18 September 2011

"Gender confusion"

LDS leaders and lay members use a lot of code words. A whole set of vocabulary has accrued around the Mormon experience: “ward”; “stake”; “Relief Society”; “temple worthy”; “celestial glory”; “member/non-member”; “active/less-active”; “the brethren”; “conference”; “worthy”; “in the covenant”….

One pair of terms that appears from time to time in Church-centered discussions of sexual morality is “gender confusion” and “gender disorientation”. The exact meaning of “gender confusion” as used by church leaders or members in any given instance can be quite elusive to me; it is unclear if it is given in reference to the transgender experience or in reference to sexual orientation. Or perhaps, it is given in reference to both. Or perhaps it is given in reference to a more general concern that Church leaders have over the blending of gender roles in family life or individual behavior.

Here are a few quotations:
Using terms such as “gender confusion” in discussions of sexuality just creates, well, confusion. It may not be a tacit objective of Church leadership, but exacerbating confusion about sexual orientation keeps it unappealing, mysterious and dark. Perhaps a likely reason why such terms are used on occasion is that Church leaders and members are often too uncomfortable discussing anything having to do with sexuality in general, so using code words simplifies and sanitizes the discussion. Gay Mormons reading this may be reminded that the Church often preferentially uses the sanitized terms “same-gender attraction” and “same-sex attraction” in reference to homosexuality. I suspect, that like other things in Mormon culture (evolution and anthropology, free-masonry, and quirky or disturbing events in Church history) there can also be a tendency to avoid anything more than scratching the surface of controversial or complex topics.

I’m not a sociologist or reproductive biologist, but I’m going to try some clarification:

Biological sex. Sex – as a term of identity or classification, not reproduction – refers to the biological sex into which a person can be categorized. At the genetic level it refers to the type of sex chromosomes that a person has in each cell of the body. There are only two genetic configurations of biological sex, XX and XY, right? Wrong. In a small percentage of the human population, there are a few other chromosomal patterns (e.g., XXY) that can occur because of variation in how chromatids separate during meiosis. Aside from the genetic encoding of biological sex, people have reproductive organ systems and secondary sexual characteristics that usually correspond to the male or female biological sex. Like genetic variation, however, a certain percentage of people do not have distinctly male or female reproductive anatomy. Some people may be born with intermediary sex organs, for instance. So genetically and developmentally, most humans fall into a simple male/female dichotomy, but all do not.

Gender. The word gender is often used interchangeably with sex to refer to the two most common biological sexes in mammals: male and female. Another use of the word gender is in reference to a set of behavioral and identity attributes that are usually associated with a particular biological sex, but not as a synonym of biological sex. In other words, gender describes behaviors and personalities. It is thus in part a social construct; the ideas of what is feminine and what is masculine are more culturally determined than biologically immutable. An individual’s gender is an expression of a set of masculine or feminine traits. In a very general sense, masculinity corresponds with biological males and femininity with biological females. However, a couple of important lines of evidence support the idea that gender is as much social as it is inherently biological:

   (1) Over time the roles of men and women in families in western society have changed. At work and in the home, patterns of women’s and men’s behaviors and responsibilities are different today than they were several decades ago.  
   (2) Definitions of masculine and feminine roles, attributes, and behaviors vary from culture to culture. In the Judeo-Christian west, we often arrogantly think that our sociological patterns reflect fundamental human, even divine, optima (truth) and ignore the diversity of cultural expressions of things like gender.
   (3) Most individuals are a complex mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits. Even if there was some cosmic law that decreed that compassion, for example, was a solely “feminine” trait, or that assertiveness was a solely “masculine” trait, gender-wise most human beings would be a complex chimera of attributes.  Thus there would be all kinds of genders.

Sexual orientation.  Sexual orientation refers to the biological sex to which a person is attracted. Heterosexuals are primarily or exclusively attracted to the opposite sex, homosexuals are attracted primarily or exclusively to the same sex and bisexuals are attracted more or less to both sexes. Orientation often does not solely involve sexual attraction, but can include emotional and spiritual attraction as well. Asexuals are not very interested in sex, but may have heterosocial, homosocial or other attractions.

Sexual orientation does not necessarily have anything to do with gender identity or gender attributes. True, a number of gay men for example, are more “feminine” with respect to certain behavioral attributes, but plenty of other homosexually-oriented men exhibit mostly traits that are usually associated with masculinity. I generally count myself as one of these latter types of gays (though my lack of interest in football and NASCAR races are two strikes against my masculinity). Some heterosexual males are more feminine, and some straight women are more masculine than others.  The flamboyant male homosexual may get a lot of media attention and be the nucleus of stereotype formation, but gay males represent a spectrum of personality types. A gay LDS blog writer discussed being both gay and generally masculine here.  Another, humorous, blog entry discusses the gender-sexuality confusion that exists to some degree in LDS culture here.

Sexual identity. Terms such as “straight”, “gay”, “lesbian”, and “bisexual” are identity labels that individuals choose to apply to themselves. Sexual identity is more reflective of sexual behaviors than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and sexual identity are sometimes not the same. For instance, some gays live celibate lives or are married to a person of the opposite sex; these individuals, frequently for religious reasons, may self identify as straight even though their orientation remains homosexual. Closeted gays are likely to identify themselves as heterosexual even though inclinations, fantasies, etc. link their orientation clearly to homosexuality.


Unfortunately the Church seems to be very much in the dark about sexual orientation. I think this arises because the Church views sexuality though a single narrow lens – one informed principally by a modest number of passages about sexuality in an old text from an ancient middle eastern culture. The Church's perspective has also been informed by social developments in sexuality and American family life in the last several hundred years, but like other social issues, it seems to be at least a decade or two behind more mainstream perspectives. The Church adamantly insists that it does not bend to political or social pressures in matters of doctrine, but changes in Church policies like polygamy and extension of the priesthood to males of African ancestry, strongly suggest otherwise historically.

Older Mormon texts that treat homosexuality (e.g., President Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness) are contemptuous and contain misinformation. There is a real dearth of positive and scientifically-informed discussion of homosexuality in local Church classes and in more general settings such as General Conference. Homosexuality has been so marginalized and stigmatized in Church culture for so long that it can be a hostile and intimidating environment for homosexual Church members. These negative conditions are not universal, but they are pervasive enough to create generally unhealthy conditions for many out gay Latter-day Saints. LDS members who deny their sexuality or treat it as an undesirable affliction or temptation generally can manage to stay active members, but they internalize the dissonance between the doctrine and their orientation. There are a few gay members who have found ways to reconcile their non-heterosexual sexual orientation with continued activity in the Church. If such believers are homosexually active however, they are likely to only be able to do so as excommunicated members with limited Church privileges.

Discussions of homosexuality in the Church should incorporate sensitivity to the terminology that is used. This is not because all homosexuals demand political correctness. It is because gross misunderstanding of these terms reveals an underlying ignorance about important dimensions of the human experience such as gender identity and sexual orientation. Definitions of the terms given above can vary from group to group, but if they are seldom discussed in Church settings in the first place, ignorance about the nature of sexuality and the real experiences of gay people will continue.  Visceral disgust towards homosexuality may drive some member's rejection of homosexuality and gay persons, but ignorance is probably a more pervasive problem.

Radical changes in the Church’s position on homosexuality seem unlikely, at least in the near future. The Church’s doctrines about the family and morality are too entrenched in what it means to be Mormon that a radical shift in direction in this area would be an unacceptable earthquake that would rock the Church. But the Church’s emphasis on missionary work, and the fact that ultimately Church leadership is to some degree sensitive to the needs and views of its members (which needs and views are invariably influenced by the broader society in which its members live), suggest that modest changes in position with respect to homosexuality in the future are possible. At a very minimum, the other important doctrines of Mormonism – namely, the love of Christ – demand that members and the leadership take a more tolerant and inclusive approach to gay people. Mormon families casting out gay children is shameful. Mormon parents refusing to meet the gay partners of gay children is petty and damaging. Disparaging comments about homosexuality in the halls of Church buildings are unacceptable.  Thankfully Church culture is making some progress, even if as one friend discussed, the pace of progress seems glacial.


  1. Thanks for the ref. I'm interested in your more empirical and fact-based observations you've conveyed thus far, thank you for sharing! Gives me another weapon in the arsenal for understanding that conflict that rages in us, eh?

  2. I quite agree- insightful post.



    http://bradcarmack.blogspot.com/2011/01/chapter-5-moral-case-for-lds-same-sex.html ("god did not create all people..." section)

  3. This term drives me crazy as well. Very thorough post!

  4. Excellent! Thank you, Chris.

    Among the many things this shows is that words and being open to discussion about what they mean to us are so important to understanding each other. Merely dictating what the terms mean runs the risk of shutting down dialogue and misusing terms. But then again, sometimes that's the purpose behind the dictating. The pen is indeed mighty.