For several years, people have asked me to write a column about the transgender (aka “trans”) community. As a cis male, I deferred. Instead, I asked trans friends to write something, but, no dice. Last week, a trans client said, “Why don’t you write a column on us and publish it for the Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 17th)?”
In the late 1980’s, I volunteered for Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles doing pro bono counseling. Many of my clients were transgender, mostly MTF (male to female). In those days, there were many difficulties that these brave folks faced. I, a cis gay white male, felt helpless and ignorant in offering assistance, but I did what I could to be useful. My humility helped.
About twenty years’ ago, I started my private practice in San Diego and saw my first trans client, a young trans woman who wanted gender reassignment surgery and needed a letter from a therapist vouching for her mental health. Thus, began phase two of my work with the community. As a therapist, I have learned more from the trans community than any other population I serve. I have learned that there is no one way to be mentally healthy. This is NOT what they teach you in therapy school. Actually, when I went to therapy school, serving the trans population was never discussed.
My trans friends and clients have encouraged me to find my own blend of femininity and masculinity. This may sound simplistic, but the more I get to know trans men, women and teenagers, the more I see that balancing/blending your masculine and feminine energies is a fluid art form. You get to make it up as you go. It’s very freeing to know that anything is okay, as long as you are true to yourself and not hurting anyone else.
I want to be very clear that I am no expert on the trans community: I am a resource, an ally. I have some insight into challenges from serving this population for almost 30 years and I continue to learn from the trans community. If you’d like to learn more, these three books may be enlightening: Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness”, Chaz Bono’s “Transition” and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “She’s Not There” (I had an email correspondence with Jenny for many weeks after I read – and was blown away by – this, her first book).
A few years’ ago, I went to an event for the trans community at The Center where a physician was going to speak. I was really surprised that most of the trans folks looked at me with suspicion: “Why are you here?” was the vibe I got. When I told people that I was a cis psychotherapist who wanted to learn more about the trans community, I expected to be thanked. Nope. Not at all. I got a “Mmmm, hmmmm” and suspect glances. It was only when I saw a former client who encouraged me to sit with him and his wife that I felt welcomed. My client said,”It’s unusual for cis people to come to these events, people may be uneasy that you’re here and wonder why.”
Fair enough. It was my turn to be the minority in the room and try to fit in.
I was talking with a trans teenage client of mine, and asked him what he thought I should put in this column. He said:
“It’s okay to ask us questions and it’s okay not to know anything. We (the trans community) can teach you how to help us.”
“The LGB community doesn’t support us. How can this really be a community if they don’t include the ‘T’?”
“Please tell your readers that there’s so much more than LGBT; there’s life beyond those four boxes: there’s asexual, pansexual, agender, genderqueer, gender-fluid and so much more. Let’s not get stuck in those old boxes. We (young people) aren’t.”
A female trans (adult) client told me to include this: “If someone presents as a woman, use feminine pronouns. It’s okay to ask, ‘What pronouns do you prefer?’ If you’re cis, don’t assume you know what it’s like to live the experience of the opposite gender. We are not drag queens. “
She then told me something that blew my mind: “As trans women, we get more criticism and taunts from gay men than from anyone else, especially in Hillcrest. Gay men have angst about trans women, maybe because they’re not comfortable with expressing their own femininity.”
So queer men and women, let’s wake up to the reality for our trans brothers and sisters. Let’s not make assumptions. Let’s be humble and ask questions. Let’s help them feel safe.