Redefining Gender: What I Learned at Transgender Clinical Training

Colorful hand paintings

Krystal Plonski, a naturopathic medicine and acupuncture and East Asian medicine student, wrote a lovely story about a transgender clinical competencies workshop from the Bastyr University Diversity Committee. She graciously allowed us to adapt the post from her blog.

Recently, I learned a new name for myself: cis-female. It means my experience of gender identity matches the gender I was assigned at birth. Similarly, a cis-male is a person born as a male who is genetically male. The prefix cis- comes from the Latin for "on the side of," just as trans- comes from the Latin for "across from."

But there are far more variations than just these two options – in life, as well as in Latin.

I learned about this new vocabulary at a clinician-oriented training conference about transgender health and wellness. It was organized by the Bastyr University Diversity Committee, which brings students and faculty together to learn about topics such as racism, white privilege, gender, anger, anxiety and even "microaggressions" — another concept new to me.

The conference centered around health topics affecting transgender individuals, their obstacles to getting adequate health care, and the challenges they can face on a daily basis. For a basic example, the stigma of deciding whether to use men's or women's bathrooms.

We learned that within the transgender world, there are individuals all along the "Genderbread Person" continuum. We learned that gender is a more complicated construct than many people assume, and that responsible medical practitioners should understand the gender complexity that many patients face.

This conference was an enlightening and eye-opening experience. I have worked with transgender patients at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, our teaching clinic in Seattle, and although I feel comfortable working with this population, I wanted to learn more. For example, I did not realize that 1 in 300 individuals identify as some variation of transgender. This statistic highlights the importance for all health care professionals to be competent and aware of the struggles that transgender individuals face. Some people are not allowed to be on certain health insurance plans. Some are denied jobs. Many face endless questions about whether they are male or female. They may receive dirty looks when they use the restroom of the gender that they identify with. The list goes on.

Personally, I had an interesting experience in our group discussion because I had never questioned my gender before. I had always associated with being “cis-female,” but without knowing the proper terminology. Growing up, I loved fancy shoes and frilly dresses. Did I find these clothes naturally appealing, or was I taught that they were "normal" for girls? It was good to reflect on my understanding of “male” and “female” and look outside the societal constructs of gender to see other ways of living and understanding. It’s good to be right on the edge of comfortable – that's where we grow mentally and emotionally.

At the conference, we learned about respectful ways to address transgender patients. We learned about counseling strategies. We learned about respectful ways to address transgender individuals, and about educating future employees to do the same. We learned about hormone replacement therapies available for teenagers and adults who want to undergo sexual transformation.

Recently, I met a mother of two children who identify as transgender. She did not understand the lifestyle, mentality and choice of her children, and wanted to learn more: Was it her upbringing? Was it inevitable? Is it just a phase? These must be really common questions for any parent with a child who is transgender or exploring the idea of what gender means to them.

It spoke volumes to me that this mother was working to learn more about transgender issues. She was showing her kids that she cared about them and loved them. She wanted to understand their mindset in order to support them further in their lifestyle choices. It was heartwarming to hear from her. If she can take time to learn about this, then so can my classmates, my colleagues, other medical professionals, and I.