discernment,  queer spirituality,  transgender experience

Changing Yourself to Find Your Self: Reflections on Judgement and Gender Expression

As I continue in my process of gender transition, I’m asking myself what I want to change about myself and why.

Criticism and judgement abounds in our society—animated by both the soul-less force of consumer capitalism and the toxic religiosity of Christian supremacy. Ours is a performance culture, were we are often made to feel that we should live up to various standards of success, lest we be recognized as failures.

I think the anxiety this produces explains some of the strong reactions I’ve gotten to different tangible aspects of my transition.

Many of us understand that, part of the remedy to the toxicity of our culture is a sort of deep acceptance. We should just “be ourselves.” We “shouldn’t care what others think of us.” Etc.

And there is deep wisdom in these sentiments. But, of course, they don’t really get to the heart of things. At least for me.

How can I “be myself” when the “Self” I believed to be a man for 45 years was revealed (and yes, I am using the term “revealed” very intentionally) to be not a man? And how can I not “care about what others think of me” in light of the very real truth that personhood is contingent upon relationship? I am who I am because of my relationships.

My selfhood and identity being dependent upon, and shaped by, various relationships can be understood in an anxious, insecure, performative way. Or in a rooted, confident, compassionate way.

The question is: what changes I can make in my life will lead me more deeply to a healthy self? A self that is found in life-giving relationships? When can change be a meaningful part of self-acceptance? A sifting between what parts of my sense of self I might drop off at the psycho-spiritual thrift shop and which parts of my sense of self “spark joy?”

It is hard to discern what are things you can healthfully change about one’s self and which things are healthy to accept about yourself.

Knowing the different is a matter of discernment.

Discernment isn’t judgement…not in the conventional sense. Judgement, in the way many of us tend to think about it today, approaches an object, activity, behavior, etc with the express purpose of diagnosing if it is right or wrong.

Of course, there is a more expansive understanding of the word “judgement” that gets swept to the side in our moralistic, binary culture. In the broader sense, “judgement” has to do with possessing and applying wisdom.

That “judgement” can be used to describe both sentiments is part of a larger pattern within our society. The intellectual heritage of the West, with it’s emphasis on categorization, bifurcation of social spheres (separating personal from social, spiritual from secular, economy from political, etc) encourages a devaluation of wisdom in exchange for knowledge.

Gerald May, in drawing upon both his training/experience in both contemplative spirituality and psychiatry contrasts discernment with diagnosis, writing, “diagnosis looks to label disorder so that it can be corrected, but discernment seeks to discriminate among inclinations so that a proper direction can be followed.”

A diagnostic question might be: “I feel like there is something wrong with me, how can I figure it out and fix it?”

A discernment question might be: “Something feels off within me, I wonder what it might be and how I might respond?”

These two might seem like the same question. They are not.

The second question isn’t primarily interested in categories or labels…things that can be discretely cut out like a damaged organ. Rather, it is interested in the whole. The relationship between things. And it values the “interstitial” aspects of our life…the spaces between things that have their own meaning and purpose.

So. What to change? Changing a wardrobe to better reflect who I understand to be in the world? Not as consequential as modifying my body, but still not a simple thing. I’ve experienced different reactions to cosmetics or wigs or bodywear or clothing as though each of these things represents a criticism and rejection of the things they are not. In other words, if I choose to wear a wig, am I rejecting baldness? If I choose to wear makeup, am I judging regular middle aged faces? Am I making a value judgement, in a moralistic way, that long hair, made-up face, and other stereotypically “feminine” things are better or more faithful to femininity?

It may seem strange to folks who think of discernment and contemplation as quiet, still things. But discernment can be very active and colorful. For queer folx, trying out styles, changing the way they present themselves, spending time with new acquaintances—these things and more can be active experiments in discernment. Just as sacred as noticing thoughts during centering prayer or engaging in the Ignatian practice of Examen.

The same holds for other activities. Creative experimentation can be engaged contemplatively. Visual artists paying attention to what emerges when they use a particular style. Cooks noticing how their senses, emotions, and thoughts respond to different flavors. Poetry. Music. Crafts. Sex. Conversation. Everything can be a playground for discernment.

If a practice touches on something deep within us (which is easy to miss and why attentiveness, self-compassion, and curiosity are important parts of any spiritual practice) it is a spiritual practice and an invitation into deeper discernment.

The further to the core of who I am as a human being the more this tension is revealed. Choice of a wig color is one layer. Wearing a wig at all is a deeper layer. Getting hair transplants (which modifies my body) is deeper, yet still “cosmetic.” Changing my voice? Changing the way I fundamentally relate to my body? Changing relationships? Deeper still.

Discernment opens us up to change. And a change made in the process of discernment can heal just like a change made in judgement can do great harm. And, unfortunately, human beings have multiple intentions at any given moment. It is often true that a change can be made with multiple intentions.

From the outside, it can be hard to tell the difference. It is, after all, hard enough to know from within the experience.

When someone we care about is making changes, it is helpful to give them space the way Quakers give space to discerners in a “Clearness Committee.”

A Clearness Committee is a process wherein a person who has weight an important decision or change is supported by friends to help them discern. These friends don’t just dole out advice. Nor do they make a decision together by some sort of consensus. It is a space for discernment, not diagnosis.

Supporting someone in a Clearness Committee means: 1) listening to them, deeply, 2) offering open-ended questions without judgement, that might help with clarity, 3) and reflecting back what we notice or hear.

I’m discerning how to be faithful to who I am in light of a new awareness of my queerness. To be as clear as possible: that doesn’t mean I’m discerning whether or not I’m queer. That isn’t a question to discern, it is, instead, something made clear to me in a way outside of my choosing.

For me, transitioning is about discernment. It is about expressing gender (or possibly, lack thereof) without simply re-enacting stereotypes of femininity or masculinity, or a blend of the two. Just like my work is about expressing my spiritual vocation without simply assuming it should fit some pre-conceived example or template.

Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk (they/them) is the Executive Director at the Center for Prophetic Imagination. Ashe is a writer, teacher, organizer, and spiritual director. For nearly 15 years, they have sown seeds of subversive spirituality throughout North America. Ashe is the author of such books as That Holy Anarchist, unKingdom, and A Wolf at the Gate.

Leave a Reply