At age 29, I finally admitted to myself that I was transgender and began seeking a therapist to write me the necessary letters of recommendation to receive gender-affirming health care. I was living in a small town in Idaho at the time, and I needed to find a therapist who specialized in working with transgender people. I searched my health insurance company’s database and found only one therapist within a 50-mile radius of my zip code who was registered in this specialty.
I called his office, and he was cheery on the phone. When I asked if he worked with LGBT people, he said, “Heck yeah.” I scheduled our first meeting for the following week. When I hung up the phone, I marveled at my luck ― his office was less than a mile away! Closer than the nearest grocery store!
On the day of my appointment, he welcomed me into his office and offered me a seat on the couch. Now that we were face-to-face, his cheeriness was amplified to a theatrical degree and betrayed a hint of nervousness. I wrote it off as the awkwardness that often accompanies first meetings.
I gave him the Cliffs Notes version of my past: where I was born, where I had gone to college, my occupation, and finally, why I was there. I was female-to-male transgender and ready to begin the medicalization process, but in order to do so, I would need letters of recommendation from a therapist with a master’s degree, ideally someone who specialized in working with transgender people. Someone like him.
At that, he clapped his hands together enthusiastically. “Before we get into things,” he said, “I want to give you an idea of how I work. I’m like Mister Rogers. I’m cool with everyone.” He opened his arms as though embracing all of humanity. “I work with people from all different walks of life. Veterans, divorced people, single people, LBG... Wait... Did I say that right?”
He laughed, unable to recall the acronym in its entirety. I helped him by saying it and even forced a laugh to smooth over his blunder. My straight friends often stumbled over the acronym, so this didn’t raise an immediate red flag.
“I just want you to know,” he continued, “I consider this first meeting to be like an interview. If you’re feeling like we’re a good fit, that’s awesome. But maybe at the end of this meeting, you’ll think to yourself, this guy is not for me, and you’ll want to look elsewhere. That’s totally cool too.”
“Well,” I began, “I’m really just looking for someone who specializes in working with trans people, and you were the only therapist who popped up in my insurance database.”
“Oh, so you’re stuck with me,” he said jokingly.
I forced another laugh, hoping he would mention his past work with transgender people. But our meeting was well underway, and he wanted to get into the therapy aspect. With his notebook and pen at the ready, he asked me to talk about my gender dysphoria. And so I did, beginning with the memory of growing up in the ’90s among religious homophobes who were seemingly everywhere.
Back then, I didn’t know that transgender people existed. But even if I had known, coming out would not have been safe. When I went through puberty at age 12, I felt like my body was betraying me. This wasn’t just adolescent awkwardness. It was an existential crisis that I could see no way out of. The best I could do was bury it and try to get on with my life. But burying it did not make it go away. Seventeen years later, my gender dysphoria had only gotten worse and was now taking such a severe toll on my mental health that ignoring it was no longer an option.
I must have talked for 20 minutes, and all the while, this therapist said nothing, keeping one of his eyebrows cocked as he jotted down notes. Never once did he nod along in understanding or mumble a word of sympathy.
“Listen,” he said when I was finished talking. “You’re an adult, and I think it’s great that you can make your own decisions. When I get people in here, no matter who they are, what I try to do is to get them to take a step back. Especially when it comes to permanent decisions. I like to say it’s like getting a tattoo. Before you do it, you want to make sure you really want it, right?”
My gaze was drawn to the tattoo on his ankle, just above his white tube sock. It was a generic wraparound design, the kind you see in every tattoo parlor window. The faded ink was in desperate need of a touch-up.
“Every generation has its thing,” he continued. “When I was in high school, it was cool for people to pretend like they were gay. Nowadays, it’s gender. It’s like people have nothing to push back against, so they try to make a political statement about their gender. I have kids coming in here wanting to change their names, change this, change that. It reminds me of this friend I had in high school. His name was John, but he wanted to change it to Spike and drop out of school to join a biker gang...”
At this point, I should have stood up and run out of his office. But I was dumbstruck. This guy had told me over the phone that he worked with LGBT people, and my insurance database confirmed it. Surely there was a misunderstanding here. I had no political statement to make about my gender. Nor was I planning to change my name to Spike and join a biker gang. I couldn’t think of a time in history when it was “cool” for people to pretend they were gay. And I was still struggling to understand the correlation between my gender dysphoria and a regrettable tattoo. But evidently, our brief session had come to an end. He was on his feet, telling me about another appointment he had to get to.
“So,” I said, finding my tongue again. “Just to clarify, I’m hoping to get the ball rolling on this medicalization process. Would you be willing to write me those letters at some point?”
“I’m not going to help you hurt yourself,” he said jokingly. But it wasn’t a joke. He was completely serious.
At last, my veil of naiveté lifted, and I understood that I was face-to-face with an undercover conversion therapist who was now collecting my $40 co-pay.
When I got home, I scoured the internet for any testimony corroborating my theory, but I found nothing. I revisited his website, hoping to find a clue that would point to his treachery. And yes, there it was, written under the “specialties” section of his homepage: “LGBT issues.” At least he had managed to spell the acronym right. But the word “issues” took on a whole new meaning now, and the more I stared at it, the more sinister it became.
By “issues,” he did not mean the issues many LGBTQ+ people face. Issues like bullying and discrimination and subpar healthcare. By “issues,” he meant that being LGBTQ+ was an issue. It was a problem that needed to be corrected.
This realization narrowed into needling self-reproach. Why hadn’t I inquired about his past work with transgender people during our initial phone conversation? He probably would have stuttered, and that would have been enough of a red flag to have kept me from suffering through that nightmarish appointment.
I stewed over this for another moment before resuming my search for a therapist. I would not rest until I found someone legitimately trans-friendly who knew how to pronounce the LGBTQ+ acronym in its entirety.
After calling half a dozen therapists, I finally got ahold of one who practiced in a nearby city. On his website, he listed his specialties, one of which was working with LGBTQ+ people, specifically transgender people. But I wasn’t about to take that at face value this time.
After introducing myself, I told him upfront that I was female-to-male transgender and planning to medically transition ASAP. When he expressed his support, I proceeded to quiz him.
“How long have you worked with transgender people?” I asked. “Have you ever diagnosed gender dysphoria? Do you write letters of recommendation to help your transgender patients obtain hormones and surgery? Are you a member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health?”
After passing my quiz, he informed me that he was gay. I started to relax and confessed to him that I had been tricked into going to conversion therapy. He listened patiently while I recounted my experience, and when I was done venting, he expressed his sincerest sympathies. But then he confirmed the worst of my fears, telling me that he gets calls from transphobic parents all the time asking if he can “fix” their kids in therapy. When he tries to explain to these parents that being transgender is not something that can be “fixed,” they usually hang up on him and look elsewhere.
Convinced that I had finally found a legitimate therapist, I booked his earliest available appointment, fully prepared to drive an hour and a half to his office and pay whatever he charged me.
But my rush of relief was short-lived. Now that my search was over, I would need to warn others about Mister Rogers. I took to Google to find out how to report him to the state, but quickly discovered that Idaho is one of 21 states where conversion therapy is 100% legal. I sat with this disturbing fact for a moment, wondering if it would be fruitless to report him to the agency that handles these matters: the Idaho Division of Occupational and Professional Licenses.
I found the website and the link that would allow me to file a complaint. But the website warned in an official notice that the complainant (me) could be summoned if an investigation ensued. Furthermore, I was advised to provide as much information as possible, including “supporting documentation.”
I had no hard evidence to prove that this Mister Rogers wannabe was practicing conversion therapy. It was my word against his, and I could find no trace of testimony that corroborated my accusation. Not to mention, he had all my personal information. SSN. Birthdate. Driver’s License. Credit card number. And worst of all, my home address. What if he showed up at my door singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
I decided against filing an official complaint, but to appease my conscience, I dropped an anonymous tip to the regional LGBTQ+ alliance. Then I reasoned with myself that I had done all I could and tried to put the experience behind me. My new therapist, despite living many miles away, became my strongest ally, writing the necessary letters of recommendation for me to begin the medicalization process and offering support as I strategized about coming out to my family members.
A year later, I finally did come out to them, biting the bullet to let them know that I was having top surgery in a few weeks. Speaking to each one of them individually and over the phone, their pearl-clutching reactions came as no surprise. This falling-out had been decades in the making, and I was well-prepared for it.
What I was not prepared for was my mother’s campaign to get me into conversion therapy. Unable to exercise executive power over my life, she telephoned all the family members she could get ahold of to implore their help, reasoning that if enough people ambushed me, I would change my mind about changing my sex. I can only imagine that if she had known about the Mister Rogers wannabe, she would have telephoned him too.
Even if she could turn back the hands of time and wield executive power over my life again, all of her efforts to un-trans me would have been for naught.
After my session with the Mister Rogers wannabe, I felt my transness amplified to a new level. I was certain that it was more permanent than any tattoo and would transcend time and space, lasting forever in every dimensional existence.
I never did thank the Mister Rogers wannabe for helping me come to that epiphany. But I did end up reporting him to the Idaho Division of Occupational and Professional Licenses. Just my word against his, should I ever get called in to testify, which I doubt I will.
Nowadays, conversion therapists are sly. They do not use the methods of yore, like electroshock therapy and lobotomy. Instead, they use mind games and gaslighting, and, in the case of minors, sanctioned ambushes.
Because of the convenient fact that I’m an adult, I was free to walk away from the Mister Rogers wannabe 40 dollars poorer. But many transgender kids aren’t so lucky. Until conversion therapy is outlawed nationally, charlatans like the Mister Rogers wannabe will continue to run amok, doing irreparable psychological damage to transgender kids.
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