Out On The Couch
COVID-19 & (Re)claiming Gender
As a non-binary, genderqueer, and trans femme therapist myself, I have encountered my own fair share of microaggressions related to gender identity. During the pandemic, I have witnessed many people for the first time in their lives take a break from performing gender in a way society deems acceptable. As a result, many folx are exploring their gender identity and expression more than ever before. Many clients have questions and self-doubt about who they are with respect to their gender identity and/or gender expression. However, this is an aspect of mental health that is under-researched and is often overlooked in the graduate training of therapists, both masters and doctoral.
Because many clinicians lack in-depth training with regards to working with gender expansive people, many clients encounter harm in session. For example, being misgendered is just one of many microaggressions that occur in therapy sessions with gender expansive clients. For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing primarily on nine common microaggressions experienced by non-binary people in the therapy setting.
Before we delve into this important topic, let’s take a moment to define some key terms. Cisgender is in reference to a person who’s sex assigned at birth matches their gender. Endosex refers to people whose sex characteristics meet medical and social norms for typically ‘male’ or ‘female’ bodies, which is the antonym to intersex. Heterosexuality refers to sexual and/or romantic attraction to or between people of the opposite sexes assigned at birth.
Transgender is an an umbrella term covering a range of identities that transgress socially defined gender norms. Additionally, transgender can refer to a person who lives as a member of a gender other than the one expected based on their biological sex assigned at birth. Non-binary is also an umbrella term covering any and all gender identities that do not fall exclusively in man/male or woman/female categories. And, non-binary refers to a person whose gender identity and or expression exists between or outside the rigid gender binary system.
But first… Microaggressions – What’s that?
The term microaggression was originally coined by Dr. Chester Middlebrook Pierce, who was an African American psychiatrist and Harvard University professor who died in September of 2016 (Sue & Spanierman, 2020). Early research focused on racial microaggressions, but has since been expanded to create a series of classification for most existing systems of oppression. Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward people with marginalized identities (Sue & Spanierman, 2020; Sue et al., 2007).
Nadal (2013) wrote the book That’s So Gay! Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. This book is one of the first of its kind to make academic literature both accessible to a wide audience. Also, Nadal (2013) offered strategies to make the world a better place for queer and gender expansive people. Furthermore, Nadal (2013) provided distinctions between microaggressions based on sexual orientation as compared to gender identity.
Of the microaggressions highlighted for transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people, the book identified ten distinct classifications (Nadal, 2013).
Why should I care about this topic?
Non-binary folx continue to encounter harm and rejection both for cisgender and transgender communities. TGNC folx experience higher rates of gender-based victimization than cis- individuals, and the highest rates of suicidality of any group (Testa et al., 2015). Additionally, TGNC folx report significantly more negative clinical encounters in therapy (Levitt & Ippolitto, 2014). Lastly, gender identity microaggressions have been associated with therapeutic dissatisfaction, reduced ability to establish a therapeutic alliance, and early dropout from therapy (Spatrisano, 2019).
So what gender based microaggressions are happening to non-binary folx in therapy?
I came to learn through my own consultations with prospective therapy clients that I wasn’t alone in my experiences of encountering gender based microaggressions. Although I don’t believe that all of the following microaggressions were intentionally meant to harm non-binary clients, it’s important to center the impact of our questions and statements as clinicians. The following common microaggressions occur to non-binary folx in therapeutic encounters:
In the following sections I will briefly explain why each of these examples is microaggressive. Alternative tips will also be provide for how to ask more affirming questions to non-binary folx.
This is the most common form of microaggression that happens both within and outside therapeutic spaces. Misgendering is when language is used that does not correctly reflect the gender with which the person identifies. This can include using a person’s “dead name” or name given at birth when the client has specifically requested that the clinician not do so. Additionally, misgendering emerges with the misuse of pronouns, whether the client is present or not. Non-binary folx experience misgendering countless times throughout the day. This can occur on the phone, in an email, while “politely” holding the door for someone, and so many other interactions. McLemore’s (2014) study indicated that non-binary folx, and people who had taken fewer steps in the transition process, were most likely to be misgendered.
What can a therapist do when misgendering happens? Firstly, I encourage folx to not make any assumptions about honorifics (Mr., Mrs., Mx.) and routinely check in with clients about pronouns. Secondly, it’s helpful to practice not using gender language and this may require an accountability buddy, which is something I continue to engage in myself. Thirdly, avoid using passive language such as: “X identifies as” and “X prefers” as this robs the person autonomy over their own identity. Lastly, make a brief apology, correct yourself, and set an intention to gender a person correctly two or three times in a follow-up sentence.
2. If you’re not a man, woman, or trans, then what are you?
This microaggression both invalidates and insults a non-binary persons lived experience. Gender is a construct, made up to control and classify people. Many non-binary folx reject the construct of the gender binary entirely. Asking a person, “what are you,” is cruel considering the fact that we are all simply humans. A more affirming question here could be, “how would you classify your gender identity and/or gender expression?” and “who are you, in terms of your gender?” Additionally, you may ask the client, “Would you be willing to share with me your experience exploring your gender and where you find yourself today?” With each of these suggestions, you allow the client the opportunity to self-identify and open up a dialogue about the client’s lived experience. As clinicians, it’s important that we do not restrict our client’s ability to explore. Above all, I encourage all therapists and wellness providers to center curiosity.
3. That (insert gender identity or neo-pronouns) sounds made up.
Woah! This one hurts to type. I like to remind folx that gender inherently is a fabricated classification system. Though for many non-binary, transgender, and gender expansive people, out lives are only just beginning to feel like our own. New terms for gender identity continue to emerge daily. A client once said in a group session, “I bet there are as many gender identities as people in the world, because we all experience life differently.” I couldn’t agree more with this comment. It would be more helpful to say something like, “I have never heard of the gender identity or pronouns you just mentioned, would you be willing to talk to me about how you define this gender identity or pronouns?” Or you may elect to offer to do research on your own time outside of session to spare your client from having to educate you, the clinician.
Though new terms like gendervague and genderfuck continue to emerge, the definitions of each of these terms will vary depending on who you ask. Neo-pronoun, or new pronouns, also continue to emerge as an outlet for non-binary folx to replace their name with a non-gendered word. Some common examples of neo-pronouns include:
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably going to need some practice using these in a sentence. Find a friend to practice with or try out this helpful website.
4. Did you have the surgery?
Eek! It’s important to note that there are numerous gender affirming medical procedures that gender expansive people can pursue. There is no ONE surgery that all non-binary folx undergo. For many non-binary folx, there is no interest in pursuing gender affirming medical procedures. While others may elect to engage in one or many gender affirming medical procedures.
As a clinician, I urge you to first ask yourself whether you ask your endosex, cisgender and heterosexual clients about their medical history. If you do not, then ask yourself why you feel entitled to ask your non-binary client this question? Two affirming questions could include: (1) what forms of transition are part of your path; and (2) have you considered gender affirming medical procedures to affirm your gender identity and/or gender expression?
Types of Transitions
With respect to transitions, they are not necessary to be a non-binary person. They are also not necessary for binary transgender people either! However, there are three distinct types of transition that could be a part of a client’s gender journey: (1) social transition, (2) legal transition, and (3) medical transition.
Firstly, social transition is in reference to the ways in which a person identifies and presents their gender in public. Some aspects of social transition include, choice of clothing and/or makeup, changing one’s name, selecting pronouns, tucking, packing, binding, and coming out.
Secondly, legal transition is in reference to the ways in which a person actualized their gender through updating legal documents. These documents can include a person’s name, social security number, birth certificate, passport and driver’s license.
Lastly, medical transition is in reference to the various procedures available to folx to actualize their gender. Some common procedures may include surgery, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), vocal training, laser hair procedures, and fertility preservation.
Please respect your client’s right to privacy as non-binary folx are often encountering invasive questions related to their body from all directions. Historically and through stereotypical media portrayals of gender expansive people, transgender and non-binary bodies have been labeled perverse, odd, and unusual for far too long. If you don’t ask your endosex, cisgender and heterosexual clients about their body parts, then why do you feel entitled to do so with non-binary clients?
Furthermore, I urge you to validate and normalize the response of “I don’t know” from a client in your care. I have found that this can be challenging for client’s to say as there are so many societal pressures to have answers. As a result, modeling and normalizing that not having an answer is acceptable can be incredibly validating to non-binary clients.
Also, it is important to mirror the language of your client when discussing aspects of the client’s physical body. I suggest asking, “how will we refer to the insert body part?”
5. How are you non-binary if you aren’t androgynous?
Just like there is no one way to look like a cisgender woman or man, there is no right way to look non-binary. This question is incredibly harmful as many non-binary folx experience imposter syndrome. Additionally, most non-binary folx experience discomfort or dysphoria due to being perceived as a cisgender person. Being androgynous is only one way in which the vastness of non-binary gender expression is embodied. Many non-binary folx experience and express their gender more fluidly.
Instead of reinforcing a false narrative of how to be a non-binary person, consider empowering your client. You may ask, “how do you embody and affirm your gender?” Or you may ask, “what makes you feel most like your fully embodied self?” Sometimes these questions will open a door of exploration and other times clients will find themselves unable to answer. If your client has no answer, I would invite you to ask them if they’d be willing to explore this with you. Furthermore, I will sometimes offer to lead a client through a creative arts or visualization exercise. This offers the opportunity for the client to move away from traditional language and engage their playful imagination.
6. It sounds like your (insert gender identity) is a product of your past trauma.
Ouch! Whether or not there could be truth to this statement, no one can go back and rewrite their history. Instead of focusing on how the past may or may not have caused a person to become gender expansive, why not focus on the now? So many non-binary folx feel disempowered and therapy is an intentional space to reclaim that power. Getting caught up in the what ifs of the past prevents clients from becoming more assured of themself in the present.
It can be powerful to validate a client’s past lived traumatic experience. I also encourage you as a clinician to assist your non-binary client with cultivating self-esteem. You might say something like, “Your past experiences have shaped the person you are today, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to know the person you’re becoming (or you have become).” Embolden your client to lead the conversation and connect to their past, if and only if that’s their own desire. Otherwise, continue to center the here-and-now of their gender journey.
7. Are you sure? I know being non-binary is trendy now.
This comment is loaded for a variety of reasons. Firstly, many folx are currently exploring their gender and identifying as non-binary for many may be the first step on that journey. Secondly, some experience gender as an aspect of self in constant movement and evolution. Thirdly, whether or not being non-binary is trendy or not, we need to reclaim our gender expansive history.
Gender diverse people have existed throughout history such as the First Nations, two spirit and Hijras, who are officially recognized as a third gender in India. Additionally, you may want to learn more about the transgender history in the U.S. and globally as well as the history of trans health care in the United States. And if you haven’t already started, it’s never too late to explore your own gender identity and gender expression in greater depth.
8. Making the assumption that all non-binary people want to talk about in therapy is gender.
There are certainly a vast number of people seeking therapy at this time to explore their gender. Then there is a large number of non-binary folx who are more confident in who they are and are seeking therapy for alternative reasons. Many non-binary folx express in consultations that their previous therapist would only ask questions about the client’s gender identity. This stifles our clients ability to be fully human and process the vastness that is the human experience.
Instead of assuming that non-binary and gender expansive clients want to discuss gender, perhaps you will ask what they would like to focus one. I, like many therapists, offer an intake questionnaire, which serves to allow the client to self-determine goals for therapy. Some clients are seeking an affirming provider with or without lived experience, but with the purpose of processing depression, anxiety, trauma, substance use, life transitions, and so much more. I can’t stress enough how important it is to allow your client to have control over their therapy goals. It also helps to add to your intake forms a place to add pronouns, salient identities, and chosen names.
9. Using words such as normal and regular as synonyms for cisgender, endosex and heterosexuality.
This is a prime example of systemic microaggressions. We have all been socialized in a world that assumes heterosexuality and cisgenderism as the baseline. There is nothing odd, unusual, or irregular about being gender expansive. For most, actualizing their non-binary gender identity and/or expression is a liberating experience. In short, this example upholds systems of oppression that harm everyone.
I recommend that all therapists engage in implicit bias exercises to identify the ways we internalize gender, gender roles, and gender expectations. The following three books are incredible resources:
- A Clinician’s Guide to Gender-Affirming Care: Working with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients
- The Queer and Transgender Resilience Workbook: Skills for Navigating Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression
- You and Your Gender Identity: A Guide to Discovery.
As clinicians, we can only go with clients where we have dared to venture ourselves.
I microaggressed my client – What do I do?
As humans, we all have the ability to harm. Apologies are opportunities to take accountability; however, refrain from lengthy apologies. When apologizing, center the harm and avoid providing an excuse for your intentions. I have and continue to make mistakes as a therapist. I welcome these experiences as opportunities to deepen the therapeutic relationship. Therefore, these instances are opportunities to collaborate and empower our clients to identify their needs.
I am also a fierce advocate for therapists engaging in their own therapy and supervision. These can certainly be expensive endeavors, but so important for our own growth both personally and professionally. For example, seek out or create peer supervision groups. Obtain adequate training from folx of lived experience with regards to providing affirming care to TGNC clients. Lastly, please Please PLEASE avoid advertising yourself as a gender affirming provider until you’ve gained specialized training.
Bergner, D. (2021, July 23). The Struggles of Rejecting the Gender Binary. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/magazine/gender-nonbinary.html?auth=login-google
Chang, S. C., Singh, A. A., & dickey, l. m. (2018). A Clinician’s Guide to Gender-Affirming Care: Working with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients (1st ed.). Context Press.
Hoffman-Fox, D. (2017). You and your gender identity: A guide to discovery. Skyhorse Publishing.
Indug. (2018, October 29). India’s Relationship with the Third Gender. UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog. https://sites.uab.edu/humanrights/2018/10/29/indias-relationship-with-the-third-gender/
Levitt, H. M., & Ippolito, M. R. (2014). Being transgender: The experience of transgender identity development. Journal of Homosexuality, 61(12), 1727–1758. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2014.951262
McLemore, K. A. (2014). Experiences with Misgendering: Identity Misclassification of Transgender Spectrum Individuals. Self and Identity, 14(1), 51–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2014.950691
Nadal, K. (2013). That’s So Gay!: Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community (Perspectives on Sexual Orientation and Diversity) (1st ed.). American Psychological Association.
Singh, A. A. (2018). The Queer and Transgender Resilience Workbook (Skills for Navigating Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression) (1st ed.). New Harbinger Publications.
Spatrisano, J. (2019, August). Microaggressions Towards Gender Diverse Therapy Clients and the Mediating Effects of Repair Attempts on the Therapeutic Process (No. 13903396). ProQuest LLC. https://www.proquest.com/openview/628748913234c0faf3ae03f578067f7c/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Stryker, S. (2017). Transgender History, second edition: The Roots of Today’s Revolution (Seal Studies) (2nd ed.). Seal Press.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.62.4.271
Sue, D. W., & Spanierman, L. B. (2020). Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2nd ed.). Wiley.
Testa, R. J., Habarth, J., Peta, J., Balsam, K., & Bockting, W. (2015). Development of the Gender Minority Stress and Resilience Measure. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 2(1), 65–77. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fsgd0000081
Two-Spirit. (n.d.). Indian Health Service: The Federal Health Program for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from https://www.ihs.gov/lgbt/health/twospirit/
Yee, N. & Gonzalez, M. (2021). History of Transgender Inequality in Health Care – THINQ at UCLA. Medium. https://medium.com/thinq-at-ucla/history-of-transgender-inequality-in-health-care-77e5370fd939
LGBTQIA+ Affirmative Mental Health During the Pandemic
The stress and anxiety wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic may be universal–so many of us face fears of the virus itself, not to mention job loss, illness striking our loved ones, and myriad missed social, professional, and financial opportunities–but all of us experience these differently. Just as everyone’s mental health needs are unique, therapy is not one size fits all. LGBTQIA+ clients in particular need to work with therapists who can understand and validate the unique experiences impacting their emotional wellbeing. Although no one is immune to the detrimental psychosocial effects of the pandemic, LGBTQIA+ clients can face some identity-specific challenges that make affirmative therapy especially crucial at this time.
Affirmative Psychotherapy & Unsupportive Families During the Lockdowns
These include extended time with family of origin and overall decreased social interaction. Pandemic-induced social isolation can hit LGBTQIA+ individuals harder, as many queer and trans people have strained relationships with their families of origin and thus rely heavily on friendships and chosen families for support. Being stuck in toxic family environments due to the pandemic, and enduring sustained lack of contact with friends, can constitute a dangerous combination for any client. LGBTQIA+ people living with family members who don’t respect their gender identity or sexuality may find their mental health negatively affected. This experience can also contribute to dysphoria and has been linked to substance abuse (Newcomb, 2019).
Affirmative Therapy & Lack of Social Connections During COVID-19
Further, lack of social connection is linked to suicidality, for which LGBTQIA+ populations are already at higher risk (Kaniuka, 2019). Prolonged feelings of loneliness can be self-perpetuating; when we feel disconnected, we might start to doubt our ability to connect with others, and we avoid opportunities for socializing out of fear. Happily, ongoing therapy sessions with a therapist who “gets it” and makes us feel seen can serve as a form of connection and help break the cycle of isolation. As we know well, the therapist’s office should be the one place in which clients don’t have to worry about appearing awkward or facing judgment. It can serve as a safer space in which a client can brush up on rusty social skills and build confidence.
Finally, more free time and solitude can make space for greater self-reflection, which may in turn bring up complex emotions in clients just discovering their sexuality and/or gender identity. It’s important for therapists to welcome discussions of these realizations with curiosity and validating support, whether we fully understand them or not. Other difficult topics that can emerge during extended periods of solitude and self-reflection–the trauma related to minority stress that so many LGBTQIA+ people face, for instance–may be challenging to navigate on one’s own but can provide rich fodder for the virtual therapy room as well.
Training in Affirmative Therapy
Simply put, now more than ever, LGBTQIA+ clients need therapists who can treat them without bias. They may be coming into sessions with a lot of self-doubt about their gender identity and/or sexuality. They may have wanted support before now, but perhaps did not feel confident approaching a provider due to the double stigma of being LGBTQIA+ and having a mental health condition. If you are an affirmative provider who is welcoming a client like this into your practice, congratulations on ensuring a safer space. Taking the time to get training in best practices for working with LGBTQIA+ communities makes you an invaluable resource for clients and a genuine lifeline during this unbelievably challenging time.
Alessi, E. J., Dillon, F. R., & Van Der Horn, R. (2019). The therapeutic relationship mediates the association between affirmative practice and psychological well-being among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer clients. Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill.), 56(2), 229–240. http://doi.apa.org/getdoi.cfm?doi=10.1037/pst0000210
Feder, S., Isserlin, L., Hammond, N. Norris, M., & Seale, E. (2017). Exploring the association between eating disorders and gender dysphoria in youth, Eating Disorders, The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 25:4, 310-317, DOI: 10.1080/10640266.2017.1297112
Johnson, K., Vilceanu, M. O., & Pontes, M. C. (2017). Use of Online Dating Websites and Dating Apps: Findings and Implications for LGB Populations. Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness, 11(3). Retrieved from https://articlegateway.com/index.php/JMDC/article/view/1623
Kaniuka, A., Pugh, K. C., Jordan, M., Brooks, B., Dodd, J., Mann, A. K., … & Hirsch, J. K. (2019). Stigma and suicide risk among the LGBTQ population: Are anxiety and depression to blame and can connectedness to the LGBTQ community help? Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 23(2), 205-220.
Newcomb, M.E., LaSala, M.C., Bouris, A.,Mustanski, B., Prado, G., Schrager, S.M., & Huebner, D.M. (2019). The Influence of Families on LGBTQ Youth Health: A Call to Action for Innovation in Research and Intervention Development. LGBT Health, 6:4, 139-145. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1089/lgbt.2018.0157
Keywords: queer, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, impostor syndrome, impostor, cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, core beliefs
I thought I identified one way, but now I’m not sure. What if this really was just a phase?
I’m afraid I won’t like all of the changes medical transition will cause to my body. What if I’m not really trans?
Can I still be bisexual if I’ve never dated someone of the same gender?
Our clients seek therapy for a variety of reasons, but commonly, they are struggling to mitigate their own core beliefs with external influences. These may include family, friends, partners, or society at large–for LGBTQIA+-identified folks, how we see ourselves can often conflict with how the world interprets us. This type of invalidation can lead to self-doubt for many people, even making them question whether they are frauds or impostors. As therapists, our goal is to help clients identify and challenge their negative core beliefs, to challenge these external influences and find internal validation.
The theory of Impostor Syndrome originates from a 1978 paper from Georgia State University that examined the phenomenon in more than 150 “high-achieving women” (Clance & Imes). The authors found that in their psychotherapy practices, women often presented with “scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities,” yet did not report “an internal feeling of success” (Clance & Imes, 1978). Rather, these clients felt like “impostors,” as though they were given undue praise or accolades they did not deserve.
In recent years, Impostor Syndrome has entered the lexicon as a common experience among millennials. A 2013 article by Weir at the American Psychological Association examined the experiences of graduate students and suggested that for many, there is “‘confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.” This attitude is compounded by factors like gender, sexuality, disability, class, and race, with impostor feelings being a strong predictor of future mental health problems among college students of color (Cokley et al., 2013).
Similarly, impostor feelings often pop up in psychotherapy with millennial clients, particularly those with one or more marginalized identities. In our culture, certain roles or industries are often referred to as a “boys’ club”–as these spaces were built by and designed for white, heterosexual, cisgender men, anyone who varies from this norm can feel like they don’t belong. Higher education is just one example of a much more global dynamic.
For LGBTQIA+-identified people, impostor feelings are often less about achievement and more about community. Many people find comfort in the use of labels or identity words–such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, gender non-binary, and more–to describe themselves and their sexuality and gender. For someone who is just starting to explore their identity, finding a community of people who have been where they are can be healing and fulfilling. But what if none of the labels fit quite right? Or what if your experience differs from that of your friend, or even of your partner?
Though it is often said that “comparison is the thief of joy,” human beings are prone to noticing the similarities and differences between themselves and others. It can feel isolating to know that how you identify differs greatly from someone else. But this is where we as therapists can employ cognitive behavioral therapy to help our clients change their thinking and develop their senses of internal validation.
One example might be a therapist working with a client who identifies as a cisgender woman and a lesbian. At the first appointment, the client shares, “I’ve only dated women since coming out in college. Lately I’ve noticed myself looking at men differently than before, and it’s confusing. If I’m attracted to guys, am I still a lesbian?”
From what this client is saying, she sees the problem as confusion about her identity. It is worth exploring with the client what being a lesbian means to her, and furthermore, what it would mean if she were to identify differently. Often, this is where impostor feelings start to surface: if I’m not this, then what? I must have been faking. I don’t really belong here.
Using the framework of cognitive behavioral therapy, clarifying the client’s core beliefs about herself can be helpful. These are deeply held feelings that are central to our being, and that influence how we see and interact with the world. Core beliefs can be positive or negative, such as “I am worthy” or “I am unworthy,” “I am safe” or “I am unsafe,” “I am good enough” or “I am not good enough.” For this client, the core belief underlying her impostor feelings may be related to belonging, or feeling like she does not belong in her community of friends–or safety, from feeling like she is on the outside.
After isolating a client’s core beliefs, one CBT intervention that can be utilized would be fact-finding, asking the client to provide as many pieces of evidence as they can why their belief is true or untrue. Using our same example, if this client’s impostor feelings trigger the core belief that she does not belong in her community because she is questioning her identity, the therapist and client can list a number of examples of evidence to the contrary.
“Well, my friends will still be my friends no matter what. They have always supported me. That wouldn’t change,” the client offers. “And even if I did have a boyfriend someday, that wouldn’t make me straight. I wouldn’t think that about somebody else in my position.” By talking through this fact-finding process, the client is starting to challenge and reconstruct her core belief of belongingness. It may also be helpful to have a client write down thoughts, beliefs, and evidence in a journal between sessions. This can be a helpful reflective exercise and also encourage clients to use their coping skills outside of therapy.
Core belief work is not always easy, nor is it a quick fix for impostor feelings. Therapy sometimes makes things worse before they get better, and clients can sometimes unearth deep-seated issues in therapy that take time, effort, and dedication to work through. That does not make their effort any less valuable, however, and small changes in the client’s self-perception should be noticed and praised. There may be certain situations or stages of life in which a client feels old impostor feelings starting to emerge again. When they do, it is important for the client to remember that they have control over their own thoughts and feelings, and that they can reconnect with their positive core beliefs.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.
Cokley, K., Mcclain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development,41(2), 82-95. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x
Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? GradPSYCH, 11, 24. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/e636522013-001
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
I am a fat, queer, able-bodied, neurotypical, white, and cisgender femme person (note: cisgender = my gender is congruent with the gender I was socially assigned). I’m well aware of societal expectations for the way my body should look, to express my gender consistent with white womanhood, and to engage in romantic and sexual relationships in a certain way. I also know that the bar for being seen, respected, and accepted for who I am would be sky high if I was a fat, autistic, disabled, polyamorous, transgender feminine person of color.
Most of the research conducted with people who are fat and/or trans has been with white, able-bodied humans, so any negative impact I discuss related to fat trans folks is likely even more detrimental for people of color and for those with chronic illness and/or disabilities. I write this as a person with privilege who aims to learn more, and educate others about systems of oppression and power, while also advocating for human rights and dignity. I am personally familiar with experiences of fatphobia and sexism, and I have a specialty in counseling trans and gender nonbinary (TGNB) people.
Weight Stigma, Fatphobia, & Microaggressions
When you see a slim person jogging down the road, do you think, “good for them!?” When a slim person walks along the beach in a bikini, do you think, “ugh, they shouldn’t be wearing that!?” When you notice that a slim friend has gained weight, do you say, “oh wow, you’ve gained weight? What are you doing?” I’m guessing most of us don’t, so why would it be OK for us to judge or comment on fat bodies? The short answer: it’s not OK. Basically never. Just like it’s never OK for us to comment on trans and gender non-conforming bodies.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA, 2018) defines weight stigma as discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight (also referred to as sizeism). Weight stigma is known to increase body dissatisfaction, which is a leading risk factor for disordered eating. NEDA clearly states, “the best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.” Many people who struggle with body image and disordered eating got messages along the way that shamed their bodies and/or food choices, suggesting they weren’t good enough just the way they were.
Fatphobia, the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies, is an extension of sizeism. Many of us have learned not only that thin is the ideal, but that being fat is to be avoided like the plague. We are constantly exposed to messages that thin = good and fat = bad (e.g., TV and movies, comments from our parents, health & wellness marketing, conversations with our friends, and health insurance companies offering wellness discounts). Brené Brown’s research found that a) appearance and body image and b) being stereotyped and labeled are two of the 12 most common triggers for shame (Brown, 2007). This hatred and fear of fatness becomes internalized and spreads like wildfire in the ways we talk about ourselves, evaluate ourselves compared to others, and judge others’ bodies and food choices. Three questions you might ask yourself to examine your weight bias are: 1) Do I engage in negative body talk? 2) How do I feel about bodies of different sizes? and 3) How do I feel about the concept of weight gain for myself? (Chastain, 2018).
We can’t talk about stigma and fatphobia without also talking about microaggressions, which Sue (2010) defined as “commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative insults to a target person or group.” The very nature of microaggressions is that they are often unintentional and unacknowledged slights, leaving the recipient to process those thousands of tiny moments that invalidate that person’s very existence.
For example, when someone says to a friend who has lost weight, “wow, you look great,” it is thinly veiled as a compliment that covers up the deeper diet culture judgment, “your body is more desirable now that it is thinner.” When someone watching you eat X food says, “I don’t eat X – it’s bad for you,” what it really suggests is, “be careful eating that food – you wouldn’t want to become fat and/or unhealthy. In fact, the conflation of weight with health and “concern for health” is one of the more common ways that people (especially health providers) justify weight-related microaggressions. Sadly, what often gets in the way of health for fat folks is the very structural oppression they face by those who believe people are unhealthy because they are fat (Lee & Pausé, 2016).
At the Intersection of Fat & Trans
When we talk about the above concepts in relation to fatness, they also hold true for other identities that experience oppression, e.g., race, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. TGNB folks experience transphobia, cissexism, cis-heteronormative expectations, and pressures to fit into (white) binary understandings of gender, i.e., what it supposedly means to be a man or a woman. Because TGNB people are often valued based on how well their bodies “fit in” to these expectations, it follows that they would also be held to standards of body size, shape, and weight. Adding weight stigma to the other pressures that a TGNB person experiences along with their own struggles with their body is like a shaken soda bottle of oppression waiting to explode.
Here are several ways that a TGNB person might experience the cumulative and harmful effects of sizeism and fatphobia in the context of their transness:
- A trans masculine person eats as little as possible to shrink his body and appear more androgynous by reducing the width of his hips & the size of his chest
- A nonbinary person hesitates to go to the gynecologist for worsening pelvic pain, because when they initially brought it up, the doctor said the pain was weight-related.
- A transfeminine person fears going out on a date, because she can’t blend enough with her large belly.
- An agender person has to search endlessly for affordable clothing that both fits their large body and also feels congruent with their gender.
- A genderqueer person wants to fly without drawing attention to themself, but they face ridicule when going through the security body scanners and then are looked at with disgust while walking down the airplane aisle due to their body size.
- A trans woman’s doctor does not refer her to get treatment for her Anorexia, because he reasons that restriction might help her to lose weight.
- A trans adolescent is extremely uncomfortable in their body due to the compounded effects of going through puberty as a fat person.
- A pregnant trans man gets mistaken for being fat and doesn’t get the emergency medical care he needs (note: an article was recently published about this exact situation at usatoday.com).
- A trans person arrives for their consultation appointment for gender affirming surgery, but the armchairs in the waiting room are too small for them to fit, the exam room table cannot hold their weight, and they soon find out that the surgeon has a maximum BMI requirement.
- A trans college student gets the courage to go to the gym and build muscle for his upcoming top surgery, but then is fat shamed by other students at the fitness center.
It is so crucial to be mindful of the ways in which weight stigma and fatphobia intersect with the policing of trans and nonbinary bodies. Don’t trans folks already have enough to worry about with their internal struggles to find peace and affirmation with their bodies? Why do we pile on societal constructions of what they should and shouldn’t look like, that they should and shouldn’t eat, and pressures to modify their bodies to be more feminine (i.e., thin and curvy in the “right” places) or masculine (i.e., thin and muscular)? Why do we expect TBNB people to not only modify their bodies to societal standards, but to do it without developing an eating disorder or increasing hatred toward themselves? We need to do better in making space for TGNB folks of ALL sizes, shapes, expressions, and food preferences. Everybody and every body is worthy of respect and human dignity.
The Greater Impact
The impact of sizeism and fatphobia are pervasive and insidious. For example, adolescents who are teased for their weight are 2-3x more likely to consider and attempt suicide (Eisenburg et al. 2003). TGNB folks, especially transfeminine people and people of color, are significantly impacted by the pressure to fit into gender appearance ideals (i.e., white, light skinned, thin, & young with straight hair; Patton, 2006) that reflect the binary norms of femininity or masculinity.
Here are some ways that TGNB people are impacted by these pressures compared to cisgender people:
- Increased body dissatisfaction and frequent body checking
- Risk of dissociation from or hatred of certain parts of their bodies
- Increase in disordered eating or weight and shape control behaviors, including binge eating, fasting, vomiting, and laxative use
- Weight loss to suppress secondary sex characteristics and/or
- For transfeminine people, to achieve the thin ideal
- For transmasculine people, to slow or stop the menstrual cycle
- For TGNB people with a high BMI, even greater rates of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating
- For transfeminine people, increased experiences of sexual objectification
- Greater risk of mental health struggles due to the stigma of being trans and/or fat
- e.g., desire for weight change increases reported history of suicide attempts and self-injury
- Risk of negative social consequences, stigma, and safety concerns when physical features are not in line with societal expectations for their gender
(Algers et al., 2010, Algars et al., 2012; Diemer et al., 2015, Gordon et al., 2016, Hepp & Milos, 2002; Jones et al., 2016; McGuire et al., 2016, Peterson et al., 2017; Sevelius, 2013; Vocks et al., 2009; & Witcomb et al., 2015)
It’s not surprising that trans folks are afraid to seek medical care from providers who often invalidate them while also imposing guidelines and hoops for them to jump through in order to seek some semblance of gender affirmation/congruence. When you’re fat, that fear increases. And don’t get me started on providers who recommend weight loss as a treatment for anything, regardless of gender. Would you pay to participate in a treatment program that had a 95-98% failure rate and led to most people going back to pre-treatment symptoms within 3-5 years? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you have ever joined a weight loss program or gone on a fancy diet to lose weight, that’s exactly what you’ve done.
Though many TGNB people experience disconnect and dissatisfaction with their bodies, some reconnect with themselves and improve body satisfaction by altering their body, for example, through gender affirming surgery and hormones, body art/tattoos, and/or exercise. Gender affirming treatment, increased body satisfaction, and perceived social support from family, school, and friends help to reduce the risk of disordered eating (McGuire et al., 2016; Testa et al., 2017; Watson et al., 2017). Some find ways to reject the cultural ideals by creating their own unique gender expression, and those who have a more integrated gender identity are more likely to report social awareness, social acceptance, and body satisfaction (McGuire et al., 2017).
So What Can I Do?
Munro (2017) explains, “we live in a world that resists the notion of fatness as a facet of body diversity; as such, fat bodies are rarely represented in a positive light. Fatness is labeled as a disease and the treatment is eradication.” Social change movements for fat acceptance and body liberation are working to challenge and change this cultural mindset, but the journey is long and difficult – like transness, many are afraid of those who are different, those who do not fit the social norms, and those whose bodies challenge our internalized beliefs and fears.
Here are some ways I believe we can work to support our fat TGNB friends and fellow humans:
- Don’t comment on someone’s body parts, body size, food choices, or changes in weight. Ever. Check in when you’re thinking of complimenting someone – is there any chance that the compliment is a veiled microaggression?
- Practice empathy and compassion for others. Many TGNB and fat folks may struggle to love and accept their bodies, which can be a source of significant pain. “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” (Brown, 2007).
- While you’re at it, why not practice self-compassion and be mindful of the way you talk to yourself? “The act of giving yourself some grace is the practice of loving the you that does not like your body.” (Taylor, 2018, p. 114)
- Don’t assume that a TGNB person wants their body to be in line with binary constructions of femininity & masculinity. People have every right to exist in their bodies in whatever way works (or doesn’t work) for them.
- Dig into fat positive movements and literature (note: while there are some body positive (bopo) spaces that address fatphobia, not all bopo spaces are as fat accepting as they should be). Recommendations include:
- Ragen Chastain, https://danceswithfat.org/ blog
- Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body is Not an Apology book
- Rachel Wiley, Nothing is Okay book
- Christy Harrison, Food Psych podcast
- Alison Rachel, Recipes for Self-Love book & instagram
- Some awesome humans on social media: bodyposipanda; mynameisjessamyn; jazzmynejay; alokvmenon; ihartericka; po.rodil; ashleighthelion, and tessholliday.
- Be critical of the way that mass media portrays TGNB people, fat people, and TGNB fat people. Then, “dump the junk” (Taylor, 2018).
- Read up on intersections of transness with various identities, including size, health, race, ability, spirituality, sexuality, etc. so that your TGNB friends don’t need to teach you about their experiences.
- Check the privilege you carry in the world, whether you are cis, white, straight, able-bodied, healthy, wealthy, Christian, slim, etc. or any of the various intersections of these.
- Seek out medical and mental health providers who are fat positive and work from a Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size (HAES) perspective (Bacon, 2008; Chastain, 2012).
A Final Note
To those who are trans and fat, I see you. You are worthy, even when society doesn’t always communicate that to you. Everyone deserves to have love and compassion for the vessel that gets them through this world, even when you don’t like all parts of that vessel. You deserve to dress and express in ways that make you feel good about yourself and in clothes that fit your body, no matter what size you are. You deserve to access gender affirming care from providers who view fatness as a descriptor rather than an epidemic. You deserve to be gentle to yourself on good days, on bad days, and on in between days. There are people out there who will love and accept you at all sizes, in all gender presentations, and for all of the beautiful intersections that make up your identity. You are worthy.
Algars, M. Santtila, P., & Sandnabba, N. K. (2010). Conflicted gender identity, body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in adult men and women. Sex Roles, 63, 118-125.
Algars, M., Alanko, K., Santtila, P., & Sandnabba, N. K. (2012). Disordered eating and gender identity disorder: A qualitative study. Eating Disorders, 20, 300–311. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2012.668482
Bacon, L. (2008). Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Benbella Books, Inc: Dallas, TX.
Brown, B. (2007). I Thought it was Just Me [But it Isn’t]: Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am Enough.” Avery/Penguin Random House: New York, NY.
Chastain, R. (2012). Are health at every size and size acceptance the same? Article retrieved on 6/10/19 from https://danceswithfat.org/2012/09/28/are-health-at-every-size-and-size-acceptance-the-same/
Chastain, R. (2018). Three questions to work on weight bias. Article retrieved on 6/10/19 from https://danceswithfat.org/2018/06/12/3-questions-to-work-on-weight-bias/
Diemer, E. W., Grant, J. D., Munn-Chernoff, M. A., Patterson, D. A., & Duncan, A. E. (2015). Gender identity, sexual orientation, and eating-related pathology in a national sample of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 57, 144-149.
Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Story, M. (2003). Associations of weight-based teasing and emotional well-being among adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 157(8), 733-738.
Gordon, A. R., Austin, S. B., Krieger, N., White Hughto, J. M., & Reisner, S. L. (2016). “I have to constantly prove to myself, to people, that I fit the bill”: Perspectives on weight and shape control behaviors among low- income, ethnically diverse young transgender women. Social Science & Medicine, 165, 141-149. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.038
Hepp, U., & Milos, G. (2002). Gender identity disorder and eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 32, 473–478. doi: 10.1002/eat.10090
Jones, B. A., Haycraft, E., Murjan, S., & Arcelus, J. (2016). Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in trans people: A systematic review of the literature. International Review of Psychiatry, 28, 81–94. doi: 10.3109/09540261.2015.1089217
Lee, J. A., & Pausé, C. J. (2016). Stigma in practice: Barriers to health for fat women. Frontiers in Psychology, 7: 2063.
Munro, L. (2017). Everyday indignities: Using the microaggressions framework to understand weight stigma. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 45, 502-509. doi: 10.1177/1073110517750584
McGuire, J. K., Doty, J. L., Catalpa, J. M., & Ola, C. (2016). Body image in transgender young people: Findings from a qualitative, community based study. Body Image, 18, 96-107. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.06.004
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) (2018). What is weight stigma? Definition retrieved on 5/20/19 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/weight-stigma.
Patton, T. O. (2006). Hey girl, am I more than my hair?: African American women and their struggles with beauty, body image, and hair. National Women’s Studies Association Journal, 18(2), 24-51.
Peterson, C. M., Matthews, A., Copps-Smith, E., & Conard, L. A. (2017). Suicidality, self-harm, and body dissatisfaction in transgender adolescents and emerging adults with gender dysphoria. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 47(4), 475-482. doi: 10.1111/sltb.12289
Sevelius, J. M. (2013). Gender affirmation: A framework for conceptualizing risk behavior among transgender women of color. Sex Roles, 68(11-12), 675-689. doi: 10.1007/s11199-012-0216-5
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ.
Taylor, S. R. (2018). The Body is not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc: Oakland, CA.
Testa, R. J., Rider, G. N., Haug, N. A., & Balsam, K. F. (2017). Gender confirming medical interventions and eating disorder symptoms among transgender individuals. Health Psychology, 36(10), 927-936. doi: 10.1037/hea0000497
Watson, R. J., Veale, J. F., & Saewyc, E. M. (2017). Disordered eating behaviors among transgender youth: Probability profiles from risk and protective factors. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 50, 515-522. doi: 10.1002/eat.22627
Witcomb, G. L., Bouman, W. P., Brewin, N., Richards, C., Fernandez- Aranda, F., & Arcelus, J. (2015). Body image dissatisfaction and eating- related psychopathology in trans individuals: A matched control study. European Eating Disorders Review, 23, 287–293. doi: 10 .1002/erv.2362
Vocks, S., Stahn, C., Loenser, K., & Legenbauer, T. (2009). Eating and body image disturbances in male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 364–377. doi:10 .1007/s10508-008-9424-z
Learn more about affirmative therapy with transgender and gender nonbinary clients
with M. Tucker, PsyD
By Briana Shewan, MFT
In order to prioritize femme voices, all quotes in this article are from femmes.
Positionality makes a big difference in femme identity: Please note I am a cisgender, white, thin, millenial femme from an upper-middle class background formally trained as a psychotherapist.
Have you ever wondered if you’re femme? Have you been circling around femme identity for a while without knowing if it fits? Are you unsure if you get to call yourself femme? Maybe you’ve heard “femme” more and more and you’re curious about it?
Femme is a beautiful, complex identity. What it looks like, means, and encompasses is different for each of us. I’m sure for many femmes there’s a sense of resistance at my attempt to categorize the identity here. I don’t mean to imply that being femme fits into one specific box! In fact, quite the opposite is true. Femme is all about stepping outside of traditional femininity. Spoiler! I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rather, this article is intended to broadly clarify femme identity by exploring its common themes. As the term “femme” becomes more widely known than ever before, it’s helpful to distinguish what it isn’t, and what it is (I’m a therapist; I’m choosing not to end on a negative note). Whether you share it as a resource for starting more nuanced conversation in your community or you wait until no one’s around to see you secretly explore the magic of femme essence, this article is for anyone who isn’t sure how they relate to it. May you be a baby femme in the making!
What Femme Isn’t…
A Straight Identity
Not all queer-identified femmes agree on this, but many, including myself, strongly feel that femme is a queer identity. Therefore, to be straight and call yourself femme is appropriative. . This is because to do so erases the history of femmes in queer liberation movements and its political identity as it relates to heteronormativity, and perpetuates femme invisibility for those who are queer identified (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017). In reference to femme invisibility, Alaina Monts states “…I do think that a lot of it has to do less so with any sort of purposeful femme erasure in queer communities (although that is extremely prevalent), and much more to do with the fact that it’s an identity being co-opted by folks who aren’t queer… Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us” (Monts, as cited in Chung, 2016).
“It’s possible that femme’s resonance may be partly due to our current political climate, and the resistance it represents to the toxicity of masculinity” (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017). It’s important to note that, despite its wider current-day political relevancy, femme isn’t a trend. It’s history dates back to the 1930s within queer of color ball culture (Buchanan, 2018). To identify as femme while straight dismisses its historical, political, and cultural significance.
Synonymous with Femininity
Although femme and femininity are closely related, they aren’t interchangeable. Femininity refers to the socially constructed idea of what is feminine and isn’t necessarily queer, whereas femme is, in a sense, the queering of femininity – not just identifying as queer, as I’ve already discussed, but the embodiment and embracing of queerness in the full meaning of the word. This key differentiation is why it’s so important for femme to stand on its own (Tonic, 2016).
As Cassie Donish clarifies, “The term ‘femme’ does not simply mean ‘feminine’; it is used in queer circles to designate queer femininity, in a way that’s often self-aware and subversive. It’s both a celebration and a refiguring of femininity” (Donish, 2017).
“I see femme as the rebellious teenage daughter of femininity,” distinguishes Chung. “Femme is the process of taking the feminine words that were placed in my body, words like ‘soft, weak, quiet’ and transforming them into: ‘wild, loud, confident’… When I broke up with femininity and embraced femme, I felt strong and confident and powerful…” (Chung, 2016).
Every Feminine-Presenting Queer Woman
Self-identified femmes and feminine-presenting queer women are all feminized people and, as such, experience being devalued in our patriarchal society (Buchanan, 2018). That being said, not every feminine-presenting queer woman identifies as femme. Madeleine said, “Anyone who is girly/feminine is not necessarily femme. Femme is an identity; feminine and girly are descriptors” (Urquhart, 2015).
The term femme can be used loosely without understanding how someone self-identifies. There is value in both someone claiming femme identity, and not claiming it. You can’t assume that a queer woman is femme because they are assumed feminine-presenting.
…And What Femme Is!
Yes it is!
“…Among the LGBTQ+ community, femme is a descriptor that can feel as inherent to someone’s identity as lesbian, bisexual, or genderqueer,” writes Kasandra Brabaw (Brabaw, 2018). Femmes may have any gender identity; some consider femme their gender identity, whileother femmes may have a different gender identity (such as transwoman, nonbinary, cis-woman, genderfluid, agender, etc.) and consider femme their gender expression (“femininity” aligns with gender expression in that it encompassess behaviors, mannerisms, appearance, etc. within a certain cultural context).
Additionally, there are femmebois, tomboy femmes, femme daddys, femme dykes, etc. who use language to describe their femme identity even more accurately. Other femmes reject these categorizations altogether. “Ultimately, ‘femme’ is about breaking binaries. It’s about subverting cultural expectations. It’s about being more than one thing. It’s about queerness,” sums up Tonic.
An Intentional Relationship to Your Femininity
Many femmes consider their identity to be an intentional expression of their femininity as opposed to one that adheres to typical constraints of feminine performance. Rather, femmes creatively and uniquely celebrate the parts of themselves that would otherwise be suppressed, denied, or defined for them. “As long as normative gender roles exist there will be an urgent need for people, femmes included, to push at their boundaries,” writes Heather Berg, Gender Studies professor at USC (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017).
Femme’s relationship with femininity is one of reclamation and transcendence. It’s about agency. “The whole point of [being femme], for me,” states Cassie, “is to break people away from their assumptions. I don’t like the strict rules of traditional femininity, but I don’t want that to mean that I can’t be feminine at all” (Urquhart, 2015).
Femme’s expression of femininity can be both fierce and hard as well as tender and soft and everything in between. It often challenges larger notions that equate femininity to vulnerability and vulnerability to weakness. “Our culture hates femininity, calls it weak. Our culture is inept at nurture and care, terrified of vulnerability and softness—all things that are squarely in the femme’s handbag. To indulge in femme culture is actually to be brave, and to have strength,” states Maurice Tracy (Donish, 2017).
Its Own Identity
Today femme is proudly an identity that is not defined in relation to anything else. “I didn’t self-identify as femme until I met other queer folks who helped me see that femme is its own identity,” states Artemisia FemmeCock. “Femme is intentional; it’s a way of simultaneously challenging and celebrating femininity. It recognizes that I identify with aspects of femininity but don’t identify with the heteronormative system that trivializes and demonizes them” (Donish, 2017).
Femininity is often defined in relation to masculinity and positioned as its opposite, whereas femmes don’t see themselves within this binary. Femme pushes back on misogynistic ideas that feminized people are defined through a patriarchal lens or male gaze. Femme is glorious all on its own.
Unique to Each Person
“From the invisibility queer femmes can feel in some lesbian circles to the sharp vulnerability inherent in being a trans woman, no two femme-identified individuals share the same experience of what it means to be femme,” says Joss Barton (Donish, 2017).
For many femmes, their identity encompasses more than their sexuality and gender. It is the entirety of their queerness existing in a capitalist, white supremacist society. Femme identity is often strongly linked to class due to its significant historical context as a working class lesbian identity in the 1950s and ‘60s. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said:
Ableism lifts up a white, able-bodied, traditionally feminine, middle-class body as the ‘right’ way to be femme. Because of ableism in the movements I’m part of, it took me years to find a disability justice community where I didn’t have to closet my disability in order to still be femme. My cane, sexy non-stiletto boots and bed life are femme now because of the labor of disability justice comrades. Many of them, like Patty Berne of Sins Invalid, are deeply femme (Pérez, 2014).
As Macarena Gomez-Barris, chair of the Social Sciences and Cultural Studies department at Pratt Institute explains, “In some communities, femme identity also symbolizes a rejection of whiteness, a term used to represent decolonized womanhood” (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017).
In fact, black femme scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. “Intersectionality is a tool for the experiences of black women which are “greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 140).
Of course, there’s also femme relationships, sex, and aesthetics. One femme may be a kinky monogamous top who only dates other femmes; another may be pansexual and polyamorous. One femme may feel strongly about shaving, while another may feel strongly against it. One femme may refuse to leave the house without makeup and hair in perfect order, another may be ambivalent about glitter (gasp!).
As Laura Lune P. says, “I’d like for the myth that femme only looks one way to be smashed. Femme doesn’t only mean red lips, sky high heels and perfectly manicured nails (although it can most certainly mean that). Femme means whatever you want it to mean for yourself and however you want it to look like if that gender feels like home to you” (Pérez, 2014).
Barrett-Ibarria, S. (2017, December 20). Who Gets to Identify as ‘Femme’? from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xw4dyq/who-gets-to-identify-as-femme
Brabaw, K. (2018, June 20). A Brief History Of The Word “Femme”. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/femme-lesbian-lgbtq-history
Buchanan, B. (2018, March 19). Women and Femmes Unite! – Blu Buchanan – Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@BlaQSociologist/women-and-femmes-unite-30ec59e6a658
Chung, C. (2016, July 18). What We Mean When We Say “Femme”: A Roundtable. Retrieved from https://www.autostraddle.com/what-we-mean-when-we-say-femme-a-roundtable-341842/
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Donish, C. (2017, December 04). Five Queer People on What ‘Femme’ Means to Them. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3x8m7/five-queer-people-on-what-femme-means-to-them
Pérez, M. (2014, December 3). Femmes of Color Sound Off. Retrieved from https://www.colorlines.com/articles/femmes-color-sound
Tonic, G. (2016, August 24). The Difference Between Femme & Being Feminine. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/166081-what-does-femme-mean-the-difference-between-being-femme-being-feminine
Urquhart, E. (2015, March 12). Not Your Great-Aunt’s Girly Lesbian. What Does Femme Mean Today? Retrieved from https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/03/femme-lesbians-shouldnt-be-defined-by-their-butches.html