In honor of National Coming Out Day, I will be giving my best personal defense of queerness and living as queer either in or outside of the closet. For greater context, please also see I Am Transgender and I Am Transgender (Part 2) in addition to Dear Christians.
My worldview is similar to Batman’s. I accept that there is no inherent meaning, that there is no intrinsic purpose. However, that doesn’t mean we can evade the responsibility of our radical freedom in light of this absence of inherent meaning. We can, and should, create meaning for ourselves, even if it may appear to be a joke. This applies to every aspect of myself and my understanding of the world I live in. I first exist. What I am from that point is up to me, even in light of factors that are beyond my control.
My gender is such a thing. By being who I am, by feeling what I feel, by doing what I do (see Judith Butler and her conception of performativity), I create what it means for me to be a woman. There may be certain facts about me that predispose me to it (or my situatedness which can include biological and environmental factors), but it is ultimately my own creation. Your gender is the same. You create it for yourself. You decide who you are within the limitations of your circumstances. To be anything else would be inauthentic–and so it was for me for so many years. My choosing to evade responsibility for the life I wanted caused me great pain in many forms, including gender dysphoria. The only real choice I ultimately have is what I am going to do about what I feel. I can accept it or deny it. After many years of denying it, I have finally decided to accept it and live accordingly, thus choosing authenticity. My life would be a sad joke otherwise.
Existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir argued that “one is not born a Woman, she becomes one” (paraphrased by me). In her view, Women have traditionally been defined by their relationships to men, rather than as independent, autonomous beings. Men have been the default, the independent, the sovereign, transcendent, whereas women have not. They have been relegated to what de Beauvior calls “immanence”–a mere extension or material manifestation of man. Women’s liberation includes their ability to define themselves. Women simply matter regardless of their relationships to men.
So what does this mean for Mormonism specifically or Christianity more generally? Does this imply that it is false? Not at all. Our experiences with the world are interpreted through a lens. To perceive something is to interpret the object of perception. In order to assert that something is a chair, we can’t just see the wood and nails that are its parts. We must interpret those parts as the whole they constitute (the chair). Of course, we could choose to focus on the individual parts, but even then, those parts are composed of even smaller parts we can’t perceive such as molecules; which are composed by atoms; which are composed by protons, neutrons, and electrons; which are composed by quarks; which may be composed by vibrating strings of energy. “Chair” is a perception, an interpretation of the experience of those things that is greater than their sum. This goes for all experiences. For any object of experience to have meaning, it must first be perceived. To perceive isn’t merely to see, it is to assign meaning to what you are seeing. To label it. To categorize it. To place it in a greater context.
And so it is for ‘revelation’. You can believe that you have a connection with God and that he reveals truth to you through the Spirit. I won’t deny that belief. But what neither of us can deny is that whatever you’re experiencing (be it revelation or something else), it must be interpreted by you for it to make sense. You must give it meaning. This doesn’t just apply to you and me, it applies to everyone, even those who claim to be prophets, seers, and revelators. That does not mean that these people do not have power or authority. It does mean that they are communicating their interpretation of their experience and you are then interpreting what they are saying. Stated differently, there is the object of experience (in this case, the Spirit) and the experience itself (in this case, revelation). There is also speaker meaning (in this case, what the prophets intend to communicate), and there is audience meaning (your interpretation of their words). Can they be wrong? They are fallible. So it behooves both of us to admit they can be. Can we also be wrong about our interpretation of what they are saying? We are also fallible. So it behooves both of us to admit that we can be. They have been wrong before, they even occasionally admit this, and we can admit where we have gotten them wrong. My point is this: there is a lot of intersubjectivity, and things are very open to interpretation, including what is asserted as doctrine or revelation.
Though this may seem problematic, I don’t think it is. I think it’s still possible for God to intend it to be this way. After all, God even tells us that sometimes things will be said that need further scrutinization. Through Jesus, he gives us tools and heuristics for us to tell whether or not something is good, or true, or accurate. Sometimes the entire hierarchy of the church can get something like gender fundamentally wrong (as they did for race)–something considered doctrine–and that’s okay.