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 Journey is the Destination

Until very recently I appeared to most people a successful and conservative middle-aged white businessman. At 41 years of age, my career arc landed near the top of my field and saw me pulling in a very respectable income. Along with my wife of 12 years, I lived in a new home in a newer suburban development. You know the type: similar in style and size to the several houses surrounding it, and nestled in a quaint neighborhood complete with gated entrance and pithy street names like Serenity Drive, Tranquility Lane, and Patience Knoll. Yes, it really is tranquil where I live. Well, except for the geese and ducks squawking in the pond below. Oh, the tragedy of first world problems.

In the summer of 2012, I considered suicide. Not seriously, but serious enough. On more than one daily commute I propelled my car upward to 140 mph, and wondered to myself how long the pain would last should I collide with something. Then there were times during the day where my mind would drift to secluded places I had visited in my travels. If ever I should make a final exit, I believed it would have to be a place my beloved could never find. Though we own no firearms, I found myself discretely researching guns online. When my wife caught me one night, I plaintively pleaded “for protection” because you never know what shenanigans may break out in your gated cookie-cutter community. I also spent a lot of time simply engaging in one mindless endeavor after another. Burning through the family savings helped out a bit with that, but I could never find an escape that would last long enough to keep my thoughts buried for long.

I hated that period of my life, and am not proud of it for a minute. I hated what I was doing, and hated the torment my loved ones suffered watching my downward spiral. I hated the duplicity of keeping secrets and telling lies. I hated the daily business meetings that demanded my full attention when I was falling apart inside. Mostly I just hated me.

In October of 2012 my life changed forever. With my wife’s encouragement, along with that of a few close friends, I sought professional help. The truth is that I knew what was bothering me. In fact, I had known it since I was a child. My entire life I had been deeply ashamed of being me, and fearful of being discovered. I had seen shows like Jerry Springer and Cops, and read the hateful online comments accompanying articles about people who were different. I was afraid of being labeled a freak or pervert. I was terrified of the emotional, physical, and societal consequences of speaking my truth.

Over several months, and with the help of a therapist, I learned a lot about myself. I learned there were a lot of others like me and that it is okay to be different. I began to learn how to validate myself for simply being me. I don’t need to always be in motion, nor do I need to measure my value by some external yardstick. I am a decent person the way I am. I am an intelligent, accomplished, responsible and caring person. I value my family above the world, and hold dear my relationships and the people closest to me. I just happen to also be someone who has a deep sense of gender misalignment.

In February of 2013, I came out as transgender to my wife and several close friends and family members. Since that time I have made a determined and deliberate effort to explore what it means to be gender variant, and consolidate the duality of my prior existence into an authentic individual life. Put another way, I want to get to know the girl I kept hidden so deep inside during my youth and adolescence, and then celebrate the woman she is becoming because she is a part of me. I like to think of this as a “mid-life adolescence” instead of the more common “mid-life crisis.” I am unifying the two parts of my life into one, and celebrating who I am for the first time in my life.

On the surface my appearance has gone from clean-cut male with short hair, khakis, oxfords, and sweater vests to pierced ears, long hair, skinny jeans, and cardigans. Laser has removed much of my five o’clock shadow, and HRT will soon begin to soften and round out my features. If my coworkers at the office have noticed, nobody has really said anything. Sensitive to my financial position during my transition, I want to minimize disruptions by remaining a valued employee. I am still the first one in the office and one of the last to leave. In fact, my output on the job has never been better.

My therapy sessions, while less frequent, are also a key part of maintaining an even emotional balance. While my decision to transition and gender identity may not put me in the middle of society’s bell curve, I embrace the knowledge that I am a pretty normal person. In fact, there are a lot of people just like me. I’ve met several and you would be surprised how many are your coworkers, baristas, cashiers, social workers, bankers, and businesspersons. Some have fully transitioned and are now “stealth” to the world at large, while others are fearful of coming out due to the stigma I mentioned earlier. Some may be misinterpreted as gay, which is what I imagine many think of me (though, ironically, I remain exclusively attracted to women.)

And with that said, I honestly don’t know who I will become in the end. I think part of growing up is figuring out who you are, and paradoxically I am doing that for the second time at age 41. Even though I see a million things wrong when I look in the mirror, I no longer hate the reflection. Having survived the first adolescence, I have the prescience to realize it gets better on the other side. For now I am enjoying this journey as best I can. And the journey has not been all rainbows and unicorns, with my marriage a painful casualty of my transition. However, suicide is now the farthest thing from my mind. If anything, I now feel the brevity of life and want more. I have so much to live for, and so much I want to experience. I am starting by simply being me, being happy, and living.

Antonia J is forty-something and newly female, before which she spent much of her adult life as an alpha male meat-head. Known as Toni to her friends, she has set foot on four continents while traipsing through fourteen countries at all corners of the globe. She has served as a member of senior management at two Fortune 500 companies and an Ivy League University. Along the way she has accumulated three college degrees, lived for a time in the Caribbean and Middle East, and somehow finds herself now rooted in West Michigan (though dreaming of palm trees and ocean breezes). She is extremely grateful for a close group of amazing friends, an employer who celebrates diversity, and her fuzzy slippers in the winter.

Attitude IS Everything

­I was given the assignment to write this blog well before the December-January holidays. I had every intention of meeting my deadline. I spent time thinking of what I wanted this blog to be. I decided that I would write a very profound, thought-provoking, inspirational, motivational, dynamic post that would go viral. My words would be on the lips of the world. I envisioned it being read and shared around the world and back again. It would be so great, so stupendous, that someone on Oprah’s staff would read it and send it to her. Oprah would say, “Who is this person? She must be a guest on “Oprah’s Next Chapter.” But, how many times in life do we have a vision of what we want to achieve or who we want to be only for it to fall short? We start out moving in the right direction only to be detoured by events or circumstances that lead us down another path. I have had that experience, in life, too many times to count. And, that’s what happened when I sat down to write this blog. Instead of writing the blog, I thought I wanted to write…I wrote the blog I was meant to write.

My lessons learned:

Relationships are important – There is a wonderful “webmaster” that is responsible for posting to a blog for several different programs in the Community Programs and Services department. She has a schedule of who will write, what they will write, and when each blog should be posted. Needless to say, I missed my deadline.  I received increasingly frequent “smiley” face reminders about her need for the post. If I happened to see her in the hallway, she would smile ever so pleasantly and say, “Don’t forget I need your blog.” At no point were any of her “gentle reminders” threats or made me feel defensive. This was important because even though we may have not been on the same page (okay, so I was the problem!); she didn’t let that in any way impact our working relationship. I continually promised that I would get her the blog “the next day” and each day, I didn’t.

We had similar but competing goals. Her goal was to get me to complete the blog; my goal was to accomplish the myriad of other tasks I had which included the blog. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is try to do what is asked of you; you may fall short of what they want for you, but in the end, it’s the relationship that counts.

Priority_MatrixMy #1 priority can be #2 – At the same time I was writing this blog, a dearly loved family member was having a significant life changing event. I made the decision to support her as my main priority. It’s okay, to let something else be more important than what you are trying to do; the key point is to remain focused on your goal even though you’re supporting someone else. In the back of my mind, the blog lingered. I knew it was a temporary priority change and I would, again, be focused on my goal.

The key is to remember, even when you’re not actively pursuing your primary goal, as long you stay on track, you’re still moving forward.

Attitude IS everything – There are several types of people in the world. The optimist who Glass-of-watersees the “glass” as being half-full; the pessimist who sees the “glass” as half-empty, then finally, the folks who claim there is no “glass.” I am an eternal optimist, not only is my glass half-full, but when that glass is filled another glass will appear! Even though, I had this blog to complete, I also had several major projects that I was behind on, and yet I still managed to smile. I didn’t let frustration and stress make me defensive when I was approached about completing the blog. Being a pessimist takes a lot of energy. You consistently have to think of why things won’t work or what will go wrong. That’s hard work and the thoughts are not pleasant! However, if we expect the positive (i.e., I will get this blog finished!), the effort is put into the “doing” and not the “worrying.”

Many times in life, we will be faced with obstacles and barriers to reaching our goals. We can choose to worry and be stagnant or we can be positive and stay in motion.

Be true to your authentic self – Inside of us, we each know who we are. It takes courage to present that person to the world. One of my favorite poems, the “Desiderata” has a very simple line that says, “Be yourself.”

I started this process wanting to be something that I’m not – a profound and thought-provoking blogger. Instead, what I share with you is who I am – a person who is on their own journey of self-discovery!

Happy New Year!

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