One of my hawt femme friends, H, texted me recently – in her usual dry tone, though sprinkled with her usual flare for drama, “D is getting top surgery. I’m having a meltdown”. D is H’s partner. They have been together for 11 years and are firmly established as a self-identified butch/femme couple. D is also equally hawt, but thankfully, not at all as dramatic as H. This is why they work as a couple. H can do her drama and D can be the pragmatist. H, knowing this, does whatever she can to support her partner. So when the topic of what to do with the little bit of extra cash they would get from their upcoming refinancing came up, H threw it out there.
“Well, you could get top surgery. You’ve talked about this for years.”
Then, much to H’s surprise, D was quite moved by H’s suggestion. H later told me that this IS something that D has wanted for years, but they have been so busy raising their three kids and focusing on careers and family matters, that D’s own need to express her true self was put on the shelf – as is the case with many couples who have kids.
But this isn’t something like wanting to lose that 50 pounds (projecting my own stuff here) or taking that trip to Tibet. This is about one person’s identity – one person’s desire to live out who she truly is – to be in the body that she feels most suitable to her.
The “meltdown” that H was experiencing relates to the underlying questioning of her own sexuality identity.
“I thought I was a lesbian, but all of these trans men seem to be coming into my life these days.” (H’s ex-partner went through the female to male change six years ago, and H has also had fun, appropriate flirtations with a transman this past year. Remember how in our 20’s we got jealous when our girlfriends developed crushes outside of the relationship? In our 40’s we welcome it! My girlfriend has a crush on her daughter’s 20-something butch softball coach. It’s adorable…)
Anyhow, it did bring up an interesting conversation between H and I. I mean, are we attracted to the gender or the person? Sure, we all fall on the spectrum somewhere, right? I mean, I identify as “butch”, but if you put me next to some butches, I would look like a pussycat. Yet, I haven’t worn a dress in 19 years. Seriously. The last time I wore a dress was at my father’s wedding in 1993. My new stepmother, who already had my number, said to me (at the wedding), “Caren, do you think you’ll wear that dress again? Because I could have it brought up a few inches and it would be a great New Year’s Eve dress for me…”
The day after the wedding, I gave her the dress, and I never looked back.
Of course, looking back, I can now say that this was a pivotal moment in my life. I mean, I was 24 years old and I was still going along with the “game”, the heterocentric expectations. I think I had literally just come out to myself as a lesbian that year, but not to my entire family, let alone identifying as a butch. I can empathize with “women” today who do not want to identify themselves as “women”. Although I have no interest in having anatomical surgery, I certainly understand that gender is a bit more complex than we make it out to be. It’s not just pink or blue, and it certainly is not what is between your legs. Rather, it is what is between your ears. What gender is your brain?
Ever since I have become a Buddhist, H, a progressive Jew, asks me about the “Buddhist perspective” on things that she is struggling with. After reminding her that I am just a layperson and know very little about Buddhism, I then go on to share with her what little I do know.
What I do know is that for the past two years, every day, I have been chanting the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra. The very first time I chanted it was when I was a guest student at the San Francisco Zen Center. It blew my mind to chant these words in a group because it spoke to me so clearly. Prajna Paramita, which means “perfect wisdom” is something that Avolokiteshvara was meditating on when she had an awakening. Avolokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion, better known as Quanyin. The Dali Lama is said to be the incarnation of her. This sutra (“sutra” is Sanskrit for thread; hence “suture”) expresses the “heart” of Buddhist practice, which is about how form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. (Chronic contradictions within Buddhist texts). It expresses that all five aggregates (our senses) are empty. It’s quite challenging for a layperson like me to explain this concept of “emptiness”, which is why I will not go any further in explaining it. I will say, however, on a personal level, that as a butch who has struggled with what society expects a “woman” to be, or for that matter, what is even expected within the butch/femme/transgender community of “us”, I experienced great relief when I first read these words aloud (and felt them deeply in my body and mind) that morning at the Zen Center. Here are the first few lines:
“Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajña paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering… Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this… All dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajña paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear…”
There is no fear. Those are the words that really rung true for me, and still do. Imagine life without fear? Because when you think about it, fear is one of our driving forces. It is what motivates us, for better, for worse, and leads us down a path that can often be self-destructive. Many people in the transgender community have lived in fear their whole lives. When I was managing a group home for LGBT teenagers in Los Angeles back in the mid-1990’s, one of my residents, a 15 year-old bio-female who I will refer to as Jo, called me up from school one day, in a silent panic. (She was the “baby butch” of the house – the calm, cool collected kid). When I arrived at Jo’s school, I learned that she had been passing as a boy at school. It was during a weapons check when the assistant principal discovered that “he” was a “she”. The poor kid was not only mortified, but terrified that (s)he had been outed, and called me to get her out of there. Fortunately, the assistant principal was a young guy and very open-minded, but the damage had been done. The girl Jo had a crush on rejected him, and he had to work very hard to go back to that school every day. He continued to identify as a boy, which we supported (as did the school), but he lived with that cutting duality of both freedom and fear on a daily basis, walking the campus as an out tranny. This kid had known his whole life that he was not a girl, even though he was born in a girl’s body. I recommend that anyone who has any hesitation or judgments about kids being too young to know what gender they are, to watch the 2007 Barbara Walters 20/20 episode, “My Secret Self: A Story of Transgender Children”. (She earned a GLAAD Media award for this episode). Click here to watch the first part, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utpam0IGYac.
I firmly believe that there is a spiritual component to gender and sexuality. The North American Native Americans have celebrated their “two spirit” brothers and sisters for centuries (until recently, anthropologists referred to these “two spirits” as “berdache”, which is a derogatory term). These “two spirits” are people who dressed as their opposite gender because they felt called to. Many of them were warriors, many were spiritual leaders. They were respected members of the tribe – until the Europeans began to influence their patriarchal Catholic values onto them – and are currently working very diligently to reclaim their place within their tribes today.
The challenge of us having a mind is that we can complicate the bleep out of things. This is why I meditate; to un-complicate things. And of course, the human body – this “skinbag” that we have been given, according to some ancient zen masters – can theoretically, serve as a source of self-identification. But can it really? Are we that limited?
I will end on words from Dogen, the 13th century zen master who founded Soto Zen. In his fascicle Body-And-Mind Study of the Way, in the Shobo-Genzo, Dogen, wrote:
“The true human body is the bones and marrow of the realm beyond consciousness and unconsciousness. Just raising this up is the study of the way…”
Bones and marrow have no gender.