The Essence of Gender


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When a new baby is born, the question on the tip of most people's tongues is, "Is it a boy or a girl?" Like death and taxes, there are a handful of things in life we tend to take for granted, and gender is often one of those things.

But, what happens when a baby is born, and because of their genetic and/or their physical make up they don't fit into the expected male and female gender boxes? What happens when a child is born intersexed, meaning they have ambiguous genitalia, sexual characteristics of both genders or in words from the website of the Intersex Society of North America, "are born with anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female?"

The very fact that there is natural variation in the way people's sexual parts differentiate is not in the common dialogue. Not all babies are born distinctly male and female. In her book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Brown University researcher Anne Fausto-Sterling reports that one in one hundred babies are born with bodies that differ from standard male or female, either chromosomally or anatomically. According to a review published in Journal of American Medicine (JAMA, 2003; V290) of Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self, author Sharon Preves documents that approximately 1 in 2,000 babies are born with external sexual organ ambiguity. Many different conditions account for this occurrence.

For these babies, both doctors and parents scramble to "fix" what gets labeled as the gender problem. Fearing for the obstacles a child who does not fit either the standard male or female gender box might encounter, well intentioned, but sadly often misguided professionals try to make the child one gender or the other. These critical body and life-altering decisions are made without the consent of, and long before the child has had the opportunity to grow and mature into the unique being that s/he is, and determine their own authentic sense of gender, body and sexuality.

Ambiguous gender is so frightening for both parents and professionals alike, that an infant is often surgically altered to fit one gender box or the other. And as Alice Dreger of the Intersex Society of North America says, because "it's easier to make a hole than a pole," many intersexed babies are altered to be female. The Intersex Society of North America states, "Intersexuality is primarily a problem of stigma and trauma, not gender. Parents' distress must not be treated by surgery on the child."

Hard as it is for people whose bodies differ from standard male or female, for transgendered people there is yet another difficult path to walk. A transgendered person's core identity may not match their body's assigned gender identity, so the truth of their identity may seem more clandestine. Your body may come in what appears to be a "normal" fully functioning male or female package, but your soul may feel it is inhabiting the wrong body. The hormones, plumbing and wiring you were born with may be in conflict with your true and essential sense of self. Some transgendered people choose to surgically and/or hormonally alter their bodies to achieve more coherence with their core identity.

The emotional, mental, spiritual and even physical anguish a transgendered person can go through is profound. While most human beings hit identity crises or embark on personal journeys to find out who they are, for a transgendered person, the identity crisis cuts deeper and the personal journey is not only risky emotionally and spiritually, but also practically.

A Meeting In London

In the late 1980's I led workshops in London. One day my colleague Martin, who did the bulk of workshop organizing, introduced me to a woman who wanted to help the organizing effort. Her name was Annie, and she was one of my greatest teachers about the essence of gender, identity and soul.

Annie was a transsexual, which was no small feat! She had grown up as a boy in Ireland and always felt she had a female soul. For the first six years of her life, she never questioned this fact as she spent all of her time in the company of her best friend, Eileen. The adults in her community thought it was so cute that these two children were deeply bonded, and inseparable. No one blinked an eye when they would go into the girl's room together. These two children seemed like twin souls.

Then Annie's life was suddenly turned upside down when Eileen unexpectedly died. Not only was Annie faced with the loss of her soul-mate friend, but also with the loss of her relationship with the world at large. When Eileen died, everything changed. As Annie continued to do all the activities she had done in Eileen's company, now alone, she was greeted with judgment and scolding. How dare a little boy go into the girls' bathroom! How naughty and inappropriate was this little boy!

Annie was confused, heart-broken and lost. Nothing inside her had changed. Eileen's death catapulted her into a struggle of gender and soul, as she discovered that her external packaging betrayed her inner truth. Annie tried hard for many years to be "good" and learn and perform the male role. It was never easy, but she tried. She became a nurse. She got married. She had children. She supported her family. But something always haunted her at the deepest level. The life she was living might have looked good to the outside world, but it was not her own life.

From a place of deep courage, in the early 1980's, Annie decided she needed to build a new, authentic life as the woman she really was. Her decision forced her to leave Ireland, where her entire family rejected her. She tried to start over in London. She went through the process of transforming her body, first with hormones and later with surgery. She endured this emotionally, physically and spiritually excruciating process without support of friends, family or community. She faced the pain alone. She also risked the fear, anger, rejection and even violence of the world at large, which neither understood nor wanted to understand the deeper truth of her soul's reality.

As she healed physically in her new city, in the safety of her private world, she began to build a new life for herself. She got a job working for an accountant. She found an apartment and made it a home. Her true identity and story remained secret for many years. It was not until she participated in Insight, a personal growth seminar, that she found a safe space to finally bare her soul and let the walls of secrecy break down.

Gender And Identity

Why is it that probing more deeply into gender identity engenders such a primal fear? What is it that we are so frightened about?

Gender is core to human identity. Issues of gender touch the most primal layers of the human psyche. We learn to identify whom we are with how we are wired, the nature of the body we inhabit, and the cultural programming that goes with being male and female. Gender is both biologically and culturally determined. And for many, it is also a spiritual assignment, an expression of soul. For the majority of men and women born with what is labeled as normal genitalia, XX or XY chromosomes and wiring that conforms with the gender they are assigned, the subject of gender often is taken for granted.

For others who don't fit the two socially acceptable standards of gender identity, developing a sense of gender identity is a deep, complex, scary and often painful process. Because male and female genders are classified as normal, anyone that doesn't fit the mold is classified as "abnormal." When the commonly defined classifications are challenged, a primal terror is evoked. Men kill from this terrified place. We fail to see that gender is not a bipolarity but a continuum, with many shades of gray between the male and female extremes.

Human beings like to have models and guidelines to help us understand who we are and where we fit in the world. As we struggle to reconcile internal cues with external messages, gender becomes an anchor for our identity. The list of qualities and traits that our society assigns to men and women helps us find a place to fit on the social map ó a gender job description. Our sense of gender as we know it contributes to a sense of social order.

As our previously understood models of gender unravel, we come to understand all gender assignments are preliminary. It takes a lifetime to define an authentic sense of gender from the inside out. As we evolve as a species and become more emotionally and spiritually mature, as we become more aware of the soul level of experience, our understanding of gender needs to expand.

I have identified four different levels of gender experience. These four levels of gender experience can be entirely separate or interrelated.

  1. How we are wired. This level relates to genitalia, hormones and chromosomes. One can call this the biological level of gender.
  2. The gender we are assigned. This is a social aspect of gender. The gender we are assigned comes complete with a social role to play, the "gender job description." For us to realize that this is an assignment, and not an inherent truth is a huge leap in thought and understanding.
  3. How we feel at an essential level. Who we know ourselves to be at the soul level may or may not match how we are wired or the gender we are assigned.
  4. The difference between our self-perception and how others see us. This difference can impact more than our identity, and even where we fit in the social matrix. It can impact our safety and even our legality.

The Spiritual Side Of Gender

Native American cultures understood and recognized the value of "two-spirited" people. Why hasn't mainstream American culture been able to see what our Native American forefathers and foremothers saw? Is this just one symptom of the spiritual void we face in our mainstream culture? Because transgendered people have access to both male and female power simultaneously, they are very powerful. This scares many people.

What if we could view gender as a process and not a condition? And what if we could imagine that the emergence of people whose lives and examples force us to think more deeply into the essence of gender are actually spiritual leaders of a sort, inviting us to look more deeply into the nature of what it means to be human beings? Are we not at a place in human evolution where integrating the male and female energies that live within us all is an evolutionary pathway to higher consciousness, a more sustainable world and inner peace? If we can end the gender wars within, do we then have the foundation for ending the external gender wars we face covertly and overtly? In my work with people of all identities, lifestyles and orientations, I have come to believe that gender is indeed a process and a pathway of spiritual evolution.

In addition to seeing gender as a process, I think it is important to also point out that gender is also energy. All human beings have both masculine and feminine energies. How much masculine and feminine energy an individual has may vary, as will the degree to which these energies are integrated.

In her book Uniting Sex, Self and Spirit, author Genia Pauli Haddon presents a model of understanding masculine and feminine energies. She draws from Chinese Taoist philosophy, whose two great primal powers are yin and yang. Drawing on her model, I have built a new framework for revisioning both male and female power as we evolve and mature as a species.

The common understanding of yin and yang uses synonyms for yin such as receptive, containing, consolidating, and dark. Synonyms for yang include creative, expansive, radiating and bright. "All life is said to reflect the interplay of these two principles," Haddon notes. Stereotypes identify masculine as yang and feminine as yin. "To be masculine traditionally has been defined to be like the penis or phallus: potent, penetrating, outward thrusting, initiating, goal oriented and to the point. Once the equivalence of penis, masculinity and yang has been drawn, any human impulse or behavior having yang-like characteristics is said to be masculine."

"Femininity customarily is said to be receptive and nurturing, as exemplified by the receiving and gestating function of vagina and womb. It follows that to be feminine is to be like a vessel: receiving enclosing, global, holistic, welcoming, sustaining, protecting, nourishing, containing, stable and inclusive ó in other words, yin."

Following from the "bipolarity of genders" model still adopted in our mainstream culture, if a woman's personality evidences "expansive yang potency," or if a man demonstrates yin-like behaviors such as a capacity to be comforting and supportive, s/he is often negatively judged.

Haddon's major contribution is expanding the traditional view of yin and yang to a four-dimensional model. Instead of saying that yin= feminine and yang=masculine, Haddon puts forth that there is a yin feminine and a yang feminine and a yin masculine and a yang masculine, and we can associate each with the parts of our sexual anatomy and their function.

Our culture as a whole has largely ignored the yin masculine. Unlike the penis, whose power is intermittent, the testicle is stable and abiding. It quietly and steadily under girds a man's sexuality. It "hangs in there." Haddon asserts, "The testicle is also the germinal source, the vessel from which the sap or water of life is poured." To fully represent the archetype of the great masculine, manhood needs to include both phallic (yang) and testicular (yin) qualities.

Likewise, the yang feminine has also largely been ignored in our culture. Haddon comments, "If we were to define femininity solely in accordance with the womb's birthing power, we would speak of it as the great opener of what has been sealed, the initiator of all going forth, the out-thrusting power at the heart of being." Yang femininity is concerned with the transformative process and the experience of self-transcendence.

To be fully balanced, men and women must realize and integrate the energies from all four quadrants. At this time in human evolution, we have developed a culture that is over focused in just one quadrant: the yang masculine. Men are overmasculinized and many women have also become overly masculinized. We devalue the yin in both men and women. When I was writing Healing The War Between the Genders, I started out discerning the male and female heart wounds, only to discover that many men and women today suffer from both male and female heart wounds.

With such a great imbalance and with so much heart wounding, it is no surprise that so many personal and social structures are unsustainable and breaking down. If we continue along this trajectory of imbalance, we will eventually destroy life on this planet, whether it be through world war with weapons of mass destruction, suffocating the collective heart with its life-giving and affirmative functions, or making the climate for individual women so difficult that they conclude they cannot afford to bear children and raise them.

I have come to believe that the power to heal, rebalance and transform the culture will come out of developing the yang feminine with its capacity to birth, to create, to bring forth new life. The yang feminine includes slowing down, getting grounded in our bodies and hearts, and recognizing our connection to the earth. We need to activate and harness the power of the yang feminine to balance the overly developed yang masculine energy at all levels in the culture. If we can welcome and build on the yang feminine energy, we can create the space to reintegrate essential yin qualities in both men and women, and all people, regardless of gender.

Perhaps our intersexed and transgendered friends, family and colleagues are actually cultural alchemists. By doing the very hard inner work of coming to peace with their own identities, and integrating and embracing their own unique mix of masculine and feminine energies, perhaps they are beginning to transmute the energy of the culture towards a more balanced, integrated whole. How different and refreshing it would be if the mainstream culture could draw from the wisdom of the Native American culture and envision our gender pioneers as prophets, medicine people, healers and guides rather than outlaws or targets for crimes of fear and rage. I look forward to that day!

Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced heart-centered body psychotherapy for more than 20 years in Newton, MA. Much of the material for this article is drawn from her second book Healing the War Between the Genders: The Power of the Soul-Centered Relationship by Linda Marks, HeartPowerPress, 2004. She can be reached at http://www.healingheartpower.com, LSMHEART@aol.com and (617)965-7846.

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