Becoming a Gentle-Man
By Pax Ahimsa Gethen
“F*ck it or kill it.”
Those words jumped out at me from the pages of The World Peace Diet, an amazing book by Will Tuttle. I recommend this work to everyone, as it shows the historical parallels between herding cultures that dominate and exploit animals and societies that dominate and exploit vulnerable humans. As captivated as I was by this book, I was troubled because the full context of this quote, from consciousness theorist Ken Wilber, described the effect of a hormone that I was voluntarily injecting into my body on a biweekly basis:
“Studies on testosterone — in the laboratory, cross-culturally, embryonically, and even what happens when women are given testosterone injections for medical reasons — all point to a simple conclusion. I don’t mean to be crude, but it appears that testosterone has two, and only two, major drives: f*ck it or kill it.”
It was hard to think of myself — with my short, slim stature and graying hair — as any kind of a sexual or physical threat; but the fact remained that I was transitioning from female to male, physically and legally. I was saddled with the knowledge that I was now joining the oppressor class. The hunter. The abuser. The rapist. The Man.
Of course, not all men are sex-obsessed killers; but men undeniably have earned a reputation of being aggressive. When I was first coming to realize that I was not a woman, I read tips on how to “pass” as male. These tips included interrupting people, taking up space, and acting like you owned the place. I shuddered to think what trans women were being counseled to do.
I later read tips from trans men on how to build upper-body strength, and they included the seemingly inevitable advice to consume lots of animal-derived protein (such as whey powders, eggs, and “red meat”). I thought about how when I reviewed the consent form I needed to sign in order to get a prescription for testosterone, I read that taking this hormone could shorten my life expectancy by five years. I questioned my doctor on what role lifestyle played in this determination. After all, I’d never smoked; didn’t use recreational drugs; hadn’t had an alcoholic drink in years; ate a whole-foods, plant-based diet; and was generally risk-averse. I did not intend to abandon these lifestyle habits when the letter “F” on my ID card changed to “M.” She admitted there simply hadn’t been enough studies on FTM patients to say for sure.
I decided that transitioning to male did not mean that I had to become “The Man.” In fact, I didn’t have to become a man at all. I am a transsexual male, but I identify as agender.
While I’m secure in my (lack of) gender identity, I realize that I don’t have the luxury of deciding how others view me. Once I’m further along in hormone therapy, I will appear to most people as a brown-skinned man (I’m half black, half white), with all of the advantages and disadvantages that represents. And part of using male privilege responsibly, including for trans men, is recognizing it, stepping back, and allowing women their space. There’s been an astonishing amount of male dominance in the animal rights movement, especially considering that veganism is more frequently associated with women than men.
If I were to be seen as a man, I would have to be a gentle-man — in the literal, not chivalrous, sense. I chose a gender-neutral name that literally translates to my most important values, peace and non-violence: Pax Ahimsa. This pacifism extends to all of my fellow Earthlings, human and non-human.
Ahimsa is Sanskrit for “do no harm.” It is a common theme in Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Many teachers and followers of these religions claim to hold animals in high regard, often following some form of vegetarian diet; but few are vegan, and fewer still call for total animal liberation. Thich Nhat Hanh, the gentle Vietnamese Zen master, is one major religious teacher who has put non-violence into practice by keeping animal products out of his diet and out of his monasteries, while actively working to promote peace. If I were looking for a specifically male role model, Thich Nhat Hanh would certainly fill the need; yet, in keeping with the overwhelming majority of religious and secular institutions, he enforces a gender binary, separating monks from nuns.
I acknowledge that there are physical differences between sexes; but there is a lot more variation than most people realize, even down to the chromosomal level. (There’s a surprising amount of sex variation in non-human animals as well.) Peering at a person’s X and Y chromosomes is not going to tell you anything about their intellectual abilities, preferred clothing or hairstyles, habits, mannerisms, hobbies, or beliefs. So treating people differently solely based on their primary or secondary sex characteristics just doesn’t work for me.
Similarly, treating animals differently solely based on their species doesn’t work for me. Elephants, dogs, chickens, and other non-human animals obviously don’t need equal rights to vote, marry, or do other things that only make sense in the context of human society; but all animals are sentient beings that feel pain and desire to live. Why make an arbitrary distinction between food and friend, slave and citizen? We all desire — and deserve — not just respect, but freedom.
Two days before the publication of this blog post, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh experienced a severe brain hemorrhage. My thoughts are with this gentle yet effective teacher-- a true inspiration for peace activists everywhere.