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Jan 18
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Making Trans*Queer Dharma Work

photo by Charles Blackhall

photo by Charles Blackhall

article by Shaun Bartone, Halifax

A queer Buddhist friend of mine said to me recently, “You have a lot of bones that stick out, bones that don’t fit in one place or another.”

True. In one sangha, I’m too much of an intellectual, I think too much, and that’s not their practice. They’re all about direct experience, ‘not thinking.’ In that sangha, I tell them that as a trans person, I have a deeply felt sense of the truth of the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence. My lifetime as a queer has taught me that there really is ‘no self’. My queerness is a pastiche of collected parts that don’t always fit together. ‘Self’ is socially constructed and constantly changing. All facets of identity are ascribed, learned, performed, negotiated, discarded, transformed and mutable. This doesn’t sit too well with members of this particular sangha; it’s “thinking too much.”

In another sangha, I’m accepted as a scholar, but I’m too queer, too transgender. My bones stick out that way. When I’m with my queer friends, you would hardly notice me; I’m like Joe Normal. The last queer party I went to, most people were dancing naked from the waist up, nothing on but glitter. I was in the back room, fully clothed, playing guitar, swapping songs with my friends. But when I walk into my sangha on Sunday morning, I feel like a total freak. I don’t want to feel that way. I just want to be a freak among freaks and not feel like a freak. But it’s not realistic to expect that sort of “fit” in either sangha. My bones stick out too much. I decided the best I can do is try to educate both sanghas about what it means to be trans.

trans competenceSo I ordered two printed copies of Developing Trans Competence: A Guide for Meditation and Retreat Centers, written by transbuddhist members of Queer Dharma in New York. I was going to present copies of the Guide to the two sanghas that I was involved with. With the Queer Dharma group, I made arrangements to present the Guide and talk about trans issues at the next QD meeting in September.

But see, there’s this competition between sanghas to be the place to go for whatever’s happening in buddhaville. So one sangha schedules all the monthly Queer Dharma meetings to happen at their place, because they have the biggest shrine room and obviously they’re where it’s at. Except for the month of September when the center’s schedule is so busy they can’t quite fit it in. So I said, well, for that month, let’s schedule Queer Dharma at the other sangha. Initially there was an agreement between the two sanghas and we decided to do that. But someone at Big Shrine was simply not having it. So they scheduled a second Queer Dharma meeting for the same month at Big Shrine.

It was a fairly tense situation for both sanghas, and the whole thing almost got canceled. But since I had ordered two copies of “Developing Trans Competence”, here was the perfect opportunity to present both of them in the same month. In September 2014, I presented one copy to Shambhala International, at their Queer Dharma meeting. And then I presented the second copy to Nalandabodhi Halifax at the other Queer Dharma meeting.

Has this educational campaign had any noticeable effect?

One has to look for very subtle changes. A couple of QD meetings later, an acharya gave a talk in which she made some reference to “those people who change.” Like wow, she actually recognizes that some people change genders. That’s some kind of progress. I noticed that signs on the single stall bathroom doors in Big Shrine are now gender neutral. Little signs of a change. In the other sangha, well, they only have one bathroom, so it’s always been gender neutral. And they graciously accepted the “Developing Trans Competence” guide. But otherwise things are as normal as ever. It still takes a lot of poking and prodding to get them to recognize difference. For good or ill, I chose to be the fall guy for this process. ‘Cause my bones still stick out.

For a link to the online version of the Guide for Developing Trans Competence, please click here.

Shaun Bartone~~
Shaun Bartone
is a writer and social science instructor at universities in Halifax, NS. Shaun is an independent Buddhist not affiliated with any Buddhist sect or organization. Blog: Engage!

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1 response to “ Making Trans*Queer Dharma Work ”
  1. Thanks for sharing this! I’m genderqueer and only recently started living more openly. I’m trying to foster a sense of openness about it without coming across as being too pushy (or too open! ha ha) – it’s hard to strike a balance. The guide you linked is a great resource! Thank you!


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