The Sacred Space of the Queer Body

This is a transcript of the talk I gave at the “Soul Safari” festival in Brighton in February 2017, talking to the theme “The Sacred Space of the Queer Body”. There is a audio recording of this talk but because of the rather loud heating in the Phil Starr Pavilion it’s quite poor sound quality.

“I think there are two parts to this.

I think that all LGBT people especially trans people but all kinds of queer people have a particular access to spiritual heights and depths that other people may not have. The other side of that is that – because of the way that we grew up and the world that we grew up in, LGBT people and trans people particularly, have a particular vulnerability to damaging that openness.

Bodily, we have suffered a lot more than our straight co-peers. And you can think of that in terms of when we were kids, there was so much holding in of our body’s natural expression because we couldn’t stare at the boy that we loved; we couldn’t be gooey over the girl that we fancied and particularly if you’re trans then there are all sorts of issue of control about holding our body and not betraying our body’s desire for the people around us. So that we’re trying desperately to monitor our body and we hold it very tight in a way that doesn’t reveal or betray any of our desires to the world around us. And this goes on, particularly through teenage. There’s a phase when we’re a kid where it doesn’t really matter and then there’s a point where we become very self-conscious and that goes through our whole life really, this holding and policing of our body, which manifests in permanent chronic tension.

This is born out terribly in the statistics. There’s a much higher incidence of body dysmorphia, of anorexia, of substance abuse, suicidality, depression. It’s much, much higher. We’re four times more likely to present in doctors’ surgeries with depression than straight people. Much more likely to abuse substances. And these, I think, are all to do with the fact that our bodies as queer individuals were traumatised while growing up.

Trauma’s a big word, but I do honestly believe it’s the appropriate word. If you think about, for example, a black child, a little black child that is taken, theoretically, into a while family and from an early age it’s told that black people are shit, rubbish and disgusting and everything about black people is ridiculed, then those parents would be taken into custody. But most of us, unless we had particularly enlightened parents, grew up in a world where that was completely OK. Partly because, of course, our parents didn’t know that we were gay, but nonetheless, the surrounding world was incredibly aggressive and toxic. And that, from a psychotherapeutic point-of-view, as a diagnostic category, is called Type-II Trauma: repeated exposure to neglect, physical or verbal abuse, punishment and threat. If a child suffers that, then it is child abuse. And as lesbian, gay, trans and bisexual people we experience that constantly throughout our childhoods and it was never acknowledged. And so one way of thinking about the symptomology of our community is post-traumatic stress.

For people who are abused in childhood, their acting out, their promiscuity or frigidity, their drinking or their self-harm would be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And I think there’s a very good argument that we all suffer some element of that as LGBT people. Our bodies are kept in this very tense, traumatised shell. And this is really tragic because, I think that as queer individuals we have a unique power in the world. Partly because of that trauma, partly because if we really open up to that suffering and that sensitivity and that hurt, it allows us enormous empathy for other people who have been hurt and suffered. Which is why we are often so good at political causes and care work. Things that involve interpersonal sensitivity. But that does require that we access the body’s wisdom, that first of all we relax the symptoms of trauma, that we relax the body. And then that we connect with that enormous power of the body that I think that the queer path really opens up. That we have a unique path that allows us to really resonate in way that’s better and different from the people who identify as straight and who grew up in the straight mainstream which just validates everything that they do. They don’t need to be empathic because everything goes their way. We, because of our history, have this unique sensitivity to other people’s pain as well as our own.

But to do that we really need to open to our own pain, that’s the healing path that is so necessary in the queer community and is sadly so absent. Because we escape that tension by drinking, by taking drugs, by having completely disembodied sex where we’re just objects in a sexual game; because the pain of actually staying with our bodies, staying all that tension and the debris of a traumatic childhood is too great.

I think we sometimes rush to get over this trauma. There’s quite a lot of healing that needs to happen first. But there’s a lot of resistance to this because we’ve worked very hard to be proud of our identity. But sometimes that pride just sits on top of a very fragile, traumatised shell. So it’s very easy for that pride to collapse and it also becomes another pressure: “I shouldn’t be depressed, I shouldn’t be suicidal, because I’m meant to be out and proud.” But, actually, until we’ve really touched into that vulnerability and tenderness, it’s hard to be really, fully embodied. And going back to what we said at the beginning, that is the quality that makes us really beautiful as human beings. Where we can connect with all those hurt, brutalised and side-lined parts of ourselves and hold them. And then it allows people around us to go: “Oh. There’s a space of allowing and permitting. I don’t have to be all tough and macho or covered in muscles or super-butch or super-anything, hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine. I can just be a messy human.”

And this path of embodied spirituality has been for me really revolutionary because it’s not about an ideal, it’s not about “I should be a really good Buddhist and I should love everybody”. It’s more like: “I’m a complete fuck-up and I’m full of wounds and I’m really hurting but that’s what makes me a good human Being.” It’s a very beautiful path because once you get into your body you can’t really jazz it up. We are all dealing with our own unique set of bodily, somatic realities so it’s not something that we can just airbrush. When you’re in your body, you’re really in your body.

There’s one more thing I wanted to say and that’s about the particular gift of the queer body as a spiritual body. All human beings have this incredible potential because it’s not just the physical body but it’s more the energetic body that underlies the physical body. Using the pathway of the body we can enter a space that is really vast, really alive, really loving. It’s very energised and it holds all these different parts. It’s this energetic body that we’re dealing with when we’re talking about the sacred space of the body. It’s not just your chest or abdomen. But that is the entrance point. We use the physical body to get there . That energetic body doesn’t really deal in genders. This is why the trans experience is so wonderful if challenging.

The trans experience – to really go into your body and beyond your body to touch that part of you that’s not the physical gender is an extraordinarily brave and deep journey. So in some ways I think that trans people could possibly manifest the strongest spiritual charge in the world because at that level of the energy body there is no male and female. We are yin and yang. There are female qualities to us and male qualities to us. And I think that gay people, lesbian people, bisexual people and trans people particularly have a unique access to that. We’re not so fussed about being all-man or all-woman, all-mother or all-father. We have an access to this much more nuanced male and female spaciousness. And it’s interesting in Tibetan iconography that the very highest – the quintessence of enlightenment is an image of a man and a woman having sex – blue and white. And when you see these beautiful Tibetan images it’s almost always there at the top: a man and woman having sex. And it’s this idea that the male and female energy need to be completely acknowledged and completely unified to really manifest the full enlightenment experience.

And so this path through the physical body into the energy body leads to this fullness of experience which is our gift to the world. As queer people we have a much more attuned understanding of that.”

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