The declaration that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” is presumably attempted to rebut the second-wave feminist articulation of the sex/gender dichotomy which sees sex as natural and gender as culturally/socially constructed, and therefore malleable. While it is perhaps unclear that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is theoretically sophisticated enough to be aware of the sex/gender distinction that emerged in the 1970’s starting with the work of Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (1970), it is nevertheless situated in a historical moment in which these terms escape easy definition. Indeed, the definition of such terms is in fact the most contested element of feminist theory, and the failure to articulate any precise definition opens the text up to multiple interpretations.
Millett introduces the sex/gender distinction via the interpretive tradition that developed in the 1950’s and 60’s in the medical and psychological study of transsexuality. Robert Stoller, John Money, and others attempted to give articulation to the phenomenon of transsexuality by noting a gap between actual “sex” and perceived “gender.” Interestingly, in this articulation, these thinkers see “gender” as the fixed, durable element of human identity and “sex” as that which can be changed. The beginnings of transsexual surgeries are based on this theoretical model.
For this reason, there is some irony with the Church’s statement that “gender is eternal” as a rebuttal of Millet’s theoretical revolution in feminist thought. Millet’s misappropriation of the way that the sex/gender distinction was being used in transsexuality reversed the assumption that gender was durable and sex was changeable, or at least more easily changeable than gender. In the Church’s rebuttal of Millet, it implicitly sides with and recovers the transsexual’s conception of “gender,” without explaining why mortal “sex” should also be imagined as eternally fixed.
The theoretical tension between transsexuality and feminism has been the subject of recent rethinking, most importantly in Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender. Such a tension remains unresolved in the political activism of both groups, despite the philosophical problematization of both versions of a fixed gender or a fixed sex over the last 15 years or so.
The church’s intervention into this debate, whether unwittingly or not, however, takes the side of (earlier) versions of transsexuality. The theological implications of this have been decried by feminists, but at the expense of transsexual (and queer) political and theological agendas. This unfortunate tension fails to see the political and theoretical/theological possibilities that the church’s statement contains.