Myths of Gender

by Cai Quirk
Ithaca Meeting


Imagine a circle, and around that circle are the main colors of the rainbow. Like a rainbow, the colors do not have stark beginnings and endings, but blend into one another, the red slowly shifting to orange, orange to yellow, and so on until violet turns back to red. At the edges of this circle of colors, they are vibrant and bright, and towards the middle they blend together to get gray. Pink and blue are just two colors in this wide array, and male and female are just two genders in a wide range of possibilities. Perhaps I am a light green color, a gender the English language doesn’t have words for. I’ve met people on a wide spectrum of this rainbow.


Even within the colors we might call ‘pink’ or ‘blue,’ there are so many variations, just as there are many ways to express one’s gender even within the identities of ‘female’ and ‘male.’  If we tried to describe the whole world in terms of pink and blue, or nature’s more common green and blue, we wouldn’t be able to describe the beauty of cardinals, tulips, and autumn leaves. We also lose the beautiful diversity of humanity when we try to force it into two distinct boxes, yet modern culture has conditioned us, to varying degrees, to believe that this binary exists.


In the Summer Sessions interest group “Myths of Gender,” we looked at many cultures around the world who have accepted and often celebrated genders beyond male and female. We used the color wheel metaphor to visualize this wide range of possibilities and understand that this set of two limited genders is a myth. It is a myth that many believe in, work hard to stay within the boundaries of, and which has very real effects on how some people are held in hierarchy over others, but a myth nonetheless. Together we heard folkloric myths as well, stories that uplift non-binary identities in cultures around the world, and new ones I wrote to accompany images in my photo series and upcoming book, Transcendence.  When we can not only know that a binary is a much limited version of what is truly around us, but imagine other possibilities of how a world might look, we can begin to imagine how disrupting the gender binary doesn’t just free those who transcend the binary, but liberates everyone from a mold of expectations based on their appearance at birth.


This is about far more than what pronouns or bathrooms to use, but about truly seeing and honoring that of the divine in each person. 325 years ago when the New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends formed, we continued the statement, considered bold at the time, that men and women are created equal, and we lived it to varying extents within our Quaker circles. Today many Quaker groups have stated that all are equal, that there is ‘that of God in everyone,’ that we should treat each other as we want to be treated. The problem is that treating everyone the same doesn’t respect and honor the beautiful diversity of gifts and talents that is the divine manifesting differently in each person.


We as Friends encourage each person to find their own path with the divine, but are not quite as good at supporting and nurturing the gifts that arise from that seeking. In many of the communities around the world that have gender diversity, such an identity is often inherently seen as connected to spiritual roles such as healer, mediator, shaman, and ceremony leader, and those with such qualities are supported in their growth into these gifts. While these roles do not manifest in the same ways in Quaker spaces, when we are reluctant to see and nurture the spiritual gifts in each other (we are often much better at seeing the tangible ones like treasurer and organizer), we miss opportunities of growth and depth in our beloved community.


Quaker practice has more potential roles than many churches do, such as inviting people to elder for meetings and including healing centers in some of our spaces, but there is room to grow, room to imagine what we could be if we were able to see and honor and support not only the full rainbow wheel of genders, but how all our nuanced intersections of experience and identity and gifts weave together to create a tapestry of our beloved community.