Perceptions of A Woman

Barbara Ross

C.Q.S.W. Social Worker, Gender Counsellor, Trustee Gender Trust, Oasis Social Group Director, Gems Regional Contact
Gendys Conference, 1996



As a Social Worker with a background of over 21 years of gender related experience, I have counselled many individuals and their families over the years who have sought help and advice from the Norfolk Social Services. These cases were referred to me as one of the few social workers prepared to work in what, at the time, was considered a relatively new area.

I guess I have been lucky that my department allowed me the opportunity to develop skills and gain knowledge in the early days when very little had been published on the subject and a lot of ignorant speculation had been spread by the press. Since then, the needs of Transsexuals and Transvestites have been more widely recognised if not wholly understood, and my work in this area has expanded accordingly.

Over the past few years, having retired from full-time social work, although still practising on a part-time basis as a mental health team worker, I have been able to devote more time to specific gender counselling, taking on private work as well as referrals from Local Health Authorities.

I was disappointed to find that after my official retirement my department did not try to find a replacement for me in this area, which seems to be a slight lack of foresight, although up until now they have been particularly supportive of my work and continue to be so. However, by taking on local referrals, undertaking initial clinical assessments and providing continuing counselling if appropriate, their shortfall has been covered, until such time as I fully retire from this field.

Having spoken at a past conference about the concerns which arise through my grass roots level of the work, concerns which may not get voiced to those higher up the treatment chain, I have chosen a theme which affects nearly all of the cases that I see, to a greater or lesser extent. Although I would like to make it clear from the start that much of my talk applies most strongly to only a relatively small minority of transsexuals, I still strongly believe that this minority deserves an opportunity to have its concerns voiced

Critical Criteria

When a client first approaches me many have a wide range of questions and worries. Some of these are easy to deal with reassurances that a client is not an isolated case, not ill, dangerous or evil. It is interesting how many clients find it hard to resolve their own prejudices about related issues and sexuality, with their own condition and a degree of tolerance of themselves, as well as others often has to be learnt. Other areas are less easy to deal with, although rarely impossible to resolve. How do I tell my family? Will I lose my job? What rights do I have at work?

My job is to help them appreciate their situation, give them practical advice, help them to understand their rights and acknowledge what their chosen course of action means on an every day basis.

Having dealt with these first two levels of concern, I approach the area which is most sensitive to many, if not all, transsexuals appearance. By appearance I do not just mean physical appearance, which would be a rather shallow interpretation of a person, but the demeanour, life-style, sexual orientation and occupation as well as the physical appearance, both style of dress and looks of a person. It is at this point that I find most areas of contention, particularly in acting as a liaison between Doctor and client.

If a client meets the critical criteria for gender reassignment, that is, she has been assessed professionally as genuinely gender dysphoric, has lived for the required time within the role, is able to support herself financially and emotionally, has no restrictive illnesses or mental health worries, the problem arises as to how successfully she will survive in her future life as a woman.

It is now that I hit a moral dilemma. Although ultimately it is not down to me to decide whether or not any transsexual will have a `happy, carefree, fulfilling' life, I am forced to assess how I believe others will perceive my client. It is not enough that I am not prejudiced against them, nor that possibly, for the most part, people are too busy or too disinterested to create problems for them. Awareness has to be there that to survive, relatively painlessly in this world, you have to be seen to fit in.

Much as I do not like this fact and appreciate that battles have been fought for the rights of the individual and freedom of speech, it is undeniable that a transsexual who walks, talks and looks like a man will not have an easy life in the body of a woman, no matter how feminine their brain sex. For me as a counsellor, the judgement arises as to whether they will have a happier life as a feminine mind trapped in a socially acceptable male body, or a feminine mind in a somewhat ill-fitting female form.

Naturally, here I am talking about extremes, and many of my clients have been fortunate enough to have a build and physiognomy that suited their gender reassignment intentions. But this dilemma raises other more delicate questions.

Over the years I have come across many cases where, through discussions on what could be considered the unlearning of indoctrinated masculine behaviour, I have had to re-evaluate my own perceptions of what it means to be a woman. How can a transsexual enhance their natural femininity, throw off their learned masculine behaviour, without becoming a parody of something which they are not, or rather a parody of something which they are.

Looking around at the many examples of femininity present in society today, I would find it hard to judge which characteristics mark us out as obviously female since there no longer appears to be any particular dominant model. It is with these considerations in mind that I find it increasingly hard to accept, what appears to me, a growing trend towards the stereotyping of acceptable transsexual behaviour.

Having agreed that varying degrees of help are necessary in the unlearning process, be it through surgery, cosmetics, speech therapy or even dress sense, I find the idea that the decision as to someone's chosen profession, place of residence, sexual orientation and other areas of ultimately personal preference should be regarded as considerations which could prejudice an applicant for gender reassignment, totally unacceptable.

When deciding what is appropriate feminine behaviour and applying this criteria to a transsexual, I find the tendency to veer towards blatant sexual stereotyping, perhaps even historical sexual stereotyping would be more apt, decidedly patronising. To my mind this presupposes that a woman is only a woman through what she does and what she wears; that a woman must be taken in context of her heterosexual relationships, her domestic abilities, and fit into the appropriate level of sexually stereotyped employment. To imply that a transsexual `should' wear skirts, heels and a specific amount of makeup not too much and not too little, to use a person's sexual orientation as the over-riding factor in deciding a transsexual's fate, or to suggest appropriate forms of alternative occupation because their current employment is `too overtly masculine' seem to me to be an intrusion on the transsexual's right to the expression of their innate personality, independent of their transsexuality.

The more I work with transsexuals, the more I realise that their transsexuality is a disability to be overcome, not an illness to be cured through aversion therapy or more pertinently corrective behavioural treatment. On a simplistic level, most of my clients' main aim is for the opportunity to resolve the difference between their external appearance and their internal psychology. What they do not want to do is to reinvent themselves and in doing so lose their essential sense of self

By asking someone to conform to behaviour that is not natural to them, that is changing rather than modifying their behaviour, the risk arises that more problems are dumped on the transsexual than are resolved through surgery. I assume I am not alone in finding this balance problematical.

When considering the issues that a transsexual has to face before being able to get on with their lives, such as the problems I have already mentioned of acceptance at work, family support or otherwise, social acceptability and financial security, I have found that many of my clients quite naturally want to maintain as many of their existing grounding qualities as they can. Should areas such as their job in which they are respected and competent, albeit in a purportedly male domain, be sacrificed for the sake of appearances? It is easy enough to look around and find a growing band of woman succeeding, although not without their own problems, in traditionally male oriented areas. Female politicians, lawyers, firewomen, business women, sports personalities, are beginning to balance up the numbers of women in overtly feminine occupations. So it is no longer possible to regard a secretarial position or a job within the caring professions as the most appropriate and anonymous career for a transsexual, nor it is fair to do so.

For me, it is the grey area in the middle that poses the problem. Is a transsexual manager at a electrical goods store less socially acceptable than a secretary or shop assistant? Is a transsexual wearing leggings and trainers, any less feminine than a woman wearing a dress? It is easy enough to look around any supermarket or city centre to see how female fashions have moved towards a more unisex style of dress. In fact, to be honest, women in skirts with long hair and high heels are probably now in the minority, an area of social gender reassessment which almost certainly starts at playschool these days. Should a transsexual be pushed into conforming to an ideal which no longer really exists, possibly standing out through their adherence to the old-school values of femininity?

Assuming the answer to be no, then the issue broadens to encompass wider occupations and more controversial forms of dress. In reality if someone is good at driving a bus, and happy with driving a bus, then their sexual status, be they male, female, homosexual, transsexual, or even a two-headed, green monster from Mars, should not be the overriding factor as to whether or not they should be allowed to drive a bus. Within certain guidelines a person clearly should have the freedom to dress and work as they wish, and it is these guidelines which at present are sadly ill-defined.

For many of my clients the idea of retraining for a different career, losing contact with their family, colleagues and friends, starting afresh in a totally new area is quite a daunting prospect. In some cases even the expense of divorce, the finding of alternative accommodation when the relationship with a partner is not in question, are seemingly problems for other people, when they are not an issue for those directly involved. The growing knowledge about this area and the more sensitive approach by the media, now means that there is less of a need for a transsexual to sever connections with his or her past unless it is truly desirable to do so. Not every transsexual requires a clean slate with which to start their life anew, having many positive aspects about their existing life which they would wish to sustain.

So how do we allow for this freedom of choice without providing too little or too much guidance? For my part I have found that an honest approach has always been the most positive. Naturally in any assessment, an individual's ability to cope with the truth must be a crucial factor. But to deny them the possibility of making key decisions as to what they are prepared to accept in their new role, or to use misinformation and cloud the issue to cover our own discomfort with dealing with the reality is surely doing a greater disservice to the client.

I see my role as an assessment of an individual and not just a transsexual; to facilitate the fine-tuning of their development within their new role, not as the provider of a formulaic solution which the client is forced to accept or fail to achieve.

It is from my position at the bottom of the treatment ladder that I feel a better liaison between all the involved professionals would help towards this more honest approach, and prevent the possibility of continually shifting goal posts, which only serve to frustrate the progress of the transsexual.

Rather than having to read between the lines, or take the client's interpretation of a session with a psychiatrist, it would be helpful to have direct feedback with more open channels of communication.

At present there seems to be a concern that expressing views which might not be in accordance with a designated psychiatrist might jeopardise a transsexual's case, an issue which could be softened through greater liaison between professionals and client.

In many ways I am more fortunate than many counsellors working in this field, in that I have already established a rapport with various gender identity clinics and professionals. But I know there are many who do not have this contact who must face greater problems than I. I hope that in the future when it is fully accepted that the needs of the individual are paramount and a more defined network in the provision of care is established, that we can all work together towards meeting these needs.

Citation: Ross, B., (1996), Perceptions of A Woman, GENDYS '96, The Fourth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 24.06.06