CHAPTER 1: Introduction
“This is a treasure trove.” – Edmonton participant
Anybody from any background has access to this e-book. Maybe you consider yourself an ally to transgender (or trans for short) communities. Maybe you know someone who is trans, and you’re looking for ways to understand or support them. You could be a professional seeking knowledge. You could be a trans person yourself. Or maybe you’re not sure yet why you are here.
The point is you are here now. It is my job as the author of this e-book to try to open a window into the vast knowledge and wisdom trans communities were able to share during my research. Ethically-sourced research and knowledge about trans communities, especially in Canada, can be hard to come by or hard to understand (Bauer et al, 2009; Fraser, 2009; Ontario Public Health Association, OPHA, 2003). The quotes and themes discussed in these pages represent what can be learned from trans community members who participated in The Trans Community Says (TCS) Project. The TCS Project is discussed in more detail below.
Each chapter in this book will explore a different theme or topic that arose from the conversations that took place for The TCS Project. No matter where you are in the book, you can always use the upper right-hand pane to navigate to other sections. You can also visit the Definitions page to see how transgender and other words are used here. Clicking the left or right arrows while on any page will bring you to the previous or next page in the e-book.
I may be enjoying this soapbox of an e-book a bit, but that’s because it was hard work to complete. Please always give credit to this e-book where due (see also Preface and Acknowledgements for contributor names and how to cite this book).
The voices represented here. . . wait I should warn you to FOCUS on this part. . .
The voices represented here are NOT meant to give you a definitive answer of what trans people and communities will always be like. They ARE meant to, as one participant put it, help “humanize” the discussion of trans issues in Alberta, Canada, and abroad. To begin, here’s a little background about who I am and why I (of all people!) am the author writing these pages.
My name is Mateo Huezo. I am the Principal Investigator of The TCS Project and the author of this e-book.
Many of my experiences and identities qualify me to do this work. First, I am a transgender person of colour. This means I have a layered understanding of what it is like to be multiple minorities in Canadian society. I have volunteered and worked with sexual and gender minorities for over ten years in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada. This means that the work you are reading about here was produced from an experienced insider’s lens to trans communities. I am also a Master of Counselling student working under the supervision of Dr. Sandra Collins at Athabasca University. That last part means that I was straddling the fence, or I’d like to think acting as a bridge, between an academic discipline (counselling psychology) and community-based work in this project.
The fact that I identify with the minority of study is what makes the findings presented here so potent. Let me explain.
There is a history in which research with transgender people has often come from oppressive and cisgender-centred perspectives (Ansara & Hegarty, 2012; Bauer et al., 2009; Benson, 2013; de Vries, 2012; Matte, Devor, & Vladicka, 2009; Vance et al., 2010; Vipond, 2015). For example, much of the literature available for health professionals oversimplifies transgender experiences and paints them as pathological (Bauer et al., 2009; Benson, 2013; Vance et al., 2010; Vipond, 2015). In other words, the professional knowledge we have about trans people doesn’t usually come from our own perspectives, and can be biased against us. Most of it is also created for cisgender consumption without consideration of the trans reader.
To counter these same problems of bias with other minority populations, our national research ethics board has encouraged community-based anti-oppressive research approaches (CIHR et al., 2014). One such approach is Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR for short). CBPR is based on the principle that research about a community should benefit that community (Blumenthal, 2011; Travers et al., 2013; Viswanathan et al., 2004). By using this approach and attending rigourously to quality management throughout The TCS Project, I was able to centre trans voices when garnering descriptions of trans experiences. Because I identify as trans myself, I was also able to relay an allied stance to the trans people who volunteered to be part of the project.
This is one of the first scholarly research projects to take an explicitly anti-oppressive community-based approach with trans communities in Alberta. To read more about how the study design affected the knowledge produced in this project, see Chapter 9.
The TCS Project was a Master of Counselling thesis research project running from 2016 to 2017. It was designed to give a trans-centred account of what trans communities are like in Alberta. People involved in the project were either part of the research team or participants who shared the knowledge you’ll see in subsequent chapters.
The TCS Project was trans owned, meaning that it and all products emerging from it were meant to be made and used by and for the benefit of trans communities. All people involved in the project, save the Supervisory Committee (see The Research Team below) identified as trans.
So why was The TCS Project even created?
I first approached this project from the perspective of mental health, particularly in Alberta, but the resultant project has potential relevance to a much broader audience. Transgender activism and visibility have been on the rise, and so too have the number of people willing to identify themselves openly to professionals and others (American Psychological Association, APA, Task Force on Gender Identity and Gender Variance, 2009). Upon reviewing recent mental health literature from the United States and Canada, I found reports that there is a general lack of appropriate knowledge and preparation for transgender care from the level of policy and law down to services and professionals (Bauer et al., 2009; Mule & Smith, 2014; O’Hara, Dispenza, Brack, & Blood, 2013; OPHA, 2003; Veltman & Chaimowitz, 2014). This provided the impetus for creating The TCS Project.
In the literature, I found three main arguments that informed the study. The first finding was that any understanding of transgender experience must be placed in its social context. In Canada, this means understanding that cisnormativity, or the idea that one’s sex and gender will always align, is the dominant norm in our society (see the Definitions page) (Bauer et al., 2009; Butler, 1990; de Vries, 2012; Levitt & Ippolito, 2013; Muñoz, 2012). The second finding was that a majority of recent research into transgender mental health has focused on trans-affirmative approaches at the individual and larger sociopolitical systems levels. There was almost nothing written about work at the middle system level (community level). The last finding was that many researchers have found trans communities to be vital to the mental health of trans people (Barr, Budge, & Adelson, 2016; Bockting, Miner, Swinburne Romine, Hamilton, & Coleman, 2013; Breslow et al., 2015; Cameron, 2012; Dargie, Blair, Pukall, & Coyle, 2014; Pflum, Testa, Balsam, Goldblum, & Bongar, 2015; Ross, 2014). But as the second finding might suggest, there has been little investigation as to why.
The above conclusions led to several questions. What are transgender communities offering their members? How can these groups be supported? And how can people approach and work with and within trans communities effectively? At their foundations, these questions are based on a need to know what trans communities are like. So The TCS Project was designed to answer the following research question:
From a trans perspective, what are the characteristics, strengths, and challenges of transgender communities in Alberta?
The research team for this project included a Supervisory Committee, a community Advisory Panel, and myself (Mateo Huezo, Principal Investigator). This three-part structure to the research team supported a rigorous approach to advancing trans research. The Supervisory Committee evaluated the academic application of research methods in this study, while the Advisory Panel made sure that the design, interaction with participants, data analysis, interpretation, and any products from the study remained accountable first to the trans communities affected by this research. So the Supervisory Team made sure the study was academically up to par, while the Advisory Panel made sure it was relevant and responsible towards trans people.
To meet their two roles, the Supervisory Committee was made up of graduate counselling psychology professors at Athabasca University, while the Advisory Panel was made up of trans community representatives from both Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta. The professional relationships for different individuals in The TCS Project are depicted below. See also the Preface and Acknowledgements page as well as Chapter 9.
Figure 1.1. The TCS Project study structure.
But how did we gather the jam for this sandwich?
To gather knowledge about trans communities and their roles in peoples’ lives, I held a focus group discussion in Calgary and another in Edmonton. I also gathered demographic information and additional thoughts from research participants through short surveys.
Once this information had been gathered, I transcribed and analyzed the data. Demographic information was summarized, and I used a method called Framework Analysis to analyze the rest of what participants had contributed (Ward, 2011; 2012; 2013; Ward, Furber, Tierney, & Swallow, 2013). To make sure the qualitative analysis came to credible conclusions that represented trans knowledge, trans community members from the Advisory Panel and study participants were invited to provide their evaluations of the study findings. I then incorporated these evaluations into a final draft of the analysis.
The knowledge created in this study represents cultural wisdom that came from trans-owned trans research. You will find an overview of this wisdom in the coming chapters. The characteristics of the participants this wisdom came from are given in Chapter 2, Table 2.2.