Cleaning the Wound
Categories: Guest Post Spirituality & Religion
Reflections on my Transcending anthology contribution – Five years later
March 31st is International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual holiday celebrated around the world. NAB is proud to join in celebrating the accomplishments, voices, and victories of the transgender and gender non-conforming community, while recognizing that there’s still much work to be done to save trans lives. Here, Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices contributor Finn Schubert reflects on writing for the anthology five years on.
Reading my piece, I notice how pared down it is. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but now I remember that I wrote it this way, knowing that it would be in print years later, knowing that things would change, not wanting to move far from the basic facts in case I felt differently later. And to a large extent, this worked. I read my brief piece and I find myself agreeing: Yes, that happened. Yes, that is how I felt.
I tell the story of how alone I felt as a trans person in my sangha, and the discrimination and misunderstanding I experienced. The piece ends on a high note–the story of how I eventually connected with other trans Buddhists and learned to trust my own inherent worth.
There is little for me to disagree with here. It did happen. But there’s one phrase that sets off alarm bells for me.
After describing how I felt marginalized and isolated when I transitioned in my sangha, and how I was asked to use a dorm inconsistent with my gender identity, I wrote that I was angry, hurt, and scared. I wanted to study the dharma, but I didn’t know if I could, if I was welcome. I wrote:
I felt that I would constantly be the other, the odd one out, the troublemaker.
Underneath those concerns was that persistent question—can I do it? Do I have Buddha-nature? Can I practice and wake up, here in this body, this mind, this community that can’t reliably get my pronouns right? I was sure enough that I stuck around, but I kept worrying at these questions, like picking at a scab.
It’s the “like picking at a scab” that gets me. That, and the way this paragraph conflates wondering if I have Buddha-nature with wondering if I can practice in a community that directly and repeatedly placed the comfort of cisgender individuals over my own — from its decisions about housing to a lack of support around my name and pronoun change. To this day, my sangha is one of the few places in which people sometimes still call me by female pronouns. Apparently, despite years of mindfulness practice, some people forget.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that wondering if you can or should practice in a community that treated you this way is not “like picking at a scab” or analogous to wondering if you can practice the dharma at all. Rather, it is a vital and affirming question necessary for spiritual growth. While no community is perfect, the question of what imperfections or rough spots we can accept, and why, is an important and revealing one.
I am reminded of the Audre Lorde quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Early in my transition, my basic needs around dignity and safety were treated as self-indulgence within my religious community. Gender-affirming housing for me was dismissed as a distraction to the cisgender sangha. I was told that my pronouns were difficult to remember. My anthology piece speaks of my experience working with feelings of isolation and feeling like a troublemaker without explicitly laying out the ways in which these difficulties directly resulted from the decisions and actions of the teachers and sangha. Instead, these feelings of marginalization and isolation, which arose in the context of in fact being marginalized and isolated, are portrayed in my piece as self-imposed barriers to spiritual practice that I must work with. This is a classic example of how oppression can be normalized and the marginalized person’s response to oppression is instead framed as the problem to be addressed. The extent to which I internalized this way of thinking is deeply concerning to me now.
Ten years after some of the events described in that piece, I am beginning to reconsider these events and how they impacted my spiritual practice. How did it impact me to be told in my very early twenties by spiritual leaders I trusted that my basic needs for gender affirmation and dignity were asking too much of the community? How did it impact me that for years I saw my feelings of anger and isolation as the problem, rather than the oppressive environment that gave rise to them? These are questions that I am only now beginning to engage. Spiritual practice is deep, and so are spiritual harms.
My sangha has certainly made significant progress in terms of trans inclusivity—as well as other types of inclusivity—over the past ten years. There are now many trans and gender nonconforming sangha members, gender-appropriate housing is available, and a section for pronouns has recently appeared on the registration list—the same list that once inexplicably featured my birth name with my chosen name in parentheses next to it.
Despite this, I find myself wondering if heterosexism and cissexism (as well as racism, sexism, classism, and many other oppressions that are beyond the scope of this particular piece) have simply become less overt, easier to overlook—in other words, more insidious. In looking carefully, I have noted how heterosexism and cissexism inform teachings on everything from sexuality, to family relationships, to body-based practices. Often, this is subtle and unintentional, difficult even to articulate, which can be even more damaging over time than being able to point to a clear moment in which something said was “wrong.”
While many of my experiences in the sangha have been deeply helpful for me, I am beginning to reflect on the ways that I have internalized and played out oppression in various areas of my life, and to explore how receiving oppressive messages in the same community in which I received liberating dharma teachings has impacted my spiritual life and my choices in the world. I need to allow space for the questions and concerns that I had sidelined or dismissed as barriers to my practice. I see now that some questions are not picking at a scab, but trying to see the wound clearly, trying to clean it so that it can heal.
All contributor proceeds from Transcending are being donated to Trans Lifeline, a trans-led organization that connects trans people to the community, support, and resources they need to survive and thrive. Visit them at https://www.translifeline.org/.