Strength in the Face of Adversity: Resilience Strategies of Transgender Individuals

Article excerpt

I think that there is a high level of survival instinct in trans culture in general As transgender people, we have to be resilient. We have to be strong. Because when we say, "I am going ahead and making this transition," well, we know we could lose everything--our family, our children, our friends, our employment, our places of worship, our standing in the community. And even in some cases, we could lose our lives.

--Christine (pseudonym), a transgender woman and study participant

Although societal oppression of transgender individuals has been well documented in counseling literature (Carroll, Gilroy, & Ryan, 2002; Lev, 2004; Pepper & Lorah, 2008), little is known about the resilience strategies used by transgender people to counter this oppression. The word transgender is a broad term describing individuals whose gender identity and expression (i.e., the internal and external sense of being female, male, or neither) does not align with their anatomical sex (i.e., anatomical makeup of XX, XY, etc.) assigned to them at birth (Brill & Pepper, 2008; Lambda Legal, 2008). Underneath this larger group are diverse subgroups of individuals who self-identify with a variety of terms, such as MTF (transitioning from male to female, i.e., "male-to-female"), FTM (transitioning from female to male, i.e., "female-to-male"), transsexual (securing surgery and/or hormones), genderqueer (not identifying with the labels of "male" or "female"), as well as many others. (For a comprehensive review of transgender terms and definitions, see Carroll, 2010.) Despite the gender diversity within the transgender community, U.S. society's lack of knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of transgender people results in transphobia and transprejudice (Singh, Boyd, & Whitman, 2010). The purpose of this study was to examine the resilience experiences transgender people have developed in response to societal stigma and discrimination in an effort to better inform counselors, counselor trainees, and those advocating on behalf of transgender individuals.

* Transgender Individuals and Oppression

Identifying the specific resilience strategies that transgender individuals use in their everyday lives, despite being ignored or pathologized on the basis of their gender identity, is critical to providing transgender-affirmative counseling and psychotherapy. Gender identity disorder retains its distinction as being a mental disorder, thereby categorizing transgender people as mentally ill (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Even though transgender-affirmative models of counseling exist (Korell & Lorah, 2007; Lev, 2004; Pepper & Lorah, 2008), counseling practice with transgender clients, by and large, still focuses on pathology and diagnosis (Singh et al., 2010).

Transgender individuals are at a disproportionate risk for severe hate crimes in their daily lives (National Coalition of AntiViolence Programs, 2005). Although federal hate crime laws do not currently include gender expression, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (2005), in its effort to collect statistics on hate crimes against transgender people, put the number of these crimes at 321 per year in the United States. This level of hate crimes toward transgender persons is comparable to the number of violent hate crimes toward Muslims in the United States post-9/11 (Stotzer, 2007). There are also currently no federal laws protecting transgender persons' employment rights, leaving them more economically vulnerable or with only limited career options (Clough, 2000; O'Neil, McWhirter, & Cerezo, 2008). Transgender individuals are also at greater risk for homelessness (Israel & Tarver, 1997), suicide (Gainor, 2000), and health care discrimination (Clements-Nolle, Marx, & Katz, 2006).

Transgender people can also be victims of discrimination and misunderstanding within the lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) community (Namaste, 2000). …