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  • Penny Sterling

Plenary Truths: One Trans Woman's Journey

I was the ultimate Plenary Speaker at the American Association of Psychotherapist convention in Columbus, Ohio in October of 2021. I performed my show "Spy in the House of Men," held a talk-back session, sat on a panel, and conducted a workshop on Useful Storytelling. I was also asked to contribute to VOICES, the AAP's quarterly journal. My contribution was not only accepted, but it was the lead article for the Summer 2021 volume.

This was really cool, but the problem is that the entire thing is behind a paywall, so here's the article, along with the accompanying photo montage by Linda Coffey:

Since my main rule for living is to never refuse stage time, I of course said yes when invited to be a plenary speaker for the 2021 Institute and Conference of the American Academy of Psychotherapists,

and again to writing for the companion issue of Voices, despite not knowing what, exactly, a “plenary” speaker was or what I had to say to an audience of therapists.

For an example of the journal, I began reviewing the “Fiftieth Anniversary Issue: The Best of Voices” (2014), which offered a collection of articles from the esteemed

history of the publication. To be honest, I didn’t make it all that far into the journal. Partially because it was using words in ways that befuddled my brain, but also because one of the early articles stopped me cold: “Interpretations and Child Therapy” by Haim G. Ginott, originally published in 1968.

I remember 1968. It’s probably the first year where I can place things that happened in a chronological context. Some of it is simply because of how they shook the world: the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Apollo 8 passing behind the moon, and the Mustang Shelby GT/Dodge Charger 440/RT car chase in the Steve McQueen movie Bullitt. Okay, maybe that last one affected me more than most folk. Also in the memorable category for me were:

  • Winning a school prize for writing 24 book reports in a month

  • Watching the Pittsburgh Pirates play the New York Mets at Forbes Field

  • Realizing I was transgender.

Except, of course, I wasn’t transgender, because that word had yet to be coined. But also because there was no one else in the world like me. At least, that’s what it felt like. I grew up in a wealthy little town that was so very much in the middle of nowhere that it had to have its culture and entertainment imported, and what little queer culture there was in America the year before the Stonewall riots occurred was happening someplace else entirely and did not make it into the area.

Or maybe it did, and I didn’t know it. Mom was a woman driven by fear, which colored everything she did, especially when it came to her family. Mom was 32 when she and Dad got married, which in that era meant she was in spinster territory. She never expected to get a husband, so she acquiesced to every demand Dad made in order to keep him happy.

Dad really only had one demand: When he came home from work he wanted a clean house, clean kids, and food on the table. Oh, and also that in the evenings he got to go out and do all the things he always did: bowling, volleyball, choir, etc.

Having been a parent, I now know that Mom’s reaction should have been to say, “If you want kids, then at best you’ll get one of the other two, and that’s only if you get involved.” But she didn’t. Instead, she gave my dad what he wanted: a clean house, clean kids, and food on the table. It’s just that one of the clean kids was often upstairs in their room with a sore bottom and crying, quietly, so that no one would come upstairs and give them “something to cry about.”

Me. That kid was me.

I was boisterous, curious, and restless, which are pretty common traits for a baby. My older brother was much quieter and studious as an infant, which made things easier for my mom. When I was a teenager, she would tell me stories about this time of her life. I don’t know why, but she did. Maybe it was because I was the only person who listened to her. Maybe she was trying to justify, or at least explain, the decade or so of abuse I received from her. Maybe both.

She’d tell me how my brother really didn’t learn to walk or talk until I came along. Instead he would point and grunt, and my mom would give him what he wanted and then get back to cleaning and cooking. “You would never sit still,” she’d tell me. “I’d just get so frustrated with you!” Her frustration turned to rage, which turned to violence, and I’d get spanked as a baby for being a baby.

And we haven’t even gotten to the transgender stuff yet.

In my show Spy in the House of Men, I talk about my life in a series of stories, each with a title card. The earliest part of my life’s story is called “The Fundamental Wrongness of Me” for a reason. In 1968, I figured out that a big part of that wrongness was that I was a girl in a boy’s body.

Okay, so “figured out” is a bit of a stretch. In 1968, Mom rather drunkenly told me that I was supposed to be a girl. Her reasoning was based on a whole bunch of old wives’ tales, but also, I think, because she was really hoping that I would be a girl while she was pregnant with me. She grew up with three brothers, and then her career before marriage was in offices where she was often the only woman. She didn’t have many interactions with women, so she really wanted a daughter. She didn’t get one.

Well, she did, but didn’t know it.

And since my readers are presumably a bunch of people who look at human beings who reveal stuff like this and say things like “interesting…” and wonder if perhaps my gender divergence may be because of some subconscious desire to please my mother, let me just say that it’s possible, maybe even probable, and perhaps even went back to my time in utero, because when she told me this, a whole bunch of dots connected for me.

Though what does it matter?

Here are some of the dots I remember connecting:

• Playing in a splash pool with the girl next door and asking if we could switch bathing suits because I liked hers so much better. I had taken mine off and handed it to her when my mom caught me and let me know she wasn’t pleased with me in her traditional way.

• My father’s constant criticism that I did things “like a girl,” especially physical things. The way I threw a baseball, the way I punched, the way I walked, the way I laughed—all of these things met with his disapproval at one time or another, forcing me to change them.

• The first time I got to choose a Halloween costume I picked one that looked like the dresses Diana Ross and the Supremes wore on the Ed Sullivan show—a beautiful evening gown with sparkles, taffeta, opera gloves, and even a beehive hairdo wig! We were paging through the Sears catalog, looking at the costumes, and as soon as the page was turned to show that picture my finger pointed to it. Dad asked me, “Which costume do you want?” in a way that let me know that there was a right way and an extremely wrong way to answer (which would be “like a girl”), so I picked the closest acceptable costume on the page, and that’s why I went trick-or-treating as Top Cat. Do you remember Top Cat? Probably not. No one remembers Top Cat, with good reason. He was a D-list character in the B-list Hanna-Barbera cartoon universe. Magilla Gorilla looked down on Top Cat; that’s how bad of a cartoon it was. And I had to pretend to like him for years because of that choice.

• Playing with my GI Joes with the boy next door, and when it was time to come home, swiping one of his sister’s Barbies (yes, the same girl as was in the pool with me) on my way out the door. But I didn’t play with the doll. I just took her dress off and tried to get it to fit on my soldier doll.*

All of that and probably some more popped into my head at the kitchen table that evening in 1968 when Mom said I was supposed to be a girl. Not that it mattered much, because there was no way I was going to tell my parents any of this. And there was no one else to tell, either.

Which leads me back to Haim G. Ginott, EdD. First, a short history of my interaction with therapy as a child: I had none, although I was threatened with it. The totality of discussions regarding mental health were as follows:

1. Mom telling me I was going to put her “in Willard.”

2. Mom threatening me with getting my head shrunk.

I had no idea what either of those meant for a very long time. Through context clues I guessed that Willard was some sort of insane asylum (actually Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Ovid, NY, 45 miles away from where we lived). I eventually figured out that getting my head shrunk meant seeing a psychiatrist. I didn’t know it was a metaphor. Basically, my mother was as afraid of psychotherapy as she was just about everything else in life. Honestly, she could have used some time away from her family where she could work out the many issues that seemed to make her life so fearful, and I definitely could have used time away from her. But neither of those things happened.

But now I wonder how things would have progressed if I had managed to get therapy was a neurotic child. Would I have even been able to use it well? Even back then, my relationship

with authority figures/adults I liked (usually the same people) was to figure out what they wanted from me and make sure they thought I gave it to them.

So how would I have handled play therapy? When I look at Ginott’s (1968) three areas of interpretation (anxiety, transference, and defense), my assessment of myself at that age is that all of my issues had a root of defense. My anxiety, transference, and defense would be interpreted as being those of a neurotic little boy, which would likely be what my therapist would be looking for and would be what I showed. In play therapy, I never would have revealed that my play involved making America’s Movable Fighting Man into Drag Queen Barbie. I never would have revealed that the only moments of relief I had involved putting on my mother’s clothes and pretending, just for a moment or two, that I could be myself.

Basically, my defenses had defenses.

And here’s the kicker: Maybe that would have been for the best? Maybe not getting my head shrunk was the right decision?

I’m not a historian or a researcher, and even when I am, I get things wrong a lot: For years I thought Steve McQueen was driving the Charger and not the Mustang in Bullitt. Please take that into account as you read this.

From my perspective today, the goal of therapy in the 1960s and ‘70s wasn’t to get people to be the best possible versions of themselves as much as it was to get them to fit into society, which would mean my therapist would probably have tried to make me more like the cisgender boy I was pretending to be, rather than the transgender girl I was.

Which really freaks me out.

And, from what I’ve seen written, that’s what the shrinks were going for in their treatment of feminine boys.

In Richard Green’s (1976) Treatment for the Parents of Feminine Boys, he recommends early intervention for boys who meet specific behavioral criteria of gender disturbance. He reports his success in having his patients become “less feminine and more masculine,” noting approvingly that “feminine fantasy play diminishes rapidly and the boys become more verbally and physically aggressive towards their mothers in almost all reported cases” (p.684).

Green (1976) further cites Robert Stoller’s (1975) Sex and Gender, Vol. II: The Transsexual Experiment as noting that this sort of treatment has the same outcome:

...when the boys, encouraged and taught to be masculine, begin preferring that mode, neurotic behavior—fighting with female siblings and peers rather than playing with and imitating them, physical attacks (intrusions, such as throwing objects) on mother, and nightmares and phobias—appears for the first time. (Green, p. 684)

They turned sensitive, caring kids into assholes and bullies, and congratulated themselves

on it. As for me, I saved my parents time and money, because I was already there.

As a child, I was confused, alone, and often aggressive. And when I hit puberty, I was worse. I distinctly remember looking forward to being bigger and stronger specifically so I could pick on kids the way I was picked on. As an adult, I was an abuser—of my family, other women, and smaller, weaker men. I was constantly angry and aggressive. I was a bully. And I hated being that way. I was an abusive man, and I hated myself for it.

I hated having people be afraid of me all the time. I hated hating myself.

But in Stoller and Green’s views, I was a success.

When I went into therapy starting in my late 20s, I would, with great dread, blurt out that I would wear my mother’s clothes as a child. Every therapist I had pre-transition waved this off as “something boys did,” which filled me with relief—and pretty much kept me from doing most of the work I needed to do.

Maybe that’s not entirely true: My most successful therapy involved addressing my abusive behavior. I didn’t want anyone to be afraid of me, ever again. The reason I got into therapy in the first place was because I despised these parts of myself. Emotionally, I had two crayons to color with: fury and joy. And the latter was only used in rare and specific instances, such as the birth of a son or my team winning the Super Bowl. I spent a decade working to remove the toxic from my masculinity. I had told my therapist that my goal was to become the healthiest, least toxic, most masculine man I could be, because that’s what he saw me as, and that’s what I wanted people to see.

Instead, I finally removed enough layers of aggressive behavior, loathing, and self-doubt that I could finally admit I needed to get rid of more than the toxic in “toxic masculinity.”

I don’t think it’s an accident that I came to the awareness that I was not a man (I wasn’t yet comfortable with calling myself transgender) while my therapist was on vacation. On top of not wanting to be transgender, I didn’t perceive him as perceiving me as transgender, so I spent no time discussing gender with him until I started exploring it by myself. Once we started discussing it, he was crucial in my transition.

After these musings, my thoughts on therapy as a child went down the other path:

What if I had somehow come across a therapist I could trust, who was patient enough, saw through the lies behind the lies, and helped me become the girl/young woman that I was? That would have been better. Right?

I’m thinking probably not. Even if I got a therapist that did not consider gender diversity as some sort of insanity to cure, it would have meant I would have become an unhirable object of scorn, derision, and fetishization, coinciding with the advent of the AIDS crisis.

And since I know I would have been an “anything that moves” kind of girl, there’s a very good chance that had I transitioned, I would now be a square on a quilt somewhere.

Or maybe even that’s too hopeful. Maybe I would have died alone and unknown, in a hospital full of medical professionals too scared to care, or beaten to death in an alley by a roving gang of phobic men. Which also happened. And still happens.

Basically what I’m saying is that the way I’ve lived my life—48 years of being a deeply closeted transgender woman—may have been the best possible thing that happened for me.

And that thought fills me with all sorts of despair and rage.

The life I wanted was never available to me. I never had and would never have had the opportunity to live a full life as the woman I am. Which is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about fighting the legislation designed to force trans kids to be the sort of bullies and assholes Green and Stoller championed.

I also wonder about those kids described in those studies. I wonder how many of them became aggressive because they picked up that this was what was wanted from them. I wonder how much of the action was a response to the confusion and self-loathing they were feeling at being forced to change into someone else. I wonder how they grew up or even if they grew up, and what sort of damage they may have done to themselves and others because of this sort of conversion therapy.

Now that I’m in my 60s and cursed with perspective, I marvel at the amount of damage my generation has been involved with. A lot of it has been meted out, to the economy, the environment, and even to fashion (polyester Sansabelt bell-bottoms were once a thing, and we will never be able to undo that damage), but a lot of it was endured, especially by the nascent LGBTQ+ community. The struggles of queers have led to far greater acceptance, to the point where some older gay white men have begun siding with power in a disturbing way.

But in all of this, even inside that group that’s still fighting marginalization, the trans/gender diverse community is being further marginalized. Some of the marginalization is openly hostile, some of it takes the form of concern trolling, where the arguments are couched in worries and described as “honest questions.” But whether it’s from TERFs,** Gender Criticals or so-called LGB advocates, almost all of it is targeted at trans women (male bodies invading women’s spaces, male athletes "transing" to dominate women’s sports), and trans/gender diverse children, claiming parents and therapists are forcing kids to transition, forcing puberty blockers or surgery on them, or using terms like Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)*** to try to generate (or, too often, elevate) fears about what it means to be transgender.

Dispassionate observations prove these fears unfounded: Since the International Olympic Committee started allowing transgender people to compete in 2004, there hasn’t been a single transgender athlete to make it to the Olympics, let alone win an event (Dawson, 2019). In 17 years. That’s a helluva clinical trial. And when transgender children are allowed to socialize as themselves, behavior did not differ in comparison to their cisgender siblings or other cisgender children (Gulgoz et al, 2019).

Plus, there’s the anecdotal evidence provided by me. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up in a place and at a time where as far as I knew, there was nobody in the world like me, yet I knew who I was. I spent my life denying it, and countless hours in therapy trying to be the man I was supposed to be, yet I wasn’t. I lived a life of quiet agony as a man. It did not fit me. At all. I’m much better and far more joyful living my life as a loud woman.

And that’s the plenary truth.


*1 It didn’t fit. GI Joes were specifically designed by Hasbro to be on a larger scale than Barbies so that boys wouldn’t be tempted to play dolls with sissy girls. So instead, I’d try to create dresses for them with cloth bags, or bits of felt and cut-up GI Joe fatigues glued together with the Testor’s glue I was supposed to be using on my 1/25th scale Mustang Shelby GT and Charger 440/RT model cars. It went as well as could be expected.

** Transgender-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. Although I take issue with this, since none of what they espouse is actually feminism, nor is bigotry a radical concept. I prefer the term Feminism-Appropriating Reactionary Transphobes, but no one seems to like that acronym.

*** “The term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)” is not a medical entity recognized by any major professional association, nor is it listed as a subtype or classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Therefore, it constitutes nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon that may or may not warrant further peer-reviewed scientific investigation.…
“WPATH also urges restraint from the use of any term—whether or not formally recognized as a medical entity—to instill fear about the possibility that an adolescent may or may not be transgender with the a priori goal of limiting consideration of all appropriate treatment options in accordance with the aforementioned standards of care and clinical guidelines.” World Professional Association for Transgender Health “WPATH Position on ‘Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD),’” Sept. 4, 2018

References

Dawson, A. (2019, April 17). The biggest thing critics continually get wrong about transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. Business Insider.

Ginott, H. (1968). Interpretations and child therapy. Voices: The Art and Science of sychotherapy, 4(1), 40-43.

Green, G. (1976). Treatment for the parents of feminine boys. American Journal of Psychiatry, 133(6).

Gülgöz, S., Glazier, J., Enright, E., Alonso, D., Durwood, L., Fast, A. … Olson, K. (2019, December 3). Similarity in transgender and cisgender children’s gender development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(49).

Stoller, R. (1975). Sex and gender, Vol. II: The transsexual experiment. London: Hogarth Press.

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