I taught a trans* 101 class to my very tiny LGBT graduate school course the other week. What makes this class so unique is that these individuals are in the process of training to become therapists. This fact colors the way I have phrased these questions and statements. My colleagues are either coming from a place of total ignorance or what they have learned from academic study is not appropriate or totally incorrect for direct services counseling work with trans* clients. For example, the textbook I was supposed to be working from defined the word “transgender” in a way that is common among academia/public policy, but is not how a lay transgender person might define themselves. And this book briefly mentioned that nonbinary trans* people exist, but did not go into detail beyond a sentence or two. This was all new information and/or challenging thought experiments for professors and students alike in my graduate program. Don’t be surprised if you see blog posts related to these discussion questions in the future. I have a lot to say on this matter. Feel free to comment, email, etc. regarding this post. I’m definitely interested in anything you’d like to say or add to this.
- The term “transgender” is used differently in academia and in the transgender community. This brings up the issues of identity, meaning and the power of labeling. Specific populations like cross-dressers, feminine/butch LG people, drag queens/kings, etc. are not considered to be trans* within the community, but are placed under this umbrella by academia. To clarify, one can be a butch lesbian and be transgender, but being a butch lesbian in and of itself would not automatically make you transgender in the lay community. What does it mean that academia places certain people under the “transgender umbrella” when even the book admits that this academic inclusion does not “imply that all people with those identities include themselves within the larger matrix or consider themselves transgender”. Whose labels/definitions are seen as more valid and who has more societal power? And what are the implications of these differences in labeling for counseling, research and social justice?
- The chapter talks about therapists serving as gate-keepers to trans* individuals’ access to hormones and sexual reconstruction surgery. Transgender individuals (binary and nonbinary) have been forced to lie in the past in order to fit into rigid standards to receive the care they need. This still happens, to a large extent, due to the fear that trans* individuals will regret these procedures despite the actual rarity of this phenomenon. How would this affect a client’s view of the counseling relationship? And how can a therapist respect a client’s agency and intelligence and explain the permanence of these medical procedures without becoming a gate-keeper?
- In this chapter, most of the discussion of transgender individuals focuses on binary transgender individuals (i.e. trans men and women). How would a clinician prepare themselves to help a nonbinary trans* person (i.e. someone who is genderfluid, genderqueer or agender, for example) function in a world that renders them invisible?
- What are some counseling approaches one can use to help a client deal with the internalized transphobia stemming from the pathologizing of their identities from the medical/psychological community and the political and social rejection of the heterosexual and LGB communities?
- How do factors like age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status intersect with trans* issues? And how can clinicians support transgender clients in mitigating the negative consequences of these intersections?
Problematic terms/phrases to keep in mind for clinical practice
- Pre/post/non-op, MTF, FTM, female/male-bodied, transsexual – These words are falling out of favor and can be very offensive because they reduce trans* individuals to their genitals/body parts and to their birth assignment. If an individual’s medical history NEEDS to be referred to, words like “sexual reassignment surgery,” “vaginoplasty” or “top surgery” are preferred. And if you NEED to refer to someone’s birth assignment, the phrase “assigned female/male at birth” is more appropriate.
- Real man, bio woman, genetic man, natural woman - Trans* people are not fake. A trans man is just as “real” as a cis man. A preferred word for “not transgender” is cis or cisgender.
- Tranny, t-girl, shemale, he-she, hermaphrodite, transvestite – Never use these words. These are slurs and have their roots in pornography and the non-consensual fetishization of trans* people, trans women in particular. Some trans* people are trying to reclaim some of these words, but if you are not trans* yourself, do not use them.
- Transgendered – the word transgender is an adjective, not a verb. For instance, a person doesn’t womaned, or maned. A person is transgender.
Binary trans* people, i.e. trans men and trans women, should just be called men and women unless, for some reason, it is necessary to refer to their transgender status.
It would not hurt to get into the habit of asking clients what their pronouns are when asking their name. It takes only a second and reduces the likelihood of committing a microaggression. For example, “Hi, my name is Kierra and my pronouns are they/them. And you?”