Bending Gender, Ending Gender: Theoretical Foundations for Social Work Practice with the Transgender Community

By Burdge, Barb J. | Social Work, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Bending Gender, Ending Gender: Theoretical Foundations for Social Work Practice with the Transgender Community


Burdge, Barb J., Social Work


This article puts forth a radical argument: Social workers should reject a dichotomous understanding of gender in favor of more accurate and affirming conceptualizations of gender. Best practices with the transgender population requires as much. In developing this argument, three central points will be defended: (1) transgendered people are oppressed in U.S. society (and, therefore, are a population of concern to social workers); (2) binary gender models are the foundation on which transgender oppression (and several other oppressive systems) depends; and (3) queer theory and social constructionism offer useful insights for social workers seeking an accurate understanding of gender.

Many disciplines have contributed to current knowledge of gender and the transgender community (for example, psychology, literature, medicine, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy). I have chosen to focus here on the sociological insights available at the intersection of social constructionism and queer theory. This conceptual site offers rich, thought-provoking considerations of gender, while creating fertile ground for no less than the elimination of gender-based oppression. As such, it offers alternatives to pathological models noted by several authors as historically dominant in psychological and medical thinking about transgendered people (Cooper, 1999; Gagne, Tewksbury, & McGaughey, 1997; Langer & Martin, 2004). Social constructionism and queer theory make a compelling case, and one consistent with social work's values and ethics, for the validity of transgender identities and the pursuit of gender rights.

The transgender community has its own distinct (but not homogeneous) culture. As with any culture, it has generated a unique language with which to communicate its reality. This language is somewhat fluid and continually evolving. Some terms have emerged organically from within the community; others have been cast by science or academia. Keeping up with this quickly evolving lexicon can be challenging. Social workers must be able to appreciate ambiguous terminology--along with ambiguous genders. Self-definition is a matter of self-determination and social justice, which are basic values of the profession (NASW, 2000). As a result of this self-determined language, myriad terms have arisen. However, not all terms are accepted equally. "Transsexual" may be one person's label of choice. Another person, whose situation seems identical to the first, may reject transsexual in favor of "genderqueer." ("Queer" is an example of a previously negative term that is increasingly being reclaimed as a symbol of pride by the population it was once used against. In current usage, it generally refers to any person who transgresses traditional categories of gender or sexuality.)

Because it is empowering for oppressed groups to control the language representing them, social workers can honor the personal meaning of clients' chosen words, even when no "official" definitions exist.

DEFINING THE TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY

"Transgender" is an umbrella term (Lev, 2004; Mallon, 1999b) applicable to a range of individuals who express their gender in nontraditional ways. In general, transgendered people find their sense of self as female, male, or other to be in conflict with their assigned gender role (which was based on genital anatomy at birth). The term transgender can be accurately applied to self-identified bigenders, gender radicals, butch lesbians, cross-dressing married men, transvestites, intersex individuals, transsexuals, drag kings and queens, gender-blenders, queers, genderqueers, two spirits, or he-shes (Burgess, 1999; Hunter & Hickerson, 2003; Mallon, 1999b). These individuals may form their own social networks, hence the term "transgender community." For the purposes of this article, transgender is used to refer to people who claim the term on the basis of feelings that their assigned gender role is incongruent with their sense of self. …

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