Out On The Couch
(Re)imagining gender through stories
In my first article in this two-part series, I explored and reviewed works created by queer and trans clinicians who approached internalized transphobia from a clinical perspective, and offered actionable steps to dismantle it in the therapeutic space with clients. In this second and final installment, I explore memoirs from TGNB authors–including clinicians, artists, writers, and activists–who offer deep learning about the ways in which the intersections of identity, race, class, sexuality, and gender impact how TGNB people navigate the world.
The beauty of these books lay in their illustration of both the pains and joys of growing into TGNB identities. Their authors reimagine trans stories to be more fluid and person-centered. They reject notions of the classical trans narratives, mostly created by cis folx in positions of power who showcase trans folx’ trauma timeline. These tell a story until a trans person fully transitions to fit back into the binary structure, so that man becomes woman or woman becomes man and is then “self actualized.”
These memoirs provide alternative narratives of trans stories, celebrating trans folx’ experience and speaking to the truth of internalized transphobia. Furthermore, these resources shed light on how TGNB folx are treated as a monolith in clinical training and academic articles. They bring greater awareness to the many ways of being and expressing one’s TGNB identity by sharing with us how there is no one way to do or express gender.
The authors of the books I reviewed dispel constant media reports that are often overwhelmingly negative and contain invalidating messages about the trans community that serve to feed into and spread internalized transphobia (Rood et al., 2017). The mainstream media’s focus on only one type of story about TGNB people is an example of what Tobia (2019) calls “the limits of cisgender imagination.”
Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon–a gender non-conforming writer who uses they/them pronouns–provides a prime example of how the personal is political when it comes to TGNB folx living in our Western context. The book brings to light the everyday experiences of non-binary folx, from going to the grocery store to spending time with friends. Vaid-Menon explores the pain of having to censor their beauty- and fashion-related identities, due to the fear that transgressing gender may elicit a violent reaction from individuals outside of LGBTQIA+ community. Non-binary folx have to be on alert to everyday microaggressions we can attribute to a system that rewards conformity rather than creativity (Vaid-Menon, 2020).
Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia, a non-binary writer and actor who also uses they/them pronouns, approaches gender trauma from an intersectional and social justice lens. Tobia brings awareness to the reader of the harsh punishment faced by TGNB youth until they conform to society’s standards of male and female, and of how TGNB youth are policed by parents, family members, teachers, and other children to ensure their alignment with the gender binary. Tobia’s humorous approach to the book creates a sense of ease in learning about both the challenges they confronted and their success in their non-binary journey from childhood to early adulthood at Duke College. They also illustrate their internalized transphobia, which manifested as self-hatred. The book explores how there are many ways to be queer, and through their commitment to social justice causes, Tobia is passionate about ensuring other TGNB folx have the chance to live their most authentic lives.
Tobia and Vaid-Menon as non-binary/genderfluid folx have been what gender therapist and writer Dara Hoffman-Fox (2017) may define as “hands-off mentors” to me: TGNB folx to whom I look up and consider role models in learning and understanding my own experiences as a non-binary artist, clinician, and person. They provide insight into, and describe similar pain in reckoning with, the sadness of being forced into binary systems. We and our clients face situations that range from invalidating to dangerous–from choosing between gendered restrooms to lacking adequate identification markers on our driver’s licenses. Our capitalist health insurance systems force both clinicians and clients into checking off binary boxes, furthering the notion that being TGNB is some kind of preference. This is illustrated by the GOP’s outrageous and repeated transphobic attacks on youth, entailing attempts to pass bills in numerous states across the country that would interfere with the rights of young people and their families to make their own medical decisions in conjunction with their providers.
Intersectional perspectives in TGNB stories
It is crucial for clinicians to consider how intersectional experiences of gender, race, and class shape violence against the TGNB folx with whom we work (Babine et al., 2019). These memoirs remind us to recognize the specific threats faced by QTBIPOC (queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), specifically Black trans women, who are disproportionately targeted by white supremacist and transphobic violence.
Fairest by trans writer Merideth Tulsan (she/they pronouns) speaks directly to an intersectional experience of being trans, Filipino, immigrant, and albino, and to the privilege of being white-passing. Tulsan’s trans memoir illustrates the limits of the imagination of Western society’s perceptions of gender, and of the constant trauma inflicted upon TGNB folx in America inflamed by internalized transphobia in our society. They speak to their pre-colonial two-spirited indigenous ancestors Bakla, who in their culture are male-bodied people who live as women and who are pillars of their society. This aspect of the text speaks powerfully to the historical roots of TGNB folx, who have long existed, and to the negative impact colonization–which to this day continues to attempt to erase TGNB folx from the fabric of society–has had on our communities.
In Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, trans womxn social worker Kai Cheng Thom takes the idea of a trans narrative and completely reshapes it into a fictionalized coming of age memoir filled with mermaids, magic, zombies, and collective trans love. Through the lens of a fairytale, Thom portrays a radical trans Asian girl protagonist who runs away from an abusive city of gloom and joins a vigilante girl gang called the Lipstick Lacerators, who become her chosen family. The story speaks to the many TGNB youths who have to leave their abusive homes out of safety concerns and to be able to live their authentic genders. The memoir brings to light the tragic reality of the violence trans womxn of color face in our society as a result of internalized transphobia, transmisogyny, police brutality, white supremacy, racism, abuse, and sexual exploitation.
Both Tulsan and Cheng, through their intersectional perspectives, offer clinicians the opportunity to learn more about their clients who hold multiple identities; they remind us that there is no “one size fits all” approach to working with TGNB community members. These books can serve as important tools for clinicians to deepen their understanding of intersectionality. Their authors, with their formidable presence on social media, may themselves become hands-off mentors to readers seeking connection and inspiration.
Take-Aways for queer clinicians
Internalized transphobia is inextricably linked to oppression, white supremacy, and power. With this information from the workbooks, stories, and memoirs reviewed in this article series, we are presented with the opportunity to cultivate a greater awareness of internalized transphobia. We are given more tools and language that can help us stand up against transphobia, ending our (perhaps unwitting) complicity in a system of oppression that harms TGNB folx. A through-line in all of these memoirs is how transphobic and racist policies are being greenlighted by bias and discrimination authorized at the local, state, and federal levels. Our previous administration’s flow of constant disinformation about TGNB folx fanned the flames of transphobia. I ask my fellow clinicians to hold our new Biden and Harris administration accountable for rolling back the hate-filled policies affecting our TGNB community, and to demand inclusion and equity in all aspects of society.
To combat transphobia in mental health care, we must demand that other clinicians recognize transphobia, even if others are unaware of their engagement in it (Levy, 2020). This means no more dead TGNB folx as a result of inequitable access to basic human rights created by a transphobic society. Clinicians must be cognizant of how transphobia, whether internalized or not, prevents progress in therapeutic relationships with our TGNB clients. When we confront transphobia head-on, we create a shift in perspective and progress toward a more inclusive mental health care system for our TGNB clients (Morrison, 2019).
As a non-binary clinician, I am aware that there are many aspects of TGNB community to which I cannot relate–but I must act as a radical ally for trans folx by owning my mistakes, examining my privileges, advocating for the community, and always grounding my mental health care practice in empathy. All of the workbooks and memoirs I reviewed offer clinicians more expansive and creative ways in which to offer affirmative care to our TGNB clients. In our efforts to stay updated with best practices in working with LGBTQIA+ community members, it is imperative for clinicians to continue learning and creating safe and affirmative spaces for our queer and trans clients. With our knowledge, we can move forward in continuing to dismantle heterosexist and cissexist practices in mental health care.
Homie by Danez Smith
Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity by Micah Rajunov and A. Scott Duane
I HOPE WE CHOOSE LOVE: A Trans Girl’s Notes From the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver
PET by Akwaeke Emez
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Trans Teen Survival Guide by Owl and Fox Fisher
Trans + Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You by Kathryn Gonzales, MBA, and Karen Rayne, PhD
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Babine, A., Torho, S. S., Fizpatrick, O., Kolodkin, S. R., & Daly, L. (March 2019). Dismantling Stigma in the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community. The New York Transgender Advocacy Group.
Hoffman-Fox, D. (2017). You and your gender identity: A guide to discovery. Skyhorse Publishing.
Levy, V. (2020). Exploring my Identity(ies): Interactive. Self Published.
Morrison, L. (2019). Facing Fragility: The Burden of Cisgender Fragility.
Talusan, M. (2020). Fairest: A memoir. Viking.
Tobia, J. (2019). Sissy: A coming-of-gender story. G.P. Putnam’s Son.
Vaid-Menon, A. (2020). Beyond the gender binary: Penguin Workshop.
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By now, we are all experiencing the impact of the ubiquitous trauma and stress surrounding COVID-19 in some way. What might have started with a distal awareness of the problem quickly snapped to a reality that the world will forever be changed by this virus. You might have also noticed the varying “stages of grief” through which our clients and we ourselves are shifting, the unfortunate stage of denial being the one that has caused the most irrevocable damage to the world.
On the one hand, many may find the universality of this experience comforting–it is rare that everyone on the planet understands the same thing to some degree. The current situation presents a valuable opportunity for emotional validation and a sense of common humanity (i.e., increased self-compassion due to awareness of the common human experience of suffering). It often takes personal experience and connection to a situation to increase empathy and compassion, and we are seeing a lot of that right now.
On the other hand, I wish there was this strong of an empathic connection and worldwide response to problems like climate change, the murder of black and brown bodies, and the impact of capitalism on class disparities. Interestingly, each of these intersects with the effects of COVID-19, especially the disparity of the impact on (and deaths of) black folks in our country.
No matter how we process and move through this situation, many feel its impact as a trauma. While we work to validate our clients’ experiences and help them make sense of something entirely unprecedented, it is also important to remember that this situation impacts different people very differently. The disparities affecting various marginalized populations are amplified during this time. It is crucial to acknowledge the potentially devastating impact on the LGBTQIA+ community, especially on transgender and gender nonbinary (TGNB) individuals, many of whom are no strangers to trauma and grief. More background on this can be found in The Affirmative Couch’s course Gender Minority Stress and Resilience in Transgender and Gender Nonbinary Clients.
How our LGBTQIA+ clients might experience a compounded impact of grief and/or trauma related to COVID-19:
Physical distancing in unsafe and/or unaffirming living situations due to quarantine
- College students who were suddenly asked to leave campus
- Those in domestic violence or other abusive home environments
- People who have not disclosed or come out to their families/housemates
Social isolation due to the pandemic
- Being physically distant from one’s chosen family or an affirming environment (e.g., at a university)
- Being unable to explore communities or experiences that might be affirming, such as closed, limited, or postponed LGBTQIA+ centers and Pride month activities
Lack of resources to access safe space and online support for LGBTQIA+ Clients
- Limited resources to pay for stronger Internet connection, or lack of multiple devices
- Lack of privacy or safe space to seek online support or therapeutic help
- Food, housing, or job insecurity during this time
COVID-19 factors specific to TGNB people
- Canceled or postponed lifesaving gender-affirming surgeries
- Barriers to beginning gender-affirming hormones, monitoring bloodwork, and receiving preventative affirming healthcare
- Risk of misgendering via phone/video and distress/dysphoria of seeing one’s face via video conference
- Inability to affirm one’s gender expression due to lack of support and/or awareness of other household members
- Limited or no access to gender-affirming haircuts (i.e., hair can make or break someone’s experience of dysphoria on a given day)
- Increased body insecurity and disordered eating in response to the fatphobia strengthened by this crisis; you can read more about this in my article At the Intersection of Fat & Trans
How therapists can help our LGBTQIA+ clients during the coronavirus crisis:
The impact of each of these concerns is amplified for those with intersecting marginalized identities related to, for instance, race, class, ability, and mental/physical health status. To make matters worse, many of our clients experience anticipatory grief for the continued losses ahead as well as for the uncertainty of when things will “return to normal.” Here are some ways in which we might help our LGBTQIA+ clients, especially members of the TGNB community, to navigate this situation and find ways to practice self-compassion, gratitude, and hope.
Supporting LGBTQIA+ Clients with boundaries during the pandemic
This is not an “opportunity” for people to do the things for which they don’t usually have time. “Productivity porn” is shame-inducing for many who are experiencing this situation as a trauma. It is okay to limit time spent on consuming the news and social media. To paraphrase an important sentiment, this is not just remote work. You are at home during a pandemic crisis and attempting to work.
Providing validation for LGBTQIA+ clients
Acknowledge to your clients that employing all self-care strategies possible still may not help beyond simply keeping them afloat during this time. Surviving a traumatic experience takes an extreme emotional and physical toll, and it’s okay if clients’ eating habits and bodies change, if they sleep more than usual, and if they struggle to get work done.
Helping LGBTQIA+ Clients Develop Self-compassion
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for our clients to be mindful and self-compassionate. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and behaviors emerge during this time make sense given the impact of collective traumas. Even if someone acts in a way that is inconsistent with their values, they are still worthy of self-nurturance and connection. You can learn more about these concepts through The Affirmative Couch’s course Helping Transgender and Gender Nonbinary Young Adults Develop Self-Compassion.
Finding and Celebrating little moments of joy and gratitude with LGBTQIA+ clients
- Ask clients to reflect on a vulnerable moment where they were able to nurture themselves or others
- What was one show/movie/podcast/song that made them smile or laugh?
- What is one thing they’re looking forward to in the upcoming week?
- What are three things about the past week for which they felt most grateful?
- Direct them to some of the many inspirational, hopeful, and positive ways in which people have been expressing themselves and creating via social media.
Finding meaning and connection
- Can clients volunteer virtually? Reach out to someone who is more isolated? Offer to drop off groceries for an elderly neighbor?
- What creative talents might be employed to help others?
- Engage clients in storytelling and/or writing–expressive writing exercises like these can be particularly useful–to help work through their feelings
- If they have financial resources, what organizations might benefit from their support?
- Connect virtually with supportive others, especially in spaces that are queer- and trans-affirming. Balance their socializing with meaningful conversation and moments of fun
- Help your clients explore whether local or statewide LGBTQIA+ organizations are running online groups and support spaces, and/or offering other forms of connection
Looking for Hope for the future (i.e., not focused on a specific time when things return to “normal”)
- Who is the first person a client can’t wait to hug again?
- What restaurant are they excited to go to first?
- For students, how will it feel to step back onto campus again?
- What is the first event/trip/appointment they’re looking forward to rescheduling?
A final note: These points are important for clinicians to keep in mind as well. We need these reminders now more than ever. Most of us are not at our best right now, and it is foolish to pretend to our clients that we are. This is a time for us to hold that we are all human, and that authenticity models for our clients why it is important to be less hard on themselves for struggling. At the very least, consider reading this “Dear Therapists” blog post.
Berinato, S. (2020, Mar 23). That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief
Thebault, R., Tran, A.B., & Williams, V. (2020, Apr 7). The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/?arc404=true
Patton, S. (2020, Apr 11). The pathology of American racism is making the pathology of the coronavirus worse. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/11/coronavirus-black-america-racism/
Tucker, M. (2019). Gender minority stress & resilience in TGNB clients. Retrieved from: https://affirmativecouch.com/product/gender-minority-stress-and-resilience-in-transgender-and-gender-nonbinary-clients/
Tucker, M. (2019) At the intersection of fat & trans. The Affirmative Couch. Retrieved from: https://affirmativecouch.com/at-the-intersection-of-fat-trans/
Ahmad, A. (2020, Mar 27). Why you should ignore coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-You-Should-Ignore-All-That/248366
Tucker, M. (2019) Helping TGNB young adults develop self-compassion. The Affirmative Couch. Retrieved from: https://affirmativecouch.com/product/helping-transgender-and-gender-nonbinary-young-adults-develop-self-compassion/
Pennebaker, J.W., Blackburn, K., Ashokkumar, A., Vergani, L., & Seraj, S. (2020). Feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic: Expressive writing can help. The Pandemic Project. Retrieved from: http://exw.utpsyc.org/#tests
Katy (2020, Mar 21). Dear therapists. Navigating Uncertainty Blog. Retrieved from: https://navigatinguncertaintyblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/21/dear-therapists/
Learn affirmative therapy from M. Tucker, PsyD