Fifteen… sixteen… seventeen… We’ve become accustomed to counting. We’ve come to expect the passing of the next transperson as a result of violence. But Holly Boswell passed differently this August. The cause of her death isn’t known to us. But for those of us who have watched her over the years, she seems like one of those rare souls who arrived in peace and went away in peace.
She might be best known for being the inventor of the widely used transgender symbol, an amalgamation of symbols for male, female, and hermaphroditic symbols into a unity. But she did more… much more. Holly set for us all an approach to the trans spiritualities that must have defied the vernacular of her time, an approach full of vitality. She utilized a similar approach to trans inclusion itself. We could learn a lot from Holly. We need it.
A MOVEMENT OF TRANS SPIRITUALITIES
It might be said that the religions of transpeople are almost as varied as that of the human race in general. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Western Pagan, and Hindu transpeople can be found in most any large metropolitan area. For many transpeople, religion and spirituality are one and the same. Many don’t see these aspects in any other terms than some form of Abrahamism they had known from their youth. In recent years, more and more transpeople have been reasserting themselves in their respective traditions. Some, like Southern Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists, have not generally welcomed transpeople except as targets for proselytizing, even if their “proselytes” may be existing members. Facing a tide of religious anathemas has been painful for many. Some have turned to services like Trans Faith Online for trans networking and fellowship in their respective traditions.
But there’s a profound difference between religion and spirituality. Spiritualities have a habit of forming traditions from one generation to the next till the original intentions become lost. Religions codify and enforce those traditions, often in ways that exclude others from the possibility of redemption, building a cultic milieu. Many approaches to such enforcement have been directed against transpeople, often with disingenuous appeals like “hate the sin but love the sinner.”
Some who have left Abrahamism for a more basic system of worship have also been disappointed with Wiccan circles, largely because of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists who dominate many of them. These types of priestesses, while declaring “all life is sacred,” reject or even condemn transgender applicants, most particularly denying transwomen the possibility that they exist at all as women. Transgender Wiccan covens remain few and far between and that translates into even fewer teaching covens.
Holly’s spirituality followed an eclectic Shamanism most akin to that of Native Americans. Based in Asheville in the Appalachian region of North Carolina, she worked near the Eastern band of Cherokees. Her eclectic approach allowed her to appeal to many traditions with a wider vision of trans spirituality than most have been willing to consider. Holly wrote on her website Trans Spirits:
“I honor a vision of a re-emergence of transgender people who acknowledge a profoundly spiritual aspect of their gender journeys. I also yearn to co-create a global trans-spiritual community, wherein we can heal and reclaim our power to contribute positively to this ailing world. I mostly believe in magic, and the power of love.”1
Not many transpeople speak about a global trans-spiritual community. Instead, most of us speak of outreach to religious communities. Many elements of the trans community have adopted inherently schismatic attitudes that prevent this kind of community from happening. It isn’t just Abrahamists either. Pagans have at times demonstrated a belligerence of their own, typically in reaction to perceived “Christians” and the abuses suffered from them, and finding ways to redefine others who come to them in order to exclude them. It can be hard to step away from the tumult of American anger fomented in an age of Trumpism and return to what those ideals have been that have sustained a trans community. But we must step away.
Holly identified with the hippie culture during her years at Oberlin College in the 1970’s where she studied as a double major in Music Composition and English Literature. She said that much of it seemed “a little gender-bending in its own way.” She would also realize that transsexuals were “a thing” through a broadcast of the Phil Donahue Show.2
She acknowledged the rise of transgender support groups, international networks and conventions in the 1980’s. Holly credited the introduction to the trans spiritualities being most pronounced at a Denver convention operated by the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE) when Rena Swifthawk taught from her own Native American spirituality. The trend spread to other places as well, including the Southern Comfort Conference and Fantasia Fair. Then in August 1993 the Kindred Spirits Circle which Holly founded, then Pink Moon Gathering, Full Circle of Women, Union of Spirits, and Mountain Spirits.3
One can regard her work remarkable when considering the state of trans spiritualities around 2000. Back then much of the online trans community frequented either chat rooms in America Online (AOL) or Transgender Forum, the latter operated by 3-D Communications, Inc., maintaining a vibrant chat system nicknamed “Meow” with the administration of Jamie Faye Fenton. Trans spiritualities weren’t widely discussed online at that time. Only a few people were inclined to chat about trans spiritualities at all. But the undercurrent of Wicca within the trans community was strengthening, years before Trans Faith Online.4
This undercurrent was a movement bigger than Holly Boswell, yet her work embodied that awakening that vitalized the trans community and continues to inspire today. One need only peruse her work on the website Trans Spirits (www.trans-spirits.org) to sense that vitality. She said:
“The sharing and nurturing that is possible between kindred transgender spirits is unlike any other. It is characterized by intuitive connection, trust, honoring individuality, operating in consensus, spontaneity, minimal expectations, open hearts and minds, and no hidden agendas.”5
That indeed is how it was when she wrote it. Transpeople were still searching for one another many years after the Stonewall Uprising. We all had questions about one another and ourselves and had few clues aside from our own experiences to induce any expectations. The age captured a profound innocence centered upon the basic grist of spirituality, advanced by technique. But that common respect made a difference that has been lost in too many places today.
AN ETHIC OF INCLUSION AND CELEBRATION
Holly’s openness was reflected in her ethic of inclusion and she celebrated that inclusion. Unlike many others, she didn’t form a wedge between transsexual and cross dresser. Unlike today’s common use of the word “transgender” to define the transsexual while excluding everyone else and delegating the medical term “transsexual” to the level of a pejorative, Holly didn’t do that. Consider what she wrote in 1991 for Chrysalis and Tapestry:
“Transgenderism serves as a bridge of consciousness between crossdressers and transsexual people, who feel unnecessarily estranged within our own subculture. And in the vast majority of instances, we are not so much “gender conflicted” as we are at odds (even at war), with our culture. It is our culture that imposes the polarization of gender according to biology. It is our culture that has brainwashed us, and our families and friends, who might otherwise be able to love us and embrace our diversity as desirable and natural, something to be celebrated.”6
Not only did Holly regard this inclusion as something theoretically desirable, she actually established it in ritual. Consider her trans-affirming ceremony performed at the time of equinox. Equinox occurs twice a year, beginning the seasons of spring and fall. At the equinox day and night have equal duration. Everything is in balance. The list of names by which she acknowledged the trailblazers tells us a lot:
“MtF [Stephanie Sands calling out from the Northeast Quarter]: And those still living who are blazing our trail:
Virginia Prince, Merissa Sherrill Lynn, Jan Morris, Wendy Carlos, Ari Kane, Cheryl Chase, Jane Fee, Marcia Botzer, JoAnn Roberts, Phyllis Frye, Martine Rothblatt, Riki Wilchins, Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, James Green, Jason Cromwell, Gary Bowen, Dallas Denny, Terry Tafoya, Spotted Eagle, Chrystos, Ru Paul, all the hijra, mahu, radical faeries, musicians and artists, gender-queer kids, & so many more… PO [Primary Officiant, Holly Boswell]: To all who have gone before, and all who walk with us now, we humbly thank you, and aspire to your vision and strength.”7
This is a highly diverse list of people “blazing our trail.” It didn’t just include those transitioning like Leslie Feinberg, Wendy Carlos, and Jamison Green. It also included those who didn’t like Virginia Prince and Ari Kane. It included drag queens like Ru Paul. It included heterosexual cross dressers like JoAnn Roberts. It included radical faeries like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence known for charity while dolling up as nuns. It included gender non-conforming youth as gender-queer kids. It included communities with mixtures of cross dressers, transsexuals, and intersex people like the Hijra, a fact recognized by British non-transgender author Zia Jaffrey who interviewed many of them.8
It’s the kind of diversity that not only celebrates sex and sexual orientation, but also gender identity and gender expression. It’s the sort of attitude that contributed much to the advance of civil rights in the following years. Minnesota would recognize civil rights for transpeople in 1993. Rhode Island, New Mexico, and California would follow in 2003. California’s recognition even followed this attitude as a legal precedent in Compliance Guidelines to Prohibit Gender Identity Discrimination:
“‘Transgender’ is used as an umbrella term that includes female and male cross dressers, transvestites, drag queens or kings, female and male impersonators, intersexed [sic] individuals, pro-operative, post-operative, and non-operative transsexuals, masculine females, feminine males, all persons whose perceived gender or anatomic sex may be incongruent with their gender expression and all persons exhibiting gender characteristics and identities which are perceived to be androgynous.”9
Some proponents of this verbiage were also Wiccan, including Dominique Leslie, a congenial and devoted intersex individual serving as one of the initial co-chairs of San Francisco’s Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force when it convened June 1, 2000. That task force utilized the Compliance Guidelines as the foundation document for implementing change in San Francisco practices and in the process also led to change in California law in 2003.10
Is there a direct correlation between Holly’s work and what happened in California? Probably not; however, this current prevailed at the time transpeople experienced an expansion of laws against gender identity discrimination. The District of Columbia and 9 states followed in 2007 and 2 more in 2011. However, today we face a trend toward a reversal of trans rights within a growing milieu of community fragmentation. Even Massachusetts which legislated in favor of trans rights will revisit them in a referendum in 2018.11
For Holly, this inclusion was essential not only for healing one another, but also healing the planet. She regarded the gender dichotomy, a definition of gender as polarized according to physical sex so that nobody in-between may be tolerated, as a destructive imposition of “the patriarchy.” Transpeople, representing a spectrum of expression, “manifested throughout history as an expression of Spirit.”12
For what purpose? Holly regarded healing of self and the demographic as essential to affect ecological healing for the planet:
“Some Native American elders believe that there is an abundance of transgendered [sic] people being born at this time who can help heal our world. Gender is at the very heart of who we are as human beings. Our gender transitions–the very process of gender-shift — can be viewed as a kind of Vision Quest, addressing that age-old question: who are we? To transcend gender stereotyping is to dare to be fully oneself, fully human, as Spirit intended. We must all cultivate our full capacities if we are to effectively meet the critical challenges of our time. But before we can help heal our world, we must heal ourselves. We must tell our truth, refashion old myths, and reinvent the tools we need to operate in today’s world with deep compassion and fresh relevance.”13
It was for that purpose that Holly founded Kindred Spirits in 1993. It was for that purpose that Holly began the Tree House in 2000 as a year-around retreat facility for gender and spirituality. Both were instrumental, instituted as vehicles to enact the real gift Holly gave to the world. 14
Honoring that vision best honors Holly Boswell. Someone like her would perhaps prefer it that way, looking past the face of the person and into the eyes as a window to the transgender soul. At the same time we should look into one another’s, knowing as Holly did, that the divine is to be found there, as all beings and even all things are divine, none without purpose and all deserving of healing and vitality.
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Featured Image: Fragments of images emphasize Holly Boswell’s vision as focused upon her right eye, the Tree House, which Holly instituted a, an etheric version of the Trans Spirits circle, repeated as in the tones of a drumming circle that calls to the dreamtime. (original image sources unknown but can be viewed in their full forms at www.trans-spirits.org).
- Holly Boswell. “Who We Are” Trans Spirits (accessed August 21, 2017) http://www.trans-spirits.org/who_are_we.html.
- Joey Plaster. “Personal Histories – Holly Boswell (OC72) Oberlin LGBT (Oral History by phone August 12, 2004, accessed August 21, 2017) http://www.oberlinlgbt.org/personal-histories/boswell/.
- Holly Boswell. “Ancient Roots” Trans Spirits (accessed August 21, 2017) http://www.trans-spirits.org/spirit_of_transgender.html.
- The author relies upon her own recollections from social media available at that time.
- Op cit.
- Boswell, Holly. “The Transgender Alternative” Chrysalis, Vol. 1, No. 2., Winter 1991-1992., reposted by IFGE (accessed August 23, 2017) http://www.ifge.org/?q=node/58
- Holly Boswell. “Trans-affirming Ceremony at Equinox: presented by Kindred Spirits Traveling Medicine Show” Trans Spirits (accessed August 21, 2017) http://www.trans-spirits.org/trans_affirming.html. Bracket’s are those of the author, Lynnea Urania Stuart for the sake of clarity.
- Jaffrey, Zia. “The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India.” (Pantheon Books, Random House, NY. 1991) ISBN: 0-679-41577-7, p. 143. Jaffrey interviewed 100 Hijra and described them them as: 76% castrated, 13% hermaphrodite or pseudo-hermaphrodite, 11% transvestite “zenanas”, 51% identified as males, 49% identified as females.
- Human Rights Commission. “Guidelines to Prohibit Gender Identity Discrimination: respecting San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12A, 12B, 12C; and San Francisco Municipal Police Code Article 33” (December 10, 1998) City and County of San Francisco, p. 3.
- Witnessed by the author on June 1, 2000. The other co-chair initially serving was Marcus Arana. They held their positions as appointed co-chairs till the task force elected co-chairs to serve over the year.
- (n.a.) Massachussets Transgender Anti-Discrimination Veto Referencum (2018)” Ballotpedia (accessed August 21, 2017) https://ballotpedia.org/Massachusetts_Transgender_Anti-Discrimination_Veto_Referendum_(2018).
- Holly Boswell. “Ancient Roots”.
- Mila Madison. “Transgender Symbol Creator and Activist Holly Boswell Passes Away” Transgender Universe (August 14, 2017, accessed August 21, 2017) http://transgenderuniverse.com/2017/08/14/transgender-symbol-creator-and-activist-holly-boswell-passes-away/.