To all the transgender Mormons, post or present, I want to make something clear: there are some things wrong in contemporary Mormonism, but you are not one of those things.
Our nearly 200-year history has bloated with one particularly harmful idea, namely that authority is external rather than internal. By this I mean that, as Latter-day Saints, we accept and celebrate the idea that someone else has authority that we don’t have. It starts in the family where tradition places the father as patriarch and final word. The bishop has authority we don’t have and the Stake President out-authorities him. Ultimately, we accept that one man (the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) holds the keys to the Kingdom of God on earth and in him rests all authority. The preference for external authority is so deeply ingrained that internal authority is viewed as highly suspect and we’re cautioned that it leads the “very elect” astray.
Most traditional LDS don’t view authority as something internal, as something forged through an autonomous relationship with the divine, or as a byproduct of the gift of the Holy Ghost or light of Christ. We give lip service to the idea of personal revelation when we teach that individuals should “pray to know for themselves.” But one of our unspoken truths is the expectation that the answers to those prayers will align with the teachings of those holding the external authority. Once a church member accepts the external authority of the men called as prophets, seers, and revelators, questioning God about their teaching can feel like a lack of faith.
So most won’t bother. This is how a religion and its culture reinforce a structure of external authority that insists on its own answers and mandates conformity as a representation of personal faith in God. This precludes individual autonomy and denies us the authority to know for ourselves what is best in our own lives.
Add to that that this structure of external authority is also a power system. The better some men are at externalizing authority the higher the position of influence they attain. This isn’t universally accurate, of course; we’ve all known, or have heard of, compassionate leaders who sometimes resist the external authority paradigm. But, as a general assessment, I find it fair.
This can work relatively smoothly until the external authority a man has subjected himself to is assigned to him. Then all bets are off. Suddenly the core of who he is as a man seems to him to be the authority of God, the Divine Will itself. If the man has a humble and compassionate heart, he will exude empathy, kindness, patience, and strive to learn and grow. If he has a legalistic, narcissistic heart, he will smile as he tenderly manipulates and condemns. While the Brethren govern and lead through a body of fifteen, that body is composed of men who are not aligned in their fundamental approaches, a reality we can witness if we pay close attention; and yet, each will continue to defer to the one who has the Keys (or the ultimate external authority). This doesn’t necessarily stop them from speaking disparate opinions (also an observable fact).
This is how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints winds up with a top leader who speaks against the inspiration and revelation transgender people know to be true through personal interaction with God. Such a leader prizes his own hard-won external (to others) authority over the internal authority others (specifically transgender people) glean from private interaction directly with God.
This week, President Oaks reiterated his views on gender at a leadership meeting, proving again that he is an operational thinker. He has accepted a set of ancient rules—rules that brought him to a place of power, rules he codifies as eternal truths. His rules are a system, not a guiding light, and he appears to see transgender people as a breach of that system, not as a part of it. He sustains his set of rules by manipulating his lived reality through willfully ignoring science. To make matters worse, he seems unable to objectively evaluate his rules and will sacrifice the mental health of transgender people in order to support his theological formula.
Such behavior is not God’s pattern. Jesus never asserted his authority in order to draw followers. He never used God’s law to marginalize people. Every word he spoke brought humble people to Him and repelled the authority-driven men of his day. If someone is doing the opposite of that, that someone has a problem.
President Oaks doesn’t know squat about you, my trans friends. You know this. You’ve shared your testimonies with me and I’m grateful for that.
He may tell you that your internal authority is a deception from Satan, but that’s because people who cling to external authority rarely evaluate their paradigm for its flaws. To do so would be to risk too much.
I salute you for your courage and strength, for your ability to stand individuated in a world that would compel you into a pre-determined mold. And I salute you for being an example of the power of prayer and personal revelation, for living up to that revelation as it has guided you to accept yourself and to pioneer individuation in a collective society. I trust your self-determination.
What President Oaks said in this week’s general leadership meeting comes from his need to maintain his own paradigm. So, in conclusion, I give you a few of his other words, each better suited to this situation than he would likely acknowledge. Enjoy:
I think it’s important when we look back on the history of the church, which I’ve been reading and studying all of my adult life… It’s a great comfort to me to know that I don’t have to take the statement or actions of one particular leader as expressive of the doctrine and expectations of the church. ~~ Dallin H. Oaks (Listen to it in his own voice here.)
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…as they suppose… D&C 121:39