Today is Trans Day of Visibility and, with impeccable timing, I have just finished reading Confessions of a Gender Defender by Dr Randi Ettner. Dr Ettner is a psychologist in the USA who made her career in the field of transgender therapy, providing the gateway recommendations for trans people to be accepted for treatment (and where desired, surgery) to help them live as their true gender.
The book was published in 1996, which may explain why some of the language and usage would not stand up to modern accepted or discouraged uses – indeed, in an account of a conference for trans people that Dr Ettner attended, she describes being confronted by one trans woman over the clinical language used on her flyers. There is also very little recognition of nonbinary identity.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of value in a book like this today: the focus is on the personal stories of some of her patients, who have agreed to have their tales told in this way; interspersed in the early chapters especially are snippets of what the US legal process is (or was in 1996) of transition, the medical research and understanding of what transness is and what its origins might be, and sobering accounts of the general commonalities of social rejection when someone decided to come out and/or transition.
We meet through the psychiatrist’s eyes a variety of people with all manner of backgrounds, all of whom seek to change their body to match their gender; all of whom have made themselves vulnerable by seeking help; all of whom come across as people with a need and suffering, though sometimes that is resolved more happily than they hoped for. Sometimes, the struggle continues.
This book feels, today, like a snapshot of the past but there are far too many ways in which it seems as though society has not progressed or some people have even sought to drag it farther backwards. Too many of the stories match things I have heard far more recently. The prejudice and hatred or exclusion rings just as true today, for example. The risks the trans men and women whom Dr Ettner counselled and diagnosed for treatment, remain similar as a result.
We can do better and, today of all days, it is worth remembering that.