Competing Ideologies

As a Deaf psychologist, I spend a lot of time reflecting upon how best to work with members of marginalized communities of all types.  Some of my clients are Deaf, some identify as trans*, and some are both.  And within both of those communities, similar tension exists around the issue of what it means to claim that particular cultural label. 

For many younger trans* individuals, gender is a fluid, socially constructed idea, not a biological one.  Those who identify as genderqueer or genderfluid often resist any form of binary gendered label.  Men can wear dresses and still be male.  Women can walk around in combat boots and red lipstick.  An individual can be male sometimes and female at other times or even a third gender that consists of a blend of both.  Indeed, turning traditional ideas about gender on end is one of the goals of the movement.  Under this philosophy, those who wish for a complete physical and social transformation are, in essence, supporting the status quo: a status quo that many gender non-conforming people find oppressive and hurtful.  Those who used to be oppressed have, post-transition, joined the enemy camp, so to speak.

On the other hand, many transgender individuals who have suffered silently for years are desperately happy to be able, finally, to walk down the street without fear.  Attracting unwanted attention may have previously resulted in discrimination, harassment, pain, or violence.  For those individuals, being able to access transition services in order to feel at home in their bodies and in the world has been a tremendous blessing.  And so the tension continues, between competing ways of viewing one’s own relationship to the social justice movement at large.

Similarly, within the Deaf community, there has long raged a debate about whether choosing a surgical intervention to improve one’s hearing is simply an accommodation to a world that does not sign, or if it represents victory of the oppressors.  Hearing people, by and large, view deafness as a sensory deficit to be remedied in any way possible.  Deaf culture views deafness as a unique way of existing within the world.  Deaf culture revolves around fluency in American Sign Language and an appreciation for Deaf art, history, and society.  For those who value Deaf culture the way that any other minority group values its own culture, choosing to get a cochlear implant as an adult is considered submitting to the oppressive tyranny of the majority.  Why cut one’s head open when there is nothing inherently wrong with being Deaf?

For other Deaf adults, a cochlear implant is simply a tool, much like a hearing aid.  It improves ones hearing, potentially, but it does not alter identity as a Deaf adult.  And so the tension continues to exist.  For both groups, the stakes feel high, for the opposing choice seeks to negate the one that each individual has made.  I wonder, however, if this is perhaps how movements advance.  All social justice movements thrive on tension and change.  Each subgroup forces the other to articulate their stance more clearly, to explain it to others, and to attempt, at least politically, to find common ground.

Contributed by Dr. Mel Whalen

The Holidays are Here…

The holidays are stressful for most, but even more so for gender-variant people and their families who face a wide array of additional stressors this time of year. The build-up of family obligations, the traditions, and regular family drama would be enough for anyone to handle before adding in tensions over anticipated reactions from others (if you have disclosed or will do so soon) and anxiety over secret-keeping (if you have not).

Reduce excess stress as much as possible, and allow the holidays to be memorable in a good and positive way.

Plan Ahead.

  • Make a decision about being “out” to each family member before you visit.
  • If you will be out of town and away from your everyday support network, find local LGBT resources prior to any travel.
  • If you do plan to disclose to your family over the holidays, have your support ready.
  • Make alternate plans if the situation becomes difficult at home.

Expectations Revisited

  • Don’t assume you know how someone will react to news of your gender identity. Projecting your fears and uncertainties onto someone else won’t help anyone.
  • Your family’s reaction to you may not be because (or not only because) you are transgender. Their own hectic holiday schedules and life stressors may cause them to act differently than they would under less stressful conditions.
  • Disclosing one’s gender identity, like life, is a continuous process. You may have to “come out” or disclose many times, in a variety of ways, and under a wide range of circumstances.
  • Be patient. It took you time to come to terms with who you are; allow your family and friends the time they need to adjust.
  • If being with family is too difficult, create your own holiday gathering with friends and loved ones and blend new and old holiday traditions together. 

The Visit.

  • Reassure family members that you are still the same person they have always known.
  • If you are partnered or if you have children, be sensitive to their needs as well as your own.
  • Remember to affirm yourself.
  • Realize that you don’t need your family’s approval.

This is who we are…

The University of Michigan Health System Comprehensive Gender Services Program (UMHS-CGSP) was started in 1993 by a multidisciplinary team to meet the diverse physical and mental health care needs of gender variant persons at the highest level of medical and ethical standards. Since that time, we have helped over 1,000 clients in varying stages of transition.

We offer mental health, medical, and surgical care in one program to assure coordinated care.

An ancillary goal of the program is to enhance knowledge of transgender health, and to educate students, health care professionals and the community at large about transgender issues.

We Serve:
• Gender questioning or non-conforming individuals
• Transgender individuals
• Transsexuals
• Cross-dressers
• Partners and family members

Our Services Include:
• Same-day enrollment appointments
• Primary medical care (including hormone replacement therapy for those clients in the mental health portion of our program)
• Speech/voice therapy
• Surgery including chest reconstruction, facial feminization, and gender reassignment surgery (GRS)
• Assistance with workplace transition issues
• Community Outreach
• Informational Resources
• Support Groups