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

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.

A Letter to Family & Friends from Parents of a Transgender Child

My name is Steve.  I am a 60 year old, long hair, tattooed outlaw biker (and successful business owner).  Besides being a recovering bigot, I’m also an unequivocal believer in the power of unconditional love.  My transgender child has gifted me the opportunity to transition to a better place.  The least I can do is help others find their way there, too.  This is the letter my wife and I sent to our family and friends to help them start that process….

When a child is born the universe is affected. We may not notice the change as its order of magnitude is comparatively small. However, it is there, nevertheless.

As parents, the effect is profound. Elation, joy, concern, and exhaustion often describe a new parent’s immediate outlook on their life. Most often, the inescapable responsibility to nurture and protect although overwhelming is offset by a commitment to unconditional love. We move forward devoted to an ideal that includes our vision of happiness for our child. We remain convinced that through our love and commitment this child will actualize their potential and will do so according to the ideal we formed for them at their birth. The years go by and are filled with memories that perhaps, modify our ideal but leave it mainly whole in our minds. Then, one day this child rejects our ideal for their own.

In some cases we may fight for our ideal particularly if we are convinced that our child’s change of direction is unhealthy or self-destructive. On the other hand, if our adult child has made a thoughtful decision that must replace our ideal with their own and their happiness is genuinely dependant upon the change we will now have to accept, then what choice is left to us? We are bound by our commitment to unconditional love. To be clear, some choices are not really choices at all. It is the way we handle the inevitability of the directions we are blessed with even before we are born or those that are subsequently presented to us that best defines us.

Lately, we have faced a confusion of emotions including sadness and anger. We have resented the upset of the position we assumed our lives to be. We have had to deal with an extraordinary change to the ideal life outcome we set our hearts on for our son and eldest child.

More importantly than anything else we have recently experienced, we have validated the unconditional love we committed ourselves to before he was born. That has sustained us as we recover from the shock of something we never saw coming.

During his internship in Germany over the summer, he had time to contemplate who he really is. He told us that he has struggled with that question for most of his life but never had the vocabulary to address it. With time on his hands, he researched for answers in the solitude of his apartment overseas. In September, as the first semester of his graduating year at University of Michigan began, he told us he is transgender. Our son believes in his heart that he is actually female in spirit. For those that are unfamiliar with the term transgender please understand…there is a lot to learn. We will address some of that later and will refer you to some materials that proved helpful to us.

As parents, and particularly as the loving parents of a close knit family, we immediately expressed our unequivocal support. There were lots of tears that were initially impossible to define. We felt profound sadness but struggled to understand exactly what it meant or where it came from. We were startled, shocked and deeply confused. We struck out to find help right away so we could be certain that the outcome of this would be as positive as possible.

After our initial shock came a combination of anger, sadness and guilt. We began a retrospective analysis of our parenting to see if there was some clue we had missed or something we could have done differently that would have effected another outcome. It is impossible to imagine the guilt we felt when our boy told us he had struggled with this for so many years…alone and concerned that he was some sort of monster. He told us he worked hard each and every day to be a perfect son so God would forgive him and lift away this burden. He kept this secret to himself for most of the time we have known him. He has endured so much emotional pain alone and without ever acting out or tipping his hand to anyone. We were absolutely stunned when we realized the gravity of his isolation. Statistically, more than 30 percent of transgender children successfully commit suicide.

God blessed our child with an extraordinary intellect and emotional stability that allowed him to prevail against the pressure of unknown and indefinable forces that haunted him for so long. For those of you who know him well, you will recall that he was a 4.0+ GPA student who graduated high school at the top of his class. He was president of the National Honors Society and competed for the varsity ski team in addition to playing violin for the orchestra. He recently graduated magna cum laude at University of Michigan’s Aerospace Engineering program and has been accepted into their accelerated Master’s Aerospace Engineering program. He has never been in trouble for any reason. We have never received a phone call from an authority of any kind. He has never tried drugs, alcohol or smoked cigarettes. He has always been the “perfect son”. He later admitted avoiding situations that would have possibly or inadvertently exposed his secret. That would have included drinking. It explains why he would be so quiet…withdrawn…so often. While we noticed that behavior, it had become so normal that we learned to accept it.

Webster defines “transgender” thusly, : of, relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth

Our son was born with male genitalia but his “spirit” is female. His condition is one of gender identity. Fundamentally, he does not identify with the sex he was born with. People who have this condition often start out cross-dressing and assuming the identity of the sex they more comfortably relate to. Sometimes, depending on the individual and their commitment to their gender identity, they will ultimately transition to their preferred gender with gender reassignment surgery. In any case, it is important to note that the individual is compelled to have these feelings and to act upon them, accordingly. In other words, they cannot help it. There is no “cure” or therapy or prayer or medical treatment. There is only the person that has always been and now needs the understanding and support of their friends and loved ones. In this case, he is still who he has always been…a loving, intelligent and compassionate person who would generously give you the shirt off his back. He deserves our love and support.

Going forward, we will be changing pronouns here at home. That will likely be a challenge at first. We have been requested to refer to “her” as Kaitlyn. That was the name we picked out before he was born just in case our first born was a girl. We loved the name we gave our son but we love our Kaitlyn just as much. Please help with this. We understand that this may be difficult for you, too. We’re here to help you in any way we can. We would be happy to recommend some books that we read that have been very helpful to us and substantially improved our understanding of this subject. Specifically, “She’s Not There” by Jennifer Finney Boylan was very insightful and was also entertaining. We experienced chuckles and tears as we read it.

As our friends and family we must expect your help and support. If you feel that isn’t possible, we understand. Please just let us know and we will adjust our understanding of our relationship with you. Otherwise, we welcome the opportunity to hear about your feelings and we look forward to sharing our new daughter and her hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.