What Part of Gender Is Eternal? A Meditation on Culture, Cognition, and Parts

Having an eternal gender does not mean an unchanged or static gender. If having a static gender were the intended meaning of “gender is eternal,” the authors of the text could have written “gender is static,” “gender never changes,” “don’t be trans,” or “God doesn’t want your gender to change,” but that is not what the text says. The text says gender is an essential characteristic of an eternal existence and purpose. This allows a lot of room for interpretation and dynamic change.—Blaire Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, p. 56

There can be no doubt that, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gender is eternal. It says so right in the Proclamation on the Family “Gender,” it says, “is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” There, that settles it.

Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t say what happens when premortal, mortal, and eternal definitions of gender don’t align, and we know they don’t always align. Not does it say that the eternalness of gender must always fall into one of two binary choices. And it doesn’t specify what kind of “gender” we mean when we talk about an eternal and everlasting characteristic of human beings.

This creates some category problems, I think, when we consider that the word “gender” is commonly used to describe three not-always compatible sets of characteristics:

  • Gender is physiological. This aspect of gender is sometimes called “sex.” Most human beings are born with one of two sets of reproductive organs, which constitute the primary physiological markers of gender. Humans also have secondary sex characteristics like the presence (or absence) of breasts, the various placement of body hair, and the shape of hips.
  • Gender is cultural. Different cultures at different times have conventions about the dress, behavior, and social positions of males and females. In some cultures, only men can be leaders. In other cultures, women have ultimate authority. Culture determines what kinds and colors of clothing can be worn by the different sexes, how they should speak, what they should read, and whether or not they should work. After the Industiral Revolution, gender roles in some societies hardened around definitions of “work” (where men should go) and “home” (where women should stay) that would not have even made sense to previous societies, where home and work both looked very different.
  • Gender is cognitive. In all species, males and females perceive things differently. Evolutionarily, this traces back to the fact that the differences in reproductive equipment (eggs are rare and valuable; sperm is cheap and plentiful) lead to different ideal mating strategies. Over a millions of years, these differences have produced cognitive differences in human beings that can be labeled “male” and “female,” though all human beings ultimately have access to all aspects of human cognition. The cognitive dimension of gender does not map perfectly onto either the cultural or the psysiological aspects of gender. An important aspect of cognitive gender is what we now call “gender identity,” or how people represent their gender to themselves.

Now, none of these three statements is particularly controversial, though there is a fair amount of debate about how much each of these systems (physiology, culture, psychology) contributes to the experience of any particular human being. There is wide agreement among scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and theologians that there are elements of all three systems wrapped up in our concept of “gender.”

Nor do any of these definitions require a gender binary. In fact, they all mitigate directly against a binary concept of gender. Secondary sex characteristics vary widely across populations and do not always correspond to primary sex organs. And even primary sex is not always absolute. Cultural gender also manifests along a spectrum, with “feminine” and “masculine” traits both occurring across the board. It is simply inaccurate to say that non-binary fluidity is limited to the individual cognitive understanding of gender.

So, when we say that gender is both binary and eternal—that every human existed before, exists now, and will continue to exist as one of two genders—we really need to clarify what we mean. Are the two standard genders—which are not physiologically, culturally, or cognitively binary in this life—an absolute and rigid eternal dichotomy? If so, why is it not like this in our lives? And if not, how can we say that gender in this life is a model for the eternities?

Are all three aspects of gender infinite and eternal? If so, what happens when the same person does not fall on the same end of the binary in all three cases? Specifically, what happens when the cognitive and physiological experiences of gender conflict? Do we try to force the mind to conform to the body? Or do we change the body to conform to the mind? Why is one of these strategies consistent with eternal gender but not the other one? On what basis can we suggest that one’s cognitive apparatus much change to support one’s physiological parts? Do we think that bodies are more real than minds, or more eternal, than minds? On what basis do we think that?

The Proclamation does not address this specifically, but the church’s policies create a very rigid hierarchy among the three kinds of gender. Physiological gender is absolute. Cultural gender is not quite absolute, but it is overwhelmingly important, as long as we are talking about one very specific culture and discounting all others. And cognitive gender is not important at all, so when it is out of harmony with either psychological gender or with the One True Culture, it must be adjusted with drugs, therapy, counseling, and, if necessary, the harshest ecclesiastical punishments that the Church can administer. This hierarchy of gender definitions currently drives much of the policy of both the church and its educational institutions.

The primacy of physiology has been made crystal clear by the church in BYU’s recent decision that it will risk the loss of accreditation for one of its signature programs rather than allow its students to provide speech therapy for people whose cognitive experience of gender is at odds with their the physiological nature of their gender at birth. While it is OK to engage in any amount of chemical or psychological treatment designed to make one’s cognitive gender match their birth physiology, any attempt to do the reverse—to make one’s physiology match one’s cognitive experience of gender—will be subject to excommunication from the church and expulsion from the Kingdom of God.

This is also true, but not quite as true, of situations where people feel at odds with the cultural definitions of gender. A man who wears women’s clothing, for example, cannot take an active role in the church or work at a church-owned university, though one can get away with wearing the occasional pink shirt to sacrament meeting as long as one sits in the back.

It is much worse for women who do not conform to the circa 1950 definition of the stay-at-home mom. For example, a woman in the church may work outside the home as long as she has a low-income, low-prestige job that she hates, both church culture and church employment take a dim view of women who want actual careers. Since 1997, for example, BYU, for example, has maintained a special exemption from civil rights legislation to ask otherwise illegal questions about marriage and children in job interviews.

Whatever one may think of these policies, it must be said that they are, at the very least, inconsistent with other ways that we view conflicts between physiology, cognition, and culture when they do not involve gender. Latter-day Saints do not believe that physiology always represents eternal reality. We do not believe, for example, that someone born blind was blind in the pre-existence and will be blind in the eternities. Nor do we believe that someone born without a limb will lack that limb in the afterlife. Biological sex is the only physical property that we consider an absolute representation of eternal reality.

The contrast is even more spectacular when it comes to culture. Latter-day prophets have continually drawn a distinction between God’s values and the values of any particular culture. Culture is what we mean by “the world,” or “Babylon,” and it is almost always at odds with what we call “Zion.” Except when it comes to the gender roles that predominated in industrial countries in the first part of the 20th century. Those just happen, by some chance, to conform to what we mean by eternal gender.

None of this follows necessarily from the doctrinal statement that gender “is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” This only supports anti-trans, rigidly binary, and anti-feminist positions if we completely discount the cognitive nature of gender expression, elevate physiology to the status of absolute spiritual reality, and accept a specific, time-bound cultural definition of gender as both eternal and universal. And the thing is, there is really no reason in our tradition or our theology to make any of these assumptions. There are other ways to see gender as eternal that don’t require us to be cruel to our brothers and sisters and try to keep them out of the Kingdom of God.


  1. Reblogged this on All About Writing and more.

  2. First of all, good work at the self-limited level of “nothing that requires us.”

    Second, there are enough variations and exceptions and mismatches that I challenge even physiology as a way for any outsider to determine gender. You could say there are periods in most people’s lives when we choose a role in reproduction, and for most of us the choices are limited. But I’m not willing to cede that period and the likelihood of limited choice as determinative. At least not determinative by an external authority. I end up at the more radical position that there is *only* self-determination (which can be affected by lots of external factors).

    Third, even though Blair Ostler does it, and Michael Austin does it here, and I have done it myself (many years ago in a very limited circulation critique of the Proclamation on the Family), I have come to think it is both fruitless and unnecessarily provocative to recast the Proclamation into something different than what “everybody knows” it says. The Proclamation does not bear a close textual analysis. The problems are legion. Applying that lens seems to annoy people more than illuminate anything. Even at the level of “nothing that requires us” I expect the unconvinced to remain unconvinced.

  3. You lay it all out. The current policies are gender are just. so. stupid. They don’t bear the slightest bit of scrutiny and don’t map to the reality that there is no gender or sex binary in the world we actually live in, only the idea of a binary.

  4. Matt Evans says:

    Regarding eternal physiology, as I understand d the church’s position, the church essentially assumes there are two Platonic physical forms that everyone will have in the next life — Adam and Eve being archetypes — so the status of the mortal blind man is temporary, as is the status of the person experiencing gender dysphoria, and those with any other form of mental or physical disorder. The other physical characteristic we take to be eternal is, of course, our humanity, so even someone who has one of the varieties of disorder causing them to believe they are something besides a person, the church believes they are eternally a person despite their belief, and that their disorder will be cured in the resurrection.

  5. I agree with Christian to a degree, knowing the context and history of the Proclamation tapers it down really to one specific interpretation, it was written as a reactive to movements on Gay Marriage and feminism. Here is a nice review:


    It is one thing to ask the question whether the concept of gender as put forth in the the Proclamation can fit into the various categories of what gender is, but it is perhaps more important to ask what the fruits/effects of the Proclamation for the membership and wider world.
    If it was written to encourage and solidify the church’s position on being gay or trans, namely that it is ok to be gay or trans as long as you don’t act on it or are visible. Unfortunately, this leads to people trying to suppress and and persecute themselves in order to fit in. This is not only miserable, it is dangerous:


    and this nest one incudes a nice tidbit about how being rejected by one’s religious community doubles the risk of suicide among trans people:


    For cis-hetero normative families does The Proclamation really do anything positive rather than merely enforce the lucky chance that they were born into bodies and attractions that fit in? it is either a medium for oppression or smug comfort. It has served to make the institutional church have a clearer position, unfortunately, the more we learn about gender, the more it seems to me that the effects of the Proclamation on people like me serve no compassionate or even any other type of useful purpose. It is, essentially, a weapon, and not a balm. It is interesting to think of gender in physiological terms- this is so much more complex than knowing which genitalia one was born with. The literature on how gender minorities do fit into a biological context is rich, here is one little taste:


    If the leaders of the church are truly concerned about the marginalized “least of these” members of the flock who are transgender, what would be the most effective way to alleviate their suffering and help them be well? Is it the divisiveness of the Proclamation that basically tells us to shut up or disappear and that we are not part of the eternal landscape? That approach did not help me. Instead here is a summary of evidence of what actually works.


    I believe that Michael Austin is one of the kindest and clearest voices among LDS writers. I do think, however, that the sooner we stop asking how we can harmonize concepts put forth in the Proclamation with actual reality, the better it will be for all of us. Time to take it down off our walls and put something else up instead, like the words to the song: “I’m trying to be like Jesus.” That would be a lot better

  6. So Matt Evans, is the ressurection just the ultimate conversion therapy? Is that a peaceful concept? is that not terrifying? I prefer to think that my gay and transgender identity is not broken. I do not feel broken, I am just told I am broken.

  7. Steve LHJ says:

    @Lona Gynt
    Maybe both are compatible. A valuable and important learning experience here that couldn’t rightly be labeled broken, but nonetheless one temporary that will still tend toward the growth and perfection of the platonic ideal yet to come. Thoughts?

  8. Steve LHJ.
    For me, my gender identity feels like a core part of my identity, accepting it has given me a loads of peace and wellness. It does not feel like a temporary learning experience. I prefer to think that we are more likely to be cured of erroneous ideas about other people’s identities in the resurrection, rather than core profound central identities. I believe I am a child of God and that identity as a child of God does not feel separate from my identity as a woman married to a woman. How would any of you cis brothers and sisters like to be cured of your gender identity in the resurrections, does that feel right to you? Probably not. Anyway, I have loads of work to do, so I am sorry to have hijacked the wonderful OP with a long comment and then go radio silent, but have to sign off.

  9. Of course it’s fine to discuss a topic like this, or any other, however, opinion isn’t worth a red cent. What matters is what God says about a topic, and only revelation can sort it. For some, prayer and petitioning are cast aside for man’s opinion. God does answer prayers and will answer every faithful and sincere prayer, although when and how can’t be controlled. And nobody has any justification for cruelty toward another.

  10. In October of 2019 when Elder Oaks made the statement “the intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation … is biological sex at birth.” I thought that if that’s what he intended, he should have wrote that in the first place. And that it is possible that he did write that, but the spirit didn’t confirm in, and he was inspired to write “gender is eternal” in its place. So I find it possible that even the authors of the document don’t understand the ways in which the words are true.
    No other religion can come close to having an explanation for gender dysphoria. The church does have a possible explanation, that the spirit of one gender ended up in a temporal imperfect body of a different gender in rare cases.

  11. Not long ago the church (i.e., Elder Oaks) somewhat humbly acknowledged, “…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.” (Jan 2015 interview http://www.sltrib.com/news/2112602-155/tomorrow-at-115-pm-lds-apostles). However, since that time, as our trans members have become more open and confident in their preferred gender identity, even at church, the church abandoned that attitude and any apparent desire to become educated and instead retrenched into its current unenlightened and uneducated position. In Oct 2019, Pres. Oaks unequivocally defined the church’s position on gender: “The intended meaning of ‘gender’ in the family proclamation and as used in church statements and publications since that time is biological sex at birth.’” (https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2019/10/02/dark-day-transgender/)

    In other words, Pres. Oaks tamped down any alternative readings or interpretations of gender in the proclamation. Individuals may find meaning and comfort in their own interpretations, but the church is all about setting boundaries and keeping the doctrine “pure.” It’s so disappointing to see how the church turned from its once humble position of acknowledging a certain level of ignorance to exhibiting such exceeding hubris in what should be a wholly medical/biological/psychological question far outside of the realm of its expertise.

  12. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    I think we keep holding on to the thread of the PotF because it does give us a sliver of hope that these things are not meant to be this way.
    DJ – “What matters is what God says about a topic, and only revelation can sort it. For some, prayer and petitioning are cast aside for man’s opinion.”
    The problem is that you’re absolutely defining what God says about the topic, believing that any difference in what some Church leaders proclaim must be “man’s opinion”. The direction of the Church may be limited to those currently called to lead it, but “what God says”, especially to individual people, is not.
    One of the great features of this Church and religion is the teaching of personal revelation. I do not know of a single LGBTQ+ person who retains any affiliation with the Church who has not wrestled with God over it and been given understanding on what is right for them (or is still working on it; wrestling is hard).
    My biggest concern is that this is going to get worse before it begrudgingly gets better. And I really don’t want to know what worse looks like. This is obviously something where revelation hasn’t come to all Church leaders, or there would have long since been an updated Proclamation with even stricter language. But, as seemed to be the point of the post, the answers thus far don’t work logically and with reality.
    We exist. We know who we are. We know to whom we look.

  13. Always good to read your thoughts, Michael. They help me to sit with and process my own. And Lona, thank you for all of those great resources. I’m going to enjoy reading through the ones I haven’t read yet.
    I think I’ve arrived at the place where other commenters have: it’s a document no amount of thoughtful apologetics can save. It’s done too much harm.
    The biggest harm, I feel, has been, first, to LGBTQIA+ people, and then their families, and the people who care about them.
    However, I’m so glad that Michael brings up women, too. I am a woman with two advanced degrees and a job she doesn’t hate who earns a good living (>50% higher than the mean in the pricey coastal state where I reside). Mostly LDS people haven’t hassled me about it; they hassle my husband sometimes, which is sort of worse. But anyway, the point I wanted to make: Don’t worry about me, I’m just fine. (See: job I don’t hate, earning a good living). You know who’s not fine? The brilliant girl I grew up with who was doing calculus in middle school and could have followed any profession and didn’t because she was taught getting more than a bachelor’s degree (“just in case” *insert curse words*) was wrong because her focus should be on being a mom and wife. Also not fine? The girl in Model UN who should have been a career diplomat or a really good politician and instead is a divorced mom of three struggling to make ends meet. We could play this game all day. The way the Institutional Church encourages the waste of the full potential of its women makes me all kinds of sad. And the implication that I am a lesser mother or wife because I have advanced degrees and a career is hilarious. Honestly, it makes me chuckle. The Institution’s whole trick, I guess, is preventing other women from having that luxury.

  14. When I think about the “statement “gender is eternal,” I tend to think about the BRCA cancer gene that is not eternal, and people born with XXY or XYY chromosomes that don’t fit into neatly defined mortal gender roles. Gender may indeed be eternal, but that’s no guarantee that the messiness of fallen mortality doesn’t throw some odd dice rolls here and there. And that doesn’t even include the cultural and cognitive factors that Michael discussed here.

  15. My daughter was born with only a thumb on her left hand. In spite of this she learned to play the violin and became proficient enough to play 1st violin part at state. I always assumed she’d want a “normal” hand after the resurrection but recently this came up in conversation and she firmly told someone how presumptuous they were by assuming she wanted a full hand. After all the hand she has made her who she is – hard working, independent, and persistent.

    Likewise, how presumptuous we are to assume that one’s perception of themselves – and the reality of their creation – is incorrect and that we know better.

  16. Oh Toad, Thank You!

  17. This is superb Mike. Thank you. Considering the importance of the POTF to this discussion, it warrants mentioning that the General RS Presidency had zero input into that document and if they had been consulted the wording would have be different.

    (See. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V45N01_CO.pdf at page 136)

  18. coming around the bend again says:

    …and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.

  19. I greatly appreciate this post. I’ve been struggling with the fact that the Church doesn’t make much room for people who aren’t white, cis, hetero, and male. And for me, the linguistic gymnastics that Church leaders go through to justify the itty bitty amount of real estate given to those of us who don’t fit in that category falls flat.

    I also can’t help but wonder if the Church’s limited view on gender as a binary also limits our understanding of God. If gender, like God, is eternal, then why can’t gender be infinite, too? That is, I think it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that there are infinite genders and that God encompasses all of these with an understanding and love that we can’t comprehend. Thinking about it that way gives me more hope when I think of God (at least, more hope than when I try to imagine a paternalistic father and an all but non-existent mother).

  20. Great post.

    Oaks’ beliefs on gender seem fall into the “ill-informed, strongly held” category. They don’t hold under even moderate scrutiny.

    I fear that trans rights are the next gay marriage battle and will be equally devastating to the body of Christ. I hope I’m wrong.

  21. Aussie Mormon says:

    jader3d: “In October of 2019 when Elder Oaks made the statement “the intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation … is biological sex at birth.” I thought that if that’s what he intended, he should have wrote that in the first place.”

    That assumes that in 1995 they thought there was a meaningful difference in the usage of the terms. Not everyone did. In at least one academic physiological journal, gender was more used more commonly than sex, when sex was meant, around that time period ( https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00376.2005 ) because authors didn’t want to use the term sex. Maybe the church felt the same way. Maybe they didn’t want to get people confused between sex and sexual relations.

    Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks, M. Russell Ballard, Jeffrey R. Holland, and Henry B. Eyring were all in the 12 at the time it was released. Surely someone could ask them why they used gender if sex was meant.

    But even if they had used biological sex at birth, would we just be seeing the same articles but focused around its use of sex rather than gender?

  22. By Common Consent is always good for a chuckle, straining at issues that are clear for most any thinking person who understands what is now and what will be. Thanks for a laugh on a gray Monday morning!

  23. Carey F. says:


    Its so easy to laugh and its so hate
    Its take strength to be gentle and kind

  24. Carey F. says:

    (guess its not so easy to type)

    Its so easy to laugh – its so easy to hate
    Its take strength to be gentle and kind

  25. Chadwick says:

    My oldest child’s social circle includes all sort of young people that identify in one way or another as a member of the queer community. They love each other, they believe each other, they accept each other, and they support each other. Because of this support, it really isn’t an area of focus after the initial coming out moment.

    Contrast this to my oldest child’s church experience, which is full of jokes, disbelief, and hate. And because the curriculum just can’t leave well enough alone, it seems to get discussed so much that the focus on following Christ is completely lost in this message.

    Which group is emulating Christ? Which group provides a more belonging community?

    I still recall the moment I took the Proclamation down from hanging in our home. I replaced it with a bright and colorful painting by Marc Chagall. I’ve never looked back.

  26. Years ago at Sunstone when the proclamation was still new, I did a presentation on it. I called it the croc proc (I believe I an the originator of that description.) one thing I did was ask a series of question, and if they applied to audience members, I asked them to stand and remain standing. I asked things like, if your parents are not members to please stand. If you have family members who are divorced, to please stand. If you have family members not sealed in the temple to please stand. And there were more. Eventually, the overwhelming majority of the audience was standing. And then I simply pointed out that the proclamation excludes more than it includes. Somehow, lots of church members have not figured that out somehow.

  27. Having the benefit of over six decades to ponder, I can’t help but wonder what an eternal identity even is. As a child and youth, I was timid and shy. As a missionary, I became bold and dogmatic. As a young adult, I had certain educational experiences that made me a crusader against authoritarian systems. As an adult, I have had the opportunity to dig deeply into troubling questions and learn both nuance and the withholding of judgment, as well as the developing of some strong opinions. Over the years, I have switched political loyalties for moral reasons. I can honestly say that today I am not the same person I was as a child, as a youth, as a young adult, or even as a middle-aged adult. What is my eternal identity? I have no idea. My sexual identity hasn’t changed over the course of my mortal life, but pretty much everything else has. So, who was I in the premortal existence? I doubt that person would be anything like the person I am now, or the person I was as a child, adolescent, or young adult. I have been shaped not only by my experiences, but by my genetic makeup in how I have responded to those experiences. I am quite hesitant to claim that I have a core identity that I came to earth with and that has been consistent throughout my mortal life. So much of me has been malleable. If there is such a core identity, it is subtle and limited to such qualities as honesty, loyalty, and curiosity. To make claims about who I may have been in the previous life is more than I am comfortable doing.

  28. The problem for me with making biological/physiological gender eternal is that mortal/biological bodies don’t exist in the premortal life. We aren’t biological/physiological creatures until mortality hits. Pre-conception/birth/the-moment-of-pairing, we don’t have biological/physiological anything-at-all that could even be gendered.

    And mortal/biological bodies are all screwed up for everyone. Our bodies sicken, age, die, betray us day-by-day. I doubt Oaks is arguing that mortal bodies are actually present in the pre-existance (or prior to the pre-existance when we were all unformed intelligences), but that’s how his arguments always read to me.

    I do think that having spiritual gender works with LDS theology. But spirit is a different matter than mortal biology.

  29. “I believe that Michael Austin is one of the kindest and clearest voices among LDS writers. I do think, however, that the sooner we stop asking how we can harmonize concepts put forth in the Proclamation with actual reality, the better it will be for all of us. Time to take it down off our walls and put something else up instead, like the words to the song: “I’m trying to be like Jesus.” That would be a lot better”


  30. As gender identity and sexuality issues come to more of a social forefront, I like to think after some pushback the church will start to approach the issue in a kinder manner. I believe the best way to support members with these kinds of issues is not only understanding and compassion, but also with better support for healthy gender expression.

    Personally, speaking as a guy who wears girls clothing occasionally as an outlet for alternative gender expression, I would like to see the church at least be kinder towards that kind of thing, but for me, participation in the church and strengthening my faith is more important. I understand and support those who left the church for reasons relating to the church’s lack of support for it, and I hope the support cycle for it will be sooner than later.

  31. Yosemite Sam says:

    It’s too bad this site doesn’t allow opposing views. It only silences them by deleting comments of those of whom an author or site owner disagree.

  32. Daryl Tanner says:

    On the subject of gender, I think you might find what The Westar Christianity Seminar had to say on that subject in the early church in their book/report “After Jesus Before Christianity”!

    From The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus said, “For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

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