by Be Scofield, founder of Decolonizing Yoga
The noted Buddhist feminist scholar Rita Gross recently gave a talk called “How Clinging to Gender Identity Subverts Enlightenment” at the San Francisco Zen Center. The event was based on her new forthcoming book being published on Shambala which shares the same title as her talk. As a trans person I was reluctant to go, both because I found the title offensive, and the description included things like “clinging to any feeling that gender identity is relevant, is detrimental to our ability to rest in primordial Buddha-nature.” Ouch! Gender identity is highly relevant, and I waited 33 years to have a chance to cling to it. I am glad I attended though, because it was a revealing, no, enlightening, experience to say the least.
I was quite surprised with how archaic Rita Gross’s views were. It was as if she had never opened a book on feminism or queer/gender theory in the last 20 years (or race as I explain later). For example, when the first questioner asked her if she had consulted any trans people for her book about gender identity she said “You know, I don’t really get into the trans issues because that’s not my thing.” And she certainly demonstrated it that night.
After her talk I asked her if she was a supporter of transgender people. She replied, “I’m supportive of trans people but I don’t support their ideologies.” I asked, “what are trans ideologies?” She stated “I don’t know.” How can you disagree with a groups ideologies if you don’t know what they are? She had this general fear of “ideologies.” When I asked if she supported trans people transitioning or getting sex-reassignment surgeries she said “I have no opinion on the matter one way or the other.” How can one be on the fence about this question? Particularly as a progressive feminist? Imagine if she had said that about gay marriage? She also stated during her talk, “People who feel like they are a girl in the wrong body are conflicted and confused. They should just relax and be at ease in their skin.”
Fortunately, the room was filled with trans folks and allies and numerous people were frustrated and asked poignant questions. On several occasions when some of us mentioned to her how important it is to be in dialogue with trans folks and other intersectional feminists she repeatedly and defensively stated “I’m not going to change my terms.” How can you claim to be advancing feminism and Buddhism when you don’t care what the groups negatively impacted by your words have to say? How can you write a book about Buddhism and gender identity and ignore the community whom has some of the most intimate experiences with these topics? Gross is clinging to her rigid views.
Gross didn’t know the difference between gender identity and gender roles; a significant oversight for a contemporary feminist writing a book about gender. She continually conflated them, as in “we need to abolish gender roles because clinging to gender identity is detrimental to our ability to find enlightenment.” Of course gender identity is how one self-identifies (i.e. man, woman, trans, gender queer, cisgender…etc.) and gender roles are societal prescriptions for acceptable behavior (women should be passive and wear skirts and men should be dominant…etc). In her quest to erase gender roles and her conflation of them with gender identity she denies the very real and important role that gender identity plays in everyone’s lives, not only trans folks.
Gross also advanced an outdated and out of touch version of feminism. She defined it as “the abolishment of all gender roles.” How do we know when the goal of abolishing gender roles is complete? She states “The mark of being free of the prison of gender roles is when equal number of teachers are men and equal numbers are women.” This is a classic 2nd wave, white feminist statement. Unfortunately, calls for gender equality made by middle class white feminists left out women of color, queer/trans people, and people of lower socioeconomic classes. Given this problematic history it’s important to name that there’s not just a need for “women” (generally read as white women) but rather there is a need to see women and men of color teachers, queer and trans teachers, teachers from various socioeconomic backgrounds and ability. Furthermore, intersectional feminism should be rooted in the critique of the racist, capitalist and patriarchal structures of society, not just focused on filling leadership roles with marginalized folks or subverting gender norms.
Gross was raised in a different era, one where gender roles were much stricter and more defined than they are today. She explains, “As someone who was socialized before the 2nd wave of feminism began, I was very much socialized in the rigid gender roles of the late 1940s and 1950’s and believe me it was a prison. It was very much a prison. It’s very much the way I experienced it. I can remember as a child, thinking frequently, why did I have to be a girl? Girls don’t get to do anything interesting and important. Why did I have to be a girl?” This pain has clearly shaped her views and helps explains why she sees gender roles as the number one enemy.
Is Gender Socially Constructed?
At the core of Gross’s belief is an extreme form of social constructivism, what author Julia Serano calls gender artifactualism. “Gender,” according to Gross, is something that is entirely shaped by parenting, social influences and society at large. She even blamed parenting on one’s desired gender preference, claiming that parents now a days don’t know how to raise their kids as “humans,” rather they gender them so young. The problem with this line of thinking is that it simply isn’t supported by the research. There are cases of identical twins both raised as male from birth with the same parents and one comes out as transgender. In other cases one identical twin or sibling will be queer. Additionally, many parents do go to great lengths to raise their children in gender neutral environments yet there is same range of gender and sexuality expression found. Also, there have been numerous cases of babies who had their genitals surgically changed and raised completely as a new gender. Julia Serano explains,
The most well known case is that of David Reimer, who was surgically reassigned to female after his penis was inadvertently destroyed during circumcision. Despite being socialized female, having a body that appeared female, and being unaware of having been born male, David was always very masculine in gender expression, was attracted to girls not boys and throughout his childhood experienced difficult-to-articulate feelings that he should be male rather than female. Upon learning his history he began to live as a man. His unconscious self-understanding that he should be male (what I would describe as his subconscious sex) bares similarities to the experiences of transexuals and of some intersex individuals who have been subjected to nonconsensual genital surgeries and raised as female because doctors considered them to have “ambiguous genitals.”
As these examples note, biology is highly relevant to ones gender identity. Therefore, both the gender determinism and social constructivism views miss the mark. The reality is that gender identity is a hybrid, influenced by both both nature and nurture.
The strange thing was that Gross basically denied the existence of men and women. She said she has no idea what a man or woman is aside from their sex organs. If I had asked her if she was a woman, I have a strong feeling she would have paused and not known how to answer. There was a fear of identifying as anything, apparently out of fear of clinging. I told her that a woman is someone who identifies as a woman and a man is one who identifies as a man. She got quiet and looked really puzzled as if she had never heard this before. She also didn’t know what the term cisgender meant.
According to Gross, because gender identity is entirely a social construct we can all just move beyond it. Gender is a fictional, non-real thing that can be discarded at will. Genitals or body parts are irrelevant. This is easy for cisgender people to advocate because they’ve always had the corresponding body parts they like. Not so for many trans people, including myself.
The Joy of Preferences
How do we as a society break free from the damaging constraints of gender roles? According to Gross the answer is simple: “men, give up your pants” she stated. She really wants more guys wearing skirts. She wants people to challenge the ways in which gender norms and habits are conditioned. That exploration is of course fine, but to place this at the center of a feminist strategy is ill-informed. Besides, she was sitting there in a skirt! I asked, “if giving up conditioned gender roles and behavior is so central to your theory why are you wearing a skirt?” She replied “because it’s comfortable.” Right, but not for everyone. There is a reason she doesn’t wear tuxedos and business suits when she speaks. She has a preference, and that’s ok!
We all have preferences. Some like mayonnaise and anchovies, others despise them. Some like to wear dresses, others tuxedos. Is refusing to eat vanilla ice cream when you hate it a form of clinging to chocolate? What’s wrong with preferences?
It’s important to note that Gross’s statements are made in a social context where transgender folks who transition into a binary identity i.e. male to female or female to male at times receive pushback from other queer folks for supporting the binary gender system. Because it’s believed that sexist oppression originates from a binary gender system, then all queer people must subvert and resist it. Julia Serano calls this subversivism. While many of us “binary” trans folks have fought for years just to exist as we’d like, Gross’s system fuels the notion that we are simply supporting a status quo and aren’t subversive or radical enough.
Out of Touch
Just when I thought she couldn’t be more out of touch she said “I’ve always been nice to colored folks. I never understood why people didn’t treat them nice.” She used the term “colored” two times to refer to people of color, once during her talk and once when I was interviewing her after. The context was I had asked her if she supported trans people and she was describing how she has always been supportive of lesbians and gays and minorities. She then made the outdated reference to people of color. Gross knew I was writing an article about the event and saw me typing every word she was saying and none of this gave her pause about any of her statements.
The Pursuit of Disembodiment
The theme throughout her talk was the classic Buddhist idea that one should not confuse the relative with the ultimate. It’s not conducive to cling to anything relative. Suffering is caused by clinging/attachment., i.e. one’s gender identity or gender role and this attachment must be abandoned. The general way this is played out is to say to study enlightenment is to study the self and to study the self is to forget the self. Thus, one must forget gender identity. Gross stated, “clinging always produces suffering. It’s not a pleasant affair…There are dire consequences of clinging to gender.” Yet, she never defined clinging in relation to “gender” other than to say that it’d become more important than anything else.
I couldn’t agree with Jey Ehrenhalt more when they say:
Such a transcendence is dangerous when it denies the historical struggle to be recognized, the political fight to be heard. While I understand the appeal of moving beyond one’s gender, the paradigm likely shifts more smoothly for one whose minority identity has never been threatened or taken away. So far, my goal of enlightenment does not involve any higher states of consciousness or transcendent bliss. My hope is simply to feel all right in my body, at home in my skin. If I am finally able to feel at home in my gender identity, part of me hopes I will cling to it in triumphant attachment, opting never to meditate my gender away.
I get that there is a generational gap at play here (Rita is 70 years old). However, she is publishing a book on gender identity on Shambala Publications, speaks around the country on these issues and is still regarded as a leading voice in Buddhist Feminism. Furthermore, she said on several occasions “I’m not going to change my terms” despite being presented with evidence that her languaging is harmful, outdated and ill-informed. Repeated pleas to consult with queer/trans and intersectional voices went unheard.
As a transgender person dedicated to intersectional feminism I have deep concerns about Rita Gross’s new book and the way she speaks about gender identity. If she would dialogue with those of us impacted by her work I think she could avoid the problematic elements. However, it would require her to be an ally, and sadly she doesn’t know what that term means. Most importantly, it’d require her to make a strong commitment to non-attachment and right speech and I can only truly hope that she knows what that actually means.
About Be Scofield
Be Scofield, founder of Decolonizing Yoga, is a queer/trans writer, activist, Dr. King scholar and web/interaction/graphic designer who specializes in helping progressive and alternative health platforms shine. Her work on spirituality, social justice and atheism has appeared in Tikkun Magazine, Huffington Post and Alternet and she has a chapter in the book “21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice.”