Essence of Gender
©2006 Linda Marks
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 handfull
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 vanilla 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?"
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 vanilla male and female. I was fortunate enough to have a client
for a number of years who was a genetic counselor. She made me quite
aware that the number of babies who are conceived who are not vanilla
male or female is significant. Brown University researcher Anne
Fausto-Sterling found that one in one hundred babies are born with
bodies that differ from standard male or female. Many different
conditions account for this occurrence.
these babies, both doctors and parents scramble to "fix" what gets
labelled 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 long before the child has had the
opportunity to grow and mature into the unique being that s/he is and
determine an authentic sense of their gender, body and sexuality.
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. One or two babies in 1000 receive
surgery to "normalize" genital appearance. 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."
as it is for people whose bodies differ from standard male or female,
for transgendered people, there is yet another difficult path to walk.
If you are transgendered, the truth of your 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. 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.
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. I wrote about her in my book HEALING THE WAR BETWEEN THE GENDERS:
THE POWER OF THE SOUL-CENTERED RELATIONSHIP (HeartPower Press, 2004).
was a transsexual, which was no small feat! She had grown up 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.
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 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!
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 theoutside world, but it was not her own life.
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, who neither understood nor wanted to
understand the deeper truth of her soul's reality.
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. It was her involvement in Insight that led her to me and my work.
I would work in London, I'd stay with Annie for two weeks at a time.
Over time, I learned more of her story. She craved love, intimacy, and
companionship in a primary way, like all of us. But finding a loving
partner was not easy for Annie. One night several years before I met
her, Annie was sitting in a bar having a drink. A man began to make a
pass at her. Feeling it was important to be honest, she gently took the
man's hand and tried to tell him who she was. His response was rage. He
took her outside the bar and nearly killed her. Here was homophobia at
its worst--the fear of a man attracted to a woman who used to be a man.
wasn't much easier with women, although not as life-threatening. She
told me about a woman she had a deep soul connection with, who was
beginning to be a real friend. But her friend wasn't comfortable
becoming more physically intimate with Annie. Did that make her gay? Or
straight? Or a freak? Her friend could not digest what having an
intimate connection with Annie would mean to her sense of sexual
is it that probing more deeply into gender identity engenders such a
primal fear? What is it that we are so frightened about?
is core to human identity. Issues of gender touch the most primal
layers of the human psyche. We learn to identify who 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 labelled 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.
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.
Kaldera, author of HERMAPHRODEITIES: THE TRANSGENDER SPIRITUALITY
WORKBOOK and a transgender activist notes, "In this society, gender is
the primal division. You can tell that because people who cross the
divide are more penalized as a group that those who cross any other
beings like to have models and guidelines to help us understand who we
are and where we fit in the world. When wrestling with essence, energy
or the mythological level of existence, models help us grasp what is
ephemeral by nature. Gender is about essence or soul at one level and
about social role at another level. Because of this, the concept of
"maleness" and "femaleness" both creates a lot of anxiety about who we
are and soothes this very anxiety.
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-- a gender job description. In this way, expectant
parents are given a road map for what to provide materially,
emotionally, and experientially for their new arrival. Our sense of
gender as we know it contributes to a sense of social order.
gender assignment helps a child come to understand who s/he is in the
social order of things, and determines how s/he is treated by family
members and the world around him/her, and how s/he is socialized. 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.
have identified four different levels of gender experience. These four
levels of gender experience can be entirely separate or interrelated.
first is what I call how we are wired. This level relates to genitalia,
hormones and chromosomes. One can call this the biological level of
second level is 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, complete with what I earlier called 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.
third level is 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.
fourth level is 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.
American cultures understood that there was a "third gender" 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? Raven Kaldera commented, "Those of us
who are transgendered are catalysts by our very nature. People don't
decide to be transgendered. You ARE and you don't get to say no. It is
a divine assignment, not a spiritual choice." Because transgendered
people have access to both male and female power simultaneously, they
are very powerful. This scares many people.
if we could view gender as a PROCESS 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 evotionary 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.
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
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
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."
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, wholistic, welcoming, sustaining, protecting, nourishing,
containing, stable and inclusive--in other words, yin."
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.
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.
yin feminine is symbolized by the gestating womb and vagina with its
gestating and receiving function,
yang feminine is symbolized by the exertive womb with its pushing and
yin masculine is symbolized by the testicles--a self-generating source
and place of ripening, and
yang masculine is symbolized by the penis with its expanding and
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 undergirds a man's sexuality. It "hangs in
there." Haddon assesrts, "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.
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-feminity is concerned
with the transformative process and the experience of
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 overfocused 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. It 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.
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. We need to
gather together and embrace this essential female capacity individually
and collectively. 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.
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!
of this material is drawn from Healing the War Between the Genders: The
Power of the Soul-Centered Relationship by Linda Marks,
Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced body psychotherapy with individuals,
couples and groups for more than twenty years. She is the founder
the Boston Area Sexuality and Spirituality Network and is the
of Healing the War Between the Genders:
The Power of the Soul-Centered Relationship
(HeartPower Press, 2004) and Living With Vision:
Reclaiming the Power of the Heart
(Knowledge Systems, Inc, 1989). She can be reached at
LSMHEART@aol.com, www.healingheartpower.com or (617)965-7846.