INSIGHTS: Creating Space To Explore Gender
Christine Chen
June 17, 2021

A new study revealed one in 10 teens identify as gender-diverse. The research, published in Pediatrics, comes at the same time policies targeting gender identity increasingly make their way to the forefront of local, state, and national legislation.

Safe and thoughtful discussions are key to exploring the inner dimensions of gender and how gender affects each of our day-to-day experiences. Coming up in July, Esalen Institute offers humans on this journey the environment and space to discover and connect with personal potential, under the guidance of two skilled facilitators. 

Esalen’s Christine Chen discusses some of the nuances of this work with Ben Geilhufe, LPCC (he/him/his), the Director of Community-based Clinical Programs for the UCSF Child and Adolescent Gender Center, and Jen Hastings, MD (pronouns Jen), who started the Transgender Health Care Program at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in Santa Cruz and is an Assistant Clinical Professor in UCSF's Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Their upcoming workshop is called: Gender Journeys: Exploring Identity In Community July 9-11, 2021.

Christine Chen: Why was/is gender identity an important conversation for you both, personally?  

Ben Geilhufe: I started my gender exploration very young, when I noticed that my embodied gender did not match society’s expectations for someone designated female at birth. This caused distress and an internal scramble to “fit in” to feminine expectations so I would be loved, so I wouldn’t lose relationships, and so I would be seen as “successful.” It wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to peel back the layers of masking and begin to work on hearing myself accurately. I thought my gender journey would be a reclamation and realization of my masculinity and then – done! This has not been the case. My gender journey is ongoing, complex, and beautiful. I keep uncovering layers as I build stronger, safer communities to explore my authentic experience.  

Jen Hastings: I had been providing gender and transgender care for over 5 years before I realized I had my own gender journey to explore and navigate. I realized that the “box” of “female” was no longer accurate or sustaining for me. I had illuminating dreams and remembered experiences from my childhood that allowed me to step into the world more fully as “not male” and “not female.” While the terms nonbinary and genderqueer are more accurate for me, I find myself in a continuous process of discovery and questioning with elements of both celebration and grief. 

CC: How much is our definition of gender identity influenced by what we see and hear on a daily basis? 

JH & BG: Culturally constructed “gender norms” shape our understanding of ourselves, usually unacknowledged and often unchallenged. Although we may have moved from the confining norm of “pink is for girls and blue is for boys” we continue to attribute universal human qualities as binary masculine or feminine and for many of us, this is highly problematic.

The explosion of media around the diversity of gender and sexual identity (which has existed across cultures and throughout history) provides an opportunity to question the cultural construction of masculinity and femininity and to explore our own gender experience.

CC: How does understanding gender identity, personally, and its impact on daily life, relate to human potential?

JH & BG: Deeper conversations can open doors and windows of our soul that have been closed, or stuck or perhaps imagined, but not known. We get to know ourselves better. When we are in conversation with others, there can be a profound witnessing that is potentially deeply transformative.

We are excited to have a rich dialogue with those who join us about our journeys and experiences of gender, about the diversity of gender, and different ways to explore this personally and collectively, in community.

CC: How does the space and environment at Esalen help facilitate these important discoveries?

JH & BG: The natural beauty and container of Esalen is a wonderful environment for a deeper exploration of gender. A safe environment is part of what helps support authentic personal identity to emerge. And from authentic individual identity we can experience authentic community. We are deeply honored to be together on the sacred lands and waters of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County.

This upcoming workshop is specifically open to transgender, nonbinary, genderfluid, and/or gender exploring individuals. Find out more here, and apply here.


Christine Chen

Christine Chen is the host of Esalen Live! and Senior Content Producer. Christine is a two-time Emmy winning journalist, a best-selling author, California native, and yoga teacher's teacher (ERYT500, ERYT300, YACEP) on Esalen Faculty.