The subject of transgender politics is really hot right now, at least in some circles. Now, I don't pretend that I am in any way on the forefront of understanding all that is politically correct in the dialogue of trans rights, experiences and terminology but I do have some ideas about how it presents itself in my sphere of life.
There is a radical environmental group called Deep Green Resistance (DGR). Their efforts are geared toward looking at (and stopping) the industrial civilization that is killing us all because it depends on the exploitation of the earth's natural resources as well as the backs of "the 99%." One of their primary discussion points is that this out of control and out of balance way of living is deeply embedded in patriarchal structures that reward competition, oppression of women, emotional numbness, an unhealthy power dynamic that allows for exploitation, etc. In this vein, some female members of DGR hold women-only meetings to discuss issues as they are experienced by women. They made a decision not to allow transgender women (men who became women) to attend because they had grown up socialized as men and receiving said privilege and could not speak from the perspective of a 'woman'. This sparked a forest fire of reaction that has divided the group, elicited a level of violent response that is pretty much unacceptable in any circumstance but especially this one, and has at best led to a lot of discussion of gender politics.
So where does the buddhism come in? Derrick Jensen, founder of DGR, eventually chose to respond when he felt that the "truth" of the situation was being misrepresented. The gist of his response was that trans rights groups are fighting for the continued support of a gender binary (that there is male and there is female with qualities associated with each) and he feels that it is the existence of this binary, that is purely socialized, that is creating the unhealthy society in the first place. You can read more here but I will continue. What I think he means is that there is a catch-22. Trans people want the right to be recognized equally as the gender that they feel they are and the right to achieve the body (or 'sex') that society recognizes as fitting that gender. They want to feel whole. This is totally legit. We all want that. As a buddhist, I am trying to study my self and find my true self in order that I will some day feel whole, love myself exactly as I am, warts and all. So one might ask, if we are fighting to get to a place where people can feel comfy in their own skin, then isn't changing your body to a different sex just supporting the gender stereotypes that are wreaking havoc on us all? If patriarchy is making demons out of men and victims out of women why fight to be recognized as one of those when you could just be who you are with the skin you were born with?
So seriously, here's the buddhist part. The conventional truth (the world our human minds can see and that language describes it) is that we are not in a time where we love each other unconditionally for who we are regardless of appearance, etc. We live in a time full of aggression and socially accepted masculine and feminine traits and behavior, style, expectations and experiences. The ultimate truth is that Derrick Jensen is right, there is no man or woman or masculine or feminine, there are people or sentient beings that co-create the world and our very existence depends on the presence of every other thing. That WE ARE NOT SEPARATE. We are all shimmering mirrors reflecting and expressing the perfection of existence.
But we cannot pretend and live like ultimate truth is all there is. That would be like saying, I can take whatever I want from whoever I want because there is no separation so it's all mine or it's no one's. There is both the conventional and ultimate truth and we have to hold both at the same time. We have to live in the world where maybe someone is happier when they have a body that matches what they feel inside because they have no choice but to see themselves reflected in the eyes of society. So while we may know there is a flaw to the logic that someone feels that they were born with the wrong body in the first place, we cannot invalidate their experience and deny them their attempt at finding wholeness. I might go so far as to argue that the decision for some women's DGR meetings to exclude trans women may have a thread of logic to it but it will probably cause more harm than good to exclude people. And finally, the Real truth is that we don't know. We don't know whether the harm/good from any one decision is bigger/smaller than the outcome from a different choice. We are all doing our best and deep down hurting people is something no one wants to do.
For the record, this issue is something Green Gulch hasn't really had to face yet (as far as I know). So DGR is taking the bullet for many other groups that will indeed have to face this situation. There has been the briefest of discussions about what would happen if a transgender individual wanted to come here as a resident. One person of the older generation didn't really understand the problem. Maybe they thought the individual would just use the bathroom of whatever sex they were. This is assuming that they have fully transitioned and look like the gender they feel. But what if we have a young person who identifies as a woman but still has a body that looks very "male"? Which bathroom would they use? Who would they share a room with? It's like we'd have to choose who we want to make uncomfortable. The trans person could room with who they want and use whatever bathroom that feels appropriate but what about the other people they share with? How will they feel? Will they understand? There's the interpersonal and community side of things (like we have to explore these issues and talk about our feelings) and then there's the practical side of things (do we need to build a new bathroom that is unisex? should a transgender person just have their own room? do we have the space for that? is that isolating? fair?)
Stay tuned. And in the mean time ask yourself, is buddha a man or a woman?