Social Justice and Gender Therapy

This post is an expansion of this discussion I had in the comments on the 4thWaveNow blog. I am hoping to get back to focusing on working with dysphoria rather than political issues, but after spending the last three months in grad school surrounded by these ideas I thought this post was important.

A lot of what is currently going on with gender therapy is currently related to “social justice” ideology. The goal of social justice ideology is an admirable one. Its goal is to correct injustices that occur when groups are marginalized in various ways. This is a noble pursuit. Being part of a marginalized group and being subject to discrimination and prejudice is pretty awful, which is something I certainly learned after 20 years of living as a trans women.It is not the goals of social justice ideology that are problematic, but its methods. In fact, its methods sometimes cause harm to the very marginalized groups it purports to protect.

I have seen several stories from parents who take their children to see therapists for gender issues and the therapist sees the person only once and immediately recommends transition, dismissing any parental concerns as prejudice and bigotry. Likewise, people who see therapists of their own accord find their cross-gender identities are enthusiastically supported and exploration is dismissed as unnecessary. They are reassured that their gender feelings cannot relate to other causes. Some critics have suggest that therapists are just going along with trans people because they are money-grubbing and afraid of losing business if they don’t just go along with things. I don’t think this is actually true, for one I have known many therapists and none of them seem like money-grubbers, for another seeing people only once is a poor money-grubbing strategy. Rather, it is misplaced idealism that leads to this practice, which is harmful to very minorities it purports to support.

I have written in more detail about this particular ideology here. In particular there are two features that are relevant here. One is the idea of oppression. Social justice ideology sees people as members of “marginalized” or “privileged” classes. People in marginalized classes are seen as suffering from oppression and discrimination. This is true to some extent, but social justice ideology tends to see all of their problems as coming from that source.

Secondly, narratives are primary. What I mean by that is personal narratives and stories are the most important thing. The subjective triumphs over the objective. This also intersects with the idea of oppression, where members of a dominant class are seen as unable to understand the experiences of people of the marginalized class and therefore they must always take those experiences at face value.

This means that if therapist who has a strong orientation towards social justice and works with trans people they will tend to see their problems as due to oppression, and additionally feel they should not question the client’s narrative which must be taken at face value as they are oppressed people. At first I found it perplexing this practice of engaging in minimal assessment for something as serious as hormonal treatment and surgery. This seemed irresponsible especially given as I am trained as a therapist and understand how much focus is generally placed on assessment for other conditions. Now, I understand it is not so much irresponsibility, as morality. It is not that they consider it unnecessary to do assessment; it is that they actually consider it immoral to do assessment!

This is intended to help trans people and other marginalized people, but it actually can cause harm. What it means in essence is that if someone is a member of a dominant class they receive regular psychotherapy but if they aren’t they receive a special kind of social justice psychotherapy. I do think it is important that the legitimate issues that arise from social justice thinking be considered, but not at the expense of regular therapy. I feel I have been profoundly harmed by my original therapist’s failure to encourage deep exploration of my issues, versus simply “affirming my identity”.

Because of this, gender therapy is reduced to just a few steps, specifically:

1. Eliminate sources of oppression (internal and external). If the person does not accept their trans identity then that is internalized oppression, if someone else in their life questions their trans identity, than that is just due to their prejudice and privilege that makes them not understand the gender-questioning person in question.
2. Affirm and validate their identity. In particular don’t question their identity, or assume the possibility of other underlying causes, a privileged person should never question the narrative of a marginalized person.
3. Make them aware of their options and make sure they have adequate resources and support to get through transition.

A few months ago, I attended a conference about trans health. At this conference, there was a presentation titled something like “assessments for mental health” and I was excited to attend this presentation because I thought I might finally come across some good information on this topic, which every training and conference I attend never seems to have. Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed. The presenters presented a case study of a client who had psychotic symptoms, and issues with dissociation. Surely some caution would be indicated in this case. Of course, the answer was “we found a way to get them enough resources and support to have that surgery” and there was nothing about any kind of evaluation of whether they should do this or not.

I have attended four separate trainings on working with trans clients and they all were more or less like this. Everything in the training was about cultural competency and better understanding trans people. There might also be something about the nuts and bolts of transition as well. However there was never anything about how to help people deal with their issues without transition, or how to differentiate between those who will do well with transition and those who won’t.

Here is an example of a syllabus for a class for therapists to learn about trans issues. Notice that everything in the syllabus is about learning about the experiences of trans people and how to affirm them. Again, nothing about the dynamics that might lead to transition, what factors should lead to extra caution, or how to help someone figure out if they can deal with their issues without transition.

Again, it is very appropriate to consider social justice factors when working with trans people, but it should not be considered the sole factor and overshadow regular clinical judgment. Paradoxically, serving social justice requires making sure that social justice ideas don’t result in substandard therapy for sexual minorities like trans people.

Where did I go?

Where did I go?   I fell into a grad school hole.   I started a PhD program in clinical psychology this fall, and our workload for the first quarter was very demanding. I ended up regularly working 60-70 hour weeks and the last thing I wanted to do was more writing. Now the quarter is over, and I am back.

I am questioning whether school is something I want to continue with or not.   I was hoping to get more involved in the scientific/research end of psychology in addition to the clinical end which I really can’t do with counseling degree.   However, I am wondering if this is interfering with my work rather than aiding it. This path greatly delays the amount of time it will take until I will be able to be in independent practice, something I could do in about 1.5 – 2 years at the Master’s level, but will take more like 5-6 years on this path.   Also it will be several years before I can actually do any kind of research on my own interests. I do feel it is very complimentary to my previous training, my master’s program was in holistic counseling, and this program is very much in the academic/scientific tradition which has a totally different culture to it.   So, that is something for me to figure out.

It has been good to take a break from writing the blog, I find it very difficult to avoid getting sucked into all of the toxic politics around these issues. My primary goal for this blog is to help people dealing with dysphoria, and finding better ways to deal with their dysphoria than transition.   I don’t expect those ways to work for everyone, but even if they work for some people that is a good thing.   I don’t have any moral or philosophical objection to transition, hormones or surgery. I just think they are awful experiences that people should not have to undergo unless necessary. I feel that I lost a lot of opportunities as a result of this, from not being able to have a family, to dealing with social stigma, to relationship difficulties, and various mental health issues stemming from untreated trauma and taking too high dosages of estrogen.   On the other hand I recognize that some of the challenges of transition arise directly from stigma, and I don’t want to contribute to the stigma faced by trans people either.

Although, I do have a secondary goal of bringing awareness of these issues to mental health professionals, both the issues of detransitioners, and even more importantly working to find ways to prevent unnecessary transitioning.   Increasingly, at least in the USA, there is no exploration happening at all, and some therapists even find it offensive to explore or question with their clients. I think a lot of this ties into “social justice” ideology, which I wrote about a little bit here. and guest poster Lane on the blog also wrote about.   I will write some more on this, as I am finding this ideology very prevalent in my psychology program, I don’t know if many people realize the extent to which it has taken over many parts of the field. It is important to note that one can oppose social justice ideology, without being against its goals of equality or ending oppression which are admirable.   Indeed one important reason to oppose it is the harm that it can cause to minorities and particularly vulnerable people dealing with gender issues.   Jonathan Haidt and others write about the issues of political monocultures leading to groupthink and blind spots and the people at Heterodox Academy write about these issues well.

Also, I have been taking some time to reflect upon detransition.   It has been over 2 years since my detransition, and over 3 years since I started on T. There have been things that are good about detransition, but there have been some losses as well. It is not possible to fully restore things to the way things were.   In some ways things are better. It is so great to let go of having to speak with a voice that was not my own, and to just be able to be myself without worrying about how my gender is perceived. I also find much to my surprise that I really enjoy hanging out in groups of guys as a guy, I feel like I fit in there. None of the guys I hang out with are “dudebros”, some of them are gay/bi, a lot of them are nerdy or psychology people, but it feels really good to hang out with them. Also being on testosterone has granted me more vitality and energy, greater emotional stability and generally sharper thinking.

However there are still problems that remain. For one it is impossible to get my hormone levels right. I have experimented with a wide variety of different levels and gotten it the best I can. If my levels are too low I suffer from low energy and fatigue, if they are too high I end up with too many angry thoughts and too much sex drive. I find the best middle I can but it doesn’t quite work right.   I even experimented briefly with not having it, which leads to feeling calm and peaceful but not quite alive. Also going without sex hormones is bad for long-term health. But, who knows what the long-term health consequences are. I have no idea if I am helping or harming my health by taking T, compared to nothing at all or E.

Another problem is I keenly feel a loss of community.   I was an active part of various queer communities for the past 20 years.   When I was younger I was largely focused on the bi community but also spent time in general alternative sexual minority communities.   I once co-hosted a radio show on bi issues, went to conferenes of various kinds, and worked in a queer counseling center.   The queer community was my people, and now I feel alienated from those communities due to my detransition and critical views around gender.   It is hard to go against what I considered to be my people, but I think it is very important to speak truth.

It is especially strange to be doing this right in the middle of time where there are more out trans people than ever and in many ways trans people are celebrated. I don’t at all mean to say that trans people don’t suffer a lot of stigma and problems, but there are certain subcultures where this is well accepted.   They happen to be the subcultures that I mostly live in, and I feel like I will get in far more trouble for being critical around gender issues than for being trans.   Letting go of my trans identity right at the moment when more acceptance is happening feels especially strange. I still struggle with shame around transitioning in the first place and ending up in this place. I haven’t shared about my transition/detransition with my grad school colleagues or many of my newer acquaintances/friends.

Another area that is especially challenging is dating. Even though dating as a trans woman was definitely a challenge, there were actually quite a lot of people that were attracted to me. Some of these people also didn’t have any problem with my being trans. The irony is that the real problem was me. A lot of people that were attracted to me were attracted to aspects of my androgyny or even appreciated that I was trans. However, that was unacceptable to me, as I was so wrapped up in my “gender identity” that I was very closed off about talking about being trans, and wanted to people to validate my identity, so if they were attracted to my being trans or masculine qualities that was very uncomfortable and unacceptable. I became very difficult to get close to, and that closed offness was a bigger barrier to relationships than being trans was actually.

Now, I just feel invisible. I do get read as male, but still have quite a bit of breast growth and barely grow any facial hair. I am pretty sure I will do something about my breast growth, and I think it will feel better not to feel the need to wear baggy clothes and conceal things all the time. Part of me feels good about doing that, but part of me procrastinates because it feels like it is doing the same thing again, changing my body so I can be myself.   I did briefly date a woman who was a friend that I knew before detranstion, but since then haven’t met anyone. I think I am reluctant to approach people because I don’t know how to explain my body to them, I know that is something I need to get over. I just really wanted to share the good of detransition as well as the bad, I think that is important.

That is where I am now, I am hoping to get a few more posts out over my break, and catch up with people.

taking dysphoria literally vs. symbolically

This article by Dr. Schwartz posted on the 4thWaveNow blog discusses the need for caution when working with transgender children. In particular, one thing he talks about is looking at the things that children are saying about their gender symbolically rather than literally. He says that differences in treatment philosophies arise from which lens the clinician views the child’s gendered self, as a literal truth or a symbolical one. In particular he says the following:

“It is possible to respond to children in a manner that is either organized around their literal narratives, or around psychological interpretations of those narratives, which themselves take into account such inner contradictions and perplexities as described above. Toward which path the clinician leans may be strongly influenced by the degree to which he or she shares the child’s apparent view of gender, that is, holds the assumptions of essential gender, or not. Simply put, if you believe gender is an internal reality, you will likely be guided or motivated to accept a literal hearing of the child’s narrative, since it matches that view. The child’s self-presentation may then seem straightforwardly comprehensible enough to guide you in clinical decision making. On the other hand, if your prejudice is to hear any claims about real, inner gender as necessarily—necessarily because you do not believe gender is real in the sense described above— composed of symbolic or metaphoric representations, then the child’s story instigates an active interpretive process, and clinical decision making proceeds differently”

Later on he goes on to say:

“There is much more to children than what they say. We owe to them a deeper listening than a literal one.”

This article is talking about children, but much of what he is saying applies to adults as well, who also have symbolic psychological processes, which just might be a little more buried. Giving this kind of deep listening and taking the time to do so is something that is not happening much with therapeutic work with gender issue currently. There is a sense of “well that is just your identity, and it shouldn’t be questioned.” This kind of deep listening also takes time, and is not something that can be done in a couple of sessions of therapy.

Indeed, I think this focus on taking gender thoughts literally is precisely what makes cross-gender roles in modern Western culture different from those of other cultures. Lots of cultures have cross-gender roles of some kind, but only in the West do we have the idea that one literally becomes the other sex, and that indeed the whole point of transition is to do just that. This also brings with it the idea of “passing”, proving your membership in the identified sex by becoming indistinguishable from natal members of that sex. This is also something that is not considered part of the gender-variant roles of other cultures.

If taking gender dysphoric thoughts and feelings symbolically, seems strange or a form of denial, it is helpful to see that this is something that we do all the time, and in fact it is quite important that we do so.

Consider being angry at someone for wronging you in some way. You might feel anger, and have the associated thought “I am going to kill that person”. Taking that thought literally would cause a great deal of trouble. There are lots of responses that you can have to the feeling of anger, and the thought “I am going to kill that person”, some of them healthy and some of them are not.

One possible response to the anger is to feel shame, that you are a “bad person” for having such angry thoughts, and a good person wouldn’t be angry and have the thought about killing someone. This would just add to the emotional pain and would not do anything to assuage the anger.

Another possible response is distraction, to pretend that it isn’t happening and distract yourself. This sometimes is a healthy response, as the emotion might be too overwhelming to deal with right now, or be related to some temporary chemical issue like meds or hormone levels. However, it does nothing to meet the underlying need of the anger, and even if something is heightened by brain chemistry issues, there still might be a real need underneath that. Anger is an important signal and shouldn’t be ignored. Distraction shouldn’t be an always thing, and many mechanisms of distracting from feelings escalate over time, such as numbing behaviors like drug use.

Another possible response is to try to repress it, saying “I’m not really angry”. This tends to only strengthen it.

It is also possible to construct an identity around it. “I’m an angry person, that is just how I am” This will make it a lot harder to work with as you take it as an essential part of your identity rather than as an emotion. This will also strengthen it.

Another response is to accept it, this doesn’t mean you literally do what it says, but that you acknowledge and accept it. The function of anger is to provide energy to deal with an obstacle. There is likely a real obstacle that needs to be dealt with in some way. Once you have acknowledged and accepted the anger you might get some insight into what that is, and sometimes it is obvious. Once you know you can act appropriately to meet that need, perhaps there is different way to meet the need, or perhaps you have to negotiate with that person, or perhaps you do need to engage in appropriate consequences for them. This can be hard in the moment of course. The important thing is that the anger is a real signal of your real needs and is not always unhealthy.

To take dysphoria symbolically is similar. There is a feeling of dysphoria, which is distress and dissatisfaction combined with thoughts such as “I should be a woman”, or “I am a woman” or “I hate being a man” “Being a man is disgusting”, etc. Like anger, this distress is on a spectrum and can go from mild to quite overwhelming. To take it literally, is to go through transition / hormones / surgery. This may be the right thing, but it is not the only thing. There are other responses besides taking it literally.

Shame and repression have similar effects here that they do with anger, and denying it by saying “I’m really a manly man” or something like that and attempting to live that will also make things worse. Dyphoria points to the fact that something is wrong and needs to change, it is an emotional response that says something is wrong. The associated thoughts give a proposed solution, but like the “I want to kill this person” thought, it is not necessarily the case that they be taken literally. Constructing an identity around it also strengthens it like with the anger.

The question is what are the underlying needs? They may be sexual, but they may not be, and I think it is ultimately the psychological needs that drive one to transition (vs. just having a fetish) Ironically, one of those needs might be to avoid the shame of having a fetish. In any case, there are real and valid needs that are underneath the dysphoria and it is important to meet them. It is only important that they be met somewhere in your life, it is impossible to meet all of our needs in all aspects of our lives, and indeed we must make compromises in order to have relationships and connection with people, and that is the single largest determiner of happiness.

Sorting this stuff out is something that can take time, and indeed something I think there needs to be more of. Yes, adults at least should have the right to transition, and transitioning does improve some people’s lives. However I think there is the need for more exploration, I sure wish I had that. I was approved for hormones after just 2 sessions of therapy, working out everything took 150 sessions.

Here is a story of someone who worked through things symbolically. Here is a
story
from a man who work on integrating his own feminine side but wasn’t transgender. I also recommend the site Transcend Movement in which he talks about a similar process of working through things symbolically. I am not saying that everyone can deal with their gender issues through such a process, but I am saying that more people can than currently are.

The obstacles presented by ideology in discussing trans issues

One thing that makes discussion of trans issues very difficult is that it that it lies at the intersection of ideology and truth. Science strives to seek truth and to be ideology-free. It can never meet this goal because it is done by humans who are incapable of being ideology-free. Still, it is the best method we have for minimizing the effects of bias and trying to get at an accurate picture of the world.

Jonathan Hadit, who is one of my favorite psychological writers, studies moral reasoning. He wrote an excellent book about it called The Righteous Mind. One of the things he talks about is that people have certain values that they hold sacred. He talks about the ideological differences between liberals and conservatives as being largely due to the fact that they hold different values sacred. When the tribal values are threatened people are far more concerned with neutralizing the threat then what is true or not. These sacred beliefs essentially become religious beliefs and anything that challenges them feels like heresy.

This is just part of the natural condition of humanity, and the same people that can be very capable of reason and nuance about questions that do not concern their sacred values suddenly become incapable of it when they do. I remember having a co-worker who was a decent programmer. He was also a Scientologist, and would occasionally talk about how “L. Ron Hubbard was an incarnation of the Buddha, and a messiah” or other Scientology related topics. I found it perplexing that he could have the logical chops necessary to be a good programmer and simultaneously be a Scientologist, but once beliefs acquire a religious character they are immune to logic. It is much the same with political ideologies.

One of the other things Hadit talks about is the importance of diversity of ideologies in creating good science. Scientists, like all people have ideologies and sacred beliefs. Scientists are often quite passionate about their theories. They are far from neutral, disinterested observers. So, any one scientist runs the risk of having their bias interfere with their observations. Science has tools for neutralizing bias from double-blind studies to peer review. Peer review relies on other scientists looking over the science, but they too have biases. If you have an ideologically diverse set of scientists then the effect of their biases are minimized. However, to the degree that they are not ideological diverse, groupthink and other phenomena can prevail. This effect is increased if the scientific study in question contradicts the sacred tribal values of that particular group of scientists.

In the therapy world we are also concerned with the biases of therapist interfering with the therapy and making it hard to see the client clearly. This phenomenon is called countertransference, which is where the therapist projects their own stuff onto the client and does not see the client clearly. Being aware of this is a start, but therapists are people too and are often blind to their own biases and personal hooks. One way to counteract this is through consultation groups, to get the opinions of others who do not have the same biases that you do, and therefore can see things clearly that you can’t see. However, if the therapists in the group share the same ideological beliefs and biases, then this does not help, and can even make things worse as phenomena such as groupthink take over.

Having a strong conviction that the “other side” is absolutely wrong about everything is a sure sign of being engaged in tribal thinking. The truth is messy and cuts across ideologies. It can be very difficult to let go of tribal thinking as it gives a sense of belonging, which is a primal need. If one does commit to the truth wherever it leads you, you are likely to be denounced by all ideological tribes. That can be a very lonely path. Speaking out for truth that goes against your tribal values is very difficult. I recently read Alice Dreger’s excellent book Galileo’s Middle Finger where she talks about the conflict between truth and activism. Indeed, Dreger, as someone committed to truth over ideology, is often denounced for both being a “crazy liberal” and “neo-reactionary conservative”. I once read two articles denouncing her in these opposite ways within 10 minutes of each other.

The community of psychologists and therapists is far from ideologically diverse. Hadit, who is a social psychologist, gave a talk to a group of around one thousand social psychologists and asked them how many identified themselves as conservative or moderate. As described in this article in the New Yorker,
only 20 or so identified as centrist and only 3 identified as conservative. There might have been more conservatives that feared the career ramifications of openly identifying themselves as conservative. Further research in the article confirms that 37.5% of those social psychologists surveyed would be less likely to hire a conservative colleague, so their feelings would be entirely justified. This article describes social psychologists specifically, but similar phenomena exist with clinical psychologists, social workers and other mental health professionals.

I have come to the reluctant conclusion that it is progressive ideology itself that is the one of the things that gets makes it difficult to work on these issues. As a life-long liberal, and former card-carrying member of the ACLU back when that was a thing, it has been tough to come to that realization. I have long considered liberals to be my tribe and to see this ideology as itself being a problem makes me feel like I am without a tribe. However, since tribalism itself is the issue, perhaps that is a good thing. I want to emphasize that all ideologies get in the way of seeing the world clearly, it is just that the particular ideology that dominates the psychological profession is on the left. In particular, the following aspects of progressive ideology, particularly the specific progressive ideology of the psychological profession come in to play:

Privilege / Power Dynamics

Progressive ideology views the world in terms of privilege and power dynamics. People are divided into privileged and marginalized people across various axes. Why this is relevant is that is trans people are seen as a marginalized class while cis people are seen as a privileged class. This brings in to play various aspects of progressive ideology which is concerned with equalizing power dynamics. Indeed, helping marginalized people have a voice is a noble goal, however sometimes this ideology can cause harm to the very people it is trying to support.

One for the related ideas is that a marginalized class has been silenced and it is important that their voices be heard, particularly about their own experience. The privileged class is deemed to not understand the experience of the marginalized class and should listen to them. This is indeed true, and there is a long history of medicine centering men and treating women as afterthoughts and other examples of only paying attention to the dominant class. So it is indeed good and important for trans voices to be heard about their own experience.

However, this ideology leads to trans narratives being taken at face value by clinicians, and digging underneath them to be seen as being against the tribal values of the clinicians working on these issues. This is a well-meaning attempt to bring social justice to the marginalized people.

However, digging underneath things can be very important. Psychology is full of ideas about how people have defenses, self-serving rationalizations and all kinds of ways in which they don’t necessarily understand their own motivations. This is just as true whether someone is privileged or marginalized, and to ignore this when working with marginalized people is to do them a disservice. Indeed it is giving them lesser care, than you give to privileged people.

Primacy of narrative / lived experience

Another part of this ideology is the primacy of narrative and lived experience. This means the subjective is more important than the objective, and that lived experience trumps scientific research. This goes triple when it intersects with the ideas of privilege/oppresion referenced above. This is another idea that has good roots but can be taken too far. Narratives and lived experience are indeed important. As a therapist it is important to bracket aside theory and make sure that you are not treating a client as an object, or a theoretical construct and seeing the person as an individual. People are messy and do not fit cleanly into boxes.

However, the theoretical constructs and scientific research matter also. There is a vast deal of difference in degree of scientific orientation among psychologists and therapists. One problem in psychology is that the academic community of research psychologists and the community of clinicians and therapists often don’t talk to each other. Some sections of the the clinical community are even actively anti-science. Some professors in my master’s program would use the term “evidence-based practice” almost as a swear word, like it meant un-evolved. The narrative is not the only thing that matters.

Nothing is pathological

Progressives are absolutely allergic to the idea of pathology and tend towards the idea that calling anything pathology is “stigmatizing”. So there are movements to talk about how everything from bipolar to schizophrenia is a healthy variation of human experience. Many even question the very idea of mental illness. They are quite correct that stigmazing causes harm. I think it is harmful to stigmatize people based on their conditions, however we should never lose track that some things are healthier than others. For me the question of whether something is healthy is not whether it is normal but rather whether it is functional. Even being functional in some environments is sufficient, that is just a matter of getting to the right environment.

I recently read the excellent book Buddha and the Borderline by Kiera Van Gelder. This book tells of a woman’s journey in healing from borderline personality disorder. She describes how much of her community as well as many of those therapists and psychologists that treated her did not want to give her the borderline label for the reason that it would be stigmatizing. She acknowledges that it can indeed be stigmatizing when she is labeled borderline by others, but it it is also helpful to acknowledge it as an illness and that helps her in working with it.

I think refusing to understand that there is a such thing as health and a such thing as pathology causes problems, especially if you are in a profession where you are supposed to be an agent of health. Pathology should not be mistaken for diversity.

The insider experience is the only one that matters

Progressive ideology centers the insider experience, and holds that the words of a member of a group are those that are valid about a group. For example, only trans people should speak about trans experience, only women should speak about women’s experience, only black people should speak about black experience etc. It is indeed quite true that people that don’t have a certain experience are likely to get things wrong about that experience. Women are likely to see things about their experience that men don’t see, etc. Problems arise when the people studying something are all of one group and they are studying a different group. This idea also intersects with the idea of priviledge/power, and so applies in a much larger way when it is a privileged class studying a marginalized class.

This is an important idea, and tremendous harm has been caused by the lack of representation of minority groups in health. It is a very good thing that their voices are being heard in respect to their own health. However, while it is true that the insider can see what the outsider cannot see, it is also true that the outsider can see what the insider cannot see. Fish can’t see water. How many times have you encountered someone who had some false idea about themselves that everyone but they could see? This is precisely why the outsider perspective is important also. It is best to see something from as many perspectives as possible. All groups whether marginalized or privileged are prone to cultural blind spots and groupthink. Particularly in the case of groupthink, an outsider perspective is precisely what is needed.

Identitarianism

I have written quite a bit about my views on identity here, and here The identity politics wing of progressivism strongly encourages a focus on identity, both the importance of personal identity and an identification with particular groups and classes. In addition to the critiques I made earlier, one problem with identiarianism is that it exacerbates the kind of tribal thinking that clouds truth. Once people feel their group is threatened they focus on defending their group rather than truth. This is just hard-wired into human psychology.

Conclusion

The nature of tribalism, identity and ideology increase the difficultly of find scientific truth on trans issues. The tense nature of these discussions drive away many people who might be interested in working on these issues, and also causes harm to trans people, as they are deprived of scientific advances and the best possible care. Understanding these effects and working towards minimizing them can help to reduce the tension in the ongoing discussion and help us work towards a future where all those who are dealign with these issues receive the best possible care.

“regret rates” are not the sole measure of outcomes

I’ve seen the statement made many times that “the rate of regret for gender transition is very low”, generally quoted between 1 -3 % or so. This is used as evidence that we should not be so concerned with the problem of detransition. People identifying with a certain gender and wanting to transition is enough proof that transition is right for them, and therefore there is no need for any in-depth screening.If someone identifies with a certain gender and wants to transition then clearly that is the right thing, as evidenced by low regret rates. Also, there is no reason to look at different ways to deal with dysphoria, because we have this great treatment that already works.

However, there are several problems with this which are:

  • The reported measures of regret rates don’t actually measure regret rates.
  • Regret rates are not the sole measure of good / bad outcomes.
  • The demographics of transitioners today are not the same as those in the past.
  • Gender transition improving people’s quality of life, doesn’t mean there aren’t less invasive ways to get the same improvement.

The reported measures of regret rates don’t actually measure regret rates

An example of a study that shows transgender regret rates is here. This study shows a “regret rate” of 2.2%. However what are they actually measuring? What they are actually measuring is the rate of “legal detransition”. They measure what percentage of people who undergo a legal name and gender change then undergo a second legal name and gender change. They don’t measure people who have regrets but don’t detransition legally, or don’t detransition at all. It is also possible to detransition and not regret the original transition.

Regret rates are not the sole measure of good / bad outcomes

Indeed, regret is an important component of good outcomes. Regret is part of a poor outcome, and satisfaction is part of a good outcome. However, it is not the totality of good outcomes. Good outcomes include social adjustment, economic well-being, mental health, and other measures of health. There hasn’t been any research that I know of on long-term outcomes of gender transition (20+ years), partly because most long-term transitioners are lost to follow up.

Because I transitioned 20 years ago, I know many MTF transitioners that were in my cohort or even 5-10 years before. What I see is concerning. I am the only one out of them that has detransitioned, and most of them would not say that they regret their transition and continue to go by feminine pronouns and feminine names. In terms of life outcomes, I would say economically they are mostly doing well. However, socially they are struggling. Most of them are alone. I see a lot of social anxiety, people being unwilling to leave the house. In addition, they still continue to deal with dysphoria and have emotional difficulties.

This is not a good thing, some people would say these difficulties are due to oppression and by reducing this oppression it would reduce or eliminate these difficulties. I definitely believe that oppression is a large factor in some of the things that are awful about being transgender. I oppose those that intend to make the world worse for trans people. However, I do not think it is the sole source of these difficulties.

The demographics of transitioners today are not the same as in the past

These studies of regret rates are often used as reasons that we don’t need to be too concerned about people with cross-gender identities regretting transition. This is combined with the idea that people have a fixed and essential gender identity and aren’t wrong about it. So, if someone identifies as transgender, then they are transgender, and that can’t be changed.

In particular we should be concerned about two groups, adolescent / young adult FTM transitioners and transitioning children. Historically, the ratio of MTF : FTM transitioners was around 3:1. A recent study showed that FTM transitioners are now exceeding MTF transitioners, a large change. Also, there is a recent
study
showing that many of these are young women dealing with typical adolescent identity issues as seen here. I wrote about this in more detail here There are already more and more female detransitioners and people who take testosterone for a while and then stop. The trouble is we don’t know how to distinguish between the people that are going to be happy with their transitions in the long term and those who won’t. This is a topic that is in great need of further study, and we should proceed with caution until we have it, to make sure we aren’t giving a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

We should also be concerned about transitioning children, as historically 75-90% of children with gender identity issues desisted at puberty. I believe that children that have gender dysphoria that persists into adolescence should be given access to transgender services. I don’t think this point is particularly controversial in the field. However, desistance rates have been declining. This has been celebrated as vindication for the use of puberty blockers, but it seems to me that this is evidence that the experience of puberty itself leads to desistance, and therefore it is important to have these children experience at least some of their natal puberty in order to determine whether they will desist or not.

The wrinkle in all of this is that if someone is to undergo gender transition it is better for them to experience as little of their natal puberty as possible, both for the emotional effects of their puberty, and better physical results from transition. This is one of the things that makes it tricky. I think it would be best to try to figure out how much of the natal puberty they need to experience to determine if they would desist or persist, I don’t know what the answer to this question is.

Also there are those that claim desistance is equivalent to persistence as long as they are well-adjusted. I disagree with this strongly, even if they become well-adjusted trans people. If they could have been well adjusted without this treatment as well that is still a loss. Infertility and a lifetime of dependence on hormone treatment should not be treated lightly. Of course if the choice is between being a well-adjusted trans person and non well-adjusted cis person, we should prefer the well-adjusted trans person.

Gender transition improving people’s quality of life, doesn’t mean there aren’t less invasive ways to get the same improvement.

The research shows that gender transition improves the quality of life of some transitioners, and I do not advocate for eliminating it, or denying access to those who need it. However, this does not mean we shouldn’t continue to look for better ways to work on these issues at the same time. Even though transition does indeed improve people’s quality of life, this is still a community under significant distress. Attempts to help people work on these issues without transition should not be denounced as “conversion therapy”. It is not evil to want people to find better ways to deal with their issues.

Narcissism Pt. 2 – Antidotes to Narcissism

In the previous post I talked about Narcissism. In this post, I will talk about some of the antidotes to narcissism. Severe narcissism such as in full-blown Narcissitic Personality Disorder is notoriously difficult to treat with psychotherapy, however, more mild forms of narcissism can be worked with. Really, it depends on how much access the person has to their true self. The paradox of narcissism is that healing requires that the true self be loved and accepted, and the narcissist so identifies with the image they have created that they reject any love given to the true self. They feel intense shame and vulnerability when the true self is even seen. However, sometimes narcissism can partially or totally remit on its own.

Narcissism sometimes remits when the person reaches their 40s. Also spontaneous remission of Narcisstic Personality Disorder sometime occurs in response to an immenant threat to life itself. The direct experience of one’s own mortality, can bring one into the real, in a way that nothing else can. I suspect the reason that remission sometimes occurs in mid-life is that mid-life also brings the realization of mortality. Narcissism is in part a choice to deny the visscitudes of life, mortality, aging and impermance in favor of an immortal image. Also, of course, one can meet the recognition of mortality with denial, which brings the classic mid-life crisis, the attempt to remain young forever. This is especially prevalent in Western culture, which glorifies youth.

That brings us to the first antidote to narcissism, mortality.

Mortality

My own recognition of my mortality is what first knocked loose my transgender identity and eventually led to the opening that enabled me to heal. When I was 30, I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Fortunately, it was one of the more curable kinds of cancer, but I was given only a 50:50 chance to live. The knowledge that I could be about to die paradoxically made me much happier than I had been. It released me from the relentless pressure to be perfect, and I just played for the first time. A few months later, still not knowing whether I would live or die, I found myself reading Jung. In particular, I encounter some of Jung’s writing on “anima possession”, where a man is taken over by his anima. . In reading this, I felt my body unwind and that there was truth in it, that I had become possessed by a false self. I still could not let of go of this female identity for ten more years, as there was so many things to work through. The encounter with mortality opened the door, and enabled me to begin truly working on my healing.

Service

One of my favorite exchanges in Game of Thrones is the Bravosi greeting. They say “Valar Morgulis” – All men must die. The expected response is “Valar Doheris” – All men must serve. This is because service to something greater than oneself is a healthy response to mortality, and ultimately what is most fulfilling. I first noticed that there was something wrong when I was in my mid 20s and I became involved in groups where there was some emphasis on service. People would volunteer with relish and might even spend their entire festival working in the kitchen. I noticed they had an access to a happiness that I did not. I thought I would try to emulate that, and volunteer, but I didn’t really feel anything. Being wrapped up in the fantasy self acts as a barrier to the human feelings underneath. One of the great joys of working through these issues is the ability to feel the joy of doing something good for another in deeper and deeper ways. This is a much more nutritious food than the more shallow food of attention and validation. What matters here is not the magnitude of the service, but the intention behind it. Indeed narcissists sometimes perform quite valuable acts of service in service to their egos, but that is not what will create healing.

Values

The field of Positive Psychology studies human flourishing. Most of clinical psychology is concerned with pathology, and relieving pathology. One of the findings of positive psychology is the development of character strengths and living in accordance with these values. Each person has their own particular strengths. These strengths specify the ways in which people are most fulfilled in serving the world. However, at first they exist as potentials only, and must be cultivated. Positive psychologists have identified 24 character strengths, and created a test to see which ones resonate with you the most. This value-orientation is very different than the identity-orientation, because it requires action. The identity-orientation says that you are what you perceive yourself to be, no action required. The value-orientation is not just something you are, but also something you do. This orientation to life goes as far back as Aristotle, who defined virtues as habits that were built over time. Who you are is your character, and is based on what you do and what habits you develop, not on how you think of yourself.

Embodiment

Embodiment is being in one’s body and being connected to our own instinctual processes. One of the problems I had with living in my fantasy self was that I was disconnected from my body and usually in state of dissociation. I didn’t even know what dissociation was because it was just my normal existence. My body had a lot of tension. My body is also how I came to know what was real and what was not, because in my head I could be absolutely anyone, but that was not true in my body.

Relationship

One of the largest determinants of happiness is the quality and depth of human relationships. Having deep intimacy, seeing another and being seen by them, is one of the great joys of life. Narcissism impedes this, because having another see your image is not the same as having another truly see you. It also hard to truly see another if you are fixated on your own image. One of the reasons I let go of my transgender identity was because it interfered with my being present for another, this was particularly true as I began to see clients as a therapist.

Empathy / Universality

Narcissism arises from the belief that one has to be unique and special to be loved. The best medicine for narcissism is to receive empathy, and empathy for the real self. Empathy is not based on what is unique about us, but on what is common about us. We share certain things with all humans, certain things with only some humans, and certain things are unique to us. It is the common things that allow us to put ourselves into the shoes of the other. We all have feelings, we all have pain and pleasure, we all grow old and die. What is unique about us is important also, but does not generate empathy. A person who feels they can only be loved for their specialness is disconnected from our common shared humanity which is the source of empathy.

I see my journey of returning to male as being a letting go of fantasy and returning to what is real, and working to let go of narcissism. I do not mean to imply that all transgender people suffer from narcissism. The research does show elevated rates of narcissism particularly with MTF folk, but does not show that all MTF or FTM folk have problems with pathological narcissism. It is just that since the essence of narcissism is identifying with a grandiose or fantasy self, if narcissism is present as well, it seems possible the two are related. They certainly were in my case.