Five Questions With… Arlene Istar Lev

Arlene Istar Lev LCSW, CASAC, is a social worker, family therapist, educator, and writer whose work addresses the unique therapeutic needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. She is the founder of Choices Counseling and Consulting ( in Albany, New York, providing family therapy for LGBT people. She is also on the adjunct faculties of S.U.N.Y. Albany, School of Social Welfare, and Vermont College of the Union Institute and University. She is the author of The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide (Penguin Press, 2004) and Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and their Families (Haworth Press, 2004). Additionally, she maintains a :Dear Ari” advice column, which is currently published in Proud Parenting and Transgender Tapestry. She is also the Founder and Project Manager for Rainbow Access Initiative, a training program on LGBT issues for therapists and medical professionals, and a Board Member for the Family Pride Coalition. Her “In a Family Way” column on LGBT parenting issues is nationally syndicated.
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1. You work a lot with LGBT parenting issues. What do you see as the major differences between LGB parents and T parents?
Lesbian and gay parents deal with numerous issues of oppression, and depending on the state or locality in which they live, this can be minor issues of societal ignorance, to huge issues of public and legal discrimination. However, as difficult as the issues facing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people may be, they pale in comparison to the blatant oppression transgender and transsexual parents face.
In many states, lesbian and gay people can now jointly legally adopt their children as out same-sex couples; this provides their children with many benefits and protections. However, transgender people experience discrimination in all routine areas of family life. Judges determining parental custody will rarely award custody to out trans people, except possibly in cities like San Francisco that specifically offer transgender protections. Trans people are viewed by the courts as unfit by the virtue of their (trans)gender status. Additionally, adoption agencies do not see transgender people as “fit” to be parents, and the obstacles faced by transgender people wanting to be parents can feel insurmountable.
Lesbian and gay people have fought for the right to become parents. I remember a time when simply being an out lesbian would bias a judge’s custody decision. Although there are some localities where this still would be true, even in upstate New York in rural communities, judges minimize the issues of sexual orientation in making custody decisions. However, I cannot imagine the same being true regarding gender transition. In my book, The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide, a transwoman tells the painful story of losing custody of her son after her crossdressing was used to “prove” that she was a deviant and a pervert. The legal status of trans people, regarding their rights to their children, is reminiscent of LGB legal rights 40 years ago.
However, there is good news to report. Trans parents are coming out of the closet in increasing numbers. Many trans people who have positive relationships with spouses and ex-spouses are finding ways to parent together and address the issues the gender-transpositions can have on family life. Increasing numbers of people are choosing to have children as out trans people. Some FTMs are getting pregnant, placing medical personnel in a position to work with pregnant men, creating a radical and challenging new phase of queer parenting. Additionally, many MTFs are storing sperm before transition, so they are able to have biological children as the sperm donor/father with a female partner. Clearly, LGBT people have developed innovative family-building forms, and I suspect we are only at the beginning of this process.
There is, of course, no reason that a trans person could not be as competent a parent as any other person, but like LGB people, they will likely have to “prove” that to the powers that be. In my experience, children take gender transitions in stride; it is adults who find the whole issue confusing and shocking. Older children might have more difficulties accepting gender changes, particularly as they near their own puberty. It is my contention however, that families can weather many challenging issues, and transgender status is no more, or less, challenging then other issues that families face.
2. You mentioned to me recently that the percentage of T parents who show up at LGBT parenting events is tiny, indeed. Why do you think that is?

    I think there are a few reasons for this.

  • 1) The LGB community, as you know, has had to travel quite a distance to become fully inclusive of the diversity of LGB and T people. It is possible that LGB parents are, as a group, more conservative in some ways, and therefore less likely to reach out to people who are obviously cross-gendered. Transgender presence raises many questions for children, and in my experience, LGB people have no better skills at handling these questions than most heterosexuals.
  • 2) Trans-parenting issues are still on the back-burner for many trans people. Transitioning and addressing gender issues is a full time project, and often parenting takes a backseat, as unfortunate as that may be. If a trans person has time and money for one conference a year, they may well chose to attend a trans conference without their children, versus a queer parenting conference with their children. After all, the conference may or may not be a safe place for them as a trans person, and their children (most likely the product of heterosexual coupling) will likely struggle with being at a queer conference. There are many issues that need to be managed, and like most of us, most trans people would prefer to be someplace where we can relax, versus another place where we have to educate.

I am a member of the Family Pride Coalition, the only national organization dedicated to the education, advocacy and support of LGBT parents, and we see an increasingly number of T parents at our Family Week celebration every summer in Provincetown. I have done workshops on Trans parenting there every year for many summers, and our numbers increase each year. Additionally, increasing numbers of LGB parents come to our workshops to talk about these issues, and discuss how to talk about transgender issues with their children. It is an exciting and positive change to witness. A side note is that LGBT parents sometimes have children that are dealing with gender issues, and are therefore committed to understanding these issues. Unlike heterosexual parents, most LGBT people remember their own experiences coming out, and want to make their children’s lives easier when faced with gender concerns. I am hopeful that the LGBT community will become increasingly inclusive, and I suspect that the parenting community may be a significant place for these changes to occur.
3. I sat in on your discussion of trans sexuality recently, and felt a little bit like a bug under a microscope slide, since everyone there was talking about trans sexuality in the abstract, but not so much about their own experiences (if they had any). Granted, this was a peer review kind of group, where you were presenting to other academics, and I know that’s a different situation than a workshop or therapy. That said: do you feel, as a lesbian or as a therapist, that you have a greater ability to understand trans sexuality than say the average researcher? Are you comfortable with research about lesbian sexuality that isn’t done by lesbians?
I am so sorry you felt like a bug under a microscope, Helen; I had hoped that it would’ve felt a bit more like the discovery of a new country. This was an academic discussion so it would be uncommon for people to discuss personal experiences. I guess perspective is everything because I thought everyone was quite personal for an academic discussion!
I have begun to talk more about trans-sexuality because I have become aware of how rarely it is actually talked about, academically, theoretically, clinically, experientially. My goal is simple: to increase the dialogue. Period. I do not see myself as an ‘expert’ on the issue, although I am not sure who the ‘expert’ would be. I was asked to write an article for the American Psychological Association on the subject, for a book on lesbian and gay sexuality, and this was the impetus for this professional discussion. For the APA press and a clinical audience, this is a seminal opportunity, and one I could not turn down. The clinical literature tends to treat trans sexuality as either non-existent, or deviant, I thought an overview of the subject, with both clinical and case examples, would add to the literature, and make it clear that trans people are sexual beings, who are not particularly perverse, or at least no more than other people. My goal is to open up the dialogue to what trans sexuality looks like; where we as a community go with that information is up to us.
I am personally skeptical of all research, and I think this is a useful perspective. All research has some bias, since we all stand somewhere while looking at our subject material; no one can stand outside of the subject they are researching. We can argue that, for example, a lesbian will have a better perspective on lesbian sexuality than a non-lesbian, but in truth she will just have a different perspective. More informed perhaps, but also more biased, more subjective. This is not good or bad, just different. I think there is room for lots of research on all areas of sex and gender. I encourage us to continue to study and learn more about this vast area of human sexuality that is so under-explored.
For the record, I am not a researcher. I am a clinician and an educator. I work therapeutically with people, and I also teach other people how to provide good clinical treatment. I utilize the research others have done, but my work is not research per se, except in the academic sense of gathering resources together, analyzing and discussing what (if any) value it might offer.
3b) For many non-transitioning transpeople, the only time they can bring their transness into their sex lives is when they’re masturbating. What do you think is the role of masturbation in transgender sexuality?
This is a good example of the role of research in our discussions and explorations. You have made a statement that ‘for many non-transitioning transpeople, the only time they can bring their transness into their sex lives is when they’re masturbating,’ and although this may be anecdotally true (i.e., perhaps you’ve known people to say this), we do not know if this is statistically true. How many is many? 10, 1,000, etc? Is this different for say, non-trans people? How many PEOPLE can only actualize themselves sexually while masturbating? What is the role of masturbation in ALL of our sexualities? What is the role of fantasy and auto-erotic sexuality for any of us as sexual beings?
I am not trying to avoid your question, as much as place your question in a larger context — which is that we know very little about human sexuality, the role of masturbation in general, and the sexual experiences of trans people, those coming out and those already out. I would like to see all these areas better researched and explored.
Having said that here is my answer: I think that for all people who feel their sexual and/or gendered selves is unusual or different, develop private sexual selves at young ages. We may date heterosexually, and engage in normative missionary sex, but we keep private our more complex sexual selves. This can as simple as same-sex attraction, or as complex as sado-masochistic crossdressed fantasies. For many of us, we keep these parts of us totally secret, so the only outlet we have is fantasy and masturbation. The Internet has, of course, broadened the possibilities for our sexual exploration, as well as potentially initiated new thoughts and ideas of what people can do sexually. For some of us, it has continued our sexual explorations, and for others it has brought us into contact with like-minded others and communities to explore sexual alternatives.
For many trans people, masturbation is a time when they can completely imagine themselves in the bodies that they fantasize about. Masturbation becomes a somewhat spiritual time, where they can imagine themselves embodied and whole. All in all it is a good thing, except that sometimes after years of private masturbating, it is not so easy to learn how to be sexual with a real flesh and blood partner. Trans sexuality, however, inherently requires open-mindedness and good communication, especially during the coming out and transition stages.

4. What is the most common issue that comes up for GLBT couples during counseling?

LOL, I’m not sure I can identify the most common anything. All people seek out couples counseling for similar types of issues: communication, lack of intimacy, arguing, parenting differences, etc. Sadly, by the time most people seek out counseling their relationship is already in deep trouble, and therefore more resistant to healing and moving ahead. Sometimes counseling is seen as a last resort, and the therapist is expected to wave a magic wand and bring back the love that was felt in the beginning of the relationship, perhaps a decade or more ago. As powerful as I am, it is a daunting task, so the first order of business is to develop some realistic goals.
LGB people are not all that different than heterosexual couples in the kinds of issues that trouble their relationships. The differences are often in dealing with the lack of recognition of their relationships, and how that is internalized by people. It is not unusual to see couples who have been together for a decade, whose families of origin do not yet know about their relationship, and they therefore spend holidays apart. Often the couple themselves does not realize how profoundly this impacts their relationship and how they see themselves as a family.
Transgender people can also struggle with similar issues (coming out, family of origin, etc.) but commonly partners of trans people are struggling with a sense of betrayal. Finding out that your partner is trans can be profoundly disturbing, and bring up issues of identity, sexuality, social disapproval, and distrust. I address these issues in-depth in my book Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for working with Transgender People and their Families. Although this book was written for therapists, I think the chapter dealing with family issues is very readable for the non-clinician. It has been my life work with trans people to see people within the context of larger family systems. I think that trans people have much more successful transitions when they remain in supportive relationships with their families. A significant amount of my work is addressing partners/wives, and children in helping them work though the issues of having a trans partner or parent. There are some differences working with a heterosexual couple dealing with transition then dealing with gay couple, but by and large the issues involve betrayal, communication, and eventually acceptance.
5. What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a two-book set, one for spouses/partners and one for parents of transgender people. I am hoping to have these written in the spring of 2006. It has become increasingly obvious to me, since the publication of Transgender Emergence that as much as a book on clinical treatment was necessary, it is equally necessary to have a book directed directly at the population affected families. These books will be more self-help oriented, assisting people in understanding gender issues and accessing help within the medical and clinical communities so they can most successful move through these challenging lifecycle experiences.