Don’t Poke the Dysphoria Monster

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There may be a monster in your child’s closet. All of the reassuring you may have done when your child was little that there was “no such thing as monsters”, checking under beds and in closets to alleviate anxiety, may not have been exactly true. For transgender kids and adolescents, and even adults, a Dysphoria Monster may be lurking nearby.

When I worked in a residential treatment facility for children, I used the “Addiction Monster” metaphor to explain addiction to children. Many children who resided there had parents who were addicted to substances, and this resulted in inconsistent visits, broken promises, and time away in jail. I would explain that when someone is struggling with addiction, they have an addiction monster that is sometimes small and manageable, sometimes huge and overpowering, but never nonexistent. When it’s huge, it has them in their grip, throwing them around, banging them up, holding them hostage. When the addiction becomes more under control, the individual may have more power over the monster, like walking it on a leash. After some time of sobriety when urges have decreased dramatically and the individual is in recovery, the monster may get small enough to tuck away in their pocket. But remember: it’s always there, and they would need to take care to keep it small.

Now that I work with transgender individuals, I have met the Dysphoria Monster. For those of you who don’t know, dysphoria is the discomfort and depression that can come with having a body that does not line up with one’s gender identity, or come from not being read as/treated as the gender one is in their brain. Dysphoria can range from unpleasant to life-threatening; it’s a force to be reckoned with.

Most transgender people experience and relate to dysphoria differently. Some have very little (tiny dysphoria monster tucked in their pocket), some have debilitating dysphoria (picture the gender dysphoria equivalent of Godzilla). Dysphoria can fluctuate on an hourly, daily, weekly basis. How much dysphoria is present on a day-to-day basis can be dependent on temperament, life experience, support, stage of transition, relationship status, triggers, and much more.

Here is an example of how the Dysphoria Monster can work: picture a female-to-male individual walking down the street with a female friend. He’s feeling good; confident, content, enjoying the day. His monster is quiet; he doesn’t really notice it. Suddenly he and his friend enter a restaurant and they are greeted with, “Hello, Ladies!”. His monster is awakened! Growling, breathing down his neck. The monster sits with them at the table for the rest of the meal as he agonizes over being misgendered.

Ever heard of the expression “don’t poke the bear”? It’s important as the loved one of a transgender person that you don’t “poke the Dysphoria Monster”. Be aware of the fact that this monster is lurking nearby and that it is in your loved one’s best interest that the monster stays docile. Unfortunately, parents and partners (and other loved ones) can fairly easily poke the monster because they are usually the ones who are around the individual the most. This can happen in any number of ways: misgendering (using wrong pronouns), using birth name, commenting on body parts, commenting on appearance, giving tips on how to be masculine/feminine, the list goes on.

Do you want to know how big and unruly your loved one’s Dysphoria Monster currently is, and how to avoid inadvertently awakening it? Here are some tips:

  • Educate yourself on dysphoria. Don’t expect your loved one to do it all for you. Understand what can be the most distressing parts of being transgender. Use compassion to fill in the blanks you don’t understand.
  • Check in. Don’t be afraid to ask, “How’s your dysphoria?” (or whatever word they would like you to use). Usually they will know exactly what you mean, and you will get the most direct answer that way.
  • Ask them what triggers their dysphoria the most. This will help you not only learn to avoid causing these triggers yourself, but will be alerted to check in after you witness one of these triggers happening.
  • Ask what helps lower their dysphoria. Ask when they feel the least dysphoric, and then try to increase or replicate these experiences/situations.

How big is your or your loved one’s Dysphoria Monster? Would you describe it differently?

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It’s Hard For Moms

I have a lot of respect for Chaz Bono. Being the child of a superstar like Cher, coming out as trans and transitioning under the spotlight no doubt makes a frightening and difficult process all the more so. He has been very visible and vocal in order to educate the public and pave the way for other transgender individuals. As he said on the Oprah special, “I’m doing this because I want to try to help people…I want to try to put a face on an issue that people don’t understand. That’s why I did this publicly.” And now to push himself further out of his comfort zone and appear on Dancing With the Stars… wow. My hat’s off to you, Chaz.

He said something in response to a question from a fan about his mother Cher’s response to his transition that really stuck with me, and I think it summarizes an aspect of one’s gender transition beautifully.

The fan said, “I would think your mom would accept it real well!”

Chaz’s response? “It’s hard for moms.”

Yes, even Cher. Even the leather-wearing, booty-revealing, sex symbol/gay icon mom!

This process is indeed hard for moms; likely for all parents and guardians. This element is something that is a large part of the work I do with my transgender clients. Inevitably my job in therapy is part helping the individual transition and process emotions that accompany that; part is helping them cope with responses from others and understand what the process might be like for their loved ones.

When becoming a parent, the prospect of one’s child becoming a different gender than originally thought is not usually within one’s realm of possibility. Parents often begin planning, fantasizing, and formulating expectations for their child’s life as soon as they’re born; often as soon as they are conceived. Gender plays a big part in these expectations which then have to shift a great deal when the gender nonconformity or different gender identity is revealed.  This comes as a shock to most parents, and it can be difficult to wrap one’s brain around, particularly if the parents have not previously had experience with someone who is gender variant.

Of course, responses vary from one extreme to the other. Some parents get on board soon after hearing their child verbally reveal their true gender identity. Although rare, this can be related to seeing many signs of gender variance since early childhood, or sensing an unknown source of distress and seeing the relief the gender revelation brings. Other parents fight it and resist for many years, struggling to have any type of acceptance. This is the more common response, likely due to the parents having to shift ideas they had been formulating about their child’s life since the child was born. There is also a distinct element of fear; fear they will “lose” their child, or that their child will become unfamiliar to them. This usually is not the case (post-transition often being easier than expected and realizing their child is still the same person), but that “What If?” is sure powerful.

I have sat in many a session and witnessed two people in pain: the transgender individual, wanting desperately to be accepted and supported in the daunting process of transitioning, and the parent, wishing this were not true, wanting it to go away.

Some of the feelings a loved one might feel are likely similar to feelings the transgender person has already gone through prior to disclosing their gender identity or plans to transition. Many have walked through the fear, the wishing away, the major adjustment to how life is going to change.

If you are a gender variant person expressing your true gender or looking to transition, and your mom, parent, or loved one is struggling with it, take heart. Even though it’s hard for them, acceptance is possible. It may be closer than you think. While you are on your own journey, your loved ones are on theirs, and all of you deserve compassion, patience, and tolerance. When you find yourself getting discouraged, remind yourself, “It’s hard for ___________”, filling in the blank with your loved one who is struggling.

If you are a parent of a gender non-conforming child or adult, and you have struggled with negative feelings about your child’s gender expression or transition, be kind to yourself. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of acceptance, please don’t judge yourself for having feelings about this. It’s important you take care of yourself while taking care of your child. Having feelings of fear, dread, sadness, or loss doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. Walking through these feelings to get to the other side is a part of the process. I can’t underscore the importance of getting to the other side, though… and eventually being able to support your child’s decision with the unconditional love they absolutely need, no matter how old they are. The significance of the parent/child relationship is both what makes this difficult on you, and why your acceptance is crucial to your child’s happiness. Ultimately, your acceptance will likely be one of the most important aspects on your child’s journey. So on this journey to acceptance and support (and anyone can get there!), validate your feelings, find a place to be heard, talk to other parents in your situation. Because yes… it’s hard for moms.

Gender Vs. Sex

Recently I had a conversation with my in-laws about a “Gender Revealing” party they saw on television. The expectant couple had the ultrasound technician find out the sex of the baby, write it on a card, and the couple didn’t peek at it. (Now that’s self-control!) They gave the card to a bakery, and a special cake was made based on what the card read.  At the “Gender Revealing” party, when they cut it open, a pink or a blue cake was discovered, thereby revealing the “gender” of the baby to be. My response? “I went to a party like that! Except they called it a ‘Sex Party’, which is what it was… they were revealing the sex of the baby, not the gender.  The true gender won’t be revealed until the baby is much older.” The blank stares I was met with weren’t surprising. So few people ever think of the distinction between gender and sex, but due to my work and experiences with loved ones, I understand how important this distinction is. Do I need to be educator at every turn, or explain the distinction any time someone mentions something like this? Probably not. But, the reason I do it is this: the more people in society who understand the distinction between sex and gender, the better off gender nonconforming people will be.

To be perfectly clear… sex refers to genitals and sex organs; either male or female genitals/sex organs make one biologically male or female.  One’s gender identity comes from the brain, and may or may not align with one’s sex.  I believe gender identity is something that is formed in the womb along with the genitalia; sometimes they just don’t match.

Gender is in reference to what a person feels like as a result of having a male or female brain.  If one identifies as having a male gender, he is most likely going to be comfortable with being called a male name, having male pronouns used for him, and will want to present as male. If one identifies as having a female brain or gender identity, she is going to want to be referred to by a female name, female pronouns, and will want to present as female.  Often I simplify this so-not-simple concept with this question: “When you check out at the grocery store, do you want someone to say ‘Thank you, Ma’am’, or ‘Thank you, Sir”?  I say this because it relates it to an everyday experience which we all can relate to. It just wouldn’t feel right to ANY of us if someone addressed us with the “wrong” title. In these everyday experiences, sex organs don’t matter, but brains certainly do. And yet transgender individuals have to deal with being referred to by the “wrong” gender (due to their sex) often for years before transitioning.

So when a baby is born and the parents hear, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”, that is a statement of what sex the baby is. One’s true gender (may match the sex, or may not) is revealed much later when the individual becomes old enough or aware enough to express the gender identity of his or her brain.

National Association of Social Workers policy on gender

In Kim Pearson’s talk at the LGBT Center on May 23, 2011, she mentioned that NASW had one of the most comprehensive policy statements on gender non-conforming individuals. Below is an abstract of the public policy statement. One of the many reasons I’m proud to be a social worker!

Transgender and Gender Identity Issues

NASW supports curriculum policies in schools of social work that eliminate discrimination against people of diverse gender and encourages the implementation of continuing education programs on practice and policy issues relevant to gender diversity. In addition, to foster public awareness, NASW supports collaboration with organizations and groups supportive of the transgender community to develop programs to increase public awareness of the mistreatment and discrimination experienced by transgender people and of the contributions they make to society. NASW also urges development within schools and other child and youth services agencies of programs that educate students, faculty, and staff about gender diversity and the needs of transgender children and youth. Further, among other activities concerning transgender expression, NASW advocates for:NASW recognizes that there is considerable diversity in gender expression and identity among our population and believes that people of diverse gender — including those sometimes called “transgender” — should be afforded the same respect and rights as any other person. Discrimination and prejudice toward anyone are socially, emotionally, physically, and economically damaging. A nonjudgmental attitude toward gender diversity enables social workers to provide maximum support and services to those whose gender departs from the expected norm. Social workers must encourage the development of supportive practice environments for those struggling with gender expression and identity issues, including both clients and colleagues.

  • education and support of parents of intersex children;
  • development of and participation in coalitions to lobby for the civil rights of people of diverse gender expression and identity;
  • increased funding for education, treatment services, and research;
  • repeal of laws  and discriminatory practices, especially in employment; and
  • adoption of laws to facilitate individuals in identifying with and expressing their gender choice in education, housing, inheritance, health and other types of insurance, child custody, property, and other areas
Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 10:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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