Kansas City is Home to Comprehensive Transgender Resources and Docu-series
by Joey Saunders
The Transgender Institute is on the fourth floor of an otherwise unremarkable-looking office building on Ward Parkway. The waiting room is small but cozy: a couch and a couple chairs, a few mainstream magazines containing trans-friendly articles sit on a coffee table with Janet Mock’s relatively new memoir “Redefining Realness.”
I sit and chat with a middle-aged man in the waiting room whose entire conversation revolves thematically around a yearning for change. He was promoted but finds his work frustrating and unfulfilling. The idea of going back to school for a new major, a new life, excites him. I wonder if trans people pine so ardently for change – not merely physical change, but also sociopolitical change – that their desire for it overflows into much of the rest of their lives.
The psychiatric community widely agrees that having an unchanging, sturdy support system is invaluable to any transperson embarking on what many of the people I interviewed refer to as “their journey.” This is most important within close family and friend groups and especially, and often with the most difficulty, with significant others. Of course, the LGBTQ community at large should be a support system. The best way to go about being supportive is to simply educate yourself.
Most people (65 percent according to the Social Science Research Network) are visual learners, a statistic that helps explain why television and the Internet have become such impactful mediums. Some may accuse a reality show focusing on trans people of exploiting a marginalized group of people. Caroline Gibbs, the founder of The Transgender Institute, is also the co-executive producer of an upcoming documentary series called “New Girls on the Block” (formerly titled “Those Girls”).
The series will follow six Transgender Institute “graduates.” The series is slated to bow at 9 p.m. April 2 on Discovery Life.
Gibbs is a composed, congenial woman. She gives off the energy of a performer, and I sensed that she enjoys telling stories and being interviewed while her posture and eye-contact remained perfect. This coupled with a slew of promotional materials for both Gibbs and her Institute might heighten the concerns a trans advocate may have about the exploitative nature of reality television, but Gibbs’s theatrical nature gives way to an even stronger maternal energy.
Emily Foltz joins our discussion; she is a fellow working toward becoming a gender therapist and seems in awe of Gibbs, who respects and encourages her input. Gibbs’ credos, and, transitively, The Institute’s, are written and recited all over the waiting rooms and offices. One reads, “Giving myself in service to all transgender people.”
Gibbs believes this series will be immensely educational. She felt much more at ease with the idea once she met her co-executive producer and series director, Eric Streitz.
“I don’t think Eric will mind if I tell you this story,” Gibbs says, “but when he first met the cast, the six women whose journeys are the focus of the series, he cried. He was so moved by their stories and their courage.”
Streitz is known for his smash hit TLC docu-series “Little People, Big World,” Gibbs tells me that Streitz’s vision for this show is to normalize the trans community in the same way he normalized little people, by showing their daily struggles and triumphs.
I ask Gibbs why she refers to the cast members as “graduates.” She explains, “The Transgender Institute is very unique in that, as far as I know, there’s really nothing like it. We have a very holistic viewpoint here. We believe you really have to treat the whole person, especially with trans people. You can’t just talk. So, it’s more than just counseling.”
A representative for country music star and LGBT advocate Chely Wright’s LIKEME Lighthouse called the institute a “one-stop shop.” Although LIKEME is one of the most visible LGBT organizations in Kansas City, its resources for trans people are something it is still trying to strengthen. Gibbs’s resources seem to be legion. Stoltz gives me pamphlets and handouts with myriad links and listings or contacts, resources and educational materials. But what makes The Transgender Institute unique?
In addition to the psychoemotional treatment of what the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, terms “gender dysphoria,” a term that Gibbs condemns for its negative connotations, The Transgender Institute offers a variety of socialization classes. These classes focus on helping trans men and women to look, act and speak more like a stereotypical male or female. So the worries shift from exploitation to Streitz’s buzzword “normalization.”
Gibbs is quick to explain, “We are very good at what we do but we are also very upfront about what it is we do. No one is ever forced to do anything here. Someone could come here and only want counseling or only want to participate in vocal feminization classes and that would be totally fine. It is completely up to the individual and what they feel is best for their journey.”
Gibbs says she doesn’t like the term “pass.” A trans person who “passes” is a trans man or woman who most people would not be able to identify as trans. Gibbs estimates that 85 to 90 percent of the people who come to the institute are interested in “blending-in” because it makes life easier.
“The tough reality is that there is a lot of horror and misery living as a trans person…society favors a gender binary and what we do here is what we do best. And we do cater to people living in binary.”
Binary refers to splitting the genders up into males and females with no room for overlap. “We are not denying gender fluidity,” Gibbs says, noting the concern on my face. We live in a world where you can self-identify as 56 different genders on Facebook and, while most people are cisgender males and females, many identify as genderqueer.
Have I lost you? Let’s get very basic for a moment. A cisgender person identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth. Genderqueers feel that they do not identify as only male or only female. This isn’t a new thing borne out of an influx in political correctness. In the film The Danish Girl, scheduled to be released in November, recent Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, the first known recipient of gender reassignment surgery in 1930, although Elbe had been presenting herself as female since at least 1913. Many ancient cultures have embraced and even venerated gender fluidity. A number of American indigenous tribes have some sort of variation on the Two-Spirit, a person inhabited by both male and female souls and is therefore thought to be more spiritually attuned.
Stolz is quick to add that The Transgender Institute would never turn genderqueer persons away or force them into anything.
“This is very much a client-driven place. Not everyone wants to transition (surgically, from their assigned sex to their gender identity). The Institute is very much a piece-by-piece, at-your-own-pace safe place,” Stolz says.
Gibbs echoes this. Originally, she says, the Institute was just her private practice, but through her passions and collaborations it has developed its own kind of small community. The academics who typically write essays on gender fluidity, she says politely, “Are maybe not out in the field every day like we are. So, what we offer here is very much based on observing what I felt most of our clients wanted and needed.”
Before building the institute out of her private practice and before she was ever a gender therapist, Gibbs was an opera singer. In pursuing a graduate degree in psychological counseling, she felt most moved by the needs of the trans community. Gibbs was outraged by the abuse someone would have to endure just to be who they truly felt that they were. She also found it absurd that clinicians were so uneducated about the subject, applauding the trans educators she met 20 years ago who really helped define her niche. Gibbs says she learned more from trans people on how to treat trans people than any schooling ever could have taught her. Perhaps one of her most educational experiences was falling in love with a man she refers to as an “FTM trans man,” meaning Female-to-Male.
“That definitely gave me an inside view into the community I wanted to serve,” she said. They married, and when his job took him to Kansas City, Gibbs followed.
I discovered The Transgender Institute through one of their clients, UMKC sophomore Charles T. Burt. Burt is a trans man and the president of UMKC’s Pride Alliance. He is quiet, but candid. When I mention the upcoming Eddie Redmayne movie, he says, “I think there are enough talented trans people who could have played the shit out of that role.”
And while immensely helpful and educational, Burt says that in social settings people can be too nosy.
“I understand that people are curious and that being educated makes them better allies, but sometimes people ask me too many personal questions.” He refers specifically to being on dates and feeling fetishized or being asked forward questions about whether or not he has breasts or a penis. “They’ll say, ‘But how will I learn if I don’t ask you?’ Well, you have Google. Trans people aren’t here to be your teachers.”
Both Burt and Gibbs are intelligent and well-spoken in different ways, and they both have goals that benefit the trans community. Gibbs’s dream is to create a shelter in Kansas City where trans people can feel safe. Staggeringly, it is estimated that 40 percent of America’s homeless youth are LGBT. Many trans people, like Janet Mock, have used sex work to pay for their reassignment surgeries. Seventy-eight percent of trans people report being harassed or abused for being trans. Burt works with the Pride Alliance and other campus organizations to make UMKC a safe haven for LGBT students, citing that a few trans medical and dental school students are very worried about coming out in such an environment. “A huge part of what Pride Alliance is working toward,” Burt says, “is trying to raise awareness of micro-transgressions and discrimination in classrooms.”
Burt came out in high school to predominantly supportive classmates in St. Louis. While his family mostly ignores his gender identity or writes it off as something he does “for attention,” he considers himself very lucky. Both Burt and Gibbs realize that being trans isn’t just emotionally difficult, it can even be physically dangerous.
“You must grow a backbone of steel,” is something Gibbs constantly tells her clients. “You can’t survive in our culture without it.”
Burt says that he wants any struggling trans person to know that there is, “always someone willing to help. You might have to search a lot, you might even have to move, but there is always someone. And once you find that person and start transitioning, keep on truckin’. The further along you get, the easier it gets and the more you realize you want it. That’s how it’s been for me. Now that I’m to the point where I’m having top surgery (breast removal) in a month, I’m pretty far along. I am happier now with everything I’ve worked for. And it is a lot of work. But it’s completely worth it and you don’t have to do it alone.”