Being an immigrant to the US, a person of color, and genderqueer, much of my life I never felt I belonged fully to any particular group or community. A coping strategy I learned early on was to conform to the dominant culture so that I didn’t stand out with the hope of being accepted and loved.
That stopped working for me in my early 30s. I was living my life for everyone but myself. Years of fear, anger, frustration, and resentment began to seep out of the near-perfect image I had created to hide who I really was. I could no longer keep up the façade.
After a series of failed, monogamous (and not-so-monogamous) relationships, I realized that I was the common denominator. Rather than focusing on everyone and everything outside of myself, I needed to take a good, hard look inward to understand and accept who I really was.
Buddhism had always intrigued me as a recovering Catholic. I appreciated how direct, real, and true the teachings and practices were. No reliance on anyone or anything but myself to wake up to the truth of reality. I often thought that following the path of Zen would most match my temperament, and in the summer of 1998 I stumbled upon Tara Brach’s classes. Tara’s deep and compassionate teachings on radical acceptance was the elixir I needed to soften the edges of my rigid, perfectionistic, “need to be right” habit energies.
A few years into my practice, I happily found on the internet that there was a trans dharma teacher named Caitriona Reed in southern California. I was overjoyed to finally be reflected in this way and contacted Caitriona immediately. Her warmth, kindness, generosity, and fierce take on the dharma led me to attending one of her Trans weekend retreats at Manzanita Village. At that retreat, I had, for the first time, expressed gratitude for being born female and appreciated the depth of relationships with women I’ve had all my life that I wouldn’t have had otherwise if I had been born male. This was significant for me in my practice of self-acceptance.
Over the years, I began be aware of how strong these tendencies were that gripped my sense of self in comparison to others and the suffering it brought with it. My desire to accept pain yet not suffer became an aspiration that led to my finding my inner courage and strength to come out as genderqueer and to use the pronouns they, their, and them, despite the pushback that often accompanied such a transition.
The need to assimilate, conform, and belong no longer were important to me. What was important was for me to be my authentic self, to claim my belonging no matter who I was with or where I was, to remember my Buddha-nature. This empowering stance has freed my heart and life in myriad ways; from knowing that I was worthy of love and long-term relationships, to recently deciding to undergo top surgery to align my body with how I’ve always envisioned it to be. I am clear that I don’t want to transition to become male. I just want to be La with a masculinized chest. It has taken me 52 years to love who I am on the inside, and I don’t want that to change.
The “middle way” of my gender identity has allowed me to see where we, as a culture and a society, get caught on binary stereotypes in all sorts of manifestations. To go against the stream of the deep conditioning and to be free is not always an easy line to tow, and I no longer know any other way to be in this world.
What I have learned during my twenty years of vipassana practice and while working on diversity, inclusion, and equity issues within dominant-culture dharma communities is that the process of deconditioning and change is incredibly slow. Because of my assimilated upbringing, it was not until I co-formed the Insight Meditation Community of Washington’s (IMCW) People of Color and LGBTIQ Sanghas that I came out as a genderqueer person of color. With that came a period of time where anger and mistrust of the dominant culture lived through me. All the internalized racism, homophobia, and transphobia that I had suppressed for over 30 years began to surface as self-righteous indignation.
I would notice my body tense and assume a defensive posture whenever I would walk into dominant-culture spaces. Eventually, I began to realize that how I was holding myself and approached the world was not in alignment with my aspiration to cultivate a heart that was ready for anything; a heart that was inclusive, compassionate, and wise. I had to accept that I could not change the world. All I could change was how I related to it.
I once asked my mentor Larry Yang how he was able to keep energized in his efforts to keep advocating for people of color and LGBTIQ folks through affinity retreats at dominant-culture centers. He replied, “Not in this lifetime or several lifetimes thereafter will we ever be on a level playing field. And it doesn’t mean we stop trying.” After hearing Larry’s sage wisdom, an immense spaciousness opened up inside me that has allowed me the ability to stay strong when the going gets tough, to be discerning as to when and how I engage in conversations around diversity, inclusion, and equity, and to be patient with how long it takes to decondition and decolonize the dominant-culture mindset.
The practice of the Brahma Viharas–or divine abodes–of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, has been crucial to keeping my heart open and inclusive in the midst of a world full of greed, hatred, and delusion. Much of which is directed especially toward people like me. Even as the world tries to revoke our civil rights, control what restrooms we can use, deny our relationships, throw us out of the military, and condone violence against us, one thing I will never allow them to take away is my dignity.
Through the people of color and LGBTIQ sanghas I lead, the teen, young adult, and LGBTIQ retreats I teach, creating courageous spaces for folks of similar backgrounds and experiences to feel seen, heard, and respected in ways they may not always feel in the world has been the greatest honor and blessing on my spiritual path. The practice is one of constantly forgetting and remembering. To have affinity retreats that provides folks an opportunity to feel reflected is powerful and empowering. In sangha, whether in silence or with mindful speech, we come together to support each other on this path of awakening and of liberation.
La Sarmiento is a teacher for the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC and Inward Bound Mindfulness Education. They are the guiding teacher for the IMCW People of Color, LGBTIQ and Teen Sanghas, and a 2012 graduate of the Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leaders Training Program. La is committed to making the Dharma accessible to all.
La Sarmiento is co-leading a workshop at the Garrison Institute with Madeline Klyne, Lama Rod Owens, and Emily J. Kramer, “LGBTIQ Retreat: Waking Up Fabulous: Taking Refuge & Care in Ourselves, The Practice, and Each Other,” May 24-27, 2019.