Seeking A Spiritual Perspective
It is common to say that the process of gender transition undergone by transgender people involves going from male to female (as in the case of transgender women) or female to male (transgender men). In a physiological sense this is of course true and it would be difficult to describe or explain the process without using that or similar phraseology.
A deeper understanding of what gender is has been arrived at in recent years by the experts in that field and this is one of the main reasons why those who change gender are nowadays often no longer referred to as transsexual – as they generally were until ten or even less years ago – but as transgender. Why? Because this is not a sexual issue. There is a world of difference between transgender/transsexual people and transvestites. The latter is a synonym for “cross dresser,” primarily those who derive some sort of erotic thrill from wearing the clothing of the opposite sex and who have no intention and often no wish to actually medically change their gender. That is not what transgender is.
Gender, the medical professionals now say, is one’s inner sense of personal identity, and if an individual has a persistent, long term, fixed inner sense of definitely inwardly being a woman, then it is said that their gender is female, even though their bodily sex may be male. Thus they are more properly transgender than transsexual, although the latter term in itself is not offensive to most transgender people; merely a little dated or unclear.
The medical process of gender transition involves – for a transgender woman, for example – using medication to block or severely limit their body’s production of testosterone (the primary male sex hormone, that is responsible for giving a man their visual “maleness”) and other medication to provide a steady flow of estrogen (the primary female sex hormone, responsible for giving a woman their visual “femaleness”) into the bodily system, whereupon the body has no choice but to begin to gradually reconfigure itself into as much of a female looking body as is possible.
The degree of “success” in that of course depends on various factors such as genetics, the age at which the HRT (hormone replacement therapy) was started, etc. The sexual organs, however, will obviously not change into those of a woman although they will significantly decrease in size and function; many transgender women seek surgical transformation in that area. Until recently this was known as Sexual Reassignment Surgery; now it is increasingly being referred to as Gender Confirmation Surgery.
Other surgeries are also often desired – albeit unaffordable for many – such as various components of Facial Feminisation Surgery and Body Feminisation Surgery, the latter of which includes breast implants, etc. Other things which HRT will not undo for a transgender woman who has already passed through male puberty include removal/reduction of facial and body hair and feminisation of the voice. Laser hair removal and electrolysis are often used to permanently remove the hair; voice feminisation coaching for the pitch and sound of the voice.
All of this sounds like a tremendous amount to go through. It is usually two to five years – and quite a lot of sadness, heartache, stress, and suffering on various levels – before a transgender woman is as satisfied as she can be with her transition.
At some point during the process – sometimes after months of treatment, other times after years – the aspect of social transition is undertaken, involving legal change of first and any middle names, gender title (i.e. from Mr to Miss or Mrs or Ms), official gender on passports and other documents, changing of the pronouns by which they are willing to be referred (i.e. “she” and “her” in place of “he” and “him”), and the endeavour to visibly appear to the world – in clothing, cosmetics, or whatever else – as a woman.
To be perceived – or at the very least addressed and treated – by others as a woman is essentially what all this process of gender transition is for. A transgender person simply wants to be perceived and treated by the world as the gender they perceive themselves to be. Along with this, they want to be able to look in the mirror – something which we all do every day and can barely avoid – and see a reflection that matches as closely as possible their own gender identity. For those fortunate enough to be cisgender – i.e. 99% of people, whose inner sense of personal identity as “man” or “woman” matches their physical body – all of this is fairly understandably taken for granted.
From the perspective of Theosophy, our personal self – often simply termed “the personality” in Theosophical literature but meaning more than that word means in general everyday usage – which is what includes our gender identity, bodily sex, and more besides, is not our True Self.
Theosophy recognises three main aspects of Self, from the Higher Self (which is pure eternal spirit, Atman, the one universal Self of all beings, the same for all and one in essence with the Absolute Divine Principle) to the Permanent Individuality (the human soul, the immortal and reincarnating part of our being, our true inner “I” and Ego, in the higher and spiritual sense of that word) to the present personality (the personal consciousness, the inner personal identity which feels that it is either man, woman, neither or both, the brain-mind, the desire nature, and the astral and physical bodies).
From the metaphysical perspective, the personal self is an illusion; not meaning that it does not actually exist, for it undeniably does, but rather that it is as undeniably temporary, impermanent, and evanescent.
H. P. Blavatsky has compared it to a part or a role played by an actor for a certain period of time, that actor being the Permanent Individuality, the Reincarnating Ego. It successively re-embodies itself in new “personalities,” each of which is the Karmic product and progeny of its prior personalities.
After a lifetime comes to an end, all the truly spiritual, noble, pure, and good, qualities and attributes of that now defunct personal self become assimilated by and part of this Reincarnating Ego, the soul. The qualities, attributes, and characteristics which were of a personal nature – not by any means necessarily “bad” but simply attached to the earthly being in a way that is not completely selfless and altruistic – do not dissolve into oblivion but will go to form the skandhas, this being a Buddhist term used in Theosophy for the traits, tendencies, and characteristics, which comprise our personal self in a particular lifetime.
We can – and hopefully are! – improving the colouring and “flavour” of our skandhas as we go through life. Whether we make them better or worse, this in turn will have significant bearing on what our personal self is like in the next incarnation. This is an important part of Karma, the law of cause and effect, action and reaction, sequence and consequence, sowing and reaping.
In HPB’s complex, deep, but highly important, article titled “Psychic and Noetic Action,” she explains that the Permanent Individuality (Higher Manas, in the Sanskrit names applied in Theosophical teachings to the Principles of the human constitution) can also be called the Nous, whilst the present personality (in the sense of the Lower Manas, “manas” meaning “mind”) can be called the Psyche. The exact meaning of these terms may differ in the ancient Greek philosophy from which they are derived but this, simply put, is their meaning in Theosophy.
Whilst Nous has not – yet – made particular headway into everyday English verbiage, Psyche has, and it seems that many people today have at least a basic understanding that when “the psyche” is spoken of, it is one’s personal-mind-identity that is under discussion.
This then can be useful in attempting to gain a metaphysical and Theosophical perspective on the transgender phenomenon…and it is a phenomenon, as the number of people around the world deciding to change gender is said to have doubled in 2016 from 2015 – perhaps partly because 2015 seemed to be the year for transgender awareness, with the very public transition of Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) and other figures in the public eye and the release of such mainstream cinema films as “The Danish Girl,” about Lili Elbe, European transgender pioneer of the 1920s-1930s – and is still significantly on the rise.
Does someone undergoing gender transition from male to female change from having a male psyche to having a female psyche? No, almost never, and this is because it appears that almost all transgender women have a female psyche from the start, although due to being stuck in a physiologically male body and appearance to begin with, that female psyche is suppressed to some extent – sometimes greatly – as there are no outlets or possibilities for it to be granted (until gender transition) its own expression and experience.
Most transgender women have never really experienced the male psyche because apart from physiologically – and students of Theosophy recognise that the physiological is the “least real” part of who and what we are – they were never truly “a man” on the inside, hence the lifelong wish to be a woman instead.
To give a direct idea and vivid example of this, rather than the reader having to guess or form a nebulous idea of what it might be like to have this experience in life, here’s an excerpt from an email sent from one Theosophical student to another:
“So personally speaking, I’d say I’ve always had, in this lifetime, a female psyche. It became artificially semi-masculinised because of the abovementioned reasons and out of social necessity; for example, as a young child what came naturally to me were female postures, movements, gestures, using pink felt tip pen as eyeshadow for going to school (!), emotional sensitivity, and later on attraction to males…all of which I had to shut down and prevent because of being told “that’s not what boys do,” “you’re not a girl,” etc. and the awareness that I would likely be taken for a gay male, which is not what I ever considered myself to be or inwardly identified as.
“As a consequence, I ended up with rigid postures and movements – always taking care not to do something that might seem not properly male – a careful avoidance of even saying words like “beautiful” or “lovely,” and hoping on several of the occasions when I formed a close bond with a woman that it would be a proper male-female romantic relationship, that would turn me into a “proper man”…which it never was and never could, partly because of my almost phobic disgust for the male body I was in, and partly because my admiration for women was 99% platonic and my wanting to be close to them in life was due to a feeling of need for a close female friend like a sister.
“I say all that just to say that the psyche is a strange thing…and to add that what I meant about my brain being chemically reconstituted as a woman’s brain due to the hormone treatment is not that my psyche/personal ego changed from one thing to another but rather that I noticed my perceptions, my understandings, my attitudes, and my feelings, changed in a way that’s very hard to describe, to something that just “feels” softer, gentler, more affectionate, more loving, and more fully female than before. One thing I realised from this is how the male and female sex hormones – i.e. testosterone and estrogen – must be the bodily correspondences of, and differentiated products of, Purusha and Prakriti, the universal divine masculine Energy and the universal divine feminine Energy.”
The big question is why and how does it happen that one’s gender identity can be, from childhood onwards, the opposite of one’s physical bodily sex?
As with most things, there must be more than one answer rather than a “one size fits all” explanation. Various Theosophists may have various ideas and some may be right but personally we cannot claim to know.
The idea accepted as reasonable and plausible by some – and also held by many Hindus – is that if the soul incarnates for several successive lifetimes as a woman and then is compelled by the force of its Karma to incarnate in a male body there could be significant discomfort or distress because of the skandhas, which were mentioned above, having become particularly feminised over those prior female incarnations. Strongly feminised skandhas and a male body are not an easy match for one another, just as very masculinised skandhas do not fit very well with a female body. Some Hindus propose that this could also explain some cases of homosexuality in cisgender people, although not all.
Several of Dr Ian Stevenson’s research cases of spontaneously occurring memories of details of past lives involved people who, from the way they were described, were undoubtedly inwardly transgender and who had apparently reincarnated very soon after the end of their former lifetime in which they were the opposite gender to that they now found themselves embodied in.
The attitude of “Your Karma put you in a body of that gender for this lifetime so you ought to stay as that, so as to not go against the Laws of Nature, and ought to try to masculinise/feminise yourself so as to re-balance things,” is rarely helpful to someone who is truly transgender. Being transgender – or having gender dysphoria, as it is called – was until relatively recently classified as a mental illness. Today it is widely accepted that although it is not a mental illness it can cause mental illness unless it is treated…and, experts say, counselling and therapy etc. will not properly treat it, nor will trying to ignore it or to keep it in the back of one’s mind. The only real “cure” is gender transition.
Just as someone who has never really experienced depression cannot truly know what someone suffering from depression is feeling and experiencing on the inside, similarly being transgender can only be fully 100% understood, fathomed, and felt, by another transgender person, although a few cisgender people – those who the transgender community calls “allies” – do come remarkably close.
As students of Theosophy or aspiring esotericists, we ought to know better than to ever judge or condemn anyone or to deny and ignore the suffering of another. The transgender phenomenon is growing, expanding, and multiplying so rapidly that it cannot be ignored by Theosophists. On “Transformation Street,” a recent television documentary series in the UK, it was said that an estimated 610,000 people in the UK feel a dissatisfaction and discomfort with their birth gender…which is a huge amount of people…and it is surely only by more people talking about it and discussing it that there can come about greater understanding, greater tolerance, and greater freedom.
Whatever our personal ideas or deductions may be as to the occult root, cause, and remedy for “transgenderism,” there is nothing in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, William Q. Judge, Robert Crosbie, or the Mahatmas Themselves, to which one can point to show that those behind the modern Theosophical Movement would be either against or in support of gender transition. We are not to judge. We are called upon to remember such important advice and admonitions as:
“Compassion is no attribute. It is the LAW of LAWS – eternal Harmony, Alaya’s SELF; a shoreless universal essence, the light of everlasting Right, and fitness of all things, the law of love eternal.
“The more thou dost become at one with it, thy being melted in its BEING, the more thy Soul unites with that which IS, the more thou wilt become COMPASSION ABSOLUTE.”
“Let thy Soul lend its ear to every cry of pain like as the lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun.
“Let not the fierce Sun dry one tear of pain before thyself hast wiped it from the sufferer’s eye.
“But let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed.” (“The Voice of the Silence” p. 70-71, 12-13, Theosophy Company 2017 reprint of the original 1889 edition)
It is easy to think and to say “I’m not attached to gender.” Ideally we would not be – and there will come a time when we are not – but if you’ve ever thought or said that about yourself, are you really sure you’re not attached to your gender?
If in this incarnation you’re a male and you’re not attached to being male, then why do you continue to live as, and always present yourself to the world as, a male, conforming to stereotyped ideas of what a male should look like, how a man should dress, how a man should act and express themselves, and so forth? If you genuinely aren’t attached to the “I am a man” idea, will you do something small and simple such as painting your nails pink for the next week?
Or if in this incarnation you’re a woman and you’re not attached to being one, would you genuinely not mind or feel any sadness or distress if you were to wake up tomorrow and find that somehow your body had magically changed overnight…your face now sporting a beard, your distinctive feminine bodily features all gone, body hair all over, and something protruding where before nothing did?
These examples may seem a little sharp but that is sometimes necessary in order to enable spiritually minded people to realise and acknowledge that they are actually very attached to their gender after all. Honesty with and about oneself is a very important quality on the spiritual path and very nearly every single one of us at our present stage of inner evolution is attached to their gender; some more than others but attached nonetheless. And this is not a bad thing! Although not our Real Self, our personal self is still a self and the one in which we currently most directly live, feel, and experience.
As HPB said in “Five Messages to the American Theosophists” (p. 6-7, 9):
“Kindness, the absence of every ill feeling or selfishness, charity, good-will to all beings, and perfect justice to others as to one’s self, are [Theosophy’s] chief features. He who teaches Theosophy preaches the gospel of good-will; and the converse of this is true also, – he who preaches the gospel of good-will, teaches Theosophy. . . . Theosophy seeks to develop the human nature in man in addition to the animal, . . . The function of Theosophists is to open men’s hearts and understandings to charity, justice, and generosity, attributes which belong specifically to the human kingdom and are natural to man when he has developed the qualities of a human being. Theosophy teaches the animal-man to be a human-man; and when people have learned to think and feel as truly human beings should feel and think, they will act humanely, and works of charity, justice, and generosity will be done spontaneously by all.”
In our ardent and earnest aspirations to actualise and consciously unite with our spiritual beings, let us not forget that we are still human beings too.