This piece was commissioned as part of the In Our Own Words series, which seeks to share the voices and experiences of marginalized individuals. You can find all of the pieces in this series here.
By Mette Ivie Harrison
When I think about my childhood experiences at church, they are almost all good. I liked reading scripture stories. I was good at reading and good at memorization and most of the social interactions were straight forward and overseen by adults. Looking back, I can see that I missed things, but it was probably for the best. I was bullied in school and wasn’t a popular person at church, but I often missed those social cues, which was weirdly protective.
One of my foundational experiences was just before puberty, in fourth grade, when I spent a year pretending to be a boy (I was “Eddie” instead of “Mette” because the school got my name messed up in my transcripts). My mother was happy to cut my hair short, which she thought of as more practical, and to buy me more durable masculine clothing when I directed her that way. I was happy to experience the world (briefly) as a boy. I got to experience the world as a boy, complete with math teachers who suddenly treated me as smarter, and other boys who slapped me on the back, had farting contests with me, and also never, ever touched me or cried.
Ultimately, I decided I didn’t like being a boy any more than being a girl. But the next year, puberty struck and I couldn’t pretend to be a boy anymore. As an autist, I recognize this clearly as a very common problem with gender that corresponds to a much higher rate of transgender identity among autists than among the normal population. I tend to call myself either “agender” or “autigender” because I don’t think I really understand what gender is.
After puberty, I tried to fit in as a Mormon teen girl. I tried to wear makeup for a few years. I tried to wear more fashionable clothing—though I was admittedly terrible at this. For a while, I believed that all girls wished they were boys, felt uncomfortable in dresses and heels (how could you not?) and were confused by gender. It was only as I had more female friends and became close enough to them to ask about their experience with being female that I realized that my uneasiness in being female was very unusual—something that I wasn’t to talk about or even think about clearly.
As an adult woman, I often come across as kind of masculine in approach, but I’ve come to see this isn’t because I’m masculine. It’s because whatever we call “masculine” happens to be what I am naturally. I can be aggressive and blunt. I don’t talk around things. I don’t know how to guess at other people’s intentions. I would sometimes find myself more comfortable in conversations with Mormon men rather than Mormon women, which made my place in Mormondom even more fraught. (For instance, as an Ironman triathlete, men are often interested in racing stories and seem to be impressed by my athletic prowess.)
There are just as many ways that I am feminine, however. Again, this has nothing to do with my physical gender. I am always baffled by how we sort interests into genders when I can’t see how they have anything to do with body parts. I love to knit and crochet (though I hate sewing and don’t quilt often). I loved being a mother and think I’m good at it, though I’m quite untraditional in my mothering. I think I’m nurturing, but not necessarily in typical ways. I listen intently to my children and I’ve learned to trust their ways of experiencing their own lives, mainly because I felt like adults so dismissed my experiences when I was a child and a teen.
The Family Proclamation and its language about gender being “eternal” has bothered me more and more over the years. I studied enough about gender in graduate school at Princeton to understand that our ideas of what is “male” and what is “female” have changed a lot over time and change from culture to culture. Just one small detail is that the color “pink” used to be considered very masculine and “blue” was feminine in the 1800s. Now it seems we can’t imagine that those colors wouldn’t be coded the way they are today.
Given this historical reality about gender changing with time and culture, what could it possibly mean to be eternally female in a celestial cosmos? I am as baffled by this as I am by all gender essentialism. It makes no sense to me at all. I heard plenty of Mormons insist that it’s not difficult to understand at all, that gender is what you’re assigned at birth, and that being feminine or masculine just comes naturally and easily to everyone unless something is terribly wrong with you. But this is all very strange to me. Academically and historically, this is obviously not true, but one cannot say this at church in most settings.
I haven’t attended a Mormon meeting for five years now, and I could say that it was because of LGBT+ issues, which it was, in part. It was also because I could not find any way to talk about the problems I have with ideas of gender within Mormonism. I tried to sing “Heavenly Mother, Are You Really There?” and to sing about “I am a child of God, and they have sent me here.” I tried to make it work again and again, but even in feminist Mormon communities, it was hard to explain what my experience with gender was like. Talking about a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father didn’t really help me at all because that was just more gender essentialism and I had no more hope of becoming a goddess than I did a god.
As an autist, this is just the beginning of a long list of problems that I had in Mormonism and could not solve, as frustrating as that is for someone who assumes everything in the world can be analyzed and figured out. There were other problems for me, including sensory sensitivities to perfumes, noise, cold, and just the overwhelming expectation of seeing so many faces and trying to figure out what they were saying without the help of written words. I hated what felt like “fake” interactions and constant “lying.” I’m aware that this is not how other people think of what they might call “being nice,” but that was how I often saw it, especially when I heard the opposite of what was said to my face was being said to others. The way I display emotions is also often “wrong.” As a woman, I don’t cry enough. But I’m also stone-faced or angry too often.
I fell into a deep depression about a decade before I stopped attending church and I still remember the advice that was given to me from almost everyone in my ward was advice that might work for a neurotypical person who was not as introverted as I was, but was ridiculous for me. Spending more time with other people was the opposite of helpful for dealing with my mental and emotional needs. But a church that is extremely extroverted and can’t see that there are people who don’t fit the mold—and keeps hounding us to just try harder to do so in so many different ways—was harmful to me.
Being coded a woman within Mormonism meant that I wasn’t allowed to advocate for myself as an autist. I couldn’t demand that other people pay attention more to my needs because I wasn’t supposed to have any needs other than continuing to give and give to others. This makes me sound selfish, I suppose, but being a little more selfish might have allowed me to keep attending for longer. On the other hand, being autistic might have made me stay a lot longer simply because Mormonism made my social life easier by offering me assigned friends through visiting teaching and callings in organizations that required me to work with other people. The whole idea of having a body that is supposed to feel like it is “naturally” attached to my brain is something that I’m not sure I can appreciate theologically. I have never felt like I belong inside my body. It is more of a “meat sack” that I have to constantly drag around and make operate in ways that will always be clumsy.
Mette Ivie Harrison is a writer and fiber artist living in Utah. She raised five children and now works in the financial industry. She was diagnosed with autism in 2017, at the age of 46.
I wish we were neighbors. I would jump at the chance to discuss all these issues with you, and we could knit deep into the night! In the meantime, I send my love out to you as you wrestle with these very real issues. I applaud you.
Thank you for sharing your story. You’ve laid your experience out so thoughtfully and contributed immensely to Mormon conversations on intersectionality. We neurotypical cishet women need to listen.
So much of this deeply resonates with me. The feeling of being in a meat sack, having to play a role of gender. But I always shut away the times when I wanted to try female, barely hanging on the edge of “things that are acceptable for a boy to do with girls”. Even now, gender doesn’t feel strong to me, though I know I am female.
Thank you so much for sharing part of your story.
I am sitting here, stunned at how deeply this resonates with me. Thank you. I think I have some self-discovery ahead.
“I wasn’t supposed to have any needs.” Wow. Such an amazing insight to the problem of gender in the church and how it intersects with other needs.
I would add “I was supposed to address the needs of others in a specific, feelings-based way”.
I tried – I really tried.
Then I decided to handle all “nurturing” and “Feelings-based” requirements by handling them in a “Tooth Fairy” way (Disney movie called “The Tooth Fairy”) – and be like Dwayne Johnson’s hulking Tooth Fairy character in combat gear instead of a delicate linen suit. I can get the job done and avoid some pitfalls.
I’ve always loved reading your posts and your life experiences, Mette! I was so happy to see you on Exponent. Thanks for sharing and always teaching me new things.
Visiting teaching gave me a template for how to be a friend. A structure to build on. I’ve found that useful.
When I was first pregnant, it came as a rather rude shock to me that men and women were different. I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what that’s all about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I totally get the “rude shock” aspect – I get weird looks for treating men and women the same by default, and trying to listen to the person to get what they value/what they need without regard to gender.
Comparing “The Hero’s Journey” and “The Heroine’s Journey” conceptual narratives was helpful to defining a “gender-based end game” – but it is very abstract and indistinct.
The other gender difference (and I am totally spit-balling here) is that most women have a monthly calendar built in that painfully keeps them aware of time and distinct cycles of living. This “sense of time” foisted on them seeps out periodically (maybe even subconsciously) and is really hard to describe. It seems to make some transitions easier because of the experience of distinct cycle phases.
Thank you for sharing your deep thoughts on how you have experienced life. I have a 30 year old Autist daughter who seems asexual to me. I also have a transgender son. Gender is definitely not cut and dried.
This also resonated with me. I a not neurotypical, although I am not sure I quite fit that autism label. I do fit into ADHD, but also have some traits that are autistic. At my age, I don’t need a doctor to diagnose what exactly they want to label me. I do have more social abilities than most autists, but still very bad in that department, and I don’t know if I learned to read other people’s emotions because of my abusive dysfunctional family and so learned to compensate or quite what. There is autism in my family, with my brother, daughter, and grandson all having the official diagnosis, plus one granddaughter who has all the symptoms but parents who refuse to accept the label. My autism daughter says I should be tested because she is sure I would be diagnosed as autistic, but why get the label?
But I also have a lot of what is called masculine traits and can talk more easily with men than women. Except in the Mormon world, even being friends with men is improper, and they always seem to take my friendship sexually. My closest friends have always been male. But then half of them were gay so being a friend with a woman wasn’t a problem. I just never got the wonderful experience of trying life as male. I think I would love it. But I have learned to pass as feminine. Funny that I would even phrase accepting myself as feminine as “passing as feminine,” but that is how it feels, like an act. (Oh, please don’t let anyone whose knows me in real life read this) It isn’t me being myself but me being what others expect of me, and I don’t really like it.
Anyway, the not fitting in at church has always been a problem. I am too introverted and the church is run by rabid extroverts. I also have sensory problems such as having any electronically magnified sounds giving me migraines and sensitivity to perfumes, and an aversion to shaking hands. In Mormon circles, an aversion to being grabbed by my hand is some kind of sin, and I have been harshly criticized for backing away from friendly handshaking. But I really hate the touching by strangers.
Mormonism is very conformist, especially in gender expression. To be accepted you have to fit the Molly Mormon mold and a woman’s needs are always secondary to the needs of those around her. So, “I need to sit in the foyer, away from the microphone putting off a high pitched whining that nobody else can even hear,” nope I am not allowed to have that problem. “I can’t breathe in your enclosed office, sorry Bishop, but your aftershave is killing me.” Nope, we can’t accept that as a reason to not get a temple recommend. “I can’t wear temple garments without becoming suicidal!” Nope, that isn’t an acceptable reason, so just suck it up and obey. My needs were just unacceptable, and they didn’t understand those needs, so I was evil, I guess because I could hear the high pitched feedback from their poorly adjusted microphone that nobody else could hear. I got tired of being evil because I was different.
So many great insights! Thank you for sharing your experience. “Talking about a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father didn’t really help me at all because that was just more gender essentialism and I had no more hope of becoming a goddess than I did a god.” I wish there was a lot less certainty about who/how God is. We need to make room for people to discuss and experience God in ways that resonate with them. And make room for people to just be who they are.
Absolutely amazing, Mette! I am also autistic and gender non-conforming (genderqueer? nonbinary? etc?). I struggled so, so much with gendered expectations around behaviors and appropriate desires. I feel like these words could have come from my own heart and mind and mouth, and they would be just as true.
Thank you so much for sharing!