This post is an expansion of this discussion I had in the comments on the 4thWaveNow blog. I am hoping to get back to focusing on working with dysphoria rather than political issues, but after spending the last three months in grad school surrounded by these ideas I thought this post was important.
A lot of what is currently going on with gender therapy is currently related to “social justice” ideology. The goal of social justice ideology is an admirable one. Its goal is to correct injustices that occur when groups are marginalized in various ways. This is a noble pursuit. Being part of a marginalized group and being subject to discrimination and prejudice is pretty awful, which is something I certainly learned after 20 years of living as a trans women.It is not the goals of social justice ideology that are problematic, but its methods. In fact, its methods sometimes cause harm to the very marginalized groups it purports to protect.
I have seen several stories from parents who take their children to see therapists for gender issues and the therapist sees the person only once and immediately recommends transition, dismissing any parental concerns as prejudice and bigotry. Likewise, people who see therapists of their own accord find their cross-gender identities are enthusiastically supported and exploration is dismissed as unnecessary. They are reassured that their gender feelings cannot relate to other causes. Some critics have suggest that therapists are just going along with trans people because they are money-grubbing and afraid of losing business if they don’t just go along with things. I don’t think this is actually true, for one I have known many therapists and none of them seem like money-grubbers, for another seeing people only once is a poor money-grubbing strategy. Rather, it is misplaced idealism that leads to this practice, which is harmful to very minorities it purports to support.
I have written in more detail about this particular ideology here. In particular there are two features that are relevant here. One is the idea of oppression. Social justice ideology sees people as members of “marginalized” or “privileged” classes. People in marginalized classes are seen as suffering from oppression and discrimination. This is true to some extent, but social justice ideology tends to see all of their problems as coming from that source.
Secondly, narratives are primary. What I mean by that is personal narratives and stories are the most important thing. The subjective triumphs over the objective. This also intersects with the idea of oppression, where members of a dominant class are seen as unable to understand the experiences of people of the marginalized class and therefore they must always take those experiences at face value.
This means that if therapist who has a strong orientation towards social justice and works with trans people they will tend to see their problems as due to oppression, and additionally feel they should not question the client’s narrative which must be taken at face value as they are oppressed people. At first I found it perplexing this practice of engaging in minimal assessment for something as serious as hormonal treatment and surgery. This seemed irresponsible especially given as I am trained as a therapist and understand how much focus is generally placed on assessment for other conditions. Now, I understand it is not so much irresponsibility, as morality. It is not that they consider it unnecessary to do assessment; it is that they actually consider it immoral to do assessment!
This is intended to help trans people and other marginalized people, but it actually can cause harm. What it means in essence is that if someone is a member of a dominant class they receive regular psychotherapy but if they aren’t they receive a special kind of social justice psychotherapy. I do think it is important that the legitimate issues that arise from social justice thinking be considered, but not at the expense of regular therapy. I feel I have been profoundly harmed by my original therapist’s failure to encourage deep exploration of my issues, versus simply “affirming my identity”.
Because of this, gender therapy is reduced to just a few steps, specifically:
1. Eliminate sources of oppression (internal and external). If the person does not accept their trans identity then that is internalized oppression, if someone else in their life questions their trans identity, than that is just due to their prejudice and privilege that makes them not understand the gender-questioning person in question.
2. Affirm and validate their identity. In particular don’t question their identity, or assume the possibility of other underlying causes, a privileged person should never question the narrative of a marginalized person.
3. Make them aware of their options and make sure they have adequate resources and support to get through transition.
A few months ago, I attended a conference about trans health. At this conference, there was a presentation titled something like “assessments for mental health” and I was excited to attend this presentation because I thought I might finally come across some good information on this topic, which every training and conference I attend never seems to have. Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed. The presenters presented a case study of a client who had psychotic symptoms, and issues with dissociation. Surely some caution would be indicated in this case. Of course, the answer was “we found a way to get them enough resources and support to have that surgery” and there was nothing about any kind of evaluation of whether they should do this or not.
I have attended four separate trainings on working with trans clients and they all were more or less like this. Everything in the training was about cultural competency and better understanding trans people. There might also be something about the nuts and bolts of transition as well. However there was never anything about how to help people deal with their issues without transition, or how to differentiate between those who will do well with transition and those who won’t.
Here is an example of a syllabus for a class for therapists to learn about trans issues. Notice that everything in the syllabus is about learning about the experiences of trans people and how to affirm them. Again, nothing about the dynamics that might lead to transition, what factors should lead to extra caution, or how to help someone figure out if they can deal with their issues without transition.
Again, it is very appropriate to consider social justice factors when working with trans people, but it should not be considered the sole factor and overshadow regular clinical judgment. Paradoxically, serving social justice requires making sure that social justice ideas don’t result in substandard therapy for sexual minorities like trans people.