I am starting a new semester this week and as a way to introduce my students to Physical Anthropology and each other on the first day of class I have them participate in an activity I call Line-Up. Much like in kindergarten, I ask them to line-up at the front of the class according to height. This takes a few minutes and is relatively easy. No one really hesitates or refuses to participate (an option if they so choose). Then, we line-up by skin color, then hairiness, weight, sex/gender, sexuality, and finally attractiveness. I let them arrange themselves and choose the specific criteria for each category. More hesitation, anxiety, and confusion permeates the line with each new category. I have yet to have a class complete the last category (who knew that measuring yours and other’s attractiveness would be so touchy compared to the other categories? But it is college after all). I do this activity in order to start a discussion about the confluence and interrelationship of biology and culture. All of these categories are “biological” and yet some carry more social, cultural, and moral baggage than others.
Line-Up generates a fascinating discussion on all of the categories, but none more so than sex/gender. It is usually the only category that ends up in a binary structure with a distinct space separating the men from the women. However, does this reflect the biological or social reality? Is sex/gender the only category that is not a continuum? And how do I rationalize all of this with my LDS theology of “eternal gender”?
The answer is no. At the most basic science 101 level there are more than two genders/sexes. Let me explain further, but first a note on the difference between sex and gender and why it is so difficult to discuss within Mormonism. In the 1970’s and 80’s, second wave feminists drew an important distinction between sex and gender. Sex, being the biological concept applicable to all humans, animals, and plants and gender referring to the socially and culturally conscripted roles, behaviors, and traits of males and females. What becomes problematic in LDS theology is that there is no such distinction and we are left to guess at what exactly is contained under the euphemistic category of eternal “gender.”
Why is this important? It is important because at the most fundamental physiological levels there is no such thing as two sexes or “eternal genders.” It is important because with the most simplistic cross-cultural analysis there is no such thing as two genders or “eternal genders.” It is important because I was raised to believe that “the spirit will reveal all truth” and that “we shouldn’t be afraid of learning because all knowledge will bring us closer to God.” It is important because we are all presented with two mutually exclusive ideas, the scientific reality and the theological claim. It is important because how we treat others and how we think of ourselves can change in beautiful ways as we begin to see the continuity of sex/gender. This post will explore if either gender or sex has objective binary features that could support an eternal gender theology.
Anthropologically speaking, most cultures have a category for an “other” gender, someone who isn’t totally male nor female, someone who occupies a space on the continuum of maleness and femaleness. Furthermore, the behaviors, traits, roles, and expectations of gender are culturally relative. I witnessed this first hand during my dissertation fieldwork in Ghana where men unabashedly hold hands with each other, wear pink, sing soprano, and like hello kitty without any reflection on their masculinity, “machismo,” and/or sexuality. It is also a land where women “provide.” They farm, they own small businesses, they occupy the most prestigious and wealthy positions in the largest outdoor market in the world. The variations continue from culture to culture in what fundamental behaviors are “male” or “female.” Similarly, “normative” gender is very susceptible to political and social coercion by patriarchal structures. Betty Freidan, in The Feminine Mystique, gives a beautiful depiction of this as she describes how the national rhetoric of gender changes throughout World War II. First, encouraging women into the workforce with Rosie the Riveter posters, “Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do (and maybe even better!)” factory advertisements, and the patriotic ethos that women who avoided work were like men who avoided the draft. This rhetoric takes a sharp turn once the men get home and start looking for jobs. There is a resurgence of the idea that women were meant to stay in the home, that it is their “divine” role, and that in the ideal family men are the sole providers. The obvious socially, culturally, and politically constructed continuum of gender behavior gives me serious doubts about the concept of the “eternal nature of gender” argued in the Proclamation to the Family and subsequent talks. It is implausible and carries the remnants of Americancentrism and 1950’s idealism inapplicable to much of the global membership. Thus, is the theology merely a remnant of our church leaders’ generational and national upbringing? Is it the one and only true gender construction? Or am I missing something?
The problem does not get any clearer if church leaders are talking about “sex” instead of “gender.” Scientifically, there is also cause for concern. I have studied and taught the biology of sex differentiation for years and when the Proclamation to the Family first appeared my original question was how can gender be eternal when we have about 12 million people living in America alone who are intersexed—whose sexual genotype or phenotype is not exclusively male nor female (Fausto-Sterling 2000). This happens because there are many levels in the making of a biological sex. There are distinct chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, morphological, neurological, and behavioral developmental stages susceptible to error, mutation, variation, and environmental pressure. For example, something as simple as the amount and ability to produce or receive testosterone, for chromosomal XY males, or the introduction of testosterone, for chromosomal XX females, at a critical stage in utero can influence the development and morphology of the primary and secondary sex characteristics, as well as, elicit changes in neural and behavioral ontogeny. There are numerous variations that occur in the natural world in each of these different stages and based solely on genital anatomy some researchers have argued that there should be 5 different sexes (Stephen Asma 2011). What is fascinating about all of this research is that we once thought that gender was constructed and sex was determined (the latter is similar to the church’s current stance), however, we now know with absolute certainty that sex is susceptible to many different environmental, embryonic, and epigenetic influences. Thus, an “eternal sex” is also highly problematic.
Taylor Petrey writes a fascinating and intelligent article on how this topic relates to sexuality, entitled “Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” in the latest issue of Dialogue (Winter 2011) and offers a serious yet optimistic critique of eternal gender arguing, “The numerous critiques of the category of gender in recent years cannot be ignored, even if Latter-day Saints opt for a continued emphasis on binary sexual difference. Whether from the critique of gender roles, gender essentialist notions of innate characteristics, or even the notion of biological difference itself, LDS theology faces serious credibility issues by continuing to hold to precritical assumptions about sexual difference. At the same time, however, there is nothing preventing Latter-day Saints from moving past these assumptions in order to more clearly focus on Mormonism’s distinctive teachings about kinship and salvation, which does not require an appeal to the suspect category of gender at all” (Petrey 2011:129).
A post-gender theology would be revolutionary. Can you even imagine a religion, where everything from youth activities to apostolic callings, were dictated by spiritual maturity, ability, and inspiration, not genitalia? We would double our leadership ranks over night. I don’t have a lot of hope or optimism. So much of our current teachings, policies, and practices are gender based, but how wonderful would it be if you were able to fill the measure of your creation in any form that takes?
I’ve wrestled with these ideas for years and would love to know how you have been able to personally or theologically rationalize the idea of “eternal gender?” Is a post-gender LDS theology even possible? And what implications would that have for women and LGBTQT’s communities?