Maro and I co-wrote this article for use in the yearly Women's Sacred Mysteries Class that I teach with In Sacred Balance. It's a work in progress, and we hope you enjoy it!
We live in a time of change.
Responsible feminism in our times acknowledges that “women’s experience” of the world is not uniform or singular. “Intersectionality” is a term coined by black feminist professor and author, Kimberle Crenshaw to refer to interconnected experiences of oppression by dominant culture (white, male, heteronormative). For us, this means we can’t simply have a “women’s group” and isolate the ways that sexism and misogyny have impacted our lives. It means we welcome conversations about the many aspects of cultural silencing and oppression that impact our stories. Women’s experiences are shaped by race, age, religion, national origin, ability, sexuality, and many other factors. In recent years the topic of trans women, trans men and non-binary identified people in women’s spaces has been an important one for feminist communities. If we start from a place of acknowledging that not all women have the same path or story, it makes sense to address the unique path that transgender women and non-binary folks have in the inclusion of women’s groups.
In Sacred Balance is committed to the re-emergence of the women’s council. We believe that the empowerment of women is a critical necessity for the healing of our communities and the healing of the world. We also believe that part of the work of the women’s council is healing the divisive practice of policing gender and what is an “acceptable” way to be a woman. There is room for all who feel called to be here. And there is historical context from cultures around the world that have held a practice of creating space in their communities for a greater degree of flexibility around gender expression, and the diversity of ways that “woman” is experienced.
In the next few pages, we, Tara and Maro, share our reflections and visions for a women’s community that is inclusive of trans and non-binary experience. We have known each other since 2011. We met when Maro was a young person just finding their feet in non-binary identity. Tara was working at an LGBTQ youth center in Philly. Tara has been part of the women’s community in In Sacred Balance since she was 13, back in 1995. For the past several years, Tara and Maro have been part of the In Sacred Balance community together, and have worked to make the women’s council a place where non-binary gender is a welcome and loved expression. We know it is possible. We know it is healing and beautiful for everyone involved.
Historical Context //
Reading Multiple Genders Among Native Americans by Serena Nanda
To learn what we can about alternatives to western binary gender norms, we can look to pre-colonial and/or non-patriarchal cultures across the world and throughout time. We are not seeking to replicate other cultures of the past or present and do things exactly the way they did/do. But we do give honor and visibility to the wisdom and traditions that can balm our hearts and help us understand a bigger picture. To this end, we want to share parts of a chapter called ‘Multiple Genders Among Native Americans’ by Professor Serena Nanda in her book “Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations.”
This chapter summarizes the reality that in many Native American societies, gender was not reliant on a person’s body, but on their actions and chosen occupations within the community. In the western world, we are familiar with the division of “men’s work” and “women’s work.” Feminism has spent decades trying to dissolve these barriers. In Native American traditions, “Most frequently a boy’s interest in the tools and activities of women and a girl’s interest in the tools of male occupation signaled an individual’s wish to undertake a gender variant role” (p. 15) Rather than jumping from one clearly defined gender role to another, gender variance had a range of expressions, and many individuals participated in a mix and match of clothing, occupation and social role.
Very often, people of gender variant identity were respected and honored as standing in a place of unique spiritual power. To be gender variant was seen as a gift not just to the individual, but also to the community as a whole. Two-spirit, non-binary, trans or gender-variant people were recognized as having great visionary gifts, and the capacity to understand the world from a perspective of sacred balance. Transformation of body and spirit are at the heart of most if not all Native American spiritual worldviews and are prevalent in creation stories, spiritual figures, mythology and legends. Thus;
“In spite of cultural differences among Native American societies, some of their general characteristics are consistent with the positive value placed on sex/gender diversity and the widespread existence of multigender systems. In many of these cultures, sex/gender ambiguity, lack of sexual differentiation, and sex/gender transformations are central in creation stories. Native American cosmology may not be ‘the cause’ of sex/gender diversity but it certainly (as in India) provides a hospitable context for it.” (p. 20)
Alyha in the Mohave Culture
One of our favorite parts of this chapter is the detailed description of one culture, the Mohave, and the traditions they had for gender variant men and women. For the Mohave, awareness of gender variance could even start before birth. Mohave mothers would often be gifted with dreams during their pregnancy foretelling the gender of their unborn child. In some cases, mothers would receive dreams indicating that the child would be gender variant.
If a child who was assigned male at birth expressed interest in women’s occupations and women’s company from an early age, the parents (who may have been gifted with dreams foretelling this inclination) would still challenge the child, to see the depth and seriousness of the child’s desires. If it appeared that the child truly aligned with the path of womanhood, then at around age 10 or 11 at the time when children were honored with puberty ceremonies, the parents would plan a special Alhya ritual for their child. Alyha is the word for male-to-female gender variance in the Mohave tradition. They invited the whole tribe and often family and friends from neighboring tribes, informing them of the nature of this special occasion. At the ceremony, the child was led into a circle of the community by two women, and all of the people would sing the special alyha songs - the songs that spoke to the traditions and understanding of this gender variant path. If the child began to dance the women’s dance, s/he was confirmed as an alyha. S/he was then taken to the river to bathe and given a girl’s skirt to wear. This initiation confirmed her changed gender status, which was considered permanent. After the ceremony, the alyha child adopted a new name and would no longer answer to her old (male) name.
Similarly, if a child assigned female at birth expressed inclination to walk the path of the hwame, or female-to-male role, parents and community would be equally supportive.
Menstruation and Birth for Alyha women
As the Alyha woman matured, she would participate in occupations and experiences of womanhood. She would be eligible for marriage, and many alyha did marry (although, from our understanding, some did not marry).
“An alyha who found a husband would begin to imitate menstruation by scratching herself between the legs with a stick until blood appeared. She then submitted to girls’ puberty rites, and her husband also observed the requirements of a husband whose wife menstruated for the first time...To imitate pregnancy, an alyha would stuff rags in her skirts, and near the time of the birth she drank a decoction to cause constipation. After a day or two of stomach pains, she would go into the bushes and sit over a hole, defecating in the position of childbirth. The feces would be treated as a stillbirth and buried, and the alyha would weep and wail as a woman does for a stillborn child. The alyha and her husband would then clip their hair as in mourning.” (p. 22)
We feel that it’s important to address something here. The tone the author uses in referring to the rituals of the alyha is condescending and carries an implication that the alyha is simply performing imitation rites. We believe that the fact that there were traditions in place to give the Alyha individual a culturally recognized way to express the mysteries validates her gender experience and her place in the community. When a people carry traditions that make room for diversity, they see that sometimes an individual expresses a process ritually. And, as the article shares, when a culture has cosmology that values transformation, ritual experience is not made to be “lesser” than the physical counterpart. Just different. Through these ritual expressions of women’s mysteries, Alyha were able to participate and connect.
Inclusion in Secret Societies
“In addition to occupation, female gender variants might assume other characteristics of men. Cocopa warrhameh wore a masculine hairstyle and had their noses pierced, like boys. Among the Maidu, the female suku also had her nose pierced on the occasion of her initiation into the men’s secret society. Mohave hwame were tattooed like men instead of women.” (p.23 - 24)
These are more examples of how gender variant individuals were accepted and honored in their communities in the same manner as their cisgender peers. Suku could enter into the same councils as their brothers and be adorned in similar fashion. Again, their bodies were not used to determine their place in their community. This shows us an important picture. Non-binary individuals were, at least in some places, welcomed into the councils/secret societies that best fit their IDENTITY. As many modern women’s communities consider who is included in a separatist space, this tradition is a valuable historical marker that separatism can be based on self-identity, rather than physical traits.
The World We Create
We need to find our own ways.
Let’s start by acknowledging that the same forces that silenced, repressed and demeaned women have silenced, repressed and demeaned trans and non-binary people. But now is a time of Change. A time of reclaiming the divinity of women’s wisdom, women’s bodies and lives. So too, it is a time of reclaiming the beautiful diversity beyond “male/female.” We honor female masculinity, androgyny and a whole range of transfemale/transfeminine expression. We rise together, celebrating the fierce and tender parts of our collective healing. The time is now to mark rites of passage in our lives in relevant new ways that learn from the old ways, but bring our unique place in the fabric of time into focus.
I am not trans. I am an ally to my trans and non-binary friends, students, lovers and community members. I have been a part of women’s circles and communities for over 20 years now. And I have spent the last several years cultivating relationships with trans and non-binary individuals within self-described women’s spaces.. When we come to the table focusing on our shared longings for a better a world, a safer, more respectful, more loving human condition, we find common ground. My life feels so much richer for having shared a space of “sisterhood” with those whose paths are very different from mine. I feel honored learn and grow together.
My name is Maro. I am of Japanese-American descent and White-American descent. So, I don’t have much cultural grounding in any indigenous tribe on this continent, but the accounts of my transcestors in these communities still sing to me on a soul-level. I was assigned the term “female” upon my birth and I identified with it for the first 19 years of my life. My identity was turned onto its head practically overnight once I began learning about the existence of trans community and had found safe space in a local LGBTQ+ youth center. I awoke to my own soul that year...and while it was comparatively a smooth ride to transition, there is still a lot I wish was different.
Reading about how the Mohave children of the village were paid attention to and if they displayed signs of aligning with an identity different from their presumed gender, how they were welcomed into an initiation by the community in celebration and ritual...it spoke very deeply to what I dream of how I wish my adolescent years were different.
We can ask, “what does it mean to ‘become’ a woman?” When a 12 year old gets her period, let’s stop and celebrate. When a 12 year old declares her trans identity as a girl, let’s stop and celebrate. Let’s tell both children that they are welcome into the society of women, if they should so choose it. Let’s teach them how to listen to the wisdom of their bodies, how to value themselves, how to love and be loved. Let’s teach them that there is no one right way to look, dress, act or talk to “become a woman.”
As someone who is transgender (specifically non-binary), hearing the stories of the people who honored their transfolk for their identities and didn’t restrain them according to misguided interpretations of the body moves a lot within me. Ancestral memories are revived. The Dream continues.
I wish I could give Prof. Serena Nanda’s article to my younger self, because I needed to hear about the existence of tradition, ceremony, and a culture that honored trans/two-spirit/non-binary experience then. I needed affirmation of my being, of my manner of expression, of living outside of the binary before I knew what the word meant. I had the privilege of being allowed to dress as I pleased and pursue hobbies of my choice, but I was not encouraged. I was tolerated, not accepted.
I dream of what my initiation could have looked like. I dream of who would have been there to welcome me into my new name, as Maro. I dream of celebration, honor, support, and love that had corresponding ritual traditions and ways for my community to participate in this process with me. To be able to change my name without defending it before a court, to access necessary medical care, to receive surgeries to bring my body into alignment with how I see myself in my heart, to live in the full vibrancy of my being...I dream of it.
I remember when me and Maro met. Maro was this sweet but very lost adolescent whose spiritual capacity was evident from the beginning. About a year after we met, I invited Maro to take the Women’s Sacred Mysteries Class. Later, they joined the ongoing community of the women’s council called “The Wheel.” Maro has modeled generosity and bravery as they have shared their path of coming out, learning what it means to be trans, learning what it means to have the body that they have,...understanding that it is a path that has challenges as well as gifts. They have cultivated their spiritual proclivity, and have stepped onto the path of the healer. Maro’s work of growing from a “lost” adolescent to a self-aware, wise and amazing young adult has unfolded, in part, in the container of the women’s council. Maro, along with a few other amazing individuals, have challenged us in loving and powerful ways to see the unique role of trans and non-binary “siblings” in the “sister” circle. We have all benefitted from their presence.
Now, we dream together of creating space where all women (that whole beautiful intersectional spectrum) and non-binary folks can be part of learning new songs, creating new ceremonies, celebrating new names and healing the world as we heal together.