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!
Rachel SeifertSeptember 17, 2013 at 2:19 PM
Well spoken Dara!
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 17, 2013 at 8:58 PM
Lol thanks Rachel!
Melanie RyanSeptember 17, 2013 at 2:36 PM
This is my goal as well when I finish at U of Phoenix. I’m halfway there. I believe that as a transwoman myself, I can provide a level of empathy and understanding that many cisgender therapists may not be able to meet.
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 17, 2013 at 9:00 PM
I’d love to see a wider variety of therapists in our area for transgender folks to chose from, indeed.
AnnaSeptember 18, 2013 at 10:25 AM
Thank you so very much, Dara! As I muddle through the messy process of transition and coming out, I often need encouragement. Not only did this piece give me that, I also shared it on Facebook and asked my cis-gender friends to read it because you nailed it very well. I am myself back in school, majoring in psychology with the hopes of becoming a therapist because I know how important the profession is (and not just for LGBT people).
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 18, 2013 at 12:21 PM
What great feedback Anna, thank you so much! I hope you come back to visit often, and I love it that you shared this with your cis-gender friends. Good luck with your studies, and let me know if I can be of any help!
amym440September 18, 2013 at 3:16 PM
As a person that would be scientifically classified as Transsexual I’d like to point out that use of the word Transgender by a supposed professional is an ethics violation. Its called counter transference. Not all people classified as transsexual identify as or with the word Transgender or wish to be aligned with the LGBT. A good therapist would not push them towards the LGBT or use language that violates their clients self autonomy.
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 19, 2013 at 8:16 AM
I went back and forth for a while as to whether or not to use “transgender” or “transsexual” in my talk. As you pointed out, as a professional who works with this community I myself know that I’m speaking of those who identify as transsexual.
However, I had to keep my audience and goal in mind. I live in a town that is very much conservative in it’s slant. And I wanted to educate and enlighten them.
To use the word “transsexual” with an audience who, for many of them, had never been exposed to the world of transgender folks, period, wouldn’t have been the best choice. It would have distracted from my discussion. It’s one of those things where, because I know my town as well as I do, that I made the decision based on wanting to be sure they heard what I was saying with getting confused or caught up in semantics.
I have only received positive comments from it so far – by all means I will take your into consideration, as it is a valid one. If I receive more feedback such as yours I will know to revisit my decision at that point.
transiterationOctober 6, 2013 at 6:18 PM
I grew up in said conservative city, and I think using transgender was the better way to go for that specific region.
amym440September 18, 2013 at 3:31 PM
Also a good therapist would know Transgender is not synonymous with Transsexual they are two very different things. One is a social construct (Transgender AKA transvestite) the other based in hard science (Transsexual.) The research showing some people are born with brain sex differentiation has been conducted using the proper word Transsexual. Use of the word Transgender and promotion of it is going to cost some supposed professionals their credentials.
AnnaSeptember 18, 2013 at 4:00 PM
The term “transgender” is still very much in use in the DSM-V, which was just released by the American Psychological Association (APA) in May of 2013. The following is a quote from page 451 of DSM-V: “Transgender refers to the broad spectrum of individuals who transiently or persistently identify with a gender different from their natal gender. Transsexual denotes an individual who seeks, or has undergone, a social transition from male to female or female to male, which in many, but not all, cases also involves a somatic transition by cross-sex hormone treatment and genital surgery.” Using the criteria detailed in the above quote, a person could first appear in therapy as transgender, then later realize a transsexual status. In fact, that’s exactly what I did. As neither I nor, I assume you, know how the individual profiled in the piece prefers to be called, might the author be using the term the client wishes? I might also remind you that this is an evolving science, still very much being explored and researched. Are you going to attack an ardent ally because of a language use issue? Please…
amym440September 19, 2013 at 1:24 AM
The dsm 5 is very controversial and many practitioners are stating they are not going to use it. I personally may bring legal and Ethical Complaints against the American Psychological Association for its writing it into their literature in violation of Counter Transference ethics. The Americans with disabilities act clearly states Transsexuals are not handicapped and my psychological screening verifies I have no mental defects other than being born with a cross sexed identity. We are fully capable of choosing our own social and political labels and causes. Those who are choosing to include others into “Transgender” and the “LGBT” are violating those rights.
I look at the word Transsexual as not my identity or my social status it is just a way for science to classify one aspect of me. Scientists that are using it in other ways need to be held accountable because they are conducting human experimentation without proper consent.
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 19, 2013 at 8:25 AM
Good point Anna – the client I used in my story is actually a composite of many clients. And more often than not most of my clients identify as “transgender” as opposed to “transsexual,” even if they will be medically transitioning, because they either hadn’t heard they “should” be using transsexual or because they aren’t comfortable with it. I do inform them of the difference between the two, in case a medical professional uses transsexual with them, so they aren’t surprised or offended if that happens.
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 19, 2013 at 8:22 AM
I agree that it’s crucial to point out the difference between transgender and transsexual. When I am training up and coming therapist who want to work with the community I am sure to highlight this. I think whats important, and this is just coming from me as an educator of cisgender persons, is to start off simply and work my way up from there. Again, many people are finally hearing the word “transgender” and are beginning to understand what that means, even if what they may really be hearing about is a person who is transsexual. But our media still uses the word transgender as opposed to transsexual, so until that changes it’ll be difficult to stay consistent with the definitions.
However, as you mentioned, professionals who work with the community must know the difference.
amym440September 19, 2013 at 3:16 PM
Dana my experience is that the older generation knows the difference and sees the harm that the use of Transgender is causing. We re not all “LGBT” and using language that forcibly associates all of us into it violates are rights to autonomy and I would argue is also counter transference an ethical no no. I personally would like to see the professional organizations that have adopted and promoted the use of the word Transgender to include all Ts’s, Cd’s and Tv’s censored for their unethical conduct. Never once has a survey been conducted by an unbiased source asking all of us if we are either okay with being called Transgender or with being manhandled by LGBT and feminist activist into the LGBT. I think some people have a lot of explaining to do and need to be accountable WPATH is the place to start. I would like to see it disbanded because it quite obviously suffering from a major LGBT and feminist bias problem. I view Transgender as nothing more than sexually exploiting Transsexuals to prop up feminist gender theory and queer theory. Take a good look around and you can see LGBT activists beating the feminist drums.
luvinmomofoneSeptember 18, 2013 at 11:05 PM
this was such a good article! thank you very much!
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 19, 2013 at 8:26 AM
It’s my pleasure, thanks for reading!
ShannonSeptember 20, 2013 at 6:20 PM
Dara: beautifully put. The writing is fantastic, well-thought out, and completely your voice. Love it.
Dara Hoffman-FoxSeptember 20, 2013 at 10:44 PM
I appreciate that, thanks for reading it!
April KristieNovember 7, 2013 at 3:07 PM
Dara, Thaks for being an advocate for this special group of individuals whatever the correct nomenclature is at this time! Your communication skills were wonderful and you tied together your thoughts very well for a live presentation. Of course a live presentation is much more engaging than one with a script and perhaps an armful of slides! I know that many of those folks sitting in that audience would have cringed at the thought of surgery to their genitalia. Your approach of generalizing things a bit was smart and thoughful of the audience. You will win more people over with the sweet approach rather than arguing over every point ever made in public. Glad I found your blog keep up the satisfying work!
Dara Hoffman-FoxNovember 8, 2013 at 12:09 PM
Thank you April, I appreciate your comments. You are right, although it was hard to resist getting deeper and more complicated with the presentation, I had to keep returning to “Simplify, Dara, simplify” as I kept my audience in mind. Am happy you have found the blog as well!
DoraJanuary 24, 2016 at 4:23 PM
So glad I found you! Thanks for sharing information and resources!
DoraJanuary 24, 2016 at 4:24 PM