Searching for Solidarity: When Technology Helps More Than It Hurts
A Gender-Questioning Member Finds Warm Support In a Private Online Group
Imagine you’re visiting a new place to meditate. It’s a windswept winter evening and you’re in an unfamiliar town. You’ve found your way there, let yourself in at the appointed time, and you’re greeted with silence and emptiness. Nervously, you poke around in the dim lighting and stumble over a cushion: apparently you’re already in the meditation hall. You find a spot, arrange your body and relax into your practice as best you can, sharply aware of the vulnerability of your body and of the cavernous, dark space yawning around it. You wonder why you’re the only one here, but after a while it’s not that big of a deal. It’s only later, when a clear bell sounds from an obscure corner, that you realize you weren’t ever alone, and that there was someone there supporting and looking out for you all along.
This is something I’ve experienced recently: a discovery of distant bodhisattvas I didn’t even know I needed. I’ve overheard people within the Sangha, usually older practitioners, express their concerns about social media, but I use Facebook. I recently started using Instagram, too. Believe it or not, both of them have tangibly helped me during a strange and transitional time in my life. This is the true story of how that happened.
Currently, the local Zen Center Sangha is a small and fairly homogeneous community. Most nonresident practitioners I’ve met are straight, white, cis, older, highly educated, married or partnered, and middle- or upper-middle-class. These are observations, not criticisms; they simply skew the demographics a certain way. As for me, I’m white, educated, in a committed relationship, and the occasional beneficiary of generational wealth, and am undeniably privileged by those aspects of my experience. I’m also bisexual (that is, gender doesn’t figure on the list of qualities I find necessary in a partner), female-looking, indebted by higher education, poor, and a person living with chronic pain. And lately, as I acknowledge that my inner sense of gender doesn’t necessarily align with the gender I was assigned at birth, I increasingly suspect my gender is not female but nonbinary. Some days I feel euphoric and accepting about this new-but-not-new discovery. On others I feel fearful or lonely, or deal with a lot of internal criticism and doubt. In general, a lot of things are starting to fall into place, or maybe old ideas are starting to fall away. It’s a confusing, intriguing process.
Zen practice, which I firmly believe helped unearth these feelings in the first place, has been a toehold for me in this gender-exploration process, in that uncertainty and self-doubt are both more familiar to me than they otherwise might be. This, in turn, means that the emotional challenges this process brings with it are less credible, and ultimately easier to ride out.
Sesshin, in particular, with its unique potential to allow us to get away from habitual thought patterns and assumptions, has quietly helped this question of gender surface for me. The feelings have been there for decades in one form or another, but it takes at least a subtle shift in perspective to bring them into focus as something authentic and worthy of investigation. It turns out that questioning my gender is not that different from questioning a koan and listening inward for a response. What is my gender? Who am I? What is Mu?
Sesshin is also, crucially for me, an environment in which virtually all gender-based norms are irrelevant, and where the formal dress code is unisex by default. This is unspeakably freeing for someone with body and gender shame and dysphoria and a history experiencing harassment and unwanted objectification. As a person raised female, the absence of mirrors and eye contact and the focus on effort and activity are often particularly helpful for reducing the painful self-consciousness associated with others’ assessment of my appearance and my perceived femininity. Sesshin is one of the only times in my life I’ve had the privilege of just existing as a person.
Our Sangha has a handful of fellow LGBTQIA+ members, including a trailblazing trans presence, but scheduling time together is a challenge, and broaching this gender topic requires courage, headspace, and privacy I don’t always have. So, besides my very patient partner and my therapist, where could I most efficiently turn to connect with others who had some experience with questioning their gender?
The answer was social media. For all its bad press, it can also be a place of great openness and solidarity. A queer storytelling podcast I listen to, Nancy, ran an episode months ago about the difficulty of finding a group of queer adult friends, which they called gaggles. Springboarding off this episode, the podcast’s creators founded private Facebook gaggles for interested listeners, to help address the epidemic of isolation and loneliness. Some gaggles are geographically-based, while others center around shared identity (and, therefore, some degree of shared experience). I’d joined the general group a while back, plus another for queer people who are assumed straight due to their current relationship and/or gender expression. (Bi erasure and biphobia are real phenomena and contribute to high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among bi people.) Then, a couple months ago, after a couple of sesshins in quick succession, something intuitive started to coalesce. I applied to join the gaggle for nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, two-spirit, and other people whose gender identity—the way a person’s gender feels within—isn’t reflected in the rigid, polarized binary of “male” and “female.”
The first time I posted in the nonbinary gaggle, I did my best to be vulnerable, despite the imposter syndrome gnawing away at my courage from the inside. The group is fairly small, a hundred-some people, but thanks to the magic of social media, sprinkled all over the map. That unexpected bell rang from a quiet corner: several strangers I may never meet in person took time out of their busy lives to read what I’d written and to offer touching words of support, book recommendations, podcasts, and most of all, acceptance. Multiple people described how confusing and process-oriented gender exploration has been for them, and that it can take years to work on. (Sound familiar?) One commenter, who lives in the UK, took a picture of a button they were wearing on their jacket that day and declared they were wearing it for the both of us. It read: YOU ARE VALID, acknowledging that my process is deserving of respect. This precious, tailored, and timely solidarity and support from a distance simply wouldn’t be possible in the same way without social media as its vector.
I read those messages, improbable missives like cross-country paper planes, on my phone in the car in the parking lot and went on with my day. As I pushed a shopping cart around Wegmans and loaded it up with the mundane supplies of life, I noticed an unselfconscious comfort in my existence—even joy—of a kind and degree I hadn’t felt in decades, maybe longer. This is what the trans community calls “gender euphoria.” I noticed I was smiling warmly at everyone I passed, brimming over with a sense of shared kinship. I’m certain that I only experienced this deep, healing sense of wonder and awe on that unassuming Tuesday morning thanks to these kind strangers on social media, who may or may not be Buddhist, but who form a different kind of Sangha, and who are willing to employ skillful means of their own. My gratitude for them runs deep.
Even big change can be slow day-to-day, like daily sitting or the doldrums of sesshin. As time passes, I’m educating myself with the help of nonbinary and trans musicians, creators, authors, YouTubers, and cultural figures. Trans Like Me, written by nonbinary musician and academic CN Lester, is a book I can’t recommend highly enough to everyone, cis and trans alike, to learn about what it means to be trans today. ContraPoints, my favorite YouTube channel, is run by Natalie Wynn, a trans woman with lots to say about gender and other hot-button topics in her deliberately boundary-pushing but philosophically incisive (and, to me, very funny) video-essays.
Instagram provides another intergenerational venue in which to follow trans public figures whose activism, messages, and creativity hearten and encourage me. Even sharing content like the humble selfie can bridge the faults of isolation tracing our fractured society. Social media posts by people belonging to marginalized groups can be memorials not necessarily to vanity but to perseverance, sending a message to the rest of the community who are out there, looking for connection, trying valiantly to endure: you’re not the only one going through this. We’re still here. We’re in this together, so please don’t give up.
We may be more than our mere demographics and our physical bodies, but they’re still the lens through which we experience human existence, and sometimes we need help to remember that we’re already valid just as we are, that this very body, whether trans or cis, brown or black or white, large or small, abled or disabled, is the body of Buddha. In the right mindset and with skillful, compassionate use, social media—for all its hyper-capitalist flaws, political complicity, fake news, false promises, and data breaches—can still be a tool for good. I’m just grateful I was able to experience it.
In writing this essay, I was asked: What would it take for the Center to be as warm and welcoming a place for LGBTQIA+ people as the Facebook group I discovered? Self-selected online communities of outsiders (“chosen family”) are different forums for interaction than brick-and-mortar ones governed by dominant social structures, but in the interest of furthering the cause of inclusivity, I’ll try to answer it here, from my limited perspective.
First, we could all do more to notice, welcome, and see newcomers of all stripes as valid as they already are, as people with their own stories to discover and tell, and their own reasons for walking through that door. Encourage newcomers to come back, to go to private instruction and dokusan, and to stay for tea and brunch. Listen attentively and ask questions. This is tremendously validating.
Next, we can continue to educate ourselves. This is a process, but the fact that we all learned to sit in the first place indicates our commitment toward deeper understanding. Learn about the role of trans women of color in the Stonewall Riots, and what “two-spirit” means. Read the eloquent Trans Like Me and the graphic mini-novel A Quick & Easy Guide To They/Them Pronouns. Google “Genderbread Person.” Learn about LGBTQIA+ Zen figures: start with angel Kyodo williams, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, and Issan Dorsey.
Third, we can learn new terminology and opt for gender-inclusivity. If a term is confusing, search for it online or ask someone what it means. Use gender-neutral language in communications and speech: favor third-person singular “they” when a person’s gender is unknown or when requested. Think of it as a mindfulness exercise, if that helps.
Finally, we can recognize that LGBTQIA+ people are all unique. Being queer—in my case, being both bisexual and likely nonbinary—is an important part of what makes me “me” and it’s very painful to have that erased; at the same time, it’s only one of many facets of who I am. Find out what makes people relatable as human beings, even while acknowledging, advocating for, and respecting diverse identity and the lived experience that brings.
The Zen Center, especially at the institutional level, has already made some steps toward inclusivity in an era when the US presidential administration is trying to define trans people out of existence. Our meditation practice is free of moralistic doctrine around queerness, which will surely continue to attract LGBTQIA+ practitioners. Zen Center members are already used to the idea of name changes. The many genderless bathrooms at both Arnold Park and Chapin Mill are wonderful oases in the hostile desert of gendered (and often violently gender-policed) bathrooms. The fact that gender doesn’t preclude ordination as a priest or teacher in our lineage affirms the validity of all practitioners. Rainbow Sangha, our nascent group for LGBTQIA+ Sangha members, has been met only with encouragement and support from Center staff. Having a spiritual practice which doesn’t brand me broken, dangerous, or fringe due to my queerness is one of many things that keep me coming back to the mat and to sesshin.
We’re all still finding our way, and hopefully nobody reading this expects instant results from themselves or anyone else. All efforts to question our assumptions and unconscious biases, including but not limited to those about gender and queerness, enable us to better move through the marketplace of the world with helping hands. For our Sangha, I can envision no nobler goal. / / /
ANGELA HÄKKILÄ (she/her or they/them) is a writer who lives in Rochester and has been a mem- ber of the Rochester and Madison Zen Centers since 2014.