Thursday, September 11, 2014

Trans...cending Gender

I present myself in the world, and am easily perceived, as a female person, which is who I was socialized to be.  I face many challenges as a female in this world, but for the most part, do not struggle with the challenges transgender and genderqueer folk face. As I start to unravel what gender construction means to me, I want to be clear that in this facet of oppression, I am on the privileged end of things. I find it tolerable, even enjoyable sometimes, and in harmony with my essence, to embody some of the expectations put on me by social gender constructs. As someone who has considered what gender means to me, I think I bring a unique perspective to the conversation about breaking down the gender binary, especially why this radical project is beneficial to those of us who didn't really think to question it until someone else brought the subject up.

This story could start in two places: in a teepee at the rainbow gathering in Utah this July, or with my newly acquired habit of introducing myself as, "My name is Meagan, and I like 'she' pronouns." I'll come back to the teepee. To most folks, saying what pronoun I prefer lands like a foreign language. Some people ignore it completely, even though it is an implicit (maybe passive-aggressive?) invitation for them to tell me their preferred pronoun as well--though I haven't been asking.

Not long ago, I would not have started a conversation in this way. I'm pretty sure I would have thought that it was an inauthentic act of solidarity intended to a) help transgendered persons in a group feel safe, and b) encourage trans-awareness, with the cost of alienating me from the large majority of binaried people in the world. As someone who facilitates workshops and leads groups, I feared that using those spaces to advocate for trans-awareness would be seen as a distraction from the intention of the meeting (often to learn and practice Nonviolent Communication), and negatively affect my reputation as a teacher/facilitator.

Now, I think that saying I like she pronouns enhances my contrbution to any group I am in. I see the whole pronoun thing completely differently now, no longer as something that is only relevant to a minority of people. I have realized the power of saying that I prefer she pronouns. The power is that I chose. I continue to choose. I am not just accepting on blind faith what was handed down to me from the doctor's check mark on a birth certificate. If and when a different pronoun resonates more strongly with my soul, I can choose that too. I want everyone to feel the power of this intentionality, whether the conclusion they come to fits with social expectations or not.

What if this were a normal part of growing up? What if every adolescent were invited to question whether the pronoun given to them at birth really fits them, just as some people change their names? It would accomplish the two goals stated above in a) and b), as well as c): Give all people a chance to truly explore our most basic assumptions about who we are, delving deeply into our psyches and coming out wiser for the self-knowledge, whether or not we can accept and live with the binary gender system. (I imagine if we all did this kind of inner searching, a lot of binaries would break down--not just gender.)

Coming back to the teepee I mentioned earlier, it was a workshop/ritual called Sister Circle, Brother Circle. The idea is this: the women all sit in an inner circle, with the men in an outer circle. The women go around and share about "the beauty and struggle of being a woman" while the men listen silently. Then we switch and do the same thing, with women listening to the beauty and struggle of being a man. 

I want to be clear that I think this process was invaluable, and I am eternally grateful for the elders who held this space and have been doing so for almost 30 years. Genderqueer activists may think of it as an oppressive/unwelcoming approach, but I feel strongly that there is an immense amount of healing that longs to happen in and across the gender binary, even as we also transcend it. In fact what I came away from the teepee with is a much clearer understanding of how harmful binary gender construction is. In that space, when the women spoke about our beauty and struggles, the only things that rang true for me were the struggles--and I felt them deeply. It isn't that I didn't resonate with some of the beauty named, but all of those things seemed like human characteristics, rather than uniquely female.

The focus on our capacity to create life was a particular turn off for me, for two main and equally significant reasons: One is that I do not plan to ever be a biological mother, and in this day and age of overpopulation, I dislike the glorification of procreation and pregnancy as a reclaiming of Goddess power. It gives me the sense that women in the New Age community will never respect me as an adult if I don't have biological children, and that they aren't holding other species and our ecosphere with the care I long for. I am positive there are ways to call in Goddess energy that respect choice and reverence for other forms of life, which brings me to the other point: by claiming nurturing a creation as a female characteristic, we deny men and other nonfemale genders access to the exact qualities they need to cultivate to restore peace on the planet.

Men may not carry babies in a physical womb, but they definitely contribute to the physical process, and are a necessary element without high tech, expensive technology. Beyond sperm, men can support a partner by holding an energetic womb of care during pregnancy and beyond. And all people, regardless of their bodies, have a metaphysical womb--the ability to conceive of an idea, vision, project, and, sometimes, nurture it to fruition. This is the type of creation and motherhood I intend to participate in in my life, and I would like to be seen that this contribution is as sacred and in many instances more responsible than making yet another homo sapien

In the teepee, when we switched to the men speaking, it was as bad as when the women spoke. None of them even knew what it meant to be a man, despite having been told to be one their whole lives. The few positive qualities listed--strength, resourcefulness, protection, making things happen--again seemed contrived and are actually human qualities available to all people to cultivate and develop. So here's what I walked away from the teepee convinced of, because my consciousness had been so altered by that experience:

     If we didn't have gender construction, all humans could have free and equal access to any quality and characteristic they are naturally called to embody, leaving our individual lives and collective culture much richer.

When I have shared this with friends, they usually assume it means I want to abolish all reference to differences between men, women, and anyone else. I don't. There are physical differences between people that can be divided into imprecise categories. And, there are many real psychological differences between people rooted in gender socialization. These are not going to disappear overnight, and I want to acknowledge them and work with them, including inside the binary.

I am not interested in debating which specific things are innate versus socialized, because most of them we can't know for sure. But I bet that a large majority of gendered qualities are based extensively in socialization, and that by focusing on embodying the full range of humanity--or at least the parts we are naturally drawn to--we can blow away the chaff of arbitrary, obligatory social behaviors (such as limiting how we dress), getting closer to expressing our individual essences more truthfully, which will make our society more mature and beautiful.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Deficit of Life-Enrichment

A while back I was co-teaching a Nonviolent Communication Foundations class, and I drew a diagram on the board of "positive feelings" and "negative feelings." A participant said that she didn't like to think of some feelings as negative because she wants to embrace all her feelings. This statement was challenging for me to respond to because I found myself in complete and joyful agreement with her in principle, but not in application.

Using the term "negative feelings" seems clear to me, and doesn't have the connotation of something bad. How I understand it myself is mathematical. Unfortunately the participant didn't connect with this explanation--maybe I didn't fully give her a sense of being understood for how much she wants to value and honor all feelings first. Maybe you will connect to it though and find some use for it outside of the traditional "negative=bad' framework of thinking.

In math, a positive number means you have something, while a negative number means you "owe" something. If my bank account statement says $64, than I can celebrate that I have enough to pay my utilities and internet this month! Similarly in NVC, "positive" feelings indicate the presence of something--a need, such as love. We then say that we can celebrate that need being met.

On the other hand, if my bank account says -$8.64, the bank wants that amount from me. Although I might not be happy to see that number on the screen of my online banking, it does tell me important information. It tells me where there is an emptiness of something. With the bank account, the emptiness is money, but when it comes to feelings, they tell us about other kinds of emptiness. Hunger tells us about our empty bellies, while depression may tell us that about an emptiness related to belonging or meaning.

Another way to look at this is that of the photographic negative. When we are full, we experience one aspect of food. When we hunger, we experience the shadow side--food inverted. When we are connected, we experience one side of relationships, while when we are lonely, we experience the shadow of friendship.

Emptiness is not always bad. There can be a sweetness to the sorrow of being with emptiness. Sometimes when I have been lonely (the emptiness of companionship), I have simultaneously felt sad and also more attuned to the cosmos, more present to my experience because of this emptiness. I think this is an example of what that participant was referring to when she said she didn't think of any feelings as negative--she was thinking of negative as bad.

For me negative in the context of feelings means emptiness of needs. It is neither good nor bad. It may be painful, and it may be bittersweet. It is always informative. At times it is inspiring, as many of us go to artistic or literary expression when we encounter this emptiness.

If you would like to have more understanding and compassion for people, here is an exercise you can try. The next time you are around someone and think that they are being negative, imagine what the emptiness is inside them. What are they calling out for to fill that negative space? You can also do this for yourself, asking the same question about your own "negativity." This is embodied compassion and equanimity, moving past good and bad and into honoring of all aspects of life. With this type of compassion, perhaps all of our deficits--of love, community, food, meaning, connection, respect, and much, much more--will be a little more bearable. And when we are in the positive, together, we can celebrate!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Offended by Requests

Hitchhiking is a radical practice in living the gift economy. Asking people for a ride without offering anything in return, practicing nonattachment to whether or not someone stops, all while being present to the feelings of despair, impatience, and resentment with compassionate presence--these are the ingredients a gift economy is made of. But there is more to the practice of hitchhiking than shifting our economic transactions.

Many people I encounter while hitchhiking are uncomfortable with this request for a gifted ride. If I ask around at gas stations ("Are you going north?"), I am sometimes asked to leave by the owners, because they think their patrons are bothered. This both conflicts with my sense of entitlement to free speech, and confuses me. Why are people so uncomfortable being asked something when it's not a demand? Is it because they feel obligated?

Sometimes people lie or make up excuses, saying they aren't going a certain way when they are. Most of my fellow citizens aren't self-connected and confident enough to assertively say, "I'm not comfortable bringing you in my car," and leaving it at that. In non-consensual/rape culture it's not OK to have personal boundaries unless you have a good reason, which is why people lie. Compare this to a woman at a bar being asked to dance. If she just says, "I'm not interested," she will likely be harassed as often as not. However, if she makes an excuse, even an untrue one ("I have a boyfriend" or "I'm about to leave") she'll be left alone.

There are many other times when someone making a request stimulates discomfort. I was at a truck stop in Sparks, NV, while hitchhiking this summer. Numerous truckers indicated interest in paying me for sex, one coming up to my traveling companion and current lover and asking if we needed "spending money." We initially thought he was just offering to give us some cash out of generosity or concern, but then he admitted that what he really wanted was for me to "spend some time in [his] truck." I felt disgusted but responded with only a "No, thank you." Even as I feel disgusted still, I also am aware that this man probably has a chronic lack of intimate touch in his life.

Even though he was respectful in the since of leaving us alone as soon as I said no, I still needed a good few minutes to shake off the icky feeling I got from being asked. Why was I so offended? My companion told me to not make it about the man, but to take it as a compliment on my beauty and attractiveness. I was not receptive to this perspective at all. Sure, I'm attractive, but yuck.

Part of my discomfort stemmed from how the question was asked--always indirectly. Other than the guy who asked, most of the truckers who made propositions that night used insinuating comments like, "I'll take her for a ride without the guy." I read this as containing tones of nonconsensuality--they wanted an opportunity to assault me when he wasn't there to interfere/protect. (This also ties in to the idea that women are property of men, and that other men are more concerned about damaging someone's property than respecting any woman as an individual--but I'm trying not to digress too much.)

The man who did ask somewhat directly still did so in a roundabout way, trying to catch our interest with the idea of "spending money." It might have landed differently if he had said, "Please say no if you're uncomfortable, but I am really longing for some sexual expression right now, and am wondering if you'd like to help me with that in exchange for some cash?"  It could certainly be finetuned even more (honestly I think prostitution should be legal and we should do it like in the show Firefly with the Companion's Guild, where people apply through video shorts), but this is a step in the direction of 'speaking plainly,' as the Quakers say.

So, is there a way to hitchhike or solicit for sex that is not offensive, or less so? Assuring people that 'no' is a perfectly acceptable answer is an important component of this. One way to start any sensitive request is a pre-request that goes, "Are you open to being asked for...[a ride] [sex]?" This is hard to convey with a thumb, but could it be consolidated into a short phrase on a cardboard sign? "Stop if you're feeling generous" looks potentally guilt trippy to my eyes. Maybe, "Stop if you want to!"

Although these are uncomfortable subjects to deal with, it is exciting to explore the frontiers of human communication through such humbling experiences as being "stranded" in a truck stop or by the side of a desert highway for hours. I believe that such instances of making myself vulnerable to the forces of social behavior are a rare opportunity for transformation and connection between demographics of people who would never otherwise connect.

Coming soon: The Sequel to this post, "When Asking Is Awkward", an essay focused on the asking side more than the receiving side. What makes it so hard to ask for what we want? What happens when we are too scared or ashamed to do so? Please share any pre-post input on this topic here, as well as your response to the above content. I promise to respond to you!