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Dharma in Transition: A Buddhist Call for Trans Liberation


In her book Radical Acceptance (Random House 2004), American Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach speaks of what she calls the “trance of unworthiness.” Brach describes how “the trance of unworthiness” is a state in which people often feel as though they are fundamentally “not enough.” They feel as though something deep down is lacking in them: they don’t feel like full beings; they don’t feel that they matter.

For so much of my life, I have lived through my own “trance of unworthiness.” In the past, especially prior to my gender transition, I had felt that my trans body was not “enough,” was “not lovable,” was not worthy of care or desire.

Now that I have been on testosterone for two years, I have realized something important: this trance of unworthiness is not an inevitable part of life. My body is worthy of love. My body is a vehicle toward liberation. My body is not a problem; what it has been subjected to is.

As I write, my heart calls forward these words by scholar Judith Butler:

I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is most urgent. If the answer to the question, is life possible, is yes, that is surely something significant. It cannot, however, be taken for granted as the answer.

(Butler 2004)

For so long, my life didn’t seem possible. I hurt deeply, suffering in body and mind. I wanted to make my gender dysphoria go away by meditating it away: maybe in allowing my thoughts to pass, I can let the “thought” of gender transition pass away like a cloud. This is very sad. To use our Buddhist practice as a way of silencing our most profound needs—those very actions and forms of help that can lead to the cessation of suffering.

As a trans person living in an anti-trans time, I need to say clearly that starting testosterone has made my life possible. Having top surgery has made my life possible. The hair on my face makes my life possible. Seeing myself more clearly makes my life possible. It is through transition that I hear the Dharma anew. Indeed, Dogen’s time-being finally makes (some) sense to me. There is no future nor past. There is the unfolding of this present moment. There is our bodies changing, becoming, in an always impermanent moment. My trans body is not an obstacle to liberation. It is liberation itself.

Gender transition has made my life possible. But gender transition cannot be taken for granted. As Buddhists, I ask us to open our hearts and bring awareness to the conditions of this present moment. Right now, trans children are under attack in the United States. Across the country, in states such as Idaho, Texas, and Utah, trans girls and women are being told that they can’t participate in sports. They can’t receive gender-affirming care. Their families can be reported and investigated for allowing them to transition.

Do we understand how much of our “trance of unworthiness,” our suffering, our feeling of operating as less than, is not inevitable? Our feeling of unworthiness is cultivated through the policies that bear on our lives. It’s forged through the ways our government, religious communities, families, and schools advocate for trans people—whether they fight for our right to live and flourish, or whether they seek to deny us our futures.


On this Trans Day of Visibility, I hold trans people in my heart. I hold in my heart our struggles to live our sacred lives amid a nationwide assault on our bodies, the lives of trans children, and our greater trans collective community. I hold in my heart those children, families, activists, and lawyers who are working to combat governmental policies that aspire to keep trans children and adults from taking our place in public life, from becoming our fullest selves.

Trans children, trans people, will fight for our lives—we will survive and flourish. But we cannot deny the state of things as they are. We cannot deny the oppression and brutality we are up against. We need not suffer in these ways. There is a brighter future ahead, but it must be forged in this present moment. We, collectively, can work to create greater peace and justice for trans people.

I believe that Buddhist resources—texts, talks, and communities—can help us work toward collective justice. They can help us to contend with the arising of our contemporary moment. Buddhist texts, Buddhist voices can meet our eyes, our ears, to see us, to hear us; to bear witness to us, to transform the world as it is into a world that is less full of suffering.

To be Buddhist is to know that there is suffering. But in my eyes, to be Buddhist is also to act so that there is less suffering. To be Buddhist is to act to eradicate the suffering of our world. To be Buddhist is to act for the safety and benefit of all beings.

On this Trans Day of Visibility, what will you and your Buddhist communities do to confront and transform the harm being done to trans people? What steps can you take as Buddhists, as sanghas, to uplift and support trans people in your community and state? How can you help to make your families, schools, and religious communities full of greater freedom and exploration for transgender and gender-diverse children? What does Buddhist liberation mean to you? What does justice for trans people mean to you?

May we work toward the cessation of suffering. May we listen to trans people at this time. May we fight against discrimination and oppression when and where we see it. May we work toward liberation. In doing this work, a more expansive present-future is possible.


Brach, Tara. 2004. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. New York: Random House.

Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

See more

Utah bans transgender athletes in girls sports despite governor’s veto (NPR)
Idaho House Passes Discriminatory Bill to Criminalize Gender Affirming Care for Transgender Youth (Human Rights Campaign)
Transgender Texas kids are terrified after governor orders that parents be investigated for child abuse (Texas Tribune)

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