No person ever steps in the same river twice, because it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same person. –Heraclitus
Recently I met Trudie Jackson, the first transgender candidate to run for President of the Navajo Nation. She had planned a trip to Prescott, Arizona, and with just three days notice, she squeezed in a last-minute stop to Sedona.
Then, with no practical preparation or experience, was left on her own to establish a life in Phoenix.
After coping with addiction, sex work, prison, and more, Trudie’s resilience helped her get sober, finish college, and realize her potential for political leadership.
It is the kind of story we all love — a story where triumph overcomes tragedy. But this story isn’t over, and everyone in the room had the feeling that Trudie’s greatest days lie ahead.
Traditionally, Navajo (Diné) culture, as well as many other Native tribes, embraced people who were Two-Spirited. Trudie has written about Two-Spirit Natives as those who assume “duties of masculine and feminine characteristics, whether in the household, ceremonial setting or community.”
Brutal assimilation tactics of settler colonialism affected Native tolerance of Two-Spirited. On Navajo nation, isolation exacerbates the trauma of transgender youth, which has led to suicide. For these young people, the future does not feel like the possibility that it is.
Gender is sociological, and a personal choice about (i) how people see themselves and (ii) how people choose to interact with the world. The false binaries of masculine and feminine have been split open into a spectrum of increasing, and possibly infinite variety, including agender.
As people refine and adjust their gender expression, they may or may not alter their biology with hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery. The challenges associated with this may be physical, emotional, social, or psychical. Trudie wants to help people with these challenges, and after she earns her Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico, her plan is to start a nonprofit organization to support American Indian transgender women in Phoenix.
Trudie told us all this, and after she finished her talk, she opened the program to questions from the audience. I asked Trudie what we could do to support her work.
With a slight smile and a gentle nod, she slowly said, “that is a good question.” I was expecting Trudie to tell us how to make a donation. I was wrong about that, and so I was reminded once again that the right way to ask a question is with genuine curiosity.
Trudie paused for a moment, and then with an easy rocking and earnest gaze, she replied, “It would really help if you could all try to be more open minded.”
Trudie asked us to be more understanding about how other people choose to present themselves. If we could focus on our common humanity, that would help individuals who were struggling to discover and to express their identity. Self-understanding might seem to be straightforward, but Socrates’ injunction to “know thyself” reminds us how elusive self knowledge can be.
Trudie told us how to help. However, she did not tell us what to do. She described a way that we could be.
If Trudie had given us something more specific to do, then we could have taken immediate action, or assessed the policy on its merits. But her request was for a general outlook, which is pervasive. A way of being is powerful. Be the change.
It is possible that Trudie was creating, embodying, or somehow manifesting Hozho. I say possible because I do not fully understand what Hozho is. I’ve only lately been lucky enough to learn about it. Growing up as an Anglo in the Midwest, I didn’t learn much about Native cultures, and what I did learn wasn’t true. Now I try to learn what I can. I believe that Hozho has to do with beauty, harmony, and nature; and that it is moral, aesthetic, and as elusive as the Tao — perhaps another version of it. It is said to be the most important word in the Navajo language. I suspect that being open minded goes along with it.
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The morning after I met Trudie I was working at my kitchen table, and I noticed little finches picking out Pinyon nuts from the pine cones. Watching the birds, it occurred to me that they do much more than fly. But when I think of birds, I usually think of them in just one way — as animals that fly. My default idea, not analyzed or thought through, is: birds fly. Sitting there, looking over my laptop instead of at it, I was struck by how little I had noticed about birds before. It was as if I had given them a label, the flyers, and didn’t need to know anything else. My mind was closed, and I hadn’t even realized it. This can happen with birds, with other people, and even ourselves.
Thudding pine cones prompted me to involuntarily glance up, but it was Trudie’s request that got me to look. By seeing birds as flyers, I neglected to notice anything else. I had forgotten about flightless birds (like penguins and emus), and other flying animals (like bats and bees). Even a little time spent in reflection can upend our easy assumptions.
Trudie told us that being open minded would help. What I heard that night was that it would help the transgender community. Now I think she meant that it will help us all.
My narrow view about birds reminded me of how people get labeled, and how labeling maps on to stereotypes. If someone wants to know who you are, that usually means something along the lines of: gender, nationality, race, residency, education, occupation, marital status, and age (and while age is not static, it signifies something definite).
Sometimes these status markers change, but not often. Usually they are the building blocks of brittle identities and false simplicities.
When someone says they want to know about you, it should be about your individuality. Labels do not supply that information.
People are not permanent. They are permeable, which means they are infused and transformed by the world that surrounds them. That world is determined not just by what is in it, but also by the way we look at it, which is subjective.
The world we experience is constituted, at least in part, by our habits of mind and way of being. Trudie was trying to get us to be another way — more open minded.
Seeing people as a set of fixed labels is a habit. It is a routine of looking out into the world and seeing what we expect to see — flying birds, for example. And of course we will see that, because birds do fly, but birds also hop a lot.
When we sum people up with short, descriptive phrases we cheat them out of their fullness and rob them of their real identity. Prejudice and stereotyping are repetitive patterns of seeing living things as fixed instead of dynamic.
This is an unconscious way of being that requires a conscious undoing, so that we may form our habits anew, consciously and with conscience.
Standing elegantly with her full-length skirt, Trudie showed us what was possible, and told us what would be helpful. In doing so, she was extending an invitation to a beautiful way of being.
Adopting a new worldview can be profound, but it would be a mischaracterization to hold it up in the shimmer of unattainable grandeur. The way we see the world and other people changes all the time.
Along with the birds, people now fly through the air. Some of them go up in space. We can buy cryptocurrency on our phones. Artists design art to dissolve. Slaves became free. Women fought for the right to vote. A black man was elected President of the United States. Trudie Jackson ran for President of the Navajo Nation in 2018. If you think it isn’t possible, think again. Open your mind.
We are often wrong about what is changeless. When we assume that people cannot change, the consequences are damaged individuals and a diminished world. We need to work on this problem from many angles, which includes both the personal and the political.
Our laws and institutions should reflect the many ways that people can and do change — sexually, physically, mentally, and morally.
When Floridians granted former felons the right to vote in 2018, they allowed prior prisoners to become full-fledged citizens. Voters, not lawmakers, decided the question. It was a real democratic act, and less obviously, a spiritual one.
Acknowledging the full capacities of transformative beings affirms their belonging, and extends a social invitation to live into a new life. This recognition of the human other is the foundation of morality.
It insists that every person has the power to contribute to community. They also have the right. People always have the moral right — whether or not they enjoy the legal one.
While people change, their moral rights do not. The German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant, believes that because people have rational agency, they should always be treated with dignity.
For Kant, recognizing the moral standing of every person is categorical, which is to say it applies in every instance.
Recognizing the moral standing of every person is also imperative, which is to say it is a command.
In other words, the moral status of persons is ever present and non negotiable. It is as enduring and eternal as Kant believed God to be. In a world of flux, personal dignity remains constant.
So the nature of humanity includes both the changeable and the changeless. Such paradoxes make the world the funhouse that it is.
Puzzles are infinitely more amusing than answers. It tickles and it rings true when we realize that however people might change, their moral standing stays the same. Such ideas are worthy of our consideration because they remind us of the human condition, which is a shared condition.
We have shifting personal identities, but a stable moral status. There is no need to be limited by labels. We can choose who we will become over and over again.
Identity is not selfsame; identity as moral beings always has space for selfchange. We can look upon others and ourselves as the sites of endless transformation that we all are. The only thing about people that is selfsame is moral status. Everything else is open to selfchange.
It is a serious error to confuse these domains. We must try not to make mistakes about what we can and cannot alter.
Kant thought that moral status depended on a person’s rational agency, and his views provide a firm foundation for granting moral respect to all people. It is helpful to revisit these ideas when we want to understand why personal change should not affect moral status.
The next question might be whether this cosmopolitan personal morality goes far enough. Indigenous cultures often adopt a more inclusive view of morality that extends the scope of moral consideration to include all life on Earth.
Trudie’s challenge to be more open-minded still has me wondering about the birds. As I watch the little finches scutter across the deck and float up to the rails, I marvel at the juxtaposition of their jerky bobs and aerial slices. Who knows what the experience of these complex little creatures is like? I bet some of those birds are queer.
On the land and in the air, they are searching, discovering, eating, playing, resting, and eventually they will die. But they will never be quite gone. Just as the pinecone leaves the tree, and the nut leaves the cone, they are part of an endless energy transfer, that has been our past, and will be our future.
This interconnection points to the sacredness of all life, best seen with the artist’s eye, and understood with an open mind.