My 2008 Article “How Dr. Phil Has Failed the Transgender Population”

My 2008 Article “How Dr. Phil Has Failed the Transgender Population”

M13Dr. PhilI’ve been feeling a bit sentimental this month because it was five years ago, in August 2008, that I opened my mental health counseling private practice, The Bohemian Sanctuary. If I could take a DeLorean back in time to that date I know that 2008-Dara would be quite surprised to hear from 2013-Dara that, currently, anywhere between 60-75% of my clientele identify as transgender.

However, I’m wondering if some part of 2008-Dara did know. I dug up this article I wrote for the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling newsletter and was shocked that a) I wrote this in August of 2008 when I was a total novice at being a gender therapist and b) that it’s actually pretty good!

As I re-read it this afternoon with a worry that 2008-Dara would have used incorrect terminology, inaccurate conclusions, or even accidental stereotyping. Nope! Even back then I somehow knew what I was doing.

In fact I was pleasantly surprised to see that 2008-Dara is not much different from 2013-Dara. At one point I challenged the readers to take action against the “Dr. Phil Show” and then concluded the article with “Homework Assignments,” just like I have at the end of each of these blog posts.

So I thought it’d be suiting to share that article with you today. As a celebration of how far I have come as a gender therapist. And, as it turns out, of how far I had already come at the time, even if I didn’t recognize that till now.

Note: I did an internet search today on Dr. Phil to see how he’s been handling transgender subject matter since 2008. Looks like he had an even worse episode air in 2009. The only other reference I could find was a 2011 episode which I began to watch on YouTube but really couldn’t stomach it for more than five minutes.

Therefore I don’t feel so bad about posting this, even if it did happen five years ago.

On August 4, 2008 the guru of modern day pop psychology, Dr. Phil, revealed to us his “shocking” guest-of-the-day on an episode entitled “Daddy Drama.” What followed was what I believe to be a clear example of how a psychologist should never handle a family counseling session in which the father has come out to his children as a transgender woman.

The guest was Kayla, a transgender male-to-female parent who was hoping to reconcile her severed relationships with her two daughters, ages 21 and 13. From the moment the show began Dr. Phil’s opinion of Kayla’s transition was evident, contrary to his statement at the beginning of the show that he will treat the topic of transitioning “with dignity and respect.”

His exact words following that statement were “…and we’re going to look at the impact that it has on the family members when someone makes this choice.” (underlining is mine). With those words he successfully set the stage for Kayla’s children, her ex-wives, and the studio audience to get away with painting her as a selfish home-wrecker.

Even worse than the disrespect Phil showed towards Kayla’s 40-year struggle as a transgender woman was his silence. Here are a few moments where Phil chose not to say anything in response to comments made by Kayla’s twenty-one-year old daughter:

“He had no right to do that to us! I can never forgive him!”

“I am very embarrassed to know that he carries my last name and that his blood is running through my veins.”

“You’ve got to be my dad. You can’t be this. This is not my dad. My dad is a man, my dad is a role model…”

Instead of taking those moments to show empathy towards Kayla and explain why she was not wrong for wanting to transition, Phil would offer comments such as:

 “I certainly don’t mean to be offensive or indelicate with pronouns of he or she, or whatever. Legally you’re still a man.”

 “You have to look at the impact on others and not just your own personal priorities and agendas along the way.”

 “I’m trying to keep this really balanced here…If there’s something that we’re missing, enlighten us!”

And on and on until Phil concluded the show with a speech about how important he believes family is and that “your role as a parent never changes,” directing us to go to his website to read more on how to be a responsible parent.

There is no way to know the extent of the damage that Dr. Phil might have caused through his treatment of Kayla during the “Daddy Drama” episode. Minimally he has more than likely increased the rift between Kayla and her daughters, and has taught them that it is okay to think that someone who is transgender is “selfish,” “nasty,” and “dirt.” At worst he has taught his national audience the same.

Perhaps those of you who are activists at heart will feel inspired to do something along the lines of organizing a boycott or letter writing campaign directed towards Phil McGraw and his producers.

There is so much more, though, that we as LGBT affirmative counselors can do in our very town or city to help provide positive information about transgender issues.

Let this inspire you to become more educated about the transgender community and the unique challenges they encounter, which oftentimes are different than the experiences of your gay, lesbian, and bisexual clients.

  • Give a presentation at your local Pride Center or PFLAG chapter for transgender parents who need help in coming out to their children.
  • Contact any local transgender support groups in your area and let them know you are available as a trans-affirmative counselor for their members.
  • If there are no transgender support groups in your town, start one!
  • Develop your own set of resources for your transgender clients.

No amount of research can take the place of actually meeting and getting to know people who are transgender. They are your greatest resource, and will bring your understanding of who they are and what they experience to a new level.

The biggest opportunity Phil McGraw missed during his show was taking the chance to educate Kayla’s children, the kids’ mothers, and the national audience on what it means to be transgender. From this sort of education the seeds of understanding can begin to grow and healing can begin, something Kayla and her children so desperately needed.

You don’t have to be a famous psychologist to make a lasting and dramatic difference people’s lives—educate yourself, share that knowledge with whomever will listen, and watch the tendrils of your efforts work their way through this world.

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19 Comments
  • Ashley

    August 31, 2013 at 1:22 AM Reply

    Phil Donahue

    I didn’t really like this guy anyways. He was a mild ‘Jerry Springer’ to me. My
    question about why people act that way and not help Kayla, is not because of upbringing
    in a patriarchal era but because psychology in itself has been a practice of putting
    a person ‘Back in the Box’. Psychologists have degrees so they somehow get to
    decide what is out of the ordinary and ordain why others need to be put back in the
    box. They were not subtle at all in that approach.

    I believe people saw him as a ‘ground breaking’ person because he was going to
    attempt to put Kayla back in the box, without debasing her. The softer touch on how
    to tell someone they are wrong for ‘choosing’ this path and they are ‘freaks’.
    They did not learn.

    I just wonder how much of upbringing has to do with his show and how much has
    to do with retaliation from the audience. I have a feeling that his era did not really
    think about the TG world because we ourselves did not have a road map. This is
    uncharted waters.

    So, to be fair, I am wondering that ‘for his time’; did he do more hurt than good?
    Can he represent the rest of the people, including the audience, in the sense that
    they might not have understood what they were dealing with?

    I learned not to immediately judge my ancestors with today’s moral code; so
    I guess I am saying that even though I don’t like him, can I learn from him?
    Should I be concerned?

    Good on you, writing that paper back then. Bad on society, that it hasn’t changed
    much since then.August 31, 2013 Phil Donahue

    I didn’t really like this guy anyways. He was a mild ‘Jerry Springer’ to me. My
    question about why people act that way and not help Kayla, is not because of upbringing
    in a patriarchal era but because psychology in itself has been a practice of putting
    a person ‘Back in the Box’. Psychologists have degrees so they somehow get to
    decide what is out of the ordinary and ordain why others need to be put back in the
    box. They were not subtle at all in that approach.

    I believe people saw him as a ‘ground breaking’ person because he was going to
    attempt to put Kayla back in the box, without debasing her. The softer touch on how
    to tell someone they are wrong for ‘choosing’ this path and they are ‘freaks’.
    They did not learn.

    I just wonder how much of upbringing has to do with his show and how much has
    to do with retaliation from the audience. I have a feeling that his era did not really
    think about the TG world because we ourselves did not have a road map. This is
    uncharted waters.

    So, to be fair, I am wondering that ‘for his time’; did he do more hurt than good?
    Can he represent the rest of the people, including the audience, in the sense that
    they might not have understood what they were dealing with?

    I learned not to immediately judge my ancestors with today’s moral code; so
    I guess I am saying that even though I don’t like him, can I learn from him?
    Should I be concerned?

    Good on you, writing that paper back then. Bad on society, that it hasn’t changed
    much since then.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      September 1, 2013 at 10:32 AM Reply

      Really great points Ashley. I think you’re right about needing to look at the way media-type folks have handled these topics in the past with that grain of salt. Some people have evolved over the last five years when it comes to understanding. Some, such as Phil, perhaps have not, which leads me to wonder if he really does want to understand…

  • ashley

    August 31, 2013 at 1:24 AM Reply

    oh dear, they wont let me remove the double paste…sorry.

  • zoebrain

    August 31, 2013 at 4:05 AM Reply

    Nothing’s changed. “Dr” Phil is “Dr” Phil. There are worse. Ablow comes to mind.

    Dara – don’t sweat the small stuff, OK? I know you’re trying to use the right terminology etc, not just so you don’t hurt anyone, but as a matter of personal and professional pride, trying to be the best darned therapist anyone can be… but don’t worry. I saw no slips in the 2008 article, and if there had have been, frankly, we’ve got bigger problems.

    One thing you might consider. The parents of Trans people, even adult Trans people, have all too often had guilt trips laid on them by incompetent idealogically-driven “therapists”. Nikolosi comes to mind, telling parents that it’s all their fault their child is Gay or Trans. It’s an article of Faith to some, the clingy mother, the distant father.

    Such families also need help and support. Not just to help them realise that being Gay or Trans isn’t actually a Bad Thing (though may be horribly inconvenient in, say, the Bible Belt), but also that they had nothing whatsoever to do with that.

    While I’d like them to be Affirming… I’ll settle for reducing their distress. Once that’s no longer an issue, they might be more receptive to the rest too.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      September 1, 2013 at 10:40 AM Reply

      Zoe, great as always to have your comments! 🙂

      To the first point, I had to laugh outloud because I am absolutely guilty of being hyper-sensitive at times to making sure I don’t “say the wrong thing.” I know it’s important as a cisgender person commenting on transgender issues that I keep this in mind to a certain extent. But alas, I’ll admit that sometimes it gets in the way of me sharing my thoughts on the matter, for fear of offending, even accidentally.

      I noticed when reading the works of Carl Jung that he would oftentimes begin his essays with caveats such as “This is only my opinion, this may or may not be true in all circumstances, this is only what I think today and I might evolve into a different line of thinking tomorrow…” I felt a kinship with him as I read his thoughts – just as he didn’t want to accidentally end up sounding like Freud, I don’t want to accidentally end up sounding like a TERF. And we over-compensate for it at times.

      As to your other point, I am glad you brought it up. I’ve seen just what you are speaking to – i.e. parents struggling with what their own role might have been in their child being gay or trans – and I like how you said the goal should be “reducing their distress.” Something I can remind my gay and trans clients of as well, so as to offer a realistic compromise to a difficult adjustment for all involved.

  • Kayla

    August 31, 2013 at 6:56 AM Reply

    This is a very interesting article and I remember that episode very distinctly because I saw it while the same thing was happening to me. But I come from the other side of the fence. I was a daughter whose father transitioned and I felt the some of the ways the daughters did. I still do because the person my father turned into is a mean bitch and not the nice, caring person I knew. I remember all too well the dead, emotionless stare Kayla had because as I saw it in my father as he told me “you are dead to me if you can’t just accept me.”
    So tell me, how is transitioning the right thing to do when you completely alienate everyone in your life because you can’t afford them the same patience you demand?

    I never thought becoming a woman was wrong, but I do think there is a wrong way to go about it. She started asking me about myself less and less as she became completely consumed with herself until I was dealing with a full blown narcissist who would call me the equivalents of “bigot” and “tranny hater” as soon as I even mentioned my feelings.Even though this transition was supposed to make her happy, she’s now more depressed than ever and oscillates between a man and a woman each month, or she was at the time I was still talking to her.

    I don’t agree with Dr. Phil – I felt he was biased to the daughters, just as I feel you are being biased to Kayla. Those daughters had every right to feel the way they did and express that…but that doesn’t mean Kayla was wrong in transitioning.There needs to be a bridge between the two and its not the family “just getting over it,” because that isn’t possible and its not fair to ask that of people who’ve just had the bottom of their worlds ripped out from underneath them.

    When does anyone just accept something and move on? There has to be lots of exploration and that includes challenging the decision and working through the limited beliefs that arise. But that was never the option for me or for Kayla’s daughters because we are labeled as uncaring and close minded because suddenly we’ve experienced the death of a father and gained a mother who is selfish and unsupportive because she can’t stand being asked anything about her decision and can only talk about her hormone treatments and saving up for a boob job. Children should never be given the task of bolstering their parent’s ego.

    I truly do feel for Kayla and think she was treated unfairly on the show, but I did want to point out the other side as well.

    I am a therapist as well, but let me say that I recuse myself and refer out any client that comes to me with these issues because of my unreconciled past.

    • zoebrain

      August 31, 2013 at 9:27 PM Reply

      Kayla – I’d trust you.

      I’m sorry you went through this. It sounds as if, while you still have a lot of anger and hurt… the anger is not just justified, it’s healthy.

      You’ve moved on. Have you ever thought that instead of being a disadvantage, your own experiences might help? Possibly if you were part of a therapeutic team.

      Those who are the families of Transitioners deserve consideration too. Transition involves dropping acts, becoming more authentic. Sometimes what is revealed isn’t pretty. For those who have an insight into this, they may refashion their authentic selves into something closer to who they’d like to be.

      You have personal insight. You’re aware of your likely bias. I’d have no hesitation sending someone in transition to see you. You’re too professional, too ethical, to do otherwise.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      September 1, 2013 at 11:00 AM Reply

      Kayla – I read your comment yesterday morning and have found myself thinking on them ever since. Firstly I appreciate you honestly sharing your perspective, because it has led to me taking a step back to do some much needed reflection.

      When you mentioned that I have a bias towards Kayla, I was initially surprised. And then I realized you are right. And the reason I have favorable bias towards her, as well as towards my transgender clients, is because I know what it’s like to finally become my authentic self and then see how my actions negatively affect others (I came out at age 30 as a lesbian and had a husband and a kid who were impacted the most). Because I connect with that experience, I recognize my bias – although I hadn’t put it into words until I read your post so again, I thank you for that.

      When it comes to counseling transgender clients in conjunction with their partner and/or children, I refer them out. Mainly because I am already established as their individual therapist. But I wonder how often it was due to that bias which, until now, was an unconscious one? Now that I’ve brought it more to consciousness I can see that I still have feelings of guilt associated with what I put my ex-husband through, even if it was almost ten years ago. I can now work on coming to peace with what happened, which will help me be able to better assist the family members affected by a loved one’s transition.

      So, in other words, you sharing your experience has led me to a greater understanding of myself as both a therapist and a person. I agree with Zoe and, as she mentioned, if you live in the Colorado Springs area I’d greatly value your input in a Transgender Consultation Group I am starting in September.

      I’m saddened as well to hear of your experience with your dad – like you said there is a way to go about doing this that can be less painful and damaging to those involved.

  • Ashley

    August 31, 2013 at 8:48 PM Reply

    The problem with transitioning is that people try to protect themselves so much that
    they can ‘flip’. In other words become militant in their views. So if you saw a ‘cold’
    stare in a once soft and kind person then you obviously got the worse of the transition.
    You obviously needed help with understanding what is going on. Twice so for a child
    who was used to being told how the world works from her parents.

    What people in the TG world are starting to understand now, is that they have to
    transition for themselves and at the same time be strong enough to help their loved
    ones ‘transition’ along with them.

    This is why I was saying, how I wonder how much of this is just a ‘growing pain’ that
    we have to endure as opposed to saying those words you mentioned ‘you are dead to me’. I pray those words are not the norm.

    What happened to you also was a bit ‘loaded’. What other factors contributed to his
    jekyl/hyde persona? Don’t blame it all on the condition. I was a black sheep to my
    family before I transitioned. I was always trying to win their love and stay away from
    loaded totalitarian statements that poison relationships. I never blamed them for being
    prejudice.

    So, what I am getting at; is that we all handle situations differently and I feel bad
    for anyone that received the attention that you got.

    To answer your question: Why is it the right thing to do?

    In order to find your balance in life, you have to be honest with yourself and the people
    around you. It is not an award or trophy, not addressing transitioning or treating it
    with disdain will jeapordize the transitioners;’ health and sanity. It must be confronted with dignity and diligence. This assures that any chance that is available to transition with peace, will happen.

    If you have heard countless stories like I have, you will find a pattern. The majority of
    the transitioners were in a marriage that most of the time broke up the marriage.
    The other pattern is that they tried to get loved ones to understand and did not pull the ‘totalitarian’ card and pre empt the conversation with ‘Love me or you are dead to me’.

    I agree with you that is unfair. I commend you for recusing yourself instead of being
    vengeful and taking it out on other people; until you can sort it out.

    We never get political or ideological in discussion groups, double so for younger
    audiences. We do not see the questions people have as ‘evil’. We are human too, and we get a bit angry that out of all the people involved, we have to be the ones to deliver the education and understanding and bare the weight for everyone else.
    We are denied at every stage of our development. We have to fight for our rights of
    passage.

    Doctors don’t do it, we do. We get no satisfaction, no guarantee of success, we get blamed for being evil in the bible and are called evil home wreckers. I am single but I am lumped into that category. It is a new version of the women’s movement, in the sense that the woman has to be better than the man just to be recognized as ‘equal’. We transitioning gals have to be strong so no one detects ‘weakness’ and tries to harm us. We have to be instructors in a field that has not roadmap or course
    outline. We have to be patient with those in our lives to hold their hands to
    help them adjust. We have to be understanding so we don’t immediately flame you for calling us biased after you have only read a comment that has no chance in telling our life stories.

    It is all about open discussion to avoid the scenario that you were wrongly
    put in. When people talk about it enough, it will be so seamless like I hear the men
    talk about sports and the stats. At that point, your resentment will pass; and maybe
    you will open up and no longer recuse yourself; but actually take the issue for face
    value. This evolution thing really sucks for us all.

    In conclusion, I am not biased towards Kaylee because I have transitioned. I have seen enough sides of the situation. I know for a fact that in my particular community, we girls are willing to answer tough questions because we know that we are helping other people wrap their heads around this concept for we also want peace and
    understanding and not turn it into a circus. Growing pains suck.

    • Dara Hoffman-Fox

      September 1, 2013 at 6:26 PM Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to offer your insightful response Ashley!

  • JulieB

    September 1, 2013 at 9:56 PM Reply

    Glad I found you Dara, 2008 or 2013 version!

    Re Dr Phil McG… You do the hard work for us. Don’t think I’ve ever been able to take more than 1 or 2 full minutes of that dude’s pseudo-aw-shucks persona, no matter the subject.

    Salacious, tabloid-y version of psychology and counseling… I would argue that he’s directly contributed far greater damage to the popular perception of what counseling and psychology entail, than he has to the broad understanding of transgender issues.

    I have been in Kayla’s position. Not having children, but having very close family members say those sorts of devastating things… “your making this announcement is like a death in the family”, etc. One really can end up feeling that one’s entire family has cut you off.
    But you have to maintain the open line of communication. Someone may reach out to you after the shock wears off; they may make an effort to understand and still be close to you.

    So, while there is an impulse to say, figuratively, to one’s entire family, “go to hell!”, I don’t agree about becoming militant… You have to leave your being open to the play and chance of the cosmos!

    My 2 cents…

    • darahoffmanfox

      September 5, 2013 at 11:29 PM Reply

      Great advice Julie, thank you for sharing it with us!

    • Mary Jo DiBella

      December 11, 2014 at 1:51 PM Reply

      I saw this today in reruns. I have every sympathy for this transgender woman. BUT (there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there) the fact is…he may not want his penis any more but he USED IT at least twice. He made children. Now he is repudiating those relationships and expecting the kids to deal with it on his terms. That younger girl is 13! She doesn’t deserve this. And I don’t care how much this transition costs, he has responsibilities to support those kids and showing up on a TV show with hair and nails and makeup all done to perfection is irresponsible when he is not taking care of his kids.

  • Johnna

    April 22, 2015 at 12:15 PM Reply

    I saw this rerun today on TV and I was appalled! I couldn’t believe how one-sided Dr Phil was even though he claimed he was “trying to keep this really balanced”. As a licensed therapist and a proud member of the LGBT community, I was shocked at the lack of empathy, understanding, and support for person that was once known as the girls’ father. Of course she should be paying child support and trying to stay in contact with her kids, but Dr Phil should also be educating the daughters and audience regarding transgender individuals. Let’s also see some transgender resources on the website and not just family/parenting resources as Dr Phil explained at the end of the show! I can only hope that Kayla is being true to herself and that her daughters have started to cope appropriately and accept.

  • Yuzuki

    April 23, 2015 at 5:04 PM Reply

    I find Dr Phil moron or well sometimes, when comes to few things, i remember watching the ep before after all research i did wanted see what his take was on trans things, i found what he said was not very helpful and more like he did not understand transgender people, i feel for Kayla, what she had go though Dr Phil did not help her he just made things worse for her, Phil should give more into not just on family things but on transgender, how understand them, what there going though, how painful it is for them come to terms that they are transgender, after year later after i had my own feeling about my self finding your site dara, i really think Dr. Phil could have done better that day, but no he did not he just made things worse for Kayla, yes think she should help with giving money to her family but think kids should looked into doing research on what she been going though, could have better understand of it.

    i really Dislike Dr Phil he did not give any thing helpful to trans people, just made things worse for us,
    I’m really happy i came cross your site as been very helpful to me.

    bye.

  • bob

    April 25, 2015 at 4:46 AM Reply

    I have always loved Dr. Phil’s shows , but truely the episode with Kayla and his daughters was a catastrophe. Yes, Kayla came off cold during parts of the show, but she did not get proper support
    from the host. I am not surprised she was defiant as Dr. Phil did not even attempt to calm the daughters and give Kayla some breathing space in the tension. Kayla does need to express more understanding to his daughters, they are young and very hurt. But lambasting Kayla to me would make anyone more defiant. Dr. Lawless remained very calm and clearly explained that there are better ways to handle this situation from the beginning. The show is not a waste as the idea of seeking counsel for gender identity revelations to one’s family was demonstrtated in this worse case scenario. I hope Kayla and his family will come to peace and understanding. I wanted to hug all of them during the show.

  • Sheila Young

    June 30, 2015 at 12:13 PM Reply

    Hi Dara- I was channel surfing and saw a repeat of the show about the transgender man. I was appalled! I hope she is ok in 2015. You are absolutely right/ Kayla was treated horribly by the audience, ex wives, children and especially by Dr. Phil(supposedly the professional). I sat here and wanted to cry. After seeing this on national T.V., no wonder others such as Bruce Jenner decided to keep their secret and pain to themselves. I pray that Kaylas daughters grew to understand and Kayla herself is happy.

  • Penny

    August 13, 2015 at 12:24 AM Reply

    I just saw a repeat of the episode. I truly felt sorry for the daughters, especially the younger one. The older daughter kept grimacing and coming off as rather self-righteous; her younger sister was clearly confused and sad. Dr. Phil can’t possibly get through any episode without displaying some type of bias, but I think it’s better to avoid sugar-coating or appearing falsely politically correct so as not to alienate segments of his audience! He failed to treat Kayla with the dignity promised at the episode’s start, but he was right to explain that Kayla was and always will be the girls’ father. He raised them and he must understand how they could be dismayed and hurt. They shouldn’t suppress their feelings just to honor Kayla’s agenda. Then again, I don’t know if Kayla could have led a happy life without transitioning. I have no idea what it must be like to feel one should have been born the other gender…

  • Drew

    July 6, 2016 at 9:16 AM Reply

    I agree he could’ve been more delicate with kayla, but the main points that he/she wasn’t doing enough to get his/her kids through the transition and maintain their relationships was the crux of the issue. I also feel that dr. Phil tried to help repair their relationships, but kayla made no effort to put himself/herself in his/her kids shoes and had no compassion for what they were dealing with. Dr. Phil tried to help kayla, but he/she was too stuck on his/her selfish, personal feelings to concern himself/herself with the plight brought onto his/her kids from his/her change. His/her kids were clearly willing to work on the relationship, but he/she had never made any kind of effort simply because he/she was put off by the fact that his kids weren’t ready to call him/her “mom” on day number one and accept everything day one.

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