“Courage cannot exist without the decision to move forward despite the darkness of fear closing in.” – Dr. Michele Angello
I was recently connected with Dr. Michele Angello, whose new book, “On the Couch with Dr. Angello: A Guide to Raising & Supporting Transgender Youth” was just about to be launched. Public awareness of the issues in the book has been a long time coming, and as a resource for families and kids dealing with these issues – as well as anyone wanting to open their minds a little further and let this knowledge in – I don’t think you’ll find anything more readable, helpful or timely. What follows is a correspondence with Dr. Angello.
MM: You mention in your book’s introduction that you’ve worked with “gender creative” children for 13 years. I really liked that. Can you explain that a little, in terms of children who are discovering and creating their gender identities?
DMA: I often use the term “gender creative” because many young people are fluid with their gender expression. I think that this non-binary way of thinking is refreshing and should be celebrated rather than labeled a definitive identity. Most pre-pubescent children have yet to be tainted by the cynicism of a society that assumes that ‘boys do this or girls do that’ and are more willing to express all of the creativity allowed to them. Many of these kids eventually lean toward a more binary expression (female or male) but instead of influencing or pushing them to define themselves, potentially prematurely, I stick with this term.
MM: What drew you to this work, and specifically to working with children?
DMA: I was drawn to this work because I had several friends who identified as transgender. When they learned that I was looking for a dissertation topic, a couple of them approached me to suggest that I write about the transgender community. Initially I was reluctant because, quite frankly, I had spent a lot of money putting myself through graduate school and I wasn’t sure if that particular topic would make me marketable. Fortunately, I didn’t listen to my initial fear and decided to write my dissertation on “Transgender Identity through the Lifespan”. My private practice practically built itself after I finished school.
The question of working with children is more complex. I never intended to work with kids. In my opinion, adolescents and adults are less complicated because you don’t necessarily have the number of outside influences that you have to consider (namely, parents or caregivers). But, after a number of parents called me in a panic, begging me to see their gender non-conforming child, I eventually agreed, while explaining that I’m not a child psychologist. Most of the parents and children I worked with at that time had been so traumatized by so called specialists, that they didn’t care; they simply wanted to be heard and understood without being judged. Now, it’s with a great deal of joy that I work with children. They’re much more work, but it’s amazing to watch them discover their authenticity before your eyes!
MM: Some of the children you describe are very young and very self-aware. I’m curious to know how a 10 year old understands being transgender (it seems like an adult term)?
DMA: The most fascinating thing about my job is that I meet some of the most introspective people in the world. These very young children come in, ready to confront the societal taboo of questioning their gender. They don’t always know the word, or even what it means, if they’re very young. But, they describe their feelings and eventually, after we connect the dots together, they begin to see that there’s an incongruity between their anatomy (specifically their genitals) and their brain.
MM: Did you experience any resistance to this work within your own profession, and what sort of evolution has there been among your peers on these issues?
DMA: Oh gosh, yes! My colleagues thought I was nuts to even consider discussing gender variance with young children. It felt like a no-brainer to me, after hearing how distressed some of these kids and families were, though. I was told how “risky” it was and how I could be jeopardizing my career by working with children this young around this subject. When I began presenting about transgender youth at professional conferences (about 10 years ago), there was little, if any interest in the topic. Now, most of the professional conferences have a “transgender youth track” that people can follow.
The evolution among my colleagues has been mind-blowing at times. What started out as an incredibly controversial area has turned into a favorite series of workshops. So much so that I devote a significant portion of my graduate course, “Clinical Issues for the Trans Community” to working with children and their families and the students invariably state in their evaluations that it was one of their favorite modules of the entire semester.
MM: You talk about one child you call Good Luck Jenny who sought you out on her own. Does that happen often, and do you see kids without bringing in the families?
DMA: Technically, I can’t meet with minors without parental consent. In Jenny’s case, (as is the case for many young people) she was dealing with her gender identity for several years and the feelings of being alone in her struggle manifested in a great deal of depression and anxiety. Her father knew she was depressed, but had no idea why. Many times parents take their child to a therapist, and if the person has no training in working with transgender kids, the child is left feeling more alone and pathologized.
Young people are pretty savvy regarding finding resources online, so I do get emails or phone calls from them without their parents knowing. If they are able to come out to their parents, I also suggest that they ask the parents to call me directly. There are several parent-specific support groups (both online and with physical locations) and I try to make sure to simultaneously support the entire family.
MM: Jenny part 2: her father kicked her out of the house. Can you address what happens to some of these kids when this is the reaction they get?
DMA: Jenny was incredibly resilient. She found an alternate place to live and remained in school. Many kids aren’t this way or don’t have the resources or support and end up homeless or suicidal. The rate of suicide is exponentially higher among transgender people than the general population; not because there is something inherently wrong with them, but because many of them end up homeless, alone or lose their primary support network.
MM: Parents: are most of the parents who seek you out willing to learn and be supportive?
DMA: If you asked me this question 10-15 years ago, I would say, “Absolutely not!” But, more recently, I have seen a definitive paradigm shift among parents. At this point, if they Google me, they know where I stand and if they’re vehemently opposed to supporting their child’s gender nonconformity, they’ll usually decide to see someone else.
Occasionally I still get a parent who desperately loves their child, but also can’t reconcile the young person’s gender identity with a particular belief (often one of a religious nature). I have a great deal of respect for these parents when they come in to see me anyway. Sometimes they want to debate with me and convince me that their child isn’t transgender. But eventually, if they stay engaged with the therapy, they see their child becoming happier and healthier, and this is usually all they need to understand and be supportive.
MM: I often hear from readers of lgbtSr.org who live in rural areas and feel disconnected. How can children and families “out there” find resources to help them with the work you’re doing?
DMA: This is so true. Thankfully, the internet connects people who are in more rural areas. For people without access to the internet, it must be a very lonely world. I get calls every week from people who feel like they’re the only person in their town, city or state who feel this way. Sometimes it might be accurate that they’re the only one in their small town, but I talk with them about finding outside resources—there are many conferences throughout the country (if people have the resources to travel) or online opportunities like Transyouth Family Allies, which offers support via telephone or through their listserve.
In my experience, the number one variable to getting through this successfully is by developing and surrounding oneself with a solid support network—even if it’s a virtual network!
MM: You note that being transgender is not a sexual orientation (“So do you like boys or girls now?” was a question you mentioned that often demonstrates this common misunderstanding). Can you reiterate that for readers?
DMA: This is something that seems to cause confusion even among the most educated or astute people. Sadly, many people in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer communities are as unaware of this as our heterosexual counterparts!
Sexual orientation is about being attracted to another person, while being transgender has little if anything to do with that. Being transgender is about a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or somewhere else along the gender spectrum. It’s confusing for people because we lump the “T” in with the LGBT, even though it technically, has nothing to do with orientation.
MM: I know the book is out now. What is your most central hope in publishing it?
DMA: I hope that after reading this book, people will see that being transgender is not
something that is pathological. Moreover, I want parents of all children to understand that kids are much more in tune with their sense of identity than is often believed.
It’s heart-wrenching to hear a young child discuss how lost, alone and even suicidal they feel because no one in their family takes their identity seriously. It’s been a blessing to work with so many families who initially struggled, but after doing some homework and therapy, get behind their child and witness him/her blossom into a wonderfully happy human being.
I also would love for this book to be read by people without anyone transgender in their life. It continues to amaze me how random, and incredibly simple acts of kindness can save a person’s life. I had a child tell me last month that even though his teacher admitted that he didn’t understand his need to socially transition at school, he treated him respectfully and used the child’s preferred name and pronoun. This kid was on the verge of dropping out a month before school ended, but was able to find the strength to keep going because this single teacher treated him with dignity!
Michele Angello, Ph.D. works with gender-variant youth and adults. She offers individual, group and family therapy, as well as corporate education and training on a variety of issues of sexuality and has presented internationally on her work with trans-youth and working with children of transitioning parents. She facilitates several monthly support groups for transgender adults, youth and parents. Dr. Angello is often called on to speak as an expert on transgender issues to universities, corporations and the media. She has appeared on Larry King Live, the Tyra Banks Show, and various documentaries on transgender issues. She also developed the first graduate course in the U.S. that focused on clinical issues in transgender communities.
Please join us as well for a conversation with Dr. Angello on our weekly Aged to Perfection podcast, Wednesday, June 26, 6:30 pm eastern. – Mark McNease/Editor