ROUNDING THE SQUARE: A SHAMANIC APPROACH TO GENDER
By Daniel Thompson
I am not who I appear to be, but I have never felt like anyone else.
In a time of dysphoria and social activism, there is a way to talk about identity that there never was before. This article is not about me. It is about the way people see, think and talk about me.
The first time I was mistaken for a girl was when I was a child. Or rather it wasn’t that I was mistaken for a girl, but that my appearance challenged the conventions of what a boy should look like. It didn’t take much, only that I was short and my hair was long. I was surprised and a little disappointed that someone could be so unperceptive as to assume that I was female based simply on the presence or absence of hair.
At first, I thought they were being disingenuous until I realized that they weren’t. I had never even considered that someone could make such an obvious mistake. But children, indiscreet as they are and deficient in social graces, do not find it strange to be making such assumptions. They may not even realize they are doing it. This behavior can follow someone through their entire life, a kind of hindsight bias or curse of knowledge where one assumes that other people possess the same information and observe the same conventions that they do. It may also be the reason why people feel no shame or remorse in discriminating against others.
Even though I do not subscribe to the social constructionist’s theory of gender assignment, it is true that the confusion on the playground was based on the familiar stereotype that only girls wore long hair, or to be more precise, only girls and hippies. My intention is not to disprove the social constructionist’s theory—they are probably right in more than a few instances—I am merely saying that what seemed to be a gender issue at first, was actually a socio-political one. It doesn’t matter if you are a homosexual, a trans, a hippie, or a punk, we are all members of the counter-culture. Even poor people are members of the counter-culture to the extent that they reject or do not fit into the bourgeoise social order.
I grew up in a small logging town where any deviation from established norms garnered hostility and prejudice, even against a child incapable of making any kind of informed political choice.
Although the prejudice directed at me was not entirely gender related, the force was the same. A kind of ignorance, such as the aforementioned hindsight bias where any kind of discrimination against humans by other humans is based on some consensus idea of what being human means.
With this limited knowledge, one group encounters the other and immediately recognizes a difference—expressed through shock, fear, outrage—rather than a correspondence—expressed through friendship, comradery or inclusion. This fear is simply our own ego becoming threatened by the existence of the other, which is immediately apparent to anyone who has experienced discrimination first hand, or who has experienced any kind of ego death. They find they are no longer afraid, because they don’t identify with anyone’s idea of themselves but their own. As I have tried to point out, oppression is broad-based and we should cast our net wide, not just to identify the myriad ways in which it is being practiced on various populations, but to identify the source, which I argue is an insensitivity on the part of people who are unaware of their own biases. So, while they fail to recognize the truth in someone else, they are also failing to recognize it in themselves. Because to know others is to know oneself.
It’s this failure to recognize the truth of someone else’s identity that is the source of most if not all prejudices, that when these views and biases become large enough, the size of a country for instance, they become what is known as Fascism.
I said before that the first time I was mistaken for a girl I was a child, but there have been several other instances since then. Although I believed the motivations at first to be largely socio-political, as I got older, I found more and more that how I saw myself was not at all how others saw me. Kids are short, some more than others, but they’re all like that, however I failed to grow taller than 5’ 4’’, and as a musician, I often grew my hair long. These physical attributes coupled with my naturally gracile bone structure and sparse facial hair signaled to less intuitive and emotionally aware people that I was perhaps female, which did absolutely nothing for my success with women. Of course there was nothing I could do about it and so I simply went on with my life, largely unconcerned as a straight, white, male, not really enjoying much privilege, but not acting like a victim either—I assure you the ‘white male superiority’ status gets knocked down a couple of rungs when you are lacking in the typical ‘white male dominance’ traits like height, build and secondary sexual characteristics.
What I did have though was a perspective that few outside the LGBTQ+ community have, but which those acquainted with the mystery traditions of ancient and indigenous cultures do. While it is true that culture does play a role in a person’s gender to some degree, it has no influence on whether they actually identify as that gender. True identification is much more a part of one’s essence, a spiritual/ metaphysical concept wherein people are born of one or two spirits. I use the terms spiritual and metaphysical because if we are to rely on the terms that biology gives us, we would have no other choice than to accept the traditional assumption that boys are born in a boy’s body and vice versa. I feel that the spiritual, emotional intelligence explanation contains more information than the purely intellectual, and this can serve to explain a host of social and cultural phenomena, not just the subject of gender.
By this reasoning we can argue that just as biological gender is acquired, so is the psychological and emotional sense of gender and the only socially constructed aspects are the tertiary ones; long or short hair, pink or blue, muscular or gracile, pants or leggings, shorts or skirts.
All indigenous societies have their equivalent of a Shaman or a Medicine Man whom they go to regularly for advice, consultation and healing. Shamans are often androgynous, two-spirited people. Their visions are not simply their own, but belong to the group/ species as a whole. These marginalized people can be from anywhere and look like anything, what defines them is a certain knowledge and self-knowledge that clues them into the grand scheme of humanity and the cosmos, perhaps even its teleology that outside their personal experience, is not widely known or considered.
For millennia, civilized culture has ignored these marginalized voices, but now, after the successes of last century’s civil rights movement and today’s Culture War, various new frontiers have been opened up.
It is concerning, but also cathartic that we are referring to the free exchange of ideas as a war. Concerning because there are people, large numbers of them on both sides, who are very passionate about their ideas and are ready to defend them, violently if necessary, but cathartic because these ideas have always been there, in potentia and are finally now being expressed.
Amoung the names currently associated with the Culture War, few are as recognizable as the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson. Peterson’s main criticism, one of his main criticisms of the trans community, is that there are only a finite number of pronouns and no more. According to him, new pronouns cannot be invented, even though new words are being added to other word classes all the time. The invention and incorporation of new words into the language is called descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive which dictates how a speaker should use language. Descriptive language changes according to use and reflects how society uses language, rather than the other way around (as long as it does not break the rules of syntax and grammar). There are no prescriptive rules outlawing the use of gender-neutral pronouns. I’m sure Peterson uses both prescriptive and descriptive language in his daily life, therefore his argument is not a very good one.
Reference can also be made to many other languages where objects are given genders and are characterized as being his or hers. This enhances both the phenomenological world and our ability to describe it, treating things (and people) as male, female, both, other or neither. But rather than choosing new terms, many transgenders have resorted to variations on the existing he and she, which from a linguistics perspective are completely interchangeable.
Language doesn’t care whether the word is spelled ze, he, je, or ae, although for logic and sense certain combinations of letters are preferable to others. Ze and he are equally logical and sound ‘right’. Ze and zhe still follow the same structural rules as he and she, they function the same way, they even look the same, but better yet would be an entirely new construction, such as gru or zheb, which would stand for a third or fourth gender.
As Anthropologist Will Roscoe has shown in his books ‘Changing Ones’ and ‘The Zuni Man-Woman’, Native American societies (amoung other global indigenous) have a long history of transgender people, many of whom were considered healers, teachers or shamans. Sometimes these people were female in-utero and were changed to male at birth because the tribe needed more males, or became another gender at some point in their lives as the outcome of a ceremony, vision, intuition or dream.
French colonists referred to these people broadly as berdache, meaning intimate male friend, but individual tribes had their own names for them, including alyha in Mohave, nadleeh in Navaho, and winkte in Lakota. Although each name has its own translation, the words generally mean the state of two-spiritedness, emphasizing the primacy of the spirit over the physical body. In the Omaha language, minquga means instructed by the moon. Female berdaches are less common in Native American societies, but notable examples occur are amoung the Cheyenne Piegans and Crows. These two-spirited people were capable of doing the work of both genders and were especially gifted in the arts, though not necessarily homosexual, it was not considered unusual if they were.
The lack of scientific evidence for the gender spectrum underscores the importance of a spiritual/ shamanistic approach to the subject. However, there is a precedent for such a concept in the ancient mystery traditions, such as Sufism, which contributed extensively to the development of modern psychology.
P. D. Ouspensky in his book, ‘The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution’, makes the distinction between essence and personality where “Essence is what we are born with. Personality is what is acquired.” This statement confirms both the biological and social constructionist view of gender.
The concepts of essence and personality, grow in parallel with each other, but often one will be dominant. They are not reductive or deterministic, but rather easements to becoming who one will ultimately be. Just because one is born a certain way, in a certain place or at certain time does not confine them inexorably to those circumstances. We are all capable of change and whether we remain the same in our ideas, beliefs or actions is a matter of choice or conviction. Nothing in us is permanent, which is how we are able to make decisions and dispel negative emotions.
We have no way of knowing what goes on in the vast oceanic ecosystem of an individual’s body and mind, much less a gender-transitional person, where what’s on the outside does not correspond to what is on the inside. But I hazard to guess it looks something like a chimera, one of those composite beasts from Greek, Egyptian and Hindu mythology or some arrangement of archetypes from the modern psychological tradition. To be fair though, I don’t even think the individuals in question know for sure, but I think they can feel it. A feeling that is so much a part of them that it makes communication strained because they are coming from an emotional center, not an intellectual one. The intellect cannot even explain physical phenomena, not to mention mental or psychological.
One way to skirt this limitation on our thinking is through integral-aperspective or vision logic, which attempts to address the incompleteness of our default Aristotelian logic. The reason people are so inclined to disagree with Peterson is because he relies too much on rationality. Rational thinkers generally affirm their perspectives by reducing opposing ones to their own, while vision logic integrates other perspectives into greater and greater systems of knowledge. This results in a more transparent consciousness that is aware of itself, a sort of meta-consciousness of contexts within contexts. Integrating perspectives, while refraining from developing one of its own.
This position can be described as post-structural, where there are pegs of all shapes rather than just the square and the round. The reason vision-logic hasn’t claimed a greater share of intellectual real estate seems to be logistics. Society simply can’t accommodate all of these different positions at the same time, but now that there are people actually holding them, they can be integrated; each perspective having its own place within the structure like the jewels in Indra’s Net.
The depth of the subject depends on how many points it touches, how many lives it interacts with in the constellation of human issues, which determines how many people will be affected or even mildly concerned. In this case I don’t think it is even half the population, and yet everyone seems to have an opinion. Those intimately affected (the oppressed) reacting to a global humanitarian crisis where everybody and nobody matters.
About the Author:
Daniel Thompson is a graduate of Vancouver Island University’s Creative Writing program. He is a reader and contributor to the Tongues of Fire reading series and has appeared in The Georgia Straight, The Martlet, Grey Sparrow and the Gyroscope Review amoung others. He lives in Victoria, B.C. Canada.