Hidden Harms of Heavenly Mother: Part 2

Tuesday, April 19, 2022


Hidden Harms of Heavenly Mother: Part 2

Kate M.(she/they), Ruth M. (she/her), Channing P. (she/her), & Elise P. (she/her)

Current Responses

With this outline of a small sample of the limitations of the current construction of Heavenly Mother, it seems apt to ask, “What does this mean for LGBTQ folks?”

Just two months after White Feminism was published in 2021, the Mormon podcast The Foyer hosted by Dr. Patrick Mason of Utah State University interviewed three leading feminist scholars of Heavenly Mother and asked (51:04):

“I have one tough question I want to ask. … Some people have expressed concern, or even criticism that the way Latter-day Saints have traditionally talked about and conceived Heavenly Mother is simply another brick in the wall of Mormon heteronormativity. In other words, while the notion of Heavenly Mother solves some theological problems, it also seems to cause or open up other problems, especially for LGBTQ individuals. … How do we think through this issue and how does Heavenly Mother not become another plank of exclusion?”

Mason’s question echoes similar questions being asked in smaller, personal spaces too. For example, when discussing the much-loved Mormon feminist ideas of divine feminine and divine masculine, Elise has asked, “What does this mean for gender fluid and non-binary folks?” and “How do the ideas of divine feminine and divine masculine differ from benevolent patriarchal sketches of masculinity as light, logic, and reason and femininity as darkness, emotion, and angelic?”

Kate shares their experience too:

I’ve actually had a pretty surprising reaction to the thought of Heavenly Mother: it triggers me. I don’t like the thought of a Mother in Heaven. As a queer person, one might think it was because I didn’t see myself, my relationships, or my gender reflected in the concept, but I realized my reaction went much deeper than that. I have been sitting with that for awhile now.

I realized that as a queer, nonbinary child, I wasn’t safe. I wasn’t safe with my parents and family, my grandparents and aunts and uncles, my neighbors and teachers. I could not express and perform my nonbinary gender. I was forced to perform to gender models that did not work for me and were entirely inauthentic to my inner self. It wasn’t just that my parents rejected me, it was that my whole community of adults rejected me based on their concepts of gender and family. The rigid and stable understanding of the nuclear family, as much as heteronormativity, impacted my safety.

I speak with queer people who not only have been rejected by their families, but who have families that were instructed by authorities in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to not talk to their queer child or family member. Thus, you’ll have to forgive me and my queer siblings if the concept of Heavenly Parents with a Mother and a Father does not immediately strike us as safe.

When we critique the concept of a Heavenly Mother as heteronormative, we are not only saying that we do not see our relationships and genders modeled in that version of the Divine—which is itself a fair critique—we also might not see love for queer people reflected in that family and relationship structure.

In each of these circumstances, we have heard Mormon feminists try their best to respond to critiques of limited current imaginings of Heavenly Mother. These critiques include a heteronormative, cisgender Heavenly Mother, a divine being who performs her femininity in church-sanctioned and culturally approved ways through reproduction, nurturing, emotional availability, creativity, and closeness to the spirit. However, the responses given often feel hollow and dismissive as they rely on generic phrases of “unconditional love” and “we don’t have all the answers yet.” In this way, such responses are also eerily familiar to what we have heard over the pulpit for decades, now being used against 2SLGBTQIA+ folks. For example, referring back to The Foyer interview one of the respondents says, recalling Margaret Toscano:

I don’t have a reconciliation to say, like, “How can this thing that helps me hurt someone else?” I don’t want anyone to be hurt by the same thing that brings me hope. So Margaret Toscano, she feels very strongly – and I agree with her – that Heavenly Mother is with those on the margins. Margaret Toscano worded it this beautiful way, that she sees Heavenly Mother with those who are giving birth and with all sorts of people, including LGBTQI people. She says that She is there, She’s there with them. … Every one of us is going to feel different in our experiences, so we can’t say that they will only feel one way … or that we get to say, “Some of them feel connected, so why can’t you?” That’s not fair either. … The best answer I have is to invite other people – other voices – to come into these conversations. 

Similar sentiments are rehearsed on popular Instagram pages discussing Heavenly Mother. For example, one post has an image of a rainbow pride flag made into a heart. The text above and below the heart says “Heavenly Mother loves Her LGBTQ+ children.” And while we understand this kind of declaration is trying for inclusivity, it only serves to further isolate. It seems to act as a constant reminder that a welcoming space must be made where there is none, and inclusion must be argued for as opposed to accepted as a divine right. If there are Divine Parents, in any capacity, that love us, why is there not room in their house for all of us?

The extent to which those in most conversations about queer issues and Heavenly Mother are willing to explore is stunted, focusing on surface-level love, light, and comfort only. Even as we find web pages that try to include 2SLGBTQIA+ contributions in the conversation, most posts continue to only engage basic ideas of love, welcoming, and belonging. To be clear, we are not saying posts of general loving sentiments are harmful; and yet, is this the best Heavenly Mother has to offer? Vague promises and light pats on the back?

We also note here how similar responses have been given from church leaders and general authority members in an attempt to gatekeep Heavenly Mother. “God the Father loves everyone,” they say. “Why would you need a God Mother when you already have a perfectly loving God Father?” or “If you just studied Him more and deepened your relationship with Him, then you wouldn’t need to go searching.” If hearing similar phrases is a common experience for Heavenly Mother seekers, why then are these same sentiments now being aimed ferociously at divine queerness?

Another attempt to bypass cisgender discomfort which arises during discussions about gender inclusivity in Divinity is the attempt to disembody the divine into energetic polarities. This construct, common in New Age spiritual communities and newly en vogue in nuanced Mormon feminist spaces, claims to liberate individuals from gender essentialism by allowing gender to function as disembodied “energies” or “characteristics” which exist independent of a person’s sex. Not only does this approach ignore the primary foundational Mormon theological concept of a fully embodied God, it also falls short of a true liberatory understanding of the Divine because it functions within the colonial construct of the gender binary. 

Masculine and feminine “energies'' are no less binary, no less exclusive, and no less harmful simply because they are disembodied. The idea of gender polarity assumes two oppositional positions: masculine and feminine. Between these opposed genders is imagined a spectrum on which movement or transition can theoretically occur; for example, men can hold feminine energies, women can hold masculine energies, and some individuals can hold both equally. It is assumed that all gender identities exist on this spectrum created by oppositional poles; however, nonbinary folks are not in-between poles on a spectrum - they are independent of the spectrum altogether. The attraction of a gender polarity quickly dissipates when we embrace our nonbinary friends.

Alongside questions of what current renditions of Heavenly Mother mean for 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, responses regarding race are similarly concerning. For example, at the height of the 2020 BLM protests, many white Mormon artists began depicting Black and Brown people in their art for the first time. Renditions of a Heavenly Mother who was once white-skinned and blonde-haired now became dark-skinned and braided-haired. While one could argue these were attempts at solidarity, it seems this rush to include Black people was both performative and exploitative. Painting Black, Brown, or Indigenous Heavenly Mothers during this time could be seen as an attempt to signal to audiences how “not racist” the artist was as opposed to engaging in anti-racist education and efforts. Such signaling is made further problematic when paintings are sold for profit and funds are not redistributed to Black, Brown, or Indigenous communities. Furthermore, without engaging in anti-racism, one may come to believe that all it takes to dismantle racism and white supremacy is to mix blacker, browner, darker paint colors. Although this may help white Mormon artists capitalize on the BLM Movement and Black bodies, it strips anti-racist movements of their radical political roots and reduces them to color choices and aesthetics.

Writer and womanist theologian Janan Graham-Russell also reminds us that conceptualizing Heavenly Mother as a Black woman is “not just [about] physical features, but as [a divinity] who identifies with the visibility of Black women…” This line comes from her piece “Heavenly Mother is a Black Woman: Exploring a Mormon Womanism” where she explores new ways of understanding God by centering Black Mormon women. In a comment she writes:

“The overarching message, which I allude to in my remarks, is that we should move towards a Heavenly Mother (HM) and divine feminine that are not based in an oppressive ideology. Imagining HM as a Black woman points to HM’s invisibility…because white Mormon women, though facing their own challenges…are afforded a level of recognition because of their whiteness that is not afforded to women of other races.”

Thus, in order for us to move toward more anti-racist and diverse interpretations of divinity, as white Mormon women we must first address the visibility and privilege that comes with our whiteness. Without this, attempts at inclusivity fall short of dismantling systems of power and simply remain in the sphere of personal efforts.

Placing such personal responsibility on “doing the work” also calls to mind another response of white Mormon feminists when confronted with more expansive, radical, and inclusive interpretations of divinity: claiming everyone’s personal interpretation of God is valid. This response elevates personal experience to the beginning and end of all discussions, and leaves little room for critical engagement. Of course, the authors value a personal connection with God and are not trying to lay claim to a singular, certain conception of God. However, in what may seem to be a healthy way to “agree to disagree,” the authors sense something more threatening beneath the surface of this seemingly benign framework.

By claiming all interpretations of God are personal and valid, this exempts listeners from having to further interrogate either their own or other’s understandings of God. It allows one to hold tightly to their construction of God, no matter what systems of oppression they are built on, while simultaneously offering polite acknowledgement that “other people may see it differently” or people can “believe what they want to believe.” For example, if I am confronted with an image of the divine that contradicts my own, by claiming relative personal experience I am able to bypass potential conflict and continue exempting my own constructions from critique. I am able to remain safe and secure in my fabrication of God even if conflicting interpretations exist because I have made my personal experience the only thing that matters by ignoring marginalized voices and collective harm. This erroneously makes all conceptions of God equally valid and good without addressing disparities in power and proximity to dominant culture. It allows all interpretations—including racist, homophobic, and sexist ones—to be validated and perpetuated without disrupting systems of oppression. From here it seems we must ask ourselves, why are we dazzled by the empty promise that if we get a straight, white, cis-het Heavenly Mother first, then we’ll surely turn our attention to truly liberating divinity? If the whole point of Heavenly Mother is to disrupt power, why stop at dismantling white men’s power only to replace it with white women’s power?

Solution Toward Inclusion

With these perspectives, it becomes clear how deeply problematic a divine Heavenly Mother can be if her individual, embodied existence depends on gender essentialism, default to cisgender, and if her relationship resembles that of the nuclear family, all of which are rooted in white supremacy and colonialism. We contend that it causes more harm to create her in this image than it does to not address her at all. Without a radical interpretation and imagination, we cannot proceed.

We want to advocate for a more radical interpretation. As we see it, adding a fourth deity to the Trinity creates its own set of problems, especially when one accounts for the inherent racism present in images of a divine nuclear family. There is no “truth” to be found in our proposition to reimagine the Divine, only possibilities that limit harm. 

Luckily, alternatives to a cisgender, heterosexual Heavenly Mother exist. For example, Blaire Ostler, in his book Queer Mormon Theology and their recent work in the Dialogue issue titled I Am a Child of Gods, offers solutions which address concerns surrounding a cisgender, heterosexual Heavenly Mother, namely a multiplicity of gods. When Taylor Petrey wrote his now infamous work Towards a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology, he said that he was conducting a “thought experiment” to try to break us out of the heterosexual box we found ourselves in. We offer a similar thought experiment and echo Petrey’s words for our own: “Such an experiment neither constitutes Church doctrine nor intends to advocate itself as Church Doctrine.”

As most Heavenly Mother scholars have pointed out, the concept of her as an individual deity does not come from doctrine, but rather from the concept of Heavenly Parents. The assumption that Heavenly Parents means there is a Heavenly Mother comes from a whole host of theological considerations, and it does not seem out of place to assume Heavenly Parents can mean there is a Heavenly Mother. However, Heavenly Parents can also mean that there is not a Heavenly Mother, but Parents of some other kind. It seems plausible that the Trinity performed all the Creation themselves, and therein lies these Heavenly Parents. 

We offer for your consideration the idea that God the Father is embodied female. To this point, interestingly enough, Margaret Toscano pointed out in her recent Dialogue article, In Defense of Heavenly Mother, that there is significant Biblical evidence to support the idea that God is embodied female with breasts that nurse and a body that gives birth. The Old Testament provides us with scriptural support for a transgender God. While on the surface this appears to be a twenty-first century version of a deity, perhaps blasphemous even, when we begin to unpack our gender essentialist beliefs, we understand that we have assumed Heavenly Father to have a male body. We assume him to have a beard and, of course, a penis. What entitles us to believe this, other than gender essentialism and our devotion to cisgendernormativity? Is God’s penis crucial to the Creation? If we turn to scripture references, there are many more instances that God has a body that we, today, would assign as female rather than a body that we would assign as male. 

Let us sit with the Creation for a moment. The Creation includes the creation of humans. And it is undertaken by two men. The white feminist interpretation of the Creation includes either a fourth deity who has remained and continues to remain invisible in the Creation story, birthing these humans, or a female embodied Holy Ghost. But these interpretations rely on gender essentialism to say that only women can give birth. If we recognize and understand that men can give birth, we recognize that God the Father can have a womb to birth children, with breasts to nurse them. In this way, God is a Heavenly Father who is an embodied female and co-Creates the world with Jesus Christ.

This Heavenly Father that uses he/him/his pronouns and is female embodied is not necessarily a transgender God. Transgender means that a person ‘crosses’ the gender lines. Cisgender means that the person ‘is on the same side’ as their assignment of sex at birth. This assignment is a legal precedent, not a biological one. That means this legal framework does not exist for all societies. In our colonial understanding of gender and the legality of gender, we call this version of God a transgender man, but in other contexts and societies, this Heavenly Father might just be a normal gender and sex occurrence with different parameters than transgender and cisgender. 

Why is a cisgender identity is required of deity? It seems worthwhile not just to question the cisgender interpretation of Heavenly Mother, but bold and radical to question the cisgender interpretation of Heavenly Father. It seems much more disruptive to theological patriarchy to question Heavenly Father’s cisgender body, gender, and traits than it does to add another, often invisible, cisgender female deity.


With such passionate and frequent conversation of Heavenly Mother unfolding online, in print, art, and in scholarly work, the authors feel some hesitation in writing and publishing this piece. Idol smashing is often painful for both the worshippers and the ones swinging heavy tools of critique. As stated in the introduction, we understand the importance of representation and the desire to see oneself reflected in the image and doctrine of deity, which means we also recognize the pain that may come with seeing one’s image of Heavenly Mother cracked open and shattering.

And yet, we cannot dismiss how those same shards of Heavenly Mother have left wounds. A Heavenly Mother built in the image of whiteness and “biological science” of race means we are satisfied with our reproduction of divinity that upholds white supremacy and racism. A Heavenly Mother whose gender is tied directly to her biology means gender becomes unchangeable and determined; thus, erasing queer and trans folks while trapping gender identity and expression in a narrow box. A cisgender, straight Heavenly Mother who is monogamously married to a cisgender, straight Heavenly Father means we value harmful notions of heterosexuality as the normal, natural, and singular way of being.

Perhaps out of all the words of this essay, one of our most radical lines is, “We contend that it causes more harm to create Heavenly Mother in this image than it does to not address her at all.” We hope a heavy critique and deconstruction of Heavenly Mother as she is presented currently allows a clearing to open so that this divine figure might return to us anew—radically inclusive and ever-queer. 

Author bell hooks reminds us, “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” For the authors, this means exploring, identifying, and critiquing systems of power and oppression at play in current white Mormon femininst interpretations of Heavenly Mother. As we move from critique and destruction, we are then able to imagine possibilities beyond the Divine Feminine that look like multiple Gods or a transgender God. Developing such new ways of thinking about divinity to be antiracist and queer- and trans-inclusive requires an intersectional approach at every turn. Without doing so, we miss how struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are insidiously interconnected and appear unchallenged within our constructions of divinity. We welcome further conversations and critical interpretations of divinity, for on the other side of dismantling and destruction are the pieces with which we can build something new.

7. Petrey, Taylor “Towards a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 44, no. 4 (2011), 107.
8.  bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody
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