The history of medicine in the United States is not lacking for moments when those sworn to heal have instead used their power in reckless, negligent, and harmful ways. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Last century’s forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans deemed “unfit for society.” The collusion of the American Psychological Association officials in the Bush administration’s torture program. And of course there are abuses that continue to this today. Habit and prejudice have inertia all their own. When these things have improved, that is due largely to the brave efforts of committed activists, reform-minded professionals, and survivors who refuse to be silenced.
Van Ethan Levy is all three of these things: a survivor of anti-trans “conversion therapy,” an LGBTQPIA+-friendly therapist, and an activist who has spent much of the last decade leading trainings to deconstruct gender. But Van doesn’t see this work in heroic terms. “My existence and my advocacy for myself is not brave,” Van says. “It’s not like I choose every day to be brave. I choose every day to be authentic and true to myself—and unfortunately that means that I have to put on armor and be ‘brave.’ Does that make sense?”
For a trans person there is no escaping the daily barrage of small and large threats, insults, and threats. Van, a 2017 graduate of Antioch Los Angeles’s Masters in Clinical Psychology program, sees a major part of Van’s mission as helping people understand “how prevalent transphobic microaggressions and macroaggressions are.” As Van explains, “I cannot turn on the radio, answer my phone, go into a store, fill out paperwork…without experiencing transphobia, being misgendered, having my identity erased, and much more.”
To help people understand this, Van has recently written and self-published a book, Exploring My Identity(ies), which captures and formalizes many of the strategies and explanations Van has written over the years. Van is also leading popular short online classes through Antioch Continuing Education. The most popular class, the latest iteration of a training Van has been offering for over a decade now, is titled “Deconstructing Gender: Trans & Non-Binary Identities.” A newer two-week course titled “Exploring Our Identities Through Art” will be offered in January.
All of this is done to survive, yes, but also “so no other trans person has to experience what I am experiencing.” Van is working hard to build a different and better future. But Van is also realistic about how much work remains. “The change I strive for will not happen in my lifetime,” Van says, “and I hope the seeds I plant will eventually grow.”
“Trying to Find Language to Communicate Who I Am”
To visualize the world Van hopes to help build, it is key first to understand the world into which Van was born.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon I had the opportunity to ask Van all about this. We spoke over the phone. Van had driven to the cemetery—a favorite outside space favored for its quietness. Of course, it happened to be getting mowed when we spoke. The Bluetooth took a minute, cutting in and out, to take hold. But once our connection became solid, Van was generous in answering my questions. Van spoke fast and with the eloquent intensity of one who has long had to tell their story to skeptical audiences.
“My father had escaped Egypt, because he was Jewish and they burned down his family’s hotel,” begins Van’s story. Van’s mother, on the other hand, was Mexican-American and Catholic. They met after Van’s father had immigrated to the U.S., and they settled in San Diego where Van’s father and mother worked hard to build a life for their nuclear and extended families.
Van’s parents made a very traditional home, and Van’s mother in particular was quite religious, embedded in traditions. As Van experienced it, they were trying “to assimilate to white culture without realizing that that’s what they were doing. And all the harms of that: white supremacy, not realizing how their behavior and engagement was problematic. And then, in addition to all that, being very gendered in a conservative, white family home.”
It was a difficult environment to grow up in for anyone who didn’t precisely fit societal expectations. Van was assigned female at birth, but from the beginning was clear and open, saying things like, “I’m not a girl. Where’s my penis?” This was expressed in “different age-appropriate language in terms of being three and five and eight.” But Van was always clear about this.
Van’s parents, on the other hand, felt ashamed of Van’s behavior. They had extreme trouble finding ways to accept their child’s truth. They took Van to therapy, and soon they had an explanation that they chose to accept: their child was suffering from some sort of mental illness. They were doing their best, explains Van: “They never abandoned me or gave up hope that I would get better.” But it was not what Van needed.
As Van explains this experience, it started with “trying to find language to communicate who I am, not having access to it.” But society’s response was swift: Van soon was receiving “messages of, like, ‘You’re mentally ill.’”
Five Years in the Conversion Camps
By age twelve, these early diagnoses led to Van being shipped around the U.S. to numerous different conversion camps. This was the 2000’s, when the military had its anti-gay “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, the president’s slogan was “Compassionate Conservatism,” and there was much public hand-wringing about “family values.” Open anti-trans sentiment was even more widespread than today.
This was the society that subjected Van’s very identity to a half-decade of state-sponsored pathologizing and attack. And the places where this happened were closed-door medical facilities—some publicly funded, others funded by churches, but all far from family, oversight, and the context Van had so far known. “Of course they don’t advertise, ‘We’re conversion camps,’” explains Van. “They’re ‘residential treatment centers.’ They’re ‘psychiatric hospitals.’ There’s all these different names.”
Van was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which the DSM-5 describes as “a pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity.” Another diagnosis tried to explain Van’s identity as Dissociative Personality Disorder, which previously was known as Multiple Personality Disorder. But, as Van explains, “part of their idea of the diagnosis was that I was stuck believing that I was male. That was one of the personalities that was coming out.”
Although the programs attempted to conceal that they were conversion camps, it was always clear that the way to “graduate” from them and be able to go home was to claim a normative identity: “I needed to want to be in relationships with men and to know that I was a woman.”
After five years Van eventually managed to get free of this system, but it left deep scars of trauma and loss. Not only did Van miss out on so many of the milestones of adolescence—prom, going to movies with friends, finding one’s crowd—but these were replaced with confinement, forced treatment, and the growing fear that the doctors were right that something about Van’s own self was irretrievably broken. Not everyone who went through what Van did even came out the other side. “I can’t tell you how many friends died in those places,” says Van. “From suicide, from so many different ways. And that’s just a small amount of some of the stories that I might share if something was triggered.”
“We Can’t Deal With the Liability”
When Van finally reentered high school at age seventeen, Van’s education had a giant gap in it. The camps were about conversion, not education. Almost all of middle and high school had been stolen from Van.
Somehow, as a high school senior with no previous transcript, Van managed to pull together enough credit to graduate. Fluency in Spanish from Van’s childhood, for instance, was parlayed into language class credits. Says Van, “I was very resourceful in finding ways for them to apply things that I either already had inside of me or engaged in and created into a credit.”
Van got it together to apply to San Francisco State University, and was accepted. This made Van’s high school even more driven to find a way to get Van graduated. “The principal and the teachers wanted me out, because they wanted to use she/her pronouns for me, and they wanted to use my legally assigned name,” says Van. “I was constantly cutting and suicidal. To them I was such a problem.”
After arriving at SF State, Van was a classic freshman: “seventeen, in the dorms, so desperate for connection.” But while there are guard-railed avenues for most students to explore these needs and gain experience, Van stuck out both for being trans and for lacking the social and academic experiences that middle and high school equip most students with.
Van ended up being stalked by someone from outside of SF State. With great youth and innocence and need, Van saw in this stalker a potential friend. As Van explains, “All I knew was here was this person who was so willing to be my friend, and I needed a friend so desperately.”
That person ended up violently sexually assaulting Van, an act of violence that sent Van to the hospital with bruising and bleeding. When Van went back to the dorms to try to find support and safety, the university’s response was “We can’t deal with the liability of having somebody under-age and being sexually assaulted.”
Van was kicked out of the dorms and, unable to secure off-campus housing as a minor, had to drop out.
Microaggressions and Expulsion
The next years were difficult. Van’s parents encouraged Van to give up on the dream of education. “College isn’t for everybody,” they said. “You should just start working.”
But workplaces were often hostile, too. “Every place was pushing me out or firing me,” explains Van. “Because I made men uncomfortable, because I used the men’s restroom. They didn’t know how to refer to me: my legal name was this. There were always issues around me being trans and pushed out of spaces.”
Van bounced between community colleges and meanwhile found friendship and employment with the owners of a temp agency called Eastridge Workforce Solution. Sometimes this was low-skill work, like housekeeping and taking care of their dogs, but they also created internships in their office and set Van up with outside placements. Ultimately, they were committed to nurturing Van and making sure Van felt safe. Says Van, “They always made sure I had food on my table, roof on my head, clothes on my back, love in my heart, and happiness in my life, as much as they could.” Over years of helping Van develop skills, build out a resume, and even promising to pay for Van’s reconstructive surgery if Van couldn’t or Van’s parents wouldn’t, they became Van’s chosen family . Eventually, Van completed a BA and applied to graduate schools in psychology, hoping to become a therapist.
Unfortunately, the micro- and macroaggressions continued into grad school. After enrolling in a Southern California graduate school in psychology, Van was bullied by classmates who would do things like wipe down door handles Van had touched and say things like, “Oh, here she goes again.” When Van complained to the faculty, Van says, “essentially [they] would tell me that if I can’t tolerate the bullying that I’m not equipped to be a therapist.”
After reporting continued bullying, Van was expelled from the school two weeks before the end of the first year. “I had a 4.0 GPA,” says Van. “I had all of my work done early and turned in, where I should have passed my classes even though they expelled me—they expelled me, failed me in all my classes, and kept the money for that semester.” Had the school kicked Van out two months earlier, Van would have been able to get withdrawals and could not have paid the tuition.
The indignity of this latest encounter with higher education caused Van to pause and reconsider whether it would be possible at all to make it in this field as a trans person. Microaggressions and macroaggressions, when combined with institutional apathy and even hostility, were pushing Van out of the field.
Finding a Supportive and Affirming University
“Just step into Antioch,” urged Van’s therapist. “Please, just go see how the culture is different.”
It took almost a year between leaving the previous grad school and taking the therapist up on this suggestion, but, says Van, “I’m glad I did that, because Antioch was one of the first places that I ever felt affirmed in my identity.”
Van enrolled in the Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Studying there was a revelation. It wasn’t that Van’s new teachers and classmates made a big fuss or celebrated Van for being trans. They just didn’t make Van’s identity into an issue at all. “I didn’t have to argue that I am who I am,” explains Van. “Nothing had to be about my identity. I got to go to school and learn and engage in the way that I always dreamed of.”
At long last in an environment where Van’s identity wasn’t under assault, Van studied with great enthusiasm and energy.
The course of study also helped Van develop a better sense of the existence of communities of others who had shared Van’s experiences as a trans person. Van remembers one class in particular, in which students had to embed themselves in three different populations for many hours at a time. Van chose a trans population, Van explains, “because I myself didn’t spend time with anybody who was trans, and I always stayed away from the LGBTQPIA+ community, because both I had always felt pushed out and primarily because, ‘You’re not like those people.’”
By the end of the class, Van had come to understand “how much internalized transphobia and homophobia I held, along with how much internalized racism, ageism, and all the different things that we hold.”
Van eventually achieved the goal of graduating, receiving an MA in Clinical Psychology. Van went on to do a traineeship in Long Beach. And in 2017, traineeship complete, Van moved back to San Diego and began to see therapy clients in private practice, community organizations, and community college.
Leading Trainings Around Identity and Gender
Van has been leading trainings educating people about trans identities since age eighteen, but the importance of these trainings grew in urgency after Van moved back to San Diego. In this town, finally practicing in this profession, Van came to really see how many therapists are “homophobic, transphobic, racist, ableist, fat-phobic—all these marginalized identities and bodies.” Van explains that many “therapists are not only so unaware but so unwilling. When you bring to their attention and try to explain and provide education and provide ways to be more affirming—their ego and fragility just shows up.”
“I wish that for a moment I could share with people the impact of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the violence that they’re perpetuating,” says Van, “so that maybe they could stop for a moment and stop doing that.”
Van’s therapy practice tries to create safer and understanding spaces for LGBTQPIA+-identifying people. But back in San Diego Van had a moment of realization that just being a safer therapist was not enough—it was a drop in the ocean of therapists who don’t know how to foster safety like this. Van decided to expand these trainings and bring them to a wider audience. “I want to create ways for there to be more therapists who can provide safer spaces for people,” Van explains. “Because I can’t be the only person that people can come to.”
The latest version of the training is offered through Antioch Continuing Education as “Deconstructing Gender: Trans & Non-Binary Identities.” In this class Van helps people develop tools to address their internalized notions, to address their fragility, and “to show up for people with identities that we might not know how to show up for.”
And the classes are engaging, including interactive activities that help people cultivate empathy. In another activity, participants have to experiment with having a conversation about themselves while hiding the most important parts of their identities—much as trans people often have to hide their identities.
Taking the training is no guarantee that one will not commit future microaggressions. These behaviors are deeply ingrained and require lifelong resistance. But Van’s trainings give participants an initial understanding of these issues, a vocabulary to understand what transphobia is, and the tools for further self-cultivation.
Writing the Book on Trans Identity
To supplement these trainings, Van has recently published a book titled Exploring My Identity(ies) that captures much of Van’s understanding of gender and trans identity. It is available as an interactive workbook on Amazon, and according to the description Van wrote for it the book “is designed to assist you on your journey to unlearn the harmful lessons/messages/behaviors that we have internalized while learning to create supportive and affirming ways of engaging with ourselves and with others.”
The book partly collects the materials Van has assembled over years of advocating to be understood by doctors, therapists, professors, friends, family, strangers, and others. Often, medical professionals unfamiliar with trans identities can end up retraumatizing and even assaulting their patients—even if that was not their intention. This has forced Van to prepare writings to help educate them quickly, as a way to avoid having the same conversations over and over again. And part of why Van chose to publish the book was to give the words the respectability that our culture grants to printed material. “People find stuff more reputable if it’s published,” explains Van.
The book also incorporates workbooks and other writings from Van’s trainings. All of this meant that when Van chose to put together a book, the materials were all waiting, and it came together quite quickly. “I have spent over 28 years building the knowledge and awareness to formulate this interactive workbook,” Van explains. “Actually putting the book together took less than a few hours.”
Perhaps because it is born of such long personal insight, Exploring My Identity(ies) has proved popular and useful for many readers.
Continuing to Survive—and to Advocate
Looking towards the future, Van hopes to continue work with clients and students, and hopes to continue finding respectful and open audiences. Says Van, “I’m really hoping to be able to enter into spaces that offer validity and respect, so that people can take the work that I’m doing and utilize it.”
Van continues to learn, as well—looking to find “areas that I’m not addressing or maybe even harming, so that I can do a better job of educating myself and others in how to show up for people in my community.”
Van will continue offering this training and other classes through Antioch Continuing Education. The next class will begin on January 11, 2021, when Van will be teaching a new two-week course called “Exploring Our Identities Through Art.”
You can find all the listings for Antioch’s Community Offerings, including Van’s latest courses, at this link.