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Call Us By Our Chosen Name

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Image courtesy of Richard Harrold
Image courtesy of Richard Harrold

Gay people are lucky. All members of the LGBTQ community are lucky because we began our lives investigating self. We had to because the larger straight society was either disinclined and ignored us or was outwardly hostile.

The ignorance often manifested with a shrug and the words, “That really doesn’t matter to me,” which, initially, was comforting. But as time went on, this indifference was perceived to be a shield, a defense mechanism against having to recognize us as entire loving and compassionate beings on the same path as others. With questions like, “Why do you have to talk about being gay?” we felt a passive resistance to hearing our stories.

As an example of the hostility, many of us were expelled from our homes by our families. Others attempted to push us back into the closet, using the law to accomplish this. And still others resorted to violence. And even among those who were merely indifferent, some worked so hard to ignore our presence that they shifted into the latter camp, becoming angry and hostile when we challenged their reactions.

This has happened as well in our sanghas. Our places of refuge have often become spaces of passive and active hostility to our presence. Just by being, we make others uncomfortable, and often for a very simple reason: we expose the fraud of serenity professed by others just by showing up.

It’s not just LGBTQ practitioners experiencing this. People of color also share similar stories of aloofness and dismissiveness when visiting predominately white sanghas and Buddhist groups. Pick your favorite way white cis-gendered practitioners negate our presence:

“I don’t see race.”

“Your sexuality is irrelevant to the practice.”

“Race/sexuality are just fabrications and are not real in and of themselves.”

When we attempt to bring this up, we are met with defensiveness and often the infamous phrase, “Not all white/straight people.”

More recently, I’ve seen this in discussions among Buddhists in the United States and Canada, both in person and online, in reference to transgendered and gender non-conforming people. Here the hang-up is over, of all things, pronouns and how we identify ourselves and others.

In particular, there are many cis-gendered people who do not like being called cis-gendered. In one situation, a woman online commented that she got so riled by this label that she needed to, “meditate on this.” But what will she “meditate” on?

Others react negatively to the idea of someone requesting that the pronouns them/they/their be used, rather than “he” or “she” when addressing a transgender or gender non-conforming person. It is as if this were a threat to the entire English language, which, by the way, is an amalgamation of Latin, French, and German (yes, English is a bastard).

Surely there must be some Dhamma that can guide us. While the path’s ultimate goal—at least as expressed within the canon—is liberation and the ending of all becoming, the process to achieve that goal involves developing the ability to see things as they really are. In other words, following the path means that we work to rid ourselves of the three things that prevent us from seeing how things really are: greed, hatred, and delusion. And that last one—delusion—is the most difficult to eliminate, because how does a deluded mind become aware that it is a deluded mind?

Fortunately, there is plenty to guide us within the Tipitaka on this subject, provided we can look past the specific circumstances described within a particular sutta and skillfully apply it to our situation.

What I’ve noticed is that it’s the privileged who object the most to this new lexicon, as they stand to lose the most when their personal identity is challenged. And yet, the privileged cannot see how their reaction is potentially similar to those who have had to deal with an identity imposed upon them. This is the danger of privilege, whether it is white privilege or the privilege of the cis-gendered.

People talk about not clinging to “false binaries” or “empty forms,” and yet that is precisely what those in positions of privilege are doing by asserting the need to let go of these labels. They are clinging to these linguistic fabrications despite the fact they are urging others to let go of them, because these fabrications are the creation of their world. And it’s threatening to them, whether they realize it or not, when others challenge that world.

Instead of listening to the challenge and seeking to understand, the clinging privileged mind takes over and dismisses the challenge. This frustrates the rest of us. It frustrates us because this clinging, privileged mind is unwilling to recognize that it’s a clinging, privileged mind.

“Bhikkhus, for a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, it is natural that he conduct himself thus: ‘The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple; the Blessed One knows, I do not know.’” (Kitagiri Sutta: At Kitagiri MN 70)

We in the LGBTQ community know who we are. Trust us. We have gone through an often very perilous path that for some of us led to a despair so crippling that suicide appeared to be the only option. Those of us who escaped that pit emerged with a new assuredness that was nigh unshakeable.

Recall the story of Vakkali, who was so enamored with the Buddha that the Buddha rebuked him for remaining attached through his senses. This rebuke was so devastating to Vakkali that he sought to commit suicide by jumping off a mountain, but the Buddha intervened and saved him.

White people and cis-gendered people are of the habit not to allow others to speak on who they are. White people are unused to the position of being the learner as they have been the teacher all along; they are unused to others self-identifying as they have been in the habit of identifying others for them.

This is where I need to repeat the caution about the defensive retort so often heard—some variation of: “Not all white people,” or “I’m not that way.” If you feel a strong need to respond with either of these or something similar, then yes, I am afraid you are “that way.” You just may not realize it.

More often than not, terms such as “white people” and “cis-gendered” are referring to a group mentality, not individual people. By carving out an exception for yourself, you end up derailing the conversation that was, until you spoke, not about you. But by bringing this up, you make it all about you. Suddenly, others may feel the need to placate you. Others, however, won’t put up with that and will, very directly, school you on how the comment is inappropriate.

If the comment does not apply to you, there’s no need to point that out. Doing so only sucks all the air out of the room.

Trust us. We know who we are.

“When a forest-dwelling bhikkhu comes to the sangha and is living in the sangha, he should be easy to correct and should associate with good friends. If he is difficult to correct and associates with bad friends, there will be those who would say of him: ‘What has this venerable forest-dweller gained by his dwelling alone in the forest, doing as he likes, since he is difficult to correct and associates with bad friends?’ Since there would be those who would say this of him, a forest-dwelling bhikkhu who has come to the sangha and is living in the sangha should be easy to correct and should associate with good friends.” (Gulissani Sutta, With Gulissani MN 69)

White people can be like the forest-dwelling bhikkhu, living among themselves and socializing only among themselves. In such an environment, they reinforce a false narrative about people of color (POC) and LGBTQ people. This includes my own community of white, cis-gendered, gay people. The transphobia I have witnessed within the gay community is astonishing.

When they (i.e. the sangha) encounter POC and LGBTQ folk, they are resistant to guidance and continue to associate with those who reinforce their already established beliefs. On the other hand, the white people who listen to and accept the guidance of POC and gender nonconforming people are like the former forest-dwelling bhikkhus who come to the sangha and accept its guidance.

Similarly, with the forest-dwelling bhikkhu who is energetic, established in mindfulness, etc. Too often, however, white people approach these issues with the distorted view that they already know what is best without realizing that what they think is best is actually a course of action that sustains their own ignorance and privilege.

“So too, Udayin, there are certain misguided men here who, when told by me ‘Abandon this,’ say: ‘’What, such a mere trifle, such a little thing as this? This recluse is much too exacting!’ And they do not abandon that and they show discourtesy toward me as well as towards those bhikkus desirous of training. For them that thing becomes a strong, stout, tough, unrotting tether and a thick yoke.” (Latukikopama Sutta: The Quail Simile MN 66)

Privilege is a very difficult yoke to shrug off, whether it’s the yoke of white privilege or that of being cis-gendered. Yet POC and gender nonconforming people are making a significant request that white, cis-gendered people frequently find onerous.

But those who do listen and do abandon their previously held beliefs about race and identity find themselves at ease and more comfortable being around and working with POC and gender nonconforming people.

“Friend, there are two conditions for the arising of right view: the voice of another and wise attention.” (Mahavedalla Sutta: The Greater Series of Questions and Answers MN 43)

In the case of having right view regarding POC and gender nonconforming people, it is we—POC and gender nonconforming people—who are the voice of another and white cis-gendered people ought to be giving us wise attention, for we know and they do not.

Frequently, white cis-gendered people believe that all they need to do is “meditate” on this and somehow clarity will come. But that is not how it happens. The Buddha is very clear in this passage that to achieve Right View, one needs “the voice of another and wise attention.” The “voice of another” is already present with POC and gender nonconforming people providing the necessary guidance. What is lacking is “wise attention.”

Ann Gleig presents this scenario with exceptional skill in her book American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press 2019), in the chapter “The Dukkha of Racism.” Gleig presents excellent examples of how predominately white sanghas can send unintended messages of “you’re not welcome here” to both POC and LGBTQ visitors who come seeking refuge. Unsurprisingly, POC and LGBTQ practitioners self-segregate into their own groups, sometimes within the realm of the larger, white-dominated group, much to the dismay of the white, cis-gendered members who wonder why these other practitioners keep to themselves.

Left: Dr. Ann Gleig. From twitter.com.
Right: American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity. From amazon.com

An experience I had with an early teacher comes to mind. Observing that the members of the sangha were either Thai or white, I asked the abbot why there were no African American visitors. His reply was, “Oh, they come on occasion, but they never come back.” Even with this abbot, who was very wise about the Dhamma, the default reaction was to blame the problem on the African American visitors, rather than to consider that the sangha may have been projecting an unwelcoming atmosphere.

Gleig addresses this as well when she explains how the default message is often “Come join us and become what we are,” rather than the more inclusive, “Please join us and help us become more of what you are.”

“Citta, these are the world’s designations, the world’s expressions, the world’s ways of speaking, the world’s descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them.” (Potthapada Sutta: About Potthapada DN 9)

Yes, words are fabrications. Race, sexuality, gender identification nomenclature—these are all fabrications that in and of themselves are empty.

But they are words that we use to express ideas. And they are words that we use to describe ourselves.

Remember Jane Elliott and her famous “brown eyes blue eyes experiment”? There is an almost 52-minute video of hers under the series The Angry Eye, and when you find it on YouTube, go to 43:00 (watch the entire video, but for now, skip ahead). Elliott brings a white woman and a black man up to the front of the class. She asks the very simple question, “What differences do you see, what logical differences do you see.”

Someone calls out that sex is a logical difference—there is a woman and a man. The man admits that being a man is a strong part of his identity. He wants to be perceived as a man.

Elliott then turns the discussion to race. She asks the class to raise their hands if they see the man as being black. She humorously asks the man, “Did you know you were black before they said so (referring to the class),” to which he replies, “Yes.” Elliott then asks him if his skin color is important to him and if so, how important.

“It is who I am,” he replies.

Elliott: “Is it important to you that she (the white girl also at standing before the class) sees you as you are rather than just like everyone else?” Black man: “Yes.”

Elliott then goes on to explain that when you say, “I don’t see race,” you are admitting that you are refusing to see a fundamental key identifying characteristic about a person that has a huge impact on all aspects of their life. You are, in fact, refusing to see them as a person.

“You do not have the right to say to someone ‘I don’t want to see you as you are, I want to see you as I would be more comfortable seeing you,’” Elliott tells the class.

Even the Buddha, an enlightened being, acknowledged that he uses words without owning them, because these are the words the world uses, this is how the world communicates. To be so stubborn as to refuse to acknowledge that takes a special type of arrogance.

I am a cis-gendered gay white male. As difficult as it was for me to navigate a world dominated by cis-gendered straight people, particularly straight white men, I cannot fathom the obstacles transgendered and gender non-conforming people face. The ridicule, the harm, the ostracism they face—even from within the gay community—is far beyond my ability to understand. While the animus and the violence associated with racism and homophobia remain significant problems in our society, the violence has been disproportionately directed and more vicious toward transgendered people, especially transgender women of color.

As I write in my book, My Buddha Is Pink (Sumeru Press 2019), the Dhamma is a tremendous refuge for us in the LGBTQ community. It is a safe haven for personal growth and spirituality like none other. The metaphor of the Dhamma being medicine to help us see things as they really are and to find liberation is most appropriate. It is a cause of great dismay when we encounter an unwelcoming atmosphere in our sanghas. Fortunately, many of us continue to follow the path as solo practitioners, although some abandon it altogether. But it’s not we in the LGBTQ community or POC who need to accommodate the sensibilities of cis-gendered white people.

See more

Kitagiri Sutta: At Kitagiri, MN 70 (Access to Insight)
Gulissani Sutta: With Gulissani, MN 69 (Sutta Central)
Latukikopama Sutta: The Quail Simile MN 66 (Access to Insight)
Mahavedalla Sutta: The Greater Series of Questions and Answers, MN 43 (Access to Insight)
American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press)
Potthapada Sutta: About Potthapada, DN 9 (Access to Insight)

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