Erica Anderson on Working Therapeutically Across the Gender Spectrum

Erica Anderson on Working Therapeutically Across the Gender Spectrum

by Lawrence Rubin
Transgender psychotherapist Erica Anderson shares her personal wisdom and clinical experience with therapists interested in working with clients across the gender spectrum.
Filed Under: Assessment, LGBT, Sexuality

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Transgender 101

Lawrence Rubin: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me this morning. Transgender issues have gained much attention in the last several years, but most therapists do not have experience working with these clients. What are some of the issues a therapist needs to know?
Erica Anderson: Thank you for this opportunity. I think it is a topic much discussed in society these days, and you're right that very few psychotherapists are trained to work with people with gender issues. One of the most important things to point out is that in years gone by, those of us in the mental health field were trained to understand gender development in a very limited, binary way, namely that one was born either male or female; "M" or "F" on their birth certificate, and then they just grew up. Puberty constituted a pretty significant change, and maybe at some point, someone would declare that they were gay, but otherwise there wasn't really much to do about the development of gender.

very few psychotherapists are trained to work with people with gender issues
What we now have come to appreciate is that gender identity exists on a spectrum, and that just as Kinsey pointed out more than half-century ago, many more people have complex sexual attractions or are bisexual than we ever thought. The same is true with gender differences. We used to think that transgender people were very rare, but in fact, people who are not binary in their gender identity or whose gender identity differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth, are in greater numbers in society than we ever really understood.

Society has become more accepting of some of these differences so more patients who are questioning their gender are coming forward to therapists. They are exploring who they are and may actually be willing to talk about some of their own self-doubts or self-realizations. So, therapists need to begin to understand how to work with such people by acquiring new knowledge, developing new skills and examining their own biases or potential biases around gender issues.
LR: Can you say more about the knowledge and skills therapists need to have when working with clients presenting with gender identity issues?
EA: The first point about knowledge is reflected in what I said a moment ago; that many people have presumed that gender really is simply a binary trait of human beings, and that is not the case. If you look at the history of human civilization, there have always been people who have not lined up in their gender identity with the sex they were assigned at birth. There have always been transgender people in society. Some of them have been acknowledged, and in some cultures, there is actually recognition of this. Many native peoples have something called "two spirit," which is a recognition of someone whose gender doesn't line up with their anatomical sex—it is a mixture of gender identities. And then there are some other cultures, in India, Brazil and Asia, where there have been transgender people recognized throughout history. We now know that, depending upon what you include in the category transgender, perhaps as many as one in 200 people in America could be said to be transgender (according to a recent study from UCLA).
LR: When we think of addressing diversity issues in counseling and therapy, we think of gender, race, age and religion. You're suggesting that within some populations, their spiritual-cultural practices may intertwine with gender identity issues?
EA: That's right and it’s a very important point here that gender identity cannot be dissected apart from the other aspects of a person. We talk these days about intersectionality and multiple identities, and that becomes acute when we then consider gender issues. This is because the experience of someone who is transgender of a certain cohort and a certain racial, ethnic or economic background might be very different from someone else whose identity is different in some of those aspects. So, it's not a situation where you can say, oh well, all transgender people are X or Y. In fact,
I say all the time, when you've seen one transgender person, you've seen one transgender person
I say all the time, when you've seen one transgender person, you've seen one transgender person. That is part of the challenge in terms of training and education in clinical practice.

One of the things I hear often is, "Oh, well, you know, coming out as transgender, well, that's like coming out as gay." Well, no, it's not. Gender identity has to do with every aspect of who you are. To equate the transition of someone who is trans from maybe being perceived as one gender into being perceived in a different way, is not exactly the same as someone who may have been closeted as a gay person and then comes out as gay and is living more openly as gay. But that's a common thought for some people who are not very well versed in these issues. It’s disturbing to some trans people to be thought of as, "Oh, well, at one point in time, you're just kind of revealing something about yourself." It's a lot more complex than that!

Beyond Binaries

LR: This suggests that clinicians need to be aware of the developmental trajectory, not just of gender, but the convergence of multiple trajectories across the lifespan that include, but are not limited to, gender.
EA: Absolutely. In fact, as we know from the traditional field of developmental psychology, people develop in lots of different ways, and that development is very uneven for most individuals through childhood and adolescence, and even into young adulthood. So, we know that we can narrow in on various aspects of development. I say all the time that everybody has their own individual developmental pathway, and that where they are at any given point in time is simply that, and it's subject to change.

The other takeaway from the emerging knowledge about transgender issues is that gender identity is something that's very fluid. So, there isn't a single narrative that explains the course of development of all transgender people. In fact, people can come to an awareness of themselves very early, in early childhood, or later in adulthood. And there's a mixture of factors in any individual case that may be contributing to those differences.
LR: It seems therefore that one of the core skills for a clinician to master is to think intersectionally—to broaden their case conceptualization and treatment planning to include these multiple converging trajectories.
EA: Exactly right, which is what makes the work so interesting for those of us who are doing it now. The evaluation process involves parsing, where we look at certain aspects of the situation, traits and historical trends of an individual, and interweave these factors. And because of the highly individual nature of gender identity, we really must listen carefully to each person, no matter what their age is. We must listen to what they say about themselves because gender, as identified by an individual, is a deeply internal and personal thing and we cannot assume that we wholly understand, in a simple way, what is going on with somebody unless we spend some time focused on it.
LR: So, one of the skills that a clinician should have is being able to move past not only binary thinking regarding sexuality and gender, but beyond binary thinking about people in general.
EA: I say all the time,
there's nothing about human beings that's binary
there's nothing about human beings that's binary. If you think about psychology as a field that has attempted to study individual differences, there's really no characteristic that is simply binary–yes or no, this or that, black or white, on or off. We're not machines. We generally think about individual differences and the intensity of various traits when we think about personality. Even in medicine, we think about laboratory studies, growth charts and laboratory ranges for all kinds of characteristics. So, there's nothing binary about human beings. But thinking about that in terms of gender requires a fundamental reordering of how we bring together all the aspects of who a person is, and a recognition that they have been evolving and changing and developing, and they're going to continue to do so.
LR: I joke sometimes with my students by saying that there are two types of people in the world, those people who believe in binaries and those who don’t.
EA: I love that. That's really cute and apt.

Words Matter

LR: Therapists not particularly trained or experienced with transgender or transitioning clients may be unsure how to start, what language or personal pronouns to use, or even how to broach the subject. What advice would you give them?  
EA: This is a big challenge for all of us, even those of us who have more experience, because society has been changing rapidly. People are bringing to these discussions whatever they've known or learned or thought they knew, as well as what information is circulating now in the world, on the Internet and in professional circles. And we don’t all mean the same thing when we use the same words. I’ve seen this evolve in my career.

I was trained on DSM II which listed homosexuality as a sexual disorder. That came out in a revision of DSM II. But today's clinicians who have been trained more in DSM-IV and DSM-5 don't think about the fact that there are huge numbers of people who are still alive who were reared in an era when homosexuality was considered shameful and a psychological disorder. I had a patient years ago who was expelled from medical school because he was arrested in a gay bar for soliciting—and that’s in my lifetime.

So, the words that we use continue to evolve. An example is "gay." You know, "gay" used to be a slur, a pejorative word. It still is in some circles. But now we have the word "queer." People are using the word "queer" all the time but don't know what anybody else means by the word. So, if somebody comes in my office—and this is a tip for therapists—and starts using some of the words that have to do with gender and sexuality, I routinely will ask them, "Well, what do you mean by that word? What do you mean by queer? What do you mean by trans? What do you mean by gender? What do you mean by attraction?"
LR: So, letting the client lead in creating the definitions, and even helping them to make peace with a definition that best fits them at that point in their life...
EA:
Dr. Seuss wrote, "You are the you-est you can be. No one is more you-er than you."
Exactly, and I love to invoke my favorite philosopher, Dr. Seuss, who wrote, "You are the you-est you can be. No one is more you-er than you." You know, we really fundamentally have to accept that people define themselves. And people who have deep-seated psychiatric disorders may be defining themselves in ways that are not helpful and maybe even toxic, but we must start there. We have to start with what's going on with someone. And there is no more significant area to do this in than gender and gender identity.

Gender Politics

LR: What if a client comes to you and doesn't broach the subject of sexuality or sexual identity or gender identity? What's the therapist's role? Is it their place to ask a pointed question? Or is it sort of a Rogerian thing, to just let the client be and go with wherever they are?
EA: As you infer, I see a lot of people who come to me because they are dealing with some of these issues that we're talking about today, but not always. I will sometimes see people who are straight who have anxiety or depression. In my long career as a psychologist I've treated people with many different conditions. I don’t assume anything about what someone wants to focus on. On my website, I have a section called "Permission to Be," where I write about my philosophy. If someone comes to me and says, "I'm coming to you because I think I'm trans, or because I am trans, or because I want to explore my gender expression and identity," then we're off to the races. By contrast some clients come to me and say, "Well, I know I'm trans. I don’t really need to deal with that. But I'm really depressed" So, it depends on the particulars of a client.

In terms of advice to other therapists, I would say, don’t assume that something having to do with sexuality or gender is a problem for someone. If it is obviously a problem and they're asking you to help them with it, help them. But if they are coming to see you for other reasons, their relationship with their gender and sexual identity doesn't necessarily require any intervention.

I want to say something else about this that I think is significant. Transsexuality, as it used to be called, was categorized as a sexual perversion, and was nested in the DSM in the section on fetishes-paraphilias. But now we're at a point where we are questioning whether it is true that everyone who has a different-than-heteronormative or cisgendered identity has a psychological problem at all. In fact, the current DSM lists "gender dysphoria" to describe those who are trans, basically. The International Classification of Diseases 11 (ICD-11) that's coming out from the WHO, will be using the term "gender incongruence," and they are taking this label out of the psychiatric section and putting it into the sexual health category.

For the first time, we’re going to see a dramatic shift in de-pathologizing transgender identity
There are several reports, including ones published by SAMHSA in 2015 and documents from the American Psychological Association concluding that differences in sexual orientation and gender identity are normal variations. There is no presumption of psychological disorder.

Interestingly, there is a task force on gender dysphoria constituted by the American Psychiatric Association. They are going to be looking at the disparity between the DSM, which does in effect pathologize trans identity, and the ICD. It is going to be a challenge to reconcile those differences. I predict that the APA will come into agreement or alignment with the rest of the world, which uses the ICD and not the DSM. For the first time, we’re going to see a dramatic shift in de-pathologizing transgender identity. And I, for one, am welcoming that change. 
LR: If a transgender client visits a therapist who's not particularly experienced in transgender issues, and presents with issues seemingly unrelated to gender such as anxiety, depression or even sexuality; is it a mistake for the therapist to assume that these other non-gender-related issues are the cause?
EA: I think assumptions of any kind about etiology are always suspect. I think we must examine our own biases and expectations. A co-occurring disorder is simply that. It may be a contributing factor to distress about gender identity. Gender dysphoria often is reflected in interpersonal conflict and anxiety, sometimes depression. But it isn't necessary to treat them separately. It also is a mistake to assume that they're related in some systematic way.
LR: Some argue that therapists need not have personal experiences similar to a client’s in order to be empathetic. How does that apply here?
EA: On the one hand, I think sometimes we take therapist-client matching a little too far. On listservs here in the Bay Area, requests for referrals to therapists usually list eight or ten characteristics that they're trying to match up. I think to myself, “whatever happened to general training and the recognition of one's competencies or limitations?” However, I also think that this is an area that one shouldn't enter cavalierly. There is a limit on the empathy that a cisgender person can have towards a transgender person. The level of complexity and the extent of personal transformation that happens when someone comes to terms with a trans identity and then embarks on a gender transition is so complete that it's hard to explain simply, and it's certainly hard to imagine.

I hear all the time lay and professional people alike, saying, "I don't understand how this person can be trans. I knew them before. There was no hint of an identity other than sex assigned at birth. I don’t understand." And I say all the time that it's not so important that you understand. What is important is that you accept that this is a deeply felt identity by this person. And if they are disclosing it to other people, they've probably been struggling with it for a long time. In fact, it's well established that, at least until now, transgender people in American society have suffered trauma and continue to suffer trauma, and some more than others. I believe that if you've been transgender for more than 15 minutes, you probably have complex trauma. And that's a joke. Thank you for laughing. Because nobody is transgender for 15 minutes or three weeks or a month. It's a long, long thing.

There's another controversy in that regard that is currently swirling. There's a term being thrown around, which is not a scientific term: rapid onset gender dysphoria. Have you heard that term?

Families in Transition

LR: No. Is that like acute stress disorder affecting gender?
EA: It's a term made up by parents who are concerned that their teenage children are asserting a trans identity from out of the blue. They are worried that there's some kind of social contagion going on with teenagers where it's cool to be trans. More kids are trans than ever before, and they wonder if maybe they catch it from each other. But
I can assure you, transgender identity is not something one catches. It's not infectious
I can assure you, transgender identity is not something one catches. It's not infectious.
LR: Toilet seats and door knobs won't do it?
EA: Nope, won't do it at all. Even sexual contact between two consenting adults will not affect someone with a transgender identity. But this term has been thrown around. And one of the key issues is that teenagers, as they always have, talk with each other about things that they don’t talk with their parents about. And so they're exploring this with each other. And now we have the Internet, so they're going online and finding out all kinds of stuff, and they have friends online, and so forth. They explore for a while, and they get affirmed by their peers, and they draw their own conclusions, and then maybe they tell their parents, "I think I'm trans." The parents are, in some cases, surprised. In many cases, they're not, because there were indications earlier in the life of this child. But for those who are totally surprised, they think this is a recent phenomenon. But in reality, probably it has been percolating with this child for a while, and finally they come forward.

One of the issues for us in evaluating kids, though, is to be cautious about offering medical interventions—you know, puberty blockers or hormones, certainly surgery—until we're pretty satisfied that this really is an enduring identity of this person, and that it's the right thing, it's affirming of them, and it's medical necessary. I work at the Child and Adolescent Gender Clinic at UCSF and we see kids and their families, all ages, young children, preschool children to older teenagers and young adults. And as I was saying earlier in our conversation today, there's no one narrative, there's no one pathway that explains everybody. So, we have to be cautious where there isn't an obvious track record of development of a gender different than the assigned sex. But it doesn't necessarily rule out the legitimacy of it. It may mean that we'll have to have a longer period of observation than with some other kids, where it's quite obvious to everybody that this is a trans kid.
LR: I wonder if there's a correlation in the literature between children with rapid onset transgender disorder and parental unawareness disorder?
EA: Yeah, that's a good one. Certain parents, as you were implying by your very cute comment, find it harder to accept the reality of a child whose identity is very different than what they expect. They may have somewhat rigid views of sex and gender, and they may subscribe to the dominant gender schema of binary, and they may be, as you say, unaware of the fact that gay and trans people have been around throughout human history.
LR: How can therapists help parents enter the conversation once the kid or teen begins talking about it, even though it may have been evolving for years?
EA: Some of the basic principles that have peppered our conversation so far are relevant here, and that is, as a therapist, try to avoid bringing your own bias into the situation or the conversation. Try to maintain an open mind and be focused around listening carefully to the various people. Everyone in the family—no matter what kind of family, if it's a traditional heterosexual couple with kids or whether it's any one of the many versions of "modern family"—is coming at this from a different perspective. The
older people are coming at it having grown up in an era that was less open and less aware of some of these issues
older people are coming at it having grown up in an era that was less open and less aware of some of these issues. Kids may be bringing their own perspective, which could be quite spontaneous and quite free and quite direct. And so we need to listen to each other.

The word that's often bandied around and disregarded is "transition." A trans person goes through a transition of sorts to bring their life and even their body into consistency with their identity. Everybody gets that. But everyone else around that person is also going through a transition, and it's very uneven. Some resist it, some embrace it, and some are more troubled by it than others. Literally, I've had parents of teenagers cry in the consulting room, saying, "I thought I had a daughter, and I guess I have a son, but now I'm grieving the loss of my daughter." Or the other way around, "I thought I had a son, and now I know I have a daughter, but I'm grieving the loss of my son." These are very personal and poignant moments when someone is really trying to come to terms with the reality of what's going on. It's a very tender time and we have to be kind to each other about what we're going through. 
LR: Everyone is in transition and may have been struggling to come out of their own mental closets in acknowledging and embracing that their child or their teen has been struggling for so long.
EA: Every family is different. There are some themes that are common and that are often shared, but the nuance can be so subtle and important. I had a trans teenager in my consulting room last night, and we were talking about the resistance of their mother to their identity and the struggles that this teenager has had for years with a mother who has not found it easy to accept her child on the child's terms. It was really quite a pivotal moment in my work with this young person in that they disclosed for the first time the extent of verbal abuse that their mother had given to them throughout the years. And the child's efforts to cope with this meant that they kind of shut down and are currently afraid of going forward with transition, because they’re worried that their mother is going to say, "I can't accept this," and that their father would side with the mother. And my client is saying to me, "I'm worried they're going to kick me out. They're going to kick me out of the house."
LR: So, these kids are sometimes put in the position of bearing the burden of holding the family together or reducing conflict by remaining silent? You must be so skilled as a therapist to address this once you open yourself up to the systemic and contextual nature of it.
EA: It's a challenging thing. But in the case of this young person, critical. I have to address the dynamics between the parents and between the parents and this teenager because they’re really hurting.

Complicating Issues

LR: You were just talking about transitioning, so I'm wondering if there are different clinical needs for clients who are in surgical transition as opposed to those who, for whatever reason—health, finance or choice—can't or don’t pursue surgical transition?
EA: Each of the phases of the transition has its own set of challenges. One of the things that I'm impressed with by those who get surgery is that the characteristics of the person are all-important. So, if they're healthy, have realistic expectations and a good surgeon, they have a good result and there are no consequences. That's one process. Another might be someone who has health issues, who might be a little more likely to have some kind of untoward consequence of a surgical procedure and are then frustrated afterward because their recovery is a little choppy, and maybe the result isn't exactly what they had hoped.

The differences between people are clear. Historically, surgery has been largely confined to adults 18 and over. But more and more, the trans kids that we're working with whose identity is clear at a young age and who have been on puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones as young teenagers, are getting surgery in their teenage years. This is, of course, with the full consent of their parents when everyone agrees that it's medically indicated.
These kids are being given a gift that someone in that situation a generation ago would never have had
These kids are being given a gift that someone in that situation a generation ago would never have had, which is to avoid some of the life experience in the gender they don’t want, and some of the physical changes in their body that they're not completely comfortable with. They're able to move ahead with their physical transition in such a way that by the time they're in middle to late teenage years, they're fully embodied as the person they see themselves to be and the gender that they assert. From that point on, all their experience is in that gender. So, they go to college and the people at college only know them that way. They've done their name and legal gender change, and so forth. That's a whole interesting set of patients.

By contrast, you also have people who are married, have children, have started a career or are deep into a career, and then they come to terms with who they are, and they transition. And I'm thinking of two people I’m currently working with who were assigned as male at birth. They are in their 30s and 40s, married with children, going ahead with the transition and all the complications that you would expect based on having to deal with the reaction of the spouse, the children and the people in their professional world. It's a whole different set of issues.

The Psychologist’s Role

LR: More and more, psychologists are being called on by doctors who are working with patients contemplating anything from gastric bypass surgery to—I don't know if I'm using the right word—gender reassignment?
EA: Currently, gender confirmation surgery.
LR: Thanks. These psychologists are being called on to perform evaluations to provide physicians with concrete validation that this person is psychologically ready for surgery. Do you have any recommendations for these psychologists?
EA: There are guidelines for this, we call such reports "letters of support." They're really what you and I would consider evaluation reports. They are a review of this person, their history, any co-occurring issues, and their life circumstances. In addition, as we would agree, a necessary part of this is essentially the informed consent, you know, to talk through what is going to happen with this surgery by a skilled surgeon who is well trained and experienced with this procedure. And then, does the person really understand the risks and the benefits of this surgical procedure? And what are their expectations of what it's going to be like for them after they have this surgery? I was referring to that earlier today as we were talking about how realistic the person’s expectations are about surgery.

Most people who think about gender confirmation surgery have done extensive research on it. So, I find that—maybe it's a selection bias—the people who come to me are those who are a little more sophisticated. But I must satisfy myself that they've gone through that process, and that they've asked and had answered all the questions that they have, and that they've thought through whatever the likely consequences are, and they've considered the possible unexpected consequences. And if they have, if we've done all of that, and if there isn't an outstanding psychological issue or an acute psychiatric problem, then I'm inclined to write the letter and say, yes, I recommend that this is medically necessary for this patient.

Surgeons do require such letters still, at least according to the standard of practice. There is an organization called WPATH, that has standards of care, currently in its seventh edition. These are standards of care for medical and psychological service to trans people. The 8th edition is currently under preparation. And just like everything else that we're talking about today, things are moving in the direction of de-pathologizing. The question in the future will be, "What is the purpose of the evaluation? Is it to screen for any contraindications? Is it to satisfy the psychologist and the surgeon that this person is a good candidate for this surgery?” Those are open questions as far as I'm concerned. But I do believe that because of the wide-sweeping consequences of a gender transition—and if you add into it gender surgery which is irreversible—that performing these evaluations requires serious skill and should not be done lightly.  
LR: Therapists and clinicians want to render the most competent services in a way that is correct, ethical and moral. So, it's not just laying a quick MMPI on someone and saying, "Yeah, ready to cut."
EA: Exactly.

Closing Thoughts

LR: What should therapists be wary of within themselves when working with clients who are either contemplating surgery or thinking and feeling deeply about gender identity?
EA: I have been doing a lot of thinking in the last few years about our whole paradigm of transference and countertransference, and how that might need to be adjusted for work with transgender people., I myself am transgender. I ask myself all the time, "Do I bring any bias to my work with an individual client or patient?" I try not to, of course. But, in a slightly different way, I know that some people come to see me not only because I'm a qualified psychologist, but because I'm trans. They want to know about me and will ask me personal questions which is historically seen as being out of bounds. And I wonder, how is that related to transference or not?
My inclination is that if client questions are not too deeply personal—nobody asks me about my sex life—I will answer them.
My inclination is that if client questions are not too deeply personal—nobody asks me about my sex life—I will answer them. These include questions like, "What is it like to go through hormone changes? What happens in the surgery?" And I will selectively tell them a little bit about me, because it does reassure them. It's kind of like, "Oh, yeah, she went through this, so I can do that too."

Some of the questions therapists can ask themselves could include, “What are you bringing to that discussion with someone? Do you really have empathy for what they're going through? Do you have a bias? Have you examined your perspective about this?” I think the therapeutic pitfalls are to assume that someone is too young to decide, to assume that someone is neglecting their family responsibilities if they transition and they're married with a family, to assume that someone is not going to be able to have sex if they change their body. There are a lot of potential assumptions, and we just have to be careful not to hold them because we have a bias.
LR: So, the same general concerns about countertransference, self-disclosure, presumptions and biases, but a little bit more finely tuned to the needs of clients who are in transition.
EA: I am concerned that therapists who are relatively inexperienced in this area may have a hard time parsing the co-occurring disorders. And so they might think, "Okay, we can't go ahead with hormones or anything else, or certainly not transition, until we deal with your depression. And we've got to cure all your psychological problems before I feel comfortable encouraging you to go ahead." That is, in my judgment, a mistake, and often kind of a rookie mistake. I think the literature on co-occurring disorders suggests that there are many situations where we treat concurrently, not consecutively. To pretend that we can separate aspects of a human being and treat one part and ignore the other or set aside the other for a while doesn't work very well in this area.
LR: We can’t surgically remove pieces of pathology, revealing the true issues—it is simplistic and naïve.
EA: Here's the challenge! We have inadequate empirical bases for a lot of the things that we're doing. We're doing what we're doing based on the data we do have. This includes longitudinal information we have about patients, comparing and contrasting patients who do well and patients who don’t do as well, and bringing into our work in this area what we know about other clinical challenges. If we waited until we had long-term treatment outcome studies on all these things, there would be a lot of people who would struggle.

As you know, the rate of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts is very high in trans people. So, we're going to lose a lot of people if we deny treatment to trans people until we have what the rigorous scientists consider to be adequate empirical justification for what we're doing. There is a five-year research study going on at UCSF, one of four sites for a multi-site NIH study of transgender kids and the first of its kind. But that's a five-year study. The research is looking at both medical and psychological factors having to do with how kids do when they go on puberty blockers and how kids do when they go on cross-sex hormones. And in five to ten years, we'll have some data that will help illuminate what we're doing.

Hopefully it's going to confirm what we think we know about best practices with kids. We're one of the more advanced centers in terms of embracing what we call the gender affirmative model. We're very interested in affirming kids and their gender, and not putting roadblocks in their way to living authentically. We work hard to reach consensus about the truth about any individual kid, and then a consensus about what we know about this kid and what we are going to do. We ask important questions including, “What's the timing of various things? Are we holding off on things for specific reasons?” It's a very individual matter with both kids and older patients and it’s about crafting a plan for the gender journey heading towards transition. It is about trying to responsibly approach each of the potential decisions and make the best decision that we can at the time based on what we know for each patient. And that is, I think, a sound approach, but it isn't necessarily justified by empirical findings.

Gender identity isn't something that easily lends itself to measurement. Earlier, you invoked the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). I was at the University of Minnesota for a number of years, and I interpreted thousands of MMPIs. I don't know that we're going to ever have, at least in my career, any kind of test for who's trans and who isn't, or what level of trans-ness exists, and, oh, this means that they should proceed at this kind of pace in terms of decisions regarding medical supports for identity. 
LR: You're a transgender woman. How has your own personal journey prepared you to work as a therapist? No easy question, right?
EA: Like most of us who have been psychologists or therapists for a long time, every chapter in our lives does inform who we are and gives us insight into how life is for other people. I emphatically believe that I could not do what I do without incorporating some of what I've learned about myself and the world.
I will tell you that it is amazing to have lived as a man in society and now live as a woman in society
I will tell you that it is amazing to have lived as a man in society and now live as a woman in society. Sometimes I joke with other women and say, “I’m on our team now, and I get it. I get what it's like to be treated differently by men.” I had another interview recently in which I was “mansplained” many times. It's really hilarious when I get mansplained.

The subtlety of what I've experienced is not lost on me or some of my clients in that I know what the experiential aspects of this are, exquisitely! And although I didn't keep a careful journal of what I went through, I remember many aspects of it very, very clearly. I sometimes bring this subjective understanding into my work. I'm sure you could appreciate this. Sometimes, when my clients or patients are really struggling, I lean in, and say, "You know, I really do understand what you're going through, and I want to help you." And they realize that I'm being honest and direct about it, and it means something to them.

I'll tell you one other little anecdote which is kind of special for me. When I see trans kids at the UCSF clinic, I'll say to them, "Do you know any other trans kids?" Sometimes they shake their head, and say, "No, I don't know any other transgender kids." I'll then say, "Well, do you know any other transgender adults?" They'll shake their head, and say, "No, I don’t know any other transgender adults." I look at them and say, "Well, honey, you can't say that anymore, because I'm trans." Their eyes get big, their jaws drop. Sometimes they gasp, sometimes they break into a big smile. And it's such a sweet, special moment for me. Sometimes the parents are not surprised and other times they say, "Really?" And then they say to their child, "See, honey, you can be a doctor. You can have a good life." And I feel, in that moment, like this is a gift to me, to be there with that child.
LR: A gift to you, indeed. I was reading a book by Fred Rogers who quoted someone something along the lines of, "You're not just your age; you're every age you've ever been." And that makes me think of what you just said. You're not just your gender; you're every gender you've ever been.
EA: Yep!


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Erica Anderson Erica Anderson, PhD, is a psychology professor at the University of California San Francisco where she specializes in behavioral pediatrics and pediatric endocrinology. Anderson is also part of UCSF's medical staff, assisting in both the greater Benioff Children's Hospital and UCSF's Child and Adolescent Gender Clinic where she works with trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming youth and their families. During her Swedish television career, Anderson became the first openly transgender character on prime time television starring in All for Sverige (Everything for Sweden), for which she was nominated for two GayGala Awards including Trans Person of the Year. She is President Elect of USPATH (United States affiliate of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health) President of the Northern California Group Psychotherapy Society (NCGPS) and Chairperson, Joan's House Shelter. Dr. Anderson holds a master’s degree in theology.
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence Rubin, PhD is a Florida-based psychologist and mental health counselor who is on the clinical faculties of St. Thomas University and the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, teens and their families. He is also the editor at Psychotherapy.net

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • summarize the core developmental and clinical issues in gender identity development
  • utilize information about the transgender experience in your treatment planning
  • discuss common and personal biases in working with transgender clients

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here