Toddcast - Season 4, Episode 1 - Transgender, with Kathryn Foss

Major Kathryn Foss, a transgender woman and 30-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, is my guest for this episode. Stream or download in MP3 format:

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Our understanding of the richness and breadth of human identity has improved somewhat over the past 40-odd years, but perhaps not as quickly or completely as we wish.

As a registered social worker with an additional degree in psychology, the reference book I was given to define what behaviour is normal vs abnormal was the DSM – that is, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – published by the American Psychiatric Association.

It's a comprehensive tome with an ambitious goal. A laudable idea, but one destined to struggle and err, precisely because it began with people: a small elite of relatively homogeneous, highly educated people who defined themselves as normal, and therefore, any deviation from themselves as a departure from normality.

The first edition of the DSM, published in 1952, defined homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance. Yes, sociopathic.

By 1973, attitudes had softened somewhat, but it wasn't until 1987 that homosexuality was completely stripped from the DSM.

There are clear parallels with the understanding and acceptance of transgender.

Until 2013, the DSM considered transgender as an illness called Gender Identity Disorder (GID). That was then replaced with a new condition called Gender Dysphoria, which, rather than pathologize the incongruity between an individual's birth gender and the gender with which he or she identified, instead focused on the distress that this incongruity may cause in the person.

Will it take 14 years for psychiatry to acknowledge that transgender has no place at all in the DSM, just as occurred with homosexuality between 1973 and 1987?

We don't have to wait. We know.

As human beings we endure so many varied stressors as we grow and learn about ourselves and interact with others as we try to find our place in the world. And there is no special category of person who is either immune or susceptible to dysphoria or adjustment disorder or depression as we go through this journey. Mental health and mental illness is a highly complex individual equation. Different people can experience identical circumstances and be affected differently. The same person can repeat the same circumstances at different times in their lifetime and be affected differently.

So, rather than wait for the official publications to catch up by publishing lessons learned from 30 years ago, let's learn something.

A Forum Research poll, commissioned by the National Post and repeated twice in June 2012 for accuracy, found that 5% of Canadians identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Doesn't seem like a lot, but 74% of Canadians report that they know someone who identifies as LGBT.

2013 studies estimate the percentage of the transgender population in the United States (and presumably Canada) as being between 0.25 and one per cent. In Canada, that's approximately 92,000 to 367,000 people, or looking at the Canadian Public Service (258,979 employees) somewhere between 647 and 2,590.

But what if you don't know a transgender person? Or you do, but you feel scared or embarrassed about asking the wrong question? I'll ask for you.

Meet Kathryn Foss by listening to this episode, and feel free to contact her with any questions not covered in our discussion.

Image Credit: Max Pixel