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Conduct Unbecoming: A Trans*Queer Experience of Dharma

Conduct Unbecoming: a Trans*Queer Experience of Dharma (by Shaun Bartone)

My experience as a trans*queer meditator in Buddhism has yielded a certain experiential truth: 1) I have a particular perspective on dharma and the meditation experience as a trans*queer person; and 2) this experience is not well understood by other dharma practitioners, even those members of the sangha who identify as LGBTIQ.

As I write this, I am over a month into what is to be my physical transition from “born-female” to “who knows what? I’m not sure.” I have been gender ambiguous since I was a child, and now identify as a masculine person. Up till now I have thought of myself as having a female body, with masculine identity and behaviour. But now I have put male hormones into a genetically female body; I have queered my body, my physical being. Using testosterone does not make me feel more male, man, or masculine than before. I had thought that physical transitioning would allow me to feel more certain about my gender identity than I have in the past. But no, its just the opposite. If anything, I feel even less certain of my gender identity and more queer than ever. The viscous gel that I rub on my shoulders every morning is melting away any fixed concepts of sex or gender that might have remained. It is, however, real testosterone, which is like “passion, aggression and ignorance” in a silicone tube. Slap it on and feel the karma. So obviously this requires some adjustment with regard to meditation practice. As I write this, I’m listening to Nine Inch Nails; songs like “Head Like a Hole” are suddenly very appealing to me.

[. . head like a hole. . . black as your soul. . . I’d rather die. . . than give you control. . .]

Michel Foucault was once asked if he thought he was a man or a woman. His reply was “I’m not sure.” Foucault’s deconstructive analysis has been as much a guide through the dharma as the teachings of the elders in the Buddhist tradition. Foucault said further: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning;” and further, “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are.” Foucault’s theory was that social power didn’t just control persons—it created them. Foucault’s personal ethic was to refuse to be what society forced him to be. His method of refusal was to deconstruct the social mechanisms of power/knowledge that produced particular identities or ‘selves’.

My experience of dharma and meditation as a trans*queer person is precisely this kind of deconstruction, this refusal to be what society has determined I should be. I have never been what I was born to be, a female, a girl, a woman. Growing up, I had always been something ‘in-between’, not a girl, but not a boy either; something ‘other’. As an adult, I encountered the Buddhist dharma of anatta, ‘not self’ or “the illusion of self.” Although my ego bristled at the notion that there was no “me” of any sort, it was far easier for me to understand that there is no properly gendered “me”. I had spent my life in a kind of gender bardo, an interminable in-betweenness. My gender ambiguity became the portal for me to understand the dharma of not-self. Identities change, and trans* identities change profoundly on multiple levels, physically, mentally, sexually and socially. My experience of the dharma is likewise an ‘unbecoming.’ When I sit in mediation, I actively deconstruct and dismantle the self that society expects me to be. “Meditate and destroy” as Noah Levine says.

Trans* and queer people understand intuitively the dharma of impermanence. Dissolving dualism is a daily practice for me as a gender queer. My personal life is suspended between genders, so it’s not a big leap for me to dissolve other conceptual dualisms. As a scholar of postmodern theory, deconstructing binaries is what I do for a living. I relish the idea of deploying a queer postmodern dharma to deconstruct every binary of the human condition, all of which are socially constructed, none of which are essential.

Even typically-gendered gay men and lesbians have the experience of profound change. When you ‘come out’ as gay, lesbian, or trans, at any age, you upset the world of fixed identities and relationships that you were born into and living with. Suddenly, the straight girl-next-door is a lesbian dating a woman; the sissy boy talks excitedly on the phone to his new boyfriend; ‘he’ tries on a dress and high heels for the first time; ‘she’ straps on a rubber cock and imagines what it would be like to sexually penetrate a woman. Your parents, family, friends, work associates, are left puzzling over the depth of your transformation. All your relationships are thrown into this chaotic turbulence with you; they either survive the change or drown in the undertow.

These transformative experiences disrupt all the usual notions of sex, gender, friendships, marriage, social milieu and life narrative. The heteronormative regime determines that you are “born” something, either male or female; you grow up to become a man attracted to a woman or a woman attracted to a man; it expects that you will perform all the social roles assigned to your sex/gender. You are these things and you will be them until you die; you will age, perhaps, but you will not essentially change what you are.

Queer dharma, or that Buddhist dharma as experienced by queer and trans* people, challenges every one of these heteronormative codes. Even the notion that you are a gay man, or a lesbian, a trans man or trans woman is challenged by both dharma and trans*queer experience. Your female partner that you thought was a woman is now transitioning, becoming a trans man; the gay man you are dating also performs as a drag queen and goes about as a woman in certain social contexts. Nothing is fixed or permanent; nothing can be pinned down for long; everything is impermanent; everything changes.

This experience of profound impermanence is common to queer and trans people. It is the pattern of our lives; it is our lived experience. And it is one of the gifts that we have to share with the greater sangha. We know, perhaps more profoundly than heterosexuals, that there is no fixed “self”, that all facets of identity are ascribed, learned, performed, negotiated, discarded, transformed and mutable.

So I’m stunned by an impenetrable silence when I talk about this experience of the dharma with some of my gay friends in Buddhism. I feel them subtly refuse the validity of this experience. I see them distancing themselves from it, refusing to “go there”, to acknowledge what seems to me to be an obvious truth. I’m puzzled; I don’t understand this refusal, this lack of acknowledgement at the level of lived experience. There seems to be a refusal to acknowledge change, impermanence, and both the joy and suffering that comes with it, especially in queer lives.

My experience of this refusal is that it is a denial of reality, of my reality, if not reality more universally. Trans*queer people are still living in a relative world and living out relative lives. Everything changes, and yes, we still suffer. To deny this reality of everyday lived experience strikes me as delusional. Trans* people suffer, in particular, from transphobia, in this sense, from the denial of our experience of gender nonconformity, fluidity and transformation. Transphobia is nothing if not a mortal fear of the emptiness of identity, of the impermanence of self.

You would think my queer sangha friends would know this. Yet even with them, I find myself on the other side of a glass wall, looking in. I’m banging on the glass, yelling: “I am changing; I’m CHANGING! I am transitioning; I am changing my body, my mind, my gender. I’m changing my relationship to everything around me. And I will keep on changing for years to come.” I keep yelling, but nobody hears me. On their side, all they see is some crazy person banging on the glass. They don’t want to acknowledge change. Or maybe that’s for “beginners” on the path; for people who are *sigh*, confused. Advanced practitioners don’t need to change. In Vajra land, we have basic goodness that never changes; we’re all perfect just as we are. We have arrived.

Sadly, perhaps, I guess I’m not there yet. I’m not in Vajra land. I’m in the relative world of change, impermanence, suffering and liberation. And I fucking love it. My life does not have to be a drag Lama performance of the Great Perfection, to act as if there’s nothing going on here. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s pretty damn queer.

Some of my sangha friends have said there is no such thing as ‘queer dharma.’ I said, sure there is—there’s at least a queer experience of dharma. Dzogchen Ponlop likes to say that Buddhism is like pure water; if you put pure water in a certain container, it takes the shape and colour of that container. For instance, when Buddhism entered Chinese culture, it became Chinese Buddhism; when it entered Japanese culture, it became Japanese Zen Buddhism; when it entered American culture, it became American Buddhism. So why isn’t it also true that when Buddhist dharma enters queer culture, it becomes queer dharma? Why refuse that? Is it because queer culture is not a worthy vessel or container for Buddhist dharma? Is it because queer culture is about desire? about forms of sexuality and gender that are divergent, perverse and intentionally chosen, rather than forms that are normative, that one is ‘born into’? What happens when the pure water of Buddhism gets poured into a queer container?

In his talk on queer dharma to the Shambhala New York sangha (2008), Dzogchen Ponlop spoke of queer dharma from the Vajrayana point of view. He said that in tantric dharma, the feminine principle is space, or openness, and the masculine principle is awareness, or luminosity, and that ultimate nature of reality is the non-dualistic union of the two. He said further, that androgyny is a representation of this non-dualistic union.

The resistance I feel from my sangha friends toward my trans* experience of the dharma is too much like the resistance I get from the straight world. The straight world doesn’t tolerate gender ambiguity, or the idea that there is no fixed identity. But the Buddhist world is equally offended that I ask questions, that I insist on the reality of my trans*queer experience. What I get from my sangha friends is the same kind of fixed, rigid thinking about experience, the same kind of resistance to change that I get from the straight world.

I feel like Gautama Buddha outside the walls of his grand estate, who walked away from every good and certain thing that a person could want: love, luxury, security, power, social status, and a fixed address. Shakyamuni hit the road. The first thing Buddha did was liberate himself from every secure relationship, every privileged circumstance in his life. Buddha was all about taking risks. He dove head first into the turbulence of uncertainty, impermanence and change. He experimented with every kind of spiritual experience and questioned everything. That he also found enlightenment in the process almost goes without saying. Of course, how could he not? He realized the relative truth that nothing is solid, that everything changes, thus realizing emptiness, which is the ultimate wisdom of buddha nature.

[. . head like a hole. . . black as your soul. . . I’d rather die. .  . than give you control. . .]

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This entry was posted on 2014/06/10 by and tagged .

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I do Tai Chi with Paul Read, the Teapot Monk, @ 21st Century Tai Chi Academy https://www.21stcenturytaichi.com/academy/89szm

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