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Gender Identity

Reflections by Kelly George

Interviewed: Mar, 2018

Kelly George is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the state of Illinois. They* are a psychotherapist and the Director of Professional Development at Live Oak, Inc in Chicago. They provide clinical services in addition to running trainings throughout the Chicagoland area on affirmative practice with trans and gender nonconforming individuals. They are also an adjunct professor at Roosevelt University, teaching Theories of Group Counseling. Kelly focuses on work with trans and gender nonconforming individuals, as well as working with sexual diversity. They use Narrative Therapy and relational lenses to inform their work, focusing on building a nonjudgmental open relationship with their clients to find who they wish to become.

*Kelly’s pronouce are: They/Them/Theirs

Through experiences in the healing field, if you were to describe life in a single word or image what would it be?

As a Narrative therapist, the first words and images that come to mind relate to stories. Our lives are comprised of the stories others tell us (about the world, about ourselves, about themselves), of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world, and larger cultural stories and mythology. These stories make up the vast tapestry of personal history, as well as larger cultural history. They influence our understanding of ourselves and one another, and what options are perceived to be available to us. Stories are so important to passing along who we are as a person and as a people. When you think about being in history class, the things you remember most are not likely to be names, dates, or even specific places – but the story of an individual, of a group, or of a time. Life is stories.

What brought you to the healing field and to the specialties of your clinical practice?

I think being in a healing profession was a little bit of destiny in some ways. My mother is a nurse, and all throughout growing up she always told me ʻYou’ll never feel as good as you do when helping someone else.’ My mother loved her work, and I saw this for so much of her life. I had initially wanted to be a teacher as my life had been most deeply influenced and supported by the teachers in my life. Unfortunately, a variety of circumstances meant I needed to go in another direction (as an aside, I later became an adjunct professor, so this ended up working out in all regards after all!). After taking a psychology class I realized a passion and an aptitude. For much of my life people had told me about themselves, often expressing their shock that they were so willing to open up to me. I seemed to naturally create a safe space for vulnerability.

During my undergraduate years I studied psychology and gender studies. Another roadblock turned into a benefit, when I didn’t get into any of the PhD programs I applied for at the time (likely because I was more interested in clinical work than research) and was encouraged to apply for a Master’s. That is what ultimately led me to counseling. In regards to my specialization, which is work with trans and gender nonconforming individuals and sexual diversity, that is rooted in personal experience. Growing up as a closeted non-binary queer person in rural Kentucky was, unsurprisingly, not easy. My goal with my clinical work is to support others in ways I was not supported, to make the world a better place than how I experienced it.

In clinical practice, are there any approaches that you have found useful in supporting individuals whom you work with?

Many! I think the one unifying factor is that everyone needs to be seen as an individual and needs an individualized approach. Specifically as this relates to my work, I don’t believe there is one single way to be a trans, non-binary, queer, or sexually diverse person despite larger society often telling us a singular narrative about us. I work to approach every person with compassion, curiosity, and enthusiasm. I try to avoid making assumptions or judgements, and I work to understand experiences from that person’s perspective. I work to help people feel truly, deeply heard and understood.

As many people struggle with different types of loss in their lives, do you have any thoughts on how we can maintain ourselves during these times?

Sometimes the key is not maintaining – sometimes you have to let yourself fall apart, even for just a little while. I believe that feelings never go away, they just find other ways to express themselves. We can choose to acknowledge and express them as they come, or we can choose to try to stifle them and be surprised by the other ways they leak out – by being crabby, short tempered, lashing out, becoming unexpectedly sensitive, having physical pain, etc. There is no one single way to experience grief and loss, and there is no way to experience it ʻcorrectly.’ And what one person may grieve deeply or experience as intense loss may be water off the back of another – neither of these experiences are wrong, they are just different based on who those people are in that moment.

Are there any inspirational people that helped you become the person you are today?

There are so, so many! As I previously mentioned, my mother was a huge inspiration for me getting into a helping profession. Additionally, I was always inspired by many teachers over the years who encouraged me, protected me, and supported me in times of difficulty. I was always impressed by how many hats they could and would wear – mentor, teacher, friend, etc. Professionally I have had some incredible supervisors who have pushed me to become more self-aware, more thoughtful, more reflective, and to slow down. I have consistently had supervisors who challenged me and noted my blind spots to me with compassion. My spouse Amanda inspires me every day – she has the biggest heart of anyone I know, and she believes in me without question.

In terms of identity, especially those that have been marginalized by society, how do you support them in forming a cohesive sense of self?

As a Narrative therapist, I don’t think there is a static self or a time in which we have ʻfound’ ourselves and we are done. We are always evolving. Our ability to engage in this evolution intentionally requires self-reflection and an awareness of how we are constructing our narrative about ourselves. Sometimes this construction is influenced by society – marginalized people are regularly told they are not enough in so many ways, and that they are less than. We are erased from history books, our heroes diminished, our accomplishments dismissed. Sometimes we are rendered utterly invisible. It is important for marginalized folks to understand the negative narratives they have absorbed from living in a bigoted society. I encourage people to find mentors, elders, or icons they can look up to who share identities with them, to find alternative narratives. I encourage them to identify and then undermine the destructive tactics society uses to keep them down, while also acknowledging how the various identities they hold may impact their ability to move through the world in a very real way. I create a space where they can tell me who they are in their words, and work to understand that with curiosity and openness. From there we can work together to create who they want to become.

Working with individuals/clients is there anything that they have taught you about life?

I have been so deeply impacted by my clients, it makes it hard to answer this question and quantify it! I believe we cannot truly listen to the story of another without being impacted in some way. My clients taught me more about who I am – in full honesty, it was through hearing the stories of my TGNC clients transgender/gender non-conforming) that I was able to come out as TGNC myself and understand my own identity more fully. I am so thankful that I was able to step more fully into myself, which in turn helps me assist my clients in doing the same. My clients teach me new things about the world, areas I never would have known about without their expertise. They teach me how to have compassion for all variety of experiences, they teach me the power of vulnerability on a day to day basis, they teach me about life always being in the grey versus the black and white, they teach me about strength, bravery, and growth. I can absolutely say that I am a far, far better person because of my clients.

How do you maintain balance in your life within the context of our technological fast paced life?

This is an ever evolving challenge, but one that is always important to continue to explore. Spending time with my partner and chosen family/friends is very important to me and helps me stay grounded. I love to cook, it is my greatest creative outlet, and having food I enjoy and feels nourishing is extremely important to me. I enjoy being outside, and I love to garden – it helps me feel connected to nature and the earth. I love to travel and take adventures, even if it is just somewhere an hour away. And taking alone time is very important to me – even though I am an extrovert, I definitely need time alone to reflect and process.

Are there any quotes, songs or words you live by?

So many! For someone like myself who frequently can judge how they spend time, I love the Fiona Apple lyric “I don’t believe in the wasting of time.” Whatever you do with that time, it was what you needed to do – even if it was just lay on the couch for awhile. I also really appreciate the words Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker (aka Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” For me, the work I do has power, and it is important to me to do my best to honor my work and honor my clients, and honor the power inherent in our relationship together.

For future practitioners in the field, do you have any guidance or words of encouragement for them?

This work is hard. It requires patience, self-reflection, self-awareness, a willingness to dive into the dark of ourselves and others, and so much vulnerability. But it is so rewarding. And, we must also acknowledge that we are humans. We will all make mistakes – many of them. And this is OKAY. With an open heart, and a willingness to be humble and honest, you can work through almost any mistake. We have a unique gift. I’m a nerd so I always tell people that therapists have chosen to be Jedi – we just as easily could have become Sith. Choose to use your power wisely and with kindness and compassion and you can, and will, change lives.

Bonne journée…

This interview is from our book Echoes: Yellow Balloon.

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