Scientific research on the transgender community has a deep history of bias. For a long time, sexologists, like Harry Benjamin, claimed that transgenderism was a psychological disorder caused by intense childhood trauma. Thanks to the growing interest of researchers in finding the true basis of transgender identity, various biological factors including genes were identified in the last decade.
This 2008 study received international media attention. A team of Australian researchers identified a link between transgenderism and a specific gene associated with sex development - longer version of the gene lowered testosterone levels, leading to reduced masculinity of transwomen. Now we know that those older theories stand on a shaky scientific ground. How can we support the transgender community?
Scientific misconceptions of the transgender community can be dangerous, especially, when transgender people are at a high health risk. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that transgender people are among those at the highest risk for HIV. One 2013 study found that about half of transwomen and transmen experience depression. The Williams Institute reported in 2014 that 41% of transgender people in the U.S. have attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the national population. To better understand the causes of transgenderism and offer necessary support to the transgender community, transpositive research studies are crucial.
Today, there are an increasing number of researchers, like Kristina Olson – Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington – and Jae Sevelius – Assistant Professor with the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco – who are conducting transpositive science in support of the transgender community. Their studies reaffirm the legitimacy of transgender identity, something that transgender individuals often need in their lives, which might, for example, be due to a lack of social support.
Consider the community of transgender youth. While there are a number of children who identify as transgender, their family and peers are often suspicious of their identity: How do we know trans children aren’t just in a phase or aren’t just confused or pretending? Surprisingly, there is little psychological research that answers these questions.
That’s where Kristina Olson’s research comes in. Olson directs the TransYouth Project (TYP), the first national longitudinal study of psychological development in transgender and gender non-conforming youth. In a study published earlier this year, she and her collaborators at TYP investigated how prepubescent trans children identified their own gender. Olson argued that simply asking children about their gender presented a scientific bias: theoretically, a self-reporting child could still be confused or playing “pretend.”
So Olson paired explicit questions with an Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT, first published in 1998, is a psychological test used in hundreds of studies about race, gender, sexuality, and other social constructs. The method in brief: have participants sort stimuli into categories like good or bad, black or white, and etc., and measure their responses.
In Olson’s study, transgender children aged 5 to 12 sorted images of boys and girls into categories like good or bad and me or not me. Cisgender [identify with the gender assigned at birth] control participants did the same. The study found that the sorting pattern of transgender children was no different from the cisgender children. That means trans girls (assigned male at birth) just as systematically associated girl with me as cis girls did. A systematic pattern was important, since it meant the child was not confused or randomly guessing. The upshot of the study: even before puberty, transgender children have a deep-seated gender identity.
That result can have an important impact on the community that TYP works with. TYP currently collaborates with over 100 families of transgender children across dozens of states in the US, and soon hopes to reach an n of 200. Madeleine DeMeules – the TYP project coordinator and the lab manager of Olson’s Social Cognitive Development Lab out of which TYP is based – reports that some families see this study as “something they’re proud to participate in.” Others are “happy to see research being done…that this is something worth studying and worth learning about.” TYP also hopes to provide “data that are accessible to the scientific community but are also…accessible to…clinicians, teachers, and community figures.” Data that support the transgender community can be critical, especially when many statistics about the community are bleak.
Enter Jae Sevelius. Sevelius investigates how threats to transgender people’s sense of identity lead them into high-risk contexts. She calls this the gender affirmation model. Sevelius says that “because we live in a transphobic society…trans people experience social oppression and psychological distress.” Because of that oppression and distress, trans people need more affirmation in their identity. That affirmation can come in the form of social support groups or peers who use the correct gender pronouns, but gender affirmation can also be more high-risk. Often, “trans people (and transwomen in particular) try to get that [affirmation] need met in riskier ways,” says Sevelius. That can be high-risk sex work, illegal hormone ‘pumping parties’, chronic substance use, unequal power relationships, and more.
Sevelius gathers her data from qualitative studies with trans people to identify “what their needs and priorities are, and what their barriers are.” But that’s only where the work begins. Using her results, Sevelius focuses on developing culturally relevant health care and intervention programs, “starting from the perspective of trans people themselves.” One example of culturally relevant care: “It’s important for health care information to come from trusted sources,” which Sevelius says “This often means other trans people”. Employing transgender people as health care workers can often give transgender patients the emotional support they need in their health care.
One of her programs is Sheroes, a peer-led small-group intervention that applies Sevelius’ gender affirmation research with the goals of sexual risk reduction and personal empowerment. In these interventions, participants discuss everything from transgender history to positive sexuality. Sevelius says that while other support groups are very open-ended and freeform, “Sheroes is about achieving very specific outcomes.”
Although Sevelius’ research and outreach confers a major benefit to the community she works with, she recognizes the limits to her work. She says that for many of the transwomen participants, there is such deep trauma, often from a young age. She adds that “transwomen who are accepted by their families do much better than those who are rejected.”
This last insight from Sevelius seems to ring true with the results from TYP. Olson and other researchers often see first-hand how family acceptance benefits transgender children. They wonder whether family acceptance is becoming the norm. TYP has taken to calling the generation of trans youth “gender pioneers” because “we really haven’t seen a group of kids living in a way that’s been so supported until quite recently,” says Madeleine DeMeules. DeMeules believes that before gender pioneers, it hasn’t been possible to truly document the gender development of trans youth.
Whether driven by a new wave of gender pioneers or more rigorous scientific attention towards the trans community, the importance of transpositive research is now starting to be seen.
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