A story is circulating about a transwoman in Oregon who seems to have the support of her ward as she transitions from male to female.1 I think it is very premature to use this as an example of any Church-wide shift in policy pertaining to gender or transgender issues within Mormonism. However, I do think this highlights an interesting doctrinal loophole.
I have long held that transgender individuals can make an easier case for full inclusion within Mormonism than those in same gender relationships. This is because the Church does not need to change any doctrines or policies in order to include its transgender members.
Mormons believe that all people existed before they were born as spirits (non-physical entities) who have several eternal characteristics, including personality, intelligence, and gender. Pre-mortal existence is part of a three stage time-map called the plan of salvation that also includes our life on Earth and eternal life in the hereafter as a resurrected being.
The first presidency of the Church describes, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”2 Ones gender identity is a part of a person’s make-up that is older and more important than one’s physical manifestation of said gender.
When persons are born with physical inadequacies, it is generally understood within Mormonism that those limitations are limited to mortal life and were not part of the person in his or her pre-mortal life nor will they be a part of eternal life after the restoration of all things. The idea that an eternally female person could be born into a male (or an intersex) body seems to support this idea and upholds the sacred, eternal, and binary nature of gender promoted in the Proclamation to the World. A pre-mortal woman, afflicted with a male body in mortal life, would then be resurrected with a restored female body, embodying her immutable gender.
If transgender persons fit within the plan of salvation, why hasn’t the Church embraced them?
“Persons who are considering an elective transsexual operation should not be baptized. Baptism of a person who has already undergone an elective transexual operation requires the approval of the First Presidency. The mission president may request this approval if he has interviewed the person, found him or her to be otherwise worthy, and can recommend baptism. However, such persons may not receive the priesthood or a temple recommend.”3
The problem is if the Church allows for the experiences of transgender individuals to be validated by the plan of salvation, then it reveals two inherent problems within the said plan. The first is the fact that one gender holds more privilege than the other, and the second is that gender is actually not as binary as Mormon doctrine suggests.
The story about the Oregon woman highlights a practical problem pertaining to the Church’s gendered priesthood. The woman, who was previously a man, has the priesthood conferred upon her and has been ordained to an office in the priesthood (an important distinction). The Church currently neither confers the priesthood on women or ordains women to priesthood office. So how should it respond to this scenario?
The fact that there is a loss implied with taking the priesthood away from a transwoman points to the inherent privilege of that priesthood. Regardless of how the scenario plays out, the scenario itself highlights the flaw in the system. The power that men have is superior to the power that women have. Note that it is not the difference between the genders that is the problem. If women were not ordained to the priesthood but had something else that was equal in value to it (say, the priestesshood?), I don’t think it would be an issue. It is the privilege of one over the other that is problematic.
The second problem transgendered people bring to the plan of salvation is that their experiences often breakdown rather than support the gender binary. As I have become more involved with the LGBTQ community in Boston, I have discovered that many people don’t identify with either gender. Or else they discover through their transition from one gender to another that gender is much more fluid than the plan of salvation would suggest. These lived experiences challenge the notion that gender is one of the immutable, clearly-defined characteristics of the human soul. As a result, I would expect transgendered Mormons would be more inclined to lose their faith in Mormonism than to seek acceptance within it.
Because non-normative bodies in general pose a problem for the straight line paths of the plan of salvation, I am not surprised the Church doesn’t embrace transpersons. I am also not optimistic that the Church in Salt Lake will make any changes to this policy any time soon. If it embraces Leanorah Isaak, and I hope it does, it will likely be as a first presidency exception with the support of local leaders, and not a global policy shift. Even still, it is interesting to think about the implications of a Mormon mythology that does, however limited, allow for the transgendered.
1 Kim Johnson, “Openly transsexual Mormon woman attends priesthood,” abc4.com, November 4, 2013, accessed November 5, 2013.
2 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Family: A Proclamation to the World (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1995).
3 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church Handbook of Instructions: Book 1 Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. (Salt Lake City, Utah, 2006), 34.