CHAPTER 6: Intra-Community Challenges
The next three theme groupings represent the internal cultural community knowledge participants shared in this study. The first set of themes was grouped loosely as Intra-Community Challenges. Here we coded difficulties group members saw within their local trans communities. Below is a description of each subtheme in this group. The subtheme titles are:
- Mental Health as a Barrier
- Minority Stress as a Barrier
- Divided Ideologies
- Guardedness and Self-Seclusion
- Translated Oppressions and Lateral Violence
- Leaving Others Behind
- Needs Outstrip Resources
Trans community members face challenges in their personal and social lives due to mental health factors such as anxiety, distress, and tested mental resilience.
Participants noted several challenges to their sense of wellbeing, including anxiety, a lack of social connection, low confidence, suicidality, gender dysphoria, substance use, minority stress, and trauma from trans-related experiences. For example, one Edmonton participant disclosed: “Just as a generally anxious person I find it difficult to come to things.”
Participants noted two ways that people might deal with mental health barriers. The first was to rely on personal resources (see Individual Strengths and Positives, Chapter 7). The second was to use their community as a safety net (see Safety Net, Chapter 7). In order to provide this safety net, trans communities might seem closed off to outside society (see Guardedness and Self-Seclusion below).
Both groups expressed a contextual understanding of transgender mental health that involved a series of key players (these are depicted in Figure 9.1, Chapter 9). In essence, personal and external challenges to wellness such as oppression and discrimination were seen as negatively impacting personal and community wellness. One Calgary member called the result “a community of… walking wounded.” While trans people often access their communities for mental health and social support (see Chapter 7), the result of large mental health loads in these communities coupled with a lack of resources could agitate community conflict (see also Needs Outstrip Resources and Translated Oppressions and Lateral Violence below). An Edmonton participant described it well:
“Mental health. . . here in Edmonton in general is, is overloaded. So I think what happens a lot of the time in vulnerable communities, like the trans community, is people aren’t getting the mental health care that they need. So it front-loads every support group with having to deal with supporting people’s mental health. So, you know, it can seem like your group is really dramatic. Is it because there’s a lot of people in your group that are in crisis? And maybe not dealing with it so well at the moment.”
Aside from external challenges, one Calgary member also explained the personal struggles of being trans that could impact individual wellness.
“I think what people fail to acknowledge with the LGBT community in general, and I think with the trans community in specific, is the amount of mental strain. Like the level of trauma you deal with in order to find yourself.”
Both groups explained that the impact of societal oppression and internalized minority stress could result in negative mental health outcomes and act as a barrier between individuals and others. It is important to note that although minority stress was often tied in to topics of mental health, it appeared frequently and sometimes alone in the data. So the next subtheme below explains minority stress in more detail.
As you may know from the introduction of this book, I first approached The TCS Project from a mental health perspective. The findings in this project, as you can see, covered mental health and a variety of other topics. One thing I noticed missing was talk of spirituality and its impact on wellness. Are there any other factors you might personally add or expand on when considering your own understanding of what impacts individual and community wellness?
Navigating the world as a gender minority introduces stress and trans-specific challenges to one’s life.
Community members described Extra-Community Challenges like oppression, discrimination, and inaccessible resources adding to personal and gender transition-related stress. As described above, this internalized stress could impact individual mental health and community wellness (see also Figure 9.1, Chapter 9). One member described how these challenges can be more devastating when someone is already dealing with the personal and physical parts of transitioning and self-acceptance. She posed the question:
“If we didn’t have the issues that we see in society, and you wanted to transition, how much would you suffer?”
An Edmonton participant gave a personal example of how minority stress negatively impacted her own capacity to reach out socially. She described her state after experiencing discrimination during her commute to and from work each day.
“I’m constantly on display. Do I really want to get all dressed up and go another event? Honestly no I don’t.”
Chicken or the egg?
Until recently, being trans was considered an illness in Western psychiatry. However it is better understood today that when our social environments are inclusive, we fare much better. So understandings of the mental health load of trans people are shifting from “there’s something wrong with the person” to “there’s something wrong with society.” The two subthemes of Mental Health and Minority Stress as barriers above paint a picture of how these two might get mixed up in the first place.
Imagine you were to colour a page titled “Contextualizing Wellness” in two shades. One colour would be for aspects of your social context that influence your mental health, and one for more internal or personal issues. How much of your page would be each colour?
There is ideological division in trans communities about what the community is, who should be a part of it, how it should function, or what the prevailing attitudes or beliefs in the community should be.
In general, both the Edmonton and Calgary groups noted that divisions tended to come up in their communities around social hierarchies and oppressions such as racism or sexism (see also Translated Oppressions and Lateral Violence). However, they noted that divisions could also vary by group (see Different Cultural Manifestations, Chapter 8). Members from both communities noted some differences in how people thought the trans community should or should not accommodate different genders. This included whether trans communities should include binary masculine or feminine genders and/or nonbinary genders. One Edmonton participant described her community as “diverse and fractured.” She added:
“There’s no common agreement on stuff. And. . . there is of course a divide between my own personal life and folks who have transitioned. . . You don’t have to transition to be trans.”
One Calgary participant went into detail about when and where different subgroups of trans people should be able to “claim space” for issues relevant to them. He said it was difficult to find a “happy medium” for creating relevant, responsive, and inclusive community initiatives for specific subgroups. Some Edmonton group members discussed a divide between people focused on activism for trans inclusion within larger society and those focused on internal community relationships and support (see also Advocacy, Chapter 7, ). Members in both groups noted differing stances about whether or not trans communities should try to pass undetected or strive to be visible and accommodated in larger society (see also Social Discourses, Chapter 8).
Both the Edmonton and Calgary groups agreed that division could create “drama” in the community, hinder cohesion, and be off-putting to people trying to access those groups. A Calgary participant voiced his frustration with this problem.
“If you go to the root of what community is, regardless of the, the minority for which its fulfilling a mission, it’s about human connection. Which is where the conflicts I find [are] really frustrating. Because I think if you. . . surface glance the conflicts and think “well I can’t go to this group because they believe this and I don’t,” then you’re missing out on the deeper point. And the point is pretty universal.”
A moment of silence.
…for those quotes above.
Trans communities can seem closed off, resentful of outsiders, and resistant to change.
Participants talked about trans communities seeming closed off as both good and bad. It could offer a sense of security (see Safety Net, Chapter 7), or it could hinder community connection (see Inaccessible Community, Chapter 4). One Calgary member explained: “It’s a safety issue, it’s an anxiety issue. . . They’ll stick to themselves.” In both groups, guardedness and self-seclusion related to dominant social discourses in the community about being stealth (see Inaccessible Community, Chapter 4, and Social Discourses, Chapter 8).
For the Edmonton group, this closed-off nature was talked about as something the community emphasized more in the past and was now moving away from. The change, according to one participant, began like so: “About 2011-2012 people started standing up.” But another member opined that “there’s still a fair amount of stealth.”
For the Calgary group, their local trans community was described as presently guarded. Though participants did note there was increased trans visibility and that their community was evolving, they did not mention whether these changes were reflected in how closed-off trans communities seemed to be. One group member described her community this way:
“Trans community spaces. . . Or even just LGBT+ spaces are definitely much more closed off and not as outgoing as maybe other spaces or other clubs might be for whatever purpose they have.”
What say you?
The ethics of opening up or closing shut trans communities seems to have no clear-cut answer that will satisfy everyone. Where do you stand on this issue? Why?
Social hierarchies and systems of oppression seen in larger society, such as sexism and racism, actively play out in trans community interactions.
Both the Calgary and Edmonton groups discussed the impact of adopting cisnormativity into trans communities. This, they said, fueled gender policing between trans people. Some in the community might promote stealth or binary gender expression to those who do not fit binaries (see Inaccessible Community, Chapter 4), or negative attitudes towards visible sexual and gender diversity. One Edmonton participant also mentioned that class hierarchies could play out in trans communities, specifically with regards to sexism and ableism. A Calgary participant detailed difficulties with racism in his local community, and another speculated how these biases were brought into local groups.
“It’s our society that’s inbred [prejudice] into us, right?. . . The thing is, when in the trans community we’re so small that it stands out.”
Both groups speculated that community members might be more prone to act out lateral violence when aggravated by Extra-Community and Intra-Community Challenges (see also Figure 9.1, Chapter 9). Lateral violence here includes verbal, emotional, possibly physical violence between group members of the same minority. As one Calgary member said:
“Everyone is like trying to figure their own stuff out, and then also trying to help other people, and then putting their. . . Kind of hang-ups and trauma on other people by accident. . . I don’t think it’s malicious most of the time.”
Freud had the opinion that when someone didn’t have the power to stand up in one situation, they might displace their aggression or emotions elsewhere where they did have power. So when you can’t fight the system that oppresses you, you go home and kick the dog. There is also another theory that we tend to be biased against social groups that aren’t our own. Multiple factors could lead to lateral violence in minority communities. So what do you think contributes to lateral violence and translated oppression?
There is an expectation of person-to-person community and support between trans people. Some people within the community are seen as not meeting this expectation.
You might notice in the definition above that this theme relates directly to a social discourse in trans communities (see #3, Social Discourses, Chapter 8). Calgary and Edmonton participants spoke of trans people who were more privileged or further in their gender transitions seeming unmindful of those less privileged than them, not as far in their own transitions, or who did not wish to transition.
Edmonton participants discussed the roles of community leaders in being responsible to other trans people and how some leaders might “focus more on the activism than on the person-to-person interaction.” One Edmonton participant told a story of feeling ignored by a trans advocate from whom she’d expected support.
“I’m completely and utterly ignored. And I thought that that was just really odd. . . Considering the fact that I have the common ground. We’re the trans people.”
Members from both cities described instances in which people would “leave[e] the community altogether.” Although participants in both groups also said that sometimes individuals would return to the community after some time or when there was a need (see also Mentorship, Chapter 8).
Imagine you were on the decision committee for a community grant, and you received two applications for funding. One was from an trans advocacy group and the other from a trans support group. How would you choose between them?
The demand for help from trans people and communities outweighs the available people and services addressing those needs.
Both the Calgary and Edmonton groups spoke about how trans community leaders are often responsible for filling gaps in general support and services for trans people. They said there is a lack of available health, mental health, and social services outside of the community and not enough people within trans communities who have the motivation and ability to make up for these gaps. This results in a net higher need than available services to trans people, partners, and families.
This subtheme again relates to Extra-Community and Intra-Community Challenges, and fits into the process depicted in Figure 9.1 (Chapter 9). One Calgary member detailed the struggles of creating groups with foci wide enough to be inclusive of many trans people but narrow enough to effectively meet relevant needs. He put it this way:
“I think there’s expectations and trauma that are piled on the community by the community. . . Because the services are so scarce.”
Members in both groups noted strides their communities had made towards matching needs to services (see also Community Positives, Chapter 7). One Edmonton participant relayed confidence in the diversification of options her local community was responsible for.
“We’ve already separated 18+ with the youth. . . I think we’re more than willing, and strong enough as a community. If there’s enough of us we can develop more programs to assist each other.”
There is an allegory that says you cannot fill a jar with rocks, sand, and water by putting in the water and sand first. You must put the big rocks in first, then fill the extra space with sand and water. This story is a metaphor for choosing your major needs or values before choosing what to do in the details of your life. What are your big rocks?