Last week, I went home to West Michigan to attend a seminar in Muskegon, “Transgender 101,” presented by psychologist Dr. Lori Bray and her former-husband-Michael-now-fully-transitioned-wife, Nicole. Days before that, an article was published in The New Atlantis by doctors Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh on the topic of sexuality and gender.
Reading the article and pondering the presentation, I feel like I have viewed two distinct sides of the same coin. More vividly, you likely know the old yarn about a group of people describing an elephant, where each one touches a different part and when they compare notes they have no agreement as to what an elephant is like. My sense is that the Brays have touched the heart and soul and mind of transgender issues, while Mayer and McHugh did not get past feeling their way around the elephant in the room.
Nicole is making a documentary about her transitioning. Facebook users may find her page here:
Mayer and McHugh’s article may be found here:
Lori and Michael married in 2007. Michael was in his early thirties. He had never told a soul that, ever since he was four years old, he had felt like he really was a girl. Five years into their marriage, Michael’s identity issue deepened so much that Lori noted the happy guy she married now often was very grumpy.
Wanting to be prepared to discuss these issues, Michael set about studying every aspect of gender dysphoria and transitioning. It was only when Lori grew curiously concerned at his behavior on the Internet that she got him to open up.
Though she was shocked, Lori was completely supportive of whatever her husband needed. When I introduced myself during the break, I said to Lori, “You tie with my wife as being the #1 wife in the USA.”
Within days, Michael was in therapy, was soon on hormone replacement therapy and, now identifying as Nicole, on her way to fully transitioning, with every surgery a trans woman might need or desire, so that she was fully transitioned in two years, before the end of 2014.
Nicole has much going for her which many trans folks do not. Chiefly, she has the love and support of her wife. They are educated people with respectable income, though they had to borrow a lot to pay for Nicole’s several surgeries. Most, but not all of their family has accepted Nicole and their marriage. Nicole has struggled to find employment in the work she desires.
They pointed out how many transgender persons continue to struggle to find gainful employment, that many make under $10,000 a year, are kicked out of or cannot find housing, and are rejected by family.
While Mayer and McHugh present several objective studies from various angles of the topic—even at times noting successes among those who have transitioned—I continually felt an overarching bias as I read. My take on some of their conclusions became, “Yes, some succeed, but look at all of these who have not.” They strive for objectivity, but I feel that I am reading two skeptics. Of course, I certainly might be prejudiced against them both because I am transitioning and having long been exposed to McHugh and regularly have found his views narrow and one-sided.
Mayer and McHugh do not include endocrine disruption as an intersex condition. While the Brays accurately noted that disturbed hormones are, at this time, still in the realm of suspected theories, dozens of known endocrine system maladies from disturbed hormones have been proven. Thus, that a person might be intersex for this reason carries a strong sense of reality. For M & M, intersex conditions are terribly rare and only of the genital and chromosome types.
M & M want psychological counseling to be the chief (only?) implement for healing or coping for the gender dysphoric, yet I found no discussion of how terribly unsuccessful counseling is in helping these folks to find comfort in the sex they were assigned at birth. Even my Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which has largely utilized McHugh for its understanding of this topic, has a professor of bioethics who acknowledges that counseling is largely unsuccessful.
At this time, there seems to be no happy balance in this discussion, so clearly opposed are the pro and con sides on everything from causes to treatment to success or lack thereof. I appreciate the sober-minded approach of scientists such as Mayer and McHugh, even as I value the real-life accounts of those such as Nicole, along with my own experience.
I find myself wondering if M & M ever sat down with a group of transgender folks and listened to their stories, so academic and lacking in empathy is their study.
Diagnosing gender identity dissonance is not like deciding whether one has a cold, or is it cancer? Transitioning is light years more formidable than, say, quitting one’s job and uprooting the family so that one might return to school and begin a new career in his thirties, which is what I did.
I have to be careful with my personal determinations which are based on those whom I have met and with whom I have familiarized myself through books and the Internet. If my sampling were objective, it would be a slam-dunk for those to transition who have been properly diagnosed. My sampling is not objective, but completely personal based on who attends our group meetings, those with whom I have sat on panel discussions, others I have met, and what I have chosen to read.
A few months ago, I began wondering if transgender could become a fad. Of the many people who contact me, there was a spate of them who wrote with concern over a family member or friend who has now identified as trans. If the person writing to me presented accurate information, I found that they might, indeed, have valid concerns.
Could being diagnosed—whether by a therapist or by one’s self-determination—as transgender become a fad? I recall when attention deficit disorder (ADD) grew in prominence in the early ‘90s. It seemed that every young child, who had any sort of trouble concentrating or behaving, was so diagnosed and very likely prescribed Ritalin. Nowadays, I have in mind bipolar disorder as a diagnosis that just might be trendy. Fair questions to ask are, 1) Have we finally found a source for a particular set of troubles and are now correctly diagnosing it? or, 2) Are we being influenced so that we are finding something that really is not what we are now diagnosing it to be?
Humans are like this, as witnessed by societal trends—tattoos—crazes—Pokemon Go—and I-have-to-have-it-because-she/he/they-have-it behavior. Surely, therapists and doctors are not immune to being influenced. It would not be surprising for a person who, a few years ago, never would have considered transgender because it was so rarely in the news, might now ponder the possibility for her or his distress because there are many stories about young kids, teens, adults, and seniors who are transitioning or have done so.
So, I am okay with Mayer and McHugh’s careful approach, though I cannot shake my sense that they have a natural, or experiential, or perhaps even religious bias against anything which does not match the gender binary of male and female.
And I am certainly okay with, and indeed am most grateful for the Lori and Nicole Brays who are able to stand before us, tell their story, and demonstrate success for Nicole’s sake, which has also become success for them as a married couple because they used their hearts and their heads throughout the process and beyond.
There are too many who have successfully transitioned for this to be dismissed as an unsatisfactory course of action for the gender dysphoric. Still, there are so many issues—family, economics, spiritual—which continue to negatively affect way too many everywhere on the trans continuum, from those who cannot fathom ever telling a soul for fear of their world being destroyed, to those who went for it and transitioned and might have lost much in the way of relationships, jobs, housing, and their personal safety.
Are we progressing in understanding this confounding thing of one’s feeling a mismatch in identity and anatomy, and in helping those who suffer, and in accepting trans folks in society? Thankfully, we are. Sadly, there remains way too much mystery inside the human body, and even the slightest amount of ill treatment toward any person in society shall never be acceptable.
Let us continue to study, learn, and talk. As we do, let us always demonstrate compassion.