Some context: This was a paper I was asked to write in the course of this masters program, in which I was to lay out exactly what made me what I am, who I am, and most important, implications for practice. Some items are deleted for protection/privacy and are noted within. Forgive the terrible formatting...my source formatting option appears to be on hiatus.
Before deciding to go into a master’s program, I considered myself quite advanced and progressive when it came to social systems, oppression, differences, diversity, and my role within those systems. I felt it informed my work and practice, and it does. Before I knew I was going into a social work program, I spent considerable time working on a Women’s and Gender Studies degree (along with my psych degree) in which a study of systems, oppression, intersectionality, and social (in)justice is a primary focus. Upon beginning the Social Work program, I was invited to pursue and articulate much more deeply a total picture of who and what I am, and the impact that will have on clients.
I come from extreme poverty. My father worked hard but drank a great deal, and he and my mother had four of us. I bankrupted the family early on after extensive surgeries to my head and face to treat Crouzone’s Syndrome. In addition to that, I was diagnosed with early onset bipolar disorder at nine. Over the years, no matter what we did, we just could not claw out of poverty. Sometimes it was intentional. For example, my mother insisted it was better to starve than go on food stamps, refused to allow us enrollment in the free and reduced lunch program, and we had no phone because the idea of a wire coming into the house where “people could reach you – in your own house- and get at you at their convenience” absolutely terrified her. The rest of the time, we were just born losers. My two younger brothers became homeschooled because we couldn’t afford the costs associated with school. We grew our own food and canned it for the winter. We avoided credit cards, my father took classes to advance in his field, quit drinking, and we had no TV/cable. We even once bought a restaurant and all were required to put in blood, sweat, and tears. Nothing ever worked. Inevitably, the lights were frequently shut off, there was no heat in the winter, and choices like groceries or the electric bill were normalized as a monthly routine. What my brothers and I remember the most is the cold and being hungry.
Eventually, it started to tear us apart as our ability to survive decreased in relation to poverty’s long term effects. I and my youngest brother started behaving like our older brother – doing drugs, committing crimes, running away, skipping school, getting arrested, and going to jail. I was a lot more self destructive and spent considerable time in Juvy (that’s what we call it – it’s weird and awkward to call it “Juvenile Hall” or “Juvenile Detention”). My most serious crime was stealing a gun and trying to kill myself with it and then pointing it at the police. Then I was court ordered to treatment in a hospital. I got medication for that damnable bipolar disorder and started to stabilize at a fair pace. By this time I hadn’t seen my family in over a year and had been removed from my parent’s custody. I had a case worker who, when I was released, took me to a group home where I would be required to live by the terms of my LRA, or least restrictive alternative. That’s like probation for mentally ill people, and I had to do things like take my medication, be in by nine, go to school every day, and take part in certain treatment activities offered within the home. When I aged out of the system I worked part time and lived in this tiny studio for 200 dollars a month and got very bored and lonely. Not long later, I joined the military.
The point of this long-winded story (actually it’s the condensed version) was to talk about the culture of poverty. It is very real and I relate very strongly to it. Never has it been more obvious than now that I have not extricated myself from it, and I’m almost 29. There’s a sense of sick pride in having lived it, only others who have as well could understand it, and those in this class with me are like my brethren. I can relate to my clients in this way, and it’s interesting those I’ve served have all been poor and mentally ill. In Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, multiple authors discuss growing income inequality, lack of opportunity, and rising debt among most of the American population. In his essay titled Class in America - 2006, Mantsios (2013) stated 37 million Americans lived in unrelenting poverty, and those numbers are way higher now than they were in 2006. I was the only one among many in a group discussion who hotly disagreed with the myth of positive social mobility – I know it’s a lie. Schmidt (2013) stated very succinctly in his essay At the Elite Colleges “When social mobility goes away, at least two dangerous things can happen. The privileged class that produces most of our nation’s leaders can become complacent enough to foster mediocrity, and less fortunate segments of our society can become resigned to the notion that hard work will not get them anywhere.” (p. 176).
This was so powerful to me because it confirmed what I knew all along – the system isn’t broken, it’s fixed. This is a new age of corporate feudalism. The people I have met within this program and as I progress professionally are all very different from myself and my immediate social circle in that they actually believe they will advance socially and financially given enough hard work and determination. While we are all certainly gaining social capital, I have no such delusions of extricating myself from the lower classes, and am under no impression that a masters level education will help me with social mobility were I to believe in the Myth of Meritocracy.
Essentially, I’m biased in favor of the poor, and in particular, the poor and mentally ill. It’s had an effect on the work I have chosen to do so far, and is a sure driver behind my choice to obtain this masters degree. It’s already having an effect on ... .. Item deleted for privacy/protection.. ... . I am used to the homeless, former prisoners, former group home/foster youth (like myself) indigent psychiatric patients, and all the rest traditionally considered the dregs of society. That’s where the sick pride comes in and I maintain it’s the fiercest component to my practice so far because it’s the coal on my fire. This is what makes my work with clients genuine, and the only thing worth staying on this earth for: to serve others. ... Item deleted for privacy/protection. ... I am struggling to fit in there and within my cohort. I even swear a lot more than any of my classmates do, because I am crasser, because I’m still a part of this culture. In a sense, I feel if I leave the culture of poverty and all I know within it, I will lose myself as well.
I’ve been told I “made it.” I understand this sentiment, because I do see strong senses of ambition, responsibility, and resourcefulness within myself. I survived Juvy, group homes, a mental hospital (actually the hospital was amazing respite) homelessness, and later joined the Army and survived that. I graduated college in 2011 with two degrees and no debt. My bipolar disorder became unmanageable a few months later, or the meds were not working, or both, and in the fall of 2011 I spent ten days in inpatient psych at the VAMC (Veteran’s Administration Medical Center) after trying to kill myself again. That was the last time I lost control of this brain chemical imbalance. I think that’s pretty good! I’ve never acquired a credit card, never been in a relationship because I’m not emotionally capable, have no kids, no TV/cable or phone bill, and live well below my means. I think resources like these are good for anyone and in any career and make up core components of a professional identity. There is this one part of my identity that’s not so typical and indeed, has many implications for practice.
Right after the Army about seven years ago, I changed my name and started the transition from female to male. I’m also Turner’s intersex, a chromosomal sex characteristic that occurs when one of the X chromosomes is gone or partial. In my case, I have an XO karyotype. So while I have one foot in the door to the intersex community, I’m simultaneously pounding on the door to the transgender community and this puts me in an unusual position relative to work with clients. On the one hand, knowledge and experience of oppression and marginalization gives me the same lens through which to view the world as many of those I work with. On the other hand, gender becomes a problem in my work and professional life with clients and colleagues alike because it’s not normal – and the lack of education and awareness on the part of others makes me responsible for educating others. This is a real problem I encounter over and over again, and the concept itself is called the Pronoun Battle, one of two defining projects in my Gender Studies degree. It’s defined as non-normative sexual and gender expression at once and the difficulty in general of passing to a satisfactory enough degree to fool others (Cervantes, 2009).
When I hear the female pronoun directed at me I’m irritated and wonder if I should correct them. In some contexts, this is genuinely ethically challenging, because they’re not necessarily wrong. It becomes about what I want. But because I did choose to be open, It’s gone beyond simply clients and colleagues asking about me and my gender to sex offenders potentially using it as boundary violating leverage against me, to clients losing faith in my abilities because of their own perceived sense of instability on my part, and even to lost opportunities because discrimination is still a potent reality for a trans person, and some agencies are alarmed by what they perceive to be excess baggage in the whole package that is me. ... Item deleted for privacy/protection. ...
That reminds me of discussion on Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack (1989). In it, she lists various privileges whites have because they are things they don’t ever have to think about, like number 15: I am never asked to speak for the people of my racial group. I am drawing a parallel between myself in a fuzzy borderless gender world and cisgendered people, so named because they are comfortable with and don’t question their assigned gender. I am now being asked to represent, and what’s funny is that’s treated like a special honor rather than an ongoing, routine, and sometimes drudgy part of my life. I have to remember it is novel to them, new and exciting. My professional development is fast becoming a function of my gender, and what alarms me is I’ll always be straddling both and all these gender worlds, never fully one or the other, not even in my DNA. The implications of that are mind-boggling and disheartening.
My gender identity isn’t another’s burden, and it can never be another’s burden. So something I would really like to be an open and accepted part of myself has to be hidden as though in a private medical record, at least in some situations. This is extremely difficult, because my physical appearance is very androgynous and always has been. I have been blessed within my current work, where my supervisor at the time let everyone on the nursing staff know about the new hire who preferred the male pronoun and it wasn’t an issue in any way after that. However, it’s not another’s responsibility, especially a client’s, to be politically correct with me. I get all kinds of pronouns at work and it’s never been an issue. I hold power over others, and my competence depends on being able to separate my work and its delivery from personally identifying characteristics, even if those characteristics influence my work (I think, for the better). It is at this point my oppression is mine only to bear. Increasing my competence is using it as a tool to draw from rather than as a source of sick pride and resentment (why don’t others get me??) that can poison my relationships with others.
I have focused on two broad systems that played a huge role in shaping the human I am now: poverty and gender. I grew up in poverty and experienced severe mental illness from a young age and this influenced, in almost every way, the current work I do and the work I really want to do. I also came with a fair bit of resiliency, intelligence and sense of ambition which helped propel me through jail, group homes, and later into joining the military. After that I finally got to make my gender transition and have quickly learned how very much both I am. In physical appearance, thought processes, and sexual and genetic characteristics, I feel like male and female and everything in between. I would just prefer the male pronoun, is all. But my wants are superseded by clients’ needs, and I’m okay with that. I have a little pride for my uniqueness, because no matter what work I do, or where I go (obviously I’m not going to certain highly unsafe places) I draw attention to myself by virtue of myself, and that means I get to talk to people!
Cervantes, A. (2009). Pronoun Battle. Women and Gender studies, New Concept Development. Mentor: Kelly Coogan.
Mantsios, G. (2006). Class in America – 2006. In Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W., Castaneda, C.,
Hackman, H., Peters, M., Zuniga, X. (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (pp.