When my client Drew — not her real name — first came to see me eight years ago, she was barely 20. A talented painter and one of the funniest people I'd ever met, she also was beautiful, with a face like one of those androgynous angels in Renaissance paintings.
As a teenager, she was molested by a brother. Her elderly, upper-middle-class parents accused her of lying and she left home to live in a van for a while.
Drew, like many abused children, was still locked in the drama of trying to get her parents' approval – her mother's in particular. This was a doomed goal – her mother had a serious personality disorder – and her father had basically withdrawn from the family.
Drew's mother mostly despised her daughter being gay and dressing in vaguely male clothes. The two had horrible arguments that left Drew devastated for weeks. It wasn't that her mother didn't love her, but it was a love so sadistically expressed that Drew had come to play a compulsively masochistic role with her mother (as well as the rest of her family and, eventually, her lovers).
Her mother actually paid for her weekly sessions. After three months, she called and said: "The treatment is not working; I am terminating it."
Of course, that meant the "treatment" was indeed working. Drew had started standing up to her mother. I cut Drew's fee in half so she could continue to see me. The denouement arrived one afternoon after another shouting match with her mother. Drew walked into her mother's garden and began destroying her hideous plaster gnomes, shattering them on the sidewalk.
Drew's father died and, not long after, she went off to school in another state to study film. Then her mother developed cancer, and Drew came home to care for her. This is a common story: The least favorite child often attends the dying parent.
Now Drew has begun her newest adventure -- transitioning to the male gender. Because her parents are dead and she's estranged from the rest of her family, she feels freer to do this. I confess that I found myself balking at her announcement. Gender is the principal axis around which our culture is organized. And no matter how much you attempt to put stereotyping aside, it's difficult to maintain neutrality. I found all the usual questions coming to mind. What if she changed her mind? Was this a reaction to her parents' dying? Above all: Since gender is such a powerful, often negatively organizing force, why not assume an androgynous identity?
Drew admitted that the latter consideration had long delayed her commitment to transitioning. "Being the object of male prejudice, why would I want to become male?" she asked. "I'm not able to answer the question, except to say I want facial hair."
I burst out laughing, because her response actually makes sense. In many ways, transitioning is an aesthetic change. It won't change who she is. She's recently started taking testosterone. Her next step will be seeing a psychologist who can assure medical doctors that she's a candidate for surgical alteration. Despite my own worries, it did strike me as odd that the state requires a trans person to be "verified." If you want to cosmetically alter yourself to look like Elvis, that's not the case.
Lest I continue to worry that she is acting impulsively, Drew brought in a photo album last week that included many pictures of her as a child. It was astonishing to see so many pictures of her wearing male costumes, most of them comical.
"I've always felt this way," she said. "I've worn male clothes most of my life, but I always put a veneer of humor over it, so nobody gets too freaked out. I'm tired of having to make a joke of myself. I'm tired of being a masochist."
Plenty of people feel just like her. They'll have a chance to meet one another at the annual Southern Comfort Conference, Sept. 30-Oct. 5 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Ravinia. The conference is open to everyone and includes many educational as well as social opportunities. Check out its website, www.sccatl.org.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For his blog and information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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