This is a piece I wrote for another SAR panel I spoke at recently in the summer. I really reached people with this one, and I received a lot of questions and compliments after reading it to the attendees. But the greatest reward? Being able to share the fact that transgender people aren’t broken to all the therapists in the audience. I wish all therapists who specialize in sexuality and gender issues could hear this, because, truly, we aren’t broken.
by Natalie Yeh, July 28, 2013
Life has never felt more incredible than it does today and as of late. I wake up every day with the reminder of feeling free and grateful to be free of the shackles I’ve left behind. I live my life in a way that many told me was impossible for me to achieve, and it’s all because of one thing: I finally figured out that underneath, I wasn’t essentially broken. Not broken.
Dating feels like those high school days again, filled with excitement, a pure one to one mixture of fear and joy. I recently started a new job. I go into the office and do an honest day’s work with the actual ability to concentrate for a change. Then during an emotionally charged moment of self realization, pride, and silent victory, I instantaneously enjoy the flashback and recollection that when I was 6, I used to dream of one day being able to wear a skirt and makeup to work. That dream seemed so far-fetched back then, as if it could only happen in fantasy land, that I best forget about it and move on….and VOILÀ, 27 years later, here I am doing all of those things, living it, owning it, and all of it seemed so unattainable then. Yet, sometime next month, I will be in Shanghai representing my company for an Aerospace design issue. While wearing a skirt, looking fantabulous, and being authentic doing it.
The day before I started this new job, I went to the MAC counter at the mall to get colors to be able to do smoky Asian eyes, and upon checking out at the register, the cashier asked if I still lived in San Francisco, and I realized it’s been 7 years since I last purchased anything at MAC. The last time was in 2006 when I wanted to look my best at the Transgender SF Cotillion, so I went to the mall in a wig with no makeup on, bearing the stubble from my freshly shaven face and the snickers from people who saw me in order to get the perfect makeover. I got a bit emotional at the register as I realized how far I’ve come, realize what a heavy 7 years it’s been.
Last Saturday I was at a co-worker’s 28th birthday party. There were 6 girls and 24 guys. The girls all went into the kitchen to take shots and talk, gals going into such a cozy atmosphere, filled with intimacy. Some of the guys came into the kitchen and asked us to come back out to the patio, to which one of the girls replied: “Hello!!! All girls here, you need to go outside.” The guys just slumped out slowly. I recalled how I used to be on that side of the fence, and I knew how I felt when separated. But no matter how genuine their intentions were, they could never be in our circle until they let go of their manhood. I got goose bumps thinking of the privilege I have of seeing and living both sides of the fence, in addition to being so accepted as who I’ve always been but was too afraid to show or admit to myself, which was being with the group of girls all along. It was such a significant moment in my growth, that I told all the girls “I’m so happy to be here, I’m having such a great time, you girls have been so inviting and warm towards me, and made this very special,” to which they replied “We are so glad you came” and “You’re so sweet for saying that!”
Day to day life is constantly filled with “first times,” yet I have a bank of default reactions, memories, habits, and wisdom to rely on…..as if I had a cheat sheet to a test that I’ve taken before, but didn’t know the answers to and whom the testmakers didn’t know what to ask about. The past 2 years, and specifically the past few months, have been filled moment after moment with situations like what I have just presented. I’m stunned, overwhelmed with joy, and extremely proud of where I am today.
But this journey was incredibly arduous. The hardest thing I’ve ever done by far. After losing my uncle to cancer last year, while simultaneously visiting my dad and spending time with him in the hospital for heart problems; after crashing my racecar up in Topanga Canyon going over 100 MPH and losing pieces of cartilage in my nose; after seven sports injuries that required years of rehab and titanium rods and screws implanted into my bones due to overcompensating through sports while trying to act masculine; after being emotionally crushed and feeling psychologically, physically, and spiritually bankrupt by a break up with my former fiancé; none of these struggles even pale in comparison to how difficult gender transition has been.
Yet I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Not so much for the common cliché lines of reasoning. But more so because all of the past accomplishments and neat experiences: scholarships to Berkeley Engineering; basketball league and racecar trophies; traveling all over the world; having an awesome and accepting family and all the accolades….none of them could be appreciated or held with esteem or regard prior to self authenticating first. Finally, life is being broadcast in color. I’m able to own all of these accomplishments and feelings while being whole. They have an entirely new meaning and my appreciation of said experiences is on a much deeper and more grateful level now.
Yet, there were times the struggles were so overwhelming I could have easily thrown in the towel. Some of the struggles were unavoidable, and every transgender person who tries to transition and go fulltime, emotionally speaking specifically, faces similar baseline struggles to a degree: medical/hormonal and financial struggles, not to mention coming out to family and friends and significant others in some cases.
But the one standout struggle that can seriously be minimized and make transition so much easier and smoother, the one standout struggle that can be improved and that really doesn’t have to be there if there were more awareness by the medical community, would be the approach that mental health care and psychologists use to interact with the transgender community.
This is no direct criticism towards the mental health fields, as many of us in the community, in addition to those on this panel (probably), owe a lot of our well being to the care of you professionals. Everyone is a team player when it comes to contributing our share of work.
But what I am referring to, however, are the stereotypes we all carry, even amongst the transgender community. The unconscious behaviors and preconceived predispositions. The biased and skewed aspects of our behavior and thought process that stem from all of us being victims of culture, victims of our environment….the same aspects that, when used in approaches during mental health care while interacting with transgender clients, can really hurt our development and severely limit our transitional path during an already tumultuous time in our lives.
There is so much power and sway you guys have over your clients. But we aren’t like any other client you have ever faced. Or any client or interaction society has ever faced for that matter, so don’t feel bad ^_^ Even for those who specialize in gender and sexuality topics can tend to forget that transgender people are the last frontier, the final group of people that are still stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against heavily due to misinformation and stereotypes. We are 30 to 40 years behind the civil rights movement, and sadly are even misunderstood often times by fellow transgender people and gays and lesbians in our own community.
But specifically, in reference to the mental health professionals, I’d like to say just one thing on the transgender communities behalf.
If you take away anything from this panel today, I’d like you to remember this: that we, as transgender people, aren’t broken.
We aren’t sick. We are just neurotic like the rest of the world. And believe me, everyone in this room wants to be neurotic, because there are only two types of people in this entire world: neurotic people and dead people!
Yet, we are treated as somewhat more severely sick than the typical patient. Let me explain why. The moment we walk into a therapist’s office, we are generally labeled as broken. The problem is that too many therapists look at transgender people and see what society did to us with stigma, trying to smash us into submission. And these therapists, they look at the beating we’ve taken by stigma in society and they think that’s who we are. That the wounds we have are who we are!
Here’s what I want and hope you remember: whenever you have a transgender person walk in and sit down….remember…that behind the broken and battered exterior: there’s something potent and healthy and magical trying to come out. That’s the mystery! No secrets, that’s it.
I need you to not look at transgender people and say: “My god, aren’t they broken by stigma!” Instead, I want and hope you say: “Look at the possibility and brilliance here if I can help him or her unleash it!” We are potential trapped in the gender genie bottle.
Transgender people are not broken or smashed or don’t have it together. Yet, many therapists who specialize in transgender topics want us not to be fabulous; they aren’t even aware that sometimes they subconsciously want or wish for us to be broken because we are easier to manage that way….this is what I want you people in this audience to know: if you don’t treat us with dignity and respect, if you lie to us, and make us surrender to things that aren’t important to us, then you are as much of an abuser as society is……as much of an abuser as the society that you are trying to help change for the better.
Sadly, there are even resources, websites, and publications that are backed by people with high credentials in the mental health care community that claim we can be “cured.” Moreover, there are transgender people who have transitioned and claim that after gender transition, transgender people will forever suffer and be stuck in “purgatory”; that we won’t find love, EVER! That we will forever be a freak in society and seen as outcasts and dismissed.
Don’t comfort me, or coddle us because you think we are sick, or feel sorry for us.
Rather, the key should be transgender emergence: because in reality, what happens is essence emerges rather than “transition”…..we are emerging in a new way….that’s all. There’s nothing to be feared. We are abused by the medical model that comes with therapy…..this notion that we come in with medicalization with trans: the stereotype that “I have a patient who has mental illness who I need to help them process”….all of a sudden the patient is behind the 8 ball; they are stuck proving they aren’t mentally ill…..to themselves and to their therapist.
The truth is: globally, cross culturally, being transgender isn’t a mark of being broken; rather, living as transgender in a heterosexist culture, which pounds you with normativity, is what breaks elements within transgender people. That separation is really hard for therapists to comprehend: “I’m broken because I’m trans in a heterosexist culture, not because I am trans in it of itself.”
In the United States, 5 out of every 100,000 caucasians are murdered each year. 31 out of every 100,000 blacks are murdered each year. Trans people? 120+ out of every 100,000. We have incredible odds stacked against us, from day to day to lifelong. Let’s not increase the hardships, negative stereotypes, or obstacles transgender people already face. Rather, let’s build towards a healthier and more encouraging environment for those transgender brothers and sisters that still haven’t come out yet.
So please, take some time to value our capacity and ability and gifts and strengths; don’t pull us into a sickness model….because no one will feel better or benefit in the long run by admitting their identity is their sickness. And leading us down a soothing path of coddling won’t help either.
Let’s not identify by only engaging in our sickness; because it makes it very difficult to engage our strengths……The encouraging stories I mentioned in the beginning wouldn’t have happened if I couldn’t overcome my struggles and believe I was more than my sickness. There would be no travel to Shanghai next month, no sweet reminiscing at the MAC counter at Macy’s, and no tears of joy at my co-workers birthday party if it weren’t for disengaging from the sickness model and doing the work I needed to embrace my strengths and to get to where I am today. And the therapist’s views along that journey play a HUGE role.
So how are we to do this? From the top down. And there is no better group of people who have access to the top than the mental health care professionals, those who can be our guidance and voice of reason if their approach is honorable and authentic.
Because in the end, we are all human; we all got pounded by stigma; everyone in this world has been pounded by stigma. Why are transgender people any more standout than the rest? We shouldn’t be.
Personally, I’m not one of those people that can benefit by being comforted in the notion that I’m sick….. I don’t want to be led with blinders on or be soothed with fallacy……I want to find who I am and emerge as myself. And isn’t that the goal we all want for ourselves in the end? To be free to find who we truly are and thrive as we are meant to be?
I think so. I know so. And so do you.