Author’s Note: This topic has proven to be more controversial than I expected when I first authored this blog. The idea to explore issues surrounding transgender massage therapists came to me on a whim and I did not put too much thought or research into it. That said, I think this is a topic worthy of open discussion, as we see increasing tolerance of transgender individuals in our daily lives, and as this tolerance increases, so do the number of ways in which people are likely to interact with transgender people in the course of their daily lives. This includes receiving services, which could include massage therapy – a field where gender often plays a prominent role (unlike most services where gender is not typically a factor). Please, as you read this bear in mind that I am simply raising the discussion out of intellectual curiosity – I’m not making any policy statements and do not condone any forms of discrimination! D.M.
Gender plays a very big role in the field of massage therapy.
No matter how you look at it, the fact is that many massage clients, perhaps even the majority, have a clear preference for either a male or female massage therapist for a wide variety of reasons.
Some people feel more comfortable with a particular gender, the most common example probably being male clients preferring a female practitioner. Most men, particularly those here in the United States who don’t have a lot of experience with massage simply aren’t comfortable with the idea of another man touching them in such an intimate fashion. In many cases this kind of objection can be overcome as individuals become more experienced receiving massage and “get over” that issue.
I have to confess that in my earlier life I too would never have considered having a male therapist work on me, however over the years I have come to really appreciate some of the special qualities that a man’s technique can actually bring to the table.
Similarly, many female clients also prefer another female practitioner, in most cases for somewhat obvious reasons such as being more comfortable and not worrying about any sexual advances or creepy undertones.
On the other side of the coin, some people, both male and female, actually prefer a male therapist. In many cases this is because they feel that a male therapist brings more strength and power to the table, which in many cases is true in my experience.
The bottom line is whether we like it or not, or agree with the reasoning and logic behind the feelings, gender does play a serious role in massage therapy. This brings me to the issue I wanted to explore today which is; what about transgender massage therapists?
Our society seems to be getting more comfortable with the idea of transgender individuals living out their lives in a normal way and in normal jobs, and for the vast majority of jobs it makes absolutely no practical difference whatsoever. But how does this factor into situations where gender does play a serious role in the job itself and with respect to a customer’s expectations?
For example let’s say I am running a massage spa and someone requests a female therapist. One of my therapists is a transgender person who was born male and now identifies as female. Could I assign this now female individual to see this customer who has specifically requested a female? Would I need to provide some kind of a disclaimer (with the therapist’s consent of course so as not to inadvertently “out” someone)? And if there is no reasonable, fair or realistic way to answer these questions, then would it make any logical sense to hire this individual in the first place, even though I personally would not choose to discriminate against their gender identity?
Or look at it from the other side where somebody wants to have a male therapist because they think that males are just stronger than females (and yes I know that this is certainly not always the case but it is a common perception and it is true a lot of the time). Could I in good conscience send in a therapist who was born a female but now identifies as a male to work on somebody who specifically requested a male therapist?
I don’t know if there are any easy or politically correct answers to these questions and I know even the mention of these questions gets many people very emotional. Honestly I think most massage business operators would be very happy to completely steer clear of this potential issue altogether! Some would say we should simply recognize that those who have assumed a gender that is not the one they were born with biologically are now who they are and that’s that. On the other hand, this seems a bit idealistic when you try to look at if from the point of view of a possible customer who is really not comfortable with these more progressive views on gender identity. I would worry about repercussions and even the safety of the therapist that could be at risk from a situation where someone with strong feelings on the matter felt like they were knowingly misled.
I don’t recall having any first-hand experience working alongside a transgender individual in the massage therapy field and I’m not aware of any transgender people applying to work for my business so I have not had to confront this issue head-on yet.
One could argue that given the gender issues involved, massage therapy might not be the best career choice for transgender people who would need to confront this challenge. Then again, why shouldn’t anyone who feels a passion for, or a calling to a certain vocation feel free to pursue that? Perhaps a good route for a transgender massage therapist might be to establish their own business and develop their own personal clientele so they are not faced with the issue of working for another business that is trying to assign therapists based on its customer’s gender requests. While that may seem unfair and not ideal in our imperfect world, it could at least be a way to avoid some of the problems one can imagine might arise, for both the therapist and the employer grappling with gender issues in the course of providing services and accommodating requests that are typical for most massage businesses.
I know there are progressive people in our society that are very idealistic about the world we live in, but the fact is we do not live in a gender-neutral society. Gender issues are important in certain occupations like massage therapy, and I think that while we want to be sensitive to the challenges that transgender people face, and need to foster more compassion and understanding in our society as a whole, in the meantime we also need to consider respecting our customer’s preferences when it comes to who is touching them. I’m not sure if that is possible to do when a person’s gender, however real and true that is for them, is different than their biological identity, and this information is not disclosed to a client. It’s a tough issue with many facets and I am only just scratching the surface out of my own curiosity.
What do you think? If we were to hire a transgender massage therapist, how would we account for their gender when a client made a request? Would we have to make a special disclosure? How would a client feel if they were told, or figured out on their own somehow that their requested “female” therapist was actually born a man? If the client objected, would we then have to consider him or her intolerant? Could we even face legal action for misrepresentation?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions, or hear of any experience you know of involving a licensed transgender massage therapist.
Dan Melmed, LMT
Owner & Founder, Body Well Therapy
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