Contributions from the Community of Students

Breaking the Binary in Psychology

How to empower and support trans and non-binary graduate students in psychology.
By Emmie Matsuno

I identify as a queer, non-binary, biracial, Japanese American graduate student in counseling psychology. My inspiration for this article started with an idea to create a webinar that highlighted the experiences of non-binary graduate students in psychology. In working on this project with the Div. 35, Section IV graduate student committee, we put out a call for potential panelists. I crossed my fingers to find one or two students, so when I saw my inbox with over 15 students expressing interest, I was brought to tears. I didn’t recognize the full impact of my feelings of isolation related to my identity until I experienced the feeling of connection to these other students. Many of the students who contacted me for the webinar similarly expressed feeling isolated and were often the only trans or non-binary student in their programs. After experiencing the elation of finding others like me, I decided to start an online community for trans and non-binary graduate students in psychology through a closed Facebook group. I’m proud to say that after one month, the group already has 95 members. I feel the uprising coming.

My hope is that this article can increase awareness of the challenges that trans and gender diverse (TGD) graduate students face in psychology and provide concrete steps that professors, supervisors, students and colleagues can employ to support TGD students. The following are based on my personal experience, talking to other TGD graduate students and the psychological literature. These do not represent all TGD student experiences and more research is needed on this topic, but it’s a place to start.

Challenge 1: The labor of educating others

One of the most common challenges for TGD students is the burden and responsibility of educating others, often without acknowledgement of the extra labor involved. Frequently, TGD students are asked to explain their identity or pronouns and educate their departments on trans issues which can feel daunting and emotionally draining.

Allyship in action 1: Educate yourself and educate others

It’s important for faculty, staff and students to be trained in TGD issues and ways to be supportive. Local organizations can often help with training. If a TGD student wants to help with training, that’s great. It’s critical to pay them for their labor and make sure that they don’t feel like it’s expected or demanded of them to fill the educator role. Allies can help educate others and be proactive in advocating for TGD affirming policies (e.g., changing demographic forms) rather than waiting for a TGD student to say something. Resources that may help are the Div. 44 Fact Sheets, the APA Guidelines on working with TGNC clients and the upcoming webinar on non-binary graduate student experiences.

Challenge 2: Being tokenized and pigeonholed

TGD students are often assumed to be experts in TGD issues. This can be awkward and humiliating when TGD students feel put on the spot to represent or explain something related to gender diversity. Some students may feel limited to only specializing in TGD issues and may not be recognized for their other areas of expertise. Sometimes TGD students may feel like a diversity checkbox and that they aren’t seen or valued for other aspects of themselves.

Allyship in action 2: Avoid assumptions and see the whole person

Many TGD students, including myself, are working towards becoming experts and leaders in TGD psychology. It’s okay to make space for them and respect their perspectives. However, be careful about assuming that a TGD person has all the answers or wants the role of expert. TGD students have multiple intersecting identities and may be marginalized in other ways based on sexual orientation, race, disability status, socioeconomic status (SES), etc. It’s supportive to recognize and value TGD students for all their identities, perspectives and strengths.

Challenge 3: Being mis-gendered or outed

A non-binary student recently told me that being mis-gendered in front of the entire class felt like “a punch in the gut.” TGD students often feel humiliated, self-conscious or unsafe when others address them with the wrong name or pronouns or out them in other ways (e.g., sending a mass email with someone’s birth name). It can be hard for TGD students to constantly correct others, especially someone with more power.

Allyship in action 3: Listen and make the effort

One way to show support is by listening to their concerns and making an active effort to use the correct name and pronouns in all settings, not just in front of the student. Mistakes are inevitable, but TGD students can tell when an effort is being made. Practicing they/them pronouns can make saying them feel like any other pronoun. When mistakes do happen, it’s helpful to apologize and move on in the conversation rather than over apologizing or discussing your own discomfort. This can make the student feel guilty or like a burden. It can feel affirming to include pronouns as an option during introductions so that TGD students have the opportunity to state their pronouns if they feel safe enough to do so.

Challenge 4. Feeling invalidated or unsafe

Students may also feel invalidated or unsafe by structural systems such as gendered restrooms, using gendered language or gendered dress codes. Designating gendered spaces or attire puts TGD students in a vulnerable position and can put them at risk for experiencing harassment or confrontations. Worries about safety can significantly disrupt a TGD students’ ability to actively participate and learn.

Allyship in action 4: Create affirming environments

In addition to attending to names and pronouns, using gender neutral language generally is an easy way to help TGD students feel included and supported. Advocating for gender inclusive restrooms, dress codes, paperwork and including TGD issues in course curriculum are all ways to create more affirming environments.

My hope is that these small steps can support TGD students to be successful in our field and to continue breaking barriers, expanding knowledge and fighting for the well-being of the TGD community.

There are many terms to describe those who identify as transgender, non-binary or other gender expansive identities such as: TGNC, trans, gender minorities, gender diverse, gender variant, etc. For this article, I use the acronym TGD diverse to refer to this population.