Gregory A. Prince is the author of several articles and books, including Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood, and co-author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. He is president and CEO of Virion Systems, Inc. and he is a board member of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and The Journal of Mormon History.
In the late 1970s, while serving as an Elders Quorum president, I witnessed what may have been the only same-sex wedding (same-sex in the sense that both partners had Y-chromosomes) ever to be performed in a Latter-day Saint temple. A year earlier, a woman who had undergone transsexual surgery was baptized in our ward. Leaders in the mission and the ward were fully aware of her status—indeed, the baptism recommend (which the bishop later showed me, since the subsequent wedding involved a member of my quorum) bore the words, “She is a transsexual.” Several months later an elder moved into the ward, the two of them fell in love, and they announced their engagement. They expressed to the bishop a desire to be married in the temple, and after he and the stake president interviewed the couple, the stake president wrote a detailed letter to the General Authority who supervised that area of the country, explicitly stating that the bride-to-be had undergone transsexual surgery.
A short time later, that General Authority wrote back to the stake president, authorizing their temple marriage. (The bishop also allowed me to see that letter.) My wife and I were invited to attend the wedding, and when we got there we were surprised to see that the ceremony was performed by the same General Authority who wrote the letter.
The sequence of events occurred in the early days of transsexual surgery, before there was a church policy that addressed the issue. Late in 1979, a year after the wedding, a chapter of the General Handbook of Instructions that dealt with church discipline was rewritten, retitled, and sent to wards and stakes throughout the Church. The chapter that had been “Church Courts” was now called “The Church Judicial System.” It made no mention of transsexual surgery. A subsequent revision of the chapter, issued in October 1980, addressed it for the first time. Investigators were treated differently than members:
• Investigators considering transsexual operations “should not be baptized.”
• Investigators who had already undergone such operations could be baptized so long as a notation was made on the membership record, but such individuals were barred from receiving temple recommends—which would have precluded the temple wedding that I had witnessed.
Members, however, were placed in an entirely different category and subjected to the harshest possible treatment from the Church:
• “Members who have undergone transsexual operations must be excommunicated. After excommunication such a person is not eligible again for baptism.” (Italics added in this and subsequent quotations.)
The next edition of the General Handbook of Instructions, published in 1983, contained a subtle but substantive change in the policy. While a member excommunicated for having undergone transsexual surgery was not eligible for rebaptism, excommunication was no longer mandatory: “A change in a member’s sex ordinarily justifies excommunication.”
In January 1985 a revision of the section “The Church Judicial System” was sent to church leaders. Once again there was a subtle but substantive change in the policy: “After excommunication, such a person is not eligible again for baptism unless approved by the First Presidency.”
In March 1989, a new edition of the General Handbook of Instructions was issued, this time with a completely rewritten policy, one that used the word elective for the first time but did not define its meaning:
Church leaders counsel against elective transsexual operations. A bishop should inform a member contemplating such an operation of this counsel and should advise the member that the operation may be cause for formal Church discipline. In questionable cases, a bishop should obtain the counsel of the First Presidency.
The current Handbook, issued in 2010, has no significant changes from 1989.
There are two levels on which church policy on transsexual surgery may be instructive for the newly announced policy regarding same-gender couples and their children. The first is that both are within the broad spectrum of LGBT issues, which are still unsettled and unsettling within the LDS Church and the larger society. The second is that pattern of policy evolution seen in transsexual surgery may be repeating itself. Consider that in both instances, before there was a policy there was leniency: I witnessed first-hand a same-sex marriage in the temple; and until November of this year same-gender couples were not labeled apostates nor were their children denied blessing and baptism. When a formal policy was first issued, it was hardline in both instances: No temple recommends for transsexual converts, and mandatory excommunication for members undergoing surgery, with no possibility of rebaptism; and the labeling of same-gender couples as apostates and the forbidding of their children to be blessed or baptized. In the case of transsexual surgery, there was then a gradual, usually subtle modification of the policy, with the first significant change occurring three years later and the process of change continuing to the point where, in 1989, only a shadow of the original position remained.
How far and how soon the policy on same-gender couples may change cannot be predicted, but it is instructive to note that the first modification came only eight days later—as contrasted to three years in the case of transsexual surgery—with “a natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship” being changed to “children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship.” Elder Dallin Oaks recently and famously stated that the Church does not apologize. Note that the remarkable changes in the policy regarding transsexual surgery were never accompanied by an apology—or, for that matter, even an explanation. But they were remarkable changes, nonetheless. And what is continuing revelation, if not change?