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.

My Client, the White Supremacist and Cross Gender Massage.

(In which I go to bat for clients that have a penis.)

So, ya, you read that right. I wasn’t at a Klan rally.

I do teacher appreciation days at local public schools. It is a great way to advertise to one of my targeted demographics, and I truly enjoy providing this service. I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I could remember, and actually began massage school so that I could have a part-time, high-paying job while I went through a four year university and got my teaching degree…but then, Massage Therapy and I fell in love…and you know the rest of the story. Teachers still have a special little spot in my heart though, since I have been fortunate enough to have so many great ones. At these teacher appreciation days, I raffle off a free 1 hour gift certificate. The person that won this particular gift decided to give it to someone else, which I was ok with.

When I arrived at my client’s house, things went a little differently than planned. Over the phone I was told we would be setting up in the bedroom but when I arrived, he had a worried look on his face and we set up in another room instead(I learned later, upon passing the room in the hallway with the door open, that it was filled with Nazi paraphernalia). At this point, I couldn’t really interpret the vibes I was getting – except that I didn’t feel threatened. I felt comfortable enough to stay. The house was full of people and I wasn’t afraid of him, just a little put off. So I set up, asked the usual questions, he let me know he was a tattoo artist so he has the usual neck/shoulder issues from long work hours,  and excused myself while he clambered up onto the table. (Normal, normal…normal).

Then I came back in and undraped his back.
A giant swastika glared back at me.
I blinked.
It didn’t.

I closed my eyes and centered myself, blinking a few more times to hold back wet eyes. Holy shit. I had a racist on my table. I had a Proud and Out racist on my table. I’m not white, but I pass as white pretty well. They think I might have a little Italian in me, or some Greek, or maybe I just have a good tan. I have a bit of a western twang…in other words, people have said I “sound white”. No one can usually place my racial mutt-ness of Seminole/Creek/Irish. I finally understood his confused and apprehensive behavior. He was trying to figure out whether or not I was white. Apparently he had decided it was worth the gamble for a free massage. Apparently also gambling on the fact that if I were white, that I would be ok with his hateful views. …and I was PISSED.

Then something happened. I heard a little voice inside of me say “First, do no harm.” I clung to it as I breathed steadily and began the massage. It became my quiet mantra, and I performed my best work, while remaining disengaged from the person on the table. Or rather, from the identity the person had imposed on themselves. I felt the human creature beneath my hands. I marveled at the intricacies of his circulatory system, the thought that he had been nurtured and loved as an infant. That he had grown and survived. I filled myself with pleasant thoughts of life and living, and rubbed/pressed/stripped/rolled/rubbed.

I wondered to myself why I didn’t just ask him to get up, or throw the jerk off the table and leave. Something made me stay. Not fear, but a sense of duty. I had work to do, damn it, and I was very well going to do it. I hadn’t finished my work. I thought of the only other line that I knew of the Hippocratic Oath, or at least what I thought was the Hippocratic Oath at the time (It is actually the Oath of Maimonides):

“May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.”

His neck and shoulders were a inflamed hotbed of trigger points and hypertonicity. Years of stress, possibly anger, possibly a great number of life’s other tragedies, failures, heartbreaks, or irritants had lodged there tightly. He was in serious pain. That is why he took the gamble.

I continued to work quietly, as I wondered why I only knew two lines of the Hippocratic Oath, even though I felt like a healthcare worker.

I continued to wonder how anyone in this day and age can actually be a racist.

I had a boyfriend when I was 21, who always wore jeans to the river. We had a summer romance and went to the river, the lake and the pool a lot. One day at the pool he flipped in and on his way down I noticed a swastika tattoo on the backside of his thigh. Naturally, I flipped the hell out. He had managed to hide it from me for the 2 months we had been together. After a day and a half of refusing to speak to him (I’m mature like that) I finally let him in and he explained that he got it in a garage when he was 13, he was part of a little punk group that thought themselves to be racists, and he acted like a complete ass for about 2 years – generally doing a lot of dangerous drugs, messing around with a lot of dangerous people, and spreading around a lot of hate. He wouldn’t tell me exactly what changed his mind, just that “there was this girl.” I asked him why he didn’t have it removed, and he said it was because he never wanted to forget how he felt and he kept it to remind him not only how wrong he could be, but how wrong other people could be. We had a long conversation about empathy and second chances, responsibility and growth. That conversation along with his gentleness and candor was one of the many reasons that I loved him.

This wasn’t the case with my client. It was the first thing I reached for in my attempt at empathy and understanding. An explanation.  His Swastika tattoo was fresh and bright, and if that wasn’t enough to convince me, it had other embellishments with names and was dated 2012. It wasn’t a misunderstanding, this man meant with every pixellated inch of his tattooed skin to convey his message to the world. I would have to reach deeper to find what I would need to get through the next hour.

The truth is I came up with a lot of the same insights as I did when I examined the idea of refusing cross gender massage, which is why I have tied these two posts together.

There is a huge faction of massage therapists that refuse to perform massage therapy on clients of the opposite sex. This really bothers me, the same way that it bothers me that men have such a hard time in our profession. For a lot of the same reasons.

When a client shows up at a spa for a massage, and refuses to see a male therapist, it shows a distrust. They don’t see men as nurturing. Some of them that are male aren’t quite homophobic, but just don’t feel “right” having a man touch them. This is discrimination. It is allowed, because as a consumer, we have the right to decide who touches our body. As therapists, we continue to educate to the best of our ability, but some people just aren’t “there” yet, or are holding on to old ideas of what nurturing means, or are confused about aspects of their sexuality or even the boundaries between sensual and sexual. They might be afraid that men will massage too “deep” or be dealing with a multitude of emotional issues that we can only refrain from guessing at.

Most people hold on to their prejudices. Many don’t care “why” they feel what they feel. They just know that that is the way they feel and that is the end of it. They don’t want to have to explain it to themselves or anyone else. Growth is uncomfortable. People need to do it on their own terms, and the best we can do is educate, in our individual practices and as a profession.

However, this is how I feel: Practitioners don’t get those same rights. Or rather, we seem to, but we shouldn’t.  Please let me clarify. I feel that a massage therapist should have the right to refuse service to someone, on an individual basis. If someone treats you badly, drains you, pushes your buttons, asks you for sexual favors, implies things, or makes you uneasy or afraid, you have the right to refuse service to them at any time. If over the phone you feel like someone poses a potential threat to you, or you get that uneasy feeling about them, you can refuse to see them. There is no reason for them to come in if all of your alarms are going off. Human beings made it pretty far on instinct. It is there for a reason. There is no need to have a mind so open that all of your brains start falling out.

This is different than refusing to service a specific subset of the population such as: “I don’t work on men”, “I don’t work on women”, “I don’t work on black people”,  “I don’t work on white people”, “I only work with healthy people”, “I don’t work on fat people” or “I don’t work on republicans.”

You can also target a specific demographic, no problem, that is different than refusing to work with a specific population (I mention this because recently in Facebook threads there has seemed to be some confusion between these two ideas).

I am of the idea that we should be held to the same standards as healthcare workers in terms of non discriminatory practices and other practices outlined in the following (and pictured below). As I learned more about the Hippocratic Oath, the Oath of Maimonides, and the Declaration of Geneva…I read through them and although I am not religious, I was touched. I got goosebumps. I think there is a reason for that.

When you dedicate your life to service, to taking away the pain of others, there is a certain responsibility that comes with the knowledge and skills. I’m trying to articulate this the best I can…and I keep coming back to this simple sentence:

We can be more.

Therapeutic touch transcends all boundaries. We can be more than what we are. We should always strive to be better human beings and to better serve the rest of humanity. To be of the best possible service. In a culture rife with sexism, misogyny and rape it is all the more necessary that we strive to provide non judgmental, healthy touch. I am of the idea that we are on the front lines of this change, this shift, in the way that people look at human contact, relationships and gender roles.

We are waking up from hundreds of years of imposed religious ideas about female sexuality and the role of women in the hierarchy of civilization. Even today, women continue to fight to be taken seriously in the workplace, to receive a fair wage, to have control over their own bodies, and to hold positions in elected offices. Even today, men in the political spotlight are criticized for their voting history and opinions while women are criticized on the size of their waist, the color of their nail polish, or what they chose to wear that day.

Women today continue to fight (socially, if not legally) for the right to be treated as equals to their male counterparts…and so do our male allies. Many of those women who have fought for our rights, did have men standing next to them, or behind the scenes, who supported them. Many had supportive husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, nephews, grandfathers, cousins and male friends.

No matter how you look at it, when you refuse to serve half of the population because something might go wrong in the session, or you might get hurt, or you might feel uncomfortable – you are perpetuating the idea that all men are potential rapists. Furthermore, you are reinforcing someone else’s idea that the men in your life are potential rapists. This is disingenuous to our profession, disingenuous to good men, and to all of the work human beings are trying to do to collectively improve our perception and understanding of one another and civilization.

Men are not rapists. Rapists are rapists.
Men are not creeps. Creeps are creeps.

People are individual.

As their massage therapist, it is none of my business if they have a penis or a vagina or any amalgamation thereof.

Or what race they are.
Or how old they are.
Or who they voted for.
Or how much money they make.
Or where they come from.
Or who they choose to love.
Or what their religion is (if any).

My job is to relax them, to relieve them of pain. To help them feel better in , and move with, their body. Plain and simple.

Now if a religious person preaches to me and makes me uncomfortable, I have no problem refusing to see them. Or if a man leers or starts wagging around his wally the one eyed wonder, or asks suspicious questions over the phone, or if a right-wing person pressures me about my political views, or if someone is generally just being a rude jerk…then they can be fired. But they are the exception, not the rule.

As I finished up on my racist client and left, I’m not going to lie, I cried a bit in the car. Partially because I was uncomfortable and confused, and partially because I felt truly sorry for the person I was working on. I felt he would lead a life compartmentalized by his belief system,  unable to feel that loving thrum of humanity…that dazzling, rusty, rough hewn, unpolished, vibrating plane of connection we are still working on while reconciling our emotional and rational selves to work harmoniously together…to further our understanding, to be open to new ideas, to connect to one another, learn, engage and grow. It is a beautiful thing.

People can become shackled by their beliefs. ” I mean, you can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it.”

I silently thanked him. I had finally sorted out my thoughts and feelings regarding refusing a specific client vs refusing to service a group of people. I won’t be seeing him again…but for the span of an hour, he made me uncomfortable.

Just uncomfortable enough to help me grow.

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(Please click on the images to enlarge them)

Declaration of Geneva or Physician's OathOath of MaimonidesThe Hippocratic Oath