Out On The Couch
Listening to our Transgender Clients: The Fear is Real
November 20th has been known since 1999 as the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). On this date, across the world, ceremonies and vigils are held to remember transgender individuals we lost to murder and suicide in the past year. Often somber and emotionally triggering, TDOR allows the community to gather and honor individuals whose stories are often ignored or incorrectly told. As this day approaches, I often think of Marsha P. Johnson.
Johnson, a transgender black woman, has long been credited within the queer and trans community for being the person who threw that first brick at Stonewall (Feinberg, 1996) and the creator of STAR, an LGBTQ+ youth shelter. Many don’t know that Johnson was an activist from early on in her life, fighting for gay rights and visibility instead of assimilation (Chan, 2018). After high school, she spent her days on the streets of New York, learning to survive and being repeatedly sexually assaulted and harassed (Chan, 2018). But the assault, harassment, and oppression she experienced due to her sexuality, gender identity, and skin color didn’t stop her for standing up for what she believed in. Knowing firsthand the discrimination the often-ignored transgender community suffered, she took an active role in ACT UP (https://actupny.org/), helping to speak out for HIV+ individuals and give a voice to people of color who were dying from the disease (Jacobs, 2016). Johnson was an inspiration to transgender individuals, especially to those of color. Her tragic death is frequently regarded as the first “notable” and documented murder of a transgender person in the United States.
In 1992, shortly after the New York City Pride Parade, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River (Feinberg, 1996). The cops ruled it a suicide, despite many people’s protests that Johnson was anything but suicidal and eyewitness reports that she was being harassed earlier during the day they believed she had died (Feinberg, 1996). The case was limitedly investigated and never solved. The media portrayed Johnson as a trans woman who was a sex worker and a drug user, leaving out the truths of her activism and every other aspect of her life (Feinberg, 1996); it is likely that had she been a cisgender white woman, media coverage would have been vastly different and much wider. Johnson’s voice, something she worked so hard to give herself while navigating major oppression in her lifetime, was taken away. Even worse, her killers were never found; to this day, minimal effort has been put into solving her murder.
You may be wondering what this has to do with psychology, and how Johnson’s death can show up for you, as a clinician, in the therapy room with your transgender clients. Well, it’s simple: the reaction of the public to Johnson’s death parallels how many transgender individuals feel about what their lives are worth to the rest of the world. It also relates to transgender people’s sense of whether others care about their safety. As a clinician who has worked in the community in varying capacities, I can attest to the fact that transgender people feel that their lives don’t matter. There is a constant threat of insufficient safety and feelings of protection, especially under the Trump administration when it seems as if transgender rights are under attack daily.
Almost every week I hear about another transgender individual, usually a trans woman of color, who has been murdered or found dead under mysterious circumstances. In many of these cases the killer is never found, or if they are, they are not named. The media often misgenders the victim, and very little coverage is given in the first place. My trans clients come to me with fear in their voices, wondering if they will be next just because they are living their authentic truths. Worse, and heartbreakingly, clients sometimes find that this fear is accompanied by wondering whether or not anyone would even care if they were gone, and if they deserve being killed due to being transgender.
Furthermore, clients have to navigate safety in many other aspects of life. Transgender clients have told me that they often don’t feel safe in their jobs and have a fear of being fired; what’s worse, nobody in their workplace will do anything to help when they are feeling threatened. I have heard about clients being assisted when buying shoes or clothing, and fearing that a salesperson will “find them out” and make a scene. Clients can fear for their safety in terms of secure housing and access to other social welfare services, the loss of which threaten their ability to survive.
So how can we, as clinicians, help with these fears? Certainly, the wrong thing to do is to try to make excuses for others or diminish the situation, because these fears are real. Also, if you are a cisgender therapist, there is no way to fully understand what your client is going through. It is best not to try to relate or use comparisons to other marginalized communities. I have heard of individuals telling their therapists about the fear of shopping, and the therapists suggesting in response to “shop online,” unsolicited advice that comes across as invalidating.
But then what is the right thing to do? First, validate the fear, which is constantly present. Ask questions. What does this fear look like to them? How does it show up in their lives? Secondly, address the fear and help empower your client to find ways to protect themselves. While we do not teach our clients physical self-defense techniques, we can certainly teach them mental defenses. Find positive self-talk and coping techniques when encountering non-life threatening yet mentally damaging situations. Third, help your client devise safety plans and locate resources. Is there someone they can call any time of the day, or put on alert when they are encountering any new or potentially triggering situation? Is there an emergency line they can reach that they know they can trust? Having access and knowledge to trans-affirmative resources can be life saving.
With all of that said, November is always a difficult month for the transgender community. Whether or not your client is aware of this fear on a daily basis, we cannot deny that the number of deaths we recognize during TDOR and the number of clients facing fear seem to increase annually. November is filled with a constant reminder to be vigilant and that the fight is far from over. As clinicians, we must recognize this and do everything we can to support our clients in the most affirming way possible.
Learn More about working with Transgender and Nonbinary Clients
Chan, S. (2018). A transgender pioneer and activist who was a fixture of Greenwich Village street life. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked-marsha-p-johnson.html
Feinberg, Leslie (1996). Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis. Boston, MA. Beacon Press
Jacobs, S. (2012). DA reopens unsolved 1992 case involving ‘saint of gay life’. New York Daily News. Retrieved from: https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/da-reopens-unsolved-1992-case-involving-saint-gay-life-article-1.1221742