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Seeking New Archetypes
If images of pregnant trans people don't make me feel held and represented, what will?
For me, my transness isn't the most interesting thing about my pregnancy. It's not uninteresting, and certainly not irrelevant. But it isn't a mystery that keeps me up at night, it isn't anything I need to sit quietly with and wonder about.
In many ways, it's a dance of practicality and politics, empowerment and self-preservation — shall I wear a scarf today to camouflage my belly? Am I doing this from a desire to look normative, or simply to choose how I present my changing body in a way that I find more flattering?
My transness is largely a practical consideration for me that illuminates some broader questions about storytelling, about gender, and about how we make a place for ourselves in the world.
But I am telling you it is not the most interesting thing to me about my pregnancy. The more interesting things I keep closer to my heart.
I will say, though, that I feel profoundly un-held right now, archetypally. In terms of mirrors to see my own experience represented by someone larger than myself, by a myth or deity. Or in terms of metaphoric containers—stories and allegories that feel strong and durable enough to hold me through this complex and deeply physical arc of time in my life.
In truth, this has been a challenge for many years — when I was a Zen Buddhist, in my early twenties, I would go to a monastery at which there was a male Buddha figure on the altar. Eventually, they added an image of Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s aunt who raised him from birth, and later (after being rejected initially due to her gender) became the Buddha’s first female disciple.
This addition was hailed as a significant improvement for gender equality in the sangha. Many cis women felt newly seen and affirmed by the inclusion of a cis woman on the altar. Many had female Buddha figures on their altars at home.
I wanted that. I wanted a Buddha figure that looked like me.
“What does a trans Buddha look like?” I asked myself. I was early in my physical transition, and when I drew an image of myself, it just looked to me like a woman. I contemplated an image with chest scars — but I didn’t have those myself and wasn’t planning on it. Also, I thought, surely we are more than our scars.
I never fully answered this question for myself, but I eventually found my way into existing liturgies—when we chanted the “male ancestors,” for example, I did so with deep faith that some of them might have been assigned female at birth, passing as men to access monastic training, while others might have secretly struggled with (or very privately engaged with) a range of gender identities and experiences, none of which would ever make it into the historical record. I knew they were there, but I couldn’t see them, couldn’t point to them and say, “Yes, this one is like me.”
At the monastery, particularly early in my transition, people often wanted to talk to me about what they saw as archetypal representations of trans people in Buddhism. They often brought up one text in particular, called the Vimalakirti Sutra, which included a section in which a goddess magically switches bodies with a male Buddhist disciple in order to make a point. People wanted to know my perspective on this, how did I experience it as a trans person?
As someone who was at that very time navigating numerous institutional barriers in order to access hormone care, the idea of someone magically switching bodies in order to make a point could not have felt further from my experience. These repeated questions raised a concern for me: Is this how I, as a trans person, exist in the cis imagination?
This question is something I ask myself over and over, actually, in part because it is a point of survival. It is a point of survival because I need to know how I exist to cis people in order to see clearly which of these stories I want to take on and which I want to reject. If I didn't do the work of asking myself how I exist in the cis imagination, I might mistake it for who I actually am.
And pregnant trans men exist in the cis imagination in particular ways right now.
Lately, I find that I'll scroll through my Instagram feed and stop at an image of a trans person who is pregnant or chestfeeding their baby. I always stop, because these images make me think the post is going to be for me. Oddly, it usually isn't.
Once, I stopped for an eye-catching image of a hairy pregnant belly, swelling below a surgically flattened chest. The image was posted by researchers, seeking to share their findings about trans people's experiences with pregnancy. (More provider training is needed, they said, which is true, but — and I say this as a public health professional and not only as a pregnant trans person — this is a band-aid solution that lets larger institutions off the hook. A complex ecosystem of needs is flattened to the idea that trans health issues can be solved by teaching individual providers to use better language. And how does the emphasis on provider training as a solution shape how we see ourselves? How does it shape how others see us? How does it influence what we feel comfortable to demand in our advocacy work?)
I've also stopped my feed for some truly beautiful drawings of pregnant trans and nonbinary folks or those who are nursing their children. Sometimes these drawings have text that makes an assertion that is perhaps directed for cis people's education, such as, "Men get pregnant too," or "Birth has no gender." Perhaps I, as a pregnant trans person, am supposed to find these phrases and images empowering. Right now, they simply make me feel othered. Why would I want to be reminded, as my baby kicks inside of me, that my ability to be both male and pregnant is so deeply debatable that someone spent their time making a lovely image with a slogan just to affirm my daily reality? (I am not saying these images shouldn’t exist, many of them are beautiful, and I am so deeply grateful to the artists who take the time to create them and put them out in the world—and it’s also true that I don’t personally find the ones with these slogans to be very helpful for me right now. Other pregnant trans folks may, of course, feel quite differently.)
Instead of slogans, some of these drawings are instead accompanied by informational resources about trans people and fertility that are presumably supposed to “empower” me as a trans person with a uterus. Too often—and this is fairly puzzling to me at times—this information is actually a regurgitation of poorly substantiated, cissexist misinformation about the effects of testosterone on my fertility. (“Testosterone can potentially reduce your fertility,” one might read—but really there is no high quality data. The number of things besides testosterone that could theoretically, but have not actually been shown to, reduce my fertility are basically infinite. Testosterone, ever the potent symbol of gender transgression, gets singled out. I note that I have never been encouraged to freeze my eggs as a result of air pollution.)
It's not that I don't follow actual birthing and nursing trans folks on Instagram, but of course, nursing folks spend a lot of time doing things other than photographing themselves nursing, and even pregnant folks don't feel the need to highlight their bellies in every single post. I always stop and read these posts too, but they don't seem to grab at me with the level of archetypal presentation of these other posts that seek to represent me but don’t actually serve my own needs at all.
It's odd, actually, to feel myself represented back to myself in ways that really don't work for me, in ways that seem constructed for the cis gaze. I am also reminded, looking at these posts, that perhaps even my own pregnant trans body isn't even symbolically interesting as a pregnant trans body. I have neither a surgically altered flat chest from which my bump can provide a striking departure, nor an abundantly fleshy chest to contrast interestingly with my beard and chest hair. My pregnant belly also includes an umbilical hernia, which is of little practical interest, but makes my belly button area look a little super extra weird, which makes me feel self-conscious. (Trans body image in pregnancy isn't all about dysphoria!)
It is profoundly odd to me that even these images of pregnant trans people — the ones that are not necessarily photographs of actual pregnant trans people, but are specifically designed to represent pregnant trans people — generally don't make me feel affirmed or represented.
So I need to ask myself, if even images of pregnant trans people don't make me feel held and represented, what will?
I have been inspired here by Sophie Strand's work, widening the lens, inviting me to look for stories beyond the human world. Sophie's work re-rooting myths, planting them back in the ecologies in which they developed, has often been profoundly helpful for me as well.
I used to think it was necessary to 'queer' certain traditions through a process of addition, by reconceiving or adding in interpretations. In the past few years, I've learned that often the queer readings just lie deeper in the soil, fully available after chipping off layers of heteropatriarchal gloss. They are already in there, hidden away for the finding.
What is within me, hidden away for the finding?
What do I lose when I decide that what I "am" is a pregnant trans person, or that this is the one story I get to tell about my pregnancy, the one image I choose to represent myself?
I used to draw the 7 of Swords tarot card a lot with relation to my writing. Shea in the Catskills wrote a wonderful piece about this card in her newsletter last year, about how she sees this card as the 'editor' of the tarot, as an invitation to explore what we include when we tell our stories, and what we leave out.
I have been paying attention to what I include and what I leave out. As I wrote in my essay on Frank Woodhull, I feel that the story he told to a threatening cis audience in order to get out of a frightening situation has been mistaken for the entirety of his story. How can I not mistake the stories I tell in public for the entirety of my story? How can I cultivate practices that support me in doing this?
Earlier in the essay, I mentioned often being asked about the Vimalakirti Sutra, and not actually finding myself represented in the story of a magical gender transition at all.
There was, actually, one Buddhist story that I did find myself in as a trans person, a story that on the face of it had nothing to do with gender at all.
It was a koan called Baizhang’s Fox.
In it, an old man comes every day to hear the dharma talks at a local monastery. One day, he approaches the abbot and explains that, many eons ago, he was the abbot of this monastery. Someone had asked him "Does an enlightened person fall into cause and effect or not?"
He had said no, and as a result, he was to live for five hundred rebirths as a fox. He asked the abbot, “Please say a turning word and release me from the fox body.” He then poses to the abbot the same question about cause and effect, and listens to the abbot’s response.
(The abbot’s response, of course, is critical in the conventional reading of the story, providing a different perspective on cause and effect. However, it wasn’t the most interesting part of the story for me, so I am leaving it out of my own telling.)
After hearing the abbot’s response, the man is enlightened, and says that he is no longer a fox, but that he will leave his fox body behind the mountain. He makes an unusual request of the abbot: “Please perform my funeral as a monk.”
The abbot acquiesced. He rang the bells for the funeral service, creating confusion amidst all of the monks, who could see that none of them were ill. They went to the side of the mountain and performed the funeral rights for the fox body.
Later, the monks discuss the situation with the abbot, again an integral part of the conventional reading of the koan, again a part that I will omit here.
What always moved me deeply was the commentary that traditionally accompanied this koan: “If you have an eye to see through this, then you will know that the former head of the monastery did enjoy his five hundred happy blessed lives as a fox.”
I loved this story. It is traditionally read to be about cause and effect, about karma. I was struck instead by the man who "did enjoy" his years in the fox body, by the fact that abbot believed his story and honored his request around burial (this was during a time when I was actively prevented from using men's facilities in my community, because of the idea that it would be "distracting" for the cis men), as well as by the longing, possible regret, and eventual resolution of the tale.
I liked that it didn't make any rational sense, that it hinted at deeper mysteries that went unaddressed. (How did the man become a fox? What did he do all of those years? The sheer duration of fox-lives lived on this one mountain is by itself ripe with wonder.) I liked that the meanings I found in the story were different than those that were most commonly presented, and opened themselves up to many more mysteries and questions.
Sophie Strand's essay, Living Between Stories, has been a touchpoint and a guide for me ever since my unexpected pregnancy threw me into a space between stories this summer. Strand invites us to consider other shapes:
Perhaps when we are jelly-like, formless, without a guide, we should look outside the bounds of human culture and narrative for our new shape, our new shell. What beings have left behind their shells for me? Shall I wear the skin of the mountain, the creek, the blue heron, for a while? What feral, furred, horned, lichenized stories can I live inside briefly, while I navigate this narrative Bardo? Hermit crabs, when at a loss for snail shells, have been known to live inside pieces of wood and stone. Shall I be a tree today? A moonlight streak of quartzite in the cliff face?
It's true that I feel profoundly unrepresented right now, archetypally. My pregnancy is a big, deep, confusing, and wildly physical process, and I crave, at times, a single deity to put on my altar, someone who both looks exactly like me and yet also has eons of mythic power, of deeply intertwined rootedness, behind them.
But maybe I need to expand my ideas of what looks like me, what represents me, where I can find myself.
Maybe it's an invitation to seek a bigger container. One deeper, wilder, less rational, and much, much more mysterious. One that I hold close; one that I keep secret.
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