Gender Affirmative Sandplay
A personal experience with Queer archetypes, and a little chaos.
Posted Jun 26, 2020
In May 2018, a series of earthquakes ripped across the Big Island of Hawaii as Fissure 8 poured molten lava through the neighborhood about 15 miles away from my house.
I was in a sandplay training learning how to become a sandplay therapist. It was my day to make a tray.
Our instructor, Lorraine Freedle, is a neuropsychologist and the president of Sandplay Therapists of America. She also has professional mama-bear energy that’s quick to command a room, so when the earth rattled she hurried us all outside. When the aftershocks finally subsided, we entered Lorraine’s home-office, with its lovely couches, Jungian library, and bottomless coffee pot, only to find the place in disarray. In sandplay therapy, clients express themselves by shaping sand and arranging various toys, statues, and figurines. And Lorraine has everything spiritual, animal, human, and symbolic in her collection—and I do mean everything—as there are all kinds of shadows. But that day the shelves were shook, the cherubs had fallen, the soldiers were toppled, and a ceramic Gaia had smashed on the floor. Lorraine was putting on a brave face, but she looked heartbroken.
You see, sandplay therapists are often sentimentalists. They collect mementos from all over the world to add to their collection, but Lorraine's archetypal artifacts are imbued with the power of her clients' deep emotional journeys. Each has its story, and she has worked tirelessly to share the benefit of sandplay therapy around the world, notably demonstrating how the therapeutic process aligns with neurodevelopment. She even wrote the foreword to the latest re-release of Dora Kalff’s instrumental Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche. In other words, it would be potentially unprofessional and therapeutically unfair of her to ask me, in that moment, to make my first self-reflective sand tray with so much chaos everywhere. The safe-space container was rocked. It just wouldn’t be right.
I said I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sandplay therapy can be an excellent gender-affirmative practice for both kids and adults, as it routes honesty and authenticity through symbolism and imagination. Sandplay therapists often have a simple sandbox with a painted blue bottom, filled with the kind of dry sand that feels so meditative to run your fingers through. Some clients use the figures to role-play or recount their experiences, while others will create abstract and symbolic mandalas or dioramas to convey how they feel or where they’re at in their life. I very much appreciate Lorraine’s collection because, while many stock Jung’s anima (internal feminine) and animus (internal masculine) archetypes, Lorraine also stocks a variety of androgynous, gender-neutral, and gender squishy figures.
Tom-boys, Jane-girls, transgender, and nonbinary representations aren’t always easy to find in toy form. Sandplay therapists wanting to add LGBTQ+ affirmative characters to their collection may want to accrue toys from cartoons like the She-Ra reboot, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time. In 2014 a start-up company released a run of feminist action figures called IAmElemental, and in 2019 Mattel released their first gender-neutral doll. There are also a growing number of LGBTQ+ superheroes and villains to pull from, too. As for more classical archetypes, it’s always worth including Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous union of Shiva and Parvati; Avalokiteshvar, the male form of the bodhisattva Guanyin; Aphroditus, the androgynous male form of Aphrodite; Artemis, the goddess of the hunt; and the unforgettable Hermaphrodite.
On this particularly volcanic day, I pushed the sand to all four corners, where I placed testaments to the boy, the girl, the man, and the woman. Ever since Kate Bornstein noted, in A Queer and Pleasant Danger, how boy and man are distinct gender constructs, I’ve pondered how gender identity changes over time, so that’s what I explored in my tray. Picking the shattered pieces of Gaia off the floor, I worked the fragmented feminine into the edge of the blue clearing. At the center of my tray I created a mandala to impermanence, where I placed a small astronaut: The Fifth of Four.
As a genderfluid person I’ve lived as a boy, a girl, a man, and a woman, and spent years questioning authenticity, gender performance in response to trauma, alternating gender incongruity—you name it. Until, like my experience rescuing toys from the floor and collecting their broken pieces, I created something new, something my own. In trying to describe my polygender life, or just what it means to be a nonbinary person, I often state that I’m the Fifth of Four, the amalgamation of so many archetypes. This doesn’t always make sense to cis-het people and I don’t expect it to. It is my journey, and like a lot of queer people, my ineffable life has not been without chaos.
A typical process is usually earthquake-free and between 10 to 20 trays, but there’s no assigned cap, as life is ongoing. From my own experience playing in the sand, as well as holding that same space for others, I have found sandplay therapy to be an incredibly empowering modality for LGBTQ+ clients. Sandplay creates a literal stage in which to show the deep, innermost universe that words so inadequately describe. Clients can explain their creation if they like, but it’s not required, and often the tray speaks for itself. Sandplay therapy also allows clients the opportunity to mindfully observe themselves, as the moment you’ve finished a tray you get to lean back and notice things from a different angle. Patterns, themes, and recurring symbols start to emerge. An added benefit, for LGBTQ+ people potentially concerned about being misunderstood, is that sandplay therapists are non-threatening. They’re not there to psychoanalyze or even interpret your creation. Their primary job is to hold space, document the patterns in the tray, and allow you to take the lead in your own creative, self-affirmative journey.
As for Lorraine? She spent that summer with a mobile sandplay collection, providing catharsis and healing to those displaced by the lava. Professional mama bear energy.
Bornstein, K. (2012) A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Kalff, D. (2020) Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche (B.L. Matthews, Trans.). Oberlin, OH: Analytical Psychology Press