Tag Archives: People

Gender Flexibility

17 Aug

Gender flexibility is a delicate understanding that as men and women, we need to nurture the opposite gender within ourselves. A man has a feminine as well as masculine nature, and a woman has a masculine as well as feminine nature.

You reap what you sow. We have for many generations adhered to a gender binary model. Inflexible and restrictive, this has damaged us individually and as a culture. I believe, the more gender flexible a culture is, the more of value it will be to our wellbeing as a species.

Our world is presently dominated by the fundamentalist tribes of the United States who are facing-off with the fundamentalists of the Middle East and beyond. These tribes are, by their nature, gender inflexible. Men are men, women are afraid, and in the kitchen. They bring nothing of value to our future longevity. What is the alternative?

Professor Barry Hewlett has spent decades studying the Aka tribes of Africa, and he claims their male and female roles are virtually interchangeable. ‘Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status – there’s no stigma involved in the various jobs.’

I’ve spent decades studying the tribes of the United Kingdom, and I can say they are in the process of becoming as gender flexible as the more advanced Aka peoples of Africa. They probably need another three or four generations, and then their men will slip into primary childcare roles without a second thought or loss of status. Many of their families already do this.

Having lived and worked in the South Wales valleys I have witnessed this occurring. The traditional gender roles have undergone a dramatic transformation as a result of the death of the coal industry. The limited jobs replacing coal are mainly piecemeal, part-time, poorly paid, and reliant on very different skills. In other words, ‘they’re women’s work’. As a consequence, large numbers of men are now in the role of primary child-carer, or, at least, as active in childcare as their partner. Reluctant converts to gender flexibility, these men are struggling to comprehend that such a change is actually of benefit and not damaging them.

I work with them to look at their personal inner masculinity and femininity, and to start a process of reconciliation. ‘Your inner man and inner woman have been at war, they are both wounded, tired, and in need of care, it is time to put down the sword which divides them.’ Maureen Murdoch. The concept of an inner king and queen has been adopted by psychotherapy and clinical psychology. I prefer the North European and Navajo of the Americas traditions of four genders.

The four-gender model introduces a much deeper ability to be gender flexible for the individual. These traditions talk of a male and female as with our system, and two more, a male/female, and a female/male. Remarkably, they teach us that all four genders reside within the individual, and you can make the journey from being a male through the clearing houses of male/female or female/male, to your female, and vice versa.

The key to this new (very old) system is that you don’t lose your maleness by travelling to your inner feminine. In other words, a man can be the primary child-carer, without becoming a wimp (a deep-seated fear of some of the men in South Wales). Equally a woman can be a dynamic pioneer in business without losing her femininity.

The four genders allow us to fulfil our potential without having to lose our identity. Many women say they had to adopt masculine traits in order to become successful in business. They did this because we have a binary system which makes us feel uneasy when we change our gendered behaviour, and often we can be criticised by ourselves and others for it. In a four-gendered system women are successful in business without loosing contact with their essential feminine self. Men adopt their role as primary child carer in a masculine way, not having to lose status and self esteem.

The four genders also enable us to explore our gender identity throughout the passage of our life. We can spend many years being a pioneer (male), and then move into a period of being a nurturer (female), and into a period of reflection (female/male). We all change our gendered behaviour very quickly, from hour to hour even, and it would be beneficial to do so without feeling wrong or being criticised by others.

With the four genders the myths of gender difference are exposed to be the lies they always were. Boys don’t cry, men are strong, woman are weak, girls can’t do what boys do, men have to not show their emotions, women aren’t as determined as men, etc, All a load of two gendered bollocks. Hurray!

If you wish to find out more about this please come to the event we are holding in Malvern later this year.


The Farmyard (childhood at home)

26 Mar


by Hans Christian Andersen

I’ve divided the story into three sections:

The farmyard (childhood at home)

He tries to conform (school and his peers)

The wilderness years (the rite of passage)

This is the first section.

It was so beautiful out in the country. It was summer. The oats were still green, but the wheat was turning yellow. Down in the meadow the grass had been cut and made into haystacks; and there the storks walked on their long red legs talking Egyptian, because that was the language they had been taught by their mothers. The fields were enclosed by woods, and hidden among them were little lakes and pools. Yes, it certainly was lovely out there in the country!

The old castle, with its deep moat surrounding it, lay bathed in sunshine. Between the heavy walls and the edge of the moat there was a narrow strip of land covered by a whole forest of burdock plants. Their leaves were large and some of the stalks were so tall that a child could stand upright under them and imagine that he was in the middle of the wild and lonesome woods. Here a duck had built her nest. While she sat waiting for the eggs to hatch, she felt a little sorry for herself because it was taking so long and hardly anybody came to visit her. The other ducks preferred swimming in the moat to sitting under a dock leaf and gossiping.

Finally the eggs began to crack. “Peep …Peep” they said one after another. The egg yolks had become alive and were sticking out their heads.

“Quack…Quack..” said their mother. “Look around you.”

And the ducklings did; they glanced at the green world about them, and that was what their mother wanted them to do, for green was good for their eyes.

“How big the world is!” piped the little ones, for they had much more space to move around in now than they had had inside the egg.

“Do you think that this is the whole world?” quacked their mother. “The world is much larger than this. It stretches as far as the minister’s wheat fields, though I have not been there … Are you all here?”  The duck got up and turned around to look at her nest. “Oh no, the biggest egg hasn’t hatched yet; and I’m so tired of sitting here! I wonder how long it will take?” she wailed, and sat down again.

“What’s new?” asked an old duck who had come visiting.

“One of the eggs is taking so long” complained the mother duck. “It won’t crack. But take a look at the others. They are the sweetest little ducklings you have ever seen; and every one of them looks exactly like their father. That scoundrel hasn’t come to visit me once.”

“Let me look at the egg that won’t hatch,” demanded the old duck. “I am sure that it’s a turkey egg! I was fooled that way once. You can’t imagine what it’s like. Turkeys are afraid of the water. I couldn’t get them to go into it. I quacked and I nipped them, but nothing helped. Let me see that egg! … Yes, it’s a turkey egg. Just let it lie there. You go and teach your young ones how to swim, that’s my advice.”

“I have sat on it so long that I guess I can sit a little longer, at least until they get the hay in.” replied the mother duck.

“Suit yourself.” said the older duck, and went on.

At last the big egg cracked too. “Peep … Peep” said the young one, and tumbled out. He was big and very ugly.

The mother duck looked at him. “He’s awfully big for his age,” she said. “He doesn’t look like any of the others. I wonder if he could be a turkey? Well, we shall soon see. Into the water he will go, even if I have to kick him to make him do it.”

The next day the weather was gloriously beautiful. The sun shone on the forest of burdock plants. The mother duck took her whole brood to the moat. “Quack … Quack..” she ordered.

One after the other, the little ducklings plunged into the water. For a moment their heads disappeared, but then they popped up again and the little ones floated like so many corks. Their legs knew what to do without being told. All of the new brood swam very nicely, even the ugly one.

“He is no turkey” mumbled the mother. “See how beautifully he uses his legs and how straight he holds his neck. He is my own child and, when you look closely at him, he’s quite handsome… Quack! Quack! Follow me and I’ll take you to the henyard and introduce you to everyone. But stay close to me, so that no one steps on you, and look out for the cat.”

They heard an awful noise when they arrived at the henyard. Two families of ducks had got into a fight over the head of an eel. Neither of them got it, for it was swiped by the cat.

“That is the way of the world,” said the mother duck, and licked her bill. She would have liked to have the eel’s head herself. “Walk nicely” she admonished them. “And remember to bow to the old duck over there. She has Spanish blood in her veins and is the most aristocratic fowl here. That is why she is so fat and has a red rag tied around one of her legs. That is the highest mark of distinction a duck can be given. It means so much that she will never be done away with; and all the other fowl and the human beings know who she is. Quack! Quack!… Don’t walk, waddle like well-brought-up ducklings. Keep your legs far apart, just as your mother and father have always done. Bow your heads and say, Quack!” And that was what the little ducklings did.

Other ducks gathered about them and said loudly, “What do we want that gang here for? Aren’t there enough of us already? Pooh! Look how ugly one of them is! He’s the last straw!” And one of the ducks flew over and bit the ugly duckling on the neck.

“Leave him alone!” shouted the mother. “He hasn’t done anyone any harm.”

“He’s big and he doesn’t look like everybody else!” replied the duck who had bitten him. “And that’s reason enough to beat him.”

“Very good-looking children you have,” remarked the duck with the red rag around one of her legs. “All of them are beautiful except one. He didn’t turn out very well. I wish you could make him over again.”

“That’s not possible, Your Grace,” answered the mother duck. “He may not be handsome, but he has a good character and swims as well as the others, if not a little better. Perhaps he will grow handsomer as he grows older and becomes a bit smaller. He was in the egg too long, and that is why he doesn’t have the right shape.” She smoothed his neck for a moment and then added, “Besides, he’s a drake; and it doesn’t matter so much what he looks like. He is strong and I am sure he will be able to take care of himself.”

“Well, the others are nice,” said the old duck. “Make yourself at home, and if you should find an eel’s head, you may bring it to me.”

And they were “at home.”

The poor little duckling, who had been the last to hatch and was so ugly, was bitten and pushed and made fun of both by the hens and by the other ducks. The turkey cock (who had been born with spurs on, and therefore thought he was an emperor) rustled his feathers as if he were a full-rigged ship under sail, and strutted up to the duckling. He gobbled so loudly at him that his own face got all red.

The poor little duckling did not know where to turn. How he grieved over his ugliness, and how sad he was! The poor creature was mocked and laughed at by the whole henyard.

That was the first day; and each day that followed was worse than the one before. The poor duckling was chased and mistreated by everyone, even his own sisters and brothers, who quacked again and again, “If only the cat would get you, you ugly thing!”

Even his mother said, “I wish you were far away.” The other ducks bit him and the hens pecked at him. The little girl who came to feed the fowls kicked him.

At last the duckling ran away. He flew over the tops of the bushes, frightening all the little birds so that they flew up into the air. “They, too, think I am ugly.” Thought the duckling, and closed his eyes – but he kept on running.

The Ugly Duckling

25 Mar

The wastelands

I am a man who spent the last thirty years working directly with the disenfranchised, vulnerable, and desperate people who inhabit the dark underbelly avoided and ignored by mainstream Western culture.  I have worked in some of the most deprived and devastated communities. In the South Wales Valleys during the Thatcherite clearances. The desperate communities of Eastern Germany, following the fall of communism.  With the cardboard families of the Bronx, New York, burnt out by their landlords greed and avarice.

Over thirty years on the incomprehensible council estates of big cities. The forgotten wastelands of concrete, broken glass, ignorance, abuse and boarded windows.  Working with the effects of neglect – violence, criminality, addiction, depression, mental illness, loss of hope, lack of connection to grief, and the cruelty of being deprived from birth.  We witness the disasters in Africa with righteous despair, but there are similar and more invidious ones happening right here in the heartlands of the richest and most conspicuously affluent societies ever created.  We are so familiar with these disasters we don’t even recognize them as such.

In my opinion it is a disaster when the majority of people in your country are unhappy;

it is a disaster when the majority of people are addicted to destructive patterns of behaviour;

it is a disaster when we refuse to take responsibility for our lives and blame others;

it is a disaster when we willfully neglect and ignore our children.

When people believe their lives depend on money, artifacts and material goods, you are in trouble. When those people loose their connection to community, love, mutual indebtedness and reciprocity, it really is dangerous for the world.  We are breeding bullies, dealing in unhappiness, greed and selfishness- indeed we encourage and support such attitudes.  Our culture depends on our fear and frustration for its perpetuation.   We see the world in a very peculiar and skewed way, not considering the whole or bigger picture.  This way of viewing the world is, in my opinion, immature. The immature boy is selfish, spoilt, he stamps his feet when he doesn’t receive what he feels he is due.  In that sense, we are an uninitiated people – we have for many years chosen to ignoring the obvious, and only focus on our personal needs.  With the increased awareness of the interconnected nature of the world, our concerns for our African brothers and sisters, our environmental and ecological concerns, our recognition of the value of nutrition, we are starting to show some maturity.  For me, it is a sign of our seeking initiation, the seeking of longer-term solutions.  Those are the first steps towards our initiation into becoming mature human beings.

How do we become mature?

One way is through appreciating the fantastically revelatory work of Robert Bly and others.  His starting points are the ancient stories, the stories of the land. The interpretation of myths, nursery rhymes, and legends as archetypes and personal stories.   I sought to examine my own cultural background and see what lay there as resources.  I looked at ancient texts – the Mabinogion, the Norse legends – but found them too removed.  Too many long and confusing names to remember.  I looked at more modern tales, and was drawn to ‘The Ugly Duckling’ by Hans Christian Andersen. I thought it was a story about the artist, the misfit in society, and identified strongly with it.   I wanted to use it as a teaching tool with groups, but it has been mis-translated, abused, and distorted for many years.  Then I was able to gain access to a recent translation of the story- as close to the original as you can get. I gained the story through Rosie Beech, and would like to thank her for sending it to me.   When I read it I cried – at the beauty of his words, his ability to describe poetically anguish and despair.  I cried for the pain carried in the story, the depth of the emotional trauma, his stand against bullies, and his understanding of loneliness.  I realized the story is not just about the misfit artist, it is about a boy with an absent father.  It is a story so pertinent and relevant to our times, it needs to be examined, and re-read in this modern context.

I share The Ugly Duckling story with fathers, men and boys, and mixed groups as well.  We take turns telling it, we discussed the relevance it has to each of us.  Every time I read it I appreciate another aspect of the story. Every time, my perception shifts, I become more aware of myself, the relevance of the story to modern life, and it’s bearing on the work I am involved in.  I wanted to write down the interpretations and views that have arisen from it in the hope that others will find them of value.  I know this process has been very transformative, cathartic for me, and many other people. So, I pass this on with love and blessings to you all.