Five Questions With… Reid Vanderbergh

Reid Vanderbergh is a therapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon who began his transition in 1995, and started taking hormones in 1997, at the age of 41. He went to Portland State University and then did his MA in Couseling Psychology at John F. Kennedy University. He is a member of the WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health, formerly known as HBIGDA), the IFGE, as well as the American Asssociation of Marriage and Family Therapists. He is the author of Transition & Beyond, published by Q Press

(1) As far as I know, you are the only therapist who is also trans to write a book about transness. Do you worry about people assuming you’re biased (in a good or bad way)?

As far as I know, no other trans therapists have published books about working with trans clients. I have had the experience of people assuming I am biased in the direction of transition; usually, those who make this assumption are related in some way to a client considering transition. However, when this comes up, I explain to them that I am not biased toward transition, precisely because I DO know how difficult and life-changing this process is. Therefore I don’t approach it lightly.

Now that my book is out there, I expect this question to come up among people who don’t know me, and also don’t know any clients who have worked with me. I hope people will ask me the question directly, rather than making the assumption that because I’m trans and did choose physical transition, that I automatically assume that’s the path for all my trans clients.

The one arena which worries me somewhat around this question of bias is academia. I’m hoping my book will be used as a text; my fear is, if I am seen as a community member writing about my own community, my book may be “suspect” because it may not be considered objective enough for academic credibility. Being subjective has been considered the ultimate faux pas within academia. Not that I think this as a valid view – I think the ultimate experts on a lived experience are those who undertake it – but I do fear this attitude may affect acceptance of my book within academia.

(2) Your approach to therapy and transition comes across as astoundingly holistic, taking into account things like religious beliefs and family, past and present sexual orientation, substance abuse issues, and community belonging. Can you talk a little about why your approach is so different from others’?

The primary reason is because of my own transition process. Having gone through it myself, I know from personal experience that there is no aspect of my life that is unchanged, no relationship that hasn’t also transitioned in some way. Therefore, I can’t view transition as anything other than a holistic process.

I went back to school to become a therapist because I had negative experiences with therapists I saw early in my own process of self-discovery.

I began physical transition while finishing my BA. By that time, I understood the holistic nature of transition, so I looked for a graduate program that would take a holistic view of therapy as well. This combination – viewing my transition as a holistic process and receiving an MA in counseling with a holistic focus – account for the very different approach I take toward gender issues.

(3) You use the term “transition” somewhat loosely, meaning any trans person’s transformation from thinking of themselves as cisgendered to trans. In your definition, that might include medical/legal/social steps toward transition, and it may not. Why such inclusion? Doesn’t that just muddy the waters?

I work with quite a few clients who are genderqueer. They don’t intend to fully transition physically (some don’t undertake any form of physical transition at all), yet they all feel they have transitioned away from their birth gender assignment. They have that same heightened consciousness of gender, that same awareness of gender as a relational process, as those who do undertake physical transition. I’ve watched several genderqueer clients’ identity emerge through the course of their work with me, and their process is every bit as profound and deep a sense of self-understanding as that of my transsexual clients’ emergence.

In considering all my various clientele, and how to conceptualize them in my book, I realized that to honor these folks’ process, I had to look at it as another form of transition. My own process around this is ever-evolving, and it may be that at some point I (or someone else) will come up with terminology that honors genderqueer transition, but allows for a clearer differentiation between those who do feel the need for as much physical transformation as possible, and those who don’t. In that sense, it does muddy the waters to use such similar language – I just haven’t come up with anything better yet.

(4) Simultaneous to your inclusive use of the term “transition,” there is not so much in your book for the non-transitioning trans person. My poor crossdressers and ‘middle path’ types are so often neglected: do you have any useful advice for those who are not transition track? What kinds of services and models might they use to make peace with their transness?

I should have addressed this more fully in my book. I haven’t worked with many people who are cross-dressers and content with that identity. Most of the people I’ve worked with who have identified as cross-dressers have realized that’s not who they really are, that they do indeed need to transition physically. They had tried cross-dressing, and realized it wasn’t enough. They realized their identity was not really cross-dresser, but transsexual.

Other than the above situation, cross-dressers are not seeking me out as a therapist, so I’m not as familiar with their issues. It may be they are assuming I will try to talk them into physical transition, since I’m well-known here as a transgender therapist.

That said… I have a feeling much of what I had to say about working with genderqueer clients might resonate with cross-dressers. There are generational differences in the kinds of terminology people are comfortable with, and many of my older clients are very uncomfortable with the term “queer.” But the concept of gender fluidity, feeling that parts of themselves can resonate with male and other parts with female – this is a model that may resonate with cross-dressers. Coming to view cross-dressing as reflective of a form of gender-fluid identity can lead to a healthier self-concept than viewing it as a form of behavior.

In terms of services, if they can find a therapist who has challenged the gender binary, who does not automatically take the view that “male” and “female” are mutually exclusive, that person may be more helpful to a cross-dresser than someone who views “dressing” as solely a matter of behavior.

I focused a great deal of my book on post-transition kinds of issues because those have not been addressed, either. The Standards of Care imply that hormones/surgery are the end of the line, that once that’s done, the client is done. Many other issues come up post-transition that no one talks about much, so I chose to focus my book on those issues. However, answering this question is making me think perhaps I should focus my next book on the experience of those who don’t need to transition physically.

(5) I happen to like and appreciate your “not female” way of identifying, since it takes into account the years of socialization you had when the world thought of you as female. But that’s not a point I can easily get across to trans women & other MTFs without insulting them or putting them on the defensive. Why don’t you feel threatened by not identifying as “a man” per se, when so many other trans people seem to?

I don’t feel threatened because I am so aware that I would not be who I am today if I hadn’t lived female for 42 years and male for 9. I see much value in who I am today, such that I don’t want to turn my back on that first 42 years and say, “I’m just a man now.” I use a variety of terms for myself, interchangeably – transman, transguy, FTM – but I don’t call myself “a man.” That label leaves out too much.

I don’t react with hostility or defensiveness if someone calls me a man – I know that’s the pigeonhole people put me in when they look at me. I just explain how I define myself. Just as I don’t attempt to define anyone else’s identity, I’m not going to let anyone else define me, either. Regardless of what conclusions people draw about their identities, I encourage everyone to undertake this task of self-definition. And – give up trying to describe anyone other than yourself!