Supporting Transgender Clients Part 1

This is a guest post from our friend Kat Mayerovitch. Kat is a massage therapist, writer, and award-winning speaker living in Vermont.

According to GLAAD, only 16% of Americans say they personally know a transgender individual. As a result, many people (including massage therapists) are getting their information about trans issues from whatever Facebook posts and glossy magazine articles happen to filter into their lives. But just as we wouldn’t expect to be able to provide care to cancer survivors after reading a tabloid cover stating “KILLER BOOB DISEASE ATTACKS: ARE YOU NEXT?”, we need to make sure we’re providing the best possible experience for our current and potential transgender clients, which means getting our facts straight and our priorities in line. Even small adjustments to the way we interact with our clients can mean the difference between an uncomfortable or even devastating experience and a happy massage customer who returns again and again.

The super-duper basics: what are we talking about?

Let’s start at the beginning: what does transgender mean? For the Latin geeks, it’s a combination of trans, meaning beyond or through, and gender, meaning kind or type (think genus, genre). For the rest of us, it describes someone whose biological sex (those chromosomes and associated gonads and other physical characteristics) doesn’t quite match up with their gender, or sense of maleness or femaleness.

Trans people may identify as male or female. Or they may identify as neither, preferring terms like genderqueer, nonbinary, or agender. Why are there so many different terms? The same reason there are so many names for colors of red hair dye: while related, they are all significantly different for the people who wear them.

A second major point: what isn’t transgender? Transgender doesn’t mean the same thing as gay; sexual orientation is a separate issue, and trans people can be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, or get turned on exclusively by still life paintings of root vegetables. It’s not the same thing as being a drag queen or king, who performs while dressed as a member of the opposite sex. It’s not the same thing as being intersex (or born with both female and male sex characteristics); most intersex people identify as being male or female, although some may also consider themselves to be trans.

If this feels messy and complicated, that’s because it is. While transgender people are nothing new, our cultural understanding of gender changes from year to year. New ideas and terminology are invented, tried, and discarded. What’s the solution? Try to keep up with the conversation and be as responsible and as kind as we can.

Why does all of this matter for massage therapists?

A few reasons:

  • We see people at their most vulnerable. Undressed, alone, often in pain. We cannot do our work effectively if we do not address this vulnerability with both compassion and competence, regardless of gender identity.
  • Transgender members of the community are hurt by sincere people with unaddressed assumptions about gender just as often as conscious hostility. This means it isn’t enough just to be kind; we must also be informed in order to avoid doing harm.
  • More people need amazing experiences with massage therapy. We know we’ve got something amazing to offer to the world, but only a fraction of the population is experiencing it. Removing barriers between individuals and a life that includes regular massage is a boon to both the people and the profession.

In Part 2, we’ll get into realistic steps you can take in your massage practice to 1.) avoid being an accidental jerk and 2.) actively work to support trans clients. But in the meantime, you can get ready with a quick vocabulary review.

Terms to know

Transgender: a word describing someone whose sex and gender do not match. Keep in mind this is an adjective, not a noun. You can have a transgender client, but you can’t give a massage to “a transgender.”

Trans: a short form of transgender. Used interchangeably.

Cisgender: a word describing someone whose sex and gender do match. For example, when Jeff was born, the doctor looked at his genitals and said, “It’s a boy!” So they named him Jeff and everyone called him a boy. Jeff felt like a boy, and eventually grew into a man. Jeff’s ideas about his gender identity match his sex, so Jeff is cisgender.

Cis: a short form of cisgender.

Gender binary: the idea that there are only two genders, and that everyone falls strictly into one or the other.

Genderqueer: a term used by some people who see their gender identity as outside of the gender binary; perhaps neither traditional gender or a bit of both. It’s a personal identification, though. (So don’t call someone genderqueer unless they’ve told you they identify this way.)

Gender nonconforming: A term describing people whose gender expression is outside social expectations of what is “normal.” Gender nonconforming people are not necessarily trans. A cis woman who wears pants and owns a business might be considered gender nonconforming in one culture, while still remain within a culturally accepted range of feminine behavior in another.

Terms to avoid

Tranny, shemale, he/she, transgendered, transgenderism, fake woman or man: just … don’t.

Ready for more? Part 2 is here.