Eko Joshua Goldberg, Zenwest Buddhist Society
1. Why is our work important to you?
Making Buddhist communities more inclusive benefits everyone. Sanghas everywhere can learn from the practical wisdom offered at http://transbuddhists.org. It is great to be able to demystify the experience of being a trans Buddhist. As mainstream culture’s coverage of trans* issues and trans* celebrities increases, there can be new opportunities for stereotyping and misunderstanding, and it is important that we have a way to show the true diversity of our beautiful trans* selves and help give a more realistic understanding of what trans* lives are like.
2. What have been your personal experiences as a trans or gender non-conforming person practicing in Buddhist communities?
I’m a trans FTM who has been practicing with Zenwest Buddhist Society for the past 8 years. I was really lucky – my sangha was, although mostly unfamiliar with trans issues, very experienced in generally creating a welcoming and accessible space and there wasn’t really a lot they needed to tweak to be fully inclusive. It actually was not a big deal, which after years of having to deal with people’s discomfort and careful tip-toe-ing around gender stuff was a big relief. Pat Parker said so beautifully in her poem “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend”, “The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black. Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.” I feel very fortunate to have this space where I am interacted with in this way.
Physical logistics are not always within people’s control but I have been fortunate in that respect too. Our main zendo has single-user, non-gendered bathrooms and sleeping arrangements in residential practice space has been handled in a totally respectful manner (it wasn’t viable for me to share a room for reasons unrelated to being trans, and the Abbot came up with a great creative solution). We also use public spaces that have gendered group washrooms, and although I don’t look particularly masculine I do use the men’s washroom and that has been a non-issue. People really seem to get that it doesn’t matter.
There are many things that help set the stage for this. Our teacher is assertive about correcting people on all sorts of things (and also thanks people for calling him out on his mistakes around sexism, heterosexism, racism, etc.) so sets a great tone for how to do that in a respectful but clear way. The other two monks in our community who are becoming teachers are very politicized and practiced at allyship and are fantastic role models for inclusion and respect for diversity. I am also one of the longer-term students and have pretty strong relationships with a number of people in the sangha, so right away newcomers get that I am part of the community, not the Weird Uncle Fred who everyone barely tolerates.
3. What questions have come up for you as a trans or gender non-conforming person in Buddhist practice?
I don’t know that being trans gave me any special insight or sensitivity around this issue, but the main questions that have come up for me relating to Buddhist practice relate to racism, cultural appropriation, and what it means for me as a white North American to be using Zen forms outside of their original cultural context (e.g., using a Japanese dharma name). Social justice is what brought me to Buddhism in the first place and I am really glad that organizations like Buddhist Peace Fellowship (http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org) provide a place to connect with other Buddhists also passionate about social justice, to really look at issues like this and not be afraid to challenge ourselves to really consider what we are doing, why we do it, and what impact it has, and what it means to be a responsible, respectful person in and outside the sangha.
4. In what ways (if any) do you feel that your experience of being trans or gender non-conforming has supported or deepened your practice?
No fixed, permanent, lasting self – no shit! 🙂
5. In what ways (if any) do you feel that your experience of being trans or gender non-conforming has created difficulty for you in your practice?
Last year one of our monks, someone with a lot of experience being an ally, gave a public dharma talk at a ceremony where she became a more senior monk. In the talk she told a story that had as its central character a trans person. I was totally shocked and sobbed through the entire thing. It made me realize that even though I feel completely included and recognized in my sangha, there is still sometimes a loneliness in not seeing oneself reflected in stories about our lineage, teachers, role models, etc. and how important it is to be creative and imaginative about how to find these drops of water in the desert. It also made me realized how loving people are, and how powerful allyship can be — that someone in the sangha would make her own ceremony an opportunity to give this gift to me was a really startling demonstration of spiritual friendship. Thank you, Rev. Soshin.
Wearing robes is a struggle for me. I have found it complicated in terms of my own dysphoria — although robes have no gendered context in the sangha, for me it is still uncomfortably like wearing a dress. From the moment I put them on, I am fighting the experience of it. This no-self thing is no-simple!
The robes also came with a non-gendered dharma name, so now without any visual or name cues I am typically perceived by newcomers as female (and, awkwardly, as a nun as I have a shaved head). Being read as female creates some confusion with some people referring to me as “he” and newcomers as “she” (out of ignorance, not disrespect). It is completely understandable as gender assumptions often come down to visual guesses and I am read as female lots of the time outside a Zen context too. I transitioned almost 20 years ago so am long past that nervous stage where I really care how people read me, it is not devastating the way it was at the beginning when I was trying so hard to be a dude. And at worst people are embarrassed or confused, not argumentative or hostile as sometimes happens outside a sangha context. But in a sangha context it is extra awkward as of course everyone wants to be harmonious with each other and so newcomers are mortified that they’ve made a mistake, and then I tend to try to reassure them and take on a caretaking role or worry that I am scaring off new people if I correct them, or that they will feel deceived when they finally figure it out. You know, the usual human foibles. I really do think these are human foibles and not trans-specific, they just show up in some trans-specific ways at times.
6. What do you most want others to know about the experience of being a trans or gender non-conforming person connected with Buddhist practice?
I most want trans and gender non-conforming people to not be scared of trying out a Buddhist community. I went in with both fists up expecting to fight for respect, and couldn’t have been more wrong. Certainly people who do spiritual practice can be really close-minded and sure they are right about things, but within Buddhism there is a strong support for “don’t know” and that seems to attract people more open to changing their mind and being open to learning new things. And generally I think people come to Buddhism because of their own suffering and some desperation to find a way out of that suffering, so there is a lot of compassion (as well as practical useful teachings) about how to work with suffering. It’s been my experience that as a result of living in this transphobic society, trans and gender non-conforming people have typically suffered a lot, and I think the teachings of Buddhism are really relevant, practical and useful. For many years I was scared that I was too broken to practice in a community so tried to practice on my own, but practicing on your own is not the same as practicing with a teacher and sangha.
For people who are wondering how best to support trans and gender non-conforming people, it’s really nothing special. Every person has their own story and needs and painful points, trans or not. Being trans is only one part of that and supporting each other requires being willing to really get to know each other and trust that the form of practice and the community of practice is strong enough to hold and support each person, whatever practice brings. Also, don’t worry so much about making mistakes. We all make them, the zendo is full of bloopers (ringing the bell by dropping it, spilling tea, forgetting to say “enough” to the food server and ending up with a giant bowl of fruit salad, getting dog poop on your shoe during walking meditation…) and gender mistakes are fundamentally no different. Do your best, apologize when you screw up, and move forward.
Thanks again for all your work!