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Union of Spirits: An Inclusive Event (1995)

Union of Spirits: An Inclusive Event (1995)

©1995, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1995). Union of Spirits: An inclusive event. TV-TS Tapestry, 73, pp. 49-51.






Tapestry Pages (PDF)

The Back Story

The the 1993 conference of the International Foundation for Gender Education in Houston, the late Rena Swifthawk conducted a workshop on Native American two-spirit spirituality. Some in the room (Holly Boswell, Wendy Parker, Angela Brightfeather, myself, and Rena, as I recall; my apologies if I left anyone out) decided to meet for a retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. Holly volunteered to arrange the accommodations. Several months later we came together at Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, NC for the first Kindred Spirits Retreat. It was phenomenal.

As the second (or perhaps the third) Kindred Spirits retreat neared, I phoned Holly to make my arrangements. She told me a prospective attendee, a pre-op transsexual woman from Charlotte, was upset about an article of mine titled “Sex Reassignment Surgery: Should You or Shouldn’t You?” which had been published in several transgender community newsletters, including Holly’s Phoenix Newsletter. The unnamed women, Holly told me, had said she would consider Kindred Spirits unsafe space if I were to attend— this based entirely on the article.

Read SRS: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

In the article I point out reasons why one should or shouldn’t have SRS:

Sex reassignment surgery is an expensive and troublesome option– and that’s what it is: an option. No one has to have it.

If surgery is all that important to you, you should regard it as a warning sign, especially if you are early in transition. Why, exactly, do you want it? How do you think it will affect your life? What will you accomplish by having it? Is it a fetish– a fantasy? Are your expectations realistic? Do you want it for yourself, or for others to use as a sex toy?

Think about what good use you can put all that money to. Don’t have the surgery, and tell everybody you did.

By way of contrast, I give reasons why one should:

Having surgery can uncomplicate one’s love life, cause an increased feeling of self-ease, and decrease the risk of accidental exposure.

Perhaps because I argue one shouldn′t have SRS for external reasons like gaining public acceptance of pleasing a lover, but only if it’s what one privately desires; perhaps because I point out the attendant health risks of the surgery, and perhaps because I noted others won’t know the state of your genitals, or perhaps for another reason altogether, the woman from Charlotte took offense.

To my astonishment, I realized Holly was gently disinviting me over the phone from an event of which I was a founding member! I couldn’t believe it.

I told Holly whatever the woman’s problem was, it was her problem and had nothing to do with me, but Holly wouldn’t budge. I’ve not attended another Kindred Spirits event.

Because I could, I created an alternative event, Union of Spirits, and because I could, I booked it at Sunnbank Inn. The event was every bit as magical and transformative as Kindred Spirits, but one was enough for me.

That would have been that, and you wouldn’t be reading this now, but for one thing. Several years ago, when I mentioned my disinvitation from Kindred Spirits, Holly pretended not to remember it. I didn’t believe her for a second. In fact, I considered it moral cowardice.

It was arguably Holly’s right to refuse my attendance, but she shouldn’t have further insulted me by professing ignorance of what she had done. I admire her and respect her for her work on behalf of transgendered people, but she deserves no kudos in this instance.


Union of Spirits


By Dallas Denny


For some time now small groups of transgendered folk have been gathering for intimate sharing that is not available in support groups or at gender conventions. The first of these was the New Woman Conference, a gathering for post-operative women and their partners. The second was called Kindred Spirits. The third was the Pink Moon Gathering, and the fourth was Union of Spirits, an event organized by Melanie Shaline and myself and recently held at historic Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, North Carolina.

What goes on at these events? What is so special about them? Why do the participants travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to go to these gatherings, and why do they come away profoundly changed, with new realizations about their lives and destinies, with new goals and plans, and even with new names?

I think the answer is in the nature of the participants, and in the nature of the setting. The participants are highly spiritual people. They have been wrestling with transgender issues for their entire lives, and this has given them a special outlook on life, special sensitivities and insights about their nature and the nature of others. They are highly actualized persons, empathic to the needs of others, and highly aware of their inner selves and the world around them. When they are brought together in a tranquil setting, away from ringing telephones and other pressure of the outside world, something very special begins to happen.

It is clear transgendered persons have existed throughout time, and in all cultures. Many cultures— those less dualistic than ours— have attributed special abilities to their transgendered persons, in many cases making them priests, priestesses or shamans. There are strong transgender traditions in many Native American tribes, in Polynesian and African cultures, and even in our own Western Society until about 2000 years ago, when the rise of the patriarchy quashed the old goddess-centered religions. Those societies recognized our specialness— a specialness which begins to manifest when we come together with honesty and good intentions at our special gatherings, our NWCs, Pink Moons, Kindred Spirits, and Unions of Spirits, which reach some sort of transgender critical mass.

Our gatherings are different for each of us, but there are common elements: feelings of immense love and belongingness, of inner peace, of quiet dignity, of pain and joy. We each come with our own agenda, and we each take away something different.

What happens is impossible to quantify. No camera could capture it, no tape machine record it. It is something spiritual, something magical, much more than the conversations, discussions, field trips, campfires, and ceremonies, much more than the laughing and the crying and the singing and the storytelling. Whatever it is, it is a life-altering experience, a way of feeling alive and whole.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended three of the four gatherings. I didn′t go to the Pink Moon Gathering, but I have been to the second NWC (yes, I have had that operation), the first Kindred Spirits, and the first Union of Spirits. Each was incredible. I can’t possibly communicate to you my emotions, but I can relate some of my experiences. And I will.

Early Sunday Massachusetts morning in September. Sky is gray, the air is still and cool. Fog swirls at our feet. Merissa Sherrill Lynn and Rena Swifthawk and I walk though the grass past a fountain where Sister Mary Elizabeth is performing a Sunday Christian service. We make our way down a gravel road to the ocean, where we have our own ceremony, drawing heavily on Rena’s Ute traditions. As we stand there, looking into the distance, seeing faraway ships and the curve of the world at the horizon, Rena smudges us with smoke from sweetgrass while she tells us of Grandmother Earth and the important work Merissa and I have been chosen to do. Gulls land on the sand near us to watch. (NWC).

Walking along a path through the hardwood forest, I stop and turn suddenly. Wendy Parker manages to halt before she runs into me. “Be vewy very quiet,” I tell her in my best Elmer Fudd voice. “I’m hunting twanssexuals. He-he-he-he.” Wendy, without a pause, says, “Weawwy? OOO. Wook! a wipstick!” A little later, Chris Howey remarks that we seem to be on the M.C. Escher trail. (Kindred Spirits).

We are sitting in a circle. Melanie Shaline, a dear soul and special to me, is told by Pamela Maher that she is intellectualizing. Pam wants to know how Melanie feels. Instantly, Melanie bursts into tears and says, “I feel like a lonesome wanderer.” We’ve all been holding ourselves in reserve, and Melanie is man enough and woman enough and brave enough to be the first to let go and share all of herself. All tension in the room evaporates, all masks disappear, and for the next two days we are totally honest with one another. (Union of Spirits).

Thirteen of us sit in a circle in the night, each with a candle burning before her. One by one, we name someone transsexual we know who has died, and extinguish our candles. When the last candle is out, we sit in the darkness for a long moment, and then begin to re-light our candles, naming someone who is just starting their transgender journey. (NWC)

I am in the woods, leaning against a tree, looking down the hill as Holly Boswell and Christy Fisher, standing by a rushing mountain stream, deliberate where best to strip off their clothes to go skinnydipping. They look like a pair of water nymphs. I am thinking about my having shared with them one of my secret shames: the time, when I was twelve years old and having been told how much fun it was by a couple of teenage boys, I pulled two legs off a daddy longlegs and was instantly consumed with regret, realizing I was depriving it of not only of its ability of locomotion, but of its hearing and vision; how there was nothing to do but to finish the experiment by pulling off its other six legs, and then kill it. As I told the story, I was finally able to determine why I had felt so bad for so many years about one daddy longlegs— it wasn′t that I had killed it, but that I had shown it no respect. It crosses my mind as I stand there, hand against the tree, that I have always felt close to all animals and have no special totem animal or animal spirit guide, no animal which speaks specially to me. I am wishing for a sign, some indication of what that animal might be. At that moment, I feel something moving on the back of my hand. I tear my eyes away from the water nymphs to look. On my wrist stands a daddy longlegs. (Union of Spirits).

We stand on the top of Max Patch, a bald-topped peak in the Smoky Mountains. Around us in a 360-degree arc, we can see only wilderness, other mountains. Civilization is in the valleys, out of sight, and, on the surface, at least, the Grandmother looks as she has always looked. Arms interlocked, we sway with the rhythm of the Earth, our intellect in check, our emotions in the forefront. We are one body, one soul. (Kindred Spirits).

It is dark, and we are on our way to Randall’s farm for a bonfire. I am walking with two others. As I reach the terminus of the road, an injured bat, thrashing and flopping along the ground, crosses my path just inches from my shoe. The next morning, Christy reveals to the Circle that before the Union she had cast medicine cards to get a reading on the nature of the event. The first card had been a bat, symbolizing death and rebirth. The fifth and last, she tells us, was a hummingbird, the only bird which can move backwards and forward, up and down, left and right, and hover— it has the ability to move through space, much like our ability to move through the genders. On Sunday morning, shortly before we are to depart, Jane Newman and I and Gary Reiser, standing on the front porch, see the hummingbird, white and scarlet, as it darts in and out of the flowers around Sunnybank. (Union of Spirits).

Merissa and I play every folk song known to man (or woman or any other gender) on our guitars. (NWC). Wendy and I puzzle out the tune to a song called “It’s Only a Wee-Wee,” which we had found in a songbook on the piano. Three weeks later, she plays it for three hundred people at the Southern Comfort conference. (Kindred Spirits). I am playing Gender Bender and other songs for the rest of the group. Something tells me to look behind me. Elmer Hall, the innkeeper, and his staff are sitting there, listening raptly. (Union of Spirits). We find Randall’s sheet music for Ashokan Farewell (the haunting theme of Ken Burns′s PBS series “The Civil War”), and Wendy Parker plays it on the piano Randall has moved across the creek and into his half-finished house. Randall accompanies her on the violin. (Kindred Spirits).

We decide it will be unsafe to transport Phillida across Randall’s swinging bridge, which is two feet wide and has only one hand rope. Ordinarily, we would take her across the creek at the ford, but an unseasonably wet summer has turned the ordinarily peaceful stream into a small and raging river, and our common sense (and perhaps the bat we have just seen) tell us not to try. Phillida and another woman go back to the inn, and the rest of us go forward. Thereafter, the bridge assumes an important symbolic meaning in our conversations. Two mornings later, I am wakened by Melanie, the group member who has been carrying Phillida to the places she cannot go in her wheelchair Melanie has run the several miles to the bridge and spoken with it. The bridge has told her that it will provide the support she needs to carry Phillida across, but Melanie must provide the balance. The bridge will give her the same support it gives others, but nothing more. Melanie knows that next time we will be able to take Phillida across the bridge. She tells me this, eyes shining, as I shake off the remnants of a dream in which the Goddess (whom I had invoked in a ceremony the night before in room 4, the haunted room), had spoken to me. (Union of Spirits).

If you have read the Don Juan books by Carlos Castenada, you will know the subtle nature of Don Juan’s teachings. I believe the Earth (God, if you will, or as I prefer to think of Her, the Goddess) speaks to us, but often in gentle and unobtrusive ways. By focusing our awareness and amplifying it by the presence of others like ourselves, it becomes a little more obvious to we who are ordinarily blinded to such things by our Western ways. But even so, we must pay attention, look and listen, so that we will recognize the signs when they are given to us.

Our gatherings are rich with symbolism. Remembering my daddy longlegs, remembering the bat and the hummingbird, remembering the gulls watching Rena and Merissa and I, I would call it more than symbolism. I would call it magic.

I have found this magic in a group for postoperative people only, in a group which was composed primarily of transgenderists, and in a group which was evenly divided between those who define themselves as crossdressers or transgenderists and those who define themselves as transsexual. It’s the specialness of the spirits that is important, and not the state of the genitals or outward appearance or the ability to cross a swinging bridge. I think the power goes out of our community’s organizations and events when they become exclusionary and energies which should be expended on growth are wasted on angry rhetoric. Sadly, our community has a seemingly inexhaustible tendency to draw imaginary lines in the sand, excluding worthy souls from activities which could benefit them. This will never happen at Union of Spirits.

The Union of Spirits is a small, noncommercial gathering of transgendered and transsexual persons (nontransgendered persons are not excluded) which meets periodically in the mountains of North Carolina and North Georgia for quiet meditation, spiritual exploration and growth, and emotional sharing.