Dharma Rain - Stillpoint
A panel presentation by the Gay Tea group on January 27, 2008
[More about Gay Tea.]
I want to start by saying “thank you.” Thank you to this sangha,
who have been so wonderfully welcoming and affirming of all of us. When my
partner and I joined several years ago we found a place where we could be
comfortable and accepted as who we were. When someone came and asked us whether
we thought there would be a need for a gay group, we both said no, there was
And yet, once a group started, I saw the value in it. For the past few
months I’ve been trying to get clear about what that value is and how to articulate
it to you, and that’s what I’ll try to do in my part of this presentation.
What is Equality Day?
Equality Day was organized by the Community of Welcoming Congregations
(CWC), of which Dharma Rain Zen Center is a member. Their mission statement
“Our ministry dedicates itself to the full equality of gay, lesbian,
bisexual, transgender, intersexed and questioning people seeking spiritual
arms of education and advocacy, we reach out in support and affirmation acknowledging
the image of our loving Creator in every person.”
The original idea for Equality Day came from Basic Rights Oregon, with
the idea that if we were going to be facing anti-gay ballot measures in any
they would like to get church members involved with the various political campaigns.
As it happens, we’re not facing any anti-gay ballot measures this year.
Still, about 60 congregations in Oregon and southwest Washington are participating
in Equality Day.
Last year, the Oregon state legislature passed two laws of interest to
GLBT folks. The Oregon Equality Act remedied the discrimination that gay,
and transgender Oregonians experienced at work, in housing and public accommodation
(such as hotels and restaurants) and in other important areas. This law went
into effect January 1, 2008. The Family Fairness Act created Domestic Partnerships.
That law survived a federal court challenge, and went into effect February
When I heard about the idea for Equality Day, I recognized it as a good
focal point for doing this panel presentation, something we’ve been talking about
in Gay Tea for a while. CWC is largely Christian, and they are calling this Equality
Sabbath, language that doesn’t work for me. I recognize the political
value of it, however, and of the use of Christian language in countering the
underpinnings of anti-gay political activity. However, for me, the date is
something of a convenience, an excuse for sharing something of our group with
The group started 2½ years ago. The first year we met now and then,
about every 6 weeks or so. We generally had no particular agenda. The idea
to meet, to see each other, and have tea.
The second year we decided we wanted a group more focused on dharma. We
limited the group to Dharma Rain members (at least in theory), developed
a plan for
the year choosing topics we wanted to discuss, and various members committed
discussions on topics of interest to them. We have discussed sexuality, abuse,
authenticity, relationships, compassion, identity and the self, accepting people
as they are even if they persecute us (advanced practice), and work (right
At the end of last year we decided to open the group to any Buddhist practitioner
or those interested in learning about Buddhism. This year the group has been
more eclectic, and attendance varies from month to month.
Many people have trouble with the alphabet soup we use to describe ourselves
(GLBTQQ, with sometimes an I or other letters in there).
- Gay theoretically covers everything (like the term “men,”)
but usually means gay male.
- Lesbians complained that the term “gay” makes us invisible,
so we became gay-lesbian.
- Bisexuals didn’t fit either category, so we became the gay/lesbian/bisexual
- Transgender people didn’t fit in any of those, so now we have
the common acronym GLBT.
- Queer covers all of it, being inclusive, though some folks don’t
like it because it sounds pejorative. But many of us find that we have
- Questioning acknowledges those on that path of exploring the possibility
that they may be queer in some way. It is a process of coming out.
When I was trying to find the common thread that connected all of us diverse
people who participate in Gay Tea, I began to see that what we all share is
having come out at some point. It is common for queer folks to share our coming
stories with each other, and we share our histories often in Gay Tea group.
There are two aspects of the experience that I’d like to talk about. The
first is coming out to one’s self. This is a process of discovery, and
it is often traumatic. We find that the constructed self is not valid and that
we must re-examine the assumptions we have been living with. It is painful,
but also liberating, allowing us to live more in harmony with our true nature.
terms for this process are transformation, having the bottom fall out of our
bucket, deconstructing the self.
What we have to offer is that we’ve experienced this once, we know
what that process can look like, we know that we can survive it and that
it can result
in a more liberated, authentic way to live our lives. What we appreciate in
Buddhist teachings is that they give us a way to understand the process of
In my case, there I was, going along quietly being a wife and mother, doing
some community volunteer service work, getting interested in local politics,
suddenly I turned into this weird deviant that no one wanted to have anything
to do with. My carefully constructed self evaporated, and there I was trying
to figure out what the world would look like now. I had to question all the
rules and norms I grew up with. It was a good precursor to the work I’m
doing now, letting go of old assumptions about who I am.
The second aspect is coming out to others. This is a process that never
ends. I find myself often coming out to people who ask how I got involved
because I talk about my “partner, she.” Coming out to others is
complicated by major elements of society who consider us immoral, unnatural,
sometimes even dangerous. Then, we all have to deal with our families. Even
if they are supportive, it is always an issue, and can never just be ignored.
families are not supportive, it can be incredibly painful. What Buddhist teachings
give us is a way to help us to see that who we are is not dependent on how
others see us, that all such perceptions are impermanent. What we have to offer
different perspective on our world, our society, based on a certain outsider
We challenge society’s assumptions in several ways. A primary way
is around gender and gender roles. There is a prevailing assumption that
there are two
distinct genders, male and female, that everyone is one or the other, and you
can always tell. Further, that each needs the other to be complete. There is
a notion that each gender has certain characteristics and roles to fill in
a well-ordered society.
We challenge these assumptions when we act outside these roles. We do that
when we love someone of the “wrong” gender, when a woman acts in a way
that is considered too “manly,” when a woman takes a “man’s” job,
when a man swishes and dresses like a “woman.” In these and other
ways we don’t fall in to the assigned roles, and this is often seen as
The people participating in the presentation are all active in the Gay
Tea group, and spoke about queer issues from different perspectives based
The issue of identity is central to any discussion about GLBTQ equality.
At this time in the human drama, heterosexual identity is held up as the
expression; alternatives are reviled, labeled inauthentic, or feared for their
supposed negative impact on society. While many people explore issues of identity,
the non-heterosexual, at one point or another, often deals head-on with what
seems to be a simple question: Who am I?
I have asked myself that question multiple times in my life. The first
was at the age of five, when a clear answer arose: I am a boy. The problem
answer was that I was born female, externally. This challenge caused myriad
difficulties once the well-meaning people in my life — parents, teachers, other children — realized
that I was different from most. The overriding message was that there was something
wrong with the way I behaved and looked. I was a girl, after all, so why didn’t
I act like one? The external messages started to get louder than the internal
voice that pleaded for recognition.
The pain that resulted from persistently applied cultural norms led me
to sacrifice my internal sense of self and replace it with a mask of faked
dissonance became increasingly difficult to manage. The once lively, engaged
tomboy became a disillusioned adolescent who used alcohol and drugs to escape
an agonizing reality. The pattern of substance abuse continued until my early
twenties, when I realized that my life was increasingly out of control. I quit
using and became determined to finish my college degree.
As an undergraduate student, I was exposed to real-life gay people for
the first time. Having been raised in a relatively conservative town, I never
that I might be gay because I couldn’t reconcile the harsh cultural judgments
with my internal sense of being a good person. It was only by coming into an
inclusive and supportive environment that I realized that gay people could
As a result, I found myself faced with the question again: Who am I? My
secret fantasies of sex with girls came rushing out of my subconscious mind.
realized that I had never really been attracted to men, despite years of trying
to form a straight relationship. I exuberantly came out as a lesbian a few
short months later. For the first time in my life, I felt I was being myself.
The comfort that came from finally accepting a major part of my self enabled
me to create a relatively satisfying life. I was in a relationship with the
same woman for five years, but something lingered in my subconscious that prevented
me from achieving true happiness.
At the age of 33, the voice of the boy returned in the context of a therapeutic
relationship. I felt forced to answer the question yet again: Who am I? Could
I be transgender? What does that mean? I had gained enough self-confidence
over the years that I was able to hold these questions and shine the light
to find the answers. The boy I had repressed more than two decades earlier
stood between me and my future as a healthy, integrated adult.
Despite the marginalization and pathologizing that is directed at transgender
and queer people, I knew that I had to reconcile my life with my innate identity.
I had already changed my self so that I would fit — albeit, awkwardly — into
culturally defined gender boxes, and I was miserable as a result. I walked
in the world as a shell of a person. For me, gaining freedom meant transitioning
from female to male.
Luckily, many others worked to forge the path of physical transformation.
When I realized that I could “pass” as male and be seen as the
person I felt myself to be, I launched into the process. Within months, I
had a more
congruent identity, and I was happier than I had ever been.
Living with a queer identity is challenging in this time and place. My
new, more integrated sense of self was met by constant references in the
to the hetero-normative standard. My anger at out-dated cultural norms bled
into rage and self-righteousness. Family members and friends were subjected
rants about the religious right and conservative social policy. I began to
sense that I was standing in quicksand.
In early 2006, at the age of 36, my fear of being viewed and treated as
a deviant or immoral person led me to another emotional crisis. I realized
that my fight
against the world was killing me. I knew that I was not “normal” and
never would be. I felt powerless. Feeling as though I had been forced to my
knees, I picked up the tools I had been exposed to in college through an Eastern
class. Once again, I was faced with the question: Who am I?
I started exploring Zen in more depth, as well as Advaita Vedanta. For
several months, I awoke an hour early and practiced devotional chanting and
Three months into this rather rigorous (to me) practice I had an opening experience.
In an instant I felt as though all of the pain and suffering of my lifetime
away. I knew that if I were hit by a bus that afternoon, everything would be
okay. I floated on a cloud for weeks afterwards, smiling at everyone and everything
that arose in my awareness.
My practice has ebbed and flowed since then; however, my life has changed
profoundly. While very little is different in terms of relationships and
career, both my
perspective and my approach have undergone fundamental shifts. A deep understanding
of the impermanence and interconnectedness of all of life emboldens me to walk
(somewhat!) fearlessly in the world.
Though my story is unique, I believe it to be an example of some of the
powerful truths I have learned through my Buddhist practice. First, do not
concerned with the finite world. Delusion abounds. Second, shine the light
inward to find
Truth. While we may benefit from the words offered by others on the path, the
answers we seek only arise from within. Third, suffering is universal. It may
seem that queer people suffer more than others; however, everyone experiences
tremendous suffering at some point. Fourth, we each have our own karma to deal
with, and our suffering is relative. Finally, cutting off the roots of suffering
may require a lifetime of practice, but we gain clarity, equanimity and wisdom
when we fully express our own nature. We find our true nature each time we
sit down on the cushion.
We are familiar with a young prince. His parents loved him and cared for
him. They wanted the very best for him. They protected him. They kept him
suffering — aging, sickness, hunger. His parents protected him from reality
for a long time. Eventually, the young prince saw what the real world was.
A long time ago, I was a young child. My parents loved me and cared for me.
They wanted the very best for me. They protected me. Even the society I grew
protected me from reality.
Slowly I began to see that no one around me would admit the real world. To
them all little girls liked little boys and all little boys liked little girls.
me there was a different reality.
Relatives and friends of the family were quick to ask, “You have a girlfriend?” “No.” I
kept waiting for the obvious next question, “You have a boyfriend?” That
question never came. If these people didn’t know more than the boy-girls
reality, then I decided they must be crazy. I figured that if they didn’t
understand my reality, there must be a lot of other things they didn’t
I began figuring out things for myself. I developed the habit of asking myself, “Why?” “What
is the cause, the reason?” — of everything.
There was no one I could talk to about all this. As I grew in strength, I grew
apart from my family. There was nothing to share with them. I used to look
up at the big sweep of the Milky Way (back when we could see the Milky Way)
ask myself, “Which planet up there do I belong on?” I knew that
somehow I got delivered to the wrong world.
I tell you these things — some of my childhood sufferings — not for
your sympathy. Not even so you’ll understand some of what I went through.
Certainly not to compare my suffering to yours. None of these reasons.
I share these things so that you may ease the childhood of someone else.
Almost a hundred percent of gay children grow up in heterosexual households.
the opportunity to let children know reality. There are little boys growing
up. Some of them will grow up to be a man who loves another man. There are
girls growing up. Some of them will grow up to be a woman who loves another
woman. That’s reality too. Parents can’t alter the fact by hiding reality
from their children. There is nothing that parents do to cause any child’s
expression of self or of sexuality. These are broader realities than most are
willing to admit.
The parents of the prince who became the Buddha couldn’t protect him.
Eventually he found the reality of his life and he faced it.
Ken’s reaction to growing up gay was, “I’m okay, society is
crazy.” My reaction was just the opposite. I came away feeling that society
was okay and I was not. Something was wrong with me. This is probably a more
common reaction among gay people.
This reaction was reinforced by my Christian up-bringing which taught me
(1) that homosexuality is wrong, (2) that humanity is fallen, and (3) that
flesh is bad.
By contrast I find Buddhism wonderfully affirming. There is no condemnation
of homosexuality in any Buddhist teachings that I have studied. There is the
that abuse or misuse of sex is wrong, but nothing about homosexuality, per
se. Perhaps this is one reason that many gay people are drawn to Buddhism.
The other great affirming aspect of Buddhism for me is the teaching that
everyone has Buddha nature. Maybe we have to work to uncover it, rid ourselves
but basically deep down we are all perfect already. I think of this as the
Mr. Rogers model: You’re okay just the way you are. One can see the appeal
it has for those who grew up feeling that there is something wrong with them.
So the value of Gay Tea, for me, is that it provides a forum for affirming
our experience by listening to each others’ stories. This is much like
encountering gay-themed movies and literature that affirm our feelings. I have
made a hobby
in recent years of studying the growing field of Gay History, which affirms
my experience by putting it into a historical perspective.
The 1950s was about the darkest time for homosexuals in recent American history.
This was the time when I was growing up and coming to understand my sexual
feelings. From the 1800s to around the 1920s there was an innocence about buddy
between gentlemen and romantic friendships between ladies that allowed a lot
to go on under the radar. But slowly the ideas of Sigmund Freud and other sexologists
became popularized throughout all levels of American society, and those friendships
became suspect. Eventually they came to be viewed as pathological. With the
rise of military psychiatry surrounding World War II, we saw the institutionalization
of homophobia, which is still present today with the “Don’t ask,
don’t tell” policy.
In the 1950s people didn’t speak about homosexuality. It was as if it didn’t
exist. It is no surprise that I grew up thinking there was something wrong
This historical perspective helps us understand the context of our experiences.
The result of this affirmation is that we feel better about ourselves and can
live and act more confidently in the world. But there is a paradox here. This
can serve only to strengthen the ego. Eckhart Tolle explains this paradox very
clearly. Here is a quote from his book, The Power of Now (1999):
“In the quest for enlightenment, is being gay a help or a hindrance,
or does it not make any difference?”
“As you approach adulthood, uncertainty about your sexuality, followed
by the realization that you are different from others, may force you to dis-identify
from socially conditioned patterns of thought and behavior. This will automatically
raise your level of consciousness above that of the unconscious majority whose
members unquestionably take on board all inherited patterns. In this respect,
being gay can be a help. Being an outsider to some extent, someone who does
fit in with others or is rejected by them, for whatever reason, makes life
difficult, but it also places you at an advantage as far as enlightenment is
It takes you out of unconsciousness almost by force. On the other hand, if
you then develop a sense of identity based on your gayness, you have escaped
trap only to fall into another.”
Buddhism teaches us to identify, not as gay or straight, not as male or female,
not black or white, us or them, but as part of all sentient beings — the
broadest possible category we can imagine. And maybe this can help bring us closer
to understanding another great Buddhist teaching: the emptiness of the self.