Thinking Together on The Enigma of Gender
By Li Brookens
I’ve been studying gender now for a good part of the last decade, both personally and professionally. I’ve come to find that the more I study gender the more I deepen an enigmatic understanding of it. Against popular essentialist thinking, gender is not something we are born into on a binary, but rather a relational tension that develops between body, psyche, and culture (Ehrensaft, 2014). In examining transgender clients, we can depict the tensions in very real and traumatic ways.
In toddlers just learning language, it’s not unusual to hear their initial identification with all genders. Listen to this observation between a mother and her 22-month son:
On this day William told his mother: “Billy is a girlie. “Mother: “Billy is a boy. Billy isn’t a girl.” William: “Oh yes, Billy is a girlie; eat the girlie’s toe.” He held up his toe for his mother to pretend to nibble it. His mother went on, “Billy has a penis. Girls don’t have a penis. Billy is a boy. Is Betsy a girl?” (Betsy was a little girl relative whom William knew well.) William: “Yes.” Mother: “Does she have a penis?” William: “No, Billy has a penis and Billy is a girlie. Put the girlie’s shoe on” (Kleeman, 1966)
If LaPlanche (2011) interpreted this observation, he would say that in infants and toddlers, the sense of gender precedes the sense of the anatomical self, or more specifically, the words that our culture has to define our anatomical self. Moreover, it is Billy’s mother who directs Billy to “correct” his understanding of self, when Billy insists that he can have a penis and be a girl. As parents, we are our children’s first contact with “culture” and so it makes sense that a parent’s culture and the collective unconscious within culture inevitably gets transmitted to child and relationally, child back to parent/culture.
This complex interplay between body, psyche and culture is often traumatic for our transgender clients. In their experience, culture (parents, society) inadequately mirrors their internal sense of gender and the results can be extremely traumatic (Saketopoulou, 2014). As a nonbinary transgender person myself, I often find myself wondering what would our world look like if our collective culture opened up to a more expansive view of gender. Would we have as much misogyny? Would women be paid more equitably to do the same job? Would transgender people face less discrimination and potentially be honored as people who bridge the gender divide? It’s a beautiful idea, I think.
I invite you to think on these ideas with me more at my upcoming half-day workshop: Transgender Identities and Clinical Practice: Updating and experiencing clinical care models. June 23rd, 9am-1pm @ Boulder Center for Conscious Community (1637 28th St. Boulder, CO 80301). For tickets: https://transgenderidentities.eventbrite.com
About the author: Li Brookens is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Boulder and offering psychotherapy as well as hypnotherapy. In March 2017, they received a Community Service Award for their work with the transgender community from the Colorado Society for Clinical Social Work. In 2016, Li started the Umbrella Collective, a small group practice in Denver and Boulder in 2016 where the group specializes in psychotherapy, counseling, and hypnotherapy with an intersectional, social justice lens. Li has been practicing since 2012 and has specialized training and experience working with the Transgender and LGB communities and is a member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
Since the election people are looking around, checking out their environments with a heightened awareness. As if a part of life we took for granted, a part we may have assumed was permanent is wobbling on its axis. It is as if the very ground we built our lives on is not what we thought it was. Many of us feel threatened. These kinds of disorienting sensations are motivation for figuring out ways to come together to protect shared values, move forward on shared goals and explore our differences in order to improve our insight and know we are not alone.
The Women’s March was a symbolic gesture towards strengthening community through shared values. The issues raised, the conflicts that continue to be highlighted and the variety of perspectives being expressed are all things that need to be articulated and explored. There is a lot of criticism out there about what it should have been. It’s a stormy group that’s getting out what needs to be said out there and be explicit. Just because there is disagreement that does not mean it failed. It is healthy bickering. A group that can’t tolerate conflict is
an unsafe place to be.
It is important to invest in local community. It is in your own best interest to develop relationships with your neighbors.
Strong community ties are how change happens.
Alli Fronzaglia marches with women weekly around Boulder and beyond. Her group Boulder Hiker Chicks offers a variety of hikes. She is a wonderful group leader and inhabits her role with equanimity. Her hikes are wonderful ways for women to socialize, meet new friends and get outdoors for exercise at the same time. This past fall the Boulder Hiker Chicks came together to spend a day cleaning up Boulder Creek. While doing so they came across people living along the creek and soon discovered that part of the creek and its bank were littered with human waste. Since that day Alli has mobilized her network and is investigating the situation further. She was recently quoted in an Daily Camera article on this subject and the story also ended up on the Denver News.
"I'm very sympathetic to the situation with the unhoused community, and I don't want to demonize them," said Alli Fronzaglia, the founder of the popular club Boulder Hiker Chicks and, more recently, leader of a new advocacy group called Friends of Boulder Creek. "I understand there are many factors involved in why they're there, but we just can't have people living without facilities along waterways."
This is an excellent time to brush up on group skills. One of the best ways to hone your interpersonal skills is to join a process group. Our community is rich with group psychotherapists, several of them with decades of experience.
Check out the upcoming annual conference for: AGPA (American Group Psychotherapy Association)
We have our own chapter here COGPS (Colorado Group Psychotherapy Society.)
Jeff Price is offering a post-election group free, Every other Wednesday evening from 7pm to 8:30pm
RSVP at COGPS Facebook event page
Or check out his upcoming Large Group Institute, Saturday, February 11th, offered through COGPS.
Jeff is a senior member of the group community in Boulder, frequent AGPA attender and well known for his “Mayoral” like role in Naropa’s masters program in Contemplative Psychotherapy & Buddhist Psychology. Jeff specializes in addictions and in being fully human and available. And he is a wonderful dance partner.
Phillip Horner is offering a group on white privilege He wrote an article that was in the Daily Camera on White Privilege. He was recently interviewed on the COGPS podcast on the same subject. Phillip's name regularly gets mentioned along with his photo in the Daily Camera articles about the housing co-op community in Boulder.
Group skills are are invaluable for organizing advocacy communities.
If you are interested in using writing to provide an outlet during troubled times checkout Kate Thompson’s writing workshops. Writing groups are great places to explore your impact on others and get curious about the experiences of others and what motivates them to be who they are. Kate also runs a group for adults who grew up adopted.
Another local resource is Mark Gerzon, a professional mediator who works with Republicans and Democrats to develop methods for bipartisan dialogue. Mark was recently interviewed on Colorado Public Radio. In his book The Reunited States of America he emphasizes the Latin phrase “E pluribus unum,” “Out of many, one,” on the Great Seal of the United States
“Between pluribus and unum is a lot of hard work. It involves opening our minds and our hearts to find common ground. In essence, it advises us to discover the underlying unity beneath or beyond our strong vital differences.”
The Reunited States of America, p. 14
Mark Gerson suggests looking within at your own conservative/ progressive parts.
New Groups Forming For People Who Hear Voices
Ron Bassman, a recent East Coast psychologist transplant, was responsible for getting trainers from the Hearing Voices Network to come to Boulder this past February to provide a 3-day group facilitator training. Bassman emphasized the value of encouraging people to be curious about their ability to hear voices in his invitation to the training:
“Hearing Voices groups do not pathologize voices, visions or other unusual experiences. Instead, group members explore these phenomena in an environment of mutual support and curiosity. They offer people who hear voices, see visions or have other unusual experiences the opportunity to share their experience and explore new ways of coping, understanding their experiences and getting support.”
The focus of Hearing Voices is to develop a community rather than a cure. Intervoice is the Hearing Voices international network dedicated to building supportive communities between people who hear voices and/or experience perceptual reality in ways not recognized by the accepted norms of our culture. The organization grew out of a doctor and client relationship in the Netherlands that spawned a movement outside medical models towards developing a peer support community. The aims of the network listed on their website are:
“to raise awareness of voice hearing, visions, tactile sensations and other sensory experiences, to give people who have these experiences an opportunity to talk freely about this together, to support anyone with these experiences seeking to understand, learn and grow from them in their own way.”
Hearing Voices groups are a mix of people, ranging from those who live harmoniously with their voices to those who have had their voices labeled as something wrong with them, as a symptom of mental illness.
In his New York Times article “Can You Live With the Voices in Your Head,” Daniel B. Smith explains from a diagnostic point of view that hearing voices alone is not always considered a sign of mental illness, it's how the voices manifest themselves; “Voices that speak in the third person, echo a patient’s thoughts or provide a running commentary on his actions are considered classically indicative of schizophrenia.” Imagine the presence of an all knowing critical superego constantly judging every move. A difference described between those who live harmoniously with their voices and those that don’t is that the former work out relationships with their voices and the latter tend to feel pressured to get rid of their voices.
The last night’s lecture of the 3-day group facilitation training this February in Boulder was open to the public and took place at Unity Church. Seasoned Hearing Voices trainers from the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community, Caroline White and Lisa Forestell, shared their experiences with hearing voices. One of the speakers, Caroline, included in her narrative a moment in which she was at a recovery center as a client and experienced being recognized as a contributing member to a community for the first time in her life. The other speaker, Lisa, described her current relationship with her voices like a family that follows her around, each voice with a unique personality, gender and age that embodies a specific stable identity.
My personal take away from listening to these experiences was that all voices need to be heard and recognized as having something to say. When voices are suppressed it causes distress but integrating them into our experiences can be healing. Both speakers gave accounts about what it means to be in relation to their voices. For example if a voice tells you to do something, it does not mean you should do it. It is helpful is to explore the voice’s point of view, reflect back its concerns and validate its emotional experience. A member of the audience asked the speakers if they knew about Internal Family Systems. The speakers were not familiar with that modality. There was a feeling of a lurking clinical perspective (albeit a good one) about to invade a very nuanced personal experience. As I reflected upon my protective response the idea emerged that these voices want to speak for and organize themselves.
As a result of the recent training there are groups forming in Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins. For more information about upcoming groups or facilitator training please email Ron Bassman and check out Hearing Voices Rocky Mountains website.
Groups are free!
Curious? Here are some additional links for more information:
Ted Talk with Eleanor Longden, a British research psychologist and international Hearing Voices advocate who recounts her own struggles with mental illness and that through learning to listen to her voices she was able survive.
Susie Orbach interview with Jaqui Dillon, Chair of the Hearing Voices Network
Tangent: Another international organization that works with voices is the Complaint Choirs, which brings people who live in specific communities together with the intent of collecting common complaints about where they live and assembling that information into a performance. Check out the joy of complaining in harmony from communities all over the world!