Gift, Sacrifice, and the Soul
The movement for the rights, recognition, and liberties of queer people has been well underway for about 50 years as of this writing (2018), and has thus far secured impressive social gains and rights for queer people of all persuasions. Despite periodic setbacks, the movement continues to build, both in scope and in geography. As the movement builds, queer people have gained the ability to live openly authentic lives, increasingly integrated with the society that surrounds us. Society benefits as well, its collective consciousness expanding and developing in the areas of gender and sexuality.
This movement has been almost entirely secular and political in nature. Having inherited a culture steeped in shame and fear with regards to sexuality, and because spiritual institutions have been the primary sources and enforcers of those norms, queer people have naturally gravitated toward secular society. The political struggle to reckon with queer rights has tended to pit a religious right against a secular left, and this pattern of conservative religious movements opposing secular queer movements can be seen throughout the world. At best, queer people may find acceptance into the community of a progressive religious institution, but find that it offers little or no spiritual context for the queer experience of sexuality and gender. One’s queerness is not addressed. It can be difficult for queer people to find resonance with a spiritual tradition that ignores the most fundamental aspects of our humanity. It is not satisfying to settle for mere non-oppression.
Why should this be the case all around the world? It’s easy for queer people to get the impression that spirituality has no place for and no understanding of them. The impulse arises to reject every spiritual inclination and commit oneself to a secular worldview and existence. A convincing argument can be made, however, that the sexually conservative attitudes prevalent in most world religions today are an artifact of the world patriarchal movement that began about 4500 years ago. At that moment in human history, Bronze Age technological advancements made it possible to wage war on an imperial scale for the first time. The earliest example I’ve identified of this kind of conquest can be traced to Sargon of Akkad, the legendary king of Akkad who conquered and ruled over Sumer, the cradle of human civilization, ca. 2300 BCE.
This set the stage the stage for world conquest. Groups of ambitious men were now able to access the advanced weaponry of the time and wage imperial warfare. For thousands of years, networks of farming cultures and trading communities had flourished and spread throughout the world, and these were now ripe for the taking. Indo-European and Semitic warrior tribes conquered almost every existing culture group between Europe and India during the thousand years following the time of Sargon. Since then, the Great War of the Ages has never ceased; patriarchal warfare has long been the establishing principle of power and rulership in every region of the Earth.
The ascendance of patriarchal power throughout the world was accompanied by the ascendance of patriarchal religious forms, and this is relevant to the queer experience of religion in the current age. This essay will focus specifically on transgender spirituality, but will sometimes reference the broader category of queer spirituality. One bleeds over into the other. Divergence in sexual orientation is defined in terms of gender: the act of sex does not define a queer person, the gender of the participant does. As such, same-sex loving can be understood as a form of gender divergence, and transgender spirituality is the spirituality of gender divergence. Beyond the margins of world patriarchal religions, one finds spiritual-cultural systems inclusive of gender-divergent people, such as with the Hijra in India, the Fa’afafine and Mahu in the Pacific Islands, and Two-Spirit traditions in the Americas. In addition, the indigenous roots of cultures from every corner of the globe seem to have a common grounding in animism and shamanic spiritual practices. One element of shamanic practice found throughout the world is the phenomenon of gender divergence in the shamans themselves.
One may also find elements of transgender spirituality on the margins of the patriarchal religions. One of my favorite myths related to transgender spirituality relates back to the previous reference point of Sumer and Akkad. The culture forms of writing, mathematics, astronomy, and calendric systems are generally considered the hallmarks of what we call civilization, and these were all first developed in Sumer, humanity’s earliest civilization. Like the surrounding cultures later conquered by warring patriarchs, Sumer’s religious life was centered around the figure of the Goddess. For most early agricultural societies, the Goddess was revered in recognition of the feminine power to produce and sustain life, equivalent to the power of the Earth itself to do the same. Even today, we are familiar with the concept of Mother Earth. The primary Sumerian Goddess was Inanna, and in her worship we find one of the oldest historical references to transgender people in spiritual life.
This ancient myth involves the descent of Inanna into the underworld to comfort her sister, Ereshkigal, the underworld queen, mourning for her deceased husband. When Inanna did not return, her father Enki created two devotees to journey in quest for her retrieval: a kurgarra and galatur, beings of ambiguous gender. They used empathy as the primary tool to secure Inanna’s release from Ereshkigal in what has been referred to as “the first psychotherapy session.” Specifically, they used the therapeutic practice of mirroring, encountering Ereshkigal in deep grief and mourning for the death of her husband. As she wailed and moaned, they would repeat back her cries to her, such as “Oh my inside!” and “Oh my outside!” She offered them a reward for their compassion, and they asked for Inanna’s return.
This is the mythological origin story of Inanna’s transgender priestesses, who served in her temples in daily Sumerian life. In much of the scholarship regarding these figures, they are referred to as men and as priests, but this is likely a case of misgendering. They were described as performing the social duties of women, dressing as women, and performing ritual castration on themselves (the closest thing a trans woman could get to hormone therapy before the advent of modern medicine). Since they are no longer with us, we are unable to ask them whether they would like to be referred to as men or women, or as something else. Having chosen to live as women in every way available to them, even to the point of castration (as many trans women do today), I believe it is most respectful for us to consider them women.
Goddess worship was the dominant religious form of the Neolithic Age, and she was known by various names throughout the ancient world. One of the oldest of these Goddesses was Cybele, who originated in the region now known as Turkey. She may have provided the original template for Goddess worship that later spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. Cybele was known as the Magna Mater (Great Mother) in Rome, where her worship was adopted as state religion at the time of the Punic Wars, lasting for 600 years until forbidden by the Christian Emperor Theodosius. Her consort was the castrated Attis, and the Gallae, transgender priestesses equivalent to those of Inanna, served in her temples alongside their cisgender priestess counterparts. As the myth of Inanna’s rescue illustrates, these priestesses were healers, known for their empathy; they cared for wounded soldiers, raised abandoned infants, and bestowed blessings through sacred sexual rites.
As mentioned earlier, patriarchy imposed by imperial warfare began with the conquest of Sumer by Sargon of Akkad. In the Akkadian language, Inanna was rendered as Ishtar, and Ishtar’s transgender priestesses were not kurgarra and galatur, they were called assinnu. The myth of Ishtar’s rescue was also slightly changed from the Sumerian myth of Inanna. Ishtar’s father did not create two devotees, but one assinnu named Asushunamir, and instead of an emphasis on empathy, Asushunamir wins Ereshkigal over through her beauty and calming presence. But in the Akkadian myth, Ereshkigal does not simply release Ishtar without penalty. Instead, she curses Asushunamir and all assinnu to be treated with scorn and rejection by others in society. This seems to be the oldest instance of what we would call “trans panic” today: when a cisgender person lashes out in cruelty to harm the transgender person they are attracted to.
Because of the way this transgender myth was altered, I speculate that Akkadian society was uneasy with gender divergence in a way Sumerian society was not. Here, myth can be understood in terms of societal projection. The Akkadian conquest of Sumer was the first example of a great patriarchal society conquering a great Goddess-centered society. In a society built around planting, the organizing principle of all life is the Goddess power of bringing forth sustenance from the Earth. Ritual sex is performed with her priestesses in celebration of the life-giving power. It is easy to imagine that in a sex-positive society, positive attitudes would be likelier to prevail around gender divergence and queer sexuality. These could be seen as welcomed additional flavors of sexuality and gender expression, all in celebration of the Goddess. She is equivalent to the natural world, and hers are the blessings of food, life, and sexual pleasure. Although I do not know what level of queer positivity existed in such societies, the available evidence seems to suggest a general trend from greater acceptance and inclusion to greater discomfort and exclusion as the patriarchal forms took stronger hold.
Ereshkigal’s curse of the assinnu recalls Yahweh’s curse of all women through Eve in the Book of Genesis. In both cases, the curse adheres to generations of assinnu and women who had nothing to do with the actions of Asushunamir or Eve. Scholarship has established a link to the myth of Eve and the Garden to the earlier Sumerian myth of Inanna and her garden of bliss. Inanna is never thrown out of the garden in this myth, and the serpent is the consort of the Goddess, not her corrupter. With the myth of Yahweh, we see a different approach to the same mythological symbols: women are cursed, and serpents along with them. We see man and woman thrown out of the garden; its gates are sealed, guarded by two cherubim. Yahweh is acting as a tyrant — the appropriate God for a patriarchal, warrior people. As patriarchal cultures became more established and powerful, we see each of them enshrine such a male warrior god atop their pantheon: Zeus, Jupiter, Indra, Yahweh — all of them fighters — all of them dwell in the sky, not the earth. They hurl thunderbolts or other violent punishments from the heavens to enforce their rule.
This makes sense when considering the perspective of a warrior people. They do not worship the Goddess above all else. Others toil on the earth to produce food. Warriors raid in and take by force what farmers have produced, what the Goddess has produced. Not only do they take by force, they remain among the conquered people as their rulers. They are a noble class, elevated above the common folk. They keep their bloodline separate and hand down power to their descendants. And they owe it all to the sword. Symbolically, a weapon in masculine hands has supplanted the life-giving feminine power as the strongest force in human affairs. Patriarchy is more than the rule of men over women, it is also the rule of men over other men. It is the rule of the strongest warrior and leader of men, held up as the epitome of realized masculinity. God, the strongest male of all, rules over everyone.
The construct of such a system leads naturally to oppression of women. Symbolically, just as the warrior people have conquered the planting people and rule over their land and bounty, so a man is encouraged to take possession of a woman and rule over her masterfully. Sex represents the power of the Goddess, and it is no longer celebrated but looked on as a source of shame and weakness. Warriors must be disciplined. Who would want to go fight in a war if he could stay at home with the Goddess and feast on food and sex in peace? The Goddess becomes a temptation to be resisted. Surrender to her and the power of conquest and rule will be lost. Patriarchal myths reflect this by blaming female figures such as Eve or Pandora for bringing evil into the world. A transgender person (especially a trans woman) represents an absolute refutation of the masculine ideal, and the curse imposed on the assinnu can also be understood as a response against this threat.
This patriarchal interpretation offers an explanation of why prevailing religious traditions today seem to have no place for queer people, even though past traditions did. These religions have failed queer people, and it’s up to us develop new mythologies and spiritualities that serve us. We can begin by reviewing other existing myths and systems to discern common threads to weave from. In addition to the association of trans people with healing, nurturing, and sexual roles in the Goddess traditions, shamanic traditions worldwide have frequently been linked with expressions of gender divergence. There is tremendous variance among the vast array of shamanic cultures, but generally speaking, a shaman can be of any gender and works as a healer. Their domain is the world of spirits, souls, visions, dreams, and archetypes; they exist on the threshold between these worlds, passing back and forth in the liminal zone, and facilitating soul retrieval processes for the afflicted. To evoke the animal archetypes and spirits, many shamans will dress as and imitate the animal powers. Gender norms, sexuality, and mannerisms can also be worked with in this way. There are accounts of shamanic cultures in which shamans will swap genders for a year as part of their training and practice, as well as accounts of shamans who transition permanently. In short, shamans of various cultures can be all over the map in terms of gender and sexuality, and this is generally regarded as an asset to their healing work across the threshold of the material and spirit worlds.
This theme of crossing the threshold between two worlds is a natural fit for the transgender experience, particularly in reference to healing, sexuality, and prophecy. The Greek myth of Tiresias is an example of this. As the story goes, Tiresias was taking a walk when he saw two snakes copulating; he struck the snakes with his staff, bursting through the pairs of opposites, and in that moment was transformed into a woman. Seven years later, Tiresias returned to the same spot to undo the spell, observed the snakes copulating again, and was transformed back to a man by leaving the snakes alone this time. His experience on both sides of the sex divide prompted Hera and Zeus to approach Tiresias in settling a dispute: whether men or women enjoy more pleasure in sex. Tiresias answered that women enjoy sex nine times as much as men do. Hera had been arguing that men enjoy sex more than women, so she struck Tiresias blind for contradicting her. Zeus, on the other hand, rewarded Tiresias for agreeing with him, bestowing him with the gift of foresight. Tiresias was made able to interpret birdsong, and the birds were oracles of the future to any who could hear their language.
Tiresias essentially lived as a transgender man during his seven years in a woman’s body. Like transgender men, he desired the body of a man, and completed the transition back to male form when he successfully reversed the spell that made his body female. Having transitioned back and forth, living as both sexes, Tiresias had an experience beyond that of even the most powerful gods. In particular, Tiresias had sexual knowledge desired by the gods but not possessed by them. Later, Tiresias gains the gift of prophecy by the ability to translate birdsong. Very similar to shamanic figures, Tiresias crosses the thresholds of gender; he gains knowledge beyond that of the gods, and he communes with the animal powers to access even greater hidden knowledge.
The gender crossing is an opportunity for increased knowledge because it is the most direct form of empathy possible: having the actual experience of the other. This kind of empathy can bring the kind of knowledge even gods will envy, as Tiresias learned. It is also instrumental in the ability to heal, as seen with the transgender priestesses of Cybele, Inanna, and other Goddesses, as well as with shamanic journeyers through the spirit realm. The power of empathy inherent in a gender transition is also seen in the Chinese myth of Quan Yin, the Goddess of compassion. Originally incarnated as the male bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara of Buddhist mythology, he burst into ten thousand pieces because his form was incapable of containing the level of compassion he sought to extend to all beings. He reincarnated in female form as Quan Yin, and in this form, she found herself able to fully extend her infinite compassion, which she continues to do to this day.
Another important form of transgender mythology is found in hermetic and alchemical traditions. They employ the symbol of the androgyne to represent the transcendence of the pairs of opposites. Alternately termed the hermaphrodite, the androgyne body possesses the primary and secondary sex characteristics of both men and women. The goal of Alchemy was the pursuit of enlightenment or transcendence, and this goal was communicated through the use of esoteric symbols. For instance, the familiar quest of alchemists — attempting to turn ordinary metal to gold — was actually a metaphor for the transformation of the soul. The golden soul is immortal, eternal, outside of time, outside the pairs of opposites. Male and female are within the pairs of opposites. So are past and future, rising and falling, life and death, this and that. In crossing the threshold of gender, one must cross that point in time when the flip happens. In that instant, one has experienced the transcendent realm of nonduality. The goal of alchemy is to stay there. This particular myth speaks directly to the nonbinary experience of gender, or the intersex experience of the body, and the value of such perspectives.
Drawing from these mystery traditions, the traditional major arcana of the tarot deck ends with the card called The World. It depicts the figure of the androgyne, twirling two phallic wands and dancing inside a vaginal wreath. The vagina is the portal by which we enter the world at birth, a reference back to Goddess mythology. In the case of The World tarot card, another threshold moment is referenced, this time at the end of the journey. With the benefit of wisdom gained through completion, one recognizes that death is simply another birth, another portal. We leave as the androgyne, having transcended sex and gender, beyond the thresholds, beyond the pairs of opposites. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden for eating from the tree of pairs of opposites (Good and Evil), but the gate of return to the garden has actually been open all along. To pass through it and reunite with bliss, we merely need to release the pairs of opposites in our own consciousness. Transgender and intersex people have some experience in this area — relevant to anyone who would like to get back to paradise someday.
Keeping the androgyne in mind as a representation of completed transcendence to a non-dual state directs us to a transcendent reading of God as depicted in the early pages of Genesis. Far surpassing the persona of Yahweh, sky and warrior god, this is God as the ultimate symbol for that which is beyond symbols, form beyond form, beyond existence and nonexistence, and beyond gender. Rabbi Mark Sameth wrote a fascinating article entitled “Is God Transgender?” that explores numerous instances of gender divergence in the language choices of the original Hebrew Genesis text. As a Hebrew scholar, Sameth suggests that “Yahweh” is probably an inaccurate rendering of YHWH, but that God’s name may have been transcribed backwards to conceal a message: written backwards as HW/HY (pronounced Hu/Hi), the name translates as “He/She” in ancient Hebrew. Perhaps the mystery of God’s unpronounceable name was constructed as a code, pointing to an androgyne identity. This may have been considered the ideal metaphor to point to the transcendent mystery of the divine (that ultimately cannot even be pointed to). The creation of Adam and Eve in God’s image, male and female, is another clue that points in the direction of bi-gender, or nonbinary divinity.
Today, trans people are rarely seen as reflections of divine gender divergence. The transcendent spiritual paths active in the culture today seem to actually run counter to the trans experience. Buddhist teachings advocate for the release of struggle, the surrender of desire and fear as the necessary elements on the path to nirvanic release. Other non-dual offerings echo the Buddhist teachings, such as Eckhart Tolle’s call to the present moment and disidentification with mind. We are urged to let go of the struggle, let go of our desires, and relax into the present-moment field of the now. But a trans person who has not transitioned finds the field of now intolerable. The long road to gender congruence — socially, physically, and psychologically — is often an arduous, painful road of struggle. Is this a signal that the trans identity is a delusion? Are trans identities merely disruptive functions of mind-identification to be dismissed rather than integrated? Non-dual teachings are silent to trans people seeking to reconcile this contradiction. Absent any guidance, the trans person must choose between accepting some level of identification with form, or foreclosing on their transgender identity.
We have lovely transgender myths from cultures throughout history, all over the world. They would be of great benefit to trans people today if they were taught and recognized more widely. Transgender people need a mythology that can communicate their own importance and value to the psyche. As popular spiritual frameworks fail in this task, trans people are pitched back into the secular world. Seeking clarity in the offerings of secular wisdom, depth psychology appears to be a promising avenue at first glance. When I embarked on my own training as a psychotherapist, I was intuitively drawn to Jungian frameworks, thirsty for a psychology that spoke with authority regarding the realm of dreams, visions, art, symbol, and myth. Carl Jung provided a basic set of tools and concepts useful in approaching the intersection of psyche, spirit, and symbol. For those of us inspired by artistic revelation, spiritual transformation, and contemplation of the great mystery of existence, his work uncovers a rich vein: the territory of the inner life and the shamanic realms, rendered in psychological terminology.
Although fascinated and nourished by Jung’s conceptual framework, I observed a weak link in his approach to two of the most significant archetypes of the human psyche: that of male and female, or animus and anima in the language of his system. It unsurprising that Jung presented these in terms of heterosexual and cisgender normativity given the context of his time. In the originally construed framework, one is considered to have a shadow archetype in the unconscious mind of one’s own gender. The shadow consists of all the parts of oneself that have been denied, suppressed, or disowned. Even deeper in the unconscious psyche dwells an archetype of the opposite gender: for women this archetype is supposed to be a male animus, and for men it is a female anima. The anima or animus is a container for one’s deepest attachment wounds, sexual desires, impulses toward romantic love, and longings for partnered union, melded together in the nebulous form of the mysterious other.
Without revision, this framework leaves queer people out in the cold. For instance, a lesbian will look inward and find a shadow self of her own gender, but will also find a female anima archetype associated with sex, love and union. What of her male archetype? Some have used the Jungian framework to pathologize queer people, holding that a gay or lesbian experience is the result of a failure to properly integrate one’s anima or animus. Applied to trans people, it can be used to dismiss the transgender experience as over-identification with the anima or animus, a different kind of failure to integrate. Nonbinary trans people, and bi- or pansexual people are also explained away in terms of varying manifestations of shadow and anima/animus integration failures.
Jung developed his theories in the early 20th century, a time when queer people were almost universally pathologized in the field of psychology (homosexuality was not removed from the list of mental disorders until 1973; transgender people were not de-pathologized until 2013). It is understandable that Jung’s theoretical framework was aligned with prevailing attitudes toward queer people. His system can be rehabilitated by understanding that different archetypical relationships of shadow, sexuality, and gender exist for queer people than for straight people. Although Jung only presented a cis-hetero framework, it is not necessary to draw the conclusion that queer identities are therefore pathological. This is the approach many modern Jungians have taken. From a queer perspective, this approach is analogous to the offerings of progressive churches: A tightly wound and developed structure of ritual and symbol exists for straight people, but not for queer people. Although queer people will no longer be excluded, the myth system as provided lacks developed forms to integrate and validate queer experiences into the wholeness of humanity.
The next available refuge in the secular world is the field of mythological studies. This field bridges the gap between the psychology of symbol and archetype, established religious forms, and spiritual principles communicated through story and narrative. Much of the history and insight represented in this essay is derived from my own familiarity with the works of Joseph Campbell, who made it his life’s work to survey and integrate the various mythologies he encountered: the great religions of civilization, indigenous spiritual systems, Jungian depth psychology, works of artistry, and legends of heroic quests. Although instances can be found in which Campbell offers recognition of the queer experience in his work, there are also instances in which the queer experience is dismissed or pathologized. At times, Campbell was able to acknowledge the reality and validity of queer sexuality and gender expression in past cultures and mythological systems. At other times, Campbell would dismiss the queer experience as a pathological failure of integration, using the Jungian framework I outlined above.
Like Jung, Campbell was a product of his time, and I presume that like Jung, significant social conditioning and pressures to exclude queer identities led to the creation of blind spots he never addressed. These blind spots overlook key aspects of his own teachings. For instance, Campbell emphasizes that a ritual is an enactment of a myth. The ritual of gender transition, for those called to that path, can therefore be viewed as a transformative ritual of initiation that carries one across the threshold of pairs of opposites. For nonbinary trans people, the transition reorients one’s consciousness to reside in the liminal space of the threshold itself. For some, the ritual of letting the old self go and stepping into the new self is so extreme, it can only be described in terms of death and rebirth. This evokes the myth of resurrection, among the oldest and most deeply resonant of mythological themes.
For trans people who utilize surgeries or hormone treatment as a component of their transition, the initiatory rite is quite dramatic and intense. It is a deeper, more total initiation than almost any available in Western society, impoverished as we have become in rites and initiations. It is also an incredibly difficult initiation to emerge from. Unlike rituals that some cultures have used to initiate boys into manhood, such as circumcision, there is no society on the other side of a gender transition ritual, waiting to embrace the initiate. The transgender seeker undertakes an intensely disruptive and grueling set of rites, only to emerge in a silent culture. There is no set of honored social roles to adopt, no mentors to offer guidance on the path. Gender transition requires a psychological and moral strength beyond what most in society are ever called upon to summon. How disappointing to find that after such an ordeal, such a sacrifice, society has little to no interest in learning from the transgender initiate — no interest in the wisdom gained in the journey across the gender boundary, transcending the pairs of opposites, dying to the old self and reborn to the new. Instead, the initiate is simply left hoping that society will not actively violate their rights or banish them from social life.
Just as Jungian systems contain the very elements needed to repair and surpass Jung’s own blind spots regarding queer people, such elements are also found within Campbell’s work. In particular, the transgender initiation is supported and informed by the most famous of Campbell’s teachings: that of the Hero’s Journey, the Grail Quest, the Left-Hand Path, the Call to Adventure — to follow one’s bliss. In Campbell’s interpretation, the Grail represents the truth of one’s own heart, contrary to the arbitrary and prescribed rules of the social order. Foreclosing on one’s truth in deference to society’s demands leads to the Wasteland. As Campbell instructs, the Grail journey begins alone, in the heart of the dark forest, “where there is no way or path.” Paths are formed by others; they are someone else’s path. The Heroic Path, the Left-Hand Path, is recognized by the absence of a path. In this way, Campbell’s blind spots regarding trans people can be viewed as a gift of sorts. Trans people today are called upon to tread a path where there is no path. Campbell admonishes us not to follow gurus if we wish to answer the Call to Adventure. This means letting go of Campbell as a guru — letting go of Jung as a guru. Teachers can provide us with clues and pointers as we navigate our path, but the journey finally calls upon us to access the courage of our own hearts, to pass into the unknown alone and unguided.
The contradictions and dead-ends encountered by trans people in spiritual quest can inform such a journey. So can a study of transgender archetypes referenced by other cultures, past and present. An integration of these factors suggests that transgender spirituality may serve an important function largely neglected in spiritual discourse today: illuminating the soul as an integral spiritual principle. Non-dual teachings often overlook the individual soul, largely referring to it in terms of something to be gotten rid of. The individual soul might be described as a collection of karmic pain we are tasked with dissolving. When the karma dissolves, the individual soul dissolves also, resulting in blissful union with the great soul that is no soul, the one self that is no self. The soul might also be described as a mere mental projection: a concept created by mind-identification. Once attachment to mind is released, the illusion of the individual soul fades away. Dualistic traditions such as mainstream Christianity, on the other hand, seem to regard the soul as a vehicle of obedience to a received system of ethics. Adherence to this system is good, and leads to Heaven. Disobedience is evil, and leads to Hell. The soul is not a free agent, despite lip service given to free will. Once the soul drifts into the presence of its imposed orientation, there it remains, in bliss or agony, presumably forever.
The transgender experience can bring one into a different kind of relationship and understanding of the soul. It is true that plenty of transgender people live their entire lives untouched by spiritual concerns, satisfied in the choice to live and die in a secular relationship to life. Others will be irrevocably changed by the spiritual dimensions of their journey. Along that journey, many trans people may wrestle with this question of “Why? Why should I have this transgender experience? Where does it come from? What good is it? What on Earth, exactly, is going on here?” Biological research has dipped its toes into transgender waters, speculating that trans identities may be the result of genetic variation or hormonal influences on brain development in the womb. If this kind of research bears fruit in the future, it will be a helpful tool in the ongoing struggle to secure rights and acceptance for trans people in secular society. But for the spiritually inclined, these kinds of explanations may seem lacking. Most trans people who have undergone hormone treatment have experienced a cognitive and emotional shift as a result of the changes to neurological functioning this induces — but the transgender identity existed before the introduction of hormones, it remains in place after the advent of hormones, and also remains if the hormones are withdrawn. There is an intuitive sense that something deeper is at work than the brain or the mind.
Gender transition is a mysterious business. It is exceedingly difficult find words to describe how one is aware of one’s transgender identity. One might say something like “I just know,” or “something feels wrong” (or right), or “I feel it in my bones, my body, my heart. It just is.” Growing up transgender is usually a very confusing experience. The people in your life assume you are a certain way that is different from how you are. They seem absolutely sure in their conception of you, just as you are sure they don’t understand or know you at all. Whether the realization comes early or late, at some point you put the pieces together and identify what others are getting wrong about you — yet they vociferously insist that you are the one who doesn’t understand yourself, that they cannot be mistaken. Like the soul itself, one’s transgender identity is unseen, argued about, impossible to pin down, disbelieved, neglected, disputed, and ignored. There are many ways to conceive and understand both gender identity and the soul. One potentially useful understanding of these matters is that gender identity — whether male or female, stable or fluid, agender, bigender, or nonbinary — is a quality inherent to the soul itself.
This perspective is informed by the relationship between transgender spirituality and the threshold experiences of transcending the pairs of opposites: shamanic crossings between death and rebirth, male and female, matter and spirit. Seen in this light, the soul exists in the liminal space between undifferentiated non-dual Consciousness and the individual forms of physical matter, body, and mind. The soul partakes of both without being either fully. The soul is the truth of one’s heart: the Grail itself. The Call to Adventure is the calling of the soul. It may be that the soul calls one to a journey of ego dissolution — and ultimately, the dissolution of the soul itself — merged fully into the bliss of non-dual union with the All. The soul may also call one to adhere to a received system of good and evil, Heaven and Hell. Or it may be that the soul calls one on a different kind of adventure: a quest of wandering and discovery — a journey across the threshold barriers, through the realms of spirit and dream — a quest to manifest the soul itself as a presence in the material world. The quest of gender transition may be seen as this kind of adventure. For those attuned to the realms of mystery traversed during such adventures, certain potentials may be evoked: gifts of healing, artistry, prophecy, sacred sexuality, shamanic wisdom, empathy, and mythic understanding .
Above all, the journey of transgender spirituality is likely to evoke compassion. By way of metaphor, the infinite compassion of Avalokitesvara made possible an even greater compassion in Quan Yin. Avalokitesvara’s compassion for all beings is a function of the empathic understanding of seeing the other in oneself, and oneself in the other. Compassion for the other is compassion for oneself, and vice versa. His self-compassion was strong enough to recognize a self within him that longed to spring into being. For Quan Yin to be born, he had to sacrifice himself. Quan Yin was born from the compassion of ultimate sacrifice, and this enabled her to completely extend her infinite compassion to the world. In compassion, she recognized her former self’s gift of death so she could live. In self-compassion, she accepted this gift, knowing it was only possible through the death of the other. The circle of compassion for self and the other repeats infinitely — in one lies the other, in the other lies the one. This is the soul’s compassion through gender transition. It is the compassion of self-sacrifice — of both offering and receiving the gift.