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Gender Identity in Shambhala

photo by Charles Blackhall

photo by Charles Blackhall

COLUMN: In Everyday Life
by Michaela McCormick, Portland, Oregon

I have the body of a man, mostly, if you don’t pay attention to my fine bones and nearly hairless body. And most people don’t. Rather they notice my broad shoulders, narrow hips, and strong brow, and if they risk looking past my feminine attire and ask me a question, they notice my deep voice.

They pick out the cues that we all have been taught to rely on in order to “know” who we’re dealing with. The habit is completely understandable, particularly in our speedy, information – saturated world where time is so often a commodity and efficiency is the watchword. It is very hard in our world to slow down, relax, and be curious about each other. We feel we need to make an assessment, lean on our assumptions, and take action or move on.

That kind of pigeonholing, and solidifying of who I am, has been going on since the moment I was born and assigned the gender of “male.” Then, too, the people who labeled me were just responding to the cues, namely my genitalia. But, through no personal fault of their own, they got it wrong.

From a very early age, sometime before I turned five years old, I knew I was at the very least not all boy. I knew it in my body and in my spirit, not intellectually or conceptually. I couldn’t tell my parents or others how I felt, what I knew about myself. But I could act on it. I could ask for a baby doll to play with, and make her, Lulu, my most cherished toy. I could spend hours holding her and singing “Rockabye Baby” to her. I could dress up with my boy cousin Jerry in my Great Aunt Georgie’s old slip and nylons, crawl under Jerry’s toy pool table, and make out with him, before I even knew what sex was, who I was supposed to love, and the very tight boundaries on my gender identity.

But soon after that, the pressure to be male, masculine, and heterosexual became complete. I was kicked out of my cousin Jerry’s house for what he and I did, and my parents took Lulu away, saying only it was time to play with other things – bats and balls and trucks and guns.

For the next twenty years, I did my very best, out of fear and wanting to fit in, to be male, manly, and straight. I did pretty well climbing into the cultural cocoon of hetero maleness, hiding from myself, and only occasionally being confronted with my attraction to and perverted fear of boys/men and my longing for a more feminine tenderness and vulnerability. I succumbed to tears only when I thought it was safe. In the process, I became hardened, callous, and even abusive of others. I developed a certain exterior confidence, but I didn’t know myself.

This is a story, or some version of it, that far too many people, whether they identify as female or male or somewhere in between, could tell.

Traditional sexism, the belief that men are superior to women, and oppositional sexism, the belief that women and men are complete opposites, have scared many of us into cocoons that are nothing more than habits of attitude and behavior based on how we appear to others and social expectations. The reality is that our physical characteristics, or how we appear to each other, is only part of our direct, felt experience.

Those of us who have experienced gender dissonance, or a disconnect between our physical sex or gender and our subconscious psychological sex or gender, know that our wholeness, our authentic self, lies in embracing every physical, psychological, and spiritual trait of our true nature, however that is labeled on the female/male spectrum. So it is a matter of each of us knowing ourselves, and like every other member of any socially identified group, self-determination.

It is up to each of us to claim and declare or express our basic goodness. We know, from Shambhala teachings, that there is no being, something that some call God, who is going to save us. We each must save ourselves. A logical extension of that truth is that no one else in our phenomenal world can define our basic goodness. They cannot grant it or take it away. It is innate. Any honest expression of it is authentic, and deserves compassion and respect.

This is not a recent development. Transgender people have been part of many different cultures throughout history, including the hijras of India, the Brazilian transvestis, the Thai katoeys, and the Native American “berdaches” or “two-spirited people.” They have been both ostracized and recognized for their spiritual gifts.

In our effort to create enlightened society, the dualism of gender binaries such as male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, and cisgender (people whose psychological gender aligns with their assigned physical gender)/transgender reinforces the very separation that our practice is aimed at transcending. The reality is that not all men are masculine and not all women are feminine, and no one is entirely one or the other.

That includes the fact that there is no one right way to be transgender. If we are being true to our direct, felt experience, all expressions of gender are authentic, no matter where they fall on the male/female spectrum. Any attachment to a particular expression of gender is a function of ego, or an attempt to cling to a particular way of seeing ourselves, which is usually a product of the perceptions, presumptions, and expectations of others.

The ability to see beyond this kind of dualism lies in our innate compassion. In the phenomenal world, our everyday life, we rely on what we see to determine what gender others are. But that interpretation is a function of our attachment to a collective, societal judgment of narrowly defined gender pigeonholes.

To see each person as they are, we need to let go of our attachment to those categories. We need to let our eyes, as they are trained by society, let go, lose control, and allow compassion to arise. In the speedy relative world, our eyes tend to confirm separation, and foster fear of the “other.” Figuring out who and what the other is has its obvious uses, but too often, it gets in the way of our deep and constant need to connect with each other. And connecting is the door to compassion.

~~
Michaela McCormickMichaela McCormick has been meditating for 13 years and has been a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche since 2005. She is Director of Practice and Education for the Portland (OR) Shambhala Meditation Center, is a meditation instructor, a teacher of introductory classes, and a member of the Diversity Working Group of Shambhala International. For 25 years she worked as a teacher, trainer, and practitioner of conflict resolution and public dialogue. For longer than that she was a community organizer/activist. She has written two memoirs and now writes poetry and essays on social and spiritual themes.

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6 responses to “ Gender Identity in Shambhala ”
  1. Shastri Charlene Leung
    Jan 5, 2015
    Reply

    Dear Michaela,

    Thanks for your clarity and genuineness in sharing your story and pointing to the disconnect that results when we pigeonhole and fail to see beyond our concepts.

    Thank you for all you have contributed to the Diversity Working Group.

    Ki Ki So So!

  2. Robert French
    Dec 30, 2014
    Reply

    Very inspirational and well said! Thanks for you courage!

  3. Thank you for this brave and beautiful article, Michaela!

    I must say that I love that the “Rigden King” on our shrines is intentionally androgynous, and I love that Shambhala is a place where we are encouraged to fully discover, explore, and celebrate who we are! Ki Ki So So!

  4. Thank you Michaela! This is one of the best explanations I’ve read. I also appreciate the connection to Shambhala. It’s always a bit challenging when even our liturgy and our teachers tend to fall into very definitive description of masculine and feminine, king and queen. I always have to pull people aside and educate them a bit and express that they’re alienating a large portion of the population.

  5. Beautiful!

  6. This is a brave and beautiful article, Michaela. Thank you!


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