Transgender Healing: Is Wholeness the Answer?
Rachael St.Claire, PsyD
Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They came. He pushed them. And they flew.
What do I mean by the word transgender? Transgender is a gender that transcends the binary gender system inherent within our patriarchal social structure.
As transgender people, we struggle, sometimes most of our lives, to answer one basic question. Who am I? Our fate, the course of our lives, whether we come to terms with the meaning of our lives, rests on this basic question. What for us is sometimes a tormented struggle over our gender, is never questioned by most people. We ask, “Why?” And sometimes plaintively, “Why me?” Have not we all heard the call from deep within? The calling out of the man or woman within us that at first seems to violate are embodied sex? Have not we all born witness to this internal struggle to reconcile the impossible? Have not we all been stymied in our search to understand this seeming contradiction between our sex and our gender? I have spent my life searching for answers, and can still only humbly report to you that I still find the fact of our existence to be a mystery that lies at the very heart of our lives.
In the book, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman suggests that each of us has a unique fate, that we all possess an inner image (or Soul) that becomes a calling to a destiny. As we mature, we become aware of this self-image. We become aware of who we are. He states, “A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will win out. It makes its claim. The daimon does not go away…Often the demands of the calling ruthlessly wreak havoc on the decencies of a well lived life.” So, we cannot escape who we are; we cannot escape our destiny.
Jung wrote, “In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”
I suggest to you that we all embody an essential transgender image of ourselves, a Transgender Soul, that is our destiny and our fate that we cannot escape. This essential soul image is not the product of evil, and it is not the result of a pathological biological nor psychological process.
In my search for answers, whatever I came to eventually believe about sexuality and gender, I had to know the truth. But, the truth is not something that is easy to discover because we live in a heterosexist society in which collective notions of normality are rooted within two belief systems: Christianity and modern medicine. Religion judges diversity as sinful and medicine treats diversity as deviant. These belief systems are also dominant cultural myths, and can be distinguished from what we come to know as our truth. Hillman in criticizing mainstream psychology states, “As long as statistics of normalizing developmental psychology determine the standards against which the extraordinary complexities of a life are judged, deviations become deviants.”
How do we free ourselves from the inherently harmful assumptions of either sinfulness or deviance?
When we ignore the calling, when we ignore the truth, when we ignore our experience of ourselves as somehow mysteriously transcending the binary gender system, a deep psychological and spiritual wound is inflicted. The wound is the splitting apart of oneself, such that gendered aspects of our self, both our psychology and our body, are denied full and free expression. We turn away from embodying what is essential within us. This suppression is associated with guilt and shame, depression and despair, and fear and anxiety. Continued splitting off of the true self, the transgender self, leads to emptiness, hopelessness, and the diminishing will to live through a false self. For many of us, the pain associated with this split leads to the desire for death.
Healing of this inner splitting is achieved through an experience of wholeness within oneself where all aspects of sex and gender, both psychology and body, are embodied and freely expressed in meaningful living of life.
Although I do not have sufficient time to defend my position, I suggest to you that what appears to be a contradiction between embodied sex and gender is not actually at odds at all. I believe that we possess human qualities that cannot be contained nor meaningfully expressed within a binary system of gender. When the binary system of gender is forced upon us, the apparent contradiction between sex and gender is created. The binary system of gender is the product of patriarchal social structure and is guarded by religion and medicine through the process of social stigmatization. The psychiatric pathologizing of transgender people serves the purpose of social stigmatization.
Evidence of an essential transgender identity can be found in native cultures, such as those Native American cultures that were dominant in North America until the 1700’s. Cultural anthropologists, such as Walter Williams and Will Roscoe, have described the lives of what I consider to be transgender men and women, sometimes referred to as two-spirited, and that anthropologists consider constituting third and fourth genders. In many cultures, individuals whose expression of gender was not constrained by a binary system of gender were valued as “threshold persons”. They inhabited a social space at the threshold, the border, the margin, or outskirts of a certain place. Such threshold persons often served their communities as guardians of and guides across a threshold, often into the spiritual world. Their guidance empowered others to also experience a crossing between places that might otherwise be impossible.
If splitting of our essential gender is the psycho-spiritual wound we suffer, social stigmatization is the instrument. People who transcend the binary gender system are stigmatized. Stigmatization is the guardian of hetero-normativity that is posted at the borders, forcing transgender people into the margins of society or forcing them into a binary system of gender where they lived literally trapped in the wrong body.
A useful definition of stigma is supplied by Erving Goffman in his book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Dr. Goffman reminds us that the term stigma was originated by the Greeks to refer to the bodily signs designed to expose something unusual or bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, criminal, or traitor, a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided especially in public places. The term stigma is then an attribute of a person that is deeply discrediting. A person with a stigma is reduced from a whole person to a deviant, to someone who cannot be trusted, someone dangerous, someone fundamentally tainted, a foreigner, an outsider. We have all experienced such stigmatization, sometimes in the forms of institutionalized discrimination and socially sanctioned hatred.
When we as transgender persons lose our transgender souls, we lose our place in the world as “guardians of the threshold”. We ourselves instead become outsiders at the margins seeking entry into a society guarded by hetero-normativity. As long as we are trapped in our bodies by the binary gender system, the guardian of hetero-normativity will refuse us entry into the world.
Franz Kafka in his book, The Penal Colony, illustrates what happens in his parable called “Before the Law”.
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at this moment…If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers.”
These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law he thinks, should surely be accessible to everyone…He decides it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper with his importunity. During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper.
He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly, later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live.
Before he dies, all these experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “ so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?”
The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
At each stage in our transition, a door must be boldly opened and entered. This door, this threshold, the way across is often obscured. The guardian of thresholds is merciless. We must remain vigilant or opportunity dies. Life itself hangs in the balance.
So then, how can we heal from the wounds that stigmatization and the assumptions of hetero-normativity have caused? First, dispel the myth of hetero-normativity. Second, strive for wholeness that unites all aspects of your embodied sex and gender.
The myth of hetero-normativity can be dispelled by becoming aware and mindful of the dominant cultural beliefs about sex and gender that we have unthinkingly accepted as the truth about who we are. Bertrand Russell in The Value of Philosophy argued that philosophy, meaning questioning the basic assumptions about life through critical examination, can free us from “the tyranny of custom.” We must refuse to submit to the normalcy of socially sanctioned gender identities. We must refuse to be bound by hetero-sexist definitions of man and woman, male and female, gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual. In our struggle to free ourselves from the shackles of binary gender expression, we must be wary of the desire for acceptance, and be careful not to exchange one set of rigid gender norms for a different set of rigid gender norms. We must not allow hetero-sexist society to define who we are, and must find our own voice, and define ourselves in our own language, based upon our own experiences as transgender persons, as we are doing here today.
You might even question if it is possible for transgender people to find wholeness within ourselves when our sex and gender seem at odds. Thinking about sexuality and gender as continuous and fluid and not as discrete categories with rigidly defined boundaries is closer to our experiences of sex and gender and helps bring down barriers to wholeness. We all in some way have experienced the pressure from society to pass in order to avoid stigmatization. We feel the pull between the desire to assimilate into the security of the structured two gender world and the desire to affirm our queer transgender nature by making our home in the margins, not because we are forced there by transphobic society, but because, like bell hooks states, we feel called toward “Choosing the Margin as a Radical Space of Openess.
Hooks states, “Everywhere we go there is pressure to silence our voices, to co-opt and undermine them…Those of us who live, who “make it”, invent spaces of radical openness. Without such spaces we could not survive. Our living depends on our ability to conceptualize alternatives, often improvised.”
We know all too well the costs associated with living our truths openly, of transforming our gender, of transforming silence into language and into action, as we do gathered here today. Some of us have lost friends, some our family, some our jobs, some of us have spent our life savings in the medical aesthetic transformation of our embodied gender.
But what of the costs of assimilation into the binary gendered world, into the “tyranny of custom”? What voices are silenced then? Do we become cut off from the mysterious and creative energies that call out to us from within? Whose unique calling will be silenced? Whose gendered soul will remain submerged under rigid gender stereotypes? How then will we allow diverse gendered souls to emerge to create alternative queer communities? What then becomes of our struggle to find new ways to resist the hetero-normative patriarchy?
What happens when one of us silences our gendered and sexed truth? Audre Lorde, a Black poetess, who contracted breast cancer, equates silence with death, in her article The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.
“Death…is the final silence. And that may be coming quickly now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words…I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself.
My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger…In the cause of silence, each one of us draws the face of her own fear—fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation.
But, most of all, I think, we fear the very visibility without which we also cannot truly live. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength…It is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding…
And it is never without fear; of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But, we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now, that if I were to have been born mute, or had I maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered. And, I would still die.”