Monday, February 22, 2016

Broadening our Understanding of Sexuality and Procreation



Presentation at Sunstone West Symposium on 30 Jan 2016 in Berkeley, CA. Presentation begins at minute 17:04. Text below.

Imagine you’re an infant that just left your mother’s womb. You are being welcomed into the world by eager parents. A plethora of possibilities and opportunities await your exploration. Upon your delivery they look at your nude body and note the aesthetics of your genitalia. The doctor announces, “It’s a girl!” In this fractional moment, a socially constructed gender has become your assumed destiny.

Your parents love you and they raise you just as a little girl should be raised. You have good and happy experiences living as a girl and you seem content until one day when something in you changes or perhaps you only recognize what was always there. You ask yourself, “Is this gender, role, identity, and purpose truly mine or was it simply assigned to me?”

The Family: A Proclamation to the World states “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”[1] I agree. However, many interpretations of gender are limited and underdeveloped.

Gender is not static or binary and is just as much expressive as biological. Having an eternal gender does not mean an unchanged destiny. Eternal means “existing forever”[2] and to exist is to be in a constant state of change or evolution. Some might even call it eternal progression. I am not the same yesterday that I am today, nor will you be the same person tomorrow that you are today, biologically or mentally.

For example, Mormonism teaches that God is eternal and has existed forever, yet Joseph Smith taught that God was once as we are now, mortal beings.[3] This would require God to undergo some sort of Darwinian evolution. Mormon theology supports a reoccurring theme that progressive change is both eternal and essential.

Before we broaden our understanding of sexuality and procreation, first, we’ll need to widen our perceptions of gender. As we deconstruct some overly simplified schisms of gender, sexuality and procreation, please keep in mind this is simply a limited introduction to gender and sexuality, not a comprehensive overview.

Gender


Gender Identity

First, gender identity is a person’s inner sense of being male, female, a blend of both, or neither. Gender identity may be in likeness or contrast to biological sex. An individual whose identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth is cisgender.

Gender identity, though influenced by others, should be determined by each individual. For example, I identify as a woman. I perceive myself as a woman and call myself a woman. For another person to assign me a masculine identity against my own perceptions can lead to a host of negative outcomes.

Gender Expression

Second, is gender expression. This is usually the external appearance of gender identity. This is expressed through various mannerisms, behaviors, apparel, style, and voice pitch. Gender expression is mostly predicated on socially constructed ideals of what constitutes as masculine and feminine. Many people express some sort of androgyny containing both masculine and feminine qualities. This classification is highly subjective based upon geographic location, time period, and belief system.

For example, men regularly wear kilts in Scotland or sulus in Fiji, while being in perfect compliance with masculine gender norms. However, if a bruting man with a beard were to wear a skirt to a wedding in the US, many would consider this a social taboo.

As time passes and society evolves, so do our perceptions of “normal” gender expression. If a female were to wear pants or trousers in the 19th century, many people would condemn her of attempting to be too masculine in her gender expression. However, today, a woman may choose to wear pants and not be in violation of gender social norms.

Religion also plays a role in this social construct. In LDS Mormonism, some women designate a specific Sunday as “Wear Pants to Church Day”[4] that challenges traditional gender stereotypes in a religious context.

Gender expression is a performance, not constrained to any singular act, but the repetition and ritual of a person performing a gender until it becomes naturalized.[5] Our parameters of acceptable gender expression are highly subjective and constantly changing.

Biological Sex

Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines sex as “the fundamental distinction based on the type of gametes produced by the individual.”[6] Smaller gametes called sperm are assigned male and larger gametes called ovum are assigned female.

This definition is actually quite fascinating, because it doesn’t account for chromosomal, genital, or hormonal factors.

While most people fall into the male/female categories, some people are born with ovotestis, which are gonads that contain both ovarian and testicular tissue. Some people are born with external male genitalia as well as a fully functional uterus. Some people may appear completely male or female physically, yet have XXY chromosomes, while others may be born with very ambiguous genitalia.

If a female is born with abnormally high testosterone levels does this make her any more biologically male? What about an infertile male that does not have the ability to produce male gametes, sperm? According to this medical definition he is no longer male. What a about a woman with a fully functional vagina and ambiguous penis? Penises are generally considered to be a male trait. However, she may identify her penis as a feminine, because it’s her penis.

Perhaps our categories of male and female are not as simple as we would like to believe, and we should recognize the limitations of our medical terminology in assigning specific body parts with a gender.

People who are born intersex may be subject to invasive surgeries, not because these surgeries leave the person any healthier from a physical perspective, although some do, but because by doing so they conform to a cisnormative culture. There is a wide spectrum of genders physiologically, socially, and biologically.

Let’s go back to the little girl I mentioned at the beginning. What happens when her gender identity is in contrast to the gender she was assigned at birth?

Transgender is one of the most controversial forms of gender. When these categories don’t perfectly align to create a cisgender human being some people may become confused, defensive, or even aggressive. However, God too has also been personified quite androgynously.

The Bible contains multiple scriptures supporting the notion of a gender diverse, gender fluid God capable of radical morphology. The Spirit of God appears in the Bible as a burning bush[7], a dove[8], or even invisible[9]. If these verses are not to be taken literally, why should we take literally the idea of God being limited to a single male embodiment?

From an LDS perspective, Elder Erastus Snow stated, “If I believe anything God has ever said anything about himself. . . I must believe that deity consists of man and woman.”[10] It is unclear whether this is a description of one embodiment or multiple embodiments. Genesis states that both females and males are made in the image of God.[11] From this we can reevaluate the image of God. God is both male and female in some form; otherwise woman could not have been made in God’s image. No matter where a person falls on the gender spectrum, according to the Bible, the image of God is both male and female.

Accepting the broad diversities of gender seems almost required in order to display the fullest image of God. After all, we are not only encouraged to become like God, but also promised in Psalms[12] that we are gods and children of the most High, and that God is no respecter of persons.[13]

In contrast to our Biblical narratives, some religious people strangely contend that a particular type of embodiment comes with a particular type of unchanging gender identity. If God is not limited by a particular embodiment why should we limit ourselves and each other to a particular type of embodiment?

Assigning a person’s embodiment a gender comes with a host of social expectations and limitations that act as a determiner for that person’s life and future. This idea of gender determinism tends to get the most retaliation when a person’s biological anatomy does not conform to acceptable forms of sexuality.

Sexuality

Sexuality, like gender, is extremely diverse. For practical purposes I’ll give a brief overview of just a handful of sexual identities to illustrate the diversity and nuance of sexuality.

Heterosexual: sexually attracted to a person of the opposite sex.

Homosexual: sexually attracted to a person of the same sex.

The problem with these labels is they label sexuality from a cisnormative perspective while lacking gender identity nuances of people who identify as genderqueer or agender. If one does not identify as male or female, identities such as homo and hetero become less useful. More accurate terminology would identify sexuality independent of gender.

Androphilia: sexual attraction toward men or masculinity.

Gynephilia: sexual attraction toward women or femininity.

Bisexual: sexually attracted to two or more genders, not to be conflated with pansexuality.

Pansexual: sexual attraction is not limited to any gender on the spectrum.

Skoliosexual: sexually attracted to people who do not fall on the ends of the gender binaries.

Demisexual: doesn’t usually experience sexual attraction unless they have formed a strong romantic or emotional connection with that person; variances include heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, or aromantic.

Asexual: may find people aesthetically attractive, but doesn’t necessarily feel sexual desire.

Graysexual: is fluid between sexual and asexual.

Autosexual: sexually attracted to themselves, preferring self-gratification over other sexual activity.

Sapiosexual: finds intelligence as the most sexually attractive feature.

Polysexual: incorporating different kinds of sexuality, i.e. a Skolio-Romantic, Bi-Sapiosexual, or Gray- Autosexual.

As you can see from this brief and incomplete list, sexuality is diverse, individualized, and unique. Sexual attraction is influenced by a person’s gender, but not necessarily deterministic.

Technology

Technology is continually shaping our perceptions of gender, sexuality, and procreation.

Within the last century there has been an explosion of advancements in reproductive technology. Many religions have come to embrace these technologies in order to successfully create biological families.

Latter-day Saints have exceptionally positive views of procreation. Mormon scriptures, prophets, and temple rituals teach that not only are we encouraged to reproduce, but we are commanded to “multiply and replenish the earth”[14] then nurture those children into godhood. Using the power of procreation does not alienate one from God. It enables mortals to become co-creators with God in a divine plan of eternal increase. Procreation is seen as a divine partnership.[15] Church leaders have counseled members to seek inspiration with God as they use their individual agency to bring children into the world “even in difficult situations and circumstances.” [16]

What does this mean for infertile individuals, transgender people, or same sex couples?

Many people encounter difficult challenges when procreating, but reproductive technologies have allowed humanity to embrace their religious beliefs of creation while overcoming natural obstacles. Some common forms of assisted reproductive technology include:

Artificial Insemination: the deliberate induction of sperm in a female’s uterus or cervix in hopes to achieve pregnancy when sexual intercourse isn’t a viable option.

In vitro fertilization: method of assisted reproduction that involves the extraction of an egg and sperm from each parent. Fertilization of egg and sperm is done manually in a laboratory dish. The embryo is then transferred back into a uterus for gestation.

In vitro fertilization with three biological parents: commonly used to prevent the passing on of mitochondrial disorders to their offspring. The biological mother and father donate their egg and sperm similarly to the process of in vitro fertilization; however a third woman donates healthy mitochondria that replace the defected mitochondria of the first mother’s egg. The altered embryo is transferred into the uterus of the mother. The child is the biological offspring of three parents—two mothers and one father.[17]

Surrogacy: embryo is produced via in vitro fertilization, but the uterus used for gestation is not the biological parent; they use a surrogate.

A 58-year-old woman in Texas was recently a surrogate for her daughter and son-in-law who had encountered many difficulties conceiving their own child. Even though the grandmother already experienced menopause, her uterus was still functional so she offered her womb to gestate her granddaughter. She said “It’s such a blessing I can do this for my daughter.” [18] This exemplifies a recurring theme that technological developments which enable humans to live out their religious beliefs are seen as a “blessing.”

Uterus Transplant: a healthy uterus is implanted into a female with a faulty, dysfunctional, or absent uterus. In 2014, a healthy baby was delivered by a woman who received a uterus transplant. Dr. Brannstrom, who performed the transplant, said, “The baby is fantastic, but it is even better to see the joy in the parents.”[19] Hundreds of uterus transplants are taking place right now, giving hope to more couples who wish to conceive.

Soon, uterus transplants may allow transgender women the ability to carry children. Women born into male bodies may choose to undergo an aesthetical sex change that involves surgically altering a person’s genitalia to allow a person to match their biological anatomy with their gender identity. However, now with advancements in uterus transplants it may soon be possible for transwomen to also experience pregnancy.

It seems fitting for individuals who were assigned a male sex at birth to aspire to motherhood when latter-day apostles teach “the highest and noblest work in this life is that of a mother”[20] and motherhood “is the highest, holiest service to be assumed by mankind.” Please note that motherhood is to be assumed by mankind.[21]

Elder M. Russell Ballard also said, “There is no one perfect way to be a good mother. Each situation is unique. Each mother has different challenges, different skills and abilities . . . what matters is that a mother loves her children deeply.”[22]

Stephanie Mott, transgender educator, elaborates on the desires of mothers by saying, “If medical advances offer that possibility to transgender women, it is no different than offering that possibility to cisgender women.”[23]

Also on the horizon are reproductive technologies that will allow two women the ability to procreate using their own reproductive cells without the need of sperm. That means that a lesbian couple will be able to produce their own biological daughter and indeed create their own biological family unit. Soon following would be children from two biological fathers.[24] Perhaps more “light and knowledge”[25] [26] will allow technologists and physicians to create external wombs to gestate our offspring with more precision, safety, and control than an unreliable uterus[27] which might spontaneously abort or miscarry the fetus.

Some of these reproductive technologies may seem controversial, but keep in mind that artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy were once considered highly controversial, and are now accepted as useful means of assisted reproduction for many faithful Latter-day Saint families. The LDS Church Handbook of Instructions affirms “children conceived by artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization are born in the covenant.”[28] As reproductive technology rapidly progresses, some might see this as a threat to traditional theology. However, I would contend that these technologies are a complimentary manifestation of our deepest desires to be like God.

Mormon Theology

There are many biblical and theological references that would support broadening our understanding of sexuality and procreation.

Conception is a controversial topic in the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin. When the angel told her she was to conceive she replied, “how shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest will overshadow thee.” [29] Perhaps these passages could be interpreted as a spiritual in vitro fertilization, as Mormon doctrine has affirmed the virginity of Mary.[30] [31]

Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, was made a joyful mother after being considered barren.[32] When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.[33] These highly unusual, controversial, and unorthodox pregnancies were considered a worthy celebration of life.

The most notable example of same-sex creation is found in canonized scripture and LDS temple rituals when women were entirely absent in accounts of the creation. Adam’s embodiment was created by Elohim and Jehovah, two male personifications. Two males created a male.[34] Eve’s mortal body was also created by two males and formed from the rib of another male, Adam. There is no account of her physical embodiment being produced by an earthly mother.[35]

Surely celestial procreation involves far more efficient and sophisticated methods of reproduction than our current mortal model. Insisting that post-mortal reproduction would be congruent with a “natural” mortal model of reproduction is in contradiction with scripture and is a limited interpretation of creation.[36] [37]

In LDS theology, God organizes intelligences,[38] for matter cannot be created nor destroyed.[39] Mormons are regularly invited to become just like God when participating in procreation.  The reproductive technologies I have discussed are often the manifestations of our desire to organize matter into intelligences, to follow the examples of the scriptures, to have families of our own, and to become like God.

In conclusion, I hope we have a greater understanding of gender, sexuality, and reproduction, so that as we are drenched in love for all families, humanity can unite as the body of Christ[40] and more fully display the all-encompassing image of God, because “all are alike unto God.” [41]

And perhaps the next time a baby is born and the doctor shouts “It’s a girl!”, we will enable that child to use her agency to determine her own identity and destiny.



Notes and Citations

*Presented at Sunstone West Symposium on Saturday, January 30, 2016 in Berkeley, CA


[1] The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” General Relief Society Meeting (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, September 23, 1995), Paragraph 2.

[2] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “eternal,” accessed January 15, 2016. “(1) having no beginning and no end in time; lasting forever (2) existing at all times: always true or valid (3) seeming to last forever.”

[3] Joseph Smith, Jr., “The King Follett Discourse,” General Conference Meeting (Nauvoo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 7, 1844). “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man.”

[4] The first “Wear Pants to Church Day” was on Dec. 16, 2012. It was launched as an effort to normalize the action many LDS women have taken to wear formal, respectful dress pants to LDS church services. Mormon feminists, women and men, wear dress pants and the color purple to their local LDS Church services for many different reasons, but many of those who participate are concerned about gender equality in the LDS Church. For more details, see http://pantstochurch.com.

[5] Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” (New York: Routledge, 2007), Preface 1999, XV. “. . . performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.”

[6] Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, s.v. “sex,” 32nd Edition. Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders, 2012.

[7] Exodus 3:2 KJV. “And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”

[8] Matthew 3:16 KJV. “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:”

[9]
1 Timothy 1:17 KJV. “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”


[10] David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, 1 (2011): 79.

[11] Genesis 1:27 KJV. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

[12]
Psalms 82:6 KJV. “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.”

[13]
Romans 2:11 KJV. “For there is no respect of persons with God.”

[14]
Genesis 1:28 KJV. “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”


[15] Brent A. Barlow, “The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Procreation,” (1992), accessed January 17, 2016, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Procreation.

[16] Homer S. Ellsworth, “The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Birth Control,” (1992), accessed January 17, 2016, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Birth_Control.

[17] Ian Sample, “Three-parent babies explained: what are the concerns and are they justified?” The Guardian, February 2, 2015, accessed January 17, 2016, http://theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/02/three-parent-babies-explained.

[18] Fox News, “Grandmother Acting as Surrogate Delivers Healthy Granddaughter,” Fox News, January 7, 2016, accessed January 17, 2016, http://foxnews.com/health/2016/01/07/grandmother-acting-as-surrogate-delivers-healthy-granddaughter.html.

[19] NPR International, “A First: Uterus Transplant Gives Parents a Healthy Baby,” NPR International, October 4, 2014, accessed January 17, 2016, http://npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/04/353691555/a-first-uterus-transplant-gives-parents-a-healthy-baby.

[20] Russell M. Nelson, “Our Sacred Duty to Honor Women,” LDS General Conference (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1999).

[21] James R. Clark, “Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (1965-75),” 6:178. In 1935, the First Presidency stated, “The true spirit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives to woman the highest place of honor in human life.”

[22] M. Russell Ballard, “Daughters of God,” LDS General Conference (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 2008).

[23] Jordyn Taylor, “A Revolutionary Surgery Could Finally Let Trans Women Carry Children,” Tech.Mic, November 20, 2015, accessed January 17, 2016, http://mic.com/articles/128972/uterus-transplant-surgery-could-let-trans-women-have-children#.3UKq2J8Tj.

[24] Guy Ringler, “Get Ready for Embryos From Two Men or Two Women,” TIME, March 18, 2015, accessed January 17, 2016, http://time.com/3748019/same-sex-couples-biological-children.

[25] Doctrine & Covenants 50:24. “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”

[26] N. Eldon Tanner, “The Light of the Gospel,” LDS General Conference (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 1977).

[27] Blaire Ostler, “How a Mother Became a Transhumanist,” The Transfigurist, accessed June 6, 2015, http://www.transfigurist.org/2015/06/how-mother-became-transhumanist.html.

[28] “Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops,” (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3.6.2). “Children conceived by artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization are born in the covenant if their parents are already sealed. If the children are born before their parents are sealed, they may be sealed to their parents after their parents are sealed to each other.”

[29] Luke 1:34-35 KJV. “Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

[30] Brigham Young, "Character of God and Christ, etc.," July 8, 1860, Journal of Discourses, 8:115. “. . . there is no act, no principle, no power belonging to the Deity that is not purely philosophical. The birth of the Savior was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood—was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers.”

[31] Bruce R. McConkie, “Mormon Doctrine,” 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 822. "Our Lord is the only mortal person ever born to a virgin, because he is the only person who ever had an immortal Father. Mary, his mother, "was carried away in the Spirit" (1 Ne. 11:13-21), was "overshadowed" by the Holy Ghost, and the conception which took place "by the power of the Holy Ghost" resulted in the bringing forth of the literal and personal Son of God the Father. Christ is not the Son of the Holy Ghost, but of the Father (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, pp. 18-20). Modernistic teachings denying the virgin birth are utterly and completely apostate and false.”

[32] Luke 1:36 KJV. “And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.”

[33] Luke 1:41-42 KJV. “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

[34] Genesis 2:7 KJV. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

[35] Genesis 2:21-25 KJV. “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”

[36] Taylor G. Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 44, 4 (Winter 2011): 110. “If reproduction as we know it offers a model for heavenly reproduction so as to exclude homosexual relationships by definition, then must we imagine that male Gods deposit sperm in the bodies of female gods (who menstruate monthly when they are not pregnant), that the pregnant female god gestates spirit embryos for nine months and give birth to spirit bodies? While some LDS thinkers imagine an eternally pregnant Heavenly Mother, I see no reason why we much commit to this kind of literal pregnancy as the reason for divine female figures.”

[37] Linda P. Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” Sunstone (Sep/Oct 1980): 78-87.

[38] Spencer W. Kimball, “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1969), 5. “Our spirit matter was eternal and co-existed with God, but it was organized into spirit bodies by our Heavenly Father.”

[39] Doctrine & Covenants 93:29. “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”

[40] 1 Corinthians 12:27 KJV. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”

[41] 2 Nephi 26:33. “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”