Unbuilding the Boxes

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

In the seven years of Bockting's stewardship, the program has grown from 49 new clients a year to 65 new clients a year, making it the largest of the university-based transgender programs in the country. And transgender research and services have gained a new respect in the medical school. According to Robinson, a psychologist at the Program in Human Sexuality and an assistant professor at the U, "It has been a fight to convince people that transgender is a worthy subject. It was 'Whoa! We don't want those people hanging around our family practice.' But even in the medical school, there has been an incredible shift in acceptance of the field."

Debra Davis, a member of the program's transgender-community advisory board and director of the Twin Cities-based Gender Education Center, describes Bockting as a "very good friend" of the transgender community because, "He works with us in a way that is not strictly clinical. He develops friendships with people in the community who are not his clients and he tries to really see what this community is all about. When it comes time to develop projects and give workshops, he can call on us for help. Many therapists won't venture into the community beyond the client-therapist relationship. They don't go that extra step to understand that transgender people are valuable and intelligent human beings with a lot to offer when it comes to doing work together."

Being gay may also offer Bockting some additional insight into the lives of his clients. "Some transgendered people have had a problem with Walter because he himself is not transgender," says Patricia Winn, another member of the transgender-community board, "but I have a hard time understanding that. There are very few transgendered psychologists in the nation, and it helps an awful lot that Walter is part of the GLBT community. It gives him more understanding of what it is like to be an outsider."

Bockting is also part of the graduate faculty at the University's Center for Advanced Feminist Studies. It may appear to be a strange place for a man who specializes in transgender work, but the dual appointment makes sense, Bock-ting says. Not only is such a pairing intellectually stimulating for him, he explains, but transgender matters are a "very hot topic" in feminist and women's studies these days. "There are transgender women who have a lot of feminist values and live their lives true to those values," says Bockting, "and that fact challenges our limits, pushes the polarizing boundaries of the male/female, oppressor/oppressed model." The possibility of a transgender identity turns a traditionally male/female world on its head--the kind of messiness that Bockting delights in. "If you put people in boxes," Bockting says, "you make assumptions about them and you really lose out on the richness of their sexuality and identity."

Of particular concern to Bockting these days is the impact of HIV/AIDS on the transgender community. In the fall, he and a colleague will offer two seminars on that topic at Club Metro and the Gay 90's, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health. "AIDS in the transgender community is a topic that was totally neglected, totally ignored, and still is in many ways," Bockting says. He explains that the fluid sexual identities that transgender people assume can work against them when it comes to HIV prevention. For example, the disease a man had to worry about when he was gay seems less threatening when she lives as a straight woman. And there are other transgender-specific problems, Bockting says, such as transgender individuals who buy hormone injections on the black market in an effort to speed up their feminizing or masculinizing process and then share infected needles. Additionally, when it comes to sex, transgender individuals may be unwilling to broach the issue of condom use with a partner, for fear of opening up another opportunity for rejection.

There has always been some level of tension between transgender individuals and the doctors and therapists who work with them: After all, the medical establishment serves as the "gate keeper" for the hormones and surgery a person may desire. Bockting is working with the program's community advisory board to review how decisions are made, with the aim of making the process as "consumer-friendly and empowering" as possible. Minnesota has long been known as a haven for transgender people. It has the oldest on-going transgender services program in the United States and the only anti-discrimination laws that encompass transgender people. The Program in Human Sexuality continues to push the accepted boundaries in the transgender field.

The professional field of sexuality studies is ever evolving and quickly changing. "You're either in it 200 percent or you're not," Bock-ting says. His own curriculum vitae is crammed with mentions of papers published, committees chaired, and grants awarded, but friends and co-workers say Bockting is always approachable--the model of unflappable calm and non-judgmental acceptance. Sharon Preves, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology who chose Bockting as one of her advisors, says, "I always get the sense that he's there for me. When I didn't get the first grant I applied for, he took the time to call me and see if I was all right. He sent me E-mail telling me to keep my head up high, that my work was important."

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