In September, “Creating Joy In Community,” the first residential retreat for transgender people, brought together 50 members of the transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and non-binary community at Big Bear Retreat Center in California. Retreat teachers Fresh “Lev” White and René Rivera, and retreat manager Martin Vitorino reflect on the experience.
We are so delighted and honored to have been among the co-creators of “Creating Joy In Community,” the first residential Buddhist retreat for the transgender community in the Insight Meditation tradition. The retreat had 50 participants and was offered by InsightLA at Big Bear Retreat Center in California from September 12-16, 2019.
As the teaching and retreat management team, we each had previous experiences of being the only trans or gender-nonconforming person on a retreat. As shared in a previous article for Lions Roar, we wanted to offer “Creating Joy In Community” to fellow members of the transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and non-binary community as a space where we could all show up and practice as our whole selves.
The experience of practicing together in community was exactly the medicine everyone needed to remedy feelings of isolation, loneliness and unworthiness.
In our trans community, many people inhabit multiple marginalized identities and intersectional oppressions, including racism and ableism. Trans people experience high rates of violence, homelessness, un/underemployment, suicide and mental health challenges due to the pervasive impact of transphobia. Trans women of color in particular are murdered at disproportionately high rates. Many have experienced trauma and may not have the resources to attend a residential meditation retreat. As one participant wrote of the retreat, “Meditation spaces can be so inaccessible, especially for differently-abled folx, poor people, trans people, and communities that have been forced to the margins.”
We addressed this through raising funds to make sure the cost of retreat registration and travel was not a barrier, especially for people of color. In response, we received generous support from InsightLA, Big Bear Retreat Center and individual donors, allowing us to offer the retreat on a sliding scale. No one was turned away for lack of funds, and 21 of the participants received financial support for travel.
The result of this support was a beautifully diverse group of people: 55% of participants identified as people of color, over half reported access needs or disabilities, and three were veterans. Within the group, age ranged from 21-74, and participants reported over 40 different variations of gender identities.
About half of the folks who came to “Creating Joy In Community” had never attended a residential retreat before. We designed the retreat with trauma in mind, and a key part of that meant we needed to build a container that could be responsive to the needs of the group in real time. Sometimes, this meant adapting our schedule and teaching to allow the ASL interpreters to have time for their own practice. Other times, it meant adding options for sharing and connection for those that needed it, while maintaining silence in other areas to support practice.
It was so touching to witness folks transform over the course of the retreat from reticence and self-doubt to the embodiment of true joy and self-worth.
The care taken to create this container that held the diverse needs of our group paid off. As one participant said, “This team maintains the delicate balance between structure and openness like no other in my experience. The result for me was to know, with a greater sense of sureness, I was invited, not required… encouraged and requested, not bound. What a beautiful soft-edged container!”
Among the many stories we heard filled with healing, joy and connection throughout the retreat, there were some that were especially touching. The overwhelming majority of people arrived at the retreat center feeling starved for connection and yearning for the freedom to be who they are. Some folks were unable to be out as trans in their everyday lives for fear of rejection, job loss, or violence. A few people shared that prior to this retreat, they had never met another trans person. The experience of practicing together in community was exactly the medicine everyone needed to remedy feelings of isolation, loneliness and unworthiness.
There were a number of participants who shared that prior to the retreat, they had used Buddhism to bypass or deny their trans identity. They told us the retreat experience ultimately helped them to see that they could be both trans and Buddhist, and they left feeling a deep permission to be their authentic selves.
It was so touching to witness folks transform over the course of the retreat from reticence and self-doubt to the embodiment of true joy and self-worth. Many participants created support groups and organized virtual practice meetings to stay connected near and far.
One participant said, “I am leaving feeling held and seen and with greater love and compassion for myself that I can’t wait to keep sharing with the world.” Another said, “Being in an intentionally mindful space led by and for trans*/GNC/NB folx is sacred and healing. It allowed me to immediately let my guard down to connect with others in our challenges and joys.”
Each day, we focused on one of the heart practices and divine abodes, or brahmaviharas, with guided meditations, embodied and relational practices, and both still and moving silent meditation. We also deepened into practices of lovingkindness, compassion and joy as a community.
Our retreat teaching team was made up of three people from the Insight Meditation tradition who have participated in Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leaders program: Fresh “Lev” White, René Rivera, and JD Doyle (who is now in the Spirit Rock Teacher Training program). Riya Christie, a black trans woman who is a leader in the Transgender, Gender-Variant, Intersex Justice Project, also joined our teacher team. Though not a Buddhist teacher, Riya embodies a deep commitment to remain open hearted even when faced with great adversity and brought joy and resilience to the retreat. The support team for the retreat were all trans as well, including retreat managers and cooks — every single person on the Big Bear property was part of our community.
Throughout the retreat, many of us laughed and cried together. On the evening of the last full day of retreat, we sat in circle and many folks shared songs and sang together. Our trans voices came together in song as a collective joy practice — an experience that was truly healing and transformative.
“Creating Joy in Community” was the beautiful first of many such retreats to come! It is our hope our learning’s and merit from the retreat will be of benefit to all seeking mindful refuge in the Dharma community and beyond.
Upcoming retreats for Trans and Gender Expansive Community:
Trans, Gender Expansive and Ally Day Retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center November 17, 2019
Trans and Gender Expansive Retreat at Dhamma Dena in Joshua Tree February 27 – March 1, 2020 (Registration opens soon – check website for details.)
Next Creating Joy in Community Retreat in Big Bear September 16-20, 2020. Registration is open, and InsightLA is accepting donations for financial and travel support for the next transgender retreat. You can make a donation here.