Support for SOFFAs of transgender folks

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Already this year, 21 transgender people have been murdered in the United States. Imagine how startling this figure is to a parent whose child has expressed gender nonconformity, or someone whose partner has just come out as trans*.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of organizations, including Mazzoni Center and the Trans-Health Information Project at GALAEI, that offer direct services, support and resources for trans* or gender-nonconforming individuals in the Philadelphia area. But where can significant others, families, friends or allies of people of trans* experience — also known as SOFFAs — turn for help?

The term SOFFA is little known even in queer spaces. A Google search for “SOFFA support in Philadelphia” returns an expansive list of furniture stores in Philly. Not only is the acronym little known, but formalized support for this group is nearly impossible to find. When I learned how obscure SOFFA groups are, I decided to start one at Mazzoni Center.

Currently, we offer two drop-in groups for trans-identified individuals (Evolutions, which is aimed at anyone on the trans* or gender-nonconforming spectrum, meets 6-7 p.m. every Thursday; and New Bois Club, for anyone along the trans-masculine spectrum, which meets 6-7 p.m. on Mondays). Both groups have found a strong base of folks who appreciate the opportunity to share their experiences, challenges and concerns on a regular basis with others who can relate to what they are going through.

The aim of our new SOFFA group is to provide that same opportunity for people experiencing the transition of someone they love to process their own transition. Clients who have a loved one of trans* experience need a space to get educated about what it means to be trans*, to dismantle misconceptions and to process their own thoughts and emotions.

For loved ones of trans-identified people, feelings of isolation and anxiety are normal. They often have questions about the transition process. They worry for their loved one’s safety and whether or not they will be accepted. If they’re in a romantic relationship, they often feel conflicted about the way society will perceive their sexual orientation once their partner transitions. Some folks express concern that hormone therapy will change their partner into someone they don’t recognize. The questions and concerns are many and varied; the goal of SOFFAs is to offer a safe, nonjudgmental and confidential space where it’s OK to be wherever you are in your process.

Mazzoni’s SOFFA group will seek to provide an interpersonal experience. While individual treatment is valuable in many ways, the benefit of group work is that it enables clients who have similar experiences to provide each other with support in a way that a therapist alone cannot. This often shows itself in the form of self-disclosure, challenging each other and creating new connections. If you are struggling with something in your relationship, or struggling to understand your reaction to it, chances are someone else has felt the same thing or a variation of it. While no support group can promise “answers” to all of your questions and challenges, simply knowing that you’re not alone can provide an immense relief. And it can often lead to a powerful transformation, as group participants engage in a meaningful exchange of insights and perspectives. As a therapist, I find it extremely rewarding to help to facilitate that process and watch as healing unfolds for clients.

If we are to combat transphobia at its deepest levels, attitudes and behaviors have to change. I’m someone who believes that most people are good and striving to do their best, but misconceptions and our own pain often get in the way of us treating each other with human respect and dignity. I chose a career as a therapist because I believe in the power of human connection to facilitate healing and development into one’s best self. By creating safe spaces to have these conversations, we grow the “A” in LGBTQA. I’m hoping SOFFAs group can be one such safe space.

Whether you are a parent, partner, sibling or friend or whether you’ve had a long-term relationship or this is something entirely new in your life, we welcome you to come and share your experience, and see what you might gain from SOFFAs group. Our weekly, drop-in support group will start Nov. 2 and will take place each Monday from 5-6 p.m. at Mazzoni Center, 21 S. 12th St., eighth floor. For more information about the group or other support services at Mazzoni, visit www.mazzonicenter.org or call 215-563-0652. 

Shawnese Givens, MFT, is a therapist at Mazzoni Center’s Open Door Counseling and Behavioral Health program. She holds a master of arts degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Syracuse University.