Mormonism Beyond the Gender Binary

by Brad Carmack “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Liahona, Oct. 2004, 49; Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102). Mormons treat putative males and females quite differently. Three examples of this difference: 1. General governance: must be male (e.g. to lead a ward, stake, or the Church) 2. Marriage: the couple must on male and one female 3. Priesthood: must be male The highest LDS leadership has declared gender to be (1) necessary, (2) attributes of an individual’s spirt rather than body, and (3) binary, i.e. male OR female. However, no test for discerning this spiritual attribute has been declared. In this paper, I will: ● ● ● ● Explain why the gender binary fails Discuss the shortcomings of gender roles Defend my view that Postgenderism will result in many genders, rather than no genders Conclude as to why this is a good thing for Mormonism

(1) Explain why the gender binary fails
Everybody is either a boy or a girl- this is a pretty obvious and common sense proposition. Until you examine it closely. Though I explore the gender binary in greater depth in other places (e.g. Why Mormonism Can Abide Gay Marriage, a narrated slideshow on YouTube, or my blog post All people are either male or female: think again), the basic proof is not too hard. We make a snap judgment of a person’s biological sex based on appearance, and in almost all cultures map a gender onto the result. However, anatomy fails as a biological sex discriminator: nature draws no black and white lines on the male-female axis1.

Martine Rothbatt, “Billions of Sexes”,


Illustration: Let’s say you have Taylor (I use this name because I have both male and female friends named Taylor). Taylor just turned 12, and it’s time to send Taylor to Beehives or Deacons’ Quorum. Where would you send Taylor if Taylor: A: has a penis and a vagina B: has a penis, testicles, and breasts C: looks like a woman; genetically male (e.g. Santhi Soundarajan- Indian champion runner that attempted suicide after humiliating treatment surrounding learning her intersex status. She has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, with XY chromosomes but developed as female externally.) D: looks like a man; genetically female E: XXY genetically; physically appears male, is romantically interested in women F: XXY genetically; physically appears female, is romantically interested in women G: X_; appears male H: X_; appears female I: XX + translocated SRY; appears male J: appears female, has testicles where ovaries should be and doesn’t menstruate K: appears female; K claims to be male psychologically and spiritually L: penis and a vagina; L claims to be male psychologically and spiritually M: penis and a vagina; M claims to be female psychologically and spiritually N: appears male; N claims to be both male and female psychologically and spiritually O: appears female; O claims to be neither male nor female psychologically/spiritually P: has a penis and a uterus; menstruates through the penis


As you might imagine, there are a great many real members of our species who fit into at least one of the above categories (see Caster Semenya, Sarah Gronert, and this documentary for anecdotes). We as Mormons assume a 1:1 correspondence of physical to spiritual gender (if that weren’t true, wouldn’t our opposition to same-sex marriage instantly vaporize?). If indeed all people are either spiritual males or females, as many Mormons conclude (one need look no farther than Boyd K. Packer’s 22 Jan 2012 seminary centennial broadcast @42:20 for an example), then this assumption is clearly unsustainable. If we can’t even tell Taylor with confidence whether to go to Beehives or Deacons’ Quorum, what’s the use of telling Taylor that marrying a man will result in Taylor’s excommunication rather than exaltation? What is the validity of claiming that all men must receive the priesthood to be exalted, if we can’t even tell whether or not Taylor is a man? “But,” you might contend, “intersex folks are such a small minority- sure there are a few questionable cases, but that doesn’t mean the whole male/female system is a failure.” The border cases reveal the underlying truth we usually don’t otherwise think of, however. Sex and gender are a photomosaic rather than a binary: for everyone.

As you get closer to a photomosaic, what was once clearly a specific image is revealed as a collection of constituent parts, each its own picture. Anatomical features such as genitalia, brain structures, and genes are a few of the underlying pictures. So might be a particular individual’s placement on the dimensions of aggressiveness, verbal fluency, libido, sensitivity, nurturing style, and sociality. Sexual orientation is another sub-picture: though you see a female from a distance, that particular individual might have a male-type sexual orientation (i.e. towards women). And even that picture may itself be a photomosaic of several other dimensions, e.g. repulsion towards men, repulsion towards women, hyper vs. asexuality, direction of romantic/spiritual/sexual attraction, etc.). The transgender spectrum also helps show us how little we understand human diversity in the gendered space. Taylor Petrey’s excellent recent article,2 Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology, explores some of these themes as well in the “Eternal Gender” section (page 120). Sex: According to one dictionary3, sex is “the sum of the structural and functional differences by which the male and female are distinguished, or the phenomena or behavior dependent on these differences.”

Nominal phallusy
Reread that last definition of sex. Did you catch the nominal part? Here’s an illustration of the nominal fallacy: "A man named Norman came along and asked the scientists what they were studying. They said, “Children with Down syndrome.” Norman asked, “What’s Down syndrome?” They told him, “It’s when a person has learning difficulties, slanted eyes, and heart defects.”

Taylor Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44, No. 4, Winter 2011 106-141. 3

Norman nodded. “I see. So children who have those characteristics have Down syndrome?” “Correct. We’re trying to understand why they have these characteristics.” Norman replied, “Well, that’s simple. It’s because they have Down syndrome.” The scientists blinked. “Well, what we mean is, we want to know what causes these characteristics.” Norman shook his head patiently. “Down syndrome causes it, silly.” Some scientists smiled politely while others just looked confused. Norman walked away shaking his head. “I don’t see why these scientists get so many research grants when their question has already been answered. We know perfectly well what causes those characteristics— Down syndrome does.” Spiritual sex as used in the Family Proclamation cannot be merely a nominal fallacy- logically, it must be an attribute that exists independent of our identification. Male/female as used in a secular context may be a nominal fallacy- but gender essentialism cannot be, for it presupposes a preexisting and immutable characteristic. Biological sex characteristics are neither preexisting nor immutable- thus, they cannot be the litmus test of essential gender. The test we actually use in real life to apply the Family Proclamation fails.

Cart before the horse phallusy: "Brian has a penis because he's a man" vs. "We categorize Brian as a man because he has a penis"

If we seek to equate spiritual sex with nominalized physical sex, we commit the same fallacy as good Norman: "David Bednar came along and asked the scientists what they were studying. They said, “Females.” Bednar asked, “What’s a female?” They told him, “It’s when a person has a short genital tubercle and ovaries.”

Bednar nodded. “I see. So people who have those characteristics are female?” “Correct. We’re trying to understand why they have these characteristics.” Bednar replied, “Well, that’s simple. It’s because they’re spiritual females.” The scientists blinked. “Well, what we mean is, we want to know what causes these characteristics.” Bednar shook his head patiently. “Being spiritually female causes it, silly.” Some scientists smiled politely while others just looked confused. Bednar walked away shaking his head. “I’m glad we don’t take biologists too seriously in our theology. We know perfectly well what causes those characteristics—being spiritually female does.” Sex is the Public Enemy #1 of nominal fallacies. It is nothing more than a set of independent, variable characteristics with fuzzy boundaries. It has no existence besides a nominal existence.

Sex, like a constellation, is constructed, not self-existent. Different cultures use the same data points to draw entirely different pictures.

All we have are the stars- the constellation that is binary sex is man-made, not a fact of nature. It is a product of a culturally informed, pattern-seeking brain: not a fundamental constant. Now back to our intergender/intersex discussion.

We are all intersex
“Biology breathes bell curves, not binaries.” As a strange incident of biology- we all start out as both male and female- sex differentiation doesn't begin until about week six. In fact, as BYU professor Duane Jeffery pointed out in a Sunstone presentation on intersexuality, men still have some ovarian tissue in their

testicles, a vestige from embryonic development. And women have a similar amount of testicular tissue in their ovaries! Go figure.

My mentor and evolutionary bio teacher, Duane Jeffery

And, though we call them different names (penis and clitoris), both are derivatives of the same structure, just adapted and positioned a little differently. (The labia homolog, by the way, is the scrotum).

This figure illustrates the human spectrum, based on sex characteristics (ovarian vs. testicular tissue; height/externality of genital tubercle; whether produces oocytes, sperm, or neither; etc.):

Though the curve is undeniably bimodal, it is notable that the curve doesn’t actually touch the left or right side; none of us are 100% one sex or the other. Now for some reader participation. Where then would you draw the line with respect to sex? Would you choose figure A, or figure B?

Figure A

Figure B

The important point of this exercise is to point out that, whether you chose A or B, your decision was arbitrary. Given the underlying biological reality of a continuum, it is difficult to claim bracket A is superior to bracket B. We ALL have physical characteristics of both sexes- the difference is quantitative, not qualitative.


Again, the point here is not to dither about the magnitude of the intersex bracket, but instead to point out, to beat the dead horse just one more time, that PHYSICAL SEX CANNOT GROUND A BINARY THEOLOGY. LDS theology demands a binary test; physical sex does not provide it. I like what this article (immediately below) says: “When it comes to sex, sports religious authorities should acknowledge that while science can offer evidence, it cannot dictate what evidence we should use. Scientifically, there is no clear or objective way to draw a bright line between male and female.”



Given the fickle nature of sex and sex determination, why are we putting our trust in photons and tubercles, rather than the God of equality and inclusion? Shouldn't the all-over-the-board, constantly changing nature of biology make us nervous about hanging our theological hats on it, when we should instead concern ourselves with the spiritual?


We socialize and treat women and men very differently in our tradition, and I can't be alone in being uncomfortable about reading so much into a difference of the positioning of a few cubic inches of genital tissue. Aren't we discomfited, judging a book by its cover at the expense of individual privileges? Especially when our straining-at-gnats, appearance-based test bears so much in common with the oppressive sexist and racist practices of religions, cultures, and governments past and present?


Same-sex couples CAN reproduce


Love that bottom line: “Humans Decide.” Intersex Society of North America

This mouse has two and only two biological parents- two male mice


Some propose another way to discern sex. Sometimes folks try to define sex in reproductive terms, i.e. if you can make viable sperm vs. viable eggs. This approach fails for a number of reasons, including the scheme’s inability to classify folks that don’t produce gametes, those that don’t produce viable gametes, and those who produce both types of gametes. In any case, I have in one cheek cell all the genes needed to manufacture a human egg- sperm from a male partner could be combined with my egg to produce a child. Before I drift too far afield, let me abruptly conclude this “We are all intersex” section. In our embryological development and presently, we all have biological tissue of the opposite of our predominant gender expression. Thus, we are all intersex to at least some modest degree.

Sex and gender are spectral, not binary
The reality of the sex and gender axes is one of two spectrums, rather than 0’s and 1’s. I made this point in my article at Feminist Mormon Housewives (Mormonism Beyond the Gender Binary): Both sex and gender are spectral. Let us leave the sex spectrum behind for a moment, though, and focus on the gender continuum.

Gender performance


Let me begin with tag-teaming the influential Judith Butler and Taylor Petrey as they discuss putting the cart before the horse8: As Judith Butler explains, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” The idea that gender is performed, not possessed, reveals just how unstable it is as a category for defining people. Such a view—that gender is something that develops, or is achieved— suggests that there is no true or false gender, nor one that coheres with a precultural “nature.” Let’s dig a little bit into Judith’s idea of gender performance. How masculine or feminine are you? Are you a more masculine woman, or perhaps a very feminine one? What is your gender performance? Count up the number of checks that apply to you: Stereotypically Masculine Traits Domineering Silent/few words Impatient Rough Muscular Strong Stoic Proud Stereotypically Feminine Traits

Submissive Chatty Patient Gentle Lean Weak Emotional Humble


Insensitive Competitive Competent at providing Spiritually apathetic by nature Logical reasoning Lead

Sensitive Cooperative Lacks business sense Spiritually attuned Emotional reasoning Follow

The list could go on and on, and none of us would check all of one column and none of the other. Even if it were possible to get consensus from the competing gender role packages offered by the world’s diverse cultures, no single person matches up 100%. Like the sex spectrum before it, we see that gender is a continuum, and at least to a modest degree we are all intergender (or transgender, depending on your understanding of the term).

Call Captain Correlation! LDS Inc. has some serious work to do here, what a mess

Shouldn’t the diversity of gender performance give us pause about reading so much into the difference between Mark and Mary, when the gender performance spread between Mary and Martha could be greater than that between Mary and Mark?

Also note- once again, the spectrum doesn't actually touch either side

A repeat from Taylor Petrey’s “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon theology:9” 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. The Spiritual Sex Scheme utterly fails to match up to reality on either the sex or gender axis. It’s not just the femme guys and the mannish gals- every one of us is both biologically intersex and

9 my emphasis

psychologically/socially intergender!

Bottom line: a primary lesson of biology, that human diversity is made up of a vast quantity of overlapping bell curves rather than 0′s and 1′s, finds vindication at this level of inspection.

The only trouble is, Mormons make quite a lot of the gender binary! Even the discussions on Feminist Mormon Housewives frequently rely on a crucial discrimination between male and female (though I’ll concede “Mormon housespouses” doesn’t have quite the same ring).

(2) Discuss the shortcomings of gender roles
Gender stereotypes really are a disservice to everyone, since the majority of individuals are sexually dimorphic/atypical for their gender on at least one trait (be it affinity for sports,

talkativeness, sensitivity, sexuality, etc.). In my case, I’ve been accused of being too chatty, rather than the strong/silent type male stereotype. What “girly” or “masculine” attribute do you have that’s atypical for your sex? Have you felt uncomfortable when someone pointed it out? When we look at a person, rather than first seeing an individual, we see either a man or a woman. I remember talking to a man-turned-woman at an event in SLC last year- and despite my intense, intentional effort to perceive the individual as a person first (without the gender lens), my mighty struggle failed. That very lens through which we see others blinds us to their individuality by imposing a pre-fabricated map of gender roles and attributes. Thus, though some lenses are useful (e.g. the anatomy-based assumption of personhood is awesome, though it has a few flaws), the gender lens does far more harm that good. Because I’d like to focus more on Postgenderism than on current gender issues in Mormonism, I will summarize the negatives of gender roles. Briefly: the Family Proclamation’s emphasis on gender roles (e.g. men preside and provide, women nurture) evidences the importance of gender roles in Mormon thought. The temple ceremony, priesthood exclusivity, and governance dichotomies clash with consensus contemporary notions of gender equality.

(3) Defend my view that Postgenderism will result in many genders, rather than no genders
George Dvorsky and James Hughes over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies have an awesome article entitled Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary10. The abstract: “Postgenderism is an extrapolation of ways that technology is eroding the biological, psychological and social role of gender, and an argument for why the erosion of binary gender will be liberatory. Postgenderists argue that gender is an arbitrary and unnecessary limitation on human potential, and foresee the elimination of involuntary biological and psychological gendering in the human species through the application of neurotechnology, biotechnology and reproductive technologies. Postgenderists contend that dyadic gender roles and sexual dimorphisms are generally to the detriment of individuals and society. Assisted reproduction will make it possible for individuals of any sex to reproduce in any combinations they choose, with or without “mothers” and “fathers,” and artificial wombs will make biological wombs unnecessary for reproduction. Greater biological fluidity and psychological androgyny will allow future persons to explore both masculine and feminine aspects of personality. Postgenderists do not call for the end of all gender traits, or universal androgyny, but rather that those traits become a matter of choice. Bodies and personalities in our postgender future will no longer be constrained


George Dvorsky and James Hughes. Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technolgoies Monograph Series, March 2008,

and circumscribed by gendered traits, but enriched by their use in the palette of diverse selfexpression.” The authors make excellent arguments about why technology will increasingly erode gender essentialism and the two-gender system. I’ll focus on the example I’ve written about: same-sex reproduction. A male couple possess all the genes needed to make a person (a cheek swab from me has all the instructions for manufacturing a human egg). A mouse with two and only two biological parents, two male mice, is already out there. An artificial womb is, like the Death Star, not yet fully operational (but it is close). In coming decades, lesbian and gay couples will likely procreate on their own. Human cloning and the ability to select the physical characteristics (sexual orientation, genitals, etc.) of offspring and self will expand the choices available to individuals and parents further. Rather than eliminating gender, however, this change will more likely result in a Cambrian explosion of genders. To the early student, there may be only two categories of literature: fiction and non-fiction. The mature student realizes the plurality of genres- fantasy, historical fiction, memoir, tragedy, scripture, romance, diary, fable. More seagulls are likely to appear as we inch closer and closer to the photomosaic! Already we have some precedents to look toTetrahymena thermophila, for instance, has seven genders.



Screen clipped from the Wikipedia article on Tetrahymena.

(4) Conclude as to why this is a good thing for Mormonism
There are many negatives in Mormonism that result from the mismatch of the gender dyad to the reality of human diversity. One is opposition to same-sex marriage. Robert George (a wellknown conservative Catholic legal scholar), for instance, supported an opposition to same-sex marriage based on legitimizing only marriages between two people that have between them both a penis and vagina (don’t take my word for it- see his article, What is Marriage?,12 yourself). It is long past time to put this type of argument to bed- and a proliferation of genders will help accomplish that ideal. Other negatives, such as the lack of governance access to women, would probably evaporate in the face of a plurality of genders (the common denominator of personhood would level the playing field). Both same and opposite-sex marriages would be viewed more accurately: as unions of two intersex people, since each partner in each pair undoubtedly has at least some masculine or feminine traits at odds with their otherwise expressed gender. Family gender roles informed by unmerited claims about spiritual attributes (e.g. women are primarily responsible for nurturing) would disappear, to be replaced by free arrangements informed by the uniqueness of the couple and situation. Priesthood and temple dichotomies would be reformed to reflect the realities of human diversity and our ignorance about spiritual gender. The otherizing of intersex and transgender people would decrease. The atonement that unites Elohim, humanity, and all of nature would become more obvious as a plurality of genders helps us identify with non-sexual species. The example of Christ would be recognized as a universal narrative, rather than a male one. We would embrace the richness of human diversity, further realizing the ideal: “black and white, bond and free, male and female… all are alike unto [us]“. -2 Ne. 26:33 “Postgenderism is a radical interpretation of the feminist critique of patriarchy and gender, and the genderqueer critique of the way that binary gender constrains individual potential and our capacity to communicate with and understand other people. Postgenderism transcends essentialism and social constructionism by asserting that freedom from gender will require both social reform and Biotechnology… biotechnologies, neurotechnologies and information technologies make it possible to complete the project of freeing ourselves from patriarchy and the constraints of binary gender. Postgender technologies will put an end to static biological and sexual self-identification, allowing individuals to decide for themselves which biological and psychological gender traits they wish to keep or reject.” – Dvorsky and Hughes


Robert George. What is Marriage. Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy,Volume 34, 245-287, Winter 2010.

As individuals and parents become increasingly capable of selecting for the anatomical subpictures that underly our discrimination of who is male and who is female, the flowering of human choice and diversity will replace its narrow, gender binary predecessor. The fall of racism individualized and equalized previously stereotyped members of racial classes. Similarly, the fall of the gender binary will largely be a good thing. Luckily for us, the Postgender future has already begun to dawn.

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