Found in Translation: A Transgender Rights Primer for Massage Therapists & Spa Folk

I.

At age eighteen, I was an activist. I was a clinic escort for Planned Parenthood, and an active member of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). I womanned tables during The Vagina Monologues, attended punk rock feminist conferences across the country, marched on Washington, and Took Back the Night. I went to massage school, worked, and volunteered. This was what I did during my last decade in New York, and I loved it.

My dear friend Alicia and I, brides for equal marriage. Rochester Pride Parade, 2005. Photo by Davette Glover, http://zectaproductions.com. Used with permission.

My dear friend Alicia and I…brides for equal marriage! Rochester Pride Parade, 2005
Photo by Davette Glover, zectaproductions.com. Used with permission.

Then I moved from Rochester to Las Vegas. My NOW ladies encouraged me to remain active with the organization by way of the Vegas chapter. This didn’t happen, mainly because I looked for but didn’t find the level of community involvement and outreach that I had become accustomed to in Rochester. Besides, I was setting the foundation to begin a new life in a new city, and these things take time. I focused on meeting people, going back to school and working – and had become a slacktivist of the highest order, with a side of soul-sucking, conformist banality.

Things started to change in 2009, around the time of my non-traditional, Herve Leger bandage-dressed Vegas wedding (and you’ll notice I’m still—and always have been — a Lipomi, thank you very much). Convinced it was bullshit that a straight screw-up like myself could tie the knot while same sex couples were denied the right, my better half and I registered with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) instead of with Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Kwik-E-Mart, etc., so our wedding guests could make a donation for marriage equality in our names. We raised some cash, and avoided ending up with mismatched china and six toasters.

Now here I am, four years later — once again a student, and now a business owner – feeling the irresistible pull of community involvement. Thanks to the other activists (and just all-around inspirational people) I’ve met over the last year or so, the volunteerism fire in my soul has been stoked, and I’m ready to get out there and do unto others without collecting a fee once more.

 

II.

I like good people. I like it when good people fly in the face of convention and challenge the misguided status quo. I like it when good people are able to live their respective truths, and my heart breaks for people who can’t, for fear of violence, abuse and/or pain.

Recently, in chatting with a massage therapist friend over hot beverages, the topic of transgender massage therapy clients came up. My coffeemate pointed out that it’s tough for trans clients to find service providers they can trust. I thought back to the multiple instances during my years in the spa industry when a co-worker would burst into the employee break room and shout “I think there’s a he-she in the relaxation lounge!”, or a receptionist would yell “Did a he-she come in today? Because I couldn’t tell if they were a man or woman on the phone, and I said ‘sir’, and then they said they were female! WTF?”, or any number of equally ignorant-sounding vomitisms. It turns out this petty stuff is just the tip of the iceberg, with the more substantial, submerged portion of the ‘berg being something I hadn’t given too much thought to until this coffee convo took place.

Some things* I’ve recently become aware of:

  • Transgender rights can vary greatly from state to state, so you really ought to look into your state’s laws regarding gender identity and discrimination. You can do that here. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Nevada is among the more enlightened states located in America the Beautiful.
  • In Nevada (and several other states), it’s illegal to deny trans folks access to “public accommodations”. A driver’s license that lists someone’s sex as “male” does not necessarily mean they MUST use the men’s restroom, locker room, changing room or spa, if they identify as female. If someone identifies as female, for chrissakes, they should be allowed to use the women’s facilities.
  • Different states have different requirements for changing the sex field on a state-issued ID, like a driver’s license. You can read more about that here.
  • Spas have been reported and/or sued after denying trans customers access to gender-specific facilities. Here’s a story about a spa in Virginia, and here’s one about a spa in the Chicago area.
  • Ignorance of transgender and genderqueer issues in the workplace reeks of hospitality failure. Will “sensitivity training” (barf) on LGBTQ issues ever be a part of employee orientation curriculum in the mainstream workplace? I’m thinking it’s time.

I could go on and on about society’s related gender issues — centered around a collective fear of feminism, aggro females, sensi males, penises, and nudity in general – but I won’t, because there’s a short-blog-post soapbox right here with my name on it, and I only have two feet. <3

(Many thanks to the intelligent, talented, wonderful people who helped me with this piece. You know who you are.)

*Keep in mind, I’m not an attorney. Antidiscrimination laws change all the time, so do yourself a favor and do your own research specific to your own situation.

***

Andrea Lipomi is a licensed massage therapist and esthetician who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She also peddles massage therapy ebooks and NCBTMB-approved continuing education courses at ConfidentMassage.com, will travel hundreds of miles for a fantastic spa experience, and craves dark chocolate and Depeche Mode’s upcoming tour dates on an almost daily basis.

23 thoughts on “Found in Translation: A Transgender Rights Primer for Massage Therapists & Spa Folk

  1. Recently had a friend and very open Male-Female Transgender student come through our program in Manchester NH. To my knowledge, none of the students or anyone in the massage program had any issues whatsoever. It is a rising issue however, and not one that is easily addressed by the uninformed. Great post

  2. I am looking for the best massage spa that can provide me best massage treatment at this vacation if you are having any information related to the massage spa that can provide this kind of the services within the less cost price then please tell me about this.More Info

  3. Your observation on the repercussions of fear on the human spirit (individual) really shouts out and slaps each and every ones’ inner critic/abuser. I agree with you so dearly about how this emotion prevents us from what is possible. And why do we see ourselves so one dimensional instead of faceted with multiples of talents, abilities, and experiences. Your sentence in para 3 is what has underlined all forms of discrimination. “FEAR.” Fear prevents experiencing a different individual, fear prevents educating yourself about what you do not already know, and fear prevents you from looking like an idiot to those that know better. Now Lets Be Fearless, and Thank You Dear Friend for being just that.

    • I have a good friend who is a trans massage therapist. They are building a practice to serve all types of clients, but with an emphasis on serving the trans community. I guess I’m not really sure if that answers your question.

  4. I know this is an older posting but this is something I am researching for a class in massage therapy program. My job is to find out I there are any laws regarding the massage therapist having to disclose if they are transgender to the client? Also would they have to let the employer know before getting the job? Is the law different if they are living as the opposite gender and have not had surgery? I am having such a hard time finding out this information and I appreciate any lead for information you can give me! Thank you!!

    • Hi Shannon!

      Off the top of my head, I would assume trans* folks are not under any obligation to inform their employers or clients that they are trans*. I mean, I wouldn’t expect to have to inform my employer or clients if I became pregnant, or if I was seeing a counselor, or if I was experiencing any number of other personal, health-related situations.

      That being said, I’m not a lawyer. I’m going to reach out to some of my super smart activist friends to see if they have some info to share. If so, I’ll encourage them to post it here.

      Great question! Thanks!

  5. Here in the state of Nevada, we have the protection of non-discrimination of gender identity and gender expression. Reference https://leg.state.nv.us/NRS/NRS-613.html#NRS613Sec330
    Even with laws on the books, there is plenty of discrimination and people and or employers may not even be aware of such recent legislation, our laws past three years ago. In other states there may be no such protections. As a trans* person, you do not need to inform your employer, if you choose not to. I would see it beneficial to let HR know if you are already employed there and plan on transitioning on the job. From a massage therapy point of view, via my experiences, I find the massage world is inherently binary, i.e. customers “want” a male therapist or a female therapist. I myself am a transgender individual who is trying to build my business in this world and it appears to be wrought with difficulty. Transgender or not, building up clients in this highly competitive field is an uphill battle. My philosophy about my Trans*status is that it is my right to present female when working with the public. I have gone through the arduous process of name and gender marker changes and for all intensive purposes, I am female. Many times if people do not know me, I go by my name only. I don’t even worry about my gender, but if the client doesn’t feel comfortable with me, or they aren’t sure about me, then they don’t have to receive my services. I will add that I have not worked in a spa or business as an employee, so I’m not sure how that scenario would play out. As the owner and operator of my own business, I do have the right to refuse service, plus I’m not going to force the issue if the potential client doesn’t feel comfortable with me. As for those people who as gender variant or fluid, I’m cannot comment on how they would be supported in the massage industry. I will add that name changes or surgery’s (biology is not destiny) do not make person, as many transgender individuals elect not to have surgeries or obtain changes to their legal names. As transgender people, we have the right to say who we are… bottom line. I hope my commentary was helpful, here are a few links to some Trans* references.

    http://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies
    http://www.hrc.org/resources/category/transgender
    http://community.pflag.org/transgender

  6. Consequently, I would to pose this question to the forum, is there a disparity of male versus female therapists that are employed in the spa setting? I’m just curious as it does seem the preponderance of therapists who are female. What are your thoughts and experiences?

    • Every spa I’ve ever been employed by has employed far more female therapists than male, somewhere in the neighborhood of a 6:1 ratio. The first day spa that I worked at only employed female therapists while I was there.

  7. Hi, I’m a licensed massage therapist. I have quite a few friends who are transgender, both mtf and ftm. Can you give me tips on massage for post gender reassignment surgery? I have been looking everywhere for any helpful hints. I know that many ftm folk have axillary swelling post top surgery, and I can imagine mtf might as well…and I am assuming that the same massage techniques for mastectomy clients would apply…do you have any insights or suggestions you would like to share? I would be very grateful. I want massage to be a totally positive experience for these folks. Both physically and mentally.

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