About a month ago, I took over the Monday night spot teaching “Free Trans and Queer Yoga (FTQY).” In a heartfelt offering, Rhani started this particular series a while ago, out of her house, clearing out the furniture in her bedroom on a weekly basis, and squeezing in seven mats. She gave me the opportunity to sub in her home a couple times, and when the class moved to a beautiful performance space at CounterPULSE (80 Turk St, San Francisco).
There are currently three weekly classes in the FTQY series at CounterPULSE, and when I was offered the Monday night slot, my first response (after “Yes”) was, “Can I call it a community class instead?”
The irony is that for many years I complained about a lack of inclusivity and welcoming for transgender and gender non-conforming people in yoga spaces. I spent, well, wasted, endless amounts of energy arguing in my head with people and occasionally discussing in person the constant stream of slights. And finally, here, a class for my people, and I chafed at holding “Trans and Queer” in the marquee.
Despite the slights, I’d stuck around with yoga practice in community. All that damn practice and now my people are all people, and my desire to re-frame a queer class as a community class aligned with my intention to welcome everyone and anyone, especially those who for whatever reason found traditional studios uncomfortable, unaffordable, and inaccessible.
I also understand there is a trickiness to spotlighting an identity in a spiritual practice like yoga that is designed to shift the default state, the “I” sense, into a deeper awareness of unity and oneness. This trickiness is the part of the discussion that interests me the most, for it lies at the intersection of spiritual practice/inquiry and actual lived human experience.
So… “Why Trans and Queer Yoga?”
People ask me this all the time. I have concrete answers. I’ll get to the specifics soon. But let me first try the roundabout response. The fact that friends, studio owners, and yoga teachers ask this on a regular basis, often with an incredulous tone, is the very reason for the need.
I want to explore briefly the concept of “privilege.” Take a deep breath. Are you afraid, excited, guilt-ridden, or confused? The very mention of privilege can do that to some folks. Don’t worry, we’ll start with me. I like to share experiences of my own privilege in terms of gender because I’ve experienced being perceived as a man and a woman, not to mention an ambiguous ma’amsir.
Privilege is often thought about in terms of what you get, the advantages available to a person or particular group of people. A couple years ago, I trekked in the Himalayas of Nepal, and every night when my woman companion and I arrived at a new guest house, the owner (always a man) would only negotiate rates with me. As a man, I got the attention and power. Simple. But privilege is interesting, and a little less obvious, when thought of in terms of immunity or exemption, what one gets to avoid or does not have to face.
In my twenties, as a woman, I went on many long solo travel adventures. On an isolated overnight train to Budapest, a man whipped out his dick and gave me a rape scare. In Brunei, a Cameroonian soccer player stalked me for two days. In Sarajevo, my hostel manager became a dear friend, only to ignore me completely after he saw me have dinner with a guy. Now that I present as a man, I do not have to deal with or think about any of these things happening. There is an advantage, a privilege, in what I, as a man, don’t have to face.
“Why Trans and Queer Yoga?” is another way of saying, why does gender and sexuality matter in a yoga class? There is a privilege in entering a yoga studio and not having to face, consider, or think about gender or sexuality. Often, if something does not affect us, we do not notice (or even believe) it truly exists.
I have experienced more instances of hurtful and invisibilizing gendered language, assumptions, and jokes than I could possibly mention in a single blog post. Jokes about pregnant men that discount trans men who carry babies. Cues where men do this and women do that, erasing trans folks. Assumptions about the body parts that men have and the bodies part that women have when who knows what body parts a person has under their clothes. And the bathrooms, not so fun. Separate men’s and women’s bathrooms subject gender non-conforming folks to stares, questions, and reliving the traumas (slurs, calls to security, and occasionally violence) that befall those of us thought to be in the “wrong bathroom.”
So many of these harms are unintentional and actually an attempt at kindness. Just the other day, an assistant asked if his child’s pose assist was okay on me (presumed to be a man) because he was “so used to women’s hips.” What a big (and incorrect) assumption about the nature of my hips.
Or five years ago, when a teacher kept referring to the seven of us in a class as ladies. It was the night before my top surgery, my last class that I hoped would ground me and bring me peace before major surgery. “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies…” she addressed us throughout the entire class. How was she to know she was misgendering me, that referring to me as a lady was like a dagger? She truly had no way of knowing. Which is the point.
The questions to really ask are… Do we need to use gender in a yoga class? Do we need to gender other people? What bad could come from removing gendered assumptions, expectations, and language from yoga? What would it be to ask our studios to have a gender-neutral bathroom? What would it be to provide an “other” gender option on forms for yoga retreats? What would it be to spend 1 hour on diversity and inclusion in a 200 hour teacher training?
It is a privilege to be able to look the other way, to not see gender in a yoga class or studio. Which brings me to the last few things I’ll say about privilege. With privilege comes responsibility. The responsibility to bring awareness to that which may not affect us. And, while many discussions about privilege limit this word to a hierarchy of groups on a ladder of social advantages (i.e., cisgender white men above transgender women of color), there is a more nuanced and interesting way to expand privilege.
I have the privilege of being comfortable talking about gender and privilege. I have language others lack, experience with difficult conversations, and knowledge of the land mines lurking in these hard, triggering subjects. I have the resources to find the ground and my breath in conflict. With these privileges comes responsibility, my responsibility to engage in these conversations with openness, heart, and compassion.
In the end we decided to keep the Monday night class with the name “Free Trans and Queer Yoga,” partially because the fliers are printed. But also because it is a gift to queer and trans folk. A class like this lowers the barriers to entry and allows queer and trans folks to explore yoga in a safer, more accessible, and welcoming environment than traditional studios often provide.
FTQY also provides an opportunity for a group of people, who for many years, had only one option to find and build community: gay bars. FTQY is in an invitation into an exploration of wellness for a community that for too long focused only on survival, and an opportunity for healing our wounds and historical traumas. I feel great about this series, especially the other teachers who are dedicated to showing up every week to hold the space.
And still, every Monday when I post on Facebook, I have this great desire to put an asterisk next to “Queer and Trans Yoga” and say more, to say all that I did here – about both the complications and the importance of such a class. It’s too divisive, and reductive to simply put queers over here, and others over there.
My class is open to anybody who read this far, and who cares to be part of this conversation. Your presence is an act of support. Your engagement is allyship. This is unity.