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