Thursday, February 13, 2014

We're here, we're queer, we're here to help you

Duality in Buddhism is a common concept, one you can find references to regardless of vehicle. It's also one of those Buddhist concepts that gets misused, is misunderstood, and which can easily lead the unskilled into dangerous complacency.

I mean, seriously, I'm sorry that my eyes roll whenever I hear someone pontificate that, "Like, there's no wrong or right, you know? Those are just false concepts that are forced by a society that wants to, like, control you. You know?"

Gnarly, dude.

On the one hand, the idea that duality is a false concept in most of our experience is right on. Jim Wilson in his essay for the second volume of Queer Dharma provides a really nice explanation of duality and how it's a fabrication tenuously held together by a collective acceptance that it exists. Wilson, in his essay "Practicing Buddhism As A Gay Man," uses the former "border" between East and West Germany to illustrate his point. For year's, the world accepted the duality there was an East Germany and a West Germany. Then one day, there was one Germany. Where did the line go? Was it even there except in our minds? For one period of time, the world agreed there were two Germanies, then one day, the world agreed there was one Germany.

Just like that.

Something a little more difficult for many to grasp is the notion of race and precisely how fluid it really is. In her excellent recent article in Salon, "The History White People Need to Learn," Mary-Alice Daniel reveals that even the idea of "white people" hasn't always been clearly defined as a separate race. In fact, it wasn't until people with white skin started to encounter with greater frequency people with skin other than white did "whites" perceive a need to collectively identify themselves as "white." Prior to that, races were divided according to nationalities (another fabrication, I know): For example, the Germans were a race different from the Italians, who were different from the Celts, etc.

So, yes, race is a construct, a creation of mind. Having said that, there is a problem with being too ready to accept that as the way things are. Saying this is the way things are is not the same as seeing things as the way things are, and, frankly, I am skeptical when I hear Buddhists, in particular white Buddhists, say that. It makes one lazy, providing an excuse to be unmotivated to tackle the real issues surrounding such "theoretical constructs" like race, gender, and sexuality in our sanghas.

Wilson's essay is exceptional for another reason beyond the way he describes the concept of dualism, and that is the role lesbigay practitioners play in disrupting the dualism surrounding gender identity.

"Because gay men, and other sexual minorities, do not fall within the categories of how the mind has structured male and female, the presence of gay men, simply by that presence, calls into question the dualistic consciousness upon which that division rests. I believe this goes a long way towards explaining why the presence of gay men provokes strong hostility from many people."

Just by showing up we completely disrupt long-held notions of not just sexuality, but gender roles - we turn them on their head! And just when some people think they've figured out the idea of gay and straight, we turn things upside down again with transgendered people, asexual people, and whatever amorphous method of gender and sexual orientation we can come up with. It freaks people out because some folks obsess themselves with why there's an apparent obsession over gender identification. The amazing thing is that this is nothing new, there's always been those who do not conform to the duality of male and female and the roles thereby assigned. Only now are people willing to say something about it and demand acceptance of their existence.

And even though race has always been somewhat fluid, it's become even more fluid as people are no longer accepting limited categorizations based on skin color. No, we are Hispanic black or Asian brown or Latino mulatto or whatever. On one hand there are those who say, "stop all this nonsense! These are all just theoretical constructs!" But on the other hand, forcing the recognition of these differences pushes people out of their comfort zones, which had successfully insulated them from engaging other human beings as they are without first compartmentalizing them into easily recognized boxes of existence.

It can seem like alphabet soup out there when we talk about race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality. And it's understandable that it can be frustrating. But so what? It becomes a problem only under two circumstances.

One is when others push back against this process of self-identification. The reason for pushing back is defensive and selfish because these "new" labels disrupt and challenge previously held sacred beliefs about who and what people are. Such self-identification also challenges the power structure that remains largely under the control of straight white males, both in and out of the various Buddhist communities.

The other is when people present a facade that they are beyond prejudice and privilege by retreating to the position that these are all fabrications that we just need to relinquish. Because such a position is not letting go; the fabrication is, in fact, retained and strengthened into an even more-secure delusion.

And besides, our Buddhist precepts demand that we do this. The Fourth Precept encourages us to refrain from lying. Ignoring our personal identities would be a violation of the precept. As everyone one of us now out of the closet knows, denying our sexual identity is to relegate ourselves to a personal hell. Coming out is freedom, it's liberation, and Buddhism is all about liberation.

So yeah, we're here, we're queer, and we're here to help you.

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