After three decades as a gender therapist, St. Petersburg’s Dr. Kathleen Farrell heads into retirement

By : Steve Blanchard
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St. Petersburg – Sometimes the timing just feels right. And Dr. Kathleen Farrell believes now is the time for her to step away from the practice she founded in the early 1980s.

Farrell, who was Tampa Bay’s first openly lesbian psychologist and therapist, will lock her office for the final time on Oct. 17. She is renowned throughout Tampa Bay for the compassionate practice and counseling she provides the transgender community. News of her departure isn’t a surprise to her clients, who have been referred to Metro Behavioral Health Centers of Tampa Bay. But it’s still a sad day, as Farrell has always been at the forefront of transgender issues and issues.

She began her Florida career in 1982. Three years later, in 1985, she noticed a shift in her patients and her clientele developed into HIV-positive women.

“I began to see women who were basically working the streets and, because I was openly lesbian and seeing gays and lesbians, these positive individuals and also transgender residents would find me,” Farrell recalled. “At that point, I didn’t really know a lot about transgender issues so I went and got some information so I could admirably serve this population that wasn’t being served.”

Farrell said that none of those early clients are still with us, having lost their battles with HIV and AIDS. The epidemic facing the LGBT community, and the growing number of transgender clients, motivated Farrell to seek out information in the age well before Google and online message boards.

“My resource was John Money at John’s Hopkins at the time,” said Farrell, referring to one of the earliest practitioners of gender reassignment surgeries.

Even though Money became a controversial psychologist due to one gender study involving a young boy who Money encouraged his parents to raise as a female after a botched circumcision, Farrell relied on his early research to educate herself.

“He was the only game in town at that time in terms of getting the information on transgender issues,” Farrell said. “In the early days, I didn’t even have anyone to refer clients to for hormones.”

It wasn’t until 1988 that Farrell met Dr. Barry Rodwick, who specializes in HIV/AIDS and hormone therapy for transgender individuals. The two have worked closely ever since.

Today, transgender issues are mainstreaming. Transgender celebrities are household names and on national magazine covers, and there’s more understanding of what it means to have gender dysphoria.

Farrell credits a lot of that change to the education of the lesbian and gay community.

“The LG community has done its homework and pushed through a lot of transgender rights,” Farrell said. “That has been very helpful and made it a little easier for the transgender population.”

But the minds of the straight population are also changing, Farrell said. She shared a story of her neighbor, a conservative member of law enforcement, who contacted her after seeing a CNN report on Kristen Beck, a transgender former navy SEAL with ties to Tampa Bay.

“He said that the show changed how he felt about transgender individuals,” Farrell said. “The thing that really did it for him was Kristen saying that it’s like being born with blue eyes. There’s nothing you can do to change the color of your eyes. That’s what it’s like to be born in a gender that your body doesn’t reflect. That just blew me away.”

Farrell counts those instances where a non-transgender person finally “gets it” as small victories over a career spanning three decades, and she applauds Beck for being so candid and using the eye-color analogy.

It’s similar to what Farrell has preached since she began working with the transgender population in the 1980s. She has always used what seems the most simple of tools—a mirror.

“If it doesn’t reflect what we see in our mind’s eyes, I think that’s the kind of thing that is really important,” Farrell said. “It’s mind-body congruity. You see in the mirror what you see inside. That’s the thing that probably stands out the most over my career. Wherever I’ve been or where I’ve done seminars, I’ve taken my mirror.”

The mirror is typically the first thing a new client would see when meeting Farrell for the first time. But clients have become more educated over the years, thanks to the free-flowing information on the internet. Farrell said informed clients made her job easier when discerning if a person is gender dysphoric.

“A lot has changed,” Farrell said. “For instance, in 2008, the American Medical Association passed a resolution that called for all insurance companies to cover all aspects of gender reassignment. In 2013, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual changed the diagnosis of ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ to ‘Dysphoria,’ it made a huge change on how people see themselves.”

Removing the diagnosis from a psychiatric area helps people realize being transgender is not a mental illness, she said.

“It’s how your brain is configured,” Farrell explained. “I think that everything fitting together has made a huge change in how transgender people are treated today in terms of their rights.”

She also hopes the community at large continues with an open mind.

“I hope people understand that there are transgender people in our community,” Farrell said. “I think if they’ve concentrated on avoiding gender issues or are trying to stay in synch with family and friends so they don’t lose them, it’s time to really understand that we have another family. I hope people start being a little more open. I hope to see that happen; I think it will.”

While Farrell will no longer be seeing her clients after Oct. 17, she won’t disappear. She plans to hold onto her post on the board of Metro Wellness and Community Centers, an organization she’s been a part of since it began 21 years ago.

“Dr. Farrell will be extremely missed in the community,” said Lorraine Langlois, CEO of Metro. “We are happy to have worked with her for many years and thrilled to have the opportunity to continue her good work in the transgender community. Our mission has always been to provide the best quality services to the LGBT community in Tampa Bay and with our new Behavioral Health Centers, we’ll do just that.”

Farrell said she is looking forward to spending more time with family.

“I have a huge dedication to this community,” said Farrell, who is also a former executive director of the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas. “But I have a 102-year-old father who is in an assisted living facility around the corner of my house and I see him every day. His medical needs have become greater at his age so I will be spending more time with him. I also have a 93-year-old aunt who is living independently. However, all the needs she has I take care of. So I will be spending more time with my elderly relatives.”

But it’s not just caretaking awaiting Farrell in retirement. She’s excited to join her retired friends around the card table.

“Of the seven individuals I’m closest to, six have been retired for several years,” Farrell said. “We play cards but everyone has had to shuffle around my schedule. They won’t have to do that anymore.”

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