A Mormon Leader Signals New Openness on Transgender Issues. This Could Be Huge.

Elder Dallin H Oaks speaks to the media after a rare press conference, Jan. 27, 2015. 

Photo by Jim Urquhart/Reuters

In a rare interactive interview held at the end of January, high-ranking leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fielded questions on LGBT issues. Church members flooded the moderator with queries about how to navigate the tension between supporting family members and friends and following one’s conscience on LGBT issues when it is at variance with current church teachings. One question dealt with transgender identity, and the response by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the highest-ranking church leaders, was the most significant—and underreported—statement from that session. A mother said, “I have a transgender son who came out to us about a year ago. … I hate having to fear what retaliation [from church leaders] I might have for supporting him … I think we as members need that assurance that we can indeed have our own opinions, support our children, and still follow our beliefs.”

Oaks responded:

This question concerns transgender, and 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.

Oaks’ tone was conciliatory and optimistic. A leader of a church that is famously conservative on gender and sexuality issues expressed some reservations about current teachings on transgender issues, anticipating that more experience might lead to changes. Here and elsewhere, rather than retrenching, the church is showing subtle signs of evolving some of its paradigms on gender and sexual identity.

This recognition may reflect the broader context of a sudden focus on trans issues in popular culture. Even in religious communities, transgender issues are increasingly in the spotlight. Recently, Pope Francis made news by inviting a trans man to the Vatican, embracing him, and reassuring him that there is “corner in the house of God” for him. Many within the transgender community are optimistic about this attention and see it as an opportunity to share experiences that religious leaders like Oaks claim to be looking to learn more about.

Mormons have been having difficult conversations about LGBT issues since the church strongly supported 2008’s Proposition 8, which barred same-sex marriages in California. Facing criticism from inside and outside the faith, the church has since attempted to change the tone of the discussion. In 2012, the church launched a website, www.mormonsandgays.org, which seeks to inform straight and gay members about the church’s stance on LGBT issues. The site notes that the church forbids same-sex intercourse but asks gay members to stay in the faith and straight members to be more compassionate. In 2012, the church also backed a successful anti-discrimination ordinance in Salt Lake City, which now protects LBGT access to housing and employment. Then in late January of this year, the church announced its desire to reconcile LGBT activists and religious groups through national and state legislation that balances nondiscrimination and religious liberty—though it should be noted that this alarmed both conservative religious groups and LGBT advocates, who view each other’s claimed rights with suspicion.

In conversations among Mormons, the “unique problems” of the transgender community have begun to receive some attention. Separating gender identity from sexual orientation is a hugely positive step for a church that until very recently referred to homosexuality as “gender confusion.” In 2013, the flagship gay and lesbian Mormon organization, Affirmation, changed its name to explicitly include bisexual and transgender people. In 2014, TransMormon, a 15-minute film, told the story of a young Mormon’s gender transition and of her supportive family. The film won numerous awards, was featured in dozens of media outlets, and went viral on social media. Equality Utah, an LGBT advocacy group, sponsors a Transgender Awareness Project that features transgender Mormons. Of course, on YouTube and other websites there are other stories, many tragic, of transgender Mormons who have not had such supportive experiences.

Part of the difficulty transgender Mormons face is that some church meetings, rituals, and priesthood ordination are strictly separated along gender lines. Therefore, the perception of ambiguity of gender identity has important practical implications for participation in the faith. According to current church policy, members who have undergone an “elective transsexual operation” are not eligible to worship in gender-separated special temple rites or to receive the priesthood. The concern for an “elective” operation may reflect an acceptance of surgery in some circumstances, such as for intersex children or adults. However, anyone considering surgery is warned that it may result in formal church discipline. A transgendered prospective member of the church may be baptized only with approval from the highest governing body in the church, but anyone even considering transition-related surgery is barred from joining the faith. There is no policy on transitioning in ways that don’t involve surgery, such as hormone therapies, “cross dressing,” or other means of living out one’s gender.

The LDS church’s attention to social and ecclesiastical barriers for transgender people, however meager to date, also portends a potential change in its teachings on sex and gender essentialism. Transgender issues pose a significant theological challenge for Mormonism because of the official belief that: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Basically, Mormon teaching suggests that male and female identity is not just bodily but is an identity that applies to the soul both before it is born and in the next life after death. While some transgender Mormons have appealed to the theological idea of a gendered soul to explain how their bodies do not reflect their “eternal identity,” others express reservations about the usefulness of this narrative. Transgender people experience gender across a vast spectrum of possibilities, including transitions from one gender to the other or those who identify as neither male nor female. These experiences appear to be precisely the kind of thing that motivated Oaks’ acknowledgement that church teaching is not yet up to the task of dealing with transgender issues.

Mormons are not the only faith tradition facing new questions around accepting the transgender community. Numerous independent organizations and online forums for dealing with faith and trans issues have emerged in the past few decades, while other more traditional gay and lesbian faith organizations have increasingly taken steps to support transgendered members.

Some churches are already far along in these conversations. Iain Stanford, a trans man preparing to enter the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, recognized some of the difficulties in the conversations the LDS church is just beginning. Churches, he explains, “have to become familiar and go through a learning process.” Ultimately, he is optimistic about how these conversations can develop, and encourages people “to quell their fears of difference and embrace the unfamiliar and trust that if they are doing this in the context of church and God that it will lead ultimately to transforming everyone.”

Some of the challenges that religious groups face include fostering welcoming and safe spaces, by, for example, learning the basic etiquette of talking to transgender people. “Things like being sure to use the names and pronouns with which trans people identify. Not inquiring about people’s bodies, or how their families have reacted to their coming out. Not necessarily assuming that all trans people identify in binary ways, or that all transition medically, but understanding that there are a broad range of gender identities,” says Cameron Partridge, an openly transgender Episcopal priest and scholar of gender, sexuality, and Christian studies.  

The work of welcoming transgender people is not just social, it is also theological. In the Mormon context, the chance to rethink some fundamental teachings about gender in light of transgender experiences represents a huge opportunity. John Gustav-Wrathall, an Affirmation board member who is active in the LDS church even after being excommunicated for being a gay man, said of Oaks’ statement: “Given the background and the history, it is actually an astonishing statement to me. I think it is really the first time that I’ve seen a church leader with that high of a rank even using the term transgender at all.” What’s more, it is “significant to have church leaders acknowledge that they don’t know about an issue.”

There is a lot of hard work ahead for transgender Mormons and their advocates, but Oaks’ recent statement represents a responsiveness to the conversations that have been occurring in recent years and an acknowledgment of the work that is still to be done. Slowly, to be sure, the Mormon community is in transition on transgender issues as the topic continues to gain attention in popular culture and within the Mormon hierarchy. The potential impact of such changes reaches far beyond the lives of transgender people, however. It may be that transgender experiences will provide the catalyst for more rich and nuanced approaches to both gender and sexuality in Mormon thought.