The importance of Transgender Day of Visibility for health psychology

~Gareth Treharne, Department of Psychology, University of Otago, Aotearoa/New Zealand (gtreharne@psy.otago.ac.nz)

Today and evTery March 31st is Transgender Day of Visibility (see TransStudent.org or here). This day is around 6 months away from Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is held on November 20th and memorialises transgender people whose lives have been cut short (http://tdor.info). Both days serve an important purpose in raising awareness of transgender issues. Both days are pertinent to health psychology, but transgender issues continue to have very little visibility in health psychology. This oversight of transgender issues is sometimes backed up with claims that transgender issues only need to be considered when a particular piece of research or a particular health service is specifically directed at transgender people. I argue that those claims should be contested.

Today is about celebrating the visibility of transgender people. As a gay person I feel a synergy with this day of pride in being visible. I also feel a pang of trepidation at sharing that sense of synergy because today isn’t about sexuality. At the same time, I recognise an opportunity to contribute to discussions about transgender visibility from the position of a transgender ally because I know I can submit this blog post and hopefully it will be up on the website before people living in the Americas wake up to Transgender Day of Visibility. For once I can benefit from living in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s timezone where it’s always closer to tomorrow and I usually hear about international days the day after they’ve happened.

I am writing this post as a way of putting my hand up and saying “I would like to say something about Transgender Day of Visibility as a transgender ally”. As I write out this aim I am aware that I may receive critique from transgender people and cisgender people about my speaking up today. I am prepared to take that critique. Transgender people face unjust social critique of their gender identity every day and this contributes to one of the biggest health inequalities that exists at present. And that makes transgender issues of relevance to health psychology.

The term ‘cisgender’ may be unfamiliar to some readers – the term is a relatively recent borrowing from chemistry of the prefix cis- meaning ‘on the same side’. In terms of gender identity, gender expression, and sex assigned at birth, cisgender means having an assigned sex that is on the same side as one’s gender identity/expression. Cisgender is a terms that is slowly catching on even though it’s not a label that all who might be identified as such actively take up. People who have ever been given a now removed or rebranded label such as gender identity disorder or ego-dystonic homosexuality may be able to empathise with the problems of being labelled, but the pathologisation associated with those labels is far more problematic than the term cisgender could ever be.

Cisgenderism is a parallel term to sexism and defines the systematic discrimination that arises from social norms around being cisgender (see Riggs, Ansara, & Treharne, 2015). Cisgender people may find conversations about transgender issues uncomfortable because it raises the issue of cisgender privilege and, as with other forms of privilege such as class privilege or white privilege, those who benefit from the privilege have rarely thought about what their privilege affords them. As a case in point, it is cisgender privilege to be able to go into a public toilet that matches your gender identity without thinking the right to be there would ever be questioned. It is also a cisgender privilege to go into an appointment with a health professionals without worrying whether your gender identity will be understood and respected. Cisgender people may claim conversations about the social injustices arising from cisgenderism are unproductive and may claim that social conventions around things like public toilets are the natural order. I argue that those claims should be contested. Cisgender people may become disruptive during conversations about cisgender privilege because when someone’s point challenges an otherwise unspoken privilege it is easier to shout down the person’s point or walk out of the conversation and straight back into a world infused with that privilege.

There are four things that I propose cisgender health psychology researchers can do as a starting point to becoming better transgender allies in health psychology research. I hope these proposals are already second nature to transgender and cisgender readers. Firstly, if the research involves gathering data directly from human participants, it is important to think about how phrasing in the invitation to participate can mean the difference between being inclusive of transgender participants or putting off transgender participants. For example, noting that the research is seeking female and male participants can be read as only seeking cisgender people and may serve to erase the transgender histories of participants who have transitioned. Noting that the research is seeking participants of “any gender or no gender” can be more inclusive (with a nod to my colleague Gávi Ansara who I’ve borrowed that phrasing from). Secondly, if the research requires asking people to report their gender, it is important not to rely on a binary sex survey question (see Treharne, 2011). If a survey style question to record gender is essential for the research then it may be necessary to ask questions about sex assigned at birth, gender identity, and gender expression to get a fuller picture and not make assumptions about participants’ gender identity or history. Thirdly, regardless of the focus of the research, it is important to question whether cisgenderist assumptions have slipped into the data collection or the analysis and to think about how consideration of transgender issues may enrich data collection and analysis of all health issues. Fourthly, issues such as cisgenderism shape society for all (Riggs et al., 2015), and it is important for cisgender health psychology researchers not to shy away from attending to transgender issues if we’re all to contribute to a process of reshaping that will hopefully lead to a reduction in transgender health inequalities.

This précis of the relevance of transgender issues to health psychology is by no means exhaustive. I hope I have been clear in conveying that transgender allies have an important supporting role to play in enhancing the visibility of transgender issues in health psychology. This post is dedicated to people who are coming out as transgender today and every day.

References

Riggs, D. W., Ansara, Y. G., & Treharne, G. J. (2015). An evidence-based model for understanding the mental health experiences of transgender Australians. Australian Psychologist, 50, 32-39. doi:10.1111/ap.12088

Treharne, G. J. (2011). Questioning sex/gender and sexuality: reflections on recruitment and stratification. Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, 7, 132-154. Available at: http://www.groups.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/GLIP%20Review%20Vol%207%20No%202.pdf

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