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Christine Daniels was a transsexual sportswriter.  For many years, she was known to thousands of sports fans as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writing under the byline “Mike Penner.”

Christine transitioned into a woman in April 2007 and began using her female name on her column.  In late October 2008, she returned to appearing, and writing, as Mike.  On November 27, 2009, she chose to take her own life.

This is a tragic story.  It’s also an opportunity to talk about gender – an important and often misunderstood topic.

We’ll begin by differentiating, and then examining, three gender-related variables that define all of humanity.  They are:

(1) gender assignment at birth;

(2) sexual orientation; and

(3) personal gender identity.

You can think of these variables as three separate sliding scales – everyone falls somewhere on a continuity within each one. You – like everyone else – had a gender assigned to you at birth, awakened in childhood or adolescence to some sort of sexual orientation and discovered within yourself some type of personal gender identity.

1. Gender assignment at birth: I’ll take this one first because it seems simple.  What could be more obvious that the gender you’re born with?  We’re all born either a boy or a girl, right?

Actually, that’s not the case.  Perhaps as much as 1.7% of the human race is born with a degree of sexual ambiguity, and between 0.1% and 0.2% of people are ambiguous enough to attract specialist medical attention, including, in some cases, surgery to disguise or correct sexual ambiguity.  These people used to be called “hermaphrodites” but the modern term for them is “intersex.”

Intersex people exist and always have.  They are a normal part of the range of human difference.  Unfortunately, they live in a world that mostly ignores their existence or treats them like freaks.  And they can have a tough time of it, dealing not only with the medical issues involved in their difference, but also the accompanying stigma of not looking, or feeling, like everyone else.

2. Sexual orientation: This variable should be familiar enough to most people.  Orientation refers to which gender you choose for a sexual partner – essentially, with which gender you choose to fall in love.

You’re probably used to hearing about lesbian and gay people and their lives, but even sexual orientation can get a bit tricky to parse.  Bisexual people exist, and sexual attraction can be fluid and change over time.  Sometimes people are surprised by an attraction they weren’t expecting to feel.

It should be common knowledge that gay, lesbian and bi people face discrimination and even violence in their lives, as they fight a campaign for greater understanding and acceptance of their difference.

3. Personal gender identity: This is where things get really interesting.  There are countless ways to experience one’s own gender, and perhaps even more ways to express it outwardly.

The transvestite – or “cross-dresser” is a person who enjoys dressing like someone of the opposite sex.  There are male cross-dressers and female cross-dressers.  A “drag queen” or “drag king” is a man or woman who is a performer, and cross-dresses as part of his or her work as an entertainer.

A transsexual is a person who feels that his or her gender assignment at birth incorrectly represents who he or she really is.  For example, a person with the outward appearance of a male at birth, but who is transsexual, will come to understand (usually during his early childhood) that he is actually female.  It is as though a female brain were placed in a male body.  Transsexuals often take hormones supplements or seek gender confirmation surgery to confirm their personal gender identity by matching it with the outward appearance of their bodies.

If this is beginning to sound complicated, that’s because it is.  There are countless terms used to describe people who express their gender in ways that don’t conform to societal norms.  My favorite, for its sheer simplicity, is “trans” – a sort of catch-all word for people who experiment with gender appearance and identity.  But there are many people who would argue with that definition and that usage.  That’s the nature of gender – it’s complicated, everyone is different, and the topic triggers fervent debate.  Mix in the additional complications of gender assignment at birth and sexual orientation and – well, you’ve got nearly endless diversity and plenty of room for misunderstanding.

Christine Daniels was a transsexual woman.  She decided to return to her male identity and live as Mike for the final year of her life, but I have chosen to honor the women whom I suspect she really was by referring to her as a female.

I have had the privilege and honor over the years to know and work with many trans people, including transsexuals and cross-dressers, as patients and as friends, neighbors and co-workers.  I have also known and worked with a number of transsexual psychotherapists, who remain valued and respected colleagues.

If it’s tough negotiating society as an intersex person or a gay man or lesbian, it is even tougher to live each day as a trans person.  I don’t know what it is about gender in particular, among the vast array of human differences, that ignites such misunderstanding and hatred.  Perhaps it is simply sexism.  The widespread oppression of women across the globe is an example of humanity at its very worst.  However you account for it, trans people face horrendous discrimination and persecution.

I have no doubt that Christine Daniel’s life was made more difficult by the misunderstanding of her trans identity.  Her death was a terrible waste.  We lost a talented, valuable, unique person.

You might think you don’t know any trans people.  Perhaps you do not.  It is far more likely that you do, but don’t realize it. Many transsexuals are “stealth” – they do their best to disappear into the background.  Their only desire is to live in a way true to themselves, and they are well aware of the persecution and violence that could greet them if they were found out by the wrong elements.

If you do have the good fortune to welcome a trans person into your life, I implore you to be gentle, and supportive, and sensitive. These are some of the best people you could ever meet and know – and, if you win their trust, they might introduce you to a world of  folks who do things their own way, in their own inimitable style.  They are a group of human beings whose path in life has taught them profound lessons in compassion, understanding and personal strength.

I’ll close with a link to a site that I wish didn’t have to exist.

Remembering our Dead, and the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, were created to honor trans people who have been victimized by violence.  It is a sad statement on the condition of humanity that these innocent people were murdered simply for being true to who they were.

In honor of Christine Daniels, please vow that you will become one more voice on the side of acceptance, and celebration, of trans people and transgender identity.

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The People’s Therapist is of course strictly non-partisan.  It is hardly my place to take sides in political matters, and I am loathe to betray a hint of bias in these pages.

However.

How could anyone NOT admire our magnificent President, Barack Obama, as he faced down those ignorant Republican hacks in Baltimore last week?

The most striking feature of the President’s performance, beyond his clarity of purpose, intellectual stamina and firm grasp of the issues, was his perfect calm under pressure.  There’s a reason they call him “O-calma.”

The Republicans hurled their snide partisan attacks, distorting the facts in their own inimitable way.

Obama stood at the podium, holding his ground, even smiling, and reached out in friendship and cooperation.  His face expressed perfect equanimity.  When a brief lull came in the Republican attack machine, he explained why it wasn’t about politics – it was about action.

He was masterful.  It reminded me of the Buddha.

I’m serious.  Here’s why.

When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, renounced wealth and privilege and left his father’s palace to wander as a monk, one of the first disciplines he sought in his path to enlightenment was meditation.

Following the meditation practices of his time, the Buddha embraced three refusals.

First, the refusal to move.  He learned to sit perfectly still.

Second, the refusal to breathe.  He mastered slowing his breaths until they were barely detectable.

Third, the refusal to think.  He cleared his mind of all extraneous distraction so he could sit in perfect peace.

These refusals were designed to promote calm – to permit an inner space to exist, where he could be strong within himself.

Like a mighty tree – the wind blows, the storms howl, the seasons change.  But you are stillness, firmly rooted in the earth.

A self-barrier, an invisible boundary, protects you from attack, granting you the space to contemplate all paths and decide on your direction ahead.

Young children have no self barrier – they spill their emotion in all directions and confuse other’s emotions with their own. But an adult can learn to contain his feelings, and to insulate himself from the attacks of others.  He can find a place of serenity within.

I have no doubt that Obama felt anger at the Republicans’ hypocrisy.  Perhaps he also felt fearful of the immense challenges ahead in his administration.

But, like the Buddha, his self-barrier remained intact.  Within, he located a place of calm. The clamor and tumult outside only strengthened his resolve to walk the Middle Path – the path of moderation.

There is a useful lesson in the President’s grace and his dignity.

Let’s save the planet from environmental dangers.

Let’s treat immigrants with the respect and gratitude they deserve.

Let’s provide every American with decent healthcare.

Let’s give LGBT people equality, which is all they ask.

Let’s work to establish understanding, and peace among nations.

This isn’t politics – it is an expression of our best selves as humankind.

We can follow the path of the Buddha, and remain strong within ourselves.  We can refuse to be drawn into fear or anger.

In so doing, we can make the world a better place.

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Dr. King would have turned 81 this week – an excellent opportunity to discuss ageism, an insidious form of  discrimination.

The starting point in any discussion of discrimination is why difference is an issue at all.

Some of your discomfort with difference derives from sheer inexperience.  It has been proven that a witness in a courtroom will more  accurately identify a defendant of his own ethnic background.  Most of us are used to seeing faces that look like our own.  Faces that are different tend to blur into sameness.

Another basis for discrimination is what psychotherapists call “transference.”   That’s when you transfer an expectation based on an earlier encounter into a prediction about future encounters.  If you are used to seeing Asian men deliver restaurant food and spot an Asian man carrying a bag from a Chinese restaurant, you might assume he’s delivering it.  That happened to one of my patients last week when he showed up at a friend’s place with take-out.  The doorman called up a delivery.  My patient was a guest, not a delivery man – and he felt insulted.

Transferences can crop up anywhere.  If you grew up in a world where African-American people, or Jews, or Muslims, or any other group, were supposed to be dangerous, violent, money-grubbing, untrustworthy or whatever, you might carry an unconscious assumption from that early programming.

Some of the worst discrimination arises from what you fear in yourself.  Think of the “straight-appearing” gay man who disdains the effeminate gay man.  Or the “bourgeois” African-American who looks down on the “ghetto” African-American.

Seniors face all three sources of discrimination.  They are unfamiliar, since our society tends to shunt them aside, separating them from the mainstream of younger people.  There is also transference – the images of older people in the popular media are often misguided and condescending, leading you to make assumptions about older people you meet in the real world.  And finally, you fear old people because you fear growing old yourself.

A few years ago I introduced a new member to one of my psychotherapy groups.  She was 77 years old.  No one else was over 50. The new member’s arrival triggered discomfort, especially in the youngest members, who expressed it by becoming flustered and telling her over and over again how terrific it was to have her join us.  Their response felt out of place and condescending – like it was all about her age.  Instead of the bright, prickly, opinionated, vain, complicated person in front of them, they seemed to be seeing a small child.

Over time, the group confronted this issue and explored unconscious feelings.

But their initial – and bizarre – reaction was all too familiar to the 77 year-old.

She shared powerful examples with us of ageism in her daily life:

  • If she went to a restaurant with younger girlfriends, a waitress always seemed to ask “oh, is this your mother?”
  • If she went out to shop for clothes with younger friends, the clerk told the younger people they looked great in their outfits, then, if she even noticed her, added, “even you look great!”
  • When she went to President Obama’s inauguration, a man chased her down and insisted on asking her age, then exclaimed “You’re terrific!” for no apparent reason.  This was typical – people are always telling her they “love” her  for no apparent reason.

Enough.  Let’s listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man we’re honoring on his birthday.  I hope, if he were still with us, he would be treated at the age of 81 as the man he truly was – not some crazy stereotype about older people based on ignorance, misguided assumptions, and fears of death and dying.

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