New LDS Handbook softens stance on sexuality, doubles down on transgender rules

The new LDS Handbook has good news for families that have used surrogacy to have children. It’s a mixed bag for members who are transgender.

(RNS) — A preliminary perusal of the 2020 LDS Handbook that was released on Wednesday (Feb. 19), weighing in at 806 pages, reveals some areas where the Church has apparently softened its approach on sexual issues and others where it is taking a harder line.

On surrogacy, the church has tempered its official position. The 2010 Handbook stated that “the Church strongly discourages surrogate motherhood. If parents want a child who was born to a surrogate mother to be sealed to them, the stake president refers the matter to the Office of the First Presidency.” The new combined Handbook reiterates this discouragement but then qualifies it:

“The Church strongly discourages surrogate motherhood. However, this is a personal matter that ultimately must be left to the judgment of the husband and wife” (emphasis added).

Mormon policies about surrogate motherhood began receiving media attention in 2012 when Tagg Romney, a son of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, announced the birth of twins and offered “a special thanks to our gestational surrogate who made this possible for us.”

We’ve seen this before in the LDS Handbook: a sternly worded prohibition that is slowly moderated over time. In the 1990s, dire warnings about birth control became less frequent and heated until, late in the decade, the Handbook privatized the matter as “extremely intimate” and “between the couple and the Lord.” (For more on the gradual disappearance of Mormon leaders’ fiery denunciations of birth control, see here.)

Some policies, on the other hand, have either debuted or been reified in the new Handbook. The word “transgender” did not appear anywhere in the 2010 Handbook (though it did have references to “transsexual”), and previous editions allowed local leaders who have transgender members in their congregations wide latitude. Here it gets a brand-new, and rather long, section called “Transgender Individuals,” which appears far less flexible. Transgender members, it says, can:

  • Attend church meetings and social events of the Church
  • Be baptized and confirmed
  • Partake of the sacrament (i.e., Communion)
  • Receive priesthood blessings
  • Use the pronouns and names they prefer in reference to themselves (but see below)
  • Have a certain calling (a volunteer job in the church) and a temple recommend, but only if they do not pursue either surgical, hormonal or “social transitioning” to the opposite gender

Those first few bullet points will likely be welcome news to trans members who have long been at the mercy of “leadership roulette.” I have heard stories of a bishop who would not let a youth do baptisms in the temple simply because they (and “they” is the right pronoun here) were uncertain of their gender identity; I have also heard of a stake president who thoroughly welcomed a trans member, gave her a stakewide calling and took time to listen to her story. You get all kinds.

In the best-case scenario, the new policy could provide a baseline for preventing local leaders from perpetrating the most egregious forms of exclusion.

But only up to a point. The new trans policy goes into great detail about different kinds of transitioning that are off the table if a trans member wants to enjoy full fellowship (which, as I am defining it here, includes the possibility of a calling and a temple recommend). Earlier Handbooks only discussed the ecclesial ramifications of having a “sex change” or sex reassignment surgery; the 2020 Handbook limits trans members’ participation if they engage in hormone therapy or attempt a “social transition.”

These parts of the policy are not fully clear. It acknowledges that some people are prescribed hormone therapy “by a licensed medical professional to ease gender dysphoria or reduce suicidal thoughts,” but states that such people are only eligible to hold callings or receive temple ordinances if they are “not attempting to transition to the opposite gender.”

What this seems to be saying is that hormone therapy is permitted only if it is taken with the aim of realigning one’s gender identity with one’s birth sex — which, as I now know thanks to an astute reader, can be the point of hormone therapy for some people who are seeking relief from gender dysphoria without social transitioning.

My first impression of this policy is that the Church did not want to openly prohibit members from receiving medical attention in the form of hormone therapy but wanted to make it clear that any manner of transitioning to the opposite sex will have serious consequences.

That goes for “social transitioning” as well, which is a new topic for the official Handbook. Here is what the policy states:

“Leaders also counsel against social transitioning. A social transition includes changing dress or grooming, or changing a name or pronouns, to present oneself as other than his or her birth sex. Leaders advise that those who socially transition will experience some Church membership restrictions for the duration of this transition.

Restrictions include receiving or exercising the priesthood, receiving or using a temple recommend, and receiving some Church callings.”

But just a few paragraphs down, the Handbook seems to open a door:

“If a member decides to change his or her preferred name or pronouns of address, the name preference may be noted in the preferred name field on the membership record. The person may be addressed by the preferred name in the ward.”

Again, I see the Church wanting to avoid alienating transgender people and their families while also doubling down on its now-official interpretation of the Proclamation on the Family: “The intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation is biological sex at birth.”

It’s fascinating that the issue of transgender members is what is pushing the church to finally define what it means by gender — and to subtly acknowledge that its own definition does not square with the way the word is used by people outside the Church, who see gender as a social and cultural, rather than a biological, designation.

What all this emphasis on “social transitioning” might mean is that trans members can choose their own names and pronouns and even have those preferences recorded in their official membership data, but there will be consequences when it comes to going to the temple or holding the priesthood.

This approach appears to be creating a similar two-tier system of membership that pertains to lesbian and gay Saints: You are welcome to attend, and we recognize that you’re God’s children, but if you want to enjoy the blessings of the temple and of full ward participation, you are not welcome in any way to act on your identity.

Incidentally, in another important language change, the Church has finally jettisoned the problematic “same-gender attraction” in favor of “same-sex attraction.” The Handbook still does not use the LGBT language, I suspect because in the Church’s view, that connotes a lifelong identity that it does not yet acknowledge as real or permanent.

For the most part, the policies related to LGBT members are unsurprising, given what the Church has been teaching in the last few years, as it has carefully separated out “same-sex attraction” (which is no longer regarded as a sin) from “same-sex relations” or behavior (which is still a sin). The latter may result in a “membership council,” which appears to be the mellower new way of referring to an excommunication or disciplinary hearing.

Same-sex relations, it is hopeful to note, are not listed in the mandatory discipline category as requiring such a hearing, which reverses one of the provisions of the Church’s ill-fated 2015 LGBT exclusion policy. In the updated 2020 Handbook, same-sex relations and same-sex marriage are listed along with adultery and fornication as actions that could trigger a “membership council” but don’t necessarily have to. LGBT members who are “striving to live the law of chastity” can receive callings, have a temple recommend, and receive temple ordinances; male members who live celibately may be ordained to the priesthood. They just can’t have sex.

And unlike heterosexual Latter-day Saints, who can start having sex when they get married, LGBT Saints can’t ever have sex, period, because the Handbook unequivocally voices its opposition to same-sex marriage.

The new Handbook’s provisions for LGBT members may not seem like much. A lifetime — or make that an eternity — of celibacy does not sound like a terribly promising foundation in a religion that heavily emphasizes marriage and children. But they were hard-won and long in coming. Greg Prince’s newest book does a very thorough job of chronicling each painful step of the Church’s evolving stance toward its LGBT members over the course of the last five decades.

Reading that, you begin to see development in context. Over this last half-century, the Church has moved through phases of electric shock therapy, conversion therapy, shaming and excommunication based solely on sexual orientation. Today’s policy is far less than ideal, but it’s also almost unrecognizably better than it used to be.

Or so I kept telling myself when I read the new trans policy. It’s only an opening salvo, a policy that will be amended as hearts and minds are changed. To me, the most encouraging part of the new Handbook’s policy on transgender individuals was the caveat tacked on to the very end:

“Note: Some content in this section may undergo further revision.”

You can bet on it.

 


Related posts:

The incredible shrinking Mormon family

Mormonism and LGBT rights: Some progress, even more questions