The Transgender Journey


The Transgender Journey

What Role Should Therapists Play?

By Jean Malpas

March/April 2016


I’m a white Belgian American gay man. I was a gender-expansive child, and I now identify as a cisgender adult. My pronouns are he, him, and his. I’m an ally.

From the age of 2, I grew up going back and forth between my divorced parents’ houses. My father remarried a woman, while my mother repartnered with a woman for 15 years. She then repartnered with a man and identified as bisexual. Many of my mother’s friends were queer or lesbian-identified. My mother’s closest cousin was an effeminate gay man with the sharpest sense of humor. He taught me to laugh and properly lip-sync to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”—all essential life skills, if you ask me.

I remember playing devotedly with my mother’s scarves and high-heeled shoes as a child. Anything soft, silky, perfumed, shiny, and glittery was a source of exquisite pleasure. I rarely cross-dressed, but when I did, I always did it alone and with an aftertaste of guilt and fear. Despite my mother’s queer friends and my father’s progressive attitude, I knew that this kind of play was “wrong”—something to enjoy only in secrecy. Although I knew my parents realized I was different and that they loved me, I was never quite sure their love would withstand my gender fluidity. An invisible line existed in my mind between what was okay and what wasn’t, and I was determined never to cross it.

Yet my body language and behaviors betrayed me constantly. All my friends were girls, and all my…

Already have an account linked to your magazine subscription? Log in now to continue reading this article.

(Need help? Click here or contact us to ask a question.)

Not currently a subscriber? Subscribe Today to read the rest of this article!




Read 4722 times
Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
*
1 Comment

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 5:17:02 PM | posted by Maria
Over the last five years or so, following Chaz Bono's coming out as transgender, i have observed that my sex is questioned much more frequently. As an adult, I am more resilient than I was as a child and as an adolescent. I am able to recognize this social phenomenon as something that is not a threat to my core identity. However, I am concerned for teenagers and children who are "gender non-conforming" as many of these children and adolescents may appear to be very much like "transgender" children and could be easily mistaken and even formally misdiagnosed as transgender by an inexperienced practitioner. I was lucky in that I grew up in a time where kids like me were simply thought to be tomboys. There were suspicions that I might grow up to be a lesbian but my actual sex was not in question. I have included my personal biography below to help one understand that many people may have childhood and adolescent presentations of gender that may look very much like "transgenderism" but may mature to identify quite comfortably with their birth sex and may, in some cases, discover in their early adulthood that they are homosexual. I grew up with a twin brother; I’m female, and we are fraternal twins. My brother was sensitive and gentle, while I was tough and rugged. At age five, I remember the two of us looking into a mirror as my brother said, “I should have been the girl and you should have been the boy, because I am the pretty one.” Indeed, my brother was prettier than I was and I nodded in silent agreement. We were socialized in a restrictive, gender stereotypical home. My brother watched wrestling on TV with my dad while I made breakfast with my mom. My dad was into health and fitness and I was allowed to do push-ups and sit-ups with them but I was scolded if I ever did more reps than my brother. My brother was ridiculed for crying or showing signs of weakness. When we went off to grade school, my brother was bullied. He would run to me for help, and I would then confront the boy who was picking on him, even if it meant that I would end up in a fistfight. Before I knew it, every little boy came running to me if a larger boy was after him. I became the kid who would protect the ones who were being bullied. My brother made me promise never to tell our parents and we agreed this was best for everyone concerned. We kept our secret. My brother thought of me as a brother and not as a sister. I felt like god must have made some type of mistake and that surely, a miracle would happen and I would awake one day as a boy. At a very early age, perhaps age 5 or 6, I began to self-harm. I felt such intense shame about my body and sex-related anatomy. I wanted to scrub those parts away. I would scrub until I bled from the abrasions. I began puberty at a young age and started menstruation in the 4th grade, before any sex education at school or “heart-to-heart talks” at home. I was devastated to learn that I had become a “woman” despite my prayers, despite my efforts to stop the changes. My parents and other adults seemed displeased with my inability to adopt or cultivate some semblance of femininity. My body had betrayed me. Because I developed early, I was targeted with harassment and unwanted sexual attention from boys (and men.) This contributed greatly to extreme feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The self-harm escalated and became much more serious at age 11. I began contemplating suicide and made several unsuccessful attempts. I began to wear my clothes as baggy as possible. It became commonplace that I was mistaken to be a boy by people who did not know me. (Today, I am still most often called “sir” by clerks in stores and other strangers.) I began to come to terms with my history of sexual abuse at about this same time: age 11 or 12. Meanwhile, my brother began exploring his own sexuality and started cross-dressing and experimenting with my mother’s make-up with another boy while my mom was at work. (My parents had divorced by this time.) My brother and the other boy were chased down and threatened. They were called “faggots” by a truck full of young men one day when they decided to venture outside while cross-dressing. My brother became more cautious, closeted and secretive about his cross-dressing after this incident. After puberty, we remained close as siblings. We loved each other, but his friendships with other boys became increasingly important to him and he began to prefer their company instead of mine. At age 12, the bullying stopped for my brother as he began developing into a very muscular young man. Unfortunately, he also seemed to pair his new masculinity with misogyny and violence. When we entered junior high school (now called “middle school”), my brother and his friends no longer wanted to associate with me because I was a “girl.” I had been considered a gifted student through grade school but I began to struggle to concentrate on my studies. The boys lifted weights and did “guy things” without me. I felt intensely isolated. I became increasingly introverted and depressed, and I continued self-injurious behaviors. The suicidal ideation intensified and I developed bulimia. I would sneak out at night to take long runs of 10 to 20 miles, several times a week. At 15, I became very involved in religion. I was quite fanatical, and this was a new escape from my struggles. I also began working after school. I found ways to keep myself as busy as possible so that I could avoid thinking about my body, my past history of sexual abuse, and my feelings of loneliness. At 18, I began to come to terms with my attraction to women, but I had not yet acted on my feelings. I told my youth pastor that I was concerned that I was homosexual and he told me that I would not be welcomed back until I was straight. This was a very dark time for me and I attempted to overdose on a mix of aspirin and Tylenol. At 19, I fell in love with a young woman. I began a relationship and as the result of this, my church rejected me and my closest friends abandoned me. My family was also very unsupportive. When the relationship ended, I felt ashamed and hopeless and I decided to end my life. I loaded up a shotgun and I was ready to pull the trigger when I suddenly realized that “this is it … there’s no turning back.” Something told me “You could pull the trigger and have a shitty ending to a very shitty life, or you can decide to live and have a chance of changing the story.” I put the shotgun down. This was my final suicide attempt. I told my mom and stepdad what had happened. They were angry with me, and said they would keep the rifle loaded in the house, where it had been, and that I had no right to touch it. I finally realized that they were toxic people and I could not continue to be around them, since they contributed significantly to my depression. My brother had gotten into drugs and joined a gang by now; he was gone and I was completely on my own. I moved out and rented a room. I worked two full-time jobs and started to build a new life. As my confidence grew and as I learned to not be ashamed of my sexuality, I grew stronger. I began to wear the clothes I liked, “men’s” clothes. I cut my hair very short and I finally felt comfortable with my appearance. I became healthier as I started to lift weights and feel better about my body. I was able to free myself of my eating disorder – on my own. I started to make friends who accepted me. Most were lesbians. I made a few friends in my early twenties who confided that they were transgender. These friends came out to me because they thought I was also transgender. This has happened several times over the course of my life, and I have questioned my gender very seriously. This was before it was common to hear of transgenderism. I could have easily succumbed to the pressure to transition had I been younger or less confident in my identity. I felt at one time in my life that life would be easier had I been born male, but looking back over the last two decades, I see that my brother had his own struggles and that his life is not enviable. Ultimately, I realized that I was a strong woman and that I did not identify as a man. My path has not been easy. I have been “gay bashed” several times. I have been blatantly discriminated against at work and in housing (before laws included sexual orientation as a protected group.) I lost most of my friends from high school, as they were all very religious. But I moved forward and I eventually built a good life with my partner of 13 years (who is now my legal wife thanks to recent marriage equality laws.) I have created a life that is meaningful – a life that helps others. I have created a life worth living. My wife and friends today accept me completely for who I am. My brother eventually found his way also. The story of my brother and me is not picture perfect. (Most people’s true stories seldom are.) But we were able to find our way and make choices about our bodies and our gender identities, as we matured in our adulthood. We both now identify comfortably with our birth sex. I have friends who are transgender, who have personal stories that are similar to mine but who pursued transitioning in adulthood. Some have de-transitioned; others work to manage serious health conditions that have resulted from the use of hormones. We deal with similar social issues despite the fact that we have taken different paths in life. Transition brings new challenges that are unexpected. Hormones and surgeries have limitations and complications. Still, I support everyone’s right to make their own choices about their bodies and identity. I think that for the great majority of people, with the exception of some children who are medically defined as intersexed, it takes time –perhaps well into one’s early twenties to sort out one’s identity in relation to gender, physical anatomy, and sexual orientation. As difficult as my past was, I am grateful that I was not rushed into hormone blockers, hormones, or sex re-assignment surgeries. For me (and my twin brother), this would have been a grave mistake as our issues with gender identity were rooted in traumatic histories and external societal pressures, which resolved when he at (age 12) and I (in my early 20’s) found kinship and support in our communities. Societal pressures are even more complicated today because the transgender narrative omits stories like my own. My oldest niece ended up being very “bookish.” She was also artistic and enjoyed wearing make-up and following fashion trends. Her younger sister loved athletics and hated anything “frilly or foofy.” Their mother was supportive and loving toward both of her daughters. She also had no problem with me, a “gender nonconforming” lesbian, being in the girls’ lives. She asked only that I never talked about “gay stuff” around them as she held the belief that homosexuality was a “sin.” She was a good mom who never pressured either child to conform to gender stereotypes. She seemed to love them both and did not prefer my “feminine” niece over her “rough and tumble” younger daughter. Still, my athletic niece was taunted at school and her sister sometimes teased her at home. One time, when I came to visit, we were walking and I heard my older niece teasing her sister. My niece, who was eight at the time, ran up to me sobbing. “My sister says I am a boy!” I was in my early twenties and without thinking replied gruffly, “You aren’t a boy, you are a tomboy like me and that’s alright.” At that point, my young niece stood up tall, marched back to her older sister, leaned into her face and repeated what I had said to her, putting a quick end to their quarrel. I didn’t think much about the incident but years later, when my younger niece came out as lesbian, she told me how important that brief conversation was. She said this was when she “knew” that she was “like me.” My niece was about twenty when she came out. I asked her during our conversation about gender and sexual orientation, if she ever wondered if she might be transgender. Without hesitation my niece said “No, I’m just a regular ole’ lesbian.” That gave us both a chuckle, but I assured her that I would love her either way. After a brief pause, I added that I was glad she would not need to change her body. If my niece had told me that she was a boy at 8 years and that her sister was insisting that she was a girl, I would have asked the two what it means to be a “boy.” I would have explained my own past and how lots of people thought I was a boy and still seem to think I am a man when they first meet me. I would explain that for me, this does not affect my identity as a woman. I would explain that we are all different and that this is what makes us so amazing. I grew up with a twin brother; I’m female, and we are fraternal twins. My brother was sensitive and gentle, while I was tough and rugged. At age five, I remember the two of us looking into a mirror as my brother said, “I should have been the girl and you should have been the boy, because I am the pretty one.” Indeed, my brother was prettier than I was and I nodded in silent agreement. We were socialized in a restrictive, gender stereotypical home. My brother watched wrestling on TV with my dad while I made breakfast with my mom. My dad was into health and fitness and I was allowed to do push-ups and sit-ups with them but I was scolded if I ever did more reps than my brother. My brother was ridiculed for crying or showing signs of weakness. When we went off to grade school, my brother was bullied. He would run to me for help, and I would then confront the boy who was picking on him, even if it meant that I would end up in a fistfight. Before I knew it, every little boy came running to me if a larger boy was after him. I became the kid who would protect the ones who were being bullied. My brother made me promise never to tell our parents and we agreed this was best for everyone concerned. We kept our secret. My brother thought of me as a brother and not as a sister. I felt like god must have made some type of mistake and that surely, a miracle would happen and I would awake one day as a boy. At a very early age, perhaps age 5 or 6, I began to self-harm. I felt such intense shame about my body and sex-related anatomy. I wanted to scrub those parts away. I would scrub until I bled from the abrasions. I began puberty at a young age and started menstruation in the 4th grade, before any sex education at school or “heart-to-heart talks” at home. I was devastated to learn that I had become a “woman” despite my prayers, despite my efforts to stop the changes. My parents and other adults seemed displeased with my inability to adopt or cultivate some semblance of femininity. My body had betrayed me. Because I developed early, I was targeted with harassment and unwanted sexual attention from boys (and men.) This contributed greatly to extreme feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The self-harm escalated and became much more serious at age 11. I began contemplating suicide and made several unsuccessful attempts. I began to wear my clothes as baggy as possible. It became commonplace that I was mistaken to be a boy by people who did not know me. (Today, I am still most often called “sir” by clerks in stores and other strangers.) I began to come to terms with my history of sexual abuse at about this same time: age 11 or 12. Meanwhile, my brother began exploring his own sexuality and started cross-dressing and experimenting with my mother’s make-up with another boy while my mom was at work. (My parents had divorced by this time.) My brother and the other boy were chased down and threatened. They were called “faggots” by a truck full of young men one day when they decided to venture outside while cross-dressing. My brother became more cautious, closeted and secretive about his cross-dressing after this incident. After puberty, we remained close as siblings. We loved each other, but his friendships with other boys became increasingly important to him and he began to prefer their company instead of mine. At age 12, the bullying stopped for my brother as he began developing into a very muscular young man. Unfortunately, he also seemed to pair his new masculinity with misogyny and violence. When we entered junior high school (now called “middle school”), my brother and his friends no longer wanted to associate with me because I was a “girl.” I had been considered a gifted student through grade school but I began to struggle to concentrate on my studies. The boys lifted weights and did “guy things” without me. I felt intensely isolated. I became increasingly introverted and depressed, and I continued self-injurious behaviors. The suicidal ideation intensified and I developed bulimia. I would sneak out at night to take long runs of 10 to 20 miles, several times a week. At 15, I became very involved in religion. I was quite fanatical, and this was a new escape from my struggles. I also began working after school. I found ways to keep myself as busy as possible so that I could avoid thinking about my body, my past history of sexual abuse, and my feelings of loneliness. At 18, I began to come to terms with my attraction to women, but I had not yet acted on my feelings. I told my youth pastor that I was concerned that I was homosexual and he told me that I would not be welcomed back until I was straight. This was a very dark time for me and I attempted to overdose on a mix of aspirin and Tylenol. At 19, I fell in love with a young woman. I began a relationship and as the result of this, my church rejected me and my closest friends abandoned me. My family was also very unsupportive. When the relationship ended, I felt ashamed and hopeless and I decided to end my life. I loaded up a shotgun and I was ready to pull the trigger when I suddenly realized that “this is it … there’s no turning back.” Something told me “You could pull the trigger and have a shitty ending to a very shitty life, or you can decide to live and have a chance of changing the story.” I put the shotgun down. This was my final suicide attempt. I told my mom and stepdad what had happened. They were angry with me, and said they would keep the rifle loaded in the house, where it had been, and that I had no right to touch it. I finally realized that they were toxic people and I could not continue to be around them, since they contributed significantly to my depression. My brother had gotten into drugs and joined a gang by now; he was gone and I was completely on my own. I moved out and rented a room. I worked two full-time jobs and started to build a new life. As my confidence grew and as I learned to not be ashamed of my sexuality, I grew stronger. I began to wear the clothes I liked, “men’s” clothes. I cut my hair very short and I finally felt comfortable with my appearance. I became healthier as I started to lift weights and feel better about my body. I was able to free myself of my eating disorder – on my own. I started to make friends who accepted me. Most were lesbians. I made a few friends in my early twenties who confided that they were transgender. These friends came out to me because they thought I was also transgender. This has happened several times over the course of my life, and I have questioned my gender very seriously. This was before it was common to hear of transgenderism. I could have easily succumbed to the pressure to transition had I been younger or less confident in my identity. I felt at one time in my life that life would be easier had I been born male, but looking back over the last two decades, I see that my brother had his own struggles and that his life is not enviable. Ultimately, I realized that I was a strong woman and that I did not identify as a man. My path has not been easy. I have been “gay bashed” several times. I have been blatantly discriminated against at work and in housing (before laws included sexual orientation as a protected group.) I lost most of my friends from high school, as they were all very religious. But I moved forward and I eventually built a good life with my partner of 13 years (who is now my legal wife thanks to recent marriage equality laws.) I have created a life that is meaningful – a life that helps others. I have created a life worth living. My wife and friends today accept me completely for who I am. My brother eventually found his way also. The story of my brother and me is not picture perfect. (Most people’s true stories seldom are.) But we were able to find our way and make choices about our bodies and our gender identities, as we matured in our adulthood. We both now identify comfortably with our birth sex. I have friends who are transgender, who have personal stories that are similar to mine but who pursued transitioning in adulthood. Some have de-transitioned; others work to manage serious health conditions that have resulted from the use of hormones. We deal with similar social issues despite the fact that we have taken different paths in life. Transition brings new challenges that are unexpected. Hormones and surgeries have limitations and complications. Still, I support everyone’s right to make their own choices about their bodies and identity. I think that for the great majority of people, with the exception of some children who are medically defined as intersexed, it takes time –perhaps well into one’s early twenties to sort out one’s identity in relation to gender, physical anatomy, and sexual orientation. As difficult as my past was, I am grateful that I was not rushed into hormone blockers, hormones, or sex re-assignment surgeries. For me (and my twin brother), this would have been a grave mistake as our issues with gender identity were rooted in traumatic histories and external societal pressures, which resolved when he at (age 12) and I (in my early 20’s) found kinship and support in our communities. Societal pressures are even more complicated today because the transgender narrative omits stories like my own. My oldest niece ended up being very “bookish.” She was also artistic and enjoyed wearing make-up and following fashion trends. Her younger sister loved athletics and hated anything “frilly or foofy.” Their mother was supportive and loving toward both of her daughters. She also had no problem with me, a “gender nonconforming” lesbian, being in the girls’ lives. She asked only that I never talked about “gay stuff” around them as she held the belief that homosexuality was a “sin.” She was a good mom who never pressured either child to conform to gender stereotypes. She seemed to love them both and did not prefer my “feminine” niece over her “rough and tumble” younger daughter. Still, my athletic niece was taunted at school and her sister sometimes teased her at home. One time, when I came to visit, we were walking and I heard my older niece teasing her sister. My niece, who was eight at the time, ran up to me sobbing. “My sister says I am a boy!” I was in my early twenties and without thinking replied gruffly, “You aren’t a boy, you are a tomboy like me and that’s alright.” At that point, my young niece stood up tall, marched back to her older sister, leaned into her face and repeated what I had said to her, putting a quick end to their quarrel. I didn’t think much about the incident but years later, when my younger niece came out as lesbian, she told me how important that brief conversation was. She said this was when she “knew” that she was “like me.” My niece was about twenty when she came out. I asked her during our conversation about gender and sexual orientation, if she ever wondered if she might be transgender. Without hesitation my niece said “No, I’m just a regular ole’ lesbian.” That gave us both a chuckle, but I assured her that I would love her either way. After a brief pause, I added that I was glad she would not need to change her body. If my niece had told me that she was a boy at 8 years and that her sister was insisting that she was a girl, I would have asked the two what it means to be a “boy.” I would have explained my own past and how lots of people thought I was a boy and still seem to think I am a man when they first meet me. I would explain that for me, this does not affect my identity as a woman. I would explain that we are all different and that this is what makes us so amazing.