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.