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Personal Narrative: A Gender Odyssey



Geez, did I just have to give myself a “talking to”, a “come to Jesus” (I mean no disrespect, I was raised a Christian) regarding my avoidant, procrastination tactics, in completing this piece of writing. Then I allowed the softer, kinder voice of me to repeat what had just been said, albeit with a much more nurturing and supportive tone. Lastly, the heckling sibling chimed in and was like, “dude! C’mon, it is Saturday at 3pm. It’s the full moon! Get it done!! You’re being ridiculous!” I laughed and negotiated (offered rewards) with myself (teenage self). “We’ll go swimming and dancing tomorrow.”

But, not until this is done, said the stern, yet compassionate voice.

I also caution to call it all avoidance/procrastination. I’ve been reflective, taking more time off upon my return to the Island, allowing for integration of the experience, from last month, I will soon share with you. It’s been great and loungy and hilarious and inspiring. I’ve been gathering music I love, keeping the dance going, reading amazing books and articles, corresponding with peers, teachers, guides and swimming in the ocean.

If it’s both terrifying and amazing then you should definitely pursue it. -Erada

What I have also recognized is that to the level I am SO excited about the conversation around gender and sexuality in Rites of Passage work and taking ownership (and telling others – you) that this IS Soul’s/Divine’s work for me and a piece of my vocation I want to nurture, grow and incorporate into my life and share with others. It is also a time when the Shadow, Critic and Loyal Soldier come creeping and advise me to remain unseen, not worth the time or space, don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. Don’t make a fool of yourself. It is NOT safe out there. This all from being a by-product of a dysfunctional (who doesn’t have some sort of dysfunction?!) family and enlisting the qualities of The Lost Child (out of sight, out of mind), so not to get hurt. And now I am choosing to do things differently, as if my life depended on it. I thank the Loyal Soldier for sharing their concerns and kindly request that they go on vacation, experience retirement. And I tell Shadow, “All things in moderation” and Critic, “be nice, be sweet.” And with a resounding, “I’m tired of just getting by”, I try, I show my truth. I am powerless (my voice) without freedom (of choice).

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. -Joseph Campbell

The Wise Adult of me has the floor now, along with the Radiant Child-Essence. Excited and knowledgeable, curious and inspired to see the fertile ground we can cover within the depth and breadth of the topic of Gender and Sexuality in the field of 21st century Rites of Passage.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

There is a field.

I’ll meet you there.


I am filled with the feeling of honor and gratitude that I get to live in a time and space where these conversations, these questions, these ways of being in the world can and are challenged, played with and lead to more seeking, depth, ambiguity and mystery. I’m genuinely moved that I have been bestowed with, what I would call, a treasured responsibility.    

So where do we begin?

My first draft had a friend saying, “There are so many different directions here!” And what I heard is, “focus.”  My pep talk ensued: This is only the beginning of a larger, potentially healing (for self and others) conversation. There is no need to bring in EVERYTHING, you think should be addressed, there’s time, there will be more, this is NOT your one and only shot. I could share with you the political & social climate surrounding gender & sexuality for which I have been enmeshed in for several years, having been an organizer for many Pride events, from Atlanta, GA to rural Utah.  But, today I prefer the more intimate, personalized experiences that I have been working with on my own personal journey. Regardless, the topic is rich, diverse, taboo and amorphous.

As I began to write the whisper of David Whyte came to heart:         

Start close in. Start with the ground you know, your own way of starting the conversation.  

Start with your own question; don’t let them smother something simple.

And so I’ll begin here, close in, with the most intimate writing I’ve created (this year, thus far): Who I am is a trusting and forgiving woman. Honestly facing my life with perseverance and consistency. Risking loss and self-reliance for intimacy and vulnerability. Worthy of joy and belonging.

I share this with you because these words crafted, only a few short months ago, saved my life. More so, allowed for the severance from my old way of surviving in the world and began the journey of calling home the parts of me, the re-membering of something more authentic; call it my highest self, soul, spirit.

No longer willing or able to go about my life in fear of pain and being hurt, again, I looked at these real fears, real because they had happened – I had the proof; betrayal, resentment, forfeit, worthlessness, sadness, death & rejection, a re-occurring looping pattern in my life. I knew then, that I had to do it differently, live this life differently, in the face of what my mind kept assuring me would happen, I chose to turn and listen to my heart and body instead.

In January 2015, I took a leap of faith; I asked myself, “Where do you need to be for your healing?” A small voice inside replied, “By the sea.” Vocationally, I also knew that I was being called back to meaningful work in a therapeutic wilderness setting. The environment, albeit, a house of mirrors, projection and transference,  is one I’m good at, that brings about the best version of me in the task of truth telling in a natural setting with young people.  I discovered Pacific Quest, a horticulture wilderness therapy program on the Big Island, and off I went.

This is the ground I know:  to give you a snapshot, share a little heartbreak and hopelessness, the “WTF did I do-ness”, the lessons learned, the gifts received.  I’d like to begin here, with you. With my old story being released in the severance fire, transformed into the desert and Colorado River, washed away with a phone call and danced through in a Star House in Sunshine Canyon.  

In retrospect, being on the other side of what at times I thought would be my demise, the time in my life I was surer I wouldn’t live through than any other time in my life, I take a breathe, pat myself on the back and say, “nice work, you made it.” Looking through the lens of my intentions, my ritualizing of acts made holy, I now can see clearly and with gratitude my befriending and re-acquainting myself with the body, my body was my truest testament to a will to live. This was a crossroads, different than other times in my life. Maybe it was my mid-life crisis, the breaking down of body and restrictive flow that was palpable and the fears growing forth from that, maybe early onset of menopause likely a result of stress, maybe the ending of another relationship, likely all of it. The difference, the conscious choice I had to make:  listening & feeling the body as opposed to pushing and struggling through sheer will and thought. I’ve done the rituals, I’ve done the ceremonies in the past, wishing/praying for different outcomes, and I’ve practiced, in theory all the tools I’ve collected over the years. I’ve stated, “I’m an Ecopsychologist, for Christ’s sake, I know better!” having worked with teachers like Joanna Macy and Bill Plotkin over the years.  The realization that all of it was a reflection of things outside myself; relationships, work in the world for which I had identified with, placed it as a value of my worth  and projected all that out into the world had left my body (soul) weary and in need of deep attention and care. Desire to change because the body was in crisis was the crux and from there all things flowed forward when I benched the mind, put the critic in time out and fired the Judge. I came to the island trusting that somatic, body centered healing would be my path. Creating an intent statement would become my touchstone for grounding.

Discovering that a piece of the experience our students here at Pacific Quest participate in, called Huli Ka’e, translated “to search the edge,” was life giving. I had already “called in” that I wanted more ceremony, ritual and reverence, a slower pace brought to my everyday existence and to have this manifest so quickly into my life allowed for some material to work with as I still remained slightly untethered and searching in the dark.  Being able to utilize these tools and in turn share with others, allowed for balance and less fixation on my little pity party for one. In essence, there is a severance from the community and old story; threshold that includes a solo experience and the re-incorporation where students declare a statement of intent. As part of my training for this stage of the program I dove into the curriculum and discovered my own intent statement, which I offered above.  I found the process richer and deeper by weaving in my work in 12 step recovery. Creating an intent,  a way of being you want to step into based on the opposite of what one can identify as character defects, patterns no longer serving self & fears can and will create, call back home, a potent, authentic self. At the very least, something to recite to self when locked in fear, attached to outcome or seeking clarity on the “next right move.”

Reciting the intent, like a prayer, every morning, every night and times in between as needed began the beginning of feeling change in my body- the chronic pain was replaced with moments of relief. Not to mention the “wellness team” I had organized to bring me through the transition; I thank my small, yet strong Japanese massage therapist, my comic book writer by night, acupuncturist by day, my cranial-sacral therapist in the green hills of Waimea and my somatics psychotherapist, with his yoda, mandalas and inspiration to walk the Santo de Cristo on his wall. It’s no wonder I choose to live out of my truck on the island, freeing up funds for what seems really important right now. And when you are really only home half the time because of your work, I’d much rather be waking up to the sound of crashing surf at my next snorkel spot on my off shift. I like to think I’m healing my relationship to money while living on the island too. I can definitely relate to living with scarcity thoughts and how that can present painfully in the body. With responsibility, I was taught to say, “I’m made of money” and it works!!

From my studies in neuroscience and meditation, I knew I was creating new neural pathways; Firing beliefs, strengthening muscles through practice and repetition, feeling more open, receptive and willing to receive.  This openness, receptivity and willingness to receive, having feminine qualities and tone, for me, have helped me to reconcile within myself the struggle around placing the word, “woman” in my intent statement. At first, it felt limiting- That’s not all of me, begging the question: “Should I put human or person instead?” I’m now considering creating another intent statement that would encompass my masculine qualities, playing with the idea of what this could manifest and empower in my life. The truth is we currently still live in a gender binary world. Male or female; we humans need to label in order to make sense of our world. As more conversations and headlines bring forth the idea of gender fluidity, being on the spectrum of gender and sexuality and creating space for people to identify in a non-binary way, we can begin to speak from those qualities of both masculine and feminine embodiment. But, until then, creating two intent statements feels like a “Good Orderly Direction” and ownership for me.

The intent statement is a powerful tool, one that can be re-created, re-invented over time. Within my work, I weave awareness with the students regarding the power of their words from the beginning. Intentionally, Huli Ka’e, is a mysterious piece of our program. Students are given very little if any information about it from staff and students who have participated in this stage of the program; operating from a “need to know” basis. What I can and will do early on in my interactions with students is have them consider words of affirmation, identifying traits they admire in self and others, what qualities inspire them and for those that are relentless in the negative self talk, I encourage them to sound off a positive quality they like about themselves when I hear them talking down on themselves. They love that. (Insert sarcastic tone here.) But what this does, I believe is begin a practice, similar to a Loving kindness meditation, that can override thought patterns, that no longer serve our highest and best self. All this, unbeknownst to them, a way, I feel assists them in crafting their intent statement later in their program.


A second thread, or piece of the mosaic I’d like to share with you as we explore gender and sexuality in our work, occurred while I had already made arrangements to go back to the mainland just last month. For all intents and purposes here, observed through the lens of the Hero’s Journey I knew that to truly answer the call to the adventure of my life sensed in the Assistance of the intent statement, I would need to Depart and face the Trials and Approach, my worst fears in an effort to receive the Treasure(s) and New Life. Feeling like I had one foot here and one still back in the deserts of Utah, I knew in order to move forward I needed to complete the severance, the “unfinished business” of closure in order to call back home all of me, to be fully present in the body and experience of the here and now, living into my intention. I made arrangements to travel back to the mainland, to clean up my side of the street.  I bought the tickets. Faithfully believing the details would come.

What happened was this:  I went to Moab, walked the land, and returned over 300 heart rocks collected over the nine years I lived there, to the river, the creeks and places in between. I received amends, offered forgiveness and proclaimed as I drove away, in the words of one of my greatest teacher Reverend Martin Luther King, “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at Last!” From there I spent my 44th birthday at Orvis Hot Springs at the base of Red Mountain Pass, the place I nearly lost my life four years ago and from which I began my journey of recovery. Going to that place on the roadside that I slipped over, looking down and calling home the parts of me that had remained there in fear of living.

I cannot emphasize enough. I did everything, every moment, every act, every motion, every contact with intention and reverie, and thus made holy, as if my life depended on it. And if all that wasn’t enough, the Boon on the other side of all this reconciliation with the past was the gift of integrating and resolution through dance.

Synchronicity- coincidences, in which the inner and outer worlds meet, inform and ennoble each other.

The stars aligned and there was a weeklong Intergenerational camp beginning the day after my 44th birthday, with Melissa Michaels and Surfing the Creative® in Boulder, CO. Somatic Rites of Passage Dance Camp?  Enough said, I’m in!  I love to dance. I’d even go so far to say that I came out (of my shell) on the dance floor in the early ‘90s surrounded by beautiful, unapologetic gay men, who adored me and gave me a sense of belonging and feeling of acceptance I had not experienced in my life thus far. And there was a freedom of self-expression I hadn’t yet experienced.

I went on faith that this is what I needed, what my body needed to move through in order to come out, no pun intended, the other side. We simply danced from the beginning. No intro circle, no explaining of your work in the world.  Our bodies communicated what we were bringing, what we wanted to release, what we wanted to heal and what we wanted to become. And for what I had been experiencing, up to this point, this year, to be out of my thoughts, not having to explain anything was sweet relief. Whenever I’d think I had to think my way through something, I would dance. “Just keep moving,” I would repeat like a mantra.

It was on our second full day together that we gave our names to the larger group and with that offered our PGP, [preferred gender pronoun]. This simple act, statement, becoming conscious within many organizations working with diverse and marginalized populations, in my opinion, is essential to our work in Rites of Passage, given we are “in the business” of guiding people towards integration and whole-ing the authentic self. Having always in the past identified as she, her, hers, I found when the circle found its way to me I stepped into identifying as them, they, theirs. Sensing in my body the relief, release and breathe, claiming my place.

In reflection, I found this declaration, this simple non-binary identification not only a personal act of reclamation, but an acknowledgement of taking my work within the LGBTQI [Lesbian, Gay, Bi Sexual, Transgender, Queer, Inter Sex] community, over the years, to the next courageous [from the heart] level. Giving voice to the voiceless, those inside and outside the circle, aware of my privilege to be in a space and time to be safe and free to express in this way. Opening a door of exploration, to search edges and build resilience and empathy in community with others, and honoring the intent statement I had created just a couple months earlier.

I am grateful for the space Melissa and fellow surfers created by instituting within the program the simple yet profound addition of asking our PGP, as well as, participants whose role was to ensure the inclusiveness of all ways of being in the world were present. Lastly, I have always been on alert, challenged when within this work the time comes for Gender Council. Even within my work at Pacific Quest, when we break out into groups, the men go there, the women here, but where do I belong? I found the space to be myself within the Surf when there was a third group identified for Gender and Sexuality. Ours was a small group, but the truth-telling, vulnerability and intimacy created that night was magnanimous.

Dancing is an ancient form of magic. The dancer becomes amplified into a being endowed with supranormal powers. His/her personality is transformed. Like yoga, the dance induces trance, ecstasy, the experience of the divine; the realization of one’s own secret nature, and finally, emergence into the divine essence…The dance is an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and summons into the dancer a new and higher personality. It has a cosmogonic function, in that it arouses dormant energies, which then may shape the world. –Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization

Start close in.  Trust, honesty, loss, intimacy, vulnerability, belonging, joy.                                      

Start with the ground you know, your own way of starting the conversation. Storytelling, Talk-Story- native to Hawaiian culture- shootin’ the breeze, having a conversation, sharing; following heart lines.                           

Start with your own question… It started with, “Where do you need to be for your healing?” Physical location led me to a larger container of safety, opening myself up to the possibility of living a reverent life where all parts of me are re-membered, including the whole of gender and sexuality. Until this experience I was working under the assumption that I accepted myself, my gender, my sexuality. I assumed I had done this work in the coming out process. Discovering, again, coming out is not a onetime thing, this, just another layer revealed. Being able to honor and claim identity through Rites of Passage does lead to more questions (How exciting!) and space here to create, together, infinite ways of incorporating our authentic expression as a gift to bring back to our communities.

What is my hope for our community of people involved in Rites of Passage work? That we keep asking the questions, live the questions through our hearts and bodies.

The question that undoubtedly begets further questions to explore; How do we continue to expand consciousness in Rites of Passage beyond the binaries of gay or straight, male or female? For me, the incorporation of simple acts, such as, intent statements, introductions that ask PGP and offering a third option in Gender Council are a beginning to widen our circle. We continue widening the circle around the fire for all those seeking to incorporate their truest desires for authentic right relationship with self and thus bringing their gift of authenticity to community.

Undoubtedly, we are seeing more and more, organizations creating specialized trips targeting the GLBTQI community (as you will see listed below) and within that safe container of similar experiences able to reflect to one another an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging, rarely if ever felt by the participant in the “ordinary world.” Truth (my truth) be told, in my humble opinion, these trips are only afforded to a small percentage of a marginalized and diverse community. These trips are for those who are safe and likely with some privilege, for the most part, to be out, supported and have enough awareness to explore the depths of their gender and sexuality. What if every organization, program, trip and individual we served was greeted at the threshold with an opportunity to question all that they have thought themselves to be up to that point-including their gender and sexuality? Could that not have the possibility of changing the course of someone’s life, simply by exploring parts of them they may have locked away or never even knew existed? Is that not the distinction between healing and wholing Bill Plotkin speaks of? We may enter any experience, such as Rites of Passage, in hopes of healing our broken selves, but as we learn there is nothing broken and nothing to fix, reincorporation of the self into the greater body of the community can happen when we get out of our own way.

Jenn Photo 3I personally, did not go to a GLBTQI specific Rites of Passage program when I attended Surfing the Creative. But, nonetheless the small, yet noticeable shifts in language and inclusivity presented here opened up a whole part of me that longed for belonging and reincorporation. The subtlety (and status quo-ness) at which this was felt in my experience, in my opinion, was significant to the extent of the lasting deep regard I presently embody. Maybe it’s possible to get that in a GLBTQI exclusive event, but like I said, these programs limit the cast of the net to those who unknowingly, like me, would benefit. I can’t help but think about a woman, just out of a twenty year marriage to a man, finding her way to a Rites of Passage website and choosing a standard course and not being afforded the same opportunities to question her gender and sexuality that you would find in a exclusive GLBTQI program. What a missed opportunity! Or that kid, who never feels like they belong anywhere, on the brink of taking their own life, is offered assistance (scholarship, guidance) and finds their way to the desert for a vision fast.  And because ROP organizations have incorporated into every program a baseline standard of conduct that include PGPs and a third gender council, for example, they finally find a place to call their own, a place to call home. How amazing does that sound!? I had no idea going into my dance that I had more excavating and acceptance of myself to look at. It wasn’t what I thought I’d come to work on. In fact, it was so much more once I got out of my way and gave myself permission, within the supportive community, to explore the depths of who I am as an outward expression of my gender and sexual fluidity.        

Again, I am humbled and honored to be able to share my path, and my story here with this community. Thank you. To open up to further understanding of myself and how to be of service to the many communities I belong. And the beautiful, joyful, heartfelt knowing that all of me belong here in this affirming community and that that support carries me[us] to provide that service to the youth I guide on their own passage to authentic self-expression.

May I leave you with this prayer, following the Supermoon last night…

May today there be peace within. May you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.

~Saint Therese of Liseaux

As I have only begun to explore where Gender & Sexuality’s role will play within Rites of Passage work in the 21st century and look forward to exploring other opportunities and organizations who present ways to incorporate this into their field]. Below please find a listing of Youth Passageways Partners that are working with Gender & Sexuality. Please let us know what is working (and not working) for you or your organization in the realm of working with non-binary populations, the Gay & Lesbian community, as well as Transgendered or gender-non-conforming. Let’s keep this conversation going.

In gratitude,

Jenn O.

About the Author: Jenn Oestreich

A girl raised in the South (GRITS) spent the last decade wandering the deserts of Utah, Jenn now calls an island in the middle of the pacific with an active volcano, home. By profession Jenn is currently working for Pacific Quest, Wilderness Therapy. Personally, they came to the island to learn radical self-care after years on the front lines of GLBTQI social justice issues and visibility in rural Moab, UT. When not in the field Jenn is swimming in the waves, dancing at movement mass on Sundays, sitting on the tailgate of their truck contemplating life, laughing at the cosmic joke and manifesting the next call.

A recently created "Wish List" (& many have happened already). Jenn is hopeful that this community can strengthen and bring to fruition
1) Travel & exploration
2) A deepening of my work in Rites of Passage as a Guide.
3) Healing thru somatics, music, dance & incorporation into my activism in the world.
4) To understand my story, always using it as a tool to move forward in my life, in joy & wisdom.
5) Conscious love, in the forms of romance, connection, intimacy & playfulness.

A Prescott College graduate in Ecopsychology, their work has employed them with Outward Bound, serving many roles, including, Diversity and Inclusion Trainer, as well as, Lead Guide with Open Sky Wilderness Therapy and The Women's Wilderness Institute. Jenn has studied with Joanna Macy and The Work that Reconnects, Bill Plotkin and Animas Valley Institute and most recently Melissa Michaels with Surfing the Creative. Hoping to take their cumulative knowledge and skills (on the road) and bring forth ways to incorporate with existing ROP organizations, working specifically with Transgendered, Queer and the Gay & Lesbian communities.

Jenn aspires to live out their childhood dream of becoming a treasure hunter and deep sea diver, sailing the 7 seas; continuing to explore the parts of them that are the trip hop DJ, playing music that moves you; the soulful gospel singer, praising truth, beauty, freedom & love; the troubadour, writing love notes to the universe, the aspiring bodhisattva and the Gender Outlaw, tattooed ninja clown carny with a handlebar mustache performing illusions at the Paradise Circus.


  1. Thank you so much for this beautiful and thoughtful post, inter-weaving story-telling, vulnerability, joy, loss, belonging, and reminders for all of us of how to think about our whole selves and support those we work with.

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