The queer I was would not take in anything I’m about to say here, having already been triggered by Christians, spirituality, a white guy author, and the very idea that someone could move on from queerness (sounds too much like reparative therapy). As the person with a queer experience I am now, however, I think that what Level Ground is doing is pretty rad and I’m excited to take part. But I’m not a Christian. I’m an honored “spiritual” guest.
Also: I’m a white FTM transperson teaching trans and queer cultural competency since 2003. My work is intersectional — rooted in having been raised by a Black father figure in an interracial family and community, having come out and identified as a lesbian feminist for many years, and having had a rollercoaster of class privilege among other life experiences. I have been out for 18 years. I have practiced yoga for three.
The queer I was wouldn’t find this funny, but sometimes I think we need to adopt the ribbon rack system from the military so our authenticity and integrity around social issues would be more obvious, rather than immediately suspect. As a person with a queer experience, I’ve learned everyone is authentic just by being alive. That learning about others through their philosophy and actions is the marrow of life — not a battle. That listening to others, instead of judging by their most obvious identities, teaches me a person’s integrity (and my own).
Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m parsing my identity: between queer and person of a queer experience. This is how I got happy. It was a necessary process. Where do I begin?
The queer I was called out everyone on everything. My ribbon rack was bigger than the hetero, white, cis people I knew and often more festooned than most LGB folks I knew. It seemed like my T friends spent their time transitioning, not paying attention to white antiracism, class politics, and usually also feminism. I could understand that, but I still judged. Like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole, anything you said could pop up problematic, and I could smack it down with one sarcastic comment.
One definition that has developed around queer identity is other than, oppositional to: “You can’t define me as traditionally gay, or lesbian, or bi, or trans. No, I’m queer! Define that!” We embrace otherness, perhaps as a reaction to being othered?
Othering hardly even seems like a real word. But othering is real. Queers aren’t born more suicidal than hetero people and it’s not natural to experience substance abuse at far greater rates than the general population. It’s because othering — homophobia, transphobia, and sexism (along with all the rest) — is a pervasive reality. Othering filters unconsciously through the senses. It attacks the psyche, is reinforced by experience, becomes an expectation, evolves into what we believe we deserve (ie self-worth), and turns into negative thought which quickly manifests as negative or self-limiting behavior…. It never ends. I internalized daily oppressions until they became my universe.
Now, this is theory talking, but meditate on it for a minute:
“We all have this margin of freedom in deciding how we subjectivize these objective circumstances which will of course determine us. How we react to them by constructing our own universe.” - Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Is this how Queer was born? A universe in which the other is the reality, in which we react to cis, hetero, white, upper class (etc) ideology by dismantling it! In a pussyriot of smart, true-hearted, gorgeous freaks whose sixth sense is compassion and who fight oppression fabulously: “not gay as in happy, queer as in f*ck you!”
Don’t get me wrong: I love queers and queerness. It’s being queer I’ve lived my way into critiquing.
To me, being queer meant going to queer bars to drink with my queer friends to decompress from the constant oppression. And do drugs: if I was a scofflaw by identity, what did the legality of drugs matter? And have sex, because if you’re drunk and high, your inhibitions disappear, and when you hate yourself it feels awesome that someone wants to sleep with you. But wait! Queer sex is liberation! I, for one, had sex that was more about self-esteem than about liberation. I marched places to be cleverly angry at whoever was queering us. I had my queer righteousness all over anybody’s comments section based on my queer reading of their theory, having mostly never researched anything else they’d done, or who they were as people behind my computer screen. I constructed by queer universe as other than, oppositional to.
I was queer. Every act of homophobia or transphobia or sexism (etc) slapped, stabbed, rejected me and everyone I loved. I hated everything and so I totally hated myself. So I retreated into the negative thoughts and actions of my universe. Eventually I felt so alone and unhealthy that I broke down.
The queer I was would take issue with what the person of queer experience I am is about to tell because it involves yoga. Spirituality is ridiculous and even the consideration of practicing yoga is racist and classist…if you ask the Internet Queers. They all somehow manage to sidestep this quote, however. It was spoken to Paramahansa Yogananda, who first brought yoga to the United States in 1920, by Babaji, his paramaguru:
“You are the one I have chosen to spread the message of Yoga in the West. ...Yoga...will ultimately spread in all lands, and aid in harmonizing the nations through man’s personal, transcendental perception of the Infinite.” (Autobiography of a Yogi, 385)
I studied a choice: I could continue to allow the negativity of my queerness to churn into further self-loathing for being dumb enough to allow spirituality and white-privileged enough to seek yoga. Or I could breathe and choose a new universe.
I found an ashram that respectfully practices undiluted Raja Yoga, feeds 25,000 homeless people annually, cared for thousands of AIDS patients in the 80s, is proportionately patronized by people of color, offers aid to people who can’t afford it, and whose first Yoga School graduate uses a wheelchair. Now that’s a ribbon rack. Kashi Atlanta earned its authenticity and integrity the first time I stepped into a meditation class to learn its central mantra:
“There are no throwaway people.”
This is how I learned to be happy:
Ahimsa (non harming): not compromising my body with booze; not harming others by using drugs which cause so much harm to people; not harming with my words; nor myself with my thoughts.
Satya (truth): calling out oppression (if I’m sure I’m also practicing Ahimsa).
Asteya (non-stealing): considering my role in gentrification, or cultural appropriation, or sexual consent.
Bramacharya (chastity): not sex negativity but in the spirit of using sexual energy wisely.
Aparigraha (non-possessiveness): so I could open up my sense of self-definition, possessing no identity over another.
Sauca (purity): the idea that a queer could be pure was a revolution in my spirit.
Santosh (contentment): the requirement to feel content, even as I rage against the machines of capitalism and heteronormativity and racism.
Tapas (austerity): caused me to make choices about how I spent my money and my time, pulled me out of the bars, and my dramas
Svadhyaya (self study): I knew this well from the process of coming out trans and queer. It requires deep scrutiny and total honesty. I’m practicing it as I write this.
Ishvara-pranidhana (surrender and devotion): really giving myself to the practice of yoga, no snarky comments among friends about it, or suspicion of the teachings.
I haven’t even started on what exercise, breathing, and meditation will do, but what they promise ends in no less than bliss.
Every aspect of yoga meets every part of my Queer universe and heals it, then strengthens it. The practices and philosophies of yoga keep me real, and teach me how to appreciate my queer experience — along with every experience of my ribbon rack — for their enrichment of my life.
Yoga, literally translated, simply means union. Oppression takes many names (transphobia, homophobia, racism, etc) but at its core it is separation: us against them. Rather than fighting for Queer Liberation to break free of oppression from without, I bend and breathe and discipline myself in order to merge with that which is larger than myself, and break free from the oppression within. This makes social justice work (seva, another core aspect of yoga) feel like an overflowing cup of compassion and not a never-ending slog against oppression. I didn’t change my politics or my commitment, I changed my universe.
Coming to understand myself as united with an Infinite felt higher than any high, more like community than any community I’d claimed. Call it what you want: God, love, Christ, kindness, the universe, the great big nothing. But it does feel stronger to be united, if only within myself. Not other than or oppositional to — separate from — everything. Imagine the power of knowing that you are not separate from love. What could you do then?
South Asian Perspectives on Yoga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNf3FVygUCo
10 Things Every White Yoga Teacher Should Know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_7gUbcAL44
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda (especially useful for Christians with questions about yoga)
“Transcend Unhappiness” by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati: http://blog.kashiashram.org/transcend-unhappiness/