Transgender 101

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“The term ‘transgender’ is the popular cultural umbrella term to describe a diverse spectrum of individual experiences with gender that vary from the norm – ranging from those with distinctly gender non-conforming interests and behaviors … to those who may choose to transition socially or surgically.”

What is gender dysphoria, or transgenderism?

For the vast majority of persons, their perceived gender identity (the gender that they feel they are mentally and/or spiritually) matches their biological sex. These persons generally live their lives aligned with the gender roles for their sex set forth in gospel teachings and by their society at large.

However, for some individuals their private subjective experience of their gender identity is incongruent with their designated natal sex. These individuals may experience gender dysphoria (GD), a medically and psychiatrically recognized condition (See Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition 2013). The magnitude of these feelings, their frequency and level of debilitating effect vary widely between affected individuals. Experiencing an incongruence in gender and identity between one’s body, spirit and mind and the resultant feelings of gender dysphoria does not constitute sin.

A popular umbrella term, “transgender” applies to a wide variety of gender variant feelings and behaviors, including those who experience gender dysphoria and those whose gender varies over time. It is recognized that gender dysphoria is distinct from matters of sexual attraction. Possible causes for gender dysphoria are not well understood, in the health professions or within the Church. Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained, “I think we need to acknowledge that while we have been acquainted with lesbians and homosexuals for some time, being acquainted with the unique problems of a transgender situation is something we have not had so much experience with, and we have some unfinished business in teaching on that” (Interview with Jennifer Napier-Pearce on TribTalk, January 29, 2015).

These feelings of dysphoria can cause depression, anxiety, shame, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, body image issues, and many other debilitating effects. A person who reports experiencing gender dysphoria or who identifies as transgender often has felt a sense of gender-incongruence from their earliest memories. An individual may feel intensely distressed most of the time, or the feelings might wax and wane. The person may have behaviors normally associated with the opposite sex, such as a female who is a tomboy, or a male who is more feminine, while others may not seem gender-incongruent at all on the outside.

What is gender?

Gender is surprisingly difficult to define. One sociologist describes gender as the “system of social practices ” that create and maintain  the psychological, behavioral, or cultural characteristics associated with maleness and femaleness.  Gender is not simply a characteristic of individuals, but occurs at all levels of the social structure:

  1. within individuals (i.e., their personalities, temperaments, traits, mannerisms, emotions, etc)
  2. as created through social interactions that are inherently contextual (i.e., socially or culturally normative roles and expectations, such as dress, hobbies, interests, or family roles and responsibilities)
  3. as embedded in the structures and practices of organizations and social institutions  (i.e., beliefs and attitudes in organizations, such as greater or lesser respect for those in positions of authority as it relates—consciously or unconsciously—to gender, or perhaps greater or lesser pay for equal work, etc.) (Wharton, 2005).

The psychological, behavioral, and cultural characteristics of gender are ingrained in each of us from a very younge age. In fact, the concept of gender is so fundamental that it is something that many people rarely even think about. Men and women are different and because of those differences they are expected to act or behave in different ways.

While gender might often be discussed as an artifically created system of social practices, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” also teaches us that there are characteristics of gender which are eternal. Untangling the eternal characteristics of gender from current temporal perceptions of gender is a difficult task.

What is meant by gender identity?

“Gender identity involves an understanding and accepting of one’s own gender, with little reference to others; one’s gender roles usually focus upon the social interaction associated with being male or female. Parents can help children to establish during these years a good foundation for later intimacy by helping them understand true principles about how a son or a daughter of God should relate to others in his or her gender roles.” (A Parent’s Guide, chapter 4)

Gender identity is the gender that a person “identifies” with, or feels themselves to be.

What are gender roles?

Gender roles within the context of Latter-day Saint family life are defined in the Family Proclamation:

“Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities. By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed.” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102)

What is the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity?

While there can be overlap between sexual orientation and gender identity, they are two fundamentally different things. Sexual orientation has to do with romantic or sexual feelings of attraction toward another person, while gender identity concerns our personal identity with regard to maleness/femaleness or masculinity/femininity. Individuals who experience gender dysphoria or identify as transgender may, in terms of sexual orientation, identity as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or otherwise.

How common is transgenderism?

It is very difficult to get an exact number on how common gender dysphoria or the transgender experience is in society. Different countries report widely differing numbers. The majority of studies conclude that we really do not know how many people are out there with these feelings, since most probably never talk about it, or only talk about their feelings to close family members or friends.

One demographer who specializes in sexual orientation and gender identity has noted that given 1) disagreement about what it means to be transgender and 2) the lack of sophisticated ways of assessing gender identity, gender dysphoria, or transgenderism in research studies, the best studies available hold—despite “substantial limitations”—that roughly 0.3 percent, or 1 in 300, of U.S. adults identify as transgender.

The number of those who seek out sex reassignment surgery, however, is much smaller (and easier to identity given that they enter into and can be tracked through the medical system) and have been estimated at 1 in 30,000 male-to-female transsexuals and 1 in 50,000 female-to-male transsexuals.

Thus, the gap between those who report identifying as transgender or experiencing gender dysphoria and those who choose to surgically transition (as opposed to socially or legally) is quite wide—which also means that the range of experiences of those who experience dissonance around their sex/gender identity and how they choose to cope with these feelings is extremely broad.

Do transgender people choose to feel that way?

No. One’s sense of gender is not something that is chosen (see the later question, “What are some possible causes of gender dysphoria?”). Our sense of gender begins to take shape in early childhood. Although science does not support that one’s sense of gender is purely biological—rather, that there are biological, psychological, social and even spiritual variables contributing to development of gender identity—it also does not support that there is conscious “choice” in the matter. Gender is influenced by a variety of factors that typically develop in an unconscious, unchosen way.

While unchosen feelings are not a sin—and, therefore we are not accountable for these feelings—Elder Dallin H. Oaks has shared some additional insights regarding agency and what we can and, therefore, are responsible to choose. While it was shared in a different context, the principles can apply to many different life experiences. He wrote:

Some kinds of feelings seem to be inborn. Others are traceable to mortal experiences. Still other feelings seem to be acquired from a complex interaction of ‘nature and nurture.’ All of us have some feelings we did not choose, but the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we still have the power to resist and reform our feelings (as needed) and to assure that they do not lead us to entertain inappropriate thoughts or to engage in sinful behavior.

Different persons have different physical characteristics and different susceptibilities to the various physical and emotional pressures we may encounter in our childhood and adult environments. We did not choose these personal susceptibilities either, but we do choose and will be accountable for the attitudes, priorities, behavior, and ‘lifestyle’ we engraft upon them.

Essential to our doctrinal position on these matters is the difference between our freedom and our agency. Our freedom can be limited by various conditions of mortality, but God’s gift of agency cannot be limited by outside forces, because it is the basis for our accountability to him…

Just as some people have different feelings than others, some people seem to be unusually susceptible to particular actions, reactions, or addictions. Perhaps such susceptibilities are inborn or acquired without personal choice or fault, like the unnamed ailment the Apostle Paul called ‘a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure’ (2 Cor. 12:7)…

But regardless of our different susceptibilities or vulnerabilities, which represent only variations on our mortal freedom (in mortality we are only ‘free according to the flesh’ [2 Ne. 2:27]), we remain responsible for the exercise of our agency in the thoughts we entertain and the behavior we choose. I discussed this contrast in a talk I gave at Brigham Young University several years ago:

“Most of us are born with [or develop] thorns in the flesh, some more visible, some more serious than others. We all seem to have susceptibilities to one disorder or another, but whatever our susceptibilities, we have the will and the power to control our thoughts and our actions. This must be so. God has said that he holds us accountable for what we do and what we think, so our thoughts and actions must be controllable by our agency. Once we have reached the age or condition of accountability, the claim ‘I was born that way’ does not excuse actions or thoughts that fail to conform to the commandments of God. We need to learn how to live so that a weakness that is mortal will not prevent us from achieving the goal that is eternal.

“God has promised that he will consecrate our afflictions for our gain (see 2 Ne. 2:2). The efforts we expend in overcoming any inherited [or developed] weakness build a spiritual strength that will serve us throughout eternity. Thus, when Paul prayed thrice that his ‘thorn in the flesh’ would depart from him, the Lord replied, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Obedient, Paul concluded:

“‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

“‘Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong’ (2 Cor. 12:9–10)….

“Beware the argument that because a person has strong drives toward a particular act, he has no power of choice and therefore no responsibility for his actions. This contention runs counter to the most fundamental premises of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Satan would like us to believe that we are not responsible in this life. That is the result he tried to achieve by his contest in the pre-existence. A person who insists that he is not responsible for the exercise of his free agency because he was ‘born that way’ is trying to ignore the outcome of the War in Heaven. We are responsible, and if we argue otherwise, our efforts become part of the propaganda effort of the Adversary…

“There is much we do not know about the extent of freedom we have in view of the various thorns in the flesh that afflict us in mortality. But this much we do know; we all have our free agency and God holds us accountable for the way we use it in thought and deed. That is fundamental.” (“Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, October 1995).

Those with gender dysphoria are responsible to choose actions that bring them closer to Christ. Those actions are not always clearly defined and different individuals may find different actions are necessary, but every action should be taken after counseling with the Lord in prayer. While gender dysphoria is not a choice, our agency always allows us to take actions aligned with the will of our Heavenly Father.

Is gender dysphoria changeable?

Some studies have shown that as many of 80 percent of children who experience gender dysphoria do not report experiencing gender dysphoria into adolescence and adulthood. As children develop and grow, most of them eventually feel comfortable with their birth sex and associated cultural gender expression and roles. In fact, some studies seem to show that gender dysphoria as a child is a higher predictor of homosexual orientation and identity as an adult than it is of gender dysphoria or transgender identity as an adult. If feelings of dysphoria persist through puberty and into adolescence, however, there is a much greater likelihood that they will persist and be relatively stable through adulthood, perhaps waxing and waning in conscious presence or intensity. There are a few reported cases of “desistance,” where adult who once felt gender incongruence/dysphoria no longer has the feelings, but such reports are rare.

Research on adults who experience GD, and particularly those who choose not to transition socially or surgically, is extremely sparse and disorganized. Those who have dedicated their careers to studying this topic acknowledge that there are huge gaps in what we know in terms of treatment. This is largely because the majority of people with GD never seek treatment of any kind, either psychological or medical, and no long-term studies have been done on adults who wish to feel more comfortable living in the gender roles of their natal sex. Most of the research has been dedicated to tracking outcomes of people who surgically alter their physical sex.

Is gender dysphoria associated with a pornography or sexual addiction?

No. Although someone with gender dysphoria might also have a pornography or sexual addiction, the two issues must be understood and addressed as separate and distinct phenomena. This is an important distinction to make as some who are unfamiliar with this topic make the mistake of thinking that transgender feelings are caused by looking at pornography or cross-dressing and masturbating (what is referred to as “transvestic fetishism”). These conditions are all separate.

Again, they can become layered, but pure gender dysphoria is simply the distress and dissonance one may feel between their biological sense and their internal sense of gender and gender identity. Sometimes a person with gender dysphoria will spend a lot of time on the internet looking at sites featuring pictures of cross-dressed persons as well as information on sex changes or other content related to looking like the other gender. Individuals who spend time looking at this kind of content can become addicted to these online activities. When these activities take them away from family, work, and personal obligations, depression and relationships, problems can occur. This online addiction is a separate issue.

Will gender nonconforming children turn out to be transgender adults?

Not usually. Gender dysphoria is quite rare. Of children who express feeling as if they are the wrong gender, as many as 75-80% of them “grow out of it” by or before puberty. If feelings of gender incongruence or dysphoria persist into adolescence, it is much more likely that they will persist into and through adulthood. And only a small number of gender dysphoric adults will elect to surgically transition. As noted in an earlier question, while current studies seem to show that as many as 1 in 300 adults identifies as “transgender,” roughly only 1 in 30,000 will surgically transition.

What are some possible causes of gender dysphoria?

The answer to this question is complicated. Various theories and research evidence have been presented regarding the development of gender identity. Those theories have, with varying degrees of emphasis, pointed to biological, psychological or social factors as influencing or determining an individual’s gender identity. Current studies seem to evidence that a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors all play a role, with the exact role they each play still being largely enigmatic.

Various theories and empirical studies have examined several facets of gender identity development, including what factors determine or influence gender identity, the malleability of gender identity, and the age at which gender identity is established. Research has also explored the nature of gender role, distinct from identity, which encompasses the behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits typically attributed to, expected from, or preferred in a male or female. One important distinction between gender identity and gender role is that gender role behavior—attributed masculine or feminine behavior—can to some extent be studied in animals, whereas gender identity and individual subjective sense of self, which tends to be unique to humans, cannot be studied in animals.

 

Do you need clarification on common terms?

Learn more about commonly used terms so you can understand with greater clarity when counseling with others.

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One’s sex is determined by genitals at birth, but gender is how a person perceives and experiences themselves to be.

LDS Teachings on Gender and Transgenderism

What does the Church teach concerning gender?

Does “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” answer all of our questions about transgenderism?

What does the Church teach concerning gender?

From the teachings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the words of His Latter-day prophets, we learn that our gender “is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” In pre-mortal life as spirit children, either sons or daughters, we knew and worshipped God as our Eternal Father. Vital to the well-being of every soul is the knowledge that he or she is a beloved child of God, a son or a daughter of heavenly parents (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102). Our creation as male and female children of God “was done spiritually in our premortal existence when we lived in the presence of our Father in Heaven. Our gender existed before we came to earth” (Elder Richard G Scott, “The Joy of Living the Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 73).

Does “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” answer all of our questions about transgenderism?

 

In a general sense, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” addresses some themes relevant to the experience of gender incongruence or gender dysphoria, while still leaving some questions unresolved. Ultimately, the Proclamation is a distillation of principles that have been taught by prophets, seers, and revelators, both ancient and modern. It is our personal responsibility and spiritual commission to carefully and prayerfully apply those principles to our individual circumstances.

What does the Church Handbook of Instructions (CHI) say about gender identity or transgender issues?

While there are sections in the official, online 2010 Church Handbook 2 that address same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage, there are no sections that address gender identity, gender dysphoria, or “transsexualism” (a now less-used term that has historically tended to refer to those who surgically transition).

Because Handbook 1 (2010) entries on gender identity—and more specifically, in the context of transsexualism—are not made publicly available, they cannot be included here; if you would like more information, you may talk to your bishop or stake president. Relevant sections include 3.3.4, 5.2.10, 6.7.2, 6.12.10, 6.13.4, 16.3.3, 16.3.16, 16.7.4.

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Jeffrey R. Holland“However bewildering this all may be, these afflictions are some of the realities of mortal life, and there should be no more shame in acknowledging [these challenges] than in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel” Ensign, Nov. 2013)

The LDS Transgender Experience

How should Church members respond do those who experience gender dysphoria, or who identify as transgender?

How can Church members support transgender members?

What is it like to feel gender dysphoria and also be LDS?

 

How should Church members respond to those who experience gender dysphoria, or who identify as transgender?

As disciples of Jesus Christ we are taught to have “compassion one of another” (1 Peter 3:8) and one of the central covenants we make at baptism is that we “are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9)—to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has noted, however, “Although I believe members are eager to extend compassion to those different from themselves, it is human nature that when confronted with a situation we don’t understand, we tend to withdraw,” thus compromising our covenant obligations. He went on to say, “Some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them—and the Lord. The Church is made stronger as we include every member and strengthen one another in service and love (see D&C 84:110).”

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Jeffrey R. HollandWhen our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them—and the Lord. The Church is made stronger as we include every member and strengthen one another in service and love.

(Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Helping Those Who Struggle with Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, Oct. 2009)

How can Church members support transgender members?

First, realize that Church policy regarding transgender members is only partially defined. Many of the decisions transgender members need to make are deeply personal, rely on individual revelation, and are often sought with priesthood leaders. Resist the inclination to be judgemental, listen to their challenges, and encourage and support transgender members to stay close to Christ, and to seek revelation from the Lord concerning how to best handle their unique challenge.

The greatest commandment, to love the Lord with all your heart, requires that we live the commandments and put God first in our thoughts and actions. The second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, requires that we are patient and understanding with whatever it is that our neighbor experiences, not thinking ourselves above or below another, and always willing to lend a helping hand. For one person, their life challenge may be gender dysphoria, others have other challenges, so be kind and patient while at the same time maintaining your own focus on Christ.

What does gender dysphoria feel like?

A metaphor for dysphoric feelings might be to consider the struggle of a fish out of water to breath, grasping for something so basic and life-sustaining and not being able to obtain it. Or consider the feelings of someone experiencing vertigo, a condition in which the signals one’s eyes and inner ear send to their brain are in conflict. This condition is not readily visible to others, but can be terribly debilitating to the individual. The intensity of these feelings has been compared to standing next to the roaring engine of a jet airliner, in that the feelings of gender dysphoria can completely crowd out all other aspects of one’s life experiences.

Many individuals with gender dysphoria have felt these feelings of incongruence from their earliest memories. As they grew up, there may have been a feeling of not belonging with their same-sex peers. The individual may feel as if the roles that the other gender carries out are more appealing; he or she may have strong feelings of disgust or hatred for his or her genitals and other physical characteristics that designate him or her as male or female. These feelings are extremely distressing.

The individual may feel too ashamed or scared to share any of his or her feelings with anyone, which creates intense feelings of loneliness and shame. If individuals have opened up about their feelings to someone, they may have received a shaming response. Based on these reactions, the person may have increased feelings of worthlessness, shame, and confusion about how to handle these feelings. Whether people on the outside see it or not, the individual can feel confused, depressed, alone, and sometimes suicidal.

What is it like to feel gender dysphoria and also be LDS?

Only someone who has experienced this can really know, and each person will have his or her own unique story. But generally it can be said that being LDS and experiencing transgenderism is very difficult. Gender is a fundamental aspect of Latter-day Saint theology and religious practice. The essential saving ordinances of the temple are gender specific, and typical LDS married life, family roles, and weekly worship are defined by cultural and organizational gender-oriented standards. This means that a transgender member may find any and every aspect of Church activity to be triggering.

For example, on account of the gendered nature of the temple, a transgender member may feel a deep unworthiness with regard to the temple, or feel such discomfort in participating that the blessings of the temple are not obtained. Any and every aspect of Church activity can become triggering and the transgender member may feel unwelcome, unfit, and withdraw from participation, thus foregoing blessings for which they are qualified and should receive.

Over the past few years, more resources have become available for Mormons who experience same-sex attraction. Websites, action groups, and even direct dialogue from Church leaders has helped to dispel the silence and create a dialogue on this subject. But for transgender LDS individuals, the silence has yet to be broken. Very few resources exist and the individual often lives in a profound state of isolation, confusion, depression, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts and actions. Most people in the Church do not know how to respond to this issue. If local Church leaders do not have a clear position on how to respond to this issue, individuals and families are left feeling even more alone and unsure and that may threaten the well-being and health of the individual or the strength of the family bond.