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

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You Cannot Do This Alone

It’s all too common for someone struggling with gender identity to hide themselves away and deny the truth about the turmoil inside. That was me once — keeping myself to myself, preferring to hide in my home with my misery rather than confront the world. Only after years of isolation did I allow myself to explore my feelings and to seek out kindred spirits. It was then that I found my gender support group and began, for the first time in my life, to feel like I belonged somewhere.

The group was run by a gender therapist in Ann Arbor, and by the time I attended my first meeting the group had been going on in one form or another for nearly 20 years. Some of the women there had been attending off and on for a decade or more. The group met once a month in the therapist’s office. It was a space that could be called “cozy,” though when more than a few of us showed up “cozy” could quickly become “cramped.” None of us minded.

It was an eclectic gathering. There were women older than me and women younger than me; there were women just starting their hormone treatments and women who had been on hormones for ten years; there were women who were pre-op, women who were post-op, and even one who was non-op. One was a pharmacist; one was a government employee; one was an undertaker; one was a nurse. And there was me, the newbie, just barely out of crossdressing and still presenting as male. I felt a little out-of-place, but was quickly and warmly welcomed regardless.

I left my first group meeting feeling something I hadn’t felt in years: a sense that I wasn’t alone in the world. For better or worse, this was a place where I belonged.

Unfortunately, finding the group was almost too little, too late for me. By the time I found them I was already severely depressed, and a couple of weeks after that first meeting I attempted suicide. But even as I recovered, the group stood out in my mind as the one place in the last few months of turmoil that I hadn’t felt like a confused gender freak. Remembering how I felt among those women helped me set aside my depression and gave me something to look forward to. The thought of returning to the group literally helped save my life.

As the months passed, the group meeting became my favorite day of the month. I rearranged work, therapy, and family commitments to free up Tuesday nights. Some months I would talk a lot and hear a lot of feedback; other months I would mostly listen to others and lend advice whenever I had it to give. But always, I was there to support them as they were there to support me, be it with a bit of guidance, a shared story, or just a sympathetic ear.

I am in a very different place today because of the group. The comfort of that space allowed me to feel better, feel bolder. My first public outings presenting female came because I was encouraged by the group, and from that day forward I never attended any other way. It was also one of the only places where I was addressed by my real name. Group was a place where I could be myself.

Sadly, just recently our incredible group leader was forced to discontinue the group therapy sessions for health reasons. It has been a harsh blow to my heart, but it is not entirely bad. The women I met in that group are still a part of my life. Some of them have become acquaintances; still others, friends. We have promised to stay in touch with one another, and I have no doubt that we will keep that promise. We all know the truth: we cannot do this alone.

It is so easy to do nothing, to hide away, to suffer by yourself. But trust me: find a support group. Reach out to your local trans community, or a local LGBT center, or even the general-purpose support groups in your area. But please, reach out. If you don’t find anyone the first place you look, then look somewhere else. If you’re desperate, you can even e-mail me — I’ll be glad to listen, glad to support. Because there’s not a man or woman out there who deserves to do this alone.

International Day of Social Justice

Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, BelgiumSo how was your International Day of Social Justice? Ahh, what’s that you say? Never heard of it? Okay…let’s see if we can get you up to speed here. After all, in celebrating it we renew our focus on the idea that, as the United Nations puts it, “social development and social justice are indispensable for the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among nations….” Certainly a worthy idea, so let’s take a quick look.

There is an entity called the International Labor Organization (ILO) that actually has its roots in the treaty that ended the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles. Now given the fact that the world had just fought what was, at least up until that point, the most blood-soaked and resource consuming war ever known, and given that all this came about because of concentrated power in a few inflexible minds; the Great Powers decided a more democratic rethink was perhaps in order. It was agreed that true peace can only exist if there is a climate of social justice and that would mean guiding the world toward a system that was far more inclusive than many had seen before.

It was indeed a lofty ideal and they did such a bang-up job of implementing it that, 20 yearsThe_Big_Four,_Paris_peace_conference later, another planet wide conflagration would rage out of control. Yet maybe that’s what happens when the ideas are broader than those trying to implement them. Versailles was simply the beginning of a social evolution that they started and continues to this day. Now I doubt they understood the full magnitude and reach of their work as somehow I have trouble picturing David Lloyd George and straight-laced Woodrow Wilson pounding the table and demanding a clear path for a future Christine Jorgenson to do the first M to F transition. But their declared spirit of social justice did exactly that and it is the spirit of that ideal that needs to carry on.

This writer is just one beneficiary of it. I’m one transwoman knocking around in a much larger but still inclusive society. I am still very much in transition and yet when I arrived for jury duty the other day, no one so much as batted an eye. I took my place among all the other “choral whiners”, belting out such ballads as “other fish to fry today” and of course the ever popular “it’s cold out why am I here?” blues. I wasn’t selected to sit on a jury that day but I did go up to the window and ask to edit the M/F designation on the sheet they had me fill out. The woman at the window looked at me and said, “Oh don’t worry about it.” Now that, dear reader, is the spirit of social justice. I am one person, from one group, and I am proof that as society grows ever more inclusive, respect for human worth grows with it.

Balanced_scale_of_JusticeNow of course, the job is a long way for done especially when we look globally. So in the hope of keeping this evolution alive, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared that, starting in 2009, February 20th will annually be celebrated as the World Day of Social Justice. It is the common folk everywhere that have shouldered the burdens to attain it while also reaping the benefits of it, so why not commemorate and celebrate? Embodied in this little known day, are the spirits of Gandhi and Dr. King. Indeed, the whole ongoing and bone jarring drive toward equality for women, gays and the transgender found footing because of social justice. It is the driving force that created the world wide climate that ended apartheid in South Africa and made it possible for a very brave woman named Aung San Suu Kyi to stand up to a military dictatorship in Myanmar, formally Burma, and win the Nobel Peace Prize in the process.

It is a shame that this really big day receives so little notice and especially by the common folk it was designed to further the most. After all, it was a healthy respect, if not an outright fear, of the common folk that motivated the ideas’ founders in the first place. No doubt it has something to do with a complete lack of any vested commercial interests that starves the day for any air time. Nobody has made it a day to frolic in the beer suds and pound down piles of tasty, if unhealthy, eats. But ya know???? If that’s all it takes…maybe grabbing a beer, buns, and brats ain’t all that bad an idea….