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Counselors should target discrimination and be advocates for transgender clients

Two University of Oregon doctoral students dove into issues of transgender identities -- in the workplace and professional counseling -- and surfaced with a call for psychologists and vocational counselors to not only treat but to act as advocates for their clients -- and to help end discrimination in the workplace.

"One of the main points of our paper is that not only do we need to be, as vocational psychologists or career counselors, working with transgender people at an individual level to help them get hired, but we also need to be doing a lot of social advocacy work -- working with employers and workplaces -- improving antidiscrimination policies and doing legal advocacy," said lead author Maya Elin O'Neil.

The study, co-authored by their doctoral adviser Ellen Hawley McWhirter, a professor of counseling psychology, provides transgender-issue terminology related to gender identity, suggestions for addressing problems of both clients and on-the-job difficulties and lists available resources -- filling a void in both the academic literature and support possibilities. The study appeared online in February and in print in the March issue of the Journal of Career Development.

"We've had lots of requests for reprints of the article from people who have heard about it, and they've repeatedly said that there is nothing out there about the workplace angle," O'Neil said. Request for copies have come from psychologists, vocational counselors, university administrators, especially those dealing with diversity issues and planning, and even workforce managers, said co-author Alison Cerezo.

O'Neil and Cerezo both are pursing doctorates in counseling psychology. O'Neil also is a statistician and works as a therapist with at-risk youth. Cerezo also studies issues related to college retention and career self-efficacy among Latino/Latina college students.

Borrowing from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the authors define "transgender" as an umbrella term that refers to individuals whose gender identity or gender expression falls outside of the stereotypical gender norms. Gender identity refers to "a person's innate deeply felt psychological identification as male or female, which may not correspond with the person's body or assigned sex" in a birth certificate. Variants on these terms are included as well, and can encompass individuals who may be gay or lesbian, considering sex-change procedures, or simply uncertain about their own sexual identity.

Transgender people often are victims of transphobia or homophobia and discriminated against in the workplace, either on the job or in the hiring process. Examples of such cases are included as vignettes of victims in the paper. One such vignette is by a transgender male whose birth-assigned sex was female. While taking hormones in preparation for a sex-change operation, he seeks counseling to discuss the timing of the surgery and career implications.

O'Neil and Cerezo noted that there is little in the way of professional guidance for psychologists, vocational counselors and workplace managers to help them deal with such issues. Counselors, O'Neil said, need to know the language of transgender people but not force it on their clients. "It is important for people who identify as transgender to decide their own gender pronouns," Cerezo said. "Psychologists should not decide the pronoun for the identity of their clients."

"When a gender-variant client presents for career counseling, it is important for the career counselor to assess whether she or he is competent to provide the services requested," the authors wrote. "In the case of personal aversion to gender-variant individuals, a referral should be made, followed by continued education, supervision and personal exploration of the topic in preparation for future clients."

The paper, which the authors described as "a starting point in developing the content knowledge and skills for serving a unique and important population," includes a comprehensive appendix that provides resources for vocational psychologists and career counselors who work with transgender and gender-variant clients. Among the listed resources is the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues, which has a Committee on Transgender and Gender Variance Issues.

The authors also recommend the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., which tracks discrimination against transgender individuals, and the New York-based Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which "works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence," according to its Web site.


Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Oregon

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