Exploring and Exposing the Gender Binary

By Rev. Carol Bodeau

Dear friends,

In traditional Celtic cosmology, the beginning of May is the time to celebrate Beltane, or May Day. We have probably seen images of people dancing around a May Pole, with colored ribbons trailing down as the dancers create a braid of many colors on the tall pole in the center of their circle. This colorful celebration is meant to mark the connection of the earth and the sun, or sometimes it is described as the union of ‘The Goddess and the Green Man.’ In either case, it is the meeting of the active and the receptive principles—the fire of the sun meeting the cool and fertile earth, or the ‘feminine’ Goddess meeting the ‘masculine’ spirit of the forest.

This year, on the farm, as we celebrated May Day, we thought a lot about how some of these traditional terms and concepts need to give way to more inclusive ones. In many spiritual traditions, a clear distinction is made between “masculine” energies, principles, concepts and roles, and those attributed to (or allowed for) “feminine” ones. UU’s often resist such polarity in traditional gender roles, believing that all people should have equal access to different jobs, roles, and expressions. But the more we talk at Westside about dismantling the gender binary, the more aware I am of all the ways this separation is embedded in our culture, and in our psyches.

At a recent Adult Religious Exploration discussion, we talked about all the ways male/female separations are centered in our culture: sports teams and competitions, choosing names, dressing rooms at clothing stores, public restrooms, and in so many other ways. As we begin to understand that it is essential to honor each person’s self-chosen identity and expression of gender, it is also essential that we look around and examine our own habits, or the things we take for granted, that may be enforcing a binary on people (whom we care about as friends, neighbors, and family members) who are harmed or forced into impossible situations by these polarities.

The other night, someone mentioned the Olympics. Imagine being an Olympic level athlete that identifies as non-binary or transgender. And now imagine that you are forced to compete as either “male” or “female” in order to pursue your Olympic dream. Inherent in that choice to express one essential part of who you are—the athlete—would be the necessary denial of another essential part of who you are. This of course happens much more often on smaller scales—choosing a restroom, or being denied one; getting strange looks when you go in the ‘wrong’ section of the clothing store, or want to try on clothes; having to check that darned box on the medical form, or the census form, or whatever form, that asks if you are ‘male’ or ‘female.’ A thousand small but significant harms to people who don’t fit into those two very small, very constricting, boxes.

So, what can we do to support a diverse and open expression of gender identity? We can start by looking around, and noticing how we contribute to making the boxes too small. We can use pronouns when we introduce ourselves, thus making it normal for people to name, rather than assume, which gender-ized pronouns they prefer. We can ask for information about broader understandings of gender identity, and be willing to learn. And maybe most important of all, we can break down the binary assumptions about ourselves—we can remember that the so-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ principles live in all of us. We can remember that we are all a mix of the active and the receptive, of the sun and the moon, of the earth and the sky, and that it is the blending—rather than the opposition—of these that gives wholeness, beauty and life to our planet.

Wishing you a beautiful May,

Rev. Carol

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