I am reminded of this ancient Zen koan when speaking to a person who doesn’t fit neatly into our binary ‘gender’ boxes. And I try to keep it at the forefront of all that I do to serve the needs of gender variant people and their families.
As you’ll recall, the sound of one hand clapping is silence. That is, the absence of sound. Why the absence? Because there is no resistance, no other hand to create a barrier against which the sound is created.
Gender variance is like this.
The ‘sound’ of feeling something other than ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is only created because outsiders create a barrier. That is, a child just feels how they feel. We label it as appropriate, or not, depending upon how neatly the child’s feelings fit into our expectations, i.e. whether the child’s behaviors hit the ‘barrier’ of what we expect to see.
Indulge me for a minute here, and consider a 3-year-old child.
The child feels feminine, loves activities we associate with little girls, colors we associate with female, the frilliness that Madison Avenue has taught us is ‘girly’. This is one happy little kid, waking up each morning with energy and enthusiasm and readiness for whatever the day will bring—and for a 3-year-old, just being alive is a very exciting adventure. Few 3-year-olds worry, or are anxious or depressed (thank goodness).
Enter Stage Right: Adult
The adult looks at this happy child, judges the child to be male or female (female, in this case), and treats the child accordingly. Unless, of course, the adult is one who is intimately connected with the child, like a parent, or a doctor. Then the adult might note the child’s physical body, and be concerned if there are body parts we associate with masculinity.
Once the dichotomy is noticed, it is usually not ‘unnoticed’ and the child begins to be treated differently. In some families, the child continues to grow up happy and content and comfortable. In other families, the child is taken for evaluation to a doctor or psychotherapist to figure out what is ‘wrong’.
Incongruent Are Us
We might say the child is ‘gender incongruent’. Incongruence, as defined by Collins, is ‘the quality of being surprising because out-of-place; oddness’. But remember our story so far—the child isn’t surprised, nor feels odd. The child just has feelings. Any incongruence is caused by adults who are uneasy with the mismatch between how the child feels and what expectations adults have for the child based upon the child’s body parts.
Wow, This Sounds Familiar
Who among us—having grown to a height out of range as ‘expected’ for our sex—hasn’t been asked many times “Do you play basketball?” If I had collected spare change every time I’d been asked that growing up I might have been able to retire by now.
Remember the really bad old days, when your athletic ability was expected to correlate with your race? Or your cooking and cleaning ability was expected to correlate with your reproductive organs? Sure, it sounds wrong and even silly now. And may it ever be so.
What I’m suggesting is that the ‘wrongness’ of gender identity is external to an individual’s experience. Any ‘wrongness’ is in our society, in our staunch determination to fit people into neat little boxes, and our unwillingness or discomfort when we can’t.
Here at the gender program, I’m watching the trends. Hang on to your hats, friends. The world is changing, because we now know the truth.
It isn’t about them. It’s about us.
And society needs to transition. Right here. Right now.