Buddhist teacher and practitioner Caitriona Reed came out as a “woman of transgender experience” in her articleComing Out Whole,” published in Inquiring Mind in 1998. Back then, public knowledge of transgender people wasn’t particularly informed or accurate. In her article, Caitriona articulated complex theories of gender and indicated a need to dissolve the gender binary, ideas that wouldn’t enter the public discourse until decades later. Since then, conversations about gender identity have become more mainstream, though trans communities continue to struggle for acceptance. 

Caitriona Reed, a Zen Buddhist, received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992. She co-founded the Manzanita Village Retreat Center in southern California to focus on Vipassana meditation and Zen practice as ways of promoting sustainable ecologies, nonviolence, and social justice. 

In the following interview, Tricycle follows up with Caitriona to discuss how things have changed, or stayed the same, since her coming out over two decades ago.

What responses did you get when Inquiring Mind published your article?
For the most part, the response I got from my peers was extraordinarily generous and open—even congratulatory. I remember at a teacher meeting shortly after, [Theravadan teacher] Jack Kornfield quipped that I was probably the only person there not in drag, the only one not putting on a contrived front. Among Buddhists—Asian Buddhists, Theravadan monks, Tibetan teachers—the response was just extraordinary.

Of course, I was aware of some people with reservations, but they were polite. Among my own students, a few were confounded, but this was 22-plus years ago, so times were different. I remember one student said, “I’m disappointed that you’ve transitioned because in terms of male-female balance, you were one of the most integrated men I’d ever met. I’m disappointed because I enjoyed that.”

I said to my good friend and sometimes teacher, Ruth Denison, “I haven’t had the challenges that so many out queer people get. I haven’t been kicked out of bathrooms, or screamed at, or anything like that.” And she said, in her heavy German accent, “Well, of course, darling. The dharma protects you.” Whether it’s the dharma per se, or my own congruency (I suspect the two are intertwined), it was true. Something was protecting me, then, as now.

Have you seen a shift in the treatment of transgender people since the current administration has been rolling back LGBTQ protections?
Not personally, but yes, of course. Hate crimes are up across the board. I think the statistics show that more trans people are being beaten and killed than during the previous administration, though I haven’t personally experienced that.

At the same time, when [President Donald] Trump announced that he was going to ban trans people from military service, and when he was going to limit healthcare for trans people, there was such a backlash against it. He’s hopefully waking everybody up to some sort of civic and political responsibility.

You made a point in your article that passing within a stereotypical gender binary isn’t necessarily the goal of transitioning. Did ideas of non-duality inform your view?
Very much. Non-dualism lays the ground for questioning any binary system—in our context, normative heterocentric notions regarding sexual orientation and gender. Non-dual implies no binary. No doubt there’s an ethical component too: refraining from judging others based on an unexamined, inherently binary, notions about people, situations, and events. 

For decades, I thought that if I meditated more, my “issues” about being trans would miraculously go away. Teachings on anatta (no-self) and sunyata (emptiness), are often taken to imply that the way we experience ourselves and our identity is not “real.” I certainly took it to mean that. I felt that if I assimilated the teachings of anatta or sunyata, somehow that would fix everything. I later realized that the way “no-self” was being taught was misleading. No- self doesn’t mean I don’t exist, but the everyday language of no-self implies that you don’t exist. Some people take that to mean that your concerns or cares are not real; somehow, you should find a way of practicing to overcome that. There is a prevailing tendency to deny the reality of conditioned experience. 

A possible byproduct of greater tolerance for people who are transgender and nonbinary is that cisgender people may feel less beholden to society’s expectations of performing gender “correctly,” and everyone may experience greater freedom. How do you think society would benefit if people stopped clinging to gender as immutable and defined at birth?
Hugely. It would be a dream. I think there’s a lot we have to cover prior to that, though, and whether genderqueer people [who do not subscribe to a binary gender distinction] are Buddhist or not, that’s going to be the case. In the conversations I’ve had walking around the world, I’m surprised by two things. First of all, people say, “Oh my god, you’re the first transgender person I’ve ever met,” and then they ask me incredibly impertinent questions. I’m usually patient with them. 

On the other hand, the second thing that many people say is, “Oh yeah, I’ve always questioned whether I’m really a woman or whether I’m really a man.” So it’s a huge shift and huge threat for many people, and for many other people, it’s quite normal and natural; it’s a big relief. They may not be transgender, but they may be uncomfortable with the binary or may be looking for a greater ability to relax in the ambiguity they feel in their own identity. Even if they’re heterosexual or they present as female or as male, they are in some other way queer. Queer in the sense that they question. 

In 1998, you wrote about transitioning not as a way to cure the so-called malady of “gender identity disorder,” but to continue the celebration of life. In what ways has integrating your true nature into your life and Buddhist practice brought you joy?
These days, if I’m talking to an audience, Buddhist or otherwise, I introduce myself by saying, “My name is Caitirona. I’m a woman of transgender experience, which means I know about big, scary decisions. I know about committed choices and sustained action. And who here hasn’t faced big, scary decisions?” I turn the issue into a generic issue around transition, whatever that transition might be, and that’s my way of integrating who I am into the conversation and making it okay.