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.