Being Tested, Part 1

When we step off the conventional path to follow our heart, our commitment will be tested.

 

Greetings Friends!

I haven’t written in a while so I thought I would share the latest from my professional reinvention. I’m sharing this not because I think you are especially interested in the details of my life, but I’m hoping that in my story you might find some insights into your own journey of change, however that is unfolding in your life.

AND, since we are collectively in the midst of massive upheaval and desperately in need of positive change-makers with a clear vision and strong heart, I hope something that you read here will bolster your conviction that a different world is possible and give you the courage to create it!

This summer has been a time of deep inner challenges, frankly, so this is not a conventional “success story”—just an honest account of the process of fundamentally changing one’s world. I know it’s on the long side for this kind of post, but I hope you will forgive me since I only post every few months lol. For ease of reading and processing, I will post my account in 2 parts, one today and one tomorrow.

When I last wrote in January, I was exploring the void that comes when we let go of our former life, the vulnerability of starting over, and the creative awakening that was starting to arise in me. In this post and my next, I will share about my ongoing process of inner transformation.

One of the reasons why we keep creating the same struggles over and over (maybe you have a friend who keeps having the same dysfunctional romantic relationship again and again, just with different people…) is because we haven’t shifted our inner landscape. My former life arose out of my former sense of self and belief system; in order to create a sustainable new life, I need to cultivate new beliefs about myself and the world around me.

Fortunately, the extreme astrological energies we have been in for the last month are all about bringing up our wounds, limiting beliefs, and dysfunctional programming so that we have an opportunity to shed them as we move into the next stage of our evolution, personally and collectively.

 

“Something has changed within me, something is not the same

I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game

Too late for second-guessing, too late to go back to sleep

It’s time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap!”

(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)

Wicked logo

 

Here are the next 3 steps of change that I will be talking about. I invite you to think about how they apply to your own life.

  1. Deprogramming:

As you no doubt have seen in your own life, just because we move away from our families, religious institutions, or workplaces doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t still carry their unhelpful values and frameworks with us, generally unconsciously. It can be difficult work to bring those unconscious attitudes into the light for examination—and it can feel scary to allow ourselves to confront and reject them, as they have been standards by which we have been measured and so our sense of our own worth is often tied up with them. And they have often made us feel wounded and unworthy.

What standards and attitudes have you internalized from your environment that might be getting in the way of your happiness? What deprogramming are you needing from harmful values and beliefs (especially about yourself) that aren’t true or aren’t yours?

  1. The Test:

As I mentioned last time, the leap of faith that initiates a big change in our lives is only the first step. The scary leap can feel more exciting than the tedious hard work of building the foundation for our new lives. When the pressure of the void begins to assert itself, and the uncertainty of our new life feels overwhelming, our commitment often starts to waver.

Rather than facing the discomfort and pushing forward, everything in us wants to turn back (we see this constantly in our political environment), to cling to the familiar, and we can be filled with regret for having initiated the change (whether that’s ending a relationship, leaving a job, moving to a new city, going back to school, even having a baby or trying to eat healthier).

At this time of self-doubt, we might be given a test of our commitment: are we really determined to have our heart’s desire and stick with it until we see results or are we tempted to jump ship and go back to the comfort of our old ways?

What’s your test currently and what tools do you need to face and overcome it? Perhaps it’s courage or support or solitude or conviction or faith or determination. How can you summon these inner resources and/or ask for help?

  1. New Paradigm:

After you have confronted and purged the values and beliefs about yourself and about life that has been your programming (from your family, from the media, from your education, from all the institutions of your society), what are the values and beliefs you want to choose instead? What will replace your old unhelpful beliefs and what values do you want your new life to be built on (whether personally or collectively)? Being clear about this can give you the drive needed to bust through the obstacles (inner and external) that you might face on the journey of change.

What’s your new paradigm—the life that you are wanting on the other side of the change process based on your own/better values and beliefs?

I encourage you to take a moment to jot down your answers to these 3 questions. They can be a helpful reference point that you can explore more deeply in your own personal work—but, even if you do nothing but quickly make a list of the first things that come to mind, simply identifying them can be all you need to create a profound shift!

Case in point: during a recent time of emotional distress, I simply drew a messy map of all the various feelings and thoughts floating around tormenting me. It was super helpful just putting them down on paper—getting them out of my head and in front of my eyes where I could see their connections and understand that they are not me, they are just feelings and thoughts that I’m having.

I’d planned to unpack each one further—do some journaling about each—but found that simply writing them down was enough to catapult me out of that inner experience. When I returned to my messy map a couple days later, I was shocked to find not only that I was no longer feeling that way, but I made a list of my current beliefs and they were almost the exact opposite of all the ones that had been tormenting me just days prior!

If you are struggling to answer any or all of these questions, I can help. I assist my students and my counseling clients with this type of work constantly. Shoot me an email (Sam.Bullington@colorado.edu) and I can give you some further suggestions—or consider booking a session with me (we can Skype if you are not local) if you want to dive in in earnest. 😊

 

Where I’m stuck…

At the core of my current challenges is my lack of belief that there is really a place for me in life. As a non-binary trans person in a gender binary world, I’m confronted every day with a sense of existential erasure—all the ways that the world tells me that I simply don’t exist and am not welcome. When I look out at the world, I just don’t see a space for me. And so that has been my block professionally as well.

When I graduated from college and looked at all the various life paths to choose from, I simply didn’t see mine there—although I didn’t know exactly what mine was, none of the available options felt right for me. It felt too overwhelming as a 21 year old to contemplate creating my own path, given the ways my material survival was tied to this dilemma. So I chose the best match I could find at the time: university life.

School had always been a refuge for me and, growing up without a peer group (since those are organized by gender), teachers were my friends and peer group—so it is not surprising that I chose to be one myself. I knew how much teachers had profoundly changed my life, so I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my life energy than having that kind of impact on students.

However, when I found my partner, who is my soul mate, and decided to go on hormones, I began to realize what a right match for me felt like—and sadly recognized that my academic career was only a partial match. Though I loved campus life, being surrounded by cutting edge ideas, teaching, and being part of student transformation, all this took place in a toxic bureaucratic institution whose values were antithetical to my own.

I really wanted our relationship to work so I stretched and changed myself as much as I could to accommodate the environment. When that didn’t work, I tried shifting my position within it—I removed myself from the tenure track to distance myself from the bureaucratic structure and sought less rewarded positions that would allow me to focus my energies on teaching, as I believe that students are where the possibility for transformation lies within universities.

While this worked for a while, and the joy of teaching carried me through the challenges, eventually the bureaucratic structure kept encroaching and my ability to do the work of transformation became more and more at my own expense. Eventually I could no longer absorb the damaging costs of that arrangement and sadly found myself in the position of needing to leave the relationship entirely. Perhaps you have found yourself in this unfortunate position somewhere in your life as well.

Facing this loss only reinforced my core belief that there is simply not a place for me in life. My work in the world and how I feel inwardly led to go about it simply doesn’t match up anywhere with the values and operations of capitalism, so the intensity of that core belief has only grown since leaving the refuge of the university. In order to access my next steps professionally and find my rightful place in life, I first need to believe that I have a place and that it’s possible to find it.

 

Here’s how I’m doing it!

I hope my introduction to these concepts has been helpful for you. If you are interested in learning how this process plays out in specifics in someone’s life, I encourage you to read on about my journey. You will find that posted tomorrow!

Feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might benefit from it.

Blessings upon your journey,

Sam

Trans People Are Here To Be Teachers and Leaders

Transforming Gender Symposium Keynote:

Trans People Are Here To Be Teachers and Leaders

 

“We are the rising sun

We are the change

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for

And we are dawning”

NEW DAY DAWNING

I’d like to talk with you today about being trans as a path of transcendence. So, what does it mean to transcend—we’ll start with transcending gender, though I will be talking about transcending a lot more than just gender. What does it mean to transcend?–ask audience. Yes, it means to rise above, to go beyond. To break the box, not only for yourself but to free everyone.

For those of you who have seen “Moana,” trans folks—I believe—are explorers, the ones who have the courage to go out beyond the surf, to see what’s out there, and—like any hero’s journey, the whole point is not just self-exploration and personal gain, the purpose of the journey is to bring the gifts back to your community, to share what you have learned and to teach others who cannot make the journey themselves.

And sharing what you have seen and what you know from your explorations can fundamentally transform the understanding of the world for everyone.

I believe we are living in exciting and historic times. We are witnessing the beginnings of a fundamental shift in human perception of the magnitude of understanding that the earth is round. We are on the cusp of a major breakthrough as a species—a collective evolutionary leap to a higher level of consciousness. While the leap itself is positive and exciting, the process of breakdown leading up to the leap is chaotic and highly stressful.

Species evolve out of necessity, when they are compelled to do so by some crisis situation. Our choices—our old destructive ways of being in the world and interacting with one another—have brought us to just such a stark choice, where we must evolve or perish. Key to our transformation is the return of the feminine.

Although we have been taught that change happens slowly in a linear step-by-step process, this is not necessarily the case. Often there are no signs of impending change—or things look like they are actually headed in the opposite direction. I witnessed this in South Africa at the official ending of apartheid. While activists had been working behind the scenes for decades to bring about societal transformation, on the surface—in the years and months leading up to it—there were no signs that apartheid was just about to end. In fact, the apartheid state ramped up some of its most brutal measures and seemed extraordinarily entrenched—until one day, like that, it was over. We can look back and see that such brutal measures were actually signs of vulnerability—the last gasp of the apartheid state to try to hold onto power and stave off necessary change. Many have described the fall of the Soviet Union in similar terms. No matter how deeply entrenched they appear to be, these rigid structures disintegrated from within, to the surprise of many of those watching. I believe the United States is in one of those times right now.

Everything about the U.S. right now is reminding me of the end days of apartheid: the fixation on identity documents, the hyperfocus on safety and security, the defensiveness and isolationism, the police violence, the sprawling bureaucracy. When I fly back to the U.S. from South Africa, I can actually feel the density and heaviness of the energy around the United States, like a toxic force field.

I believe we are witnessing the dying of the old order, the last gasp of the wealthy white cismale Christian heterosexual able-bodied power structure, and all of its harmful and dysfunctional institutions, along with all of the worldviews underlying that power structure as well. All of the values and assumptions and belief systems that arise from and are in service to that power structure. We are undergoing a foundational remembrance of our actual relationship to one another and our planetary home: interdependence (and you can think in your own life, those peak moments of interdependence most often come during a crisis).

While this is a welcomed relief—since the current power structure represents a threat to the survival of the entire planet—change is scary! It truly is a death, the end of the world as we know it. And most of us would rather live in a familiar malaise than step into the unpredictability of change—why we so often stay in jobs and relationships that we’ve long outgrown. Although we may say that we want better, change requires letting go of what is known and stepping into the void, before we have concrete evidence of what’s next.

Many don’t even believe that something better is possible and it is hard to create what we don’t believe is possible. We have thousands of media representations of future apocalypse, but how many cultural visions do we have of a collective future that we might actually want? We are trained to feel powerless and defensively focus on avoiding what we don’t want rather than being in the hopeful vulnerability of imagining what we do want.

But trans folks are sort of experts at transformation so we have much to teach others about how to surrender to the scary and exciting process of change. In addition, trans/genderqueer/non-binary people well understand that things are not always as they appear! It is the crisis of now that is creating the conditions necessary for our evolutionary leap, so don’t be misled by surface appearances! It may feel like we are going in the exact opposite direction of where we want to end up—but that’s the nature of the paradigm shift that sometimes the quickest route to our destination can be what appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

So, I’m going to talk about some of paradigm shifts that we are needing as a culture—around gender, power and leadership, love and relationships, and our approach to social change—and share some of the key principles of new paradigm thinking. But first let me talk about the special role that trans/non-binary/genderqueer folks have in this evolutionary shift.

 

TRANS/GENDERQUEER/NON-BINARY PEOPLE HAVE AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN THIS TRANSITION

In many ways, we are the future, therefore we are embodying already some of the aspects of the new paradigm. In addition, there are things that we know due to our unique journeys that, when shared, can help other folks to wake up. For instance, we know that…

Binaries don’t represent reality

Dualistic thinking is one of the core aspects of western culture, perhaps stemming from the western need for order and clear and hierarchical classification. Binaries are created—let’s take the us/them binary so fundamental to nationalism as an example—by falsely homogenizing the us, falsely homogenizing the them, and then exaggerating and essentializing the differences between the us and the them—the extremes are highlighted, the middle is erased, and we call it a binary.

This imposition is not only inaccurate, but it actually shapes what we are able to see. According to sociologists Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna, the reason we have a gender binary is because we believe there’s a gender binary, which causes us to perceive a gender binary. This explains why the 1 in 1500 babies born intersex are subjected to traumatic surgeries to make them conform to the binary, rather be seen as evidence that our binary construction is inadequate.

Our training to view life in terms of oppositional pairs has serious implications beyond gender, as we can see with our current political polarization. The very construct of rigid dichotomies encourages antagonism. Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen reports, for instance, that when students are asked to compare two cultures, they are inclined to polarize them (so she has them compare 3 instead). Key to western culture is the belief that issues have 2 sides and that truth is best gained through debate. This creates an adversarial environment which encourages the demonization of one’s opponents. Since we need to make our opponents wrong to prove ourselves right, the temptation is great to oversimplify, and ignore facts and nuances that support, your opponent’s viewpoints—which actually undermines our pursuit of truth, and is damaging to the human spirit.

If we count up all the folks who blur categories—trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks, bisexual folks, bilingual and bicultural folks, mixed race folks—we can see that, if we are not already the majority, we are rapidly approaching it.

And we also know that…

Nobody wins at the gender game

Trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks generally have intimate lived experience of the suffering caused by gender—not only the suffocating limitation of the gender binary, but first-hand knowledge of the dysfunction on both sides of the binary, the ways that there are no winners in the gender game. While the harm that falls to women as a result of their devalued position in the gender hierarchy is fairly well known at this point—even if still continually ignored!—the negative impact of masculinity on men is not widely acknowledged.

One of the most surprising aspects of my experience of masculinity since going on hormones is the degree of loneliness that I feel on a daily basis.  While—since going on hormones—everyone now wants to know what I think—and attribute tremendous value and authority to my thoughts, almost no one asks me how I feel or how I am, so I am often left without a sense of others’ care for my well-being.

This is especially pronounced with regards to my needs for physical affection.  I am a very physically affectionate person—it’s a big way that I connect with people and it helps me feel grounded.  But now I find I no longer touch women because, in my current vehicle, that feels creepy.  And I certainly don’t touch guys because that could result in violence.  Women don’t touch me and guys don’t touch me, so I move throughout my daily life largely without the experience of touch, which makes me feel rather disconnected and diminishes my own sense of humanity.  As is the case with many men, most of the physical affection I receive is in the context of sexuality, which is a different experience.

The emotionally damaging gendered training starts in infancy. In his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, psychologist Terry Real shows how parents often unconsciously begin projecting a kind of innate “manliness”—and thus, diminished need for comfort, protection and affection—onto baby boys as young as newborns. As Real explains, “little boys and little girls start off equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equally desirous of physical affection. If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls.”

However, parents imagine inherent sex-related differences between baby girls and boys.  When a group of 204 adults was shown video of the same baby crying and given differing information about the baby’s sex, they judged the “female” baby to be scared, while the “male” baby was described as “angry.”  And these differences in perception create correlating differences in the kind of parental caregiving that newborn boys receive—a child who is thought to be afraid is held and cuddled more than a child who is thought to be angry.  Real found that from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, and nurtured less—at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

Fast forward to middle age since we have a lot of territory to cover today: From 2009 to 2014, while mortality rates fell for most other Americans, they actually rose for middle-aged white heterosexual men, with most of the fatalities coming from what experts call “despair deaths,” including drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease, and suicide, all consequences of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Men die early because they do not take care of themselves—in large part because self-care is considered to be feminine. This mentality is a key aspect of masculine training—man up, play through the pain—because toxic masculinity teaches them to be afraid of looking “weak.”

Masculinity’s death tolls are attributed to the more specific manifestations: alcoholism, workaholism, violence, and risk-taking behaviors undertaken to prove or defend one’s masculinity (such as driving drunk or without a seat belt).  Even when masculinity does not literally kill, it causes a sort of spiritual death, leaving many men traumatized, disconnected and often unknowingly depressed.  Indeed, men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide then women (it is the biggest killer of men under 50 and men comprise 80% of all suicides)—in large part due to the pressure and isolation they feel as men.

Embodying new possibilities

As the sun is setting on the old order, what we are now most in need of is visionary leadership to point the way to fresh possibilities. Trans/non-binary/genderqueer folks are in many ways already living those possibilities, expanding our cultural sense of what’s possible, creating new paths that are changing the landscape of our choices for future generations.

Among the qualities most needed for the new era are creativity and flexibility. As the breakdown accelerates and we need to adjust to novel conditions and make the most of the opportunities presented to us, these are real specialties of trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks. Our uniqueness and fluidity is our genius. We are innovators and shapeshifters.

Phoenix, for instance, is not just a traditional choir made up of trans people—everything about how Phoenix is run flows from who we are as trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks. Just as we don’t feel the need to fit ourselves into the gender binary as individuals, we don’t feel a need to fit conventional expectations around how an organization operates or what a choir is.

Evolution requires change (i.e. death and loss)

Trans/genderqueer/non-binary people also understand from deep lived experience the ways that change can be exciting and positive, but also terrifying and heartbreaking. I come from a long line of change haters and I actually waited for 11 years to go on hormones after coming out as trans.

Much of my decision was an ethical choice. In 2004 I wrote in off our backs magazine, “I am happy living between genders, expanding the options of what’s possible and—especially as a teacher—being visible for others who are also looking for more options. Although my 11 year old boy inside longs to recapture the bodily freedom that he knew and would love to undergo gendered bodily modification, as long as we live in a world where ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not equal choices—and there are no other options—a world characterized by the hatred and ridicule of women and anything perceived female/feminine—then gendered choices are not merely matters of individual self-expression, but have ramifications that demand, for me, that they be weighed carefully and seriously.”

But an equally powerful deterrent was my fear of change and my belief that going on hormones would be disruptive to the fragile stability of my life at the time. In the same piece I wrote, “As I pass as a man on a regular basis currently without any bodily modification, were I to pursue surgery or hormones there’s a very real possibility that I would just disappear into maleness. And worse, become unrecognizable to the lesbian feminist communities that I cherish and that have fostered my survival.”

I can say that all my worst fears exactly came to pass: the unpredictable wild ride of testosterone disrupted every aspect of my existence, I did just disappear into maleness—making me feel at times like a woman trapped in a man’s body, and I was hurtfully driven out of the lesbian feminist communities that I relied upon for survival and now have become unrecognizable to the group of folks with whom I share the most life experience.

So I am very sympathetic with the very real fears that people are facing right now in watching the collapse of the society they have known and the uncertainty they are feeling about what comes next. Now I teach workshops on Embracing Change. The shamanic path is the wounded healer path—it is through learning to heal yourself that you cultivate tools that you can then use to help others. Because I had an especially strong resistance to change—which being trans forced me to confront—now I have a special passion and strength for guiding others through their fears around change.

Much of my counseling practice focuses on life transitions—the kind of death and rebirth experiences that we have when we marry or divorce, change careers or graduate from college, come out as queer. Having come out multiple times now, and having started over professionally not just once but twice, I have gone through the death and rebirth experience many many times (the essence of the Phoenix), which can be very reassuring to folks who are facing it for the first time.

In our current cultural landscape, many folks are facing this death and rebirth process on multiple fronts—collectively as well as individually, as many—like myself—have felt purposefully called away from former pursuits to serve the current needs of the collective and others have had their familiar lives fundamentally disrupted by the chaotic and cruel policy changes that the Trump regime has brought. Trans folks can be an important stabilizing resource during this time.

 

WE NEED A PARADIGM SHIFT!

What is a paradigm shift?

So, first off, what is a paradigm shift exactly? Anyone want to take a stab at explaining what we mean by paradigm shift? The language of paradigm shift came from American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn who described the shift in the scientific community from one set of operating assumptions to another—for instance, the shift in our understanding of ourselves and the universe when we abandoned notions that the earth is flat and the center of the universe, or the shift from a belief in an objective universe that can be impartially observed and studied free from bias to the awareness that the way we see the world dramatically impacts the way we experience the world and so there is no independent “reality” separate from our assumptions and “biases.”

In the everyday sense, a paradigm shift is a nearly instantaneous fundamental change in our understanding resulting from the expansion of our consciousness. It’s the “Aha!” experience of suddenly seeing the bigger picture, as though someone removed blinders that we hadn’t even known we’d been wearing. It is often experienced as the sudden recognition of many simple and obvious options in a situation that previously felt impossibly limited—in other words, the ability to transcend the this or that binary mode of thinking.

My spiritual teacher in Minneapolis has a favorite example of a paradigm shift describing the behavior of an ordinary housefly. We have no doubt all watched as a housefly bashes itself again and again trying to get outside through a screen window. All of its limited housefly senses tell it that straight ahead is the most direct route to freedom. It can see it, smell it, practically taste it—yet the more it tries, the more beaten and battered it becomes. If only the fly could step back and see the bigger picture and turn in the opposite direction, it would find an open door and freedom just seconds away.  This is how we often operate in life. We become fixated on the linear route that is most obvious to our physical senses and assume not only that it’s the best, but the only route to our goal. Then we limit our possibilities and wind up pursuing a path that won’t take us where we want to go and will just wear us out in the pursuit.

It’s kind of hard to explain how to have a paradigm shift (it’s kind of like an orgasm in that way), but once we’ve had one, we know it immediately and wonder why we never saw things so clearly before. Understanding the nature of the paradigm shift and how to have one requires a bit of a paradigm shift in itself, as we live in a culture that worships doing and believes that all outcomes are accomplished through intentional effort in the material world. However, no amount of practice is guaranteed to bring a shift in perspective—go back to the housefly metaphor, or the orgasm: simply increasing effort is not effective. A new approach is therefore required, one more based in surrender and trust, openness and flexibility, not necessarily hard work.

While such expansion of consciousness often feels good and liberating, it is also scary and vulnerable and requires a leap of faith. It can be very mind boggling to realize that the world has a lot more possibilities than just the limited range of what we’ve been taught—that gender is more than just women and men, for instance—and many people find such realizations to be very threatening. In order to move into a more expansive worldview, our limited perspectives must be shattered and this can be felt as a very real and disturbing death, the end of life as we’ve known it.

Paradigm shifts are also vulnerable leaps of faith because they generally require us to walk in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom—think of the housefly seemingly abandoning its pursuit by turning its attention away from the window. This can feel both “wrong” and very exposed (when everyone is walking in one direction and you are walking in the opposite direction, it is hard not to doubt yourself!), and so it can require both courage and trust of our inner guidance, believing that we are going in the direction of our highest good well before we have any concrete evidence to support that.

Why a lot of our social change work hasn’t brought very satisfactory results is due to the fact that we haven’t yet transcended our current paradigm. Most of what we call liberalism involves work within the prevailing framework—the tinkering with the status quo, which is fundamentally assumed to be neutral or positive, though perhaps requiring some adjustments to ensure the actualization of “equality.” For instance, with regards to gender, we now live in a world where—for the most part—women are allowed to do what men can do the way that men do it. As a result, although there may be more of a diversity of faces within institutions—even at the level of leadership—it has created a disappointing amount of change in the way that institutions are actually run because the fundamental values and operating assumptions remain the same.

The crossroads we are at now requires a fundamental change in our approach and underlying assumptions. This is a time when the usual or accepted ways of thinking and doing need to be replaced by new and different ways. I’m going to talk about 4 areas in which we are needing a paradigm shift: around gender, around our understandings of power and leadership, around love and relationships, and around our notions of social change and social justice work.

Rejection of the feminine hurts everyone

So we saw the ways that rejection of the feminine is harmful to men. But now we are seeing the rejection of the feminine by women too as feminism has largely taught women that in order to be taken seriously and respected—from the professional world to sexual relationships—you must act like a man.

(on the last day of class last semester, when I had students go around and share what they were taking away from the semester, one female student shared that the most important thing she learned in my class is that her feminine qualities are not bad!).

And this has resulted in there being more masculine energy on the planet now than at any other point—because, as trans theorist Julia Serano also points out, while women have reached in the direction of what we label masculinity, men have not counterbalanced that with a reach toward femininity. Serano writes, “I would argue that today, the biggest bottleneck in the movement toward gender equity is not so much women’s lack of access to what has been traditionally considered the ‘masculine realm,’ but rather men’s insistence on defining themselves in opposition to women (i.e., their unwillingness to venture into the ‘feminine realm’).” (342) The utter rejection of femininity is so integral to the very definition of masculinity that NFL quarterback Don McPherson argues, “We don’t teach boys to be men, we teach them not to be women and not to be gay.”

Despite this, the only real option feminism offers men is to be an “ally” to women. Nowhere is it mentioned that men have their own work to do around gender for their own well-being. As a result, most men don’t even know that there is work to be done, much less what the work is and how to go about it—especially since personal growth is already stigmatized as feminine, making it risky for men to even engage in self-inquiry.

The rejection of the feminine hurts everyone. In a society where the masculine is prized and the feminine is reviled, of course all feminine-presenting folks are going to be harmed—not only women, but gay men, transgender people, feminine straight men. And, of course, on the societal level we are all poisoned by toxic masculinity—felt very strongly in the current environment. This overabundance of masculine energy impacts me quite intensely and I don’t want to live in a world that is even more aggressive and competitive, more disconnected from vulnerability and tenderness.

Julia Serano argues that “The greatest barrier preventing us from fully challenging sexism is the pervasive anti-feminine sentiment that runs wild both in the straight and queer communities, targeting people of all genders and sexualities. The only realistic way to address this issue is to work toward empowering femininity itself.” (343) But what does this mean exactly and how do we go about it?

In my introductory gender studies class, we do a little femininity experiment. To confront and begin to get over the stigma around femininity, I ask everyone in the class—all genders—to come to class more expressive of their femininity in some way—not dressing in drag as a caricature, but moving up the femininity scale maybe from 2 to 4 or from 7 to 9. I come to class in a dress, which requires me to confront my own discomfort, and folks share about what they learned from the experience.

While most of the folks in class interpret femininity as femme aesthetics, what I’m more interested in are all the disowned qualities that are labeled feminine—things like nurturing, cooperation, listening, (the things that make life worth living, in my opinion!), asking for help, allowing someone else to lead. So, as we heal our own misogyny and celebrate and amplify the feminine in the world, of course that means that women and transfeminine folks are powerful—but it also means that powerful doesn’t just mean confident, assertive badasses. It means cherishing tenderness, recognizing the incredible power and strength in sharing one’s vulnerability, and celebrating the nourishment that comes from nurturing and being nurtured.

Leading from within

Which leads into the next necessary paradigm shift—around our understandings of power and leadership. Currently our limited understandings of both are so masculine identified (power equals power over, or dominance) that when women express power and leadership, it can compromise their feminine gender identity—as we saw with Hilary Clinton—and it can’t even be read as power or leadership unless it resembles a masculine style.

Our understandings of power and leadership are also externally focused—power is defined as the ability to manipulate circumstances in the material world, and people rise to leadership in our society by a tendency towards extroversion. As Parker Palmer from the Center for Courage and Renewal explains, “Leaders rise to power in our society by operating very competently and effectively in the external world, sometimes at the cost of internal awareness. I have met many leaders whose confidence in the external world is so high that they regard the inner life as illusory, as a waste of time, as a magical fantasy trip into a region that doesn’t even exist. The only changes that really matter are the ones that you can count or measure externally.”

However, Palmer argues that, since leaders create the conditions under which others must spend their lives, “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside themselves. Great leadership [what he calls “leading from within”] comes from people who have made that downward journey (into their own shadow) and who can help take other people to that place, to the certain knowledge that who I am does not depend on what I do.”

Trump is a master at projecting rather than owning his shadow. Since this is where we are stuck as a country—our inability to face our shadow: our history of slavery and genocide, the broken trust upon which this country was founded, the broken trust that is the foundation of gender relations in this country as evidenced in all the #MeToo posts—it makes Trump actually the perfect leader for us through this painful process of facing ourselves in the mirror.

It is ironic that so many liberal folks have claimed that they are upset with Trump because he doesn’t represent the America that they know—because Trump is prototypically American. Trump’s administration represents core American values/dysfunctions: greed, narcissism, ignorance about the life experiences of others, the “you’re in the way of what I want, so get out of my way” mentality upon which this country was founded.

So Trump is the ideal guide to take us through this evolutionary transition because he is a caricatured version of all the things we need to heal: toxic masculinity, toxic nationalism, toxic capitalism. We have the opportunity to see ourselves reflected back—especially because he is a larger than life version so people can really see it—and then we have the opportunity to say “Yuck, I don’t want that” and we can choose something else. He is helping us to wake up.

While the U.S. prefers its leaders to be overconfident and intractable, The Tao of Leadership exalts different characteristics, what we might deem a feminine leadership style: “Like water, the leader is yielding, fluid, and responsive. Gentleness melts rigid defenses. What is soft is strong. Whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. Whatever is flexible and flowing will tend to grow. Good leadership consists of doing less and being more.”

It took me a long time to be able to think of myself as a leader because, as an intuitive feeler introvert, I don’t demonstrate any of the characteristics associated with conventional leadership. I’ve spent much of my life actively trying to hide and disappear, I was so shy I barely said a word in class throughout my whole time in college, my own style of living has been so idiosyncratic I’ve mostly just been relieved to be left alone to do life my own way so I never would have guessed that anyone would want to follow me!

But over time I’ve been able to see the ways that I do have a strong impact on people, despite my understated style. But my tools (role modeling, courage, openness and vulnerability, kindness) are quite different than those valorized by the mainstream culture. For instance, as a teacher, rather than exercising power over my students, I lead from behind, motivating them to take interest in their own learning journeys—in part by sharing mine and making it clear that I am a co-participant with them, willing to do myself whatever I ask of them.

I tell my students that all you really need to be a leader is the willingness to be uncomfortable; when you are more willing to experience discomfort than those around you, you can have a powerful influence. Parker Palmer argues that inner work is as important as external and because I’ve devoted decades to doing intense inner work, I now have a pretty expansive comfort zone (because you know the secret to expanding your comfort zone? Continually doing the things that challenge you and make you uncomfortable!).

My experience founding and directing Phoenix has certainly taken me continually beyond my comfort zone, a relentless parade of things that felt simply impossible to me, especially because singing and my voice have been among my thorniest life challenges—so much so that I almost missed out on singing in my first trans choir in Minneapolis because I couldn’t get up off my bedroom floor to go because I found the prospect to be so overwhelming and terrifying. I started Phoenix because it needed to exist, not because I had the talent or training or time or resources to do it. Although I have grown a lot as a leader and director over the past 2 years with Phoenix, it is still hard for me to stay in my body when I’m directing, especially in those moments—which sometimes even still happens while teaching—when everyone turns to look at me.

Phoenix is more of an experimental laboratory than a traditional chorus. It is a safe space to take risks of self-exploration, whether around gender and identity, creativity and voice, or leadership and community-building (since we are a collaborative egalitarian arts collective). While people are taking growthful risks in different areas, we are all taking those tentative first steps together, which has built strong bonds of trust between us.

Trans/genderqueer/non-binary communities have much inner work to do given the degree of rejection and trauma we have experienced. If we do not attend to this painful legacy, it undermines the effectiveness of our social justice work—as well as our well-being. Paradoxically, the personal power I possess has largely come from the traumas that I’ve sustained. While obviously hurtful and disempowering in the moment, they have largely freed me from the dependency on people’s approval that was such a major component of both my feminine training and my white middle-class training.

Sustaining so much loss as a result of following my path of authenticity has now brought me to a place of almost invincibility, as the allure of worldly rewards can’t distract me from my purpose, nor can the threat of dire consequences. That makes me much freer than most people. Leaving the professor path—and its rewards of status and financial stability—to chart my own path this past year has been incredibly liberating. Freely giving away something that most people find to be so important has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life—and, while I feared other people’s judgment (wait, you left being a college professor to start a professional cuddling business??), most of the responses I’ve gotten have actually been envy.

Love is a spectrum, not a binary

Unconditional love is the greatest power that we have. Our love literally has the ability to change people’s lives. There’s a LOT I could say about love, but, due to time, I’ll just share a couple points—so ask me during the Q&A.

When I was in graduate school, training to be a social scientist, there was a lot of debate about top down vs ground up theory. The traditional method was top down—you come in with a pre-existing theory and hypothesis and you try to use your “data” to prove it. As an intuitive feeler, I favored the ground up approach—you let your research “speak” to you and the theory flows organically from that listening process.

As a polyamorous person, that’s how I approach love and relationships as well. Whereas most people come with their relationship categories and then try to fit their connections within them—and then govern them according to the rules of their category—I believe that all connections have their own integrity and it is my job to deeply listen to the nature of that connection and how it organically wants to express itself. The unique inner experience of that connection is what is important to me, not the mental construct around it.

This is why, for me, transgenderism and polyamory are such a natural match, both key aspects of my spiritual path (as paths of growth and self-responsibility). Both require a ground up approach to life—a willingness to listen and learn and suspend the urge to classify and categorize based on assumptions and surface appearances. Both require an openness to fluidity and freedom, a willingness to flow rather than to fix. I can say for myself that the more that I have let go of the need to find my security in one person, the more secure and abundant in love I have actually felt in life. That’s the nature of the paradigm shift.

Just as trans folks need to figure out the right balance of masculine and feminine energies for our own individual gender expression, so too do we need to find the right balance of commitment and freedom for our relationship lives—as both are vital to the healthy experience of love in our lives. I have definitely noticed generational challenges to this balance. Whereas my students celebrate the necessity for freedom to allow love to flourish, they tend to be afraid of or resistant to the commitment side, which would allow them a deeper and more satisfying experience of love. Folks my age tend to welcome the commitment and enjoy the security it brings, but are fearful of the freedom aspect and, without that breathing room, often find themselves frustrated in relationships based in comfortable companionship but without the energy and passion they long for.

We tend to assume that that’s just how relationships are—exciting and full of vitality during the honeymoon phase, inevitably stale as familiarity grows—but such a trajectory is not inevitable (my partner and I are about to celebrate 12 years together and things are as fresh and passionate now as they were during our first 6 months together). Instead it is the outcome of our approach to relationships, which can be changed. Instead of being threatened by the ways that other connections and pursuits activate unexplored aspects of ourselves, we can welcome these new aspects and learn to utilize them in the service of our individual and shared growth to make all of our relationships deeper and stronger.

We tend to bring our capitalist cultural mindsets of ownership, scarcity, and competition to our experiences of love, but love is an unlimited resource—unlike money, the more we love, the more love we have. So many of the boundaries we are taught to set to honor and protect our romantic relationships (assuming their inherent vulnerability—which can then become a self-fulfilling prophesy) actually serve to block reinvigorating energies that could actually make those partnerships more satisfying—if we are able to take our hands off the wheel a bit and stop holding on so tightly from fear.

Though we are frightened of our expansiveness around love, I’ve found—whether it is our professional lives or love lives (the foundations of our security and so what we tend to hang on to most fiercely)—if we can just trust the urgings of our heart (and let ourselves be led by life rather than trying to force our own agendas), they will take us in the direction of our highest good in ways that keep us safe and often exceed our wildest dreams.

The second point is just that our very definition of sex is completely from a masculine perspective—that we believe that sex is about bodies and genitals and orgasms and sensations is a masculine-oriented viewpoint (not to mention the ways we teach that sex begins with the male erection and ends with the male orgasm and whatever happens with women is not even relevant to the definition of sex!)—so I’ll just ask you to contemplate: how would our understanding of sexuality be fundamentally different if we approached it from a feminine perspective?

Transcending Gender

One of the definitions of transcendence is wholeness. Gender, as our culture teaches it, is not a path of wholeness. Instead of being encouraged to cultivate the full range of our human expression, we are required to disown any characteristics not deemed “appropriate” to the gender category to which we were assigned—and then we are encouraged to find our “other half” so that together we can make a whole.

While gender is an elaborate set of rules and one of the organizational foundations of society, it is largely unconscious to most people. Most folks aren’t consciously aware that there are rules until the rules are broken. So as gender rule breakers, trans/genderqueer/non-binary folks help others to awaken to the presence of gender, which is the first step towards the possibility of change. But we can’t lead people away from the dysfunction of gender if we ourselves are clamoring to get in.

To be the teachers and leaders we are meant to be, we need to do our own work—not only around healing our misogyny and resisting those medical and cultural narratives that tell us that being trans means hating your body and not allowing it to be seen or touched (I’m a nudist myself), but also around our desires to be “normal.” In Fear of a Queer Planet Michael Warner convincingly links the shift to assimilation politics in gay and lesbian communities in the 90s to unhealed shame. Much of what has constituted mainstream LGBT politics is trying to overcome stigma by winning acceptance from the dominant culture—using all those “we’re just like you” arguments that Chase nicely critiqued yesterday.

But, of course, this framework of “inclusion” merely reinforces the power dynamics we are wanting to change. Marginalized folks must conform in order to win entrance into the mainstream, folks at the center are never asked to change—their main job is to help others become more like them because they’ve already arrived, despite the fact that they are the most in need of change (even just for their own well-being). So, we can see the ways that trans normalization is actually very tied to trans pathologization and we are vulnerable to both if we haven’t done our own work around shame.

The other piece I’d like to bring in—that I’ll return to at the end—is the way that we are trained to believe that societal change comes from authority figures, specifically convincing authority figures to adopt new policies. Our educational system primes us well to orient all our attention towards pleasing and deferring to authority figures—and this childlike perspective continues throughout life. As Chase mentioned, people also see organizations like the ACLU in this way, as saviors who will fix things for us. But the paradigm shift that is needed now is for us to stop waiting for someone else to do it for us and to understand the power that we have, the power of all of us together.

 

NEW PARADIGM PRINCIPLES

So I’d like to conclude with some key shifts and new paradigm perspectives with regards to our social change work.

Healing instead of winning

Conventional activism is often focused on “winning” a particular “battle,” and, as such, is generally filled with military metaphors for accomplishing “victories” that flow from and reinforce the dominant paradigm. Although “winners” may feel vindicated (temporarily, since “winning” is the ultimate addictive high—fleeting and unstable), as well as elated, powerful, and temporarily united, those who have “lost” often feel angry and victimized and also temporarily united. They tend to respond to the new organization of power by opting out, feeling that the new leadership doesn’t represent them, and by planning to take power back.

Although we think of the two-party adversarial system in this country as a sign of a healthy democracy, it is actually more like a tug of war at a local picnic. Both parties spend all their energy struggling to move the center of the rope a couple of inches. In the end both parties are exhausted and the whole group has gone nowhere significant.

In this environment of warfare, one’s opponents are vilified and the end seems to justify the means. For instance, I get multiple emails per day from the Democratic Party asking me to help them “destroy” and “humiliate” Trump. I continually write them back saying I don’t want to live in a world where anyone has to be humiliated or destroyed, regardless of who they are. What I’ve learned in my time in South Africa is that brutality dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrator. We cannot dehumanize another without compromising our own humanity. We need a more compelling vision. While the Democrats may indeed succeed in taking back control of the government, I’m not convinced that this will bring me any closer to the world that I want to live in.

I see social justice issues as being manifestations of imbalance and broken trust—which is an unhealthy state for all parties—and so what is needed is the restoration of right relationship. The need to win is actually rooted in fear—the belief in the inevitability of domination and so therefore the only way to get your needs met is to be the one on top. South African activists knew this during the struggle against apartheid.

While a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela took great care to speak to his captors with respect, believing that there is good in everyone and when you engage with people in this manner, you call forth the best in them. With the crumbling of the apartheid regime, Mandela sought not retribution but reconciliation—not through denial or making nice, but through the difficult path of truth about the pain that was experienced.

As Desmond Tutu explains, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done, but standing in the shoes of the perpetrators to appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them and declaring our faith in the capacity of the wrongdoer to make a new beginning on a course that will be different from the one that caused us the wrong.” And empathy and forgiveness actually take a lot more strength and courage than warfare.

Passion instead of anger and righteousness

Much of what draws people to social justice work is outrage about the state of the world and the conviction of rightness about needed changes, both of which provide a fiery energy that is a source of motivation for action and the drive to carry it out. But these fires are the kind that can burn out relatively quickly, and can often carry an underlying sense of judgment and righteousness that is ironically not unlike the energy of patriarchal religions who are frequently the target of social justice work.

Not only does our political analysis and action need to be complex and nuanced—rather than invoking the simplistic right/wrong, good/evil rhetoric based in binary thinking—and rooted in the change of the self, rather than blaming and trying to change others, it also needs to be sustainable, and anger and righteousness are just not sustainable.

Instead of the volatile and temporary fuel of rightness, I propose a different kind of fuel: the fire of passion. When we are doing what we love, we seem to have endless energy—sometimes having more energy when we finish than when we started! When we are fully immersed in what we love, with the sincere intention to serve the highest good of all beings (not just ourselves or our “group”), we’re not just drawing from our little human energy supply anymore. Instead we’re tapping into the essence of aliveness, the energy that sustains all that is and that powers the continual creation of the universe. Now THAT’S sustainable energy!

Sadly, much of our social change work stems from guilt not joy—the things that we should do to make the world a better place. Ironically, when we commit to things from a place of should rather than joy, we can find ourselves becoming an energy drain on organizations or movements, despite our best intentions. So, rather than dismissing our dreams and what we love as impractical, we can learn to recognize the feeling of passion as an inner call, directing us to where we’re most needed, even if it doesn’t seem to match conventional activist strategies.

We are building a new world, not winning a war, and all of our unique contributions are needed in that endeavor. Following the breadcrumbs of passion gives us a reason to keep doing what we’re doing—because it makes us happy!—and this joy and fulfillment, rather than the self-sacrifice and world-weariness of traditional activism, is the energy we want at the foundation of our new existence together.

Shifting from “Me” to “We” Consciousness

In American culture, we pride ourselves on our independence and self-sufficiency, but underlying this pride is our deeply enculturated fear that we must look out for ourselves because no one else will. This belief in our separateness—that we are isolated and vulnerable and live in a scarce world where we must compete with those around us to be able to meet our basic needs, like some national game of musical chairs—is actually very dangerous. As well as wasteful when you think about the massive amount of resources consumed in national and personal defense as we fearfully hoard what we don’t even need or love in our efforts to protect ourselves from an uncertain future.

Trump is the archetypal embodiment of this dysfunctional cultural belief—the idea that you can separate yourself from the plight of the masses, counting your riches on high in your personal tower. However, the true nature of our relationship (seen especially in global environmental disasters and financial crises) is interdependence—the distress of any one part is felt on some level by the whole, creating unnecessary societal tension that serves as a drain on everyone.

Just as we can all perish together, we can also all rise together. New paradigm prosperity, for instance, is about the power of all of us together, about abundance coming via participation in peer-to-peer networks. New prosperity—part of our societal shift from scarcity to abundance—is about access rather than ownership, following models such as the internet and the Bernie Sanders campaign, whereby many many people make small contributions to create a resource that is then available to everyone.

Making best use of these new models requires a fundamental shift in our identity, from “me” to “we” consciousness—including the Earth in our sense of self, as Joanna Macy argues in her article “The Greening of the Self” (seeing ourselves as part of our natural environment, rather than separate from it and dominant over it).

Again, Donald Trump is a great catalyst for this evolutionary shift, as he is one of the few people on the planet who has the capacity to alienate a wide enough group of people that we have the impetus to come together and move beyond where we’ve been stuck. Our political/cultural crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis of disconnection—disconnection from our planetary home and our physical bodies, from our aliveness, passion and creativity, from our hearts and authentic connection with one another. And I found it terribly encouraging that when Trump was first elected—despite the folks hiding under the covers—the first inclination of so many people was that we need to come together.

Being is as important as doing

Traditional social justice work is extremely action-oriented. However, just as doing our inner work is what allows for the external change to happen, activism in the new era is as much about being as doing. It is not our strenuous effort or fighting that will bring about the changes that we desire—instead it is the quality of our presence. In any situation, the energy that is the strongest will pull the other energies around it to match its own frequency.

You may have noticed this yourself say if you’ve ever received a massage or gone to any kind of healer.  In addition to the therapeutic benefits of the healing, the strength of the calmness and peacefulness of the healer draws that peacefulness out in you as well.  Conversely, you may have noticed when you are around someone who is complaining all the time that you begin to feel more negative yourself.  This is the power of resonance and think of the power that we have in all of the everyday situations in which we find ourselves to raise the resonance.  Introducing a fresh perspective is one way to go about this.

Let’s do a little experiment around this. Go ahead and close your eyes for a quick guided meditation. Take several deep breaths, relax and begin to imagine a feeling of safety.  Say to yourself, silently, over and over, the words, “I am safe, I am safe, I am safe.” It’s not necessary that you believe these words. “I am safe” is the belief you are creating, not necessarily the belief you hold.

Let this feeling start in your stomach as a soothing, peaceful sensation and allow it to radiate through your entire body and then slightly beyond, forming a safe, comforting pink cocoon around you. Feel your stomach relax into deep safety and well-being….  Feel your shoulders relax as though you’ve just had a weight lifted from them….  Imagine a hard and heavy layer of protective armor now dissolving out of every part of your body because it’s no longer needed.  Imagine that you’re naturally protected by this state of peaceful defenselessness.

Picture this safety as a beautiful light of unconditional love that fills and surrounds you.  See this light attracting to you everything that’s for your highest good and repelling everything that’s not. Imagine this light to now be in place around you all the time, even when you’re not thinking about it.

Now direct your attention to your heart, beginning with your physical heartbeat (start thumping on my chest).  Notice the steady pulse of your heart, the powerful rhythm that draws other organs of the body into alignment with it.  Notice how your physical heartbeat is connected to the heartbeat of the Mother (start drum heartbeat), to the comforting and pulsing rhythm of the Earth Herself.  There is no separation.  Any sense of separation we imagine emerges from the colonization of our consciousness by those who seek to profit from our disconnection.

As you focus your attention on your heart, picture there a beautiful source of light.  As you give it your attention, notice that it becomes brighter.  Feel a softening and opening in the area of your chest.  Let the light from your heart softly radiate through your whole body, the steady pulse of light filling you with peace and a sense of well-being.  It ripples further and further beyond your body into the space around you.  See how far it goes…

Just as your heart’s beat is the body’s oscillator pulling other organs into a healthy rhythm, imagine your whole being is now acting in a similar fashion, pulling the world around you into alignment with your vibration of love, of peace, of well-being.  Imagine this emanation touching everyone in this room, everyone you meet.***  (fade away drum heartbeat)  When you’re ready, complete your meditation with some deep, full breaths.  Return to a normal, waking consciousness feeling refreshed and alert.***

As Parker Palmer reminds us, “We have a choice about what we are going to project, and in that choice we help create the world that is.” This is a major point of power we have, one that is largely underutilized. You may have noticed, for instance, that when you show up in fear and defensiveness in a situation that you can actually activate fear and defensiveness in others. Or the ways that pretending—in the ways we are culturally taught—creates an atmosphere of feeling unsafe for everyone, so choosing to show up in your authenticity instead can create an environment of safety. When people see that you aren’t pretending, they can relax, knowing they don’t have to either. So we can see how our safety actually lies not in our excellent defense, but in our trusting defenselessness.

It can be very challenging to maintain calm and poise in the midst of such dramatic societal upheaval.  Given all the things pulling on our time and energy and our emotions—and all the unmet needs around us—it can be hard to know where to focus and difficult to even allow ourselves to turn our attention away from all the commotion and catastrophe, which we need to be able to do if we are to do the real work of building what comes next. Taking the time to attend to your own energetic presence can help you to access your own inner wisdom and move with purpose from your center rather than being pulled into reactivity.

And finally…

Be the change!

A new day is dawning. The sun is setting on one order and is just beginning to rise on a new day. We don’t have to wait for authority figures to get it and give us permission. We can create the world we want to live in now. Live in that world now. In all your everyday choices, ask yourself “Is this in alignment with the world that I want to live in?” If you want to live in a world where people care about their neighbors, care about your neighbor. It begins with us.

We need to stop always looking vertically towards lifeless bureaucratic institutions and entrenched authority figures and start looking horizontally, towards one another. What are the needs in our communities, what are the resources, how can we match resources and needs?

Politically I believe we are on the brink of a paradigm shift similar to the one that many have made from religion to spirituality. Spirituality is about direct access to the energy and wisdom of the universe—through nature, through transcendent states of consciousness, in other words through leaving behind the mental structures of everyday human society. But religion was largely created to block direct access and instead channel people through a human institution built on rigid mental structures we call dogma to then manipulate them through fear.

Similarly, we are encouraged to take our human needs to societal institutions and authority figures who profess to meet human needs, but in actuality function to block the meeting of human needs. Now that these institutions are dying, we are being freed to take back our power and have direct access to source—which is community. Not in the neoliberal fend-for-yourself-if-you’re-not-thriving-it’s-your-fault way, but loving communities built on attending to the well-being of everyone.

This is how we build the new world—we just do it. From the ground up. We stop waiting for someone else to do it. We stop waiting for permission, waiting for the money to do it, waiting for the right timing, waiting for the skills or the certification to do it. We stop waiting. I started a trans choir because it needed to exist, not because I had the talent or training or time or resources to do it. What gaps do you see that need to be filled and what can you offer towards that end? We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

So that’s what my life experience and training have led me to conclude about life. While you may not share my worldview, I hope what I’ve said here today has been helpful and thought provoking. I’m happy to field any questions you might have, but first I’d like to invite Phoenix up to send us off with a song. Please join us—the words are those I began my talk with: “We are the rising sun, we are the change, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we are dawning”—thank you.

Link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyTvi_1bIws&feature=youtu.be

Transforming Gender keynote

Starting Over–Next Steps

Greetings Friends!

Happy 2018! I hope that your end of year celebrations were nourishing and that you are feeling ready to manifest your dreams for the coming year. The spiritual power that I chose for 2018 is Effective Inspiration so hopefully by the time you finish reading this, you will feel the flame of inspiration and passion ignited in you as well.

Embracing the Void

There have definitely been times of anxiety, even panic, at the formlessness of my new life. One of the gifts of being a trans person is that it’s helped me to hold lightly to my various identities. Seeing how people have responded so differently to me based on my packaging, despite being the same person underneath it all, has aided me in not taking my “self” personally or too seriously. It is all impermanent and not my Self, which is timeless and formless.

However, of all my worldly identities, I would say that “college professor” is one that has suited me better than most and one that I’ve grown attached to over the years. And, of course, the biggest source of anxiety, in a cutthroat capitalist society, involves my material survival—will I be supported as I move out of the dominant cultural stream?

In my Fall Equinox workshop on Embracing Change, we explored various reasons why we resist change. Here are some of the big ones:

1)  We fear the unknown and would rather stay in a known malaise than risk the unknown

2)  We believe that this is the best that it gets

3)  We don’t believe we deserve better

4)  We equate comfort with happiness when in actuality true happiness usually comes from risk, not comfort—too much comfort usually results in stagnancy

5)  We have a lot of motivation to move from crisis to ok, but little motivation to move from ok to great

6)  We are unwilling to let go of what we’ve outgrown, what no longer serves us, what we don’t love to make room for what we do love

Ok, I got through those. I decided that, while the university was a good platform for me for a time, ultimately it began to limit me (as well as endanger my physical survival) and I wanted more. My Being was longing to expand which couldn’t be accommodated within the hierarchical arrangements of the university. So I was willing to unconditionally let go of what no longer served me to make room for something better—the leap of faith from the ivory tower.

As scary as the leap is, it is also exhilarating. And—though most folks don’t even get as far as the leap—unfortunately, it is merely the first step. What really blocks our ability to change is the next step: the dreaded void.

7)  Even if there is a guaranteed positive outcome, most change requires a temporary period in the void first and we are petrified of and unwilling to experience this void

Especially in American culture, where we are taught to never leave a job or relationship until we have another waiting in the wings and to fill all the space in the endless search for more more more, facing the emptiness of the void can be terrifying. It is ironically one of our most powerful states because it is a space of unlimited possibilities—but it is a phase of the growth process where nothing has manifested yet in the material realm.

It is a time when you must have faith that the garden is growing even when you can’t see what’s going on under the surface. It is a time of choosing to believe in the things you can feel but can’t yet see, trusting them to manifest at just the right time. Some days this is easy and some days this feels quite impossible, but being continually asked to do so is without a doubt growing me strength and patience. Especially in a culture that values the big bang and instant gratification, patiently watching for the subtle signs of new growth is truly a character-building labor of love.

Trust that the garden is growing!

Seeds Sprouting

While I have overall been in the void phase of growth, that does not mean that the last semester was a time of emptiness for me. Quite the contrary! Despite doing none of the things people say are required to start your own business (I still haven’t even finished my website or gotten business cards or done any advertising), I have continually manifested various opportunities and a steady stream of people wanting my services and willing to pay me abundantly for them.

While the focus of my attention was primarily on working on my book, my counseling practice has taken off without me doing a single thing to create that! And interestingly—since both my counseling sessions and workshops are compensated through a guided meditation to determine the amount—time and time again whatever I decided beforehand that I would like to make ended up being exactly the amount that people would pay! While my focus was strictly on service—how can I best offer my gifts to the world to create positive change—I have been continually supported in oftentimes fun and creative ways.

Most interesting has been my relationship with CU. While I struggled to feel valued in the CU context in my former position, since breaking up with CU, it has been chasing me down, offering various far more lucrative opportunities with much less labor! Just in one semester, I was hired to lead a self-care workshop for the School of Education staff and a workshop on scarcity thinking for the INVST program, paid to come speak to the new student polyamory group, and amazingly offered $1500 for a 45 minute campus talk—all things that previously I would have been doing for free! And with no papers to take home to grade! Though I had proposed the scarcity thinking workshop (though not as a paid gig), the other offers just spontaneously came without me doing anything to create them or advocate for compensation.

The Vulnerability of Starting Over

One of the things that keeps us tied to our previous paths even when they’ve become stagnant and unsatisfactory—beyond the obvious fears around material survival during the starting over process (or emotional survival in the case of our relationship lives)—is the vulnerability of trying something new. We go through this every time we complete a phase of growth—we move from the culmination phase, the celebration and comfort of being seniors in high school, back to zero, returning to kindergarten again (oftentimes without even a sense of what the new lesson is!).

Once we reach a state of Ease with something we’ve been learning, our soul tends to move us on to something new—just as the bliss of end of summer quickly moves into fall and the dying away of what is no longer needed. Since Bliss and Ease are end of cycle stages, my spiritual teacher in Minneapolis, Lynn Woodland, argues that our resistance to endings and the vulnerability of starting over can prompt us to unconsciously avoid the rewards of manifestation to stave off the loss of control that inevitably follows.

At this stage in my career, being a college professor had guaranteed rewards beyond just consistent material sustenance. I knew without a doubt that my classes each semester would be successful—that on the last day of class there would be multiple students in tears, that a good half of the class would share how much the semester had changed their lives, that I would have glowing student evaluations and feel the satisfaction of competence and being in alignment with my purpose. These are compelling rewards, very challenging to give up!

I knew what my life would be like if I stayed on my current path, so stepping off it to take a chance on something not guaranteed was definitely a risk! But, since I knew what my life would be like if I stayed on my current path, the only way I could experience something different—potentially better—would be to step in a new direction. And the truth is, had I stayed longer at the university, I would soon be entering the anxiety of relevance stage that comes after we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. And frankly, I would rather grapple with the anxiety of emergence—which is taking me somewhere new and growthful with exciting possibilities—than the anxiety of decline, which is more a dark night of the ego. We are meant to keep reinventing ourselves—I believe a lot of what we call “aging” is merely the effects of stagnation.

And the truth is we are never truly starting over, but instead applying our old skills in a new context (something I’ve had to do again and again in my teaching career anyhow as I’ve moved institutions and geographic regions). One of the most fascinating things I realized this semester is that my non-shaming, we’re-all-in-this-together approach to teaching about social justice is ideal for couples counseling! My message in teaching is that the problem is not one another, but instead the terrible training we’ve had and the dysfunctional roles that we become locked into as a result (which feel awful regardless of what role you happen to be in). Applying that to couples counseling has been extremely effective so it feels like a natural match for me, something I was born to do! Especially since, as a transsexual it is easy for me to empathize with multiple perspectives since I have very broad lived experience—so all parties have the opportunity to feel safe and supported and I can help people in conflict understand one another.

Not to mention I didn’t start out as a great teacher! In fact, there was nothing in my personality package that would have indicated any potential greatness in that realm. I almost never spoke in class during college (so much so that my professors were always shocked when I did well on papers) and when I first told my mom I was going to be a college professor, she said “I don’t know why they let you teach when you are such a mumbler” (thanks Mom lol). I was so painfully shy that for my first couple years of teaching in grad school, every morning I had to teach I would have terrible diarrhea because I was so terrified of standing up in front of people. But now teaching is one of my greatest areas of confidence and skill, truly one of my archetypes for this lifetime—I am a Teacher regardless of whether I have a university position or not.

So, though it has been very awkward and vulnerable fumbling around in new areas and feeling the discomfort and embarrassment of not knowing what I’m doing, in the back of my mind I have been thinking “In 5 years I could end up being really great at this!” And the only way I will ever know is by giving it a try and somehow withstanding the terror and clumsiness of the initial steps…

Creative Awakening

The main thing that’s happened since my departure from the university has been a huge rush of creativity. The same thing happened to my partner when she left the academic world a couple years ago. Teaching is an excellent outlet for one’s creative energy—but it also takes ALL one’s creative energy—so practically from the moment the semester ended in the spring, I began to have a tremendous creative upwelling, beginning to release decades of pent up creative energy.

The most dramatic expression of this is that I wrote a song for the first time since high school! Last spring Phoenix did a collaborative concert with Mosaic Gospel Choir largely themed around racial justice. One of the songs we performed for that concert was Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fumaCsQ9wKw), a song that arose from the Black Lives Matter movement. In our preparation to perform Hell You Talmbout, we had ongoing dialogues in both choirs around the appropriateness of 2 largely white choirs singing a song that was written by and for black people. After the concert, I thought white people should really write our own songs about racial justice, specifically about white fear and white violence which is the root of the problem. So I approached the accompanist for Phoenix (who is also a music composition major at CU) about writing a song together around this theme, me largely the text and Selena largely the music.

What resulted, “Another Sunny Morning, Another Black Man Killed,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq_NwTkRQ0Q&feature=youtu.be) traces the consciousness-raising journey of a young white man, who first responds to racialized violence through the lens of mainstream media narratives, but through his own process of awakening—and through an encounter with a young black man on the street—begins to see the situation, as well as himself, quite differently. Amazingly, Phoenix performed this song in December in a collaborative concert with the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus—our 4 song set dedicated to Black Lives Matter in the middle of the DGMC’s annual campy Christmas concert! And in April we are taking this set on the road to the Midwest for our first choir tour! We will be performing at the Transgender Voices Festival in Minneapolis and bringing our message of racial justice to concerts in Nebraska and Iowa en route.

Another Sunny Morning

It was SUCH a thrill to watch this song take shape outside of my brain and to have the opportunity to present it to the 440 members of the audience! Perhaps one of the most important moments of my life! But the process of getting there was definitely bumpy. The first few hours sitting there trying to write it were horrendous—full of inner dialogue like “I can’t do this! I don’t know how. It’s too hard! I want to give up.” But I didn’t give up and eventually my creative flow began to unlock. What shifted it for me, surprisingly, was when I moved away from the computer and began to write by hand in my notebook. All of a sudden I felt totally engaged, words came spilling out, hours passed, and by dawn I had a song and was so exhilarated and energized, there was no way I could go to bed and sleep!

I can say that, for me at least, the most difficult part of the creative process is getting started—those moments of frustration before you find the flow, sitting in front of a blank computer screen and feeling like it will never happen. This is largely why I avoided my creativity for so many years—because that experience of stuckness was so painful, I just couldn’t stand it (as those of you who are students well know).

One of the things I learned this semester is that the time and spaciousness required for the creative process is quite different from the time and space needed for self-care or mere survival (and during my academic career, I was never able to master even basic self-care!). Working on my book, for instance, requires me to be fully immersed in my process, which can’t happen when I only have an hour here or there. So, as my schedule began to get busier (despite disappearing the main thing taking up all the space in my life, the university, I can’t say that my fall schedule was any less jammed!), I had to keep setting down my book project to attend to other responsibilities. The benefit of that challenge was that I got a lot of practice with starting over again and again and again—the part of the creative process that I fear and hate the most. I would have to work through all the inner and external obstacles to finally find the satisfaction and exhilaration of flow, only to have to step away, coming back to it later unable to find the thread again, so having to again sit with the discomfort until I can find the flow again—and not allowing myself to give up!

Abundant Life

Overall, it was a semester of trial and error as I sought to create a foundation for my new life. At each point I kept asking myself “Is this the life I want?” and making adjustments, as I figured out for myself what a life in which I can thrive even looks like. I have found that when I start with my own joy and a commitment to service that miracles inevitably follow. 

When most Americans think of an abundant life, their thoughts turn to money. One of the saddest things about our American training is not only that it misleads us about the destinations of “success,” “happiness,” and “power” and in fact leads us away from true happiness, success, and real power, but it also tends to keep us fixated on the process steps we believe are required, rather than the destination itself. Money is one of those process steps that we believe is fundamental to the achievement of our other goals in life, but not only is chasing money the sure path to unhappiness (especially in a culture oriented towards fear and scarcity that believes there’s never enough), it is completely unnecessary for an abundant life.

For instance, if we would like to go on a magnificent vacation, most of us would believe that requires a lot of money and turn our attention to how we can make more money—many of us getting lost in this process step. And while we may eventually have more money, that doesn’t necessarily mean we get our magnificent vacation. Or we could just directly manifest our vacation through various means, many of which don’t require any money at all.

Case in point: I just returned from a week in Hawaii, waking up every morning to the sound of gently crashing waves, kayaking with sea turtles—truly the vacation of a lifetime—which I paid almost nothing for! When we move away from our cultural training and the belief that life is a linear process of goals and steps and open to the miraculous, we can find ourselves at destinations beyond our wildest dreams with very little effort. In fact, it is often all our efforting—and our belief in the necessity of efforting—that can block us from all of the good in life wanting to come to us.

Hawaiian sunset

What’s next?

I’ve been having monthly themed workshops in Broomfield since the fall equinox. September was on Embracing Change, October was Doors Opening/Doors Closing, November was on Receiving, and in December we chose a spiritual power for the new year. Regardless of our goals and intentions for 2018, they likely involve other people so this month’s workshop is on Attracting the Right People. Whatever you are wanting to manifest in the coming year will most certainly require connecting with the folks that can help make it happen. If you are in the Denver/Boulder metro, I hope that you will consider attending—we are cultivating a lovely supportive community by coming together every month.

But whether you can attend or not, I will offer you a little new year’s homework assignment. Write down one thing you want to manifest this year (a new job, romantic relationship, having a baby, more clients, a new home, supportive community, physical healing, political change, etc). Then make a list of the felt experience that you would like to have in that realm (to feel valued and appreciated, to wake up every morning filled with vitality and passion, to be loved unconditionally, to have your unique gifts shared with the world, to have an abundant and inspiring life, more freedom, a world in which all beings can thrive, etc).

Now, instead of waiting until you manifest your outcome in order to experience it and be happy, give yourself that felt experience right now. Close your eyes and imagine feeling valued and appreciated, loved unconditionally, filled with vitality and passion, your everyday life characterized by abundance and freedom, in a world in which everyone feels safe and valued. Make it as real and vivid as you possibly can—and then let it go.

The way we’ve been taught in American culture to manifest our dreams is backwards—and leaves us in a perpetual state of disempowered wanting and dissatisfaction. Take your power back and give yourself the experiences you want NOW rather than waiting to be happy based on some external outcome, trying to manipulate life into meeting your needs (which is an exhausting path of suffering). There is tremendous power in how we use our attention and intention. Bringing greater consciousness and skill to how we focus our energy makes us more effective change makers.

If you really want to live your dreams more immediately, make a commitment to giving yourself the felt experience of them every day for 30 days (it’s a great way to start/end your day!)—and watch your life transform before your eyes as the world around you begins to better resemble your inner state!

I’d love to hear what you’re working on/learning/experiencing. Be in touch as you feel called.

My warmest wishes for the new year,

Sam

Tribute to Bass John Khumalo

As 2017 comes to a close and I reflect on this incredibly transformative year, I want to pay homage to a dear friend who passed away this semester, Bass John Khumalo.

Amanda and I met Bass John in Sept 1999 during our first week of dissertation research. We were at a dance at the International Lesbian and Gay Association conference in Joburg, the first ILGA gathering on the African continent. Bass John relentlessly hit on Amanda, they danced, and we all became fast friends.

Bass John was one of my favorite people on the planet because we could talk about ANYTHING! It was an incredibly intimate connection, especially given the constraints of its context. We were always touching and laughing and talking about all sorts of super personal stuff—across this huge cultural divide, staying together in close quarters—whether crammed together on the mini taxis or sleeping in the same bed. We trusted her with our lives basically, as she was our guide throughout Soweto—and she trusted us with her heart, which was not a small deal growing up in apartheid South Africa.

Me and Bass John
Bass John and Susie

Bass John was, I believe, 42 and, from what we’ve been able to find out, appears to have had some kind of seizures while out of town with her mom at a family wedding. They took her to the hospital, it was a 3 day weekend so there were no doctors, she was supposed to see a doctor on the Tuesday after and passed away suddenly that Monday. Her family had no money for an autopsy, so we will probably never know what actually happened.

I suppose Bass John’s early death was not totally shocking, however. Even compared to our other South African friends, Bass John had a life of hardship. Growing up in poverty, Bass John lost her father, a police officer, during adolescence and just a few years later started coming out as a lesbian. She attracted attention at school by playing soccer and proposing to other girls, wearing boy’s clothes and having a boy’s hairstyle, so her teacher called her mom in for a meeting. Though eventually a close and supportive relationship was forged with her mom, initially her mom was very upset to find out her daughter was a lesbian and Bass John felt quite rejected and lonely at home.

Despite the adversity and heartbreak that she faced, Bass John was so friendly and open, full of life, always singing and dancing and joking and loving boldly—a true light in the world. Being around Bass John was probably the single thing that most helped me to let go of some of my self-repression and be more expressive—being around Bass John really helped me to loosen up and come out more.

Bass John singing with Amanda

Bass John and Amanda—late night singing

While when we first met Bass John, she strongly identified as a butch lesbian and wanted to work in tourism (a natural match given her friendly outgoingness and her excellent English), by the time we returned to the States a year and a half later, she was becoming a sangoma (traditional healer). There are actually quite a number of lesbian sangomas in Soweto, as there are advantages to the path. If you are strongly led by a male ancestor, you are able to wear male attire and have relationships with women—and people are scared of sangomas due to their spiritual powers so it greatly decreases instances of harassment (Bass John actually made me and Amanda sangoma bracelets—they have red and white beads—because she knew it would keep us safe because people would be scared to mess with us, and it worked!).

It is typical for folks to receive their shamanic call through some kind of sickness or breakdown. For Bass John, this was an attempted suicide. There was a rash of Soweto lesbian suicides that summer. In addition to the economic hardships and family rejections, most of the township lesbians identify as butch so they mostly get together with straight women, and get their hearts broken, since most of those relationships don’t necessarily last. And they will often get raped or even killed for it, as township men get angry and jealous and go after them. When we first met Bass John, she’d been driven out of her township and was staying with some friends and there have been numerous high profile lesbian murders since that time.

During Bass John’s time in the hospital after the suicide attempt, her ancestors came to her and told her that she would not get well until she surrendered to her shamanic call. We visited her numerous times during her sangoma training.

Bass John throwing the bones with her sangoma teacher

Bass John and her sangoma mentor—throwing the bones

It was in fact where I received my first shamanic call ironically. Her sangoma mentor was pretty scary, I’ll be honest. One day she summoned me over—which alarmed me because I’d never directly interacted with her before and generally just tried to steer clear of her! She basically told me that I was spiritually powerful, that I was healing on behalf of my whole family, and that I should train as a healer. :-0 I wonder if, like my dad, Bass John will communicate from the other side (both of them were excellent and generous communicators in life). Maybe now that I’m really starting on more of a healing career, she will come and assist in my practice. 😊

I decided to dedicate the book I’m writing to Bass John. My dissertation was dedicated to my dad (who passed away just months before I finished) as well as my friends in South Africa who died of HIV and my 2 dissertation committee members who died prematurely while I was writing it (the structural hazards of both the academic profession and life in South Africa…). For this book, I plan to dedicate it to Bass John and Susie, 2 good friends who were lost along the way in the writing of this book.

Dancing with BJ

Bass John and Susie—late night dancing

I do think that in this world there are four directions—north, east, west, south. That means we have girls, boys, lesbians, and gays. There’s no world that lives with two directions.”—Bass John Khumalo

Starting Over

Greetings Beloved Friends!

I hope you had a wonderful summer.  As the new school year begins, I wanted to reach out with an update.  As you may know, I am in the midst of a big life transition (stepping away from the university) and so many people have been asking me what I’m doing next, I thought I would just put it all down so I could share it with the people I care about.  As a transsexual, of course this is not the first time I’ve started over in life lol—I’m kind of an expert at it.  Since it’s something that many people are afraid of (stepping into the unknown), I thought that sharing my journey might be helpful and/or encouraging.

I’d also like to hear about your journey—how you are feeling about the state of the world, what has you excited these days, what’s your #1 goal that you are working on?  Because perhaps there is some overlap and we could help each other.  In stepping away from the academic world, I’m experiencing a type of graduation that I know many of you are facing or have faced so, even if my own style of reinvention isn’t your thing, at the very least I can sympathize.

I’ve been writing about my professional shapeshifting on my blog (https://sambullington.org/sams-reflections/), but I’ve decided to largely switch format to an email newsletter and I’m wondering, first of all, if you’d like to receive my newsletter.  If so, just shoot me your best email address (I’m at Sam.Bullington@colorado.edu) and I’ll add you to my list.  It would entail hearing from me about once a month—and perhaps hearing how I’m remaking my life might inspire you to make yours more in your own image!  Given the challenges that we are facing collectively, there’s never been a better time to bring forth your best into the world and chase your dreams because we might not get another chance.  The world needs your unique gifts!

As a transgender person, I’m not exactly a “one thing” kind of person, so the first thing you should know is that I’m not just replacing college professor with the next thing.  I am cultivating multiple streams of livelihood and I’m not actually stepping away from being a college professor—I’m just taking my teaching beyond the confines of the university.  With the cultural shifts that have come with the election, I feel called to a broader platform—and to seize the opportunities of this historical time of cultural awakening and unrest.

Most similar to what I’ve been doing, I do plan to offer some online courses.  Though you won’t receive CU credit for such courses, they could be a perfect way to stay connected to the ideas and materials you may have been (or wanted to be) exposed to in college—without having to apply to CU (or pay the hefty tuition!).  I will be offering stand-alone single classes on particular themes, like sexuality, as well as more extended semester-long explorations.

As many of you know, since the election, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, speaking about and leading workshops on unlearning racism, toxic masculinity, and decolonizing teaching in particular.  So, if your conference or event is looking for a keynote speaker, or your organization or workplace is in need of some kind of training around issues involving gender, sexuality, race, class or social justice, I hope that you will think of me.  Those of you who have taken classes with me know that my approach is a non-shaming we’re-all-in-this-together one.

Stepping away from the university has also allowed me time and space to finally make significant headway on my book, Transgender Wisdom: What I’ve Learned about Gender and Life from Living in the Grey Areas.  I plan to be wrapping that up over the next couple months and will let you know where and how it will be available.  In the meantime, here’s a preview: Chapter One:  Introduction—My Phoenix Journey/Living Between Worlds, Chapter Two:  Nobody Wins at the Gender Game, Chapter Three:  Time to Evolve, Chapter Four:  Evolution Means Change, and Chapter Five:  Trans People are Here to be Teachers and Leaders.

While being a college professor has been a source of tremendous joy and satisfaction, and has allowed me to wear many hats under that job description, because it is so absorbing it hasn’t left me the time and space to pursue other passions that I have.  One of the things about living in a society that is dying and breaking apart—which I learned well from my time in South Africa just as the apartheid regime was ending—is that there are a lot of unmet needs.  So I am multiplying my offerings in an attempt to meet some of those needs and I wanted to let you know because maybe you, or someone you know, might be looking for what I have to offer.

You may have heard me in class or elsewhere refer to my shamanic training in Michigan—in indigenous communities, on this continent and elsewhere, people like me have long been healers and counselors, as bridges between the everyday human world and the spiritual world, and as confidants whose breadth of experience (from having lived as multiple genders) can offer uniquely helpful perspectives on common human dilemmas.

My shamanic counseling practice is unlike traditional psychotherapy.  There is no diagnosing or pathologizing or strict protocol in shamanic counseling.  Rather than my being an “expert,” the purpose of sessions is to create a safe container for your own natural wisdom and deepest heart’s desires to come forward, speak, and blossom.  We each have our own natural navigational system, our own inner compass, and I help people learn to be increasingly guided by this inner wisdom.

The main reason why people seek counseling is that our ordinary identity and habitual ways of thinking and perceiving just aren’t working.  An alternate point of view is needed and the tools of shamanic counseling provide access to a new or refreshing point of view.  This change of consciousness—or paradigm shift—is often all that is needed for profound healing.

Shamanic counseling is especially effective in dealing with major life transitions—processes of death and rebirth that we experience when we go through a big change, such as graduation or coming out.  As a trans person myself, my counseling practice is ideal for anyone in the process of questioning or exploring their own gender.  And as a polyamorous person in a successful 11-year polyamorous marriage, I am the ideal person to turn to for anyone grappling with the challenges and joys of polyamory.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve found it very frustrating to be seeing a therapist around relationship issues only to have them tell me the REAL problem is that I just shouldn’t be polyamorous!

I am even an ordained minister (in the metaphysical, not Christian tradition) and have performed marriage rituals, so if you know of someone looking for a wedding officiant for a non-traditional union/ceremony, I might be the one they are looking for!  In fact, my partner just teamed up with Katie Woodzick for A Gender Queer Cabaret at the recent Boulder Fringe Festival and they are talking about booking some wedding gigs together, so where else could you get a whole gender queer wedding package deal!

Another aspect of my shamanic training is that I lead vision quests.  If you, or someone you know, have ever considered doing one—basically spending 2 sacred days out in the wilderness to receive greater clarity about your purpose in life—let’s talk.  It’s a very powerful experience!

My most unusual offering is my most recent: professional cuddling!  Yes, it’s a thing!  Since the election, many folks are feeling freaked out, unsafe, ungrounded—not to mention that our work lives are so consuming it can be hard to find time for a relationship—so increasingly people are looking for experienced cuddlers from whom they can receive healing, non-sexual touch.  Cuddle parties and speed cuddling events have been popping up all over the country and, once it really catches on (right now there are only a handful of other folks offering such services in Denver and Boulder), I plan to offer my own “cuddle curriculum” for folks who are interested in pursuing this innovative new field.

One of the things that most excites me about my various offerings beyond the university is that I’m not planning to compete with a bunch of other folks—I’m simply offering things that, for the most part, are not being offered elsewhere.  Therefore, if you are a healer or therapist yourself, or are close to one, feel free to pass on my information to folks you think might be able to benefit from my specialized services.  While some of my services, such as the professional cuddling, need to happen in person, most of my offerings can be accessed remotely for those not located in Colorado.

All of my offerings are on a sliding scale basis (generally $30-$120), as I want my services to be accessible for everyone, regardless of income level.  If there are financial concerns, let’s talk—I’m sure we can figure out an amount and/or payment plan that would be affordable.  Do you have skills or resources that you’d perhaps like to barter rather than exchanging traditional payment for services?  Let’s talk!  We are moving into a world beyond capitalism—let’s explore it and create new options together.

How I prefer to do payment, for folks who are willing, is for payment to be part of the intuitive work.  I simply lead a guided meditation at the end of sessions or workshops, allowing people’s intuition to choose the amount, which I’ve found always seems to reflect the highest good of everyone involved.  For unusual offerings, like professional cuddling or shamanic counseling, I’m happy to offer introductory sessions for $15 so folks can see whether they like it.  Overall, my services are designed to help people to be more present—and what area of life couldn’t be improved simply by being more present!

Many of you have heard my critiques of higher education—the dehumanizing environment and the ways that standardized teaching and so much pressure to perform have unnecessarily robbed students of the joy and satisfaction of learning (here’s a short piece I wrote for an online journal, for those of you who have never taken a class with me: http://betweencoasts.org/life-standardized/). Therefore, I want you to know that, for a while now, I’ve considered starting my own university. While I won’t be in the place to accept students anytime soon (it’s a big project!), there is a group of us who are passionate about this undertaking and have been meeting to make plans. No grades, no tuition, no gatekeeping, no bullshit—just bringing together those who want to learn and those who want to teach (possibly in a new progressive community gathering place that I’m helping a friend to create). Stay tuned for further details!

Finally, many of you know that a couple years ago I started a trans chorus in Colorado (check out our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/coloradotranschoir/) .  Phoenix meets on Tuesday nights from 7-8:30pm in Broomfield (3078 W 134th Place) and, if you live in the Front Range, we’d love to have you join us!  Before you counter “but I’m not a singer,”—singing is just part of human expression and anyone can do it.  We are a non-audition, low-pressure community chorus that sings largely at community events themed around social justice.  You don’t have to be trans to sing with Phoenix—we welcome partners and parents, friends and allies, folks anywhere along the gender spectrum.  Not exactly a traditional chorus, Phoenix is more of a safe container in which to explore aspects of yourself and a refuge from a lot of the punishing rules and pretending that we are expected to abide by in the outside world.  And though singing is a lot of what we do, it’s not the only thing—we are actually an arts collective and welcome folks who want to share or explore any aspect of creative expression.

And singing is even good for you!  And the planet!  Research has shown that when people sing together, their hearts actually start beating together.  Singing together is an excellent metaphor for our collective liberation—everyone has their own unique contribution, and when we come together and really listen to one another, we can create something really beautiful.

I’ll end by saying don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t have the training or talent to make your dreams come true because I founded and lead this chorus without any of the specialized training that other choir directors have (I actually took a conducting class at CU last fall to learn some of those skills!)—and, as a trans person, singing has been one of my thorniest life challenges!  I was empowered to start this chorus in part as a result of singing in a trans chorus in Minneapolis 10 years ago (the second ever trans chorus on the planet, as far as I know!)—but I almost didn’t even join that group because I felt so paralyzed with fear about singing in public.  Although I have been actively working on this fear for a decade, standing up in front of my choir (especially as an introvert) still makes me feel like I’m going to pass out from time to time!  So, if you feel the passion to offer something, don’t tell yourself that you can’t do it.  Anything is possible.

My real impetus for founding Phoenix was because it needed to exist and nobody else was doing it.  In 2012 I attended the huge global LGBT choir festival called GALA that happens every 4 years, and there was zero trans representation!  I was so heartbroken and outraged that I vowed that in 2016 it would not happen again, even if I had to start my own chorus.  I mentioned this to my Intro to LGBT Studies class and one of my students—a professional musician herself—took me seriously and Phoenix was born!

Although I have been scrambling every step of the way to honor my commitment to lead this group (especially trying to fit it in to my already overburdened schedule as a college professor!), it has been a tremendous learning experience and, despite the stress, has become a huge source of joy, pride, community, and empowerment.  So what gaps do you see that need to be filled and what can you offer towards that end?  If you have the gifts and talent to do so, definitely go for it!  But even if you don’t, if you have the willingness to learn as you go along, I’d encourage you to still consider it.

Well, now that you’ve heard what I’m up to, I hope that at least some part of you is feeling inspired to contemplate what is possible for you.  I had my first mid-life crisis when I graduated from college and simply didn’t see my path among the options that were presented to me.  Sometimes our path is not there because we are meant to create it—just as I’ve had to create my own gender, since the limited choices being offered simply didn’t suit me.

If you live in the Front Range, I have an upcoming workshop that might help.  It is themed around the Fall Equinox and here is the description:

Has your world recently turned upside down? Has a steady part of your life that you have counted on recently been destabilized in a dramatic fashion? Are you feeling resistance to taking a next step that’s been calling to you, choosing familiarity over growth? If rapid transformation is occurring in your world due to forces that seem to be beyond your control, come learn how to engage more proactively with change in ways that affirm rather than undermine your trust in the process of life.

The workshop will be on Thurs evening, Sept 21 (the night before the Equinox) from 7-9pm at 3078 W. 134th Place, Broomfield CO 80020 and will be a donation-based offering.

So I’m wondering if you might know anyone who could benefit from any of the services that I’m offering?  The very best way you can support me in this grand reinvention, if you are so inclined, is simply by helping connect me with those who are looking for what I have to share.  You can always direct people to (or find out more about my offerings at) my website: sambullington.org.

And I’d love to support you as well!  Shoot me an email and let me know what you’re up to, what challenges you are facing, and I’ll do my best to connect you to resources that might help.  We’re all in this together!

If you’d like to continue hearing about my journey, don’t forget to send me your best email and permission to add you to my newsletter list.  And if you ever get tired of hearing from me, just let me know that too—I won’t be offended.

Enjoy the turn to fall and I hope to hear from you soon! 😊

Warm regards,

Sam

Oh, one more request: To have a way to make some money as needed as I’m getting up other things, I signed up to be a driver for Lyft—it’s perfect for me as you turn on the app when you want to be available, turn it off when you don’t, and during the one week I tried it more or less “full time,” I made about $1000, which frankly is more than I was making teaching for a lot less hours!  Those of you who are Lyft riders (anywhere in the country), as well as those of you who have considered signing on to be a driver yourself, if you enter my referral code (SAM13929), apparently I get free money for doing nothing (and who couldn’t use more of that!), so thanks for thinking of me!

 

Compost Heap

As a polyamorous transsexual vegan, I’m quite accustomed to stirring peoples’ fears and discomfort, as who I am and how I live my life tends to unintentionally challenge other people’s structures of security and comfort.  So it is not at all surprising that my recent leap from the ivory tower into the great unknown has triggered the loving concern of some of the pragmatists in my life. This is my grateful response.

Thank you so much for your concern and your caring investment in my well-being, but I am really not worried.  Though I think I should probably feel more anxious given the current uncertainty about my livelihood, I feel instead only light and free and joyful that my arms are finally empty so I am ready to receive and available to serve.

It is not the first time I’ve started over in life.  When Angie and I moved to Colorado in 2010, we didn’t know anyone here and neither of us had jobs—we were just following a calling.  And I would not be the person I am today if a former self and life did not completely die.  That’s really the essence of what it means to be a transsexual.  The defining characteristic of the path is not even about gender, it is really about authenticity and transformation and loss, unconditionally letting go of a life that is not your best truest life in the trusting hope that a better life awaits.  Though there have been real losses for sure, it is a path I have never truly regretted.

The shamanic path, which I have been explicitly travelling since 2009, is also the path of death and rebirth, the Phoenix path.  Though it may look daunting from the outside, and can be very intense going through it, you are always reborn as something greater so the rewards are pretty tremendous.  It is a form of alchemy—turning something challenging into gold, learning to heal yourself so that you can heal others.

At this time last year, I was also embarking on a giant risk.  In preparation for our performance at a massive LGBT choir festival, Phoenix members decided that they wanted to be known as the trans chorus that does our own material.  So, with 6 weeks to rehearse, we wrote and fervently practiced 3 totally new songs—a path that was completely ill-advised as a brand new chorus in such a high profile venue.  My touchstone during this time was a postcard I placed in my bathroom: “Sometimes you just have to leap and build your wings on the way down.”  Though it was still unclear right through our final rehearsal whether it would all come together or not, it really could not have gone any better.  By any measure, our performance (at Buell Theater in front of 2500 people!) was a smashing success, a risk I’m very happy that we decided to take.

So here I am again, leaping and building my wings on the way down…

Recently I spent time at a DIY queer anarchist punk music festival in Denver called Compost Heap that one of my former students co-organized, and compost heap is a great metaphor for my life right now.  Things that have passed their time are dying and fermenting and about to become fertilizer for whatever’s next.

Compost heap is a great metaphor for our collective transformation as well, as our societal structures that have outlived their purpose are crumbling to make space for new structures that can better take care of our well-being.  And the gift of a society that is crumbling is that there are lots of cracks and crevices in a structure that is breaking apart—spaces to help facilitate the transformation and also spaces to thrive.  I’ve spent most of my adult life having to try to fit myself into a world that has never suited me, but now that that world is losing hegemony, I don’t have to waste my energy trying to break in on its terms.  Instead I can lead people away from that dangerous crumbling structure and we can create something different on our own terms.

There are a lot of unmet needs and stress in a society that is crumbling—I learned that well in doing research in South Africa just as apartheid was officially ending—so, as someone looking to be of service, there are multitudes of opportunities currently.  And I think my success will lie not in clever self-marketing, but in simply speaking directly to those unmet needs and offering spaces of refuge for people to land and tools to help make the most of the opportunities at hand.

I have been giving my best energy, best ideas, best talents to a toxic and dysfunctional institution who—like all of capitalism—would’ve been very happy to consume my best until I was too wore out to continue.  So getting out is the crucial first step and I got out with my heart and soul and integrity intact which is a major victory!

Though I have dearly loved my career as a college professor, and it is hard to imagine doing something more meaningful and more in alignment with my life mission, I have a strong sense that my true greatness is only starting to emerge and, as my courage to unleash my power and boldness increases, I feel excited to see where it will take me.

I’m open to being surprised.  After my recent keynote on toxic masculinities at a domestic violence symposium, I was approached by someone in the military who was interested in hiring me to do gender trainings in the military!  Definitely not something I would have imagined for myself or sought after!  So I am approaching this transition with a beginner’s mind, excited to see what steps forward from within me as well as from the external world.

I recently attended a friend’s choir concert which was held in a new location and it reminded me that if you want to expand, sometimes you have to change your venue…

 

In the morning, in the rise up, there’s a bridge from all that’s been

In the dawning, the vines are pushing through the pavement

We were born of burning hearts, we are tearing off the reigns

From the ground up, we will build it.  From the clouds above we’ll rain it

From the crowd up we will raise it.  From the ground up…”  –Ayla Nereo

Exactly the Right Path for Me

Another song we are singing this season with Mosaic includes the line, “Life is filled with swift transitions.”  Little did I know when I started the semester in January that this would be my last at CU.  Unlike previous swift job transitions, this one was self-chosen—or at least Self chosen since it’s a soul thing.  I am simultaneously saying no to a toxic environment where it was not feeling self-honoring to stay, and being called away into collective service in response to this particular political moment.  Though I deeply love teaching and all of my students, I need to be available and can’t be when all my available time and creative energy is serving a dysfunctional institution whose values are antithetical to my own so I am taking my teaching beyond the confines of the ivory tower.

Of course, transitioning professionally in mid-life is anxiety-producing, and leaving one’s livelihood with no certain prospects of how I’ll be paying rent come May is pretty unnerving.  I’ve been listening to the Graduation Mix cd I made for my Senior Seminar students last spring and feeling great solidarity with my current students who are graduating and facing their fears about finding their place in life.  But my inner guidance has been 100% consistent about the rightness of this decision—even saying it will result in “tons of love and money” wow.  The night I came home from campus after notifying my department chair that I was leaving, I received the message “A dark and difficult period is now finally over—express your joy,” which was a powerful affirmation of my intention to leap into the unknown.

Leap

In thinking about my next steps, which will likely include writing and public speaking, doing more of the Unlearning Racism workshops I’ve been doing around the country since the election, building my shamanic counseling practice (with the addition of professional cuddling, which seems like it could be a healing and needed offering in this political climate), leading vision quests for queer youth, and perhaps even opening my own university (something my partner and I have been talking about for a long time—free of grades, tuition, gatekeeping, ego and the other obstacles to actual learning in contemporary higher education), I’ve been getting 2 strong pieces of guidance:

The first is that my art will support me, which is well outside my belief system so that’s been a great opportunity for inner work, to start expanding my sense of what’s possible.  The second is that I’m meant to have “exactly the right path for me,” which as a trans person who has spent my life fitting myself into other people’s worlds, feels equally preposterous.  My first midlife crisis was when I graduated from college and looked out on the world at all the multitude of paths and couldn’t see mine.  It is challenging for me to let myself even consider what it is that I might want in any situation because my main experience of life has been that whatever I might need in life is never even a possibility, so I’ve become very adept at accommodating the limitations of the binary world around me, which is pretty easy for me given the degree of fluidity I generally bring.

But I had a very painful experience in the fall that stemmed from my trying to fit my complex nuanced self and way of doing life into someone else’s limited framework.  It had catastrophic consequences that I am still experiencing, so that was a very powerful reminder that I can’t live that way any longer.  Even if I don’t know at this point what it might look like, I need to trust that putting together, piece by piece, “exactly the right path for me” will be the surest route not only to my own happiness, but to my highest path of service to the world.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly found that the soul doesn’t usually provide a lot of details about where you are going ahead of time lol—so it’s been reassuring knowing I only really need to focus on the NEXT step.

Oracle Feb 3, 2017

“Lost and alone on some forgotten highway

Travelled by many, remembered by few

Looking for something that I can believe in

Looking for something that I’d like to do with my life.

There’s nothing behind me and nothing that ties me to something that might’ve been true yesterday.

Tomorrow is open, right now it seems to be more than enough to just be here today.

And I don’t know what the future is holding in store

I don’t know where I’m going, I’m not sure where I’ve been

There’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me

My life is worth the living and I don’t need to see the end.” 

–“Sweet Surrender” by John Denver

The Gift of Donald Trump

I’m in the minority these days in that I’m not counting down the days until Trump is impeached. It’s not that his physical presence doesn’t inspire revulsion in me, and it’s certainly not that his policies don’t inspire horror.  But I feel like he is good medicine for this country right now. Every day, when I see the latest disasters in the news, I cycle through the predictable emotions—but it usually ends on an almost giddy joy.  Trump is refusing to let us rest, much less go back to sleep—and, though it’s exhausting, I find this to be a huge gift.

Although I’m extremely cognizant of the very real suffering Trump’s policies are creating, Trump’s relentless onslaught on all the issues and communities that I care about is also lifting the veil on the suffering those communities have always endured, which is actually a tremendous relief to me, as someone who has spent my adult life devoted to educating people about injustice. In a weird way, my work has actually gotten a lot easier in the current climate.

My housemate, who when Trump was elected told me that she doesn’t think that politics impact her anyhow, is now attending city council meetings and eating only at immigrant-owned restaurants. A good friend in Minneapolis is suddenly texting me wanting to know about my life as a transgender person because her heart has been awakened by the hatred and scapegoating she has seen in the media. Not only has hate been emboldened in this context; so has love.

When people ask me how I am enduring the transphobia of the Trump regime, I never know how to answer, because it assumes that Trump’s agenda is significantly different from the kind of fear and violence and hatred and scapegoating and existential erasure I have always experienced as a trans person in this country. I just experience it more honestly now, without the suffocating rhetoric of “progress” surrounding it.

Sure Trump is outrageous, sure he is provocative, sure he has upped the intensity and frequency of the onslaught against all marginalized people—but he is not doing anything particularly novel (the Obama administration actually deported more people than any other administration in history). Trump is just allowing ordinary (i.e. privileged) folks to finally see what has always been going on, because it has become blatant enough to break through the luxurious bubble of obliviousness that privilege enculturates and demands. This is tremendously hopeful to me, because it means that as a country, we are actually becoming more on the same page with one another—even though on the surface it looks like one of our most divisive moments ever.

American Values

I will be honest with you—what has inspired nearly equal ire in me has been the response of the Democrats, in particular the invocation of “American values” to undermine Trump.  I get regular emails with this sort of language:

“Trump is CORRODING our American values and DESTROYING what makes our country already great. President Trump is delegitimizing some of our most fundamental American values. Trump’s behavior flies in the face of everything we stand for as a nation.”

This is shameless self-deception. Donald Trump is not the antithesis of American values, he is the ultimate embodiment of “our American values”—that’s one of the reasons why he makes people so uncomfortable (and it helps explain his popularity). He outstandingly personifies American arrogance, exceptionalism, and isolationism; the brutal violence and entitlement that was at the heart of the founding of this country; the toxic masculinity and rape culture so prevalent in the media and on our college campuses; the greed and toxic capitalism that are at the heart of our economic and social policy.  He may not represent who we want to be, but he surely represents who we are.

The toxic whiteness that Trump skillfully deploys is not an example of “bad whiteness” as many white middle-class liberals want to argue—instead it is central to the operation of whiteness itself.  “Whiteness” as an idea originated in the colonies in order to co-opt the loyalty of poor white people, to get them to pledge their allegiance to wealthy whites rather than bond with poor people of color. They were given the comfort of white supremacy to compensate for their economic disadvantage—a dynamic that was at the heart of the November election.

The reason that Trump is our current President is exactly because we need to take an honest look in the mirror, and Trump uncomfortably reflects back to us the areas we desperately need to work on—which is why I consider his presence to be a gift. The biggest danger of this moment in history, in my opinion, is that we might delude ourselves into believing that it is Trump that is the problem—and that somehow getting rid of Trump will be the answer.

Toxic nationalism

This week my students are reading Sylvanna Falcon’s outstanding piece, “Rape as a Weapon of War: Rape at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” and one of her most powerful points (from the work of Beverly Allen) is that “rape occurs when fear and insecurity are joined with power and immunity from prosecution” in a hierarchical social system. I think this simple observation explains so much of what we are seeing currently in this country, beyond sexual violence and beyond the border. I think one of the most urgent tasks in our country right now is to heal fear—and as each of us does this and refuses fear in our own lives, we also start to shift this patterning in the collective and become less susceptible to manipulation.

As someone who has done research in South Africa since the late ‘90s, I have been struck for some time by the ways that the contemporary U.S. reminds me very much of the end days of apartheid in South Africa. Increasingly since 9/11 we have pursued the misguided and hysterical belief that more control equals more safety—often manifested as hyperfocus on regulating people’s movements through fixation on identity documents and brutal enforcement of artificial borders. Although we portray ourselves as an immigrant nation, we are actually highly suspicious of people who don’t stay in place—whether the borders people move across are physical or social, such as gender fluidity.

Dominance is always linked to fear.  It is rooted in the belief that control is the only way to get one’s needs met, that if you are not dominant you will be taken advantage of.  Dominance requires the vigilant maintenance of one’s position (including pre-emptively), so it not surprising that the U.S. has the highest levels of anxiety of anywhere in the world—even more than countries where people are living in dire poverty or under the devastation of warfare.  This is why I believe that the U.S. will never experience peace and true happiness (not just the addictive frenzy of unfettered consumption touted as “freedom” and “happiness”) as long as it insists on its current role in the global community. I think being aware of this connection between dominance and fear also offers insight into the amazing ability of the U.S., especially post 9/11, to represent itself as global victim and hero while operating as global bully.

One of the things I know about bullies, from my decades of spiritual work, is that bullies are deeply wounded people—who are often carrying so much pain internally that the only way they can survive is to project that pain outward and disperse it into the environment around them. I actually have a lot of compassion for Donald Trump. I think it takes a lot of soul strength to so publicly and strikingly embody the extremes of toxic masculinity, toxic whiteness, toxic nationalism, and toxic capitalism so that people are finally able to actually recognize what we have been participating in and have the opportunity to choose to reject it. Donald Trump is showing us what is unhealed in our nation, the work that urgently needs to be done, and he is giving us strong motivation to get over our fear and complacency and resistance and get to that work—for our own survival.

I don’t want to “annihilate” or “humiliate” Trump, as the Democrats have been boasting. I don’t want to live in a world where anyone has to be humiliated for my happiness. Instead, my vision for Donald Trump is that he will go down in history as the man who killed capitalism (and hopefully the American Empire along with it). It seems entirely possible—we’ve been in the late stages of industrial capitalism for some time now, and Trump represents so beautifully the excesses of corporate greed. I think it would be such a fitting legacy for him and a really lovely role of service to the collective.

Wake Up, Everybody

While many folks around me are finding comfort in nostalgia about the Obama years, the last 5 years were actually a time of great despair for me. We are currently in the process of transformation that I thought was coming in 2012. When 2012 came and went and nothing was different, I fell into a deep depression and resigned myself to the possibility that we were not going to evolve in my lifetime. I certainly did not expect Donald Trump to be elected President, nor expect his election to be the catalyst for the kind of transformation I was born to help facilitate! But here we are, finally, and I am filled with relief and gratitude.

Five years ago I made myself a 2012 mix CD, and the heart of its message was found in the Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes song “Wake Up Everybody,” which was a significant song of my childhood (it was featured in a commercial for the United Negro College Fund that was formative in my desire to become a teacher). In addition to directing Phoenix, the trans choir my partner and I started in 2015, I sing in Mosaic Gospel Choir on the CU campus. Incredibly, this semester we are singing “Wake Up Everybody!” And it has given me a weekly opportunity to reflect on my gratitude to Donald Trump for helping us to wake up and giving us the courage and motivation and determination to create a better world. We may never get another chance, so now is the time for us to bring our best selves forward to at least try to actualize what we’ve been dreaming of.

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=wake+up+everybody&view=detail&mid=246B1E7D14C8263EDDA6246B1E7D14C8263EDDA6&FORM=VIRE

“Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed. No more backwards thinkin’, time for thinkin’ ahead…. Wake up, all the builders, time to build a new land.  I know we can do it if we all lend a hand…. The world won’t get no better, if we just let it be. The world won’t get no better—we gotta change it yeah, you and me.”

 

Woman Trapped in a Man’s Body

Those of you who know me know that I’m a transsexual.  I was born female, came out as transgender in 1995, and went on testosterone in 2006.  I strongly reject the popular notion of being a “man trapped in a woman’s body.”  This is an antiquated notion invented by the medical establishment that has never been the truth of most trans people’s experience.  I don’t identify as a man, first of all—my gender identity is trans.  Ever since I was a kid, there were my friends who were female and my friends who were male and I was just always something else.  Though I share pieces of the experiences of both men and women, I’ve never actually lived as either of those.

However, recently I have come to resonate with the concept of being a “woman trapped in a man’s body.”  Although I am totally open about being a transsexual,* including to the hundreds of students that pass through my classrooms at CU every year, strangers who encounter me in my everyday life universally assume, because of what I look like, that I am a man.  In fact, I regularly have people enthusiastically “compliment” me that I’m so realistic-looking as a man, they would never guess that I’m transgender.

For me, being trans was always about my relationship with my body.  I waited for 13 years to go on hormones because, though I wanted to change my body, I knew that changing my body would change my whole relationship to the human community in ways that I would have no control over and would probably find very disturbing (which totally came to pass, by the way).  Though I may have wanted—for whatever reason—a more masculine body, I largely find masculinity repellent.  The world that I want to live in is filled with kindness, tenderness, nurturing, listening, and cooperation, so I have spent my life cultivating these qualities, which are classically feminine.

There is the idea that transitioning as a transgender person helps you to finally be recognized for the person you feel yourself to be.  For me, going on hormones definitely made my bodily vehicle feel more like home in ways that have greatly increased my happiness and peace of mind.  But I am still not any more recognized as the person I experience myself to be, nor do I feel any more at home in the human community.  In fact, there are many ways that I now actually feel more invisible than at any other time in my life.  We live in a society that non-consensually categorizes people based on their bodily appearances and when it comes to gender, even with the recent explosion of trans visibility, there are still really only 2 choices.

I had 2 experiences in a row this week on campus that typified the invisibility I feel.  As I approached my office building, I saw 2 guys walking towards me holding hands.  As they saw me, they immediately dropped hands, assuming that someone who looked like me would be disapproving, since my queerness is no longer visible—even to folks I would consider to be “my people .”  Across the path there were 2 guys canvassing for Planned Parenthood all afternoon.  Despite walking back and forth several times, and despite the fact that the guys were approaching everyone else to ask them to sign petitions, make donations, etc., they never once approached me.  Despite my smiling right at them, when they saw me, their eyes dropped and they waited for me to pass before resuming their campaigning.  There are so many ways that I feel more unseen now than I did before going on hormones.

Being a transsexual is a somewhat lonely path.  I grew up without a peer group—since those are organized according to gender—and, while I feel able to connect with most anyone I encounter because of the breadth and diversity of experiences I’ve had due to my unusual life path, I have few folks who can relate to my experience.

One of the things that most surprised me about being perceived as male in society is the loneliness of that path as well.  I am a very physically affectionate person—it’s a big way that I connect with people and it helps me feel grounded.  But now I find I no longer touch women because, in my current vehicle, that feels creepy.  And I certainly don’t touch guys that much because that could result in violence.  Women don’t touch me and guys don’t touch me, so I move throughout my daily life largely without the experience of touch, which makes me feel rather disconnected.

I am here to be of service—to be a teacher and healer and path forger—so most days it doesn’t bother me.  But lately the disjuncture between how I am perceived and who I am on the inside—and the resulting feelings of misunderstanding and isolation and loneliness—has felt overwhelming and painful.

But recently I had an experience that gave me hope.  My choir (I lead a transgender choir here in Colorado) got the opportunity to sing at an elementary school.  We are an intergenerational group and one of the parents in the group wrote a story about a transgender Raven in the community of animals, and we interwove the songs throughout the story and all dressed like animals.  The message of the story was about the importance of being seen for who you are on the inside rather than what you look like on the outside.

Afterward we received a collection of thank you messages and artwork from the kids that really showed how deeply they grasped our message.  One specifically referenced me: “when Snake came out they said he was scaly and dangerous, but really he was silky and loving,” and it was so affirming that the kids really got it.  I identify with Snake quite a bit (not only as my main spirit guide animal) since trans people are also generally perceived with alarm.  Despite my continual efforts to be gentle, safe, and non-threatening, I am regularly regarded as someone to be scared of, someone whose very presence is automatically disruptive, threatening, contaminating.  A big part of my beauty, I think, is being such a yin person in such a masculine body, so I was very touched that—although most of my human community is not able to perceive that, much less appreciate it—the kids immediately saw and valued my gentle loving heart underneath the scary exterior.

 

*Many trans people may question my use of the language “transsexual,” but for me it is an important distinction, since I was out as transgender for 13 years before going on hormones.  Though that 13 year experience and my life since starting testosterone would both be considered “transgender,” they have been dramatically different life experiences, which I acknowledge by referring to my current experience as “transsexual.”

from-the-school

Don’t Despair—Every Thing is Unfolding Perfectly and Exactly on Time

I know these are troubled times and there is an air of despair all around.  Indeed I am feeling the heaviness of the immense suffering surrounding me.  But I’m feeling a spirit of rejuvenation and rejoicing as well.  People are finally waking up.  Donald Trump is one of a rare breed of people who has the power to alienate such a wide swath of people that he could bring us together like few others could. 

I am very encouraged that, in the shock and dismay of the election results, people’s first inclinations were to come together.  This is exactly what we’ve been needing, where we’ve been stuck—to come out of isolation.  Because we are beginning to recognize our true relationship to one another—and that is our interdependence.  We will find a way to rise together or we will fall together.  We have been trying to avoid surrendering to that lesson, but we have now boxed ourselves in: we have boarded the roller coaster to transformation whether we like it or not.

The great news is that we like it—and a lot!  The cracks in the foundation are purposeful because this house was not built on solid ground.  And this is our opportunity to step into something better.  You see, we have been spending all our energy trying to convince authority figures to create it for us, completely forgetting that we are meant to create it ourselves.  We don’t need to wait for permission—or convince people in power to care about the same things we do.  That’s never going to happen and, by trying to convince them, we are giving them our own power. 

What we need to do instead is turn to one another—to create horizontal communities committed to taking care of human well-being.  This is what everyone I know wants— to live in a world of kindness and balance where the well-being of all is prioritized.  And the dangers we are facing as a result of this election are allowing us to practice our commitment to the well-being of all.  And I would say we are actually doing a surprisingly good job of standing up for one another.   

I’ve been doing visioning circles with folks recently, the kind of work I’ve been doing with my students for years, and what I’ve been continually struck by—and have heard from others who have been engaged in this work for many years—is the similarities in the vision we have of the world we want to live in.  One in which we are connected to our natural environment and to one another, where intergenerational and multicultural connection is the norm.    

What has been driving my decision-making lately is asking myself is this action/attitude consistent with the world that I want to live in—because I’m going to act like that’s the world I’m living in now because by doing that, I help to create that world. 

Purple snake