My transgender clients have often been very articulate as they navigate the ups and downs, the joy and the confusion and the sudden “click” — of putting words to realities that have sometimes been buried somewhere within them for years.
Sometimes, clients come to me well after they’ve begun their transition. They’ve already done mammoth amounts of research. They know who they are, or they’re comfortable with knowing that they don’t entirely know, but they can point out where they feel they identify on a spectrum, or even explain why they find the spectrum itself too confining. They know the language around this stuff, have explored their feelings and thoughts in depth, and will talk readily about it if given an opening.
Other times, I’ve seen someone begin to explore their gender more openly midway through the therapy, at a time that they’re feeling less fear than they used to, are getting more comfortable with themselves and their emotions — and as they’re exploring the, “Who am I now” question, some questions emerge about gender, questions that have long been there but have patiently waited until the person felt safe enough to open up to the exploration.
I’m definitely not an expert on transgender concerns. At all! But my clients are very good teachers, and the more they open up to me about this aspect of themselves, the more I learn. Here are some things I’ve learned from them, thus far:
- When you are having discussions with someone about their sexual identity, just wanting to understand can go a loooong way. I’ve sometimes felt awkward when I haven’t known the terminology, or have fumbled a word or a question. The fact is, often someone who is in the midst of a gender identity exploration has felt an implicit message to just stay silent about these issues. So showing interest in an awkward way beats out silence any day! I tell my transgender clients that I’m likely to say something dumb every now and again, and I want them to tell me about it when I do. This alone helps them know that I’m on their side. They tell me that, just by me wanting to understand and by my awareness that I may get it wrong, they feel safe with my questions.
- Do some research! My clients have been incredibly helpful with this, eager to share links to videos and blog posts they particularly resonate with and that walk people through the terminology and through the steps of various transitions. For me, just taking half an hour to watch videos explaining more about transgender, testosterone, hormone inhibiting, and a bunch of other things involved with transitioning, made my next conversation with a client that much more interesting. By showing an interest in the language, the processes often involved in transitioning, and issues that often come up, I’ve felt more comfortable with these conversations, and clients have shared much more with me.
- Sometimes clients want to talk this stuff through at length, and will tell you a lot, and with great relief, once you bring up the topic and show some knowledge and interest. Others will test the waters a bit, talking about it a bit today, and then waiting to see if you’ll still be interested next week, or next month. And still other clients are not that interested in discussing this facet of their lives, at least at the phase of therapy they’re in with you. If someone comes in and says that they’ve transitioned from male to female or female to male, but says the issue they really want help with is a specific relationship, that’s great! I show interest and curiosity while letting the client steer. I express enough curiosity to facilitate it if they want to discuss this facet of themselves, but I don’t continue to ask questions if they don’t show much interest in the topic. I just say it’s something that I’m open for them to talk with me about. Any time. And then we move on to whatever their concern at that time is.
- Integrity is often an important value, hard-won, by folks who are openly stating their gender identity. They’ve often done LOTS of self-exploration, have been through their share of self-doubt, done their research, risked lots of invalidation — and shared the truth anyway. There’s a bravery in this, an integrity.
- By openly stating their gender identity, often choosing a new name, and having all these discussions with people in their lives, they’ve chosen integrity. And that’s huge. It’s something I like to really expand upon, and to talk with them about the import of their coming out. It’s often meaningful on spiritual as well as emotional levels. I want to acknowledge this.
- Often, the person has encountered a million little wounds and invalidations throughout their lives, a whole bunch of ways they have felt like they can’t be true to themselves. Maybe they’ve felt shamed for being who they are, and still do sometimes. Maybe they tell me proudly about their identity, or they tell me as if it’s no big deal. And at the same time, parts of them have felt shamed about this facet of their lives. I express interest in what clients have learned about themselves, and also mention that sometimes, people feel despair about this stuff, or used to. Sometimes people feel terrible when the people around them refuse to use the appropriate pronouns, or when people cast doubt on who they are or why they’re making changes. Often, there are stories about that right beneath the surface. Sometimes, clients have been afraid to share about the times that they’ve felt shame, because it’s so important to them now to feel pride in who they are. When we take some time to gently work with the shame, it helps the person feel more free to feel exactly how they feel about themselves: Pride, or stability, or that ongoing question mark that keeps them exploring and being curious.
I still have much to learn! It’s part of what makes this work so rewarding, this learning. Sometimes, when a client and I discuss things, we struggle together to find the words for what most truly expresses them. This is true with feelings, thoughts, and issues of identity too. These conversations are worth it. These struggles are worth engaging with.
On the other side is a person who stands strong in who they are, and often has an amazing sense of their masculine and their feminine side (and often a sense of a self that transcends gender roles and expectations!) and what this all contributes to their lives and to their relationships.