If a single star were missing
The night sky would grieve
If you were someone different
The world would be less
In former lives now forgotten
You were kind and loved mystery
It was in this way you attained
This fine coat of many colors
If God were a bird
It would be this bird
And the Promised Land
Is this land
[A more personal post.]
I’m in grad school studying mental health counseling. Six weeks ago I started seeing clients for the first time. The experience has been amazing, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, overwhelming, exhausting… Basically it’s kicking my ass.
I am confused and tired. It is strange to be suddenly doing the work for real, after a year and half of training. I feel a bit like an impostor, of course. I find myself acutely aware of my age, feeling both painfully young and oddly grown up. It’s the feeling I like to think of as “7th grade all over again.” The grade/age varies a lot by school system, but you know when you go from being the biggest kid at primary school to one of the youngest and smallest at secondary school? I feel like that, or like the first time you venture into the deep end of the pool. I’m treading water, but I can’t put my toes down anymore. Shit got real.
I absolutely love working with my clients. It’s fascinating, exciting, moving, captivating. I really enjoy it. I find myself extremely awake and present during the sessions. There have been times I was totally lost, and times when we connected and some real work got done. My biggest fear right now is, will I ever develop the endurance do this shit 40 hours a week without keeling over?
I have a wonderful, very committed supervisor who has been giving me great feedback. I am learning to breathe deeply and not rush the process. Interestingly, she pointed out that I seem more openhearted with my female than my male clients. I still carry a lot of “boys don’t cry” baggage and it gets between me and deep empathy with another man.
Sometimes I can observe myself swallowing an emotion in real time. It is so weird; the reflex to swallow, repress, so powerful, and then it’s gone. Not really gone, but no longer accessible, bound to come back later. One of the stranger times: Alma and I watched the very important and heartbreaking film Broken Rainbow. I got through the whole thing without crying, though it hurt. Then a year later, we were discussing the movie one night, and I just burst into tears, absolutely no warning. It felt like the very same tears I swallowed in the first place. I am still letting go of all my backlogged tears.
Flashes of memories of learning not to feel: my father’s exhortations of toughen up, determination, learn the difference between pain and discomfort, stop crying. I think my dad picked up on my masculinity and he trained me the best way he knew how. He taught me that you have to be tough or the world will destroy you. As a young gender-variant person, I keyed into messages of masculinity with a secret intensity, clinging to them for dear life. Onionskin heart, I dismantle one wall and I find another.
My world is changing. It essential to face the world with an open heart. Love is far more powerful than fear. The more I open to the world, the friendlier the world becomes. Strange how my family has changed. What would be dad be like if he were raising me now? Now that he seems so much less anxious and reads the Tao Te Ching?
Brick by brick, I keep dismantling. I will not compromise love.
Last week I offered some thoughts on whether transition is some kind of cop out. Here are a few more reasons I think such a claim misses the mark.
Why transition, anyway? I have never met any trans person who transitioned in an attempt to gain approval or fit in. I have met dozens and dozens of trans people who transitioned to alleviate the constant, heartbreaking, mind-numbing pain of gender dysphoria. To take myself as an example, it is nice to escape the daily confusion that followed me when I was visibly androgynous–but this is so damn low on my list of reasons to transition, it doesn’t even rank. People are still confused by or biased towards me on a regular basis. But I don’t mind so much, because they are confused by me–the real me, as I know myself–not by a person I don’t recognize in the mirror. People were ignorant before I transitioned and they’re still ignorant now. Whatever. I didn’t transition for them. I transitioned for myself.
Most of us will never fit in, anyway. Many of us will be far more marginalized after transition than we were before. If anybody does transition in an attempt to gain approval, they are likely to be horribly disappointed. Transsexuals are very near the bottom of the social approval hierarchy.
Transition is a last resort. People agonize for years and years–often decades–before choosing to transition. I have talked with hundreds of trans people in community spaces and online, and I have yet to meet a single person who rushed into transition or found the choice even remotely easy. I have never met someone who did not pursue every possible avenue to alleviate dysphoria before embarking on medical transition, including therapy, antidepressants, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, denying and suppressing the feelings, presenting as their identified gender only in private, living as an androgynous person without medical treatment, etc. Many folks get somewhere through this list, find it’s enough, and stop there. In my experience, everybody wants to be that person who can wear different clothing and get a new haircut and be fine. We are all hoping that a new therapist or a new partner will make it all make sense, and we won’t have to “fully” transition. This is the boat I was in for the 5+ years that I tried every single day to find a way to survive in this world without changing my body.
But some of us try everything, spend years trying to make it all work, and find that, in the end, the only thing left to try to relieve the horrible pain is medical, social and legal transition (whether to a binary or nonbinary gender). We are a tiny minority. We make this choice with anxiety and heartache. We make this choice after exhausting all other avenues. We make this choice because we have the audacity to want a life where we don’t wake up every morning wanting to die.
Politics versus human life. My politics is a politics of human dignity, love, community and survival. My politics is a politics of life and respect. When my politics appear to conflict with human life, when my politics sacrifice the lives and welfare of some people on the altar of ideology, my politics are wrong.
In my tradition, the highest commandment is to save a life. All other rules and regulations can be bypassed to save a life, and to adhere to a lesser law instead of saving a life is an egregious ethical violation. So long as it does not infringe on the rights of any other person, there should be no limits on the actions a person deems necessary to save or dramatically improve their life.
I fail to see how any transition procedure, from a name change to a haircut to hormones to surgery, infringes in any way on the rights of any other person. Therefore, in my ethical framework, if any transition step is needed to save or dramatically improve a person’s life, it is not just permitted but strongly encouraged.
In a better world, no one would be transgender.
Let me back up a little here. What makes a person transgender? I recently wrote a simple definition:
Does your gender identity and/or expression fall outside the bounds prescribed by your society? You are transgender.
This is a commonsense and widely accepted definition. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality writes (pdf):
Transgender: A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.
So transgender does not describe the state of having a particular combination of physical and psychological traits (e.g., being a woman with XY chromosomes). Nor does it describe a particular gender identity (e.g., a person who is neither a man nor a woman). Transgender describes a sociopolitical location. Transgender people are those whose genders are taboo.
In a better world, all people would be free to inhabit their bodies with dignity. No one would be ridiculed, assaulted or killed for being too feminine, too masculine or too androgynous. No one would be the target of interpersonal and institutional violence because they have an atypical body or gender expression. Therefore: no one would be transgender.
Now, so long as there are men and women, there would still be men born with ovaries and women born with testes. There would still be androgynous, agender and other nonbinary people. There would still be statistically rare combinations of physical sex, subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation, including those people we now call transgender, intersex, genderqueer, gay/lesbian/bisexual and asexual.
But transgender is a state of systemic marginalization. To be different and not marginalized is an experience almost unimaginable today. If we were not targeted for our difference, it might mean very little, and certainly something very different. Maybe being transgender would be a bit like being left-handed, having an allergy or having perfect pitch.
Are people who inhabit 3rd, 4th and other genders, in societies that honor them, “transgender”? Would we be “transgender” if the wrong gender had never been imposed on us? If we were never exiled, there would be no journey to make, no border to cross, nothing to transgress, transition or transform. Some people would still utilize hormones and surgery. But without cissexism, that might be a bit like, well, utilizing hormones and surgery is for cisgender people (hormonal birth control, surgery for gynecomastia, etc).
In other words, we would probably still have genders. But we wouldn’t be trans anymore.
It happens once in a long while, maybe in the steel hush of a winter morning or the live buzz of a summer night. It happens a few times in a generation, a realignment, pieces clicking into place. A different wind blows over the face of the waters. Wait, She whispers.
I am a cosmic course correction. I am a readjustment. I am the intelligence of the organism, searching for homeostasis.
Through wars and famines, exiles and migrations, we endure. Trauma twists us; loss contorts us. And we carry on, one step at a time, on the tightrope over oblivion. One false move and it all falls apart.
If they ask you for a miracle, reply, I am the miracle. If they ask you for healing, reply, I am healed. If they ask where you are going, say, I am here. If they ask where you have been, smile.
I am a balancing act, a rebalancing act. Unfinished creation, we are the artists of fulfillment. The glory of the world rests on our shoulders. We are the restoration.
Now I tremble at the hidden face of the Most Secret.
My Lord, I come to You as myself.
Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”
How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?
1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.
2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too. I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.
3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.
So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?
I wish that I knew.
A man lives by a code, a quiet discipline of honor we learn first from our fathers and try to perfect for ourselves. We learn by example and by counterexample. I have studied the ways of my grandfather, who left, and my father, who stayed, and I have learned something about what it means to be an honorable man.
A reader asks, “What does it mean to ‘don the mantle of manhood’?” It means to deeply accept the responsibility of being a man.
To be responsible is to be one who answers what is asked of them. Responsibility is the practice of response, of making a reply to the conditions that meet us. The mantle of manhood is the emergent realities of life as a man, this man, in a particular place and time; to don the mantle means to intentionally accept these realities, to embrace them, and to employ them for the repair of the world. To don the mantle of manhood means that, finding oneself a man, one responds to that condition. There is no one answer. The common denominator is the condition of being a man and making the choice to reply to that condition with honor.
This weight is unchosen, neither earned nor deserved; it simply is. I did not make it, yet it is I who must hoist it, for it is I alone who can. I am answering, for I have heard the question. I did not create the meanings assigned to manhood–I just stumble into them like everybody else. But it is I who decide for myself, given reality as I observe it, how I will respond.
The only difference between a man’s mantle and that of anyone of any other gender is the differences in our lives. Honor is in no way limited to men. I discuss it here through my lens as a man, because I think there are some important particulars of that experience, and because I believe it is the task of men to ask our brothers to do better. For this same reason–our different selves and circumstances–there is no one mantle of manhood, but a massive Venn diagram of overlapping and non-overlapping experiences.
For me, it’s like this. People move around me on the sidewalk. People turn and listen when I open my mouth. If I lose my temper and shout and stomp and punch a wall, people and animals cower in miserable fear, though I have never touched them in anger.
My code is not a series of answers, but a series of questions.
If my voice and my strength can easily scare women, men, children, dogs, how will I conduct myself?
If being a man means when I speak, others listen, what will I say?
If being a man means being strong, what will I carry? What will I defend?
If being a man means I could walk out on my family, what choice will I make?
If being a man means a capacity for violence, how will I behave?
It is written, “For who will eat, and who will enjoy, if not I?” (Ecclesiastes 2:25).
We could also ask, For who will feed, and who will increase enjoyment, if not I?
Primordial tragedy. The vessels of light that shattered and scattered into everything.
Once again I found myself contemplating the brokenness of the world. Sometimes I get engulfed by that bottomless grief. The ruined body of a hummingbird smeared across the asphalt with the dead leaves, styrofoam cups, and condom wrappers. A man with dead eyes staggering down my street with a needle still in his arm. Headlines. Teenagers beat two homeless men to death. Parents kick nine-year-old boy to death. Photographs of children killed in Gaza. Why, why, why.
And our own lives, our own bodies, all that lesser brokenness. I read that the ancient rabbis said it would be better for humans to never have existed, there is so much pain in the world. But since we do exist, they concluded, we must try to do good.
Why, why, why? Once again I found myself contemplating brokenness. And realized: No brokenness equals the disavowal of all imperfection. Broken things would have to be forbidden, a ruthless test imposed on all forms in the universe.
What is the greatest act of love of something broken? To forbid it, deny it, destory it, uncreate it? No.
The greatest act of love is to allow it to be. To cradle it, honor it, let the light fall upon it. What we call broken is held in the infinite embrace of Reality, no less than what we call good.
Brokenness, too, is a testament of love.
But there is a magic aspect in abnormality and so-called deformity. Maimed, mad, and sexually different people were believed to possess supernatural powers by primal cultures’ magico-religious thinking. For them, abnormality was the price a person had to pay for her or his inborn extraordinary gift.
There is something compelling about being both male and female, about having an entry into both worlds. Contrary to some psychiatric tenets, half and halfs are not suffering from a confusion of sexual identity, or even from a confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other. It claims that human nature is limited and cannot evolve into something better. But I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female. I am the embodiment of the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within.
— Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
The enforced boundary between male and female is among the deepest cuts in the human soul. How did that ancient play of opposites twist from a dance into something much more sinister? The dividing wall has become an idol, and you and I, the sacrifice. They have forgotten that wall once was a bridge.
They have forgotten the most important truth, the secret underlying everything: all opposites are one. Opposite pairs are interconnected, not mutually exclusive; allies, not enemies. Opposites complement, transform into and create one other.
And what of us? We are questions, dreams, possibilities. We have healed the war between the genders within our own bodies. Like the poles of a magnet, male and female are opposites with one source, one body, one life, wholly interdependent.
We are the promise of a new paradigm. We are the example of healing.
We must be for ourselves, or who will be for us? Yet we cannot only be for ourselves, or what are we? We have also come for them, the others, our sisters and brothers. The delicate glow of our light will heal them, too, if they can bear to see it. We have come to bring a thousand years of peace between men and women, if only they will make a little room for the rest of us.
We are only messengers; they shot us. We are doves of peace; they gutted and ate us. We are born in every generation, bellwethers of their compassion. They crush us, and only crush themselves. They try to snuff us out and they snuff out their own souls.
But there is another way. There is another way, and we must be her champions. It is the way of open hearts and open borders. Someday they may yet see us in their mirrors, and remember we were sisters and brothers once. Someday they may listen. Our voices will wash over the desert, and if the acequias run with blood, do not be afraid. It is only all the blood already spilled these 500 years convulsed with violence. Those tiny rivers will clog with brine, the tears of the dead seeping at long last out of the soil.
The light of love will wash that away; water will flow again. We will eat piñon and cactus fruit, and let doves be.
Then we will know, and we will remember. They are us, we are them.
Paradise is ours when all of us want it.