“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
How many transpeople have bent themselves into pretzels trying to pass the duck test?
Apparently, the test started over a French automaton, a mechanical mallard that appeared on the outside to be alive, but on the inside was a clockwork masterpiece.
It’s hard for me to understand people who make judgments based on what things look like to them. For me, it’s always what’s on the inside that counts.
As a trans shaman, my calling is the traditional, standing to reveal connections which exist beneath the obvious, surface view. Through my presence, I illuminate what is rather than the quick assumptions made about what things look like.
Is this expository role a spiritual role or a political one? Do I stand for broad enlightenment or do I stand to create targeted social change?
Both spiritual teachers and political operatives want to help others see the world around them in a new way, shifting the vision of the crowd.
Back in 1997 I was at a big LGBT workshop on Uniting As Allies. In the big, final exercise, we were asked to debate a key issue, with the process being used to explore working together.
The topic that came up was about the desirability to enforce pure groups; limited to people of colour, or women, for example. It was about the value of identity politics.
Out of the 40 or 50 people there, no one stood up to speak for the limits of such exclusive groups, so I did. People already knew that I was different; rather than standing with those who primarily identified as trans, I had stood by myself as someone who primarily identified as business, as holding the power of coming together in organization to achieve goals for all.
The head of SABIL — Sisters And Brothers In the Life — was arguing for exclusivity.
I spoke about group identity enforcement, about shaming and social pressures, about compliance.
One of the key questions I asked him was this: Are you working to create strong black voices, or to create a strong black voice?
If one of your members, say, decided that it was better to ask students of colour to start early competing on the wider field and so believed that affirmative action in education was counter productive to empowering them, would they be welcome in your meetings?
After the session, one woman came up to me and said that she was sure no argument could have swayed her against exclusivity, but that I did. Transpeople, even the ones who complained about each other, told me that they were happy I spoke.
My stand that day was very spiritual, very queer, very much speaking for moving beyond simple look-based groupings.
It wasn’t, though, a very effective political position. I didn’t effectively consolidate power, create blocs, motivate on the basis of separation and fear.
In my language, I was a teachy preacher rather than a preachy preacher, asking people to look inside themselves and other individuals, rather than offering them a comforting group identity based dogma of belief which drew sharp lines between us and them, between good and evil.
I know how to stand in the world for connection, for transcendence, for queer, for the divine, for myth and mystery, for individuals, for the personal empowerment which always comes with personal responsibility.
What I am much less effective with, though, is standing on my looks.
For most people, this surfaced standing is automatic and simple. They looked like a duck, or a woman of size or a man of colour or whatever so people made assumptions and treated them that way, no matter who they are inside.
If people judge them on how they look, shouldn’t they judge others on their looks too?
Politics is the manipulation of appearances. Even though the real decisions may be made in backrooms, trading money and power to convince the wealthy that they are getting what they paid for, a front is required, maybe many fronts that each persuade a different constituency.
Spiritual standing, though, is the revelation of meaning, the attempt to move beyond mundane, surface, expected and conventional to show something deeper and more connected. Even when tricks are used, rituals that are more symbolic than brutally factual, the goal is the same, illuminating the unseen.
It’s easy to blur the line between spirit and politics, between challenging enlightenment and worldly control, so easy that the temptation is always there. Churches always dance around this power, creating alliances between politics and religion to keep their place in the graces and benefits of the state system.
It is easy to decide that effective results are the only criteria to judge success. Does this mean, though, that the ends always justify the means, that caring about something higher is just a fools errand, a waste of the effort in the moment?
For me, going into spaces where one is judged only on appearance and results is entering a place where everything I know and value, everything which comes in the traditions of my people is dismissed and devalued.
While it may be true that starting by meeting the expectations of others is the only way to win their respect and broaden the conversation to something deeper, that starting point has never felt safe or sacred to me.
I stand for something deeper than appearances. That means I fail the duck test.
It looks like that means I better be resigned to being lonely.