Listening to Trans* Stories is the Way

Research Reviewed by Michael Tew

This review examines the conclusions of two studies about Trans* identity development. One is from a social work perspective and the other from communication studies. Both conclude that expression of the self is central to healthy identity development. True for most everyone but particularly important to Trans* people. Most importantly, both research projects are based on listening to authentic Trans* narratives.

Heidi Levitt and Maria Ippolito listened to the narratives of 17  Trans* people.  According to the participants in the study, the experience of being transgender entails (1) developing constructs to represent one’s gender authentically; (2) finding ways to communicate one’s gender to others and be seen; and, (3) balancing these needs with the need to survive under discriminatory political, social, and economic conditions

The themes that emerged in the analysis seemed to illustrate a core theme of trying to cultivate a multifaceted identity within a restrictive social gender paradigm, “much like trying to illustrate a vibrantly colored landscape when only black and white paints are available.” This finding highlights the importance of preserving Transgender clients’ sense of self-determination. Levitt and Ippolito identified three core experiences that led to participants’ understanding of and development of their identities as Trans* people: 1. From childhood treated like damaged goods: Pressure to be closeted about gender often led to self-hatred and isolation, all while under others’ scrutiny; 2 The power of language in fostering acceptance: In hearing other Transgender narratives, the possibilities for self-exploration and affirmation expand; and,  3. Identity formation is an ongoing process of balancing authenticity and necessity (e.g., safety, how much I can cope with, resources, legalities)

Audra K. Nuru listened to the narratives of 37 Trans* individuals who posted videos for the “It gets Better” project. The study identified the way conflicting personal and social identities are communicated in complex layers of expression. Nuru identified specific gaps in expression of Trans* identity and communication strategies commonly employed for crossing, filling, or negotiating those gaps. First, discrepancies between an individual’s self-view and the self as expressed when communicating with others are often negotiated by relegating certain dimensions of gender expression to private arenas and others to public arenas. Second, the gap between how people perceive the individual in different ways than the way the individual sees theirself  is frequently negotiated through relational disengagement and passing. Finally, incongruity in the way an individual enacts their identity and the expectations others have of gendered performances is often negotiated through label changing in reference to the self.  Based on these Trans* narratives, the study observes that difficulties in working through these gaps between a personal understanding of the self and the way the self is expressed in social contexts can result in relational dissatisfaction, relational strain, depression, or self-harm. The role of communication of the self, taken for granted by most, cannot be overstated in its effect on personal, interpersonal, and relational health.

This study is unique because it addresses discursive processes – the ways messages about identity are continuously created through communication. Specifically, negotiating Transgender identity is a complicated, overlapping process that involves cycles of constructing, reshaping, and making sense of gender identity through communication. Trans* identities are not just products of communication, they are constituted by communication in the context of relationships and other social interactions.

Both of these studies are important for two reasons. First, this research comes from authentic narratives of Trans* people. These are not survey projects asking people to respond to categories of identity questions pre-determined by the researchers. They are the amplified voices of people speaking from their lived experiences. In other words, this is research that draws conclusions from Trans* people’s stories rather than fitting Trans* people’s experiences into foregone conclusions.  Second, this research is important to the extent that it should inform social workers, counselors, and psychologists about the complexity of Trans* identities and the multitude of ways gender identity is expressed. There is no one way of expressing the self as a gendered individual and attempts to fit a client’s identity into a box, no matter how progressively informed that box, the more likely that the client is not getting the help and support they need.

Levitt, H. & Ippolito, M. (2014) Being Transgender: The experience of Transgender identity development, Journal of Homosexuality, 61: 1727-1758

Nuru, K. (2014). Between layers: Understanding the communicative negotiation of conflicting identities amongst Transgender individuals. Communication Studies, 65: 281=297.


About Equality Research Center

The mission of the Equality Research Center is to promote, support, and disseminate research focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender equality and human rights. The Center is dedicated to the advancement of Equality by connecting academic, evidence based research to community action, public policy, and curricular innovation.
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