Research with purpose and passion: Social justice and transgender persons

The author explains his professional experience working with transgendered individuals and how he grounded himself in qualitative research in order to better capture their life experiences
By Franco Dispenza

It has always been my belief that the art of inquiry is best displayed with colors of passion, intrigue, and devotion. Personally, the most stunning of inquiries are the ones that promote the betterment of lives around the globe. As an emerging psychological researcher, educator, and practitioner, I have always been particularly drawn to the voices of the oppressed and abused. Throughout my doctoral training I aspired to integrate social justice advocacy in all of my training and professional endeavors, with the hopes of promoting a better life for diverse transgender persons. When asked why I immerse myself in this work with this population, I often respond with this: “helping to better the life of one individual means bettering the lives of all”.

Through the advisement of exceptional scholars, I recognized that I had to steer away from classical quantitative methods and statistics. Hypothesizing would only bring me to a point of testing presupposed assumptions that were rooted in my privileged world view. I found myself gravitating back to epistemology and philosophy, and grounded myself in qualitative research in order to capture the actual lived experiences of transgender persons. In addition, given the difficulty that transgender persons have accessing employment, I found myself passionate about understanding the world-of-work for transgender persons. I turned these passions and inquiries into a research agenda, and made attempts to better understand the career development of transgender persons.

After much conceptualizing and pre-planning, I had the opportunity to interview nine diverse female-to-male (FTM) transgender persons. I asked questions about their work, education, psychosocial development, family, hardships, and life joys. The most profound aspects to be impacting their lives were career-related discrimination experiences. Forms of discrimination included gender microaggressions in discourse and communication, difficulty accessing health care, discrimination within institutions of higher education, and even being terminated, fired, or turned down for employment by members of other oppressed and marginalized groups (Dispenza, Watson, Chung, & Brack, 2012).

I also had an opportunity to interview an additional eight male-to-female (MTF) transgender persons about their career trajectories. When analyzing interviews from both MTF and FTM transgender persons, what emerged from the data was that family relations played a significant role in the career development of these transgender individuals. Growing up in a supportive family environment may have helped with fostering perceptions of greater satisfaction with one’s transgender identity, and may have led to greater satisfaction levels with the career development process experienced during adulthood (Dispenza & Chung, 2010). In addition, the results from these interviews revealed that career related interests and skills developed “normally” throughout childhood and adolescence, despite the participants stating an overwhelming struggle with gender dysphoria throughout their childhood and adolescent years (Dispenza & Chung, 2010).

I believe it is important to affirm that the core of a psychologist’s identity is his/her ability to acquire and mobilize knowledge for the advancement of the profession. Some of us are further called to use our privilege as psychologists to help advance the lives of others.

What I have mentioned above are just some highlights of the work that the research team and I have pursued. Transgender persons are an important group, and a group who’s rights that I—and others—will continue to advocate.


Dispenza, F., Watson, L.B., Chung, Y.B., & Brack, G. (Forthcoming). Experience of career-related discrimination for female-to-male (FTM) transgender persons: A qualitative study. Career Development Quarterly.

Dispenza, F. & Chung, Y.B. (2010, August). The intersection between transgender identity, childhood/adolescent development, and career development. Paper presented as part of a symposium during the 118th APA Convention, San Diego, CA.

About the Author

Franco Dispenza is a doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at Georgia State University. He is currently completing his pre-doctoral psychology internship at the Georgia Institute of Technology Counseling Center. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Franco completed his Bachelor’s (Psychology and English) and Master’s (Rehabilitation Counseling) degrees from University at Albany, SUNY, and is a nationally Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC). His professional interests include sexual and gender identity, social justice, and mental health practitioner education. He also has scholarly interests in stress, trauma, and vocational psychology.