Why is Counselling important for the Trans Person

A personal perspective

By Alice Purnell OBE, PGDC, BSc, RGN.


As a retired Registered Nurse and an ex Samaritan and a retired Counselling Psychologist, and a disabled person, towards the end of my lifespan, I have vast experience of people in distress, alone, depressed, suicidal, miserable, often without support of family, or friends when it matters, when facing isolation or in crisis.

Suicide In the Samaritans in the sixties we had about 30% of calls that were GLBTI related, from people who had a need to stop their suffering, to indeed cease to live in such torment.  They had difficulties, confusion, guilt, suffered prejudice, bullying and even violence, let alone the legal situation mid-twentieth century,  during which they felt utterly marginalised. Even our greatest codebreaker Alan Turing took this course of no return, of suicide.

As a nurse when I worked in A& E  there were countless people who had attempted overdoses and self – harmers, many were trans or gay.

It was not life itself they sought to escape, but the psychological pain and depression they endured and needed to end and yearned to stop. Death seemed the only answer, of course it only means we lose any hope of future chances at a good life if this is what we do.

Indeed, I myself, wanted death, aged ten, at boarding school, after ghastly sexual and physical abuse by the Head, I tried to drown myself, and I  sometimes get PTSD even now.

There was no one to talk to about it, no end to the suffering, I felt I was alone, with the shame, the anguish, the pain and the dreadful memories.

Again when my marriage ended I contemplated suicide, by planning to take Cyanide. I even wrote my goodbyes to the children and drove in my old car to take this totally effective poison in a secluded place. But after a while of prayers, I noticed a fox cub playing in the long grass by my car, where I had planned to take that poison.

Instead of going ahead with it on that day,  I smiled and tearfully I said to myself, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”  I started to cope with the pain -one day at a time, instead of seeing the rest of my life ahead as simply one of endless misery. The joy of the natural world is my drug, a real delight, and good friends do really help.

Counselling In due course I left nursing to complete a post-graduate course in Counselling Psychology at Brighton University and joined the profession as a counselling psychologist, adopting the British Association of Counsellors Code of Conduct, and using Carl Rogers and various techniques to help my clients. Most were unemployed. Those with gender identity or sexuality difficulties were often misinformed, with little understanding of themselves, or the situation they were in.  Depression was rife, pills were prescribed by the doctors, or in some cases, electroconvulsive therapy, or aversion therapy was used by psychiatrists to try to “cure” them of being trans or gay, since “normality” was the aim of medicine and psychiatry back then.

Club life There were drag clubs, which were largely frequented by gay men, but this was different to being transgendered or a transvestite, although it was one sort of place a TG or TV person might feel tolerated or accepted.

In Paris when I was aged seventeen,  I had met the cast of Chez Madame Arthur, who did essentially a drag / trans show, in which the artistes performed “travesti.”  Some would strip to reveal their breasts and in some cases their male sex organs. They, like many others, worked this way, to pay for breast enlargement and eventually surgical “Sex change” in Morocco. Lots of men were apparently turned on by this show, just as they are by “ladyboys” in Thailand.

In entertainment trans had a place, but not in ordinary life. It seemed to me in some ways like a very sophisticated freak show.

I asked myself in, my mind, was that how trans people were to be seen, as freaks?

When I was walking home one day after work I came across a tragic sight, a young boy had hanged himself in a tree. He was dressed as a girl, (in his sister’s clothes I supposed).  Soon a car arrived, with the police with his father, who identified the lad as his son still hanging and clearly dead. The father said bitterly, “The little bastard”… no tears, simply blank hatred for his child who had let his family down.

The child clearly had had nobody to turn to.

Transgenderism as an illness, Freud has a lot to blame for seeing GLBTI issues as needing a cure, as has Hirshfeld with his “Sexual Anomalies and Perversions” ideas. These minorities were seen as  mentally sick and degenerate. Anybody who was not clearly a heterosexual masculine man or a motherly female heterosexual woman was seen as aberrant, perverted or at best mentally ill.

Medicine and Psychology and the law  were entrenched in the prescribed attitudes of Society, of a clear cut ordered world. Normality (average) was seen as good and Diversity as abnormal, evil, ugly and even illegal.

Racial prejudice was rife, as was intolerance and the eugenics movement to deal with in the sixties, even twenty years after Hitler.’s ghastly genocidal programme had ended.

This intolerance of difference was given ammunition by some people selecting elements of some extracts from the religious  books, by zealots to fuel ideas that the gender diverse were against God’s law and homosexuality was evil. The queer were even seen as potential child abusers, or rapists. Following the Oscar Wilde trial, men in the UK were afraid to even hold hands or touch each other. Lesbians were not so persecuted in this man’s world, but women had few rights.

Confusion There was utter confusion about the difference between sex and gender, the words sex and gender were used as synonyms. Society simply saw normal Sexual Identity to be simply heterosexual,  but if homosexual, or bisexual, it was evil. Gender Identity was only seen as being either Male or Female,  So gender problems were seen as sexual, not as they really are, as being about a person’s identity within a part of a natural spectrum of masculinity and femininity.

Persecution A sissy was to be bullied, beaten, ridiculed.  This sadly still happens.

Gays, “queers” were good targets for blackmail, so were not employable in  important jobs ( Hmm, so how about the Cambridge spies and the old boys network?) Those males who transgressed “Normality” were subjected to punishment in prison, or given a “cure” of a course of female hormones (Stilboesterol) to reduce their sex drive, resulting in impotence and gynecomastia (enlarged breasts), or to ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), or lobotomy and /or being locked into a madhouse. They were regarded as  shameful freaks and outsiders, who chose that lifestyle.

“Freaks  of Nature;” Intersexed people were put on show in carnivals to be gaped at, like the bearded ladies and freak show Siamese twins. There was a witch hunt for the peculiar, queer and odd. To be odd was to be utterly marginalised and ridiculed or worse, to be suspected of moral corruption. Traps were in set in places where gay men went (lavatories called cottages) and they were often charged with gross indecency and perversion and sent to prison. These people all became targets for hatred and punishment.

Any man dressed as a woman in public could get the same cruel treatment as gays by the police and would be charged with soliciting, as though they were “queers” or “rent boys”. Cross-dressers were arrested for importuning, exposed in the media. Disgraced, they usually lost their family and their jobs. Police often beat up gays and trans men, and the prurient press loved it. These people were reviled and stereotyped and regarded by society and the media as all probably being child molesters or worse.  Fear of difference drove society towards total ignorant bigotry and hatred.

People who were trans, particularly the male-to-females,  often felt like freaks, ashamed and afraid, isolated and miserable, unable to discuss this with family or friends, or anyone.

So being gay or trans was seen as an illness to cure, or as a willful choice to do wrong, so they were seen as evil, sinful, being against God’s Commandments.

Social Darwinism that prevailed in society, the law and medicine meant that “normal” = average as seen as good, any variation had to be cured or removed as an aberration. Trans and gays were regarded as inverts, perverts or mad. There has been a long debate as to who to blame and the roles of Nature versus Nurture as a cause of trans-spectrum or other types of personalities.

GLBTI seen as illnesses

Kinsey’s and other research showed that at least one in five men had gay experience or desire. The figures for trans are at least 1%, but probably more.  So many people have been, or still are, marginalised because of what or who they are, rather than celebrating diversity or seeing them as a person.

At a Conference I attended in  Bordeaux,  in 1984, we were told there were at least fifty million trans people in the world, based on a world population of five billion back then.

Certainly in all societies worldwide, trans plays a significant role and a significant proportion of the people, but the way they are treated varies greatly worldwide.

Equality Issues. The Declaration of Human Rights and other national and international legal changes have made a vast difference and Pride grows worldwide, although Amnesty International shows dreadful legal and moral injustices still exist around the world.

In the USA there was a movement at last towards equality for all minorities. Racial equality is still needed. The gays and trans people united to try to fight a repressive bigoted society and groups like Stonewall started the GLBT fight for equality and freedom, to restore and celebrate diversity with Pride marches, legal challenges, helplines and support groups. Now, in most Western countries things have greatly improved.

Respect for others still needs to replace intolerance, suspicion and persecution. Respect must be shared between all individual people and within society, even within the GLBTIQ communities. Harmony is a good goal, but not at the expense of others who are not like the herd/majority.

Compassion is the way forward, together with education, equality and hopefully understanding.

We do not want walls, ghettos, or a “them and us” Society, but one where diversity enriches us all and is celebrated.