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?
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.
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