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."

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."

When professional duties overwhelm, Bockting retreats to his high-rise home. Leaving the office at night he drives a short distance to the Minneapolis apartment building where he lives. As he steps into the elevator and ascends, he imagines leaving his work behind--left below as he rises heavenward. As he showers the next morning, his mind returns to work, and he begins to outline the activities for the day ahead. "My ideas come in, I outline what I want to get done, and that's my entrance into work." And it's work that he admits will keep him going for a long time. Most people never find the thing in life that will give purpose and satisfaction to their days, but Bockting says, "I found that [purpose] in the study of sexuality and, in particular, transgender. I am very happy with that."

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