The Story of Why Being a Gender Therapist is My Calling
I’ve been absent from the blog-o-sphere for a couple of weeks due to intensely preparing for my stint as one of the “storytellers” at a local event called The Story Project (“Building Community One Story at a Time”).
I decided to share why it is that I am so passionate about working with the transgender community and as a gender therapist. I thought I’d share with you the script from which I based my story off of – I strayed from it during the actual telling of it, since we weren’t allowed to have scripts onstage (gulp!), but the gist of it is definitely there.
You can watch the video of my talk by clicking here.
Keep in mind that my target audience was, for the most part, folks who were open and interested in hearing what I had to say but didn’t have a lot of previous knowledge as to what it means for someone to be transgender.
Hope you enjoy it!
Tonight I’m going to be sharing with a story about searching for one’s true self, and from a perspective you may not have heard before.
My name is Dara, and I have a mental health counseling practice in Colorado Springs called The Bohemian Sanctuary. About a year ago I received an email from someone interested in coming to see me for therapy for an issue they’d been struggling with for, as they put it, “as long as I can remember.”
So, before I go on I need to stop and let you know something about my private practice. At least half of the clientele who I see through The Bohemian Sanctuary either identify or end up identifying as transgender.
Although definitions vary as to what it means to be “transgender” I’m speaking of those who have experienced for as long as they can remember a painful feeling of Gender Dysphoria, aka Gender Distress. In other words the gender they were assigned at birth as a result of which anatomy they possess does not match the gender they identity with.
This means that when someone contacts me about my counseling services, it’s really important that I make zero assumptions about their true gender identity. Even if certain “clues” seem to tell me otherwise.
Such as in the case of that email I was telling you about, written by someone who had an issue they’d been struggling with for as long as they can remember. It was signed with a guy’s name. You know, it doesn’t matter if it was signed by Vinny, Rex, or Brock. In my line of work as a gender therapist this person might actually be female. And, if this is the case, there’s a good chance they really need someone to talk to about this.
I’ve been working with transgender clients since I opened The Bohemian Sanctuary in 2008. I waited about two years to open my practice after graduate school because what ended up happening first was working as the Associate Director of the Colorado Springs Pride Center. Through that job I made a lot of great connections in the LGBT community.
So, by the time I was ready to open my counseling practice word on the street was that I was “friendly and open” to working with the transgender population. Which there was, and still is, a definite need for in Colorado Springs.
The clients came in at first as a slow trickle. Which is probably good since I needed some time to realize that I was going to need to up my game from being just “friendly and open” to being fully aware of all the complexities that can be involved with transitioning from male to female or female to male.
I needed to be able to answer questions from clients about Hormone Replacement Therapy, and chest surgery, and Gender Confirming Surgeries, and how to change their name and gender marker on legal documents, and where to get laser hair removal, where to get vocal coaching, where to find a support group, when is it okay for them to use the public restroom of their actual gender, and so on and so forth.
I learned the answers to all of these questions, and continue to learn more every day, through research, training, and from the actual experiences of my transgender clients.
Working with the transgender population has become my niche, my area of expertise. It’s also become one of my passions.
Since I myself am not transgender I’m oftentimes asked “How come?” How come I’m so passionate about the work I’m doing with the transgender community?
Well, I believe that, when it comes down to it, transgender folks are in search of something that every single one of us is searching for. It’s the search for one’s true self.
My favorite therapist, Carl Jung, once said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to becoming who you truly are.”
I think we can take a lesson or two from many of my transgender clients on how to do that.
Let’s go back to that email I started to tell you about. The one signed with a guy’s name.
I want you to step into my gender therapist’s shoes for a few minutes. You’ve eventually got this person sitting on the edge your therapist’s couch. You’re looking at someone in their mid-30’s who was wearing a beard, a Broncos jersey, and a look on their face like that of a kid who is bursting to tell a long-kept secret.
Remember, gender therapists in training, you’re still making no assumptions about this person’s gender identity.
You can tell they’re nervous so you do some gentle nudging to get the conversation started. They’re sighing a lot and saying things like, “Ohhh, I’m not sure where to start,” to which you say comforting things like, “It’s okay, take your time…”
After a few minutes they’re rubbing their hands on their face and are making noises of frustration… And then a look of discovery came over their face, and it became clear what needed to be said. They look you right in the eyes and say, “This beard has got to go.”
You say, “Why is that?”
And then you get silence. And it goes on for a while. You see them wipe away a couple of tears. You’re a good gender therapist, so it’s okay, you patiently sit with them in their silence.
Then they finally gather themselves up and says, “Screw it, I’m just gonna say it. The reason the beard needs to go is because… Well, I’m a woman.” And then she smiles.
Want to know something I find very special about working with people who are transgender? Being present for and trusted with such a moment of cathartic release.
I’m going to release you from your gender therapist duties to tell you about a list I recently came across on the internet entitled, “Things that transgender people would be happy never to hear again” and one of them was, “You’re so courageous to transition.” I was surprised too, I’ve definitely said those words to many of my clients. I was like, “What kind of gender therapist am I??”
But the counter-response made an important point that really resonated with me. Which is that even though a high degree of courage is needed to move forward with transitioning, what it’s actually more about is necessity.
The options are, “Transition, go crazy, or die.”
I’m wish I was being over-dramatic when I say this. But I see and hear this day in and day out in my office with my clients.
If there’s anything I want you to remember when you leave here tonight it’s this. Evidence is mounting that there is a biological root to this mismatch between the gender someone feels themselves to be and the body they were born with. Which means it’s a medical condition and, like any other medical condition, it needs to be treated. That treatment is to be able to transition towards the gender they were meant to be born. If it’s not treated, then it leads to the severe emotional and mental distress of Gender Dysphoria. A common sentiment I hear from many of my transgender clients is, “I would never wish this condition upon my worst enemy.”
This is something much of our society still does not understand, so it’s important to me that you do.
I want you to understand that someone who transitions to their true gender identity encounters not only the usual hardships that are involved when making this kind of significant life change. On top of that, they also have to endure reactions that can range anywhere from unkindness to physical violence.
And yet – and here is one of the lessons we can learn from them – even in the face of these risks and challenges they know they cannot ignore the truth of what their inner voice is telling them.
You know that client I’ve been telling you about? The one who had the beard when we first met her? She knew she could no longer hide the truth from herself because she was beginning to hate who she was. She felt like a liar. She felt like a fraud. She was so tired of always having to live in “guy mode” that she had isolated herself from everyone in her life. And this had gone on for several years.
She told me about one night, a couple of months before I met her, when she had hit such a low that she had serious thoughts about ending her life. She found herself saying to the walls of her apartment, “That’s it, I’m going to die completely alone.” And then she was surprised to hear a voice inside of her answer back. And it was strong. It said, “No, I don’t think so. You need to do something about this.”
She knew then that she had to move forward with transitioning, even if it meant her family may never speak to her again. It was either that or “go crazy or die.”
She contacted me a couple of months after she had this epiphany because she knew she knew she needed help moving to the next stage of her transition.
One month after our first appointment she had shaved her beard and had come out to several friends. By the end of last December, three months into her transition, she had come out to her supervisor at work and started showing up to our sessions wearing really cute outfits.
It was around this time that the timing seemed right to ask her the following question: “So what’s your name gonna be?”
She laughed and gave me a big smile and said, “Oh, Dara, I’ve known for a long time what my name is going to be. It’s Stephanie.” And I said, “Nice to meet you, Stephanie.”
I noticed she looked like she was taken aback, and I asked her what happened. She said, “That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone call me that. I can’t believe how good that feels.”
I’ve noticed that a lot of my transgender clients do this, and I think it’s another lesson we take from their experience. What I’m talking about is how, as they go about every step of their journey towards authenticity, they take the time to stop and ask themselves, “Does this feel right?” When I used Stephanie’s name with her during our session it not only felt right, but unmistakenly right.
Another good example of this is when I give a client the letter they need in order to begin Hormone Replacement Therapy. In Stephanie’s letter I addressed her by her female name, and referred to her as “she” throughout it’s entirety. She was absolutely delighted after she finished reading her letter. “Does this feel right?” Hell yeah.
I try to remind my clients of these right-feeling-moments when things start to go wrong. Like when Stephanie came out to her family and it did indeed not go well. Or when one of her co-workers refused to address her as “she,” and decided called her “the freak” instead. Or when she was asked out on a date and she turned the person down, because she was afraid of how they’d react when they found out she was not biologically female.
Even if, all in all, moving forward with transitioning still feels really “right,” it doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be moments along the way that will feel really terrible.
Becoming one’s true self can be a very painful process. But in the end, the hope is that it’s worth the price of liberation. Stephanie had discovered her true self and she was loving it.
I work with all of my clients, transgender or not, on becoming their true selves because, if you couldn’t tell already, it’s pretty much the basis of my counseling philosophy.
I want this to be a world where all children should be taught how to listen to their inner voice and to follow its guidance throughout their lifetime. A world where adults we are taught how to find their inner voice, if it’s something we didn’t know how to do when we were young.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear then that I also want this world a place where anybody who is transgender can be honest with themselves and with others when they are young about any questions or concerns they may be experiencing about their gender identity.
One of my inspirations is Coy Mathis, a six-year old transgender girl who lived in Fountain, Colorado, just a few miles from here. Her story became international news in February of this year when her parents filed a complaint with the civil rights division of Colorado when Coy’s school district wouldn’t allow her to use the girls bathroom.
I want this to become world where her parents, Jeremy and Kathryn, wouldn’t have received hate mail and death threats for standing up for their child’s rights. Or how about a world where Coy would have never encountered any problems in the first place with using the girls bathroom?
I know there is a lot education and understanding that is still needed in order for this to happen. Which is why I’ve dedicated myself to not only being a therapist for people who are transgender, but being an ally and advocate as well.
It might seem like I’m giving a gift of sorts to the transgender community by doing the work that I do. But really they are the ones who have given me the gift. They’ve helped me realize one of the reasons why I was put on this earth, therefore taking me one step closer to discovering my true self.
My guess is that a lot of you are on your own search for your true self. Hopefully tonight you’ve discovered that you are very in good company.
If you live in the Colorado Springs and are transgender, please consider telling your story at The Story Project. I know a lot of people learned from what I shared, but now it’s time for them to hear firsthand about what it means to be transgender.
All you have to do is contact Sharon Friedman at firstname.lastname@example.org and put in the subject “I have a story to tell.” If I can do it I know you can!