Article 25

Uneven Surfaces

In Uncategorized on 06/11/2016 at 10:53 am

Uneven Surface sign

The Technology of Conversation

By Mary Pierce Brosmer


If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home

we may miss our star

(William Stafford )


A whole new group of people are letting the world know who they are, performing a risky dance of liberation on uneven surfaces. They call themselves, among other new names:

gender fluid



masculine-of-center women

feminine-of-center men


gender noncomforming


I began this column two days after the Obama administration, through the Department of Education, released what they are calling “directives” to school districts across the country regarding students’ gender identity and the choices they should be permitted to make in how to dress, which sports teams to join, which bathrooms and locker rooms to use.

Cue the Uproar! Outrage! Lawsuits! Demagoguery!

Political opportunism and fear-mongering are lurking at every turn to be sure, but my brain, as is its custom, has been pondering possibility and practicality.

First, the possibility. You might think this a non-sequitur, but bear with me. There’s a science called Emergence, perhaps best described in a book by Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.         If you want a very entertaining version of this theory, here’s a link to a Radio lab podcast exploring it: Radio lab producers describe Emergence this way:

“What happens when there is no leader? Starlings, bees and ants manage just fine. In fact, they form staggeringly complicated societies – all without a Toscanini to conduct them into harmony. This hour of Radiolab, we ask how this happens.”

For our purposes, I’m offering Emergence as a lens through which we find hope within all the breaking down: of infrastructure, of categories, of what seemed to be clear identities (with emphasis on the “seemed”). At one point in the Radiolab podcast a scientist who studies ant colonies in plastic containers describes the behavior of individual ants. Confronted with the need to build something, or solve a problem, they run around engaged in futile but very intense activity. The scientist admitted her scorn for the stupid behavior she observes, alongside her awe for what emerges or evolves through time: what the colony needs next.

The possibility I see in the emergence of gender fluidity into the light of language and action is that people who exist along the spectrum of gender identity are among the imaginal cells helping transform the caterpillar of patriarchy. You can find many descriptions of the work of imaginal cells; here’s one for purposes of this reflection:

We all grew up knowing a bit about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The truly amazing part of this process, however, is in the scientific detail of how it actually happens in nature.

After a period of ravenous consumption, a caterpillar finds an appropriate perch and forms a chrysalis – so far, so good. The end result, we know, is a butterfly, but the truly astonishing thing is that there is no structural similarity at all between a caterpillar and a butterfly.

Inside the chrysalis the caterpillar, unable to move, actually dissolves into organic goop. Cells, which had been dormant in the caterpillar and which biologists have the poetic genius to call “imaginal cells,” begin a process of creating a new form and structure.

At first these imaginal cells – the seeds of future potential, which contain the blueprint of a flying creature – operate independently as single-cell organisms. They are regarded as threats and are attacked by the caterpillar’s immune system. But they persist, multiply and connect with each other. The imaginal cells form clusters and clumps, begin resonating at the same frequency and passing information back and forth until they hit a tipping point. They begin acting not as discrete individual cells but as a multi-cell organism – and a butterfly is born. (

Like it or not, we are living in a planetary phase change. Changes in culture reflect that fact, no change more radical, which is to say, going to the root of the angry caterpillar of patriarchy, than either-or brain training, and its most potent expression: sex difference. Freud was right, for his time, in saying that “biology is destiny.” Born with female genitalia, you created a life within the fact of men exercising power over you, body and soul. Born with male genitalia, you created a life within the fact of exercising power over women, and the elites among you creating the religions, laws, art and architecture which erased all other expressions of “what is real and true.” And from the nearly universal expression of that “reality” evolved all other forms of power over: owner over enslaved, adults over children, humans over nature, white over black, one religion over another, one clan or dynastic family over another. Over isn’t by any means Over, but what it built is crumbling, and I can find no better, nor more challenging expression of that fact than the breakdown of the belief that biology isn’t, after all, destiny.

I’ll begin pondering practicality by attempting to capture two of the many conversations I’ve had recently about gender identity and expression.

A friend with a great heart and open mind confided that (I paraphrase)

I’m just tired, I guess, and worried, so much seems on the brink, we seem so much on the brink of destruction in the world that I wonder how and why we are going to spend so much time and social capital on such a small group or people… and are some of them just exhibitionists climbing on board the next “look at me” thing?

Another friend, a loving, wise woman who works closely with children in schools on a daily basis confided: I am in favor of protecting every child against bullying and shaming. That said, you would not believe the constancy of sexual violence and shaming of girls in the schools I work in…. I worry that, if this is implemented in a knee-jerk, fear-based way, girls will be put at even more risk, not from the transgendered kids but from ways that predatory boys (and sadly I do see them) will use this to violate safe places for girls.

I use the verb, “confided,” because neither of these women have safe places to express their honest concerns about the shift. And that, to me, is the heart of the matter, this matter and all others I can think of. We spend inordinate amounts of time, money and social capital on the laws and the directives, both necessary. We spend little or no time on the chrysalis. Yep, the safe, NECESSARY spaces (wombs) in which the transformation from one form to another happens in nature. My use of the word “wombs” clues you in to the reason this aspect of transformation is rarely seen in culture: all that is of the feminine is excluded, discounted or co-opted. In culture, if we do create safe places, they are all too often ineffectual, either because (1) the intention was to protect us from them or (2) the intention was honorable but the container and its processes are not cared for and become weakened by neglect and complacency. The intention of the spaces I’m imagining the transgender issue could be held would be to protect us AND them, and the spaces would be cared for lest they become pro forma and attenuated.

In the kinds of places I’m talking about:

  1. There is no one standing in front of the room, but there is a greeter who welcomes everyone.
  2. There is no power-point – ever.
  3. There is a leader, because emergence in human colonies is not the same as that in ant colonies. Why? Because the ants have inherent knowledge of how to build containers for what is needed next to emerge, while humans default to forms of combat, however “civilized” which privilege those with the largest sense of entitlement.
  4. There is a circle of chairs, preferably comfortable.
  5. There are items in the center of the circle that signify connection, beauty, respect, nature: perhaps flowers, photos of participants’ family members, personal totems.
  6. There is a small set of agreements about how to respect all voices and points of view. Confidentiality is either agreed upon, or the group decides that what is learned here can be shared outside the group.
  7. This is not a “program”; it’s a process, what I call an organizational operating system for producing connection and compassion. Environmentalist Bill McKibben calls it “the technology of community.”
  8. Everyone has time to write to a shared topic or question meant to evoke the truths in which they are currently standing regarding transgender identity.
  9. Everyone has an equal amount of time to read what they have written. No one is permitted to “just talk” about what they wrote or would have written. (“Just talking about” too easily devolves into various forms of holding forth.)
  10. There is a call and response session: people read back some of the words they heard, honoring both the ones which resonated and the ones which were dissonant.
  11. There is conversation, group reflection on the themes heard.

I have practiced variations on this process for more than 40 years, when I was a high school teacher, and at Women Writing for (a) Change since its inception in 1991. Outside Women Writing for (a) Change, I have attempted to add this technology, which I have also called inForstructure, to all the necessary infrastructure ofhospice staffs, corporate and nonprofit board rooms, small and large businesses, homeless shelters. I’ve sat with people passionately pro-choice and passionately pro-life in this container. I’ve sat with addicts and with recovery counselors overwhelmed by the epidemic, with victims of domestic violence and with those attempting to create safe places for them. I’ve written about it every which way but south, to borrow an expression.

My husband claims that I say, “It’s not rocket science,” so often that it should be my epitaph. (Except that I don’t want a tombstone ).The practical work I describe seems so obvious to me and so necessary – and so natural (not easy) that I am appalled by its absence, even among those trained in social systems work, therapy, among activists who believe they can force change.

“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem loss and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation… and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

– Gus Speth.

Well, Gus, it’s not rocket science, but I know people who do know how to do that. I can hook you up.

And now back to poetry.

lines from “Around An Albuquerque Airport”

. . . I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,

This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.


Not a single person in this gate . . .

has seemed apprehensive about any other person.


This can still happen anywhere.

Naomi Shihab Nye



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: