By M. Stephanie Murray
Arizona Daily Wildcat
November 20, 1997

Psychologist explains the mystery of gender


Arizona Daily Wildcat

Dr. Randi Ettner's book, "Confessions of a Gender Defender."

It's hard to avoid becoming jaded in our tabloid culture. One too many episodes of Jerry Springer and everything becomes old hat. We don't even blink. Albino strippers? Yawn. Eighty-pound babies? Yeah, and? Women who marry men who turn out to be women? Wait a second.

Yes, the one taboo left in our culture is that of transgendering. What happens to a person when the physical sex they've been assigned doesn't quite line up with the one in their head? Psychologist Randi Ettner addresses the distinct problems and needs of the "gender dysphoric" (as the psychiatric profession calls them), and attempts to educate "normal" society about the existence of one of the last remaining fringe groups, in her new book, Confessions of a Gender Defender.

Beginning Dr. Ettner's book, one can't help feeling like an accident-gawker. It draws us in like trash TV Ettner feeds our prurient desires only to slip in a more worthwhile aim as a chaser. She offers stories drawn from her own case histories as well as her personal experiences. And the tabloid qualities that draw us to the book are soon overshadowed by the greater dilemmas of self and gender that Ettner faces in her work.

The process of sex reassignment is a tediously long and complex one. As a psychologist, Ettner is often the first step toward that goal. She assesses her patients and refers them to endocrinologists for hormone treatments and, eventually, to a surgeon for the sex reassignment surgery. Not all transgendered individuals go through the entire process. For some, hormones quell the feeling of being trapped in the wrong body. Throughout this process, the clinical psychologist helps the patient adapt to the questions raised by gender dysphoria.

Ettner illustrates these questions by presenting the stories of many of her patients. One of the most affecting sections is part of her correspondence with Dr. Peter Rachael, a college professor who evolves into Kristen Rachael. The letters and journal entries chronicle the emotional and physical crisis that precipitates this change and the rebuilding of self that must occur before Kristen can make her appearance in the world. During the course of Dr. Rachael's transition, one of his co-workers (a woman) falls in love with him and a relationship develops.

The difficulty of maintaining a relationship with a transgendered individual is addressed through the story of Linda and Gary. Despite their loving and intimate marriage, Gary needed to become Glenda. Rather than unraveling the relationship, Linda realized that the qualities that she loved most in Gary were the ones that made up Glenda. They are now living happily in Florida; Glenda is a maternity nurse.

For all the happy endings Ettner provides, there is also horror here: sons entirely abandoned by families for becoming daughters; job and social discrimination; self-inflicted castration in attempts at freedom from masculinizing hormones; glandular disorders caused by massive hormone treatments. While the suicide rate among gay teen-agers is shockingly high, the rate among transgendered teens is even greater. Ettner's book ends with two suicides; many more attempts are scattered throughout the book.

The point of Ettner's book is to encourage discussion of gender and identity. Do not mistake this for a novel or a memoir: characters appear and disappear without relating all of their stories; form is often manipulated in strange ways, mixing letters, diary entries, dreams and conversations randomly; the diction is often oddly constructed.

But that's not what's at issue here. The issue is that this is a discussion that must be begun. And Ettner has given us a poignant and thoughtful starting point.

Dr. Randi Ettner will be at Barnes & Noble Bookstore, 5130 E. Broadway Blvd., on Sunday, Nov. 23 from 1 to 3 p.m.


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