Toward a Global Trans-Spiritual Community: Remembering Historical Figure, Holly Boswell

By Lynnea Urania Stuart

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

 

HEALING EMPOWERMENT

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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REFERENCES:

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).

  1. Holly Boswell. “Who We Are” Trans Spirits (accessed August 21, 2017) http://www.trans-spirits.org/who_are_we.html.
  2. 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/.
  3. Holly Boswell. “Ancient Roots” Trans Spirits (accessed August 21, 2017) http://www.trans-spirits.org/spirit_of_transgender.html.
  4. The author relies upon her own recollections from social media available at that time.
  5. Op cit.
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. (n.a.) Massachussets Transgender Anti-Discrimination Veto Referencum (2018)” Ballotpedia (accessed August 21, 2017) https://ballotpedia.org/Massachusetts_Transgender_Anti-Discrimination_Veto_Referendum_(2018).
  12. Holly Boswell. “Ancient Roots”.
  13. Ibid.
  14. 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/.
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Is Transgender Society’s Unity, Under Siege…From Within?

Throughout the world, Transgender society is under siege. If you think we are at war, you may not find many within our community to disagree. The call for visibility is at an all time high. The dangers are even higher, but it’s a call that has been made before in the past, and is now true for transgender society. Our pioneers threw the first stone to ignite ‘The Stonewall Riots’. The LG movement, then mobilized at a grass roots level, but it may have not been until the leadership of Harvey Milk¹ and his call from the steps of  the San Francisco city hall when he said;

“Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! To sit on the front steps — whether it’s a veranda in a small town or a concrete stoop in a big city — and to talk to our neighborhoods is infinitely more important than to huddle on the living-room lounger and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color. I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up, and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine. I was born of heterosexual parents. I was taught by heterosexual teachers in a fiercely heterosexual society. Television ads and newspaper ads — fiercely heterosexual. A society that puts down homosexuality. And why am I a homosexual if I’m affected by role models? I should have been a heterosexual. And no offense meant, but if teachers are going to affect you as role models, there’d be a lot of nuns running around the streets today.”

Imagine today the words of the Great Harvey Milk, if the words “gay brothers and sisters”, were trans brothers and sisters, and that the words heterosexual and homosexual were replaced with cisgender and transgender. Being transgender and being ostracized, cut off from families, loss of jobs, a second puberty, and your life being on the line, are not a choice. As in the late 70’s, we now live in an era with little representation in media. We are not fully represented in politics or sports, yet there are countless willing participants in our community. There are far too many misinformed cisgender people about what it means to be transgender. There are too many of us in trans society, sitting on their porches or concrete stoops of privilege. Be that privilege of passing, race, gender, etc., there are far too many people around the world that still say that they have never met a transgender person. Many are having conversations about yet another tragic trans death, all while standing next to one unknowingly.

At times like this in warfare, a tactical maneuver to efficiently deal with numerous opponents is to divide and conquer. Over this past week while yet another trans-woman of color was murdered, her life being ridiculed on black mainstream online media; a white trans woman, a former blogger and S.C. resident, thought she was giving major advice when she posted that trans-women of color should watch out for their surroundings as her only words of wisdom. She dances on the borderline of even blaming her sisters of color for being in a dangerous work environment, prostitution. Ignorant of the fact that, that was not the case for half of the eight victims who’ve been murdered in the past 30 days. 

A prominent trans man within the community told me about an ongoing attack (or a potential hot seat as stated by the perpetrator) from a trans woman who criticized him for his presumed lack of support for trans women. She demanded that he represent trans women, ignorant to the fact he does. I’ve witnessed the ramblings of one mixed raced trans woman of color attack a prominent trans woman of color blogger about her, as she viewed, her militant black American support. Ignorant at the fact that she is enlightening mainstream black America, to think about their trans sisters and brothers of color. Again, at times of war, a tactical maneuver to efficiently deal with numerous opponents is to divide and conquer.
Unity, is a choice we as a society can choose. Will there be a utopian world of complete unity? No, but that does not mean we should not strive for it in order to help change laws, protect the lives of those yet to come, and to one day see even more trans people represented in the media. We as a society must be careful in our attempts to gain understanding from a different segment of our society, that we don’t alienate another and aid in the divide and conquer of war. We can not expect all trans people to be the same, yet each and everyone of us owe it to our community to see a society in need of unity, and do each of our parts to attempt to reach beyond our immediate comfortable surroundings to a brother or sister in another segment of our society, remembering our common denominator.  If we are to be a unified community worthy of discussion at the table of mainstream society. Ty Underwood, Lamia Beard, Taja DeJeus, L. Edwards, Penny Proud,Yazmin Vash Payne, Bri Golec, Leelah Alcorn, Andi Woodhouse,² deserve our unity, their lives say ‘fix society’ and part of fixing that society starts with ours.

Visibility should be the death of the trans hierarchy, which basically is saying; that though I’ve received support, encouragement, guidance, and direction through my transition, and now that I have completed my transition, there is no need for me to return the support, encouragement, guidance and direction to others. That mentality has added zero to the equality of who we are, but kept us in the medieval mindset of mainstream society. It is the height of social selfishness when you take from a society that has guided you and give nothing back in return. There was someone who supported you through your completeness. There was a community providing literature to know who you are. There were support groups to share with like minded people. Without the visibility of those of the past that have provided for many of us today, we would still be searching to know who we are or worse, felt there was no one to ‘fix society’.

When we are accustomed to something we no longer fear it. When the world knows of trans people they will no longer fear us. When your family and friends knows a trans person, they will no longer fear us. When your towns and cities know a successful, happy trans person, they will no longer fear us. When our politicians make laws concerning our lives they will know the lives they are affecting. Visibility is hard, can be dangerous, but it is necessary for the seamless transition to be fully equal and to have our seat firmly planted at the table of the world.

 

Unfortunately even with visibility, a community that can not support each other will have little respect or hope in gaining support from those that don’t understand. There can’t be a transgender person alive that does not realize we need more unity even amongst ourselves. Then why are we still urging it within trans society? Why are there still trans people who know no other trans person outside of their race? Why are there trans people of “passing privilege” adding to the discrimination of those without? Why are there trans men on the TERF’s³ side against trans women? Why are there trans women against the visibility of trans men, who have only recently been given the media attention and visibility that trans women have had far more years of? We should be glad as women, to see the men shine and take a seat at the table of trans society. The visibility of both sexes matter and is necessary.

There is no room at the bottom of the barrel of the world’s minority groups for racial hate or ignorance. Hate is something I honestly say I can’t understand. Since I was a child I could never imagine hating an entire community of people. Being multi-racial I tackled my ideas of race in pre-school. I realized early the one drop rule;  a sociological and legal principle of racial classification that was historically prominent in the United States asserting that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan-African ancestry (“one drop” of African blood) is considered to be black. I  also learned what it meant and felt like to be told, “not black enough.” Seems representing my duality is something I learned long before dysphoria set in.

We as trans society can do so much more to reach across the aisle of race and be an example to the rest of society, sadly we are not even halfway there even amongst ourselves, and we dare sit at the table of the world and say give me equality!

Before visibility can achieve full equality for trans society, we as a society must address, and correct the things that divide us. One can not achieve equality if one doesn’t know how to give it. It is not up to the trans activist to do this. It is not just up to the trans celebrities to set an example. It is not up to the blogger to bring it up. Support of others within our community can’t be limited to a Facebook post. We, trans society, each man, woman, and the gender fluidity in between is responsible for our own actions concerning unity. Here and now, we are the writers for our society. We determine the direction trans people 50 years from now will follow. Will it be a society unified, or a society that still can’t achieve their seat in the world because they haven’t learned how to even give a seat to their own?

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  1. Harvey Milk, was a visionary civil and human rights leader who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk’s unprecedented loud and unapologetic proclamation of his authenticity as an openly gay candidate for public office, and his subsequent election gave never before experienced hope  to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) people everywhere at a time when the community was encountering widespread hostility and discrimination. His remarkable career was tragically cut short when he was assassinated nearly a year after taking office.
  2. Nearly three dozen transgender women were killed, or committed suicide in 2016 in America alone.   The TMM TDoV 2016 update reports killings of trans and gender diverse people between January 2008 and December 2015 in all world regions: 1,573 killings in 23 countries in Central and South America, which account for 78% of the globally reported murders; 179 killings in 16 Asian countries; 137 killings in North America; 112 killings in 16 European countries; 10 killings have been reported in 4 African countries; and 5 killings in 4 countries in Oceania.
  3. Terf: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. That group of feminists that claims that trans women aren’t really women, as biological determinism is only a fallacy when it used against them, not when they use it against others.
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