You would be hard pushed to have missed the media hype and public dialogue that is around just now about gender identity. In particular the tensions between trans community and their allies and so called ‘terfs’ – trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who are a group in society who oppose trans rights and refuse to accept people who don’t identify with their gender of birth.
Combining this with how the language regarding gender identity and sexuality is constantly changing, is it any wonder that people get confused? How many times have we overheard, or been directly involved in conversations with people saying: ‘I don’t get it any more. It used to be just gay or straight, man or woman, now you have non-binary and pansexual, what does it all mean?’
As an out gay cis man, I am no authority on any of this but thanks to Madison-Amy Webb’s ‘A Reflective Guide to Gender Identity Counselling’, I am reassured that this gem of a book is out there doing some good in explaining and myth-busting some of this. And what a great and insightful read it is.
The author is a practising psychotherapist and specialist mental health trainer on trans issues living in Peterborough, UK. She also has real life experience of gender transitioning and ‘gender dysphoria’ – a term used throughout the book to describe anxiety or persistently uncomfortable feelings that a person experiences when their assigned or birth identity conflicts with their internal gender identity.
This book is predominantly for counsellors whose clients may be experiencing gender dysphoria. But I would suggest that this is essential reading for a much wider pool of people including anyone with an interest in the subject area and the media, who are constantly reporting and misreporting about the issues discussed, as the author highlights herself.
Madison manages to effectively combine a number of things: guidance for professional groups; reflections of her own experience (extracts from her journal reveal her journey through counselling and coming to terms with her gender dysphoria – powerful stuff) and exercises such as ‘The Dressing Up Box’, which invites the reader to reflect on their own gender identity.
The author helpfully includes a glossary of terms – almost 20 pages of terms and phrases covering the gender spectrum to get your teeth into.
Although this is not strictly speaking an academic text, it does introduce some theory including examining the history of us humans and how we’ve evolved, or should I say how we think we have evolved. I was fascinated to learn about the existence of Mukhannathun, for example, as an identifiable group of men in Islam who publicly adopted feminine clothes and appearances.
Madison also touches on the existence of gender variation within multiple species of animal – did you know that cuttlefish appear to change sex through altering their exterior colours to appear like the opposite sex?
The author’s almost anthropological approach to the subject matter of gender variation is both informative and captivating. It leaves the reader’s mind open to questioning how much gender identity is set by what society dictates, rather than what is actually innate to us all.
We all know that LGBT is the umbrella term used to describe: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered, however readers may be surprised to learn that Madison is not a fan of the T being included.
This, I believe, is partly to do with the media and public confusion over gender and sexuality and their inability to separate the two. I relate this back to the first person I met who was gender variant during my time as an undergraduate student. She had spent the first part of her life as a straight male. Through her transition to female, her sexual preference (towards woman) remained the same however in the eyes of society, her sexuality or sexual orientation had changed (she was previously a straight man but now, post-transition, was a gay woman).
Although I can see the benefits of including the T in the umbrella of LGB in terms of sticking together to campaign for more rights and equality, I can see Madison’s viewpoint about how at times it is unhelpful particularly if we want society to arrive at a clearer understanding of what gender variation is.
Madison’s view is that everyone is on a gender identity spectrum, and that our current understanding of the male and female binary is restrictive referring only to a small percentage of the population.
She suggests that those in the counselling/supporting profession need to consider their own gender identity as a way of better connecting to their clients. Ultimately this means that a binary form of gender is constructed by society and that no two experiences of gender are the same.
A Reflective Guide to Gender Identity Counselling is a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the subject matter. Language is hard. I think it is important for people to feel they can stick up their hands and ask questions about identity and language, without fear of getting it wrong.
There’s also personal responsibility here, particularly for those in the caring profession, to keep their knowledge as up to date as possible. If you read nothing else on this area, I would highly recommend you read this.