Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Eternal Souls in Frail Mortal Shells: The Complexity of Gender

One of the great liberating and ennobling teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is the Father of our spirits (Heb. 12:9,10), and we are His children (Romans 8:14-17), beings with an eternal destiny, sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. We are sons and daughters, not just generic sexless spirits, but beings of specific gender going back long before our birth into these frail, imperfect mortal shells. Our gender predates our birth. In the premortal existence where we dwelt as spirit sons and daughters of God, we waited and were willing to be born into mortality and take on all the challenges and pains this brief trial brings.

Latter-day Saint theology helps us understand that we are more than our physical bodies. Much more. Our immortal spirit bodies, male or female, is at the core of the "real us." It is now housed in a wonderful but deliberately limited and fallible device, the mortal body, which is designed to be temporary and to ultimately perish. Not only will it die, but it is subject to all manner of afflictions and trials. Pain, disease, deformity of all kinds, wounds and damage in endless ways are possible. Every gene, every organ, every part of the body is subject to risk and harm. These problems may arise from random mutations, from radiation, from chemicals, from physical injury, gaps in nutrition, threats in the environment, and a host of other factors from the moment of conception onward. What a miracle it is that so many of us can walk, see, taste, bear children, and enjoy the pleasures and wonders of life as we do. May we always be sensitive to those whose struggle is different.

Latter-day Saints of all people should be prepared to understand that our gender is determined by something other than the physical appearance of our body. When we consider how variable this mortal shell is and how many things can confuse and confound these mortal shells, we should be well prepared to understand that there may be instances where a male or female spirit is in a body that, due to the random challenges of mortality from mutations or other issues affecting physical development, does not fully or accurately match the gender of the spirit. That this problem can occur is perhaps most easily understood by considering the case of individuals who are obviously born with both male and female attributes. In some cases, doctors make an assignment through surgery to specify which gender such individuals will have. It's possible for us to grasp, then, that the assignment may be incorrect, resulting in a female or male spirit assigned to a body that doesn't match the true gender of the soul. This error in assignment may happen through other means. There are other stories and pathways for us to consider.

I used to be skeptical about such possibilities until I met a valiant Christian woman and learned about her life-long struggle. From birth to about age 50, she was in a body assigned to the male gender, possibly due to problems associated with harmful medications her mother was taking during pregnancy. She is now physically female. I have shared her story on this blog before. Today I'd like to share something kindly written by another voice, the faithful and valiant Christian and Latter-day Saint who is the Webmaster of one of the voices associated with LDSGender.com:
The more I study this issue the more it seems to me like it really is purely a medical one. There is a general medical term called "intersexed" which applies to anybody who has physical characteristics of both males and females. The exact arrangement amongst individuals so affected can vary greatly. Traditionally people limit the application of the term to characteristics that are readily apparent by viewing a person's outer physical characteristics, conditions such as undescended testes or any other number of variations on the genitalia that don't point obviously to the individual being male or female. But then there are other conditions that you can't perceive by simply viewing somebody's body with your eyes but that medical science allows us to see with relatively routine tests.

Examples of this include phenotypical males who are later found to have ovaries and/or a uterus and/or Fallopian tubes, females who are found to have internal testes, phenotypical females who have the DNA of a male and phenotypical males who have the DNA of a female or the combined DNA of a male and a female. The fact that there are numerous readily recognized conditions such as this should show that we tread on somewhat slippery ground when we insist "gender is determined by genitalia." The International Olympic Committee used to think that way, then "advanced" to supposing that "gender was really determined by DNA" until it became clear that even that was not 100% reliable. Now they are not quite sure what to think. Beyond what physical sight can tell us about gender and what current medical science can tell us about gender there is also what future medical science may be able to tell us about gender.

There is growing evidence that the prime determinant of gender rests in a person's brain (which may be the physical organ most closely connected with a person's spirit) and that no amount of nurturing, upbringing or socialization to the contrary, hormone therapy or surgery can fundamentally change. At this point in time we can't really tell if a person has the physical structure of a male brain or of a female brain . . . until they are dead, and studies have shown that those who were phenotypically male in life but who reported having a female identity were indeed found to have a female brain structure upon post-mortem examination. But even with the limitations of current medical technology we can get a decent idea of what gender a person is by doing something rather simple . . . we can ask them. Self-reports, especially self-reports made persistently over a period of time tend to be the best possible determinant of a person's actual gender. And to have a female brain in a male body (and vice versa) is coming to be seen as an actual intersexed condition, even if the actual physical incongruity is known to nobody but the individual. I believe there is already medical evidence to back this up and that growing medical evidence will eventually make it close to irrefutable.

The absolute most humane approach at any point in time is to respect what an individual says about their gender. When a person lives against their actual gender it causes untold stress that takes an additional toll beyond what they are already physically experiencing.

In the Lord's restored and eternal gospel gender is exceedingly important. Eternal unions are formed when a male and a female are sealed by proper priesthood authority. Additionally, sexual sin (including some forms that confuse gender differences) is rampant in our society. It is easy to see how anything related to "sex" can be a very touchy subject. It can also be easy to think of those who are intersexed in the manner spoken of above as loose, degraded, immoral, hyper-homosexual, deviant, on the fringe of Gospel activity (if anywhere near it), etc. Mine is one of a number of voices out there showing that there are those with gender issues who are imperfect but who do not fit that stereotype. I am a lifelong true-blue, through and through, dyed-in-the-wool Mormon born in the covenant to two active LDS parents from good pioneer stock. I have served an honorable mission and have always been temple-worthy and I also enjoy frequent temple attendance. I do my hometeaching, read the Ensign all the way through every month as well as reading all the Priesthood/RS and Sunday School lesson material ahead of time before it is discussed each Sunday. I have strictly observed the law of chastity and have never partaken of drugs or alcohol. I also have never encouraged immoral behavior in anyone else. I have a profound testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ that has been revealed to me by the Holy Ghost and a fixed determination to live up to all of my covenants, no matter the cost. None of this seems to have changed the reality of the gender issue I face where having a male body doesn't seem to be the correct mortal shell for an apparently female spirit.
I'll have more to share on this topic shortly. There is a great deal of medical research that can give us insight into these complexities, and with that insight, perhaps compassion and understanding may grow. These instances may be rare and unusual, but where they occur, great sensitivity and kindness is needed in a world that can be quite cruel.

This is a sensitive topic and I still have much to learn since it is so outside my experience. Only recently did I chose to confront it and learn more from others. Just as we need to be loving toward those whose struggles are different, we need to be loving and tolerant of those in the Church whose viewpoints are different. There is a diversity of opinions that will be expressed from various leaders of the Church when they touch upon this topic, if at all. This is an area where slow, gradual development of understanding is likely to occur, and where patience and faith is needed for those struggling with this complex issue and for their friends and families. Bitterness and militancy is not the Lord's way of dealing with tough issues, but are crucial tools for the Adversary who delights in contention, anger, and mocking.

Update, Sept. 10, 2012: Some useful resources to understand the issues related to the complexity of gender can be found at http://ldsgender.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/transsexuality-is-one-form-of-intersexuality/ (great discussion occurs there, too). Also check out the excellent resources listed at http://ldsgender.wordpress.com/resources-and-links/. One publication that I found especially interesting and thoughtful was "Developmental, Sexual and Reproductive Neuroendocrinology: Historical, Clinical and Ethical Considerations" by Dr. Milton Diamond, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, Volume 32, Issue 2, April 2011, pages 255-263. Also see the AAAS news item, "New Research Casts Doubt on Surgery for Infants Born with Male and Female Traits."

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Question: any idea what percentage of people are born with gender identity problems built into their bodies? Around 1% or 0.5% maybe? Any way of really telling?

How do we sort out the real from the imagined? Or cases of self-deception?

Tony said...

Jeff,

Your statement that, "Our gender predates our birth," is certainly a belief shared by most Mormons, but does it come from a canonized source? The Proclamation on the Family is not canonized.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering the same thing as Tony. If I understand rightly, the canonical scriptural sources on pre-existence are in D&C, but I don't recall anything there about gender in premortality. But maybe I'm missing something.

-- Eveningsun

Janice said...

I agree with first Anonymous: "how do we sort out the real from the imagined?" "Or cases of self-deception?" I also agree we need to be compassionate, I really do. Having been exposed to DES, di-ethylstilbestrol, and having major emotional grief and untold physical and health problems because of it, as well as taking a good chunk of my money because of it, I would like to know where to find the studies where certain drugs can cause gender identity problems.
A lot of things are said about science and studies pertaining to gender identity problems but not who did the studies and where these studies have been published.

LDS Gender said...

"Question: any idea what percentage of people are born with gender identity problems built into their bodies? Around 1% or 0.5% maybe?"

That's probably a good guess.

"How do we sort out the real from the imagined? Or cases of self-deception?"

My extremely quick answer to that is that the real cases will generally have some sort of biological/medical indicator (or more than one) that something skews away from their apparent sex.

"If I understand rightly, the canonical scriptural sources on pre-existence are in D&C, but I don't recall anything there about gender in premortality."

I suppose that depends on if we accept the teachings of the Proclamation as coming from inspired apostles and prophets. It may or may not matter to the present gender issue. The reason it is likely important to the gender issue for LDS people is that scientists simply have no way of knowing for sure what one physical characteristic is the sole determinant of a person's gender, but in LDS theology if we believe that a person's spirit has gender then that likely trumps all physical characteristics.

"A lot of things are said about science and studies pertaining to gender identity problems but not who did the studies and where these studies have been published."

It is my understanding that Jeff is going to get into this more in a future blog entries of his. I think he may have thought that people would go to ldsgender.com and find the information that is there, especially on the Resources and Links page. But even what is there is only a small smattering of all the information available. Even more can be found here but there is still more beyond that.

Anonymous said...

How do we sort out the real from the imagined? Or cases of self-deception?

What has been suggested in Jeff's post is quite simply that we trust intersexed individuals to know who they are.

Consider the fact that if you or I claim to know, on the basis of our own feelings and experiences, that we are heterosexual, no one calls us out on our claim. No one suggests we are engaging in self-deception. No one demands some kind of outside verification of our self-knowledge.

Is it too much to ask that we extend the same respect to those whose feelings and experiences tell them they are transsexual?

This would seem to me to be a basic application of the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not unto others as you would not have done unto you."

This is not a matter of condoning any particular kind of behavior, but merely a matter of trusting others, just as we trust ourselves, to know who they essentially are.

...scientists simply have no way of knowing for sure what one physical characteristic is the sole determinant of a person's gender...

We shouldn't necessarily assume that there even is a "sole determinant" of gender. Things might be that simple in the spiritual realm, if one wants to believe in such, but given the physical evidence to the contrary there's no particular reason to think that way about the material realm. As Jeff said, it's complex. (Things always seem to be simpler in the spiritual realm--that would appear to be one of its attractions.)

As an outsider, I think it's going to be fascinating to watch this all play out. In addition to the Church's official doctrine, there are a number of Mormon folk beliefs as well as beliefs uncritically imported from the larger culture. (Of course, this is true of any religion.) Think of the earlier situation concerning blacks and the priesthood. The notion that black people were excluded from the priesthood because they were less than valiant in the war in heaven was never actual doctrine; even though the idea was promulgated by any number of high-ranking Church leaders, it was only a Mormon folk belief.

The parallel idea, once widespread among Mormons, that blacks were unworthy of the priesthood because they were descendants of Ham, was an idea imported from the larger culture (this so-called "Hamitic theory" was widely popular in 19th-century America).

The LDS Church has done a pretty good job, I think, of untangling its old racial folk beliefs and cultural prejudices from its actual racial doctrine (which is now quite respectably liberal). It'll be fascinating to watch the Church do the same as it works its way through the thickets of gender.

All of which brings me back to the questions asked by First Anonymous and seconded by Janice: "How do we sort out the real from the imagined? Or cases of self-deception?" These are questions the Church will be asking not just about the intersexed but about itself.

-- Eveningsun

Kadmon said...

Eveningsun,

The provenance of the LDS belief about gender determination in the premortal existence definitely deserves some scrutiny. If we limit ourselves to canonical sources, most of the references to the premortal existence are in the Pearl of Great Price. In Moses 3, it says that all things of which had been spoken (presumably referring to the creation account in chapter 2) were created spiritually before they were created physically. In chapter 2, it says that males and females were created. So one could argue that this is a reference to premortal existence of gender. This, however, is not dispositive and open to interpretation. For example, Joseph F. Smith didn't believe that the creation account in chapter 2 referred to a spiritual creation. It's clear to those of us that embrace the documentary hypothesis that the reference to a spiritual creation in chapter 3 is a harmonizing interpolation between the P and J creation accounts in Genesis, but that doesn't make the idea of a spiritual creation untrue. One could argue that if all things were created spiritually before they were created physically, that would include opposing sexual traits. The genetic aberrations and other aspects of the "frail mortal shell" that Jeff referred to would also have a spiritual counterpart, calling into question the idea that some people have physical traits that deviate from their spirits. So it depends on how far we want to push the definition of "all things" when referring to spiritual creation.

Aside from this and references to the gender of the premortal Christ, I'm not aware of any other canonical unambiguous reference to premortal gender. As you rightly point out, a lot of LDS doctrine about premortal gender is, by apologists' criteria, "unofficial."

Kaydence said...

For what it's worth, I am a mother raising a transgender child of only 6 years old. When she was 18 months and just becoming verbal, she identified as a girl. Asking me where her vagina was. Praying at night at three years old for Heavenly Father to give her a vagina.

We have been kicked out of our ward by our bishop, we have been told our revelations about how to raise our child is wrong, we have been told "we are not doing what the Lord wants us to do." All of which have been incredibly damaging.

We have been to five doctors including a pediatric endocrinologist and an LDS Psychiatrist who specializes in gender. The LDS Psychiatrist validated us and told us we were doing the right thing. That Gender Identity Disorder (it is yet to be medically recognized as transgender) is a biological issue for which the only tested "treatment" method is letting the child live as the gender they identify with.

He also shared with us that he has written a chapter about gender for the American Association of Psychiatry and he has called Salt Lake to question the church's position only to be ignored. He said that whatever gender doctrine there is out there, it does not extend into the realm of GID.

Even so, we have been told by our church leaders that our daughter can't participate in Young Women's, or get married in the temple, or serve a mission.

So where does that leave a family like us?

Christian Taylor said...

Here's a great list of a bunch of links to some peer reviewed journal articles on medical related gender studies: http://aebrain.blogspot.com/p/transsexual-and-intersex-gender-identity.html
Also according to the research I have done the prevalence of transsexuality is between 1 in 250 and 1 in every 2000 persons. I made a post on it a while back:
http://transchristian.blogspot.com/2011/12/just-how-common-are-trans-people-anyway.html

I also just wanted to say thanks again to Jeff for the loving approach he is taking with this. His example is a great demonstration of someone following Jesus' example of seeking understanding before seeking judgement.

Christian Taylor said...

Oh as far as knowing whether or not one has a case of true transsexuality or is suffering from self-deception there are two very helpful resources that should be used in this matter:

1. The Spirit of God.
2. A experienced therapist that has been very well trained in handling cases of transsexuality according to the current medically established standards.

Unfortunately the second resource can be tough to find.

And if one is simply caught in self-deception then why should we take it upon ourselves to be the judge of that? If it really is just their problem, then it's their problem.

LDS Gender said...

"The genetic aberrations and other aspects of the 'frail mortal shell' that Jeff referred to would also have a spiritual counterpart, calling into question the idea that some people have physical traits that deviate from their spirits." So, everything about a person's body is perfectly mirrored by the spirit? Is the spirit of somebody born without arms also missing arms? What of people who are born with genitals where the doctors can't tell if it's male or female genitals? What about people who appear to be male on the outside but have a uterus on the inside? See here for an example.

Janice, here is one paper about DES and gender identity: http://www.antijen.org/transadvocate/id33.html and there are more such resources like it.

Rozy Lass said...

I wonder if a Patriarchal blessing would clarify the situation for Kaydence's child, especially if the Patriarch had no knowledge of the child's situation beforehand? This is not the first time I've thought about this, as this past spring I spent time with a non-member friend who told me somewhat of the struggles her friend, born with organs of both sexes, was having in changing identity from a male to a female. I thought perhaps a patriarch who can discern lineage, could also discern gender. However, whatever happens in this life, all will be made right in the next. It's the waiting and enduring misunderstanding (or persecution) that is difficult. My heart goes out to those with that particular challenge. It makes mine seem minuscule.

LDS Gender said...

I think patriarchal blessings can help in some instances. Mine is quite ambiguous gender-wise. You read it and get the feeling that the patriarch was doing the best he could at the time. It may have been very odd if he said, "You're really a girl!" in it. I've heard stories from others in this situation who had interesting things to say about their blessings.

Kadmon said...

@LDS Gender

You're making my point by extending the slippery slope argument. As I said, it depends on how far you want to push the definition of "all things" in reference to the spiritual creation. I don't endorse the idea that every aspect of a person has a spiritual counterpart; I'm just illustrating the potential problem of using a particular scripture in Moses to prove that there was premortal gender. If we're going to use the Moses scripture to imply that gender is spiritually created, then we need some criteria for excluding other human characteristics, however rare they may be, from the category of "all things."

LDS Gender said...

Kadmon, I haven't brought up Moses. I do believe our spirits were either male or female and I believe this for numerous reasons, none of which I have brought up . . . except for the Proclamation. We can choose to disbelieve it or parts of it because it has not been canonized (yet? will it become true if it becomes canonized but not until then) but even that is a non-issue because other people take the Proclamation and used their perceived ironclad truthfulness of it to show that "gender is eternal, therefore you are whatever gender your genitalia say you are." So people take it and come up with all sorts of meanings from it. But even if our premortal spirits didn't have a gender and gender was not a quality that applied to us until we were born into mortality we still have to account for the myriad cases where people have physical characteristics of both genders. Which one of the two genders are they then? Is it up to other people to tell them what they are? Do we go off of external evidence alone. Do we discount how a person feels? There are numerous cases where a person seems only male on the outside only to find out later that there is something female about their physiology that wasn't immediately obvious. One such person I know of was born appearing male but always felt female but couldn't get anybody else to believe her and she even attempted suicide because her stress got so bad. She finally had her DNA tested when she was a young teenager and found out that it was XX. About fifteen years later she was tested again at the request of her new stake president and was found again to have female XX DNA and she is now living as a female with the approval of the Church. In a case like this do we tell this person that we know better than them what their gender is?

In short, the "whether or not premortal spirits had a gender" issue may not mean much until somebody who is riding on it one way or the other explains fully how they think it is relevant to the present discussion. The best I've been able to gather so far is that the people who think the Proclamation isn't 100% true are saying, "You had no gender until you arrived in mortality so you must live with being whatever gender you seem most obviously to be." And people can espouse that viewpoint if they want but it still leaves the difficult cases unanswered and unexplained, and the difficult cases are precisely what is being discussed here.

Kadmon said...

LDS Gender,

You raise many good questions that I'm not qualified to answer. My only purpose in commenting was to evaluate the provenance for the doctrine of premortal gender. As you may or may not know, LDS apologists have a set of criteria for determining what is or isn't official LDS doctrine. The Proclamation on the Family doesn't meet those criteria. The passage in Moses is one of the only canonical works that comes close to addressing the doctrine of premortal gender. Is premortal gender a true doctrine? I don't know and don't care. Most Mormons believe it. I'm mostly interested in determining how Mormons come to believe what is or isn't doctrine. The Proclamation didn't exactly state anything novel in LDS thought. The GA's who issued it grew up hearing the ideas expressed in it. Where did those ideas come from?

LDS Gender said...

Those are good points and they are somewhat tangential to the present discussion. To me truth is truth and the Spirit will testify of truth and it may or may not be in accordance with what LDS apologists have determined to be truth (my guess is that they overlap a great deal). There are all sorts of thorny issues that arise when you get too strict about what constitutes "truth" that remove the Spirit from the equation. For instance, we already know that the Bible is only true as far as it is translated correctly. Also, are these apologists saying that the Proclamation is untrue unless and until it becomes canonized? In a sense, "canonization" is not making a particular teaching that is untrue become true so much as it is saying that something that was already true is now binding on the Church. Prior to canonization those who take the Spirit for their guide can still be enlightened by "uncanonized" truth. Remember that Joseph Smith said the Holy Ghost is the oldest book in the world and what he goes by.

I could go on and on but I do think it removes us somewhat from the topic of this particular blog entry.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Kaydence, what a challenging situation. I'm glad the LDS psychiatrist was able to recognize the situation and sorry that others have not been as understanding. I don't understand these situations well at all, but from an administrative perspective, I suppose that there are assignments that need to be made based on external physical indications of gender such as which bathrooms one can go into, where that gender-based assignment is driven by social issues, not the true inner gender of the person. For social reasons, kids who look like boys can be expected to use the boy's bathroom. Anything else might cause undue alarm to others. Social considerations will also probably lead leaders, even ones who understand the complexity of gender issues, to stick with the "natural" assignment of external males to young men's classes, Scout camp, priesthood assignments, etc.

A lot of this experience is going to seem unfair. It is. Being born with this complex state has a load of unfairness built into it from the beginning. No easy answers, but patience and faith can get us through these trials. Maybe others here with more experience in this field can offer their suggestions for dealing with raising children to help you meet your child's needs while also moving forward in your journey of faith as a Latter-day Saint.

Christian Taylor said...

First off I just had to say that Songs of Solomon is canonized, but it's certainly not scripture....

Back on topic though. Kaydence's experience is certainly not the exception to what usually happens in the church, which I find most unfortunate. I have spoken with over five different bishops (I tend to move around a lot) trying to figure out exactly what I need to do in the eyes of the church to be able to be an active temple recommend holding member without compromising the medical treatment and counseling I need to be a functional human being. Not a single one of them actually knew how to handle my situation. The church's policy on how to help transsexual/transgander people is not even clear to bishops. Fortunately, for me only a few of my bishops felt I needed to be disciplined/shunned because of my disorder and most of them at least tried to be understanding, but the end result is I have no temple recommend and no one seems to know what I need to do to get one.

As far as bathrooms go making a transwoman (who dresses or acts like a woman) use the men's room really is not a good idea. This often results in being ridiculed and even assaulted. A better option would be to use a gender neutral or family restroom--unfortunately those are rare. Really though, I don't know why people have a problem with transwomen using the women's room. It's not like were rapists or something--we're as far away from that as you can get! And no one ever even sees you when you're in a stall behind a locked door.

Janice said...

To LDS Gender: Thank you for the link. I have not read it yet but I will (having computer troubles)


And thanks to other for the various links

Janice

LDS Gender said...

"We shouldn't necessarily assume that there even is a "sole determinant" of gender."

Exactly right. I wasn't saying there is one determinant, because I'm pretty sure there isn't. I was just clarifying that scientific researchers who have studied this issue for years have not been able to pin it on any one thing.