The Circuitous History of Mormonism’s Gender Essentialism

Few documents are as influential in the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the 1995 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” In many ways, the six hundred-word text is the clearest and most efficient distillation of current LDS teachings concerning gender and sexuality, as it declares gender to be an eternal characteristic, and heterosexual marriage the only acceptable type of union. Though the proclamation has never been officially added to the scriptural canon, despite persistent rumors that it eventually would, it remains all-but-scriptural in terms of authority.

And while the myth that the document preceded the cultural battles over gay marriage, as recent scholarship has highlighted how it was the product of legal disputes in the 1990s, another myth has remained persistent: that the proclamation reflected long-standing ideas of gender essentialism within the faith. As the common narrative goes, the LDS tradition had long believed that gender was eternal, a trajectory that culminated in the proclamation.

PetreyYet Taylor Petrey, in Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism (UNC Press, 2020), shatters that easy teleology. Instead of a long-cemented idea, gender essentialism was only one of many potential trajectories; and rather than a predetermined culmination, the proclamation was merely the result of one of those trajectories winning. Indeed, Mormon notions concerning gender and sexuality have fluctuated substantially, even in the past fifty years, and have never been truly fixed. And in telling this surprising story, Petrey adds an important chapter to broader stories of religion and gender writ large.

Much of Petrey’s work is driven by the scholarly field of queer studies which, more than merely highlighting the ideas and experience of people who identify as LGBT, attempts to destabilize notions of gender and sexuality. These disciplinary tools demonstrate how notions of heteronormativity are inherently fragile and malleable, and therefore any discussion of homosexuality require a concomitant study of gender ideas more broadly. In other words, to understand how modern Mormons have dealt with topics like gay marriage, scholars must also examine how they conceptualized marriage in general. Petrey’s study is therefore an attempt to not only integrate LGBT issues into the LDS narrative, but also to recast the wider story of Mormon sexuality since World War II. Anything less is only a fragment of the story.

To demonstrate the range of Petrey’s argument, he begins the book by examining LDS conceptions of interracial marriage during the 1950s and 1960s. Church officials earnestly, if quietly, opposed the Civil Rights movement in part because they feared cross-racial unions would disturb traditional gender roles. “Pure marriage,” or the conception of how sexual unions were supposed to operate, were immediately at risk. Yet the broader story of integration soon chipped away at this segregationist mindset, as church officials eventually adopted the principles of racial equality. But more than revealing evolving conceptions of race, these discussions also exemplified the foundations of Petrey’s tale: that “sexual difference was not a natural given but a highly contingent feature of human existence that must be guarded by strict norms” (32). If not properly policed, the gender identities so crucial to LDS theology could crumble. Church leaders then commenced an earnest quest to reaffirm these sexual boundaries, an anxiety that framed the modern Mormon experience.

Yet if the driving anxiety quickly became clear, both the reasons and solutions for this crisis were never truly agreed upon. Multiple theories for gender origins began to emerge. Some leaders proposed that human “intelligences,” while eternal, were not always gendered, but rather their sexual identities were either appointed or chosen at some point during the pre-mortal existence. But regardless of their origin, how do you treat someone who claims homosexual feelings or, more dangerously, confesses homosexual acts? Church officials searched for an answer, some embracing current psychological discourse on “the homosexual” that cast it as something that could be cured. However, this required a few concessions: first, it acknowledged that gender was fluid; and second, it forced them to see homosexuality as a psychological, rather than a moral, issue. Both of these concessions had dangerous implications, and not all leaders were willing to relent, especially after professional psychologists ceased pathologizing homosexuality. But it did highlight the ambiguity of the scattershot LDS response.

The moment that really catalyzed, and politicized, these gender discussions was the church’s opposition to the ERA in the 1970s. What made the proposed amendment so odious to LDS authorities, Petrey demonstrates, was that it disrupted the already fragile gender structure in America. Seen another way, gender was too malleable to survive the America that the amendment represented. This chapter is one of the most provocative in the book, as it directly links the church’s role in the ERA debate to their later involvement in legal disputes over gay marriage, two significant but rarely connected crusades in Mormon history.

And at the heart of this argument is a series of complicated, yet crucial, shifts in LDS thought, each of which are framed as deep ironies. First, in part as a response to the serious backlash they received during the ERA battles, or perhaps as a way to soften the blow, church leaders began softening their patriarchal language and instead emphasized the “equality” between husbands and wives. This “soft egalitarianism” chipped away at what had previously been entrenched and staunch gender roles, and seemingly provided more leeway for women, both within the home and the workplace. Yet the irony was that this came with a corollary emphasis: the decline of traditional patriarchy meant a concomitant rise of gender essentialism. In other word, the church chose heterosexuality over patriarchy as “the defining Mormon doctrine of marriage and family” (139). This, then, was the root of the 1995 proclamation, and alternative theories of gender origins were cast aside. (If never fully forgotten.)

The second ironic twist came in the midst of, as well as the wake after, the legal battles over same-sex marriage. Though the church never fully embraced the evolving cultural acceptance of homosexuality, they slowly acknowledged psychological and biological reasons for what they called “inborn desires,” and most finally accepted that homosexuality was natural for a large number of people. But in trying to satisfy these triangular principles—gender essentialism, heterosexual marriage, and homosexual inclinations—they found themselves in a new theological dilemma: how do you deny someone’s natural desires? Petrey exhaustively outlines the persistent struggle to answer this question, tracing both the rhetorical meanings behind phrases like “same-sex attraction,” and even unpacking the inconsistent use of the term “homosexual.” In the end, the dominant narrative within the faith became one that was more accepting of homosexual identities, even as it “remained committed to the ontology of sexual malleability and heteronormative prescriptions for gay, lesbian, and queer individuals” (176).

The third and final irony, and the one that received the most fleeting attention, concerned the church’s position regarding federal oversight over domestic ideals. The story began with the church urging the American government to base their policies on “family values,” but it ended with them emphasizing “religious freedom,” especially the importance of preserving institutional rights. In brief, they evolved from desiring the nation to police morality to wishing morality to be governed only at the ecclesiastical level. Once America no longer shared what LDS leaders believed were traditional values, then, it was time to cease traditional oversight.

Much of this argument will be new to readers. And while I find nearly all of it convincing, that’s not to say I didn’t have disagreements. There were some interpretations—especially when trying to fit Mormonism into contemporary and theoretical frameworks—that seemed a tad stretched. More significantly, in attempting to trace the depth and breadth of LDS gendered ideas, I felt Petrey sometimes overstated the coherency of how leaders like Kimball, Benson, and especially Hinckley thought about gender identities; basic cultural aversions may appear less substantial, and less provocative, than theological justifications, but they are often as significant in shaping ideas and policies all the same.

But that flaw is rooted in Petrey’s willingness to genuinely wrestle with these thinkers—to take their ideas seriously—which, in the end, is a testament to this book’s strength. Petrey is at his best when he’s demonstrating both the ambiguity as well as the sincerity of these ideological debates, and the core of his argument is found in the nuance of his analysis.

Indeed, Tabernacles of Clay is a model for how scholars can use a singular tradition to tell a much larger lesson. Petrey convincingly argues that Mormonism demonstrates “the queer contours of modern notions of gender and sexuality as persistently marked by ambiguity, fluidity, contradiction, and paradox” (223). Despite how rigid contemporary debates are, and despite how cemented modern Mormonism’s gender rhetoric appears to be, history is always more flexible and complicated than typically allowed.

It also hints at how future evolutions can be similarly surprising and unexpected.