Understanding Gender Identity

by Maria Christina, MS

Counseling and Therapy Pittsburgh PA

Caitlyn Jenner was treated to two standing ovations as she received the Arthur Ashe award for courage at this year’s ESPY awards [view the ESPY presentation here ]. The film shown prior to the award presentation traced Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner’s struggle with gender identity, and his ultimate transition to Caitlyn. This provided the framework to help many viewers understand that Bruce Jenner and Caitlyn Jenner are one and the same person. Caitlyn is the authentic gender expression of that person.

Jenner is but one individual identifying as transgender within a broad and diverse community, and the publicity surrounding Jenner’s transition has prompted many questions.  For example, do all in the transgender community elect to undergo surgery?  The short answer is, no. Others try to make connections between gender identity and sexual orientation: if a girl who is attracted to girls transitions to being a boy, was she gay and now “straight?”  As much as we try to arrange things into neat categories, often humans defy categorization.  Our understanding of gender is evolving and, simply stated, our expressed gender and our attraction to others are two separate, unrelated, fundamental parts of who we are.  Now that same-gender marriage is recognized as legal across the country, perhaps we can move away from terminology that serves to separate us.  Instead of “gay marriage,” there is simply marriage.  Couples are couples, families are families, people are people and we present ourselves in myriad ways.  Jenner summed this up during her acceptance speech: “We’re all different. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

In addition to the usual issues that bring people to counseling, many who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming experience significant amounts of depression and anxiety because they are living inauthentic lives. Counseling and treatment lessen depression and anxiety, help individuals understand their gender identities and gender expression, and assist them as they work through complex social and relational issues.  But there is a special risk for those in the transgender community: 41% of those who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming attempt suicide at some time in their lives, according to a survey released by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  This is nearly nine times the national average for all Americans.  Additionally transgender youth are at high risk for being the victims of violent crime.

Jenner has enormous wealth, and what appears to be a loving and supportive family. In spite of these resources even she could not escape the pain of keeping secrets and living an inauthentic life. She admits to considering suicide in the past.  Jenner is stronger now and can withstand criticism and disapproval, but thousands of transgender children and adolescents in this country cannot. They are vulnerable. If you or someone you know identifies as gender nonconforming, remember there are resources available to assist individuals, couples and families as they work through many complex issues. Caitlyn Jenner stated it clearly: “This is an issue we can deal with. This is not something that people have to die over.”

The Trevor Project operates the nation’s only 24-hour toll-free suicide prevention helpline for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth (1-866-4-U-TREVOR or 866-488-7386).

Meet Maria Christina

Counseling and Therapy Pittsburgh PASometimes couples move beyond a place where therapy can no longer help their issues. Mediation presents an opportunity for a neutral third person to facilitate a constructive conversation between individuals experiencing conflict. It can be appropriate for issues regarding co-parenting, co-habitation during separation/divorce, custody, support, family disagreements, and more. It provides a neutral, safe environment with supportive guidance to help you work toward a satisfactory agreement.

We are excited to announce that Maria Christina, MS, Certified Mediator, will be bringing her valuable skills and talents in Mediation to our practice beginning June 1, 2015! We are pleased and thrilled to have her on board as a member of the PghPsych family! Join us in welcoming Maria by reading her Q & A.

In Good Health,

Maria Christina, MS, Certified MediatorHow would you describe yourself in three words?

Hopeful, approachable, grounded.

What is your role as a Mediator and how might a couple benefit from these services?

Mediation is a process designed to help individuals in conflict. As a mediator my role is to assist a couple through that process toward a common goal: reaching an agreement. Ideally this agreement is mutually satisfying and at the very least it is an agreement that is acceptable to both. I understand that couples begin a relationship with hopes and dreams, not with the idea that they will end up in conflict. Conflicts and disputes are a normal part of life. It is how we handle conflict that makes a difference. Mediation is a peacemaking process and it can help a couple avoid making long-term, reactionary decisions that deepen wounds. Mediation serves to lessen the harm caused by disputes.

What was the last book you read?

Recently I have been rereading some favorites, and one that I recommend is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is inspiring and helps us uncover those beliefs we carry that rob us of joy. Ruiz offers four agreements to be followed as a code of conduct: be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best. Keeping these agreements is not easy, yet Ruiz encourages us to do our best to keep the agreements each day, reassuring us that soon it will be easy. One of my favorite lines is, “Today is the beginning of a new dream.”

What was the last movie you saw? 

The last movie I watched was “Saint Vincent.” I don’t think it was a big hit but I found it to be funny, touching, and inspiring. Maggie (actress Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (actor Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door to a crusty, hard-living veteran named Vincent.  Bill Murray plays Vincent and does a super job. As the title suggests, there is more to Vincent than what we see on the surface. And isn’t this true of all of us?

What was the funniest thing you have ever experienced?

I think funny things happen all the time and we just have to be open to seeing the humor in life and in ourselves. One example: recently I was preparing supper and watching the birds at the feeder outside the kitchen window when I spotted a hawk soaring in the sky. Now I know a hawk needs to eat, too, but I was not about to let this hawk use my bird feeders as his personal buffet table!  I ran outside waving a paring knife in one hand while flapping my apron with the other, all the while yelling, “Hawk! Hawk! Hide, everyone, hide!”

A little too late I noticed the UPS deliveryman, frozen in his tracks at the end of the driveway, package in hand. I lowered the paring knife, smiled and said, “It’s ok. I was talking to the birds.”

He dropped the package and drove off pretty quickly. I do hope he has recovered.

If you could meet someone living or dead, who would it be and why?

There are so many choices!  There is my great grandmother Maria (I am her namesake) and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (I have heard him speak but never met him) – but I pick Bono. As front man for the band U2, Bono is a talented musician, singer and songwriter, and he is also an inspiring philanthropist and humanitarian.  He has raised money and awareness in support of many worthy causes and was the recipient of the Man of Peace award. Additionally, he has met many others whom I would love to meet. Oh, the stories he could tell!

What is your favorite art form and why?

Definitely music. Music can lift my spirits or soothe me. Music spans the generations and can tap into our memories. There is great diversity in music and it blends beautifully with the performing and visual arts. A great soundtrack can make the difference between and good movie and an outstanding movie. Plus, music is portable.