Transcending Genders - Letters

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #102, Summer 2003.

This is the first in a series of twenty-four Transcending Genders letters being made available to the transgender community. Nos.2-6 will appear in future issues of Transgender Tapestry and the remainder will be released on a website. The letters are written to help enlighten mental health therapists and their teachers. Other interested people have found them useful too for learning about transgender folks and our issues.

Transgender people often pick mental-health therapists as the first people to tell of their anguish
and unfulfilled needs, sometimes after considerable anxiety and a series of false starts. The reaction of a
therapist, selected perhaps at random out of fear of being found out and the need to see someone close to home, makes all the difference. If he or she knows a bit about our people and tries to understand the
immensity of the revelation and the sensitivity of the client, healing can begin. If, on the other hand, the therapist reacts out of ignorance and prejudice, an unfulfilled life or even a suicide may be the outcome.
The series of twenty-four letters is designed to be sent to therapists,one each month. The Ingersoll Gender Center in Seattle financed a set of test mailings under a grant from Seattle?s Pride Foundation. The test series went by mail to 200 therapists and a few other professionals to see if the letters would be read and
appreciated. They were, in large numbers. Keeping the letters short and lively, and showing up at monthly intervals, meant that often they were opened and read right then rather than ending up in some pile.
I?ve written the letters from the viewpoint of a transgender layperson with a long history in the community
(since 1976) and an equally long interest in our theories, evolution, conversations, arguments, organizations, and people. In some ways it?s better that I?m not a psychologist or any other kind of therapist. With hardly any research on transgender issues available to guide therapists, I?m able to say as a non-professional what I?m pretty sure is true (without presenting it as gospel), while not being required to back it up with nonexistent research. I?m also able to write in less formal and perhaps more interesting ways and so give therapists a little bit of a break while they?re checking the mail.

You may have noticed that we?re a community that argues a lot. No doubt readers will carry on that proud tradition by disagreeing with some of my thoughts and conclusions. Please write with your concerns, but please be reassured also that each of these letters has been looked over by a board of five therapists and
professional educators, most of them sophisticated in transgender issues but always at least one who doesn?t know much about us. Lots of arguments have rooted out the worst of my errors and excesses already.
If you decide to send out copies of these letters to people who can use them, one a month seems like a good interval. It?s better to send them one at a time rather than in a bunch because a bunch coming all at once tends to get tossed in a pile. We?ll be releasing a new letter every month, six in quarterly issues of Tapestry and, except on months when Tapestry publishes, the others on a new transgender page on the Soulforce website ( One new issue is available on that website now. Soulforce, in case you?re wondering, is an organization I support which works to end lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
denigration and oppression by churches.

The questions on the front of each one-page letter were answered on the back, encouraging readers to turn the page over. Also on the backs of our test series were listed local and regional resources for psychologists and other transgender service providers, including descriptions of services and contact information.

You might want to consider doing that, too.

The answers to the questions? You probably know anyway, but here they are:

?What do Shakespeare?s, etc....?? All have transgender issues shaping their lives, characters, and cultures. Shakespeare?s Rosalind/Ganymede enjoys the manhood she adopts to escape banishment, India?s Hijra are born genetic men living in an accepted women?s social role, Lord Cornbury governed New York from 1702 to 1708 in dresses and tresses, and The X-Files episodes bend gender in all kinds of fascinating ways.

?On the road, etc....?? From the perspective of experiencing life in both genders, yes, it sure seems like it. Transgender people see a number of things through the eyes of both men and women. The view is fascinating.


Transcending Genders

A monthly look into transgender lives for mental-health therapists, No. 1

-"What do Shakespeare?s As You Like It, India?s Hijra tribe,

an early New York governor, and The X-Files all have in common?"

-"On the road, do women get cut off more often than men?"

Looking at Life from Both Sides

? Judy Osborne

We?ve been shamans, outcasts, entertainers, spies, and instruments of social change. We?re viewed with horror, anger, open acceptance, mirth, indifference, curiosity, and variations of lust. We?re a people who cross gender boundaries, violating major taboos and paying a price in the
process. In the last few decades we?ve acquired a name which unites us in our variety. We call ourselves transgender.

A person has to be very brave or exceedingly foolish to change genders. Sometimes it?s hard to know which it is when we?re altering our lives so profoundly. We need your help.
These letters have been created to acquaint psychologists and other therapists with transgender issues and lives. Therapists entrusted with the revelation that a client is transgender may be struck by the client?s immense vulnerability at that moment, and want very much to help, but find themselves frustrated by the dreadful paucity of findings and reports available as guidance. These letters can?t begin to make up for that lack. We will do our best to offer a snapshot of transgender lives and issues and a frame within which to begin organizing a client?s revelations.

The author is a male-to-female transgender woman who has been active in the community for many years. Since the first-person seems like a good and honest way to communicate in this process, I?ll speak directly from me to you from now on. I hope you?ll speak back.
Let me reveal right away to you that I?m not a psychologist or any other kind of therapist. The only direct therapeutic advice these letters will contain will be in instances when I?m acting as a conduit between you and a qualified professional.

Over the years, though, I?ve accumulated lots of insights and observations that I?m reasonably certain are true. I?ll share these liberally with you in the hope that at least some will chime a familiar ring and prove helpful when you?re talking with a transgender client. In addition, I?ll try to synthesize and share some of the written and spoken knowledge and wisdom we?ve accumulated as a community of laypeople
and professionals.

Each month I?ll discuss an issue faced by transgender people and their therapists. I?ll do my best to keep these discussions lively and interesting and will not consume more than a page of your time.
A total of 24 of these letters were distributed earlier to a sample group of approximately 200 therapists in the Northwest. Each draft was evaluated before the monthly mailings by a board of five therapists. Their perceptive comments inevitably improved the texts. The Ingersoll Gender Center in Seattle financed the distribution of the two series of twelve letters under grants from Seattle?s Pride Foundation. The letters were mailed first-class and kept short to increase the likelihood that they would be opened and read. Unsolicited comments, plus the results of surveys conducted at the end of each series, indicated considerable satisfaction with the quality and content of these letters.

Virtually all transgender people seek mental health therapy at a time in life when we realize we must deal with our difference or begin to die inside or out. Rarely will transgender issues bring us to your door. We may initiate therapy because we can?t stay married, abuse drugs and alcohol, can?t keep a job or get along with co-workers, feel profoundly depressed, maybe are planning our suicide.

For many of us, telling you that we?re transgender is the most difficult task of our lives. Those of us raised as boys were conditioned from our earliest memories to avoid, at great peril, showing any feminine wish, thought, attitude, word, sound, gesture, or need. Those of us brought up as girls
typically suffered pressures at puberty to conform to society?s equally rigid gender stereotypes.
On a personal note, I went a therapist long ago to find a cure for my ?affliction.? Up to that time I never had found enough courage to tell any other person of my lifelong yearning to be a woman. Many sessions followed over a six-month period before I finally gained enough confidence to blurt out my secret. I was luckier than some. My therapist didn?t know much about people who cross gender boundaries but
nodded, listened, and did his best to help. My fulfilling life since then would have been lost in suppression or suicide if he had reacted otherwise. Eventually I discovered that the affliction isn?t mine. It belongs to society.

That experience was very much in my mind almost twenty years later when I flew to Miami Beach to help staff a transgender booth at the annual convention of the American Psychiatric Association. Eight thousand or so psychiatrists were there. About a third who passed our booth shared open and caring thoughts about our issues. Another third seemed indifferent. The remaining third exhibited openly hostile
attitudes, finding ways to avoid our booth, glaring at us, and making harsh comments. It became a macabre joke we shared with our new friends in the booths across the aisle as we discovered that many of the hostile psychiatrists were being driven into their booths to get away from us. I
wondered what might have become of me if I had chosen to share my lifelong secret with one of the latter third.

The APA Convention Program listed 159 pages of seminars spread over six days, ten at a time, from seven a.m. until well into the evening, hundreds of sessions. Not one focused on a transgender topic.

I hope you?ll find this information interesting and useful. You?re welcome to contact me at