New Church handbook provides some clarity but minimizes LGBTQ identities
February 19, 2020
While applauding the increase in transparency and clarity the new handbook provides, Affirmation remains concerned that Church policy diminishes the lived experience of LGBTQ individuals.
This morning, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released the first portion of its new “General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This publication replaces both “Handbook 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics” and “Handbook 2: Administering the Church.” Since 1998, “Handbook 1” has only been available to members of stake presidencies and bishoprics. The release this morning of the new combined handbook marks the first time in over two decades that all members of the Church, and the general public, are able to read and understand the policies of the Church.
With this release, we review policies impacting those within the LGBTQ Mormon community.
Clarity and challenges for transgender members
The new handbook includes a section on transgender individuals, providing a level of clarity and consistency regarding the Church’s stance toward its transgender members that has long been needed. Recognizing the complexity facing transgender persons, and taking no position on the causes of people identifying as transgender, the Church now emphasizes that those who “identity as transgender – and their family and friends – should be treated with sensitivity, kindness, compassion, and an abundance of Christlike love.” Affirmation believes that these overarching principles should guide interactions with all people, including transgender persons.
While welcoming transgender individuals to Church meetings, socials, and events, and recognizing the complexity facing transgender persons, the Church continues to define gender as biological sex at birth. This definition informs every policy and guideline in the new handbook regarding transgender persons and gender in general.
Affirmation continues to stand aligned with the medical and psychiatric communities regarding the essential characteristic of gender identity, and that self-determination is the only means to establish gender identity. No person, group or institution has the means or the right to determine gender identity for any individual. Narrowly defining gender as the biological sex at birth negates the lived experience of transgender individuals.
“Identity is a sense of self that is in the mind, in the heart, and in the soul that transcends physical biology, whatever that may be,” stated Laurie Lee Hall, Affirmation’s senior vice president. “Ultimately many individuals reach the point where they must live authentically to the way they feel internally, in their mind and heart how they truly are.”
Affirmation recognizes that whenever transgender persons are placed in situations in which they are misgendered by others or forced to continue to act in opposition to their identity, such as limiting social transitioning, significant mental, emotional, and physical harm can be caused. “There is no valid reason for such harm to be knowingly caused among such a vulnerable population at the intersection of their faith,” stressed Laurie Lee.
While Church leaders are instructed that they should counsel transgender members not to socially transition, including counseling against changing their names or pronouns to align with their gender identity, the Church is now allowing the option for transgender members to have their preferred name updated on their membership record and used in the ward. However, making such a change on their membership record may result in the inability to serve in Church callings or hold temple recommends.
Affirmation is dedicated to building a community that assures safety and a fullness of authenticity in the lives of all transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary persons. Affirmation is poised to walk with and support all transgender persons, their families, and associates regardless of their faith journey to enjoy welcoming, inclusive, and safe meeting spaces together with loving, confirming community. We call upon the Church and other community partners to continue to work to do no harm and to provide healthy, loving policies and practices for all persons
The new handbook makes no mention of the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual”; the Church choosing instead to use the term “same-sex attraction.” While this is not a major shift from past practice, it does appear that the Church may be refocusing to use the term more often and consistently.
In 2012, the Church launched a website at mormonsandgays.org, leading with an article titled Love One Another: A Discussion on Same-Sex Attraction. Over the years, this website has evolved, the address for the site changed to mormonandgay.org, denoting that once could indeed be both Mormon and gay. Until this morning, the title for the site was Mormon and Gay. As of this morning, the title is “Same-Sex Attraction.”
The term “same-sex attraction” is an ineffective descriptor created by people and organizations outside the LGB community rooted in a belief that sexual orientation is a behavior and therefore amendable to conversion therapy to change such behavior. Using this as a blanket identifier for LGB individuals is a step backward from the positive vernacular President Nelson used in his BYU devotional in September 2019 referring to policy adjustments impacting “those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”
Identifying oneself as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is not against Church policy or doctrine. Positive mental outcomes occur when LGB members have the self-determination to self identify. When an individual shifts from understanding their sexual orientation as a behavior to be treated to shedding these negative ideas about themselves and embracing all they are, they are able to live richer, fuller, lives. Affirmation offers our hand to the Church communication’s department in working towards a more trauma aware and effective vernacular for the website that will not act as a barrier towards access.
Policies impacting same-sex couples and their children
The November 5th, 2015, policies that equated same-sex marriage with apostasy requiring Church discipline and restricting children of same-sex couples of receiving ordinances, such as baptism, are not present in the new handbook. The Church had announced on April 4, 2019, that these policies would be reversed; however, changes to the prior version of the handbook were not immediate.
Individuals in same-sex relationships, including same-sex marriage, are no longer deemed apostates or being in apostasy. In fact, the new handbook only used the term “apostate” once to refer to apostate religious groups or teachings, not individuals. While there is no requirement that Church members in same-sex sexual relationships must face Church discipline, they may be subject to the Church’s new membership councils at the decision of their local leaders, where it is possible that their Church membership may be withdrawn.
“With this handbook update, I think most appreciate that the Church no longer defines those in same-sex marriages to be apostates and that there is no prohibition preventing children of same-sex couples from being baptized or receiving other ordinances,” said Nathan Kitchen, president of Affirmation.
“However, as a worldwide organization, we have witnessed over the years much inequality in the treatment of legally married same-sex couples which is entirely dependent on where the couple lives. I’m concerned that today’s updated policies still leave LGB members highly vulnerable to the education and personal feelings of local leaders, continuing a harmful game of ‘leadership roulette.’ We want to see a day where all are welcomed into full participation in the Church, including same-sex couples, regardless of which ward or stake they reside in.”
From pain to understanding, acceptance, and self-determination
In addressing these most recent handbook changes published today, Affirmation acknowledges the past pain LGBTQ members have felt, and we stand with all at the intersections of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and faith. We’re proud of our almost 50 years of work towards the understanding, acceptance, and self-determination of individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions as full, equal, and worthy persons within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and society.
We have the self-determination to identify and we have a voice that cannot be erased. Our voice cannot be lost, for as Elder Holland stated, “The loss of even one voice diminishes every other singer in this great mortal choir of ours, including the loss of those who feel they are on the margins of society or the margins of the Church.”
Affirmation will continue to work tirelessly to amplify the LGBTQ voice and eliminate prejudices and misconceptions about sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, no matter where they are found.