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


So What About Everybody Else?

In my work with gender-variant people, I often get the chance to talk to partners, spouses, parents, children, siblings, and sometimes even grandparents. Usually, I’m meeting with one of these people because they are struggling with a transgender family member’s disclosure.

These conversations are among my most satisfying. Why? Because the simple fact that we’re talking indicates that someone is truly trying to come to grips with this life-changing revelation.


Disclosing one’s gender identity is an important step in the process of transitioning. It is part of accepting and consolidating the new gender, making others aware of one’s (usually) new name, and new pronouns to be used.

But, it seems to me that disclosure to close family members is often done with some expectations on the part of the person disclosing. The expectation being that the recipient of this news will quickly accept the new gender identity, and embrace all the changes still to come.

Understandable, yes, that a person about to undergo such an enormous life change as transition would like to have close family members ‘on board’. But it is necessary? Is it even fair to expect?

It’s easy for transitioning people to forget how long they have spent pondering their gender identity, questioning how they want to pass through the world, investigating what it will take emotionally, financially and physically, and what it will mean to transition.

For family members who are learning of this for the first time, it is crucial for the transitioning person to allow them at least as much time to adjust to the idea and adjust accordingly as they have spent adjusting and accepting.

Must They Vote?

By Szczepan1990 13:39, 22 July 2006 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By Selena Wilke (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One point of contention I hear about most often is that family members hear about the upcoming transition and perhaps passively accept it, but that they don’t necessarily approve of it.

My opinion is that family members do not have to approve of someone’s transition, and in fact, the Transperson who insists that all agree is not ready to take such a crucial step forward.a

That is, if one is secure and steadfast in their gender identity, and is fully prepared to move forward and deal with all of the joys and challenges of this step, they won’t need to have 100% acceptance and participation. Because that’s real life, right? We do things we believe are right and hope that those close to us agree, but if they don’t, it’s okay. Our relationships are much more complex and interesting if there are points on which we do NOT agree…relationships that are always in complete harmony are actually a little dull.

Tasks and Responsibilities

What I do believe, is that it’s critical that families continue to love and have open hearts toward transitioning members, even while not fully understanding or being ready to embrace this change.

Every family has its own dynamics about members who are ‘different’ in some way. Some families make the necessary adjustments and discuss it thoroughly, some adjust but never discuss it, some resist any change, and some openly challenge the change. My experience is that families handle news about gender identity in exactly the same way they handle any big or unsettling news or announcement about any family member! We humans are pretty consistent.

Honesty and openness without expectation of immediate acceptance is the task of the transitioning person. Love and an open heart is the task of the family member.

Together, I believe a new ‘normal’ can be achieved, and I’ve seen it happen for others…it can happen for you, too.