A big stir around our circle recently has been a conversation/debate about what defines gender and who gets to decide. It appeared as a proposal to both recognize and actively support transgender people in their struggle for inclusion and acceptance in society, starting with women-only events at Breitenbush (whether sponsored by Breitenbush or not). It is noted that transgender people are perhaps the most persecuted population of all, suffering a host of abuses, from sexual violence to ridicule, ostracism, shunning, lack of public services, loss of employment and family abandonment, among other cruelties.
To be clear, Breitenbush has always recognized the self-stated gender of women in Breitenbush-sponsored women-only events. However, there is one women-only event sponsored by a group (not Breitenbush) that invites “women born women” only. This group of women has been coming to Breitenbush for 30-years and might be variously described as: radical feminist warriors at the forefront of the revolution to redefine gender rules and roles since the 1960s; a sub-cultural support group wounded by the Patriarchy that finds comfort and nurture at the hot springs during their annual retreat; or a group that engages in an unforgivably discriminatory practice in its policy that defines who may/may not attend their event, based upon gender assignment at birth. It is this policy of inclusion/exclusion that has been at the center of our recent debate.
Breitenbush, the idea of it, is based on a commitment to inclusivity, enthusiastic acceptance of human differences, and dignity, so long as all who visit respect “the earth and healing waters”. The Credo further states, “Our primary service is to provide a healing retreat and conference center, which promotes holistic health, spiritual growth, and facilitates the gathering of people in celebration of the experience of life.” As a co-creator of the Breitenbush Credo some 37 years ago, I have lived long enough to witness how the principles contained within it have played out in the hurly burly of direct experience. Sometimes it’s tricky, as with this current debate.
For this group of women, Breitenbush has for 30 years provided a refuge from their daily experience of a world dominated, passively or aggressively, by men. Their retreat has been a time to do what humans do in the wonders of nature when security and material needs are met—love, laugh, listen, share space, work out issues, play and generally go deeper together. To meet these women’s felt need for safety and sanctuary, people who have had all the privileges that come of being born male have been excluded.
In these women’s youth, lesbianism was classified as a form of mental illness, and gay and lesbian people who “came out” faced physical and emotional violence, marginalization, and loss of financial and family foundations, among other cruelties.
In human history, such women have been considered pariahs in mainstream society, but this generation of women fought back and chose a different path. These women chose Breitenbush as a place to meet and freely associate with other women having similar life experiences.
Today, many in this group face the same challenges that a majority of people in their dotage face. Yet they have one challenge that most aging people do not have. Once seen as pariahs of conventional society, now they are characterized by some as pariahs of the very movement they helped to initiate and build. Why? Because they choose to exclude anyone born male. And now, in the evolution of socio-cultural consciousness pertaining to the human right of gender equality, the leading edge is about self-statement of one’s gender, not birth assignment or any group identity that would exclude an individual regardless of their stated gender identity. The cause of transsexual people is described precisely by this evolution.
Although Breitenbush has always had an open inclusion policy, the Breitenbush Board of Directors recently clarified our policy pertaining to gender-specific events.
“The Breitenbush policy for gender-specific events and times is that we recognize a person’s self-stated gender regardless of birth assignment.” In the future, our written Agreement with Presenters will include the following: “If your event is gender specific, your practice and policy must be consistent with Breitenbush’s policy on gender-specific events.”
The Breitenbush Credo ends with: “We also extend ourselves to the greater society in which we live, the world community, and commit ourselves to being socially, spiritually, politically, and environmentally responsible.” The new policy is meant to fulfill this commitment. But somewhere in the middle of the Credo, it says: “We mutually support and respect each person’s dignity, and awaken to the Spirit within each of us which acknowledges that we are all One.” However this works out in the wide world and at Breitenbush, I want to acknowledge my empathy and support for all oppressed people and today, the groups referenced in this discussion.
– Peter Moore