Statistically, assigning a child’s gender at birth by looking at their sex organs is going to be accurate 99.9% of the time. But what about the other 0.01%? Could there be men living perfectly normal “manly” lives whose spirits are female, or vice-versa?
I posit this idea as a possible explanation of gender dysphoria, which is defined medically as the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex. Follow me on this one:
The gene called SRY found in the Y chromosome is the one that switches gonads from ovarian to testicular development. But sometimes a fetus with XX chromosomes (generally female) will still carry a fragment of the Y chromosome, and end up developing as a male anyway. If a female spirit entered this fetus, she would end up with a male body. Is it outside the realm of possibility that people who experience gender dysphoria intuitively know that the gender of their spirit is different from the gender of their body? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m putting this idea out there because a popular belief among Mormon culture is that gender dysphoria is just a mental illness, and I would rather be skeptical than accidentally write off a fellow spiritual son or daughter of God as insane or deranged. But what do you think?
I have to point out, however, that people with a DSD, or intersex, are not always the same thing as transgender people. A person born with no DSD could still experience gender dysphoria.
The Gospel is for Everyone
Acts 8:26-39 tells the story of how Philip converted and baptized an Ethiopian eunuch. The interesting thing I found about this eunuch is that, in many ways, he’s much more of a man than plenty of men I’ve met whose genitals are still intact. Similarly, if a woman had to have her uterus or breasts removed because of cancer or some other reason, she wouldn’t be any less of a woman for it. This suggests that even though most people are assigned a gender at birth based on their genitals, those same genitals might not be the primary indication of gender later in life. A person’s gender is not just skin deep, as The Family: A Proclamation to the World says. It’s an essential characteristic of our spirits. If an adult’s gender is hard to define because of a DSD or gender dysphoria, is it possible that the most appropriate thing might be to ask them which gender they are instead of trying to make the decision for them?
Admittedly, I don’t have all the answers. But if God directed Philip to preach the gospel to a eunuch and baptize him, isn’t he just as likely to direct us to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to transgender people, inter-sex people, or anyone else that’s been forced out to the fringes of society because they’re different? Those souls are just as precious to Him as any other.
“Many of the general principles shared on this website (for example, the importance of inclusion and kindness) apply to Latter-day Saints who experience gender dysphoria or identify as transgender.” -LDS.org