I am proud to work with transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid, and gender expansive clients and colleagues. As I have deepened in this aspect of my work, I have learned a lot about the trauma and pain that this population faces regularly. From high rates of being kicked out of homes and ostracized from families, to high rates of being verbally, physically, and sexually assaulted, to high rates of employment discrimination, it's not uncommon for trans and gender-variant folks to internalize messages of being unwanted and not belonging.
Due to the painful experiences in the lives of these people, many other people (including therapists) have strong reactions and assumptions about trans and gender non-conforming folks. That is observable on institutional levels, including North Carolina's HB2. On a more personal level, a couple of months ago, another clinician (who is cisgender) stated, "I just feel so bad for those non-binary people. They're all just so hurt and so guarded. They really don't trust anyone and are resistant to help! It's just so sad." I froze. I couldn't think of a single word to say. I just stared at the other therapist in disbelief.
Since then, I have been sitting on this blog post, letting it incubate.
Why did I freeze?
I was furious.
Are my clients so wounded and pitiable?
And yet, I was in a corner. If I responded in anger, it would justify the other clinician's stereotype: just another defensive non-binary person. Unfortunately, my emotions had very little to do with trauma, distrust, or being guarded. It had more to do with being labeled with generalized statements (and the condescending tone). I also felt uncomfortable because my story does not fit that narrative. In fact, I had never even known of another person who had some similar experiences until I stumbled across iO Tillet Wright's story (this YouTube video has accurate captions) a couple of weeks ago.
In an effort to dispel some of the stereotypes and myths, this is part of my story.
My parents did not know my biological sex until I was born. As they prepared for their second child, they decided on that I would either be named Jessica or Jesse--something neutral. When it was announced that I was a girl, Jessica went on my birth certificate, and my family proceeded to call me Jessi. Perhaps my name alone was adequate foresight and foreshadowing for the unfolding of my childhood.
Through my mom's modeling, and my dad's support, I learned at a young age that gender and biological sex are not a restriction or limitation for who I am, what I do, or how deeply I love and am loved. I played boys' baseball and girls' softball. I was in gymnastics and wrestling. When I wanted my ponytail cut off, it was cut off. When adults would say, "Oh goodness! You have such a cute little boy!", my mom would smile and say "Thank you." When adults would say, "Oh goodness! You have such a cute little girl!", my mom would smile and say "Thank you." I never felt a vehement need to claim my territory as a girl, nor as a boy. And I didn't think about it much. I would run and play in the dirt and catch snakes. I wore dresses to church. As a teen, I wore make-up and straightened my long hair. I lifted weights and compared my biceps to those of my male friends. I hunted deer with my mom and game birds with my dad. I wore a pink dress to my junior prom. And I skipped my senior prom to stay home in sweat pants.
I grew up non-binary (this was not a political or social statement or act by my parents) and have always existed in the world in non-binary ways. However, I never had a name for it and never thought I needed a name for my experience. My parents were not trying to do something radical--just following my lead. I met little resistance or judgement for my eclectic interests and activities. This is where my privileged locations come in. Perhaps this post should really be titled: Confessions of a White, Middle-Class, Able-Bodied, Hearing, Neuro-Typical, Highly Educated, Non-Binary Therapist. In conjunction with many privileges, I had so much love and support from my family, that I also developed resilience and emotional privilege at a young age. With that degree of acceptance, I didn't need to articulate the nuances of how I was different. When I was teased for looking like a boy, I usually ignored it. When challenged on issues relating to gender and sexuality, I often dismissed it. I didn't have to think about it or explain it. I just was. (People with additional, intersecting areas of marginalization may not have had this ease.)
This is what happens when you accept someone for who they are. Self-esteem. Confidence. Growth. A desire to contribute to the well-being of the world. Love.
Unlike many people of trans and gender-variant identities, I never felt incongruent with my truth. I was never asked to "behave like a girl" or to be someone I wasn't. I never developed gender dysphoria nor body dysmorphia. Looking back, I at least partially attribute this to my parents. Growing up, the umbrella for "girl" or "woman" cast a significantly larger radius for me than it does for most little kids. I didn't feel restricted by it until I realized that there are standardized norms and expectations of women in the United States which I do not fit. I realized that my use of pronouns do not denote or connote the same things when most other people use those pronouns. I realized that I have not been using the same language as mainstream society. And somehow, that also did not really phase me.
I internalized many messages from the nonchalance my mom exhibited regardless of how I was gendered by another person.
1. People don't and can't always see you accurately for who you are in your wholeness.
2. Gender both matters a lot, and is an invented social construct.
3. Accept compliments.
4. You don't have to explain yourself, and you don't have to choose.
Numbers 1 and 4 have been integral to my health as a non-binary person. Even when someone puts me in a box (gender or otherwise), I can breathe, and let it go, because I do not have the expectation to be seen accurately all the time. Even when I don't have words, I can also practice breathing, shrug, and remember,
"The embodied practice of holding two or more truths at once is a necessary prerequisite for comprehending one’s own identity, or the sense of the complexity of one’s own spirit... A practice of non-attachment to the stability or predictability of identity or its associated expectations creates a foundation for considering relationships and systems in a way that creates space for more possibility and creativity... [This] allows one to receive the gifts of multiplistic reality that exists beyond violently perpetuated binaries and socialized norms." (Liv Sisca)
This brings me back to the strong reactions and assumptions people make about trans and gender non-conforming folks. In case you are still wondering, gender identity is not a function of trauma. It is possible to live as a trans or gender diverse person without social and emotional consequences (i.e. being banned from public restrooms or verbal harassment). Gender variant identities are not the equivalent of self-hatred. These experiences are not political statements. They are not "ideas" to protect your children from like PG-13 and R rated movies. They are simply an effort to live as honestly as possible, despite socialized norms.
Now, when I use gendered terminology, I know that the associated meanings may not be shared with others. It is not automatically shared language. When I use the term woman, I do not mean submissive. I do not mean I subscribe to patriarchy and misogyny. When I use the term man I do not mean I hate femininity. I do not mean I am in denial of my sex assigned at birth nor my socialization. When I use the terms human or person, I do not mean I am disowning masculinity and femininity. I am acknowledging the complexity in which they live and evolve within me.
My story is not the story of all non-binary people. In my personal experience and in my work with this population, I do not see a pitiable, resistant, untrusting, unstable, traumatized group. I see profound efforts being made towards individual and collective healing. I see deep compassion, vulnerability, transparency, and accountability. I see hope.
Due to the additional obstacles that trans, queer, and non-binary people face, I am involved in projects aimed at providing services to this population. This includes (but is not limited to):
Wild Connection--a backpacking trip for women, womyn, trans-women, and non-binary folks
and counseling services in my offices, outdoors, and/or with horses.