The simple answer to that question is: No one really knows. But dangerously, some lower-level church leaders seem all too willing to speculate. Without a church-wide doctrinal tenet, bishops (the Mormon equivalent to pastors, priests, rabbis, ministers, etc.) are left to ponder the question on their own. No one is necessarily on the same page, and the margin for error is wide. So more compassionate bishops may take a forgiving approach, while more dogmatic, morally overconfident bishops could err on the side of punitive.
One thing I know for sure, it’s not really a good idea in this case to lump together transgender with lesbian, gay and bisexual. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge supporter of solidarity; but I also love clarity. You can’t just say, Well the Church’s policy on same-sex attraction is (insert dogma here), so since transgender is part of LGBT, the same guidelines apply to you that apply to those with same-sex attraction. Yikes! You can’t just replace the words “lesbian,” “gay,” or “bisexual” with the word “transgender.”
LGB, then T
While I find solidarity standing beside my gay, lesbian and bisexual counterparts, I believe transgender needs some space of its own—just to hash out the differences between sexual attraction and gender identity. It is more often than not beneficial that transgender folks swim in the same alphabet soup with other socially marginalized individuals (LGBTQA et al.) and minority groups who don’t fit mainstream heterosexual, cisgender ideals. Like I said: solidarity! However, unfortunately, those who do not understand the scope of transgender—or, God forbid, question its mere legitimacy—often tend to confuse gender identity with sexual attraction. The T has been so inexorably linked to the LGB that the collective social mind cannot seem to distinguish between gay and transgender. It’s almost impossible to discuss gender identity without sexual attraction finding its way into the conversation. Consider the following example …
Just the other night, a cashier at the local 7-11 asked me why I was not attracted to men if I “wanted” to be a woman. “Isn’t that the right way?” he asked. In his defense, he’s an immigrant and, though I don’t know where from, I can tell his culture leans more conservatively. He made comments that definitely pointed to a conventional nuclear view of marriage, family and relationships. But I was still glad that he had finally opened up to me after seeing me in his store night after night and barely saying two words to me before that. In fact, for a long time, I just figured he didn’t like me. I was elated that he was now attempting to understand me as a person. After all, some of my closest family and friends haven’t even tried to do that. Even though this 7-11 employee was trying to be open-minded and learn more about me, he still couldn’t get why a “man” who “wanted to be” a woman would be sexually attracted to other women. Baby steps.
Though many people who are transgender may also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or pansexual, being transgender and being gay or lesbian are not the same thing. As I’ve said countless times, transgender relates to gender identity while the other terms concern sexual attraction. (A simple, straightforward explanation of these differences can be found here.) For the average cisgender, straight person—especially the stereotypical conservative evangelical white male—the likelihood of understanding the distinction between these characteristics is limited by the societal tendency to categorize, compartmentalize and criticize, if not to outright ostracize. Despite the amazing sociocultural strides Western Society has made toward acceptance of people like us, there are still powerful, prominent people working overtime to “Make America Hate Again!”
Mormon & Transgender
A great example of the ambiguity that is caused by lumping transgender together with lesbian, gay and bisexual can be seen in a post from May 2016 on a site called MormonHub, entitled Church Releases Statement on Transgender Issue. The author begins discussing the statement made by officials from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (of which I am a member) regarding the church’s stance on transgender bathroom rights. Yet, the somewhat brief article quickly digresses into a puff piece describing the church’s efforts to support gay rights in Utah. Case and point. Then again, I am also guilty of doing this in this very blog post, as you’ll see if you read on. But keep in mind that my intention is to distinguish the T from LGB.
Sadly, leaders of my faith have yet to do the same. They’ve had little to say about the religious and doctrinal relationship to transgender and gender identity. This leaves transgender members wondering exactly how their choices may be impacted spiritually and eternally. So what almost always happens when anyone from my faith is asked to comment on transgender issues is the conversation either quickly diverts to gay rights, the “LGBT community,” or someone admits they haven’t quite unpacked transgender by itself—separate of the L, G and B.
For example, LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks said the following in a 2015 press conference:
“I think we need to acknowledge that while we have been acquainted with lesbians and homosexuals for some time, being acquainted with the unique problems of a transgender situation is something we have not had so much experience with, and we have some unfinished business in teaching on that.“
This statement by Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice and current LDS apostle, gave hope to transgender church members and their loved ones. It also shows humility and a sincere desire to learn more about this very timely and important issue. Elder Oaks has served alongside fellow apostles, including the head of the LDS faith, Prophet Thomas S. Monson, for several years. Many of these leaders have spoken volumes, often making headlines in major Utah and even national newspapers, about same-sex attraction, being gay, gay marriage, and the “LGBT community,” and yet a Google search of keywords like “Transgender,” “LDS,” and “Mormon” yields sparse qualitative results on the subject.
Backpedaling from a PR Nightmare
For a long time leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found themselves somewhat involuntarily entangled in conflict with the LGBT community, which was fomented by unrelenting media coverage.The internet is replete with coverage of this battle between the LDS Church and the LGBT community, as you might sample from the copious hyperlinks that follow. Church doctrine forbids its gay members to “act upon” same-sex attraction, which its leaders often refer to as “same-gender” attraction. (A misnomer, in my opinion, that I’ve often taken issue with whenever I’ve heard it said. I obviously assert that sex and gender are two distinct things—one largely determined by biology, or nature, and the other determined by one’s innate identity.) General authorities of the church have consistently asserted that gay members are free to fully participate in church rites and religious observances as long as they adhere strictly to church guidelines. This includes complete abstinence from any type of same-sex relationship.
Things got really heated in 2008 and 2009, specifically in Utah and California. Some might argue this became the height of tensions between the LDS Church and the LGBT community. It became evident that church leaders and prominent, wealthy members were open proponents of California Proposition 8—a law that would exclude gay couples from the right to legally marry. A documentary by ex-Mormon, gay filmmaker Reed Cowan called 8: The Mormon Proposition threw jet fuel on the growing conflagration of ire and ignorance. In my opinion, the film is a caricature of the church’s actual stance on same-sex attraction, and it largely misrepresented church practices and doctrine. Both sides of this issue had their faults. Since then, efforts have been made to find middle ground.
The LDS Church, its leaders and its membership have striven to mend social and cultural wounds by openly supporting LGBT rights through vociferous advocacy in the realms of state and federal legislation. However, as a kind of quid pro quo, church leaders also push for preservation of religious freedoms. So on one side, they are encouraging politicians to pass legislation granting LGBT access to employment, housing, marriage and protection from persecution; meanwhile, they want to ensure that church institutions like Brigham Young University don’t have to allow same-sex couples to cohabit in student housing, and that church leaders won’t be forced to marry a same-sex couple in, say, an LDS chapel.
You Can Be Mormon & Gay. You Can’t Be Gay & Mormon.
According to LDS beliefs, family and marriage are sacred. Marriage can only ever comprise a bond between one man and one woman—with the exception of a brief period during the 1800s when church members practiced polygamy. When they were commanded by God to cease plural marriage. After being sealed (married) in an LDS temple, Mormon couples are commanded to multiply and replenish the earth (have children). This is the only proper family structure, according to the faith. This structure is described in a religious document called The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which is frequently referred to by church leaders when they discuss topics such as same-sex marriage, religious freedoms and LGBT rights. Obviously, we see countless families in the world that do not fit this ideal LDS paradigm, which is intrinsically at odds with any same-sex couple and many transgender individuals seeking to have a family.
In what I believe has been a sincere and honest effort to ameliorate its relationship with gay members and to mollify the LGBT community at large—emphasis on the LGB—LDS leaders have worked to foster support for LGBT rights and community welfare. The faith made a donation to the Utah Pride Center in 2015 (see also Salt Lake Tribune) and has since encouraged legislators to stand behind equal rights and fair treatment of LGBT individuals. Church officials have also expressed a need and desire to increase diplomacy between the faith, its members, and members of the LGBT community. In 2016, two apostles of the church. Most recently, the church expanded its website to include mormonandgay.lds.org. In 2016, church apostles Dallin H. Oaks and D. Todd Christofferson participated in a recorded interview with Tribune reporter Jennifer Napier-Pierce to discuss their views on the importance of religious freedoms and equal rights for LGBT folks.
But Where Does This Leave Transgender People Like Myself?
Like many members of the gay community, I have religious beliefs that are important to me. With all this history between the LGBT community and the LDS church, the casual observer may think my fate is sealed. If you simply juxtapose the church’s stance on lesbian, gay and bisexual members with my transgender identity, then the answer is simple: It’s ok for me to be transgender as long as I continue to live as a man, never transition to any degree and somehow try to pray away any desire to live as a woman. Additionally, I should pray for God to take away all the anxiety, depression, self-loathing, self-hate, and other suffering. I’ve tried that path, and it only ever led me to misery. Happiness grew farther and fainter. I’m ready to give being myself a try. If I can be successful at that, my hope is that everything else will begin to move into place—happiness, love, family and even an appreciation for myself.
Having a family, or at the very least a relationship that could lead to marriage, is also very important to me. Even though I’ve been single for almost 9 years—most of which I spent living as a man (closeted and attempting to forget altogether my ‘secret’ identity)—I hold out hope that there’s someone out there who will want to be build a relationship with me. Chances are I’ll blog about this in the near future. My hope is that as I embrace my female identity, I’ll gain confidence and perhaps be more attractive because of it. If I’m blessed, I’ll find a woman who sees me as beautiful. Time will tell. All I know is that the old way wasn’t working anymore. You know what they say about insanity, doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to seek guidance and personal revelation through prayer and meditation. Unlike hiding my true identity, prayer and meditation have always helped. My sincere hope is that leaders of my faith will follow through on seeking to learn more about transgender. But it has to be transgender specifically and not merely LGBT. That acronym has almost become this ambiguous blob that has taken on a new meaning of its own. As a society, we absolutely need to take care to differentiate between sexual attraction and gender identity. Both of these contribute to an individual’s makeup—what drives them, how they think and act, who they interact with, and so forth. However, they are not one and the same.
I know that in some religions, it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or whatever. Maybe someday I’ll realize I feel more spiritually fulfilled by attending one of these other churches. Although, if I can reconcile my gender identity and my desire to transition fully to female with my current beliefs—that is, if LDS leaders can speak more to who I am and how that relates to my religious beliefs in a way that affirms my femininity—then I guess my faith hasn’t forgotten about me. Unfortunately, the jury is out.
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