Unbuilding the Boxes

U of M researcher Walter Bockting untangles the web of gender and transgender issues

When Walter Bockting was a young boy growing up in a small town in the Netherlands, he would get teased for being a mietje, the Dutch word for "sissy." His family tried to protect his feelings, but they couldn't stop the comments. "I remember one day in school," Bockting recalls. "I had gotten a bad haircut and I put up the hood of my raincoat and I tied it tight so only my face showed. I wouldn't take it off the whole day. But I think it was not only the haircut, I was really self-conscious at that point." Finally, he decided that since he was a sissy, since he was feminine, then he should embrace and celebrate that integral part of himself. "When I was 15, I said, I'm going to be me," Bockting recalls. "It was almost like, I'm going to use this quality in myself and be the best feminine man that I can be."

Bockting talks about his life in a soft Dutch accent. Choosing his words carefully, he speaks in fluent, colloquial English. He is youthful, has a fine, handsome face, and wears his clothes with an easy elegance. At 35, he is the coordinator of one of the largest and oldest transgender programs in the world, established by the University of Minnesota in the early '60s. Bockting's determination as an adolescent to embrace his own gender nonconformity now shows itself in his devotion to making transgender lives fulfilling, respected, and safe.

At the Program in Human Sexuality, a part of the Family Practice department of the University of Minnesota Medical School, Bock-ting is Coordinator of Transgender Services. He serves as a therapist, teacher, and administrator, but roughly half of his time is spent on research. Currently he's putting together a research plan for studying transgender health issues and intends to apply that research to improve the quality of care for the transgender community. He is also expanding the program to address a growing need for information and services for intersex people.

On the wall in Bockting's office, located in a squat, glass-paneled building across 35-W from the U's campus in Minneapolis, hangs an ornate, inlaid plate from India. The plate was a gift from an old friend--a friend who decided to transition from a man to a woman when Bockting was an undergraduate in psychology at the Free University in Amsterdam. Arranged with the diplomas and awards Bockting has received over the years, the plate seems symbolic--the first milestone on a road that eventually would become a career.

Bockting had hit a dead end two and an half years into his studies at the Free University. Psychology seemed like just a lot of stale theories. He started working as a waiter in a restaurant during school, then as the manager. In the summers, he'd take other jobs. The world outside academia was beckoning him away from his studies as people offered him better positions and more responsibility. One day, the deadline was approaching for a paper he needed to write for school and he still hadn't chosen a subject. Switching on the TV, he happened across a talk-show host interviewing a Dutch man and his spouse, a transexual woman from Thailand. Bockting knew he'd found the topic for his last-minute paper, and eventually, for his life. Looking back, he realizes that his own struggles with his femininity and his friend's transition to a woman launched his fascination with gender. Discovering that one of his professors counseled most of the transgender individuals in Holland as part of his private practice further augmented such interest. Bockting began to focus on sexuality and transgender issues.

In the mid-'80s, the director of the University of Minnesota's Program in Human Sexuality, Eli Coleman, came to the university where Bockting was studying to research a phenomenon that was then unheard of in America--gay or bisexual identity in female-to-male transexuals. Bockting helped Coleman, who spoke little Dutch, with his research and then came to Minnesota in the summer of 1987 to help him write up the results of the study. After returning to Holland to finish his degree, Bockting applied for a post-doctorate fellowship at the Program in Human Sexuality and was accepted. He came to Minnesota in 1988 and has never left. In fact, his American transformation has been more than complete, he jokes: "It's quite an identity crisis to sit in an Amsterdam restaurant and have the staff think I'm an American trying to speak Dutch."

When Bockting took over as the U's coordinator of transgender services in 1991, he felt the program needed to be more client-oriented rather than patient-oriented. He also wanted to acknowledge those who want to claim a wholly transgender identity--an identity separate from the proscribed male or female categories and irrespective of sexual orientation. Bockting asked his allies and acquaintances in the transgender community to help him forge a program that would be more responsive to such needs. The ensuing shifts and changes caused considerable turmoil and Bockting became the target of a fair amount of personal criticism. But, says friend and colleague Bean Robinson, Bockting survived: "There is this steel. I mean he's very strong. I admire him so much because he takes in what he needs to change, but doesn't really let personal criticism hurt him."

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