The Spirit of Transgender

by Holly Boswell. Copyright 1997-1998, Use with permission

Ancient Roots

What brings us to this place we call "transgender" -- this way of being that needs to redefine, transform, and recreate itself in a world that insists we must conform to our genitals? Perhaps there was an itch in the groin. Most assuredly, there was an ache in the heart. And let's not discount all the mental anguish.

Researchers are investigating causative factors such as chromosomes, unique hormonal configurations, and of course psycho-social influences.... but I ask you: what do you believe it is that made you transgendered? Was it the itch, the ache, the anguish... or was it also something else? -- something most people can't define, something called "spirit".

This "body-heart-mind-spirit" pattern is an age-old, universal construct. Most of us spend a lot of our lives in the "body-mind" mode. Some of us manage to also be in "heart space". But how many actually visit the dimension of "spirit" -- even a few times, much less regularly? I have observed, however, that many transgendered people not only visit this dimension -- out of necessity -- but are often coming from this place.

And what is spirit, but the impetus that yearns to manifest -- in the flesh, with full heart and awareness. Chromosomes and sensuality aside, isn't there something very clear and evident coming through here'? Are we not Spirit manifesting in its own glorious diversity? Scientists may never be able to measure or explain this magnificent occurrence, but we are living proof of Spirit manifesting beyond the limited social constructs of gender.

As we consider this vague and oft-forgotten notion of "spirit", it is very interesting to note that the majority of older world religions perceived their deities as hermaphroditic and whole-gendered. Ardhanarisvara in Hinduism, Avalokitesvara and Kuan Yin in Buddhism, and Dionysus in the Greek pantheon are examples of this. Divine androgyny is reflected in subsequent representations of avatars such as Sri Krsna in Vedanta, Lan Ts'ai Ho in Taoist China, and even Jesus Christ. In the Qabbalah, Adam mirrored an androgynous God before the split into Eve and subsequent fall from grace. As with many nobles, the Pharaohs of Egypt emulated their gods, which were mostly androgynous throughout Africa. Angels and Faeries too, are usually perceived as androgynous beings. The reflections of Transgender Spirit are ancient and deep.

Meanwhile, we are living in a predominantly patriarchal world where the primary deities reflect masculine values. God the Father is perceived as Spirit, while Mother Nature has been subjugated to a status of' dross, inanimate matter. Our notions of gender, too, have been shaped by this deep polarization -- perhaps as a sort of "divide and conquer" strategy of the patriarchy, which seeks to dominate and control mankind, as well as Nature herself'

This was not always so. In fact, up until somewhat recently in human history (about 5,000 years ago), a spirit of Goddess prevailed in most cultures. This did not mean that women ruled over men. Rather, there was a sense of balance and partnership without hierarchies of power, or the need to resort to armed conflict. In her book, The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler explains how the subjugation of the Feminine is directly linked with the exploitation and ruin of Nature, and warfare is resorted to as the only definitive method of ultimate resolution -- first forced, then enforced.

Once these dynamics of Spirit and Nature are recognized, is it any wonder that issues of gender play a pivotal role throughout the entire realm of humanity? And given the premise of trans-gender, that gender expression can occur independently of biological sex, it's quite understandable that transgendered people would be wrestling within this culturally imposed conflict in very personal and profound ways. The processes of gender transgression are simply a way for Spirit to transcend the passing whims and dictates of human cultures in order to more freely manifest its glorious diversity in Nature-and in our very flesh This process forms the root of Transgender Spirituality.

Regardless of the recent efforts of Western science to prove hormonal or chromosomal causation, it's really no mystery that transgendered people have manifested throughout history as an expression of Spirit. Evidence continually abounds of our flesh being informed and inspired by Spirit, whether we are a hefty male-to-female ex-football star, or a dainty female-to-male ex-ballerina. When Spirit moves, anything is possible. And, as Walter Williams points out in The Spirit and the Flesh, when Spirit manifests beyond reproductive imperatives--whether lesbian, gay or transgendered--there are other blessings to be shared: unique awareness and rare opportunities to enrich our world.

We are discovering that traditions of Transgender Spirituality span all time and place, thanks to the efforts of anthropologists and others who are resurrecting various aspects of history which were nearly erased by the patriarchy. Transgendered people throughout history assumed special roles suited to their unique abilities, many of which were spiritually oriented. They have been seers and visionaries, healers, celebrants of ceremony and ritual, officiants who blessed weddings and births and laid to rest the dead, keepers and teachers of spiritual principles, mediators between wife and husband, tribe and nation, the human world and the spirit world.

Primary Values

There are, in fact, strong common themes shared by most of the oldest, so-called primitive, spiritual world-views. Some of the core concepts of traditions like Wicca (Old Europe), Taoism (China), many Native American traditions, and shamanism all over the globe are:

  1. Every "thing" is a living manifestation of Spirit
  2. Harmony and balance between all beings must be respected
  3. The diversity of all life forms is to be honored and celebrated
  4. All beings are divine and enjoy direct access with Spirit.

Let's explore these, in turn.

The Earth is alive: rocks, waters, clouds, volcanoes, and all flora and fauna--not to mention the Cosmos of stars and planets. Goddess, in Wicca and elsewhere, is not separate from the world, nor does she rule over the world--she is the world, as Spirit manifest. We are all One organism, One in Spirit.

A contemporary Anasazi Pueblo leader (related to Hopi, the oldest culture in the Americas) says it this way:

I see a need for my people and for all human beings because of the way things are today, to go back in time and bring back respect for one another. The people of (my) pueblo have always had a spiritual way of life and done things with respect. Aside from what people from the external societies think about our so-called religion, we do not call it religion, we refer to it as a part of our spirituality, our existence. If we ever lose that part of our lives, we will surely perish. We would become a people within a lost world, at which time there would be no reason for continuing life in the physical sense. This has been part of our lives since the birth of our people. Our land is not our land, we are merely part of the land. We must all, as human beings, treat each other with respect and more specifically, we must also treat Mother Earth with respect so that we can all survive in the future. Please let us all be united and understand each other, for the future of our children is in our hands.

Living in balance, which now amounts to trying to recreate a lost balance, is critical. Taoist philosophy has long recognized the importance of the balance between yin and yang--feminine and masculine energies. To quote Starhawk, a founder in the Reclaiming movement.

Our relationship to the Earth and other species that share it has been conditioned by our religious models'. The image of God as outside of Nature has given us a rationale for our own destruction of the natural order, and justified our plunder of Earth's resources. We have attempted to "conquer" Nature as we have tried to conquer sin. Only as the results of pollution and ecological destruction become severe enough to threaten even urban humanity's' adaptability, have we come to recognize the importance of ecological balance and the interdependence of all life. The model of the Goddess, who is immanent in Nature, fosters respect for the sacredness of all living things. (Wicca) can be seen as a religion of ecology. Its goal is harmony with Nature, so that life may not just survive, but thrive.

Any biologist knows that the survival of a species depends on the diversity of its gene pool. "The Goddess, like Nature, loves diversity", says Starhawk. Our transgendered sister Rena Swifthawk taught us that in Native American cultures, there is a shared belief that "weeds don't exist". Every entity has a sacred purpose, and no one is to be wasted Yet all too often in patriarchal cultures, the pressure to conform is greater than any encouragement to become uniquely oneself--what Jung called individuation. Transgendered people feel this acutely.

Since Spirit is omnipresent, all beings enjoy direct access with the divine. Hopi ceremonial chambers, called Kivas, are round and subterranean. Thc officiants emerge from a tunnel beneath into the center to bring the wisdom and truth of the Earth. Contrast this with priests of Western cross-shaped churches who preach God's word from pulpits on high. In Wicca, there is no dogma, scriptures or sacred book revealed by prophets or saviors. Each person is responsible for revealing their own truth. Instruction comes directly from Nature, which is Goddess. "Oneness is attained not through closing the self, but through realizing it fully. Honor the Goddess in yourself, celebrate yourself, and you will see that Self is everywhere". In the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu reminds us:

There is no need to run outside for better seeing, Nor to peer from a window. Rather abide At the center of your being: For the more you leave it, the less you learn.

It is significant to note that the word Wicca is derived from the Anglo-Saxon root word meaning "to bend or shape", to shape the unseen to one's will. This supports the notion that we, as divine agents, have the freedom to shape the material world we inhabit. Transgendered people are exercising this freedom when we reshape our bodies, via cosmetics or hormonal therapy or surgery, to suit Spirit. We take responsibility for our own manifestation.

Another commonly shared aspect of ancient spiritual practice is shamanism. Shamans the world over have developed and practiced remarkably effective techniques to achieve and maintain well-being and healing for themselves and others of their communities. With a foot in each world, the shaman intercedes on behalf of the ailing earthbound patient with the world of helping spirits. One of the standard prerequisites to being called to the shaman's path often involves being transgendered. Kate Bornstein states:

My ancestors were performers'. In life. The earliest shamanic rituals involved women and men exchanging genders. Old, old rituals… life and death stuff. We're talking cross-cultural here. We're talking rising way way way above being a man or a woman. That's how my ancestors would fly. That's how my ancestors would talk with the goddesses and gods. Old rituals.

Balance Lost

With the advent of the Bronze Age about 5,000 years ago, wave upon wave of nomadic Kurgan (Asian) warriors on horseback began displacing the peaceful agrarian 30,000 year-old Goddess cultures throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Whereas, "the central religious image (had been) a woman giving birth and not, as in our time, a man dying on a cross", Riane Eisler explains, "in this new reality that is now said to be the sole creation of a male God, the life-giving and nurturing (qualities have) been displaced by the power to dominate and destroy".

The old values, the old balance were upset, and the old pattern of partnership and egality succumbed to the system of domination and hierarchy. This creates suffering for all, as Starhawk notes:

The oppression of men in Father God-ruled patriarchy is perhaps less obvious but no less tragic than that of women. Men are encouraged to identify with a model no human being can successfully emulate: to be mini-rulers of narrow universes. They are internally split, into a "spiritual" self that is supposed to conquer their baser animal and emotional natures. They are at war with themselves: in the West, to "conquer" sin; in the East, to "conquer" desire or ego. Few escape from these wars undamaged. Men lose touch with their feelings and their bodies...

Since Goddess culture has persisted "underground" these last five millennia, manifestations of Transgender Spirit must be viewed to some extent in relation to patriarchal oppression. Thus, what may appear at times to be negatively charged may be perfectly justifiable as a reaction.

The repression and persecution of transgendered people during this period has taken many forms, and is undeniably linked with the subjugation of women and the values of Goddess. A persistent and well-documented Biblical agenda has been to "cut down the groves" (sites of pagan worship) and to "establish dominion over Nature". Medieval Europe was infamous for burning witches, who were often Wiccan. Joan d'Arc was burned for dressing and acting as a man. When European explorers like DeSoto came to the Americas, they discovered transgendered shamans and, naming them berdache (boy prostitute), fed them to their dogs.

Within this climate of repression, gender-variant people claimed other ways of expressing their truth. In defiance of patriarchy, many found ritual self-castration (e.g. rites of Cybele and Attis) as a way back to Goddess in Transgender Spirit. Yet in subjugation, many also (such as the Hijras of India) have practiced prostitution and begging. The traditional caste systems of India and variations elsewhere may accommodate protective cloisters, but have failed to promote active integration of gender diversity within their culture.

To this day, the existence of transgendered people is despised, denied and trivialized. Transsexual Sandy Stone writes: of the ways that people justify oppressing people of any alternative gender or sexuality is by saying that the social norm is natural. In other words it comes from God, an authority to which there is no appeal. All this is, in fact, a complete fabrication, a construction. There is no "natural" sex, because "sex" itself as a medical or cultural category is nothing more than the momentary outcome of battles over who owns the meanings of the category. There is a great deal wider variation in genetics than most people except geneticists realize, but we make that invisible through having no words for anything except male or female. One of the ways our culture erases people is by not having any words for them. That does it absolutely. When there's nothing to describe you, you are effectively invisible.

TV talk shows and the mass media have done much to exploit and trivialize transgendered people and our spirit. And while crossdressers like Ru Paul or Lady Bunny of Wigstock, plus films like "Priscilla Quecn of the Desert" or "To Wong Foo..." are currently in vogue, there is a backlash building within ultraconservative factions of society.

Might this backlash be like a dinosaur flailing its tail in its death throes? Will there be a critical mass of new consciousness and a paradigm shift? There is increasing evidence that the patriarchy is in decline, and that a renewal of spirituality is emerging. There are many bridges out of traditional space being formed by writers like Matthew Fox, Patricia Reilly and Paul Smith. There are many other examples of Spirit reasserting itself, not the least of which is the so-called New Age movement. Themes of feminism, consensus, ecology and spirituality are recreating the balance. Our need to evolve beckons from this threshold.

As the pendulum swings, Goddess is returning. Many masculine-to-feminine transgendered people share this momentum and are committing their lives to personifying the struggle. Many feminine-to-masculine transgendered people are also striving to bring the best of womanhood into a new sense of what it is to be a man. This long forbidden cross pollination of gender has the potential to enable all of us to become more fully human. Therefore, just as women are reclaiming their connection with the divine, transgendered people are reconnecting with our own rich spiritual heritage and reclaiming sacred space.

Transgender Spirits are Circling

Transgendered people in the West started gathering only 3-4 decades ago. Initially, issues of gender, sexuality and fetish were confused due to cultural context. But support groups formed and, in the early 1980's, international networks and conventions formed across the landscape. Many topics have since been addressed, including the recent introduction of Transgender Spirituality. This became most pronounced in 1991 when Rena Swifthawk shared her Native American Spirituality at I.F.G.E.'s convention in Denver, and transgender spirits circled months later at the first Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta. Circles have continued at both these annual events and are catching on elsewhere like Fantasia Fair at Cape Cod--the oldest of transgender festivals.

The first intentional Transgender Spirit Circle, following 3 years of national networking, was the Kindred Spirits Circle in Hot Springs, NC in August of 1993. True to spirit, many others have since convened: Pink Moon Gathering, Full Circle of Women, Union of Spirits, Mountain Spirits, and no doubt others that were less publicized. There is currently a retreat center taking shape in the mountains of Western North Carolina to address such issues year-round, called Kindred Spirits.

Transgender Spirits Circling within the Transgender Community is a rather recent and still controversial phenomenon. Many transgendered people practice traditional religions or have yet to find a spiritual life. But the longing for true community is universal. As Starhawk so beautifully expressed:

We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been., a place, half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.

Our circles to date are rather modest in scope, yet they are proliferating. They are intimate and affordable, and intense in their ability to heal and empower. The sharing and nurturing that is possible between kindred transgender spirits is unlike any other. It is characterized by intuitive connection, trust, honoring individuality, operating in consensus, spontaneity, minimal expectations, open hearts and minds, and no hidden agendas. While various therapeutic methods, shamanic techniques and any number of spiritual traditions can be utilized, the main feature of the process actually seems to be simply getting out of the way so that Spirit can move through. Traditional approaches can lend a foundation and validity, but we must also self-authorize by acting intuitively. As Goddess would say, "all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals".

Spirit Transcending Gender

The Transgender Spirit transcends the simplistic cultural dictum that anatomical sex is synonymous with gender expression. Gender should never be polarized. It is a rainbow that is far too splendorous in its diversity. The expression of one's whole gender must be intuitive, fluid, and in a perpetual state of becoming. There can be no rules to govern how Spirit must manifest. Widespread occurrences of hermaphroditism in plants, animals and humans provide graphic evidence of Spirit expressing its diversity beyond the cultural constructs of bipolar gender. Transgendered people embody this Goddess-spirit of diversity integrated as one, whole being. The inner healing (which means "to make whole) that we achieve can be outwardly applied to the imbalance and distress that surrounds us. We can serve as a bridge between polarities to help restore balance, integration and wholeness.

Some Native American elders believe that there is an abundance of transgendered people being born at this time who can help heal our world. Gender is at the very heart of who we are as human beings. Our gender transitions--the very process of gender-shift -- can be viewed as a kind of Vision Quest, addressing that age-old question: who are we? To transcend gender stereotyping is to dare to be fully oneself, fully human, as Spirit intended. We must all cultivate our full capacities if we are to effectively meet the critical challenges of our time. But before we can help heal our world, we must heal ourselves. We must tell our truth, refashion old myths, and reinvent the tools we need to operate in today's world with deep compassion and fresh relevance.

I used to see my spiritual path as being very ascetic, having been taught that the sensuality and "frivolity" of my transgender was contrary to Spirit. All I thought I needed was a blanket and a bowl of water on a mountaintop. However, as I heeded the irresistible call of my transgender, I was delighted and surprised to discover that it provided the very "grounding" I needed. As Goddess came alive through me, I became more whole. Spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, became one. My lifelong experience in wilderness and love of Nature provided the foundation for this healing. I had wasted years waiting to feel worthy of the inscrutable wisdom of esoteric teachings, until I realized who my teachers really were, and that I was as ready as I would ever be to act from my own awareness. The challenge is to respect ourselves as caring and capable people. Increasingly, we trans-gendered people are awakening and intuitively finding our own voices and callings, despite the prior deprivation of our history, history, or a sense of our own community. says,

Once Spirit and Flesh are consciously joined, there is grounding, there is exaltation… there is balance. Once the need to polarize and separate relents, barriers fall away and fear gives way to love. As Starhawk says, wrote:

All began in love; all seeks to return to love. Love is the law, the teacher of wisdom, and the great revealer of mysteries.

To transgress the arbitrary boundaries of gender is to honor the potential of Spirit. In the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote:

One who has a man's wings
and a woman's also
Is in himself a womb of the world
And, being a womb of the world,
Continuously, endlessly,
gives birth ....

We are deities. We are Spirit manifesting in human forms. Let us live that truth, and help everyone see the beauty and strength that lies beyond the constraints of gender. And let us give thanks for the unique opportunity to do so.