The Counsellor's Role

Anne R. Hanson

Trustee, Beaumont Trust and Gender Trust. BT Trustliner
Gendys Conference, 1992


Confusion exists in the minds of clients, other professionals and also counsellors as to what a counsellor is supposed to offer a client and what, if any, are the benefits.

I suggest, although exceptions exist, the main duty of a counsellor is to assist the client to examine his or her situation in an objective manner, look at the realistic options available, the likely result of taking a particular decision and the means of overcoming any problem.

Sympathy and caring have a place in the stressful situations clients are in, whether through their own decisions or by chance. The counsellor however will not be able to assist them unless they can stand back and remain completely detached whatever their personal views.

I am not a behaviourist although in my more cynical moments I sometimes wonder whether the human race's reactions are modelled on the "Gadarene swine". Neither do I favour the concept of the mind being a super computer.

The idea artificial intelligence will one day surpass mankind's abilities comes from confusing logic, which may be modelled mathematically, something which computers are superb at, with thought - a much more complex and elusive concept.

I prefer Dr Edelmans, the American Nobel Laureate's, concept of Darwinian competition in the development of the brain and in particular the idea it is not entirely genetically driven. This means no two individuals will ever have identical brains and therefore minds.

Clients become frustrated, depressed and experience difficulties because they are all complex mixtures, resulting from their genetic makeup, the way they were brought up, their social environment, prejudices, what will people think? The herd instinct and a multitude of other influences.

Regrettably today our educational system is neither strong on history or the discipline of the classics. However eccentric his behaviour a Latin scholar or classical historian could always justify his behaviour to himself from an earlier role model. This must have given him much comfort.

Clients come to counsellors because they are usually at the end of their tether and are prepared to admit they need some help in sorting things out. Often where couples are involved it is rather late and all any counsellor can do is to smooth the path to separation and hopefully indicate how they may avoid making the same mistakes again.

A counsellor's attitude to a client inevitably reflects their own personality. They are drawn to the work by an emotional reaction to distress and the need to empathise and sympathise with the individual. Many find it difficult to accept others may have different feelings. This can be a hindrance to the client's progress.

The comment by a 35 year old lady involved in the Kings Cross Station fire should serve as a warning. She said that the fire was bad, but after the fifth lot of well meaning carers had visited her, she felt they were worse with their insistence she must have certain reactions. All she wanted to do was to get on with her life and, if not forget, put the incident in perspective.

Similar reactions were reported some while after the Lockerbie disaster.

Reaction to present day disasters is partly due to their infrequent occurrence and the view that everyone will live three score years and ten. In periods when random death was common the population adopted a much more matter of fact attitude. This was demonstrated by the civilian population of London during the 39-45 war.

I have found most clients want and appreciate the opportunity to talk and be guided into looking at their situation and their actions in a logical manner. Techniques I have drawn from my experience in business such as Critical Path Analysis and the use of relative values for actions on a scale of desirability or likelihood of success are useful at this stage.

When a client has come to the stage of having a coherent view it is easier for him or her to be more objective.

Although generalities can always be disproved. With couples it is important for them to accept a fundamental difference exists between male and female. Females or at least mammalian females can have relatively few offspring and therefore need to protect their development. This gives rise, in many species, to the group activity of females in a co-operative and largely non-hierarchical manner.

Males have an interest in fertilising as many females as possible to protect their gene line. Therefore they are much more likely to roam. It is in their interests to establish themselves as high as possible up the hierarchy of power. Females want, for sound biological reasons, powerful mates.

Perhaps, using these criteria, President John F. Kennedy was the most successful male of the century.

Neither attitude is wrong. They result from different premises. After a client has been helped to look at the realities of the situation and the reasons why they are arising, whether in relationships, work, social or even in mild depression and bereavement, it is possible to move on.

The next stage is for the client to be guided into preparing a plan of action so the desired objective is reached.

Counsellors have a duty to their clients to make sure as far as is possible the client is fully aware of the likely results of their actions and whether success is likely or impossible.

It is not a counsellor's job to pass any moral judgment or attempt to dissuade anyone from a course of action on moral grounds or personal viewpoint. However if the activity is likely to bring the individual in conflict with the law this should be pointed out. Special rules apply to Acts of Terrorism.

Many clients with relationship problems will, after counselling, be glad they have a better understanding of how they operate. They may decide they do not want to change and hopefully, armed with this knowledge, will find a partner more willing to meet their needs.

Counselling is not a universal panacea; it is a means to an end enabling people to live happier and less guilt ridden lives.

I mention guilt as much bereavement counselling is to do with the purging of guilt rather than the finality of the loss. This is often not admitted by counsellors as it is considered not nice.

Today's methods of disposal where the relatives often do not see the body and have not had an opportunity to formally say goodbye exacerbate the situation. The Victorian ritual surrounding funerals with the body in the front parlour served an important therapeutic purpose.

Turning to the specialised area of this conference, two largely separate groups are involved with separate problems, although some overlap exists.

Transvestites present because they feel isolated and have an overwhelming sense of guilt. I know of no group who are so guilt ridden. Murderers I have met have regrets, usually because they were caught. Often they rationalise the situation to justify the act.

I have come to the conclusion the guilt felt by transvestites is due to the way western society defines the differing roles of men and women and the way it is still imprinted from earliest childhood.

Although the fear of being found out is the main force behind the guilt it is also as strong in those who are open about cross dressing.

Some will say they feel guilty because they are not a proper man. Others will emphasise they are and say the transvestism is merely an expression of the female side of the personality.

Those who come to terms with the obsession and can look at it on a par with an enthusiasm for, say, golf and put it into perspective are able to live satisfactory lives.

One wife did say to me once when I used this approach the problem was he played golf all weekend and in the evenings as well. How he fitted in the transvestism I do not know, but they came to an arrangement and continue to live happily together.

Where partners are involved, wives are often accepting especially if a contractual arrangement is made between them on frequency and activities. After all a man who has an accepting wife is usually not likely to go after other women. Few if any men feel the remotest guilt over that activity. The guilt comes from the possibility of being caught and a comfortable life style coming to an end. Any mistress will confirm this view.

The main danger for the transvestite is if he lives alone. The likelihood, no certainty, is he will dress at every opportunity and become increasingly isolated and lonely as he ages. Forewarned and counselled, he may avoid this trap.

I have deliberately excluded the dangers of fetishism which may have physical risks from my remarks. Although provided it does not seriously interfere with or endanger the individual it can be largely harmless.

Very few of the transvestites I have seen wish to change gender. They realise the difficulties and are happy in their dual role. Saying it enables them to express a gentler side to their personality. Many will make a point of their maleness and success with women. Although most will admit to a degree of fantasising, who in this room can say hand on heart they have never fantasised? Life would be that much duller if we did not.

Transsexuals are a largely discrete group. It is not the counsellors job to decide whether someone is transsexual or not. That is for the psychiatrist. However the counsellor has a duty to explain to someone who has decided they are transsexual, the problems they are going to have to overcome.

Also a counsellor is able to assess if a person will succeed socially and economically in the new role.

Driven as they are by an irresistible compulsion and feeling in many instances the medical establishment and society is against them, it is not surprising that they become devious in adopting an approach to meet the present criteria for surgery. More serious from their position is the hostility generated within them by their feeling of society's rejection and the understandable frustration they feel at the criteria and delays which are only meant to avoid them making a tragic and irreversible mistake.

As a counsellor I am fortunate in standing a little to one side of the problem. As the individual has come to me for advice he/she is more likely to be honest and accept my assessment of the difficulties they may face in three key areas.

  1. Will the transsexual be accepted in the new role visually and can the voice be modified? Both are essential pre- requisites for success. Few are unable to adapt to meet these criteria.

  2. Will they be able to operate socially outside the small world of their peer group and earn sufficient money to support themselves at a level they consider satisfactory?

  3. Is the individual stable and mature enough to deal with the stress?

Although many will not agree, it is necessary for the individual to be fairly ruthless in pursuing their objective and not too concerned with the feelings of others.

This is, after all, a female characteristic noted throughout history. It has two advantages for the transsexual. It enables them to stand up to adversity and to rationalise the hurt they may cause to those near to them. Every femme fatale has operated in this way.

A degree of realism has to be injected into the transsexual's expectations in the sexual area. Regrettably men prefer younger women as "The daughter in Law elect" lamented in "The Mikado". It is sad but true. They may develop for a few but many will have transient relationships unless they become lesbian. I like to see the individual have a realistic acceptance of this.

If an older presentee says they only want a cosmetic operation this is often an indication of the assessment they have made and also a statement of their sexual activity to date.

In my experience dealing with couples sexual activity is for a substantial number of people relatively unimportant and infrequent. Many quite happy marriages subsist in this manner for years and it is only the pressure of the media which starts people worrying about the situation. Of course, where one member is more highly sexed than the other, problems may occur.

I like to see the individual has the ability to think through the stages in a constructive way. Without this the outlook is grim.

Cost benefit analysis is a useful tool in counselling, where a client assesses the benefits of his or her present position against the benefits of change. It sharpens the mind and helps the individual plan for the future. Many a mistress has rued this technique when it is applied by her lover who is comfortably married. Transsexuals benefit as it helps them analyse their future problems.

A critical area is the individual's reaction to rejection. Most of us in this room have put in for new jobs or promotions and have not got the post. This is life and the transsexual must be aware work rejections may have nothing to do with their situation.

Socially in this country transsexuals can find prejudice and may find it takes a little while for them to be included. This is natural after all it was once said it takes two generations for a family to be accepted in a village.

The emotive subject of documentation causes much heart searching and rage. I believe those who change what they can and ignore the birth certificate arguments suffer less angst.

I spent some time in North America this year and transsexuals generally have an easier time. Not because of the legal situation but because of the overall free and easy way society is structured and because of the endemic philosophy encapsulated in the phrase "If I can fry a better egg and give a better service, customers will come to my door". This applies from the restaurant trade through all the professions. It is a spin-off from the private enterprise philosophy. The transsexual benefits as he is seen as trying hard to succeed and is applauded accordingly. The result is that transsexuals are much more confident and less introspective.

The United Kingdom is not a classless society and the class system is still largely based on accent and birth. An excellent concept for ruling an Empire but difficult for those in any transition. Class systems exist elsewhere but are largely based on income and ability.

Britain is also, compared to other Western cultures, still somewhat obsessed with guilt over anything connected with sex. This may be associated with the largely Protestant culture of this country but it is very deep seated.

This makes life more difficult for the transsexual but if they adopt the attitude "Problems do not exist, only opportunities" they will succeed.

Perhaps the best advice to give to a potential gender reassignment client who meets all the other criteria is to paraphrase the words of Rabb Butler in Gone with the Wind: "Frankly not to give a damn". Alternatively to be a member of the upper class who never have cared about public opinion.

Citation: Hanson, A., (1992), The Counsellor's Role, GENDYS II, The Second International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
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