By Hallie Lieberman
Greg (they/them), 62, had never felt comfortable with masculinity, but growing up in Nevada where the cowboy was king he felt he had to pretend. “I ran with the boys… I had the truck. I had tobacco. I had the girlfriends, I went to the fucking brothels, and I conformed,” they said. Then in 1987, after having a child and marrying a woman in their 20s, they came out as gay. In October 2022, 35 years later, they decided, “I’m not going into boy mode for people anymore.” So they came out as trans to their longtime therapist. “She was not only dismissive, she could not even be part of the reality that I was dealing with,” Greg said. They struggled with meeting other trans people who could share advice. “It’s not like we have this big community out there, that’s like, throwing cotillions, you know?” they said.
So they searched online for a trans coach and found Sagen Cocklin (they/she). “Finding somebody like Sagen who has the lived experience is so key,” Greg said.
Sagen is part of a larger group of transition life coaches throughout the U.S. who provide advice on navigating coming out to family and work. The climate in the US is increasingly hostile, and a growing amount of anti-trans legislation is being passed. Some, like Brent Walsh (he/him), specialize in helping trans people reconcile their Christian faith even as members of their religious community struggle with acceptance. Others, like Luigi Continenza (they/them) in Seattle, provide gender coaching and post-top surgery bodywork, including scar tissue remediation and treatments for binding discomfort. Although coaching and therapy are similar, significant differences exist. As Walsh said, “Therapy looks at your past in order to affect your present and your future, but coaching looks at your present in order to affect your future.” Unlike a therapist, a coach does not need a master’s degree, and a patient seeking a gender coach doesn’t require a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
Sagen didn’t intend to be a trans coach. They dreamed of being a physicist. While studying for their Ph.D. in Chicago, Sagen came out as trans. They planned to quietly pass as a cis woman. They were the only openly queer person in their Ph.D. program. But months after their transition, they changed their mind. “I was like, ‘I need to be very loud about this,” they said. “And the net result of that was that I had a decent number of friends start coming up to me and be like, ‘Hey, I am starting to realize I’m trans, can we talk about this?”
Soon Sagen became a sounding board for other trans people. After they graduated, they were burned out and struggled to find an academic job. Sagen had a conversation with their mother, Victoria Cocklin (she/her), a psychotherapist who has been in private practice in Oklahoma for 27 years. Sagen’s mom suggested they coach fellow burned-out grad students. “We kind of both just had the realization of: why don’t I work with other trans people?” said Sagen.
Sagen decided to focus on other life transitions as well. “One of my great realizations… has been that gender transition is not fundamentally different than any other transition that anyone goes through in life. We change jobs, we change hobbies, we change friend groups, all of these things change all the time, and we don’t act like it’s a big weird thing,” they said.
When Sagen advises their teenage trans clients, sometimes Sagen’s mother Victoria counsels their parents on accepting their trans children. Sagen’s younger clients fear everything from alienating their parents and friends to not being allowed to join their high school’s sports team.
Victoria said she wished she had a parent to speak with who had a trans child when Sagen came out. “It was very rough. My husband and I, we were very alone,” she said. Now she can be that parent for others. “They see that life does not end with transition. It actually can open up such a beautiful world when you educate yourself,” Victoria said.
Business is booming for Sagen and Victoria. While Victoria coaches throughout the country, her therapy business only accepts Oklahoma clients per state law. Recently a bill was proposed criminalizing gender-affirming care for those 26 years of age and younger. “It’s scary because that will force a lot of people into detransition that do not want to detransition,” Victoria said. Oklahoma parents are concerned about how their children will navigate this “changing environment,” Victoria said. Though they coach together, sessions are confidential, and they never share what the parent said with the child or vice versa unless there is a safety concern.
Victoria also helps parents cope emotionally, learning to let go and “deal with our sadness and our loss together, away from the child,” she said. She lets parents grieve but also reminds them that “it might be the first time that your child comes to you authentically.”
Although Sagen works with a number of young people, they particularly enjoy working with people over 55, like Greg, who is worried about telling their ex-wife and daughter that they are on HRT.
“I don’t want to cause this anxiety in [my family],” Greg said. “This man…who tried to be John Wayne his whole life, is now going to grow a pair of titties….they’re going to like freak the fuck out… Sagen’s really helped me to figure some really good ways to talk about it.” They said their first session with Sagen produced one of “the most important conversations I’ve had in my life.”
In Greg’s weekly sessions Sagen addressed the challenges Greg faced as they’ve come out to people close to them. Last year they came out to a mentor they’d known for nearly four decades. “She was like f***g JK Rowling. She said I was going to have my penis cut off, and I’ll never be a woman…and it sent me in this f***g tailspin but luckily, I had a session with Sagen the next day,” Greg said. “And that’s when Sagen advised me to kind of put a pause on who I’m talking to about this.”
Over in New Jersey, Brent Walsh, like Sagen and Victoria, is doing a similar type of coaching, albeit he took a much different route to the profession. In the mid-1990s Brent, who was then presenting as Brenda, motored throughout the United States and Canada as a truck driver. Brenda, who was raised a conservative Christian by his Baptist preacher father and religious mother, was in his 20s, being paid to see the country.
At the time, Brenda identified as a lesbian. Brent said that he had “masculine and feminine energy,” so he “never was really treated as disrespectfully as a lot of women are in the trucking industry…But nevertheless, people would make assumptions about how much I knew based on my gender,” he said. When Brenda would pop open the truck’s hood and ask for help, men “would go to great lengths to describe in great detail, some very basic things about the engine. And I would think to myself, I’m not stupid, I know where the dipstick is.”
When he transitioned at age 32, Brent got treated differently. “When I would ask for help with something, they would start talking about the pieces of an engine that I knew nothing about,” he said. “Everyone assumed that I knew everything about sports… the jokes would get more raw.” His parents treated him differently as well. They couldn’t accept that he was trans. Walsh was worried that he would lose his relationship with them. “I would have really benefited from someone encouraging me to see that their grief is absolutely necessary. Because if they do not grieve, then they will never accept me as Brent. … the thing that I wish a coach would have been able to walk me through is I am not responsible for that grief. And the reason they are going to go through the grief is because they love me.”
For about seven years, he didn’t talk to his parents. Finally, a friend suggested he reach out to them. “This is a two-way street. Grace goes both ways,” he recalled the friend saying. Brent was able to reconcile with them.
Soon after, in his late thirties, Brent enrolled in seminary school. “I left seminary with no faith at all, which is very different than what I expected,” he said. When he graduated in 2013, he went back into trucking, this time as a trainer. “I would often find myself coaching my students …they would talk about their kids and their relationship with their families and their parents and deaths of loved ones,” he said. But it took about six years, and a job at the seminary, for Brent to realize that coaching was what he wanted to do. In 2019, after being laid off from the seminary, Brent met his current partner, who is a life coach. His partner encouraged her to become one as well.
Brent now coaches trans people and those who are going through faith crises and hopes to coach executives in the trucking industry as well.
“I think that a lot of people imagine a trans coach as a person who kind of guides someone through the actual physical process of transition…which is different than what I do…[My coaching] is the process of what is going on behind the scenes. What is keeping you from transitioning, what is keeping you from being your authentic self…what can you do to honor the people that are in your life while also honoring yourself,” he said.
Most of his clients have originated from his church: they’ve heard him preach about his transition and asked for coaching. “Some come to me with the spiritual questions like ‘Is this okay with God’, or ‘Am I going to hell’? When I get to heaven, am I going to be male or female?” he shared.
In Washington state, Luigi Continenza, 39, of Elemental Roots Bodywork, takes a different approach to coaching. They have been working with the trans community for eight years; first through bodywork, then a few years ago, through coaching. “When I was in [massage] school, I knew pretty immediately that I wanted to be focusing on working with trans and gender diverse people to be able to help them with similar experiences that I had,” they said. Soon they were taking courses to get a degree in scar tissue, so they could work on people post-top surgery. “I did end up getting top surgery shortly after I graduated, so I was still very much on my own journey in a way,” they said.
Clients would come in for scar tissue massage a couple of months after top surgery, and Luigi would walk them through four main components they deal with post-top surgery: struggles with range of motion, lack of sensation in the chest, build-up of scar tissue, and posture. “You’re essentially relearning how to be in your body in a different way.”. After working on range of motion for 45 minutes “a lot of the times people will be floored. They’ll say, oh my god, I can’t believe I’m able to raise my arm up,” Luigi said.
As they massaged clients’ scar tissue, clients would open up about their emotions post-transition Luigi began informally coaching them. Then they decided that they should offer gender coaching as well.
They quickly found success because “in Seattle, there’s really not a lot of other providers who are bodyworkers and are themselves trans or non-binary,” Luigi shared. They also have a thriving business with remote clients they gender coach nationwide. Although Luigi takes a body-centered approach, and Brent, Sagen, and Victoria start with the mind: all are committed to providing care to trans people that the healthcare system usually doesn’t. They help trans people carve out lives for themselves in a cis-dominant world, by giving them the tools and compassion that the world rarely does.
Hallie Lieberman is a historian and journalist. She’s the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, and is currently working on a book on the history of gigolos. Her writing has appeared in BuzzFeed News, The New York Times, Washington Post, Vice, and other publications.