Psychotherapy with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients

Psychotherapy with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients

by Karisa Barrow
With attempted suicide rates greater than 40% in the transgender community, it's important for clinicians to be aware of the issues gender nonconforming clients bring to therapy, and to be knowledgeable about how best to support them. Karisa Barrow challenges therapists to deconstruct the gender binary, identify and work through prejudices, and seek guidance from gender specialists to ensure that we "do no harm."


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The Unbearable Otherness of Being

Imagine making your way in a world where your physical appearance makes others uncomfortable, anxious, confused, or uncertain about themselves. Your very presence may be perceived as a threat to another individual’s sense of self or sexual orientation. Everywhere you go, people stare at you—sometimes discreetly, often blatantly—leaving you very little room to walk unselfconsciously through life. The reactions you experience from others, while the result of ignorance and sometimes mere “curiosity,” do nonetheless harm you, for you are perceived as “Other.” At times, people’s reactions are more hostile, the result of conscious and unconscious fears about what it means to deviate from gender norms, and you may be verbally or physically assaulted just for being you.

Everywhere you go, people stare at you—sometimes discreetly, often blatantly—leaving you very little room to walk unselfconsciously through life.
This is what it’s like to be a gender nonconforming or transgender individual in today’s world. Though there is increasing awareness and tolerance around gender issues in certain small segments of American culture, the truth is, the level of misunderstanding, ignorance and prejudice that surrounds gender nonconforming people as they go about their lives has created a mental health crisis in our society. To illustrate the epidemic nature of this crisis, here are a few statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s 2014 Report, “Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults.”

In a pool of 6,000 self-identified transgender respondents:

  • 41% had attempted suicide
  • 60% were denied health care and/or refused treatment by their doctors.
  • 57% had been rejected by their families and were not in contact with them.
  • 69% had experienced homelessness.
  • 60-70% had experienced physical or sexual harassment by law enforcement officers.
  • 65% had experienced physical or sexual harassment at work.
  • 78% had experienced physical or sexual harassment in school.
For gender nonconforming individuals, the very nature of their sense of “self” lies in marked conflict to society’s gender identity “ideals” and social scripts. The resulting prejudice (transphobia and homophobia), whether explicit or covert, often manifests in forms of denial, invisibility, harassment, bullying or, in more extreme cases, assault and murder. As if this weren't enough, gender nonconforming and transgender persons may be further marginalized by their ethnic and racial identity, economic status, physical abilities, and age.

Overpathologizing, misdiagnosing, maltreatment (including refusal of services), neglect and demonization are just some of the ways transgender individuals are routinely discriminated against.
More subtle forms of discrimination exist, many occurring within the helping professions, including mental and medical health, nonprofit support services, legal and government institutions and public schools. Overpathologizing, misdiagnosing, maltreatment (including refusal of services), neglect and demonization are just some of the ways transgender individuals are routinely discriminated against within systems whose mission is to support and serve. These discriminatory practices are carried out by providers who fail to become educated and respect, protect, or provide treatment that is appropriate, impartial, and equal to the care given to other clients. Following, I will attempt to provide the nuts and bolts necessary for aspiring clinicians who wish to work in a culturally competent manner with their gender nonconforming and transgender clients.

Gender and Language

I often remind my colleagues, students and clients that we all have a gender identity and diverse manners in which we choose to engage in self-expression. As a cisgender female (i.e., I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth—female), I am conscious of the great extent to which I can embrace the everyday conveniences of being privileged. I am not ostracized for my gendered self, and no one questions my choice in using a public restroom. For gender nonconforming and transgender clients, this problem is known as the “bathroom issue.”

We all have a gender identity and diverse manners in which we choose to engage in self-expression.
We practitioners need to become fluent and speak the same language as our gender nonconforming and transgender clients. In doing so, we demonstrate the intention of promoting respectful communication that expresses an intricate set of thoughts, ideas, and feelings associated with sex, gender, sexuality and identity. The language used among this diverse community is multifaceted because finding words to articulate complex notions of identity is arduous. In fact, the youth in my office frequently inform me, a gender specialist, how some of the language and concepts I use are now outdated. Nonetheless, staying current with the language being used within the gender nonconforming community is an important part of being not only a culturally competent therapist, but an empathically attuned therapist. Such language literacy also enables mental health professionals to understand concepts, organize thoughts, foster discussion, exchange ideas, and support the community in the least confusing, shameful, and harmful way. Familiarity with the community’s positive expressions of self and identity not only helps clients feel understood, but ensures that therapists don’t rely on clients to educate them—an all-too-familiar experience for cultural minorities.

The following list presents a very general overview of how we come to understand the meaning of sex, gender/gender identity, gender roles, and sexuality for our gender diverse clients and ourselves. It’s important to remember that these terms are constantly evolving within the gender nonconforming, transgender, queer or transsexual communities, as well as by the practitioners who intend to help them. Gender nonconforming and transgender identities include but are not limited to: Transgender (TG), female-to-male (FTM), male-to-female (MTF), transgirl or transboy, girl/woman (natal boy), boy/man (natal girl), they/them, bigender, gender fluid, agender, drag king or queen, gender queer, transqueer, queer, two-spirit, cross-dresser, androgynous. The terms FTM (female-to-male) and MTF (male-to-female) encompass a spectrum or continuum from those who identify as primarily female or male, to those who identify somewhere in the middle or both (e.g., queer). Between these two posts or “extremes” (female and male) lie most gender nonconforming individuals.

The sexual orientation of gender nonconforming and transgender clients is a separate identity and should never be presumed or assumed. It refers to the gender one is typically romantically and sexuality attracted to (e.g., homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual/pansexual, polysexual, asexual etc).

Becoming Gendered

It’s important to think about how we become “gendered.” In part we do this by the way we organize and construct language. Most of the English language is “gendered,” constructed in a way that makes it difficult to deviate from strictly binary conceptions of male and female. We tend to acknowledge and refer to one another through pronouns, and consequently become gendered in our relational experiences. For example, when we frequent our local coffee shop, “Excuse me, Sir...Mam...May I have a large coffee?” Here is a simple example of how we have already ascribed gender to a complete stranger.

“Excuse me Sir...Mam...May I have a large coffee?” Here is a simple example of how we have already ascribed gender to a complete stranger.
As clinicians, we need to learn to ask and address our clients appropriately. More importantly, we need to develop the capacity to become conscious of our own gendered ways. Specifically, we need to ask all our clients about their gender identity and development as well as their gender pronoun preferences. The youth that show up in my office often challenge this binary model most of us are so accustomed to, and request to be referred to as: ze, hir, one, or the plural “they” “their,” “them.” Interestingly, I often find myself arguing with my cisgender colleagues, who get caught up in grammar policing, about the importance of honoring the self-identification of these clients. The English language is constantly evolving, after all, and human and civil rights struggles play an important part in its evolution. At the same time, it’s important to not make any assumptions about people’s identification preferences. Plenty of gender nonconforming or transgender clients prefer to be referenced by conventional pronouns such as “him” or “her” because it feels congruent with their internal identity.

People tend to be preoccupied with gender long before a child is born. “Do you know your baby’s sex?” is a constant question for pregnant parents. Sex, in this case, refers strictly to the external genitalia of the child rather than their potential internal gendered self.
Gender is assigned prenatally and from that moment it determines—and severely limits—acceptable gender expressions and desires.
Gender is assigned prenatally and from that moment it determines—and severely limits—acceptable gender expressions and desires. Our early training begins with our parents’ color selection for our nurseries, the names we are given, and the activities we are encouraged to enjoy, and because we want their love and approval, we emulate what is desired of us. We internalize the societal roles, behaviors and beliefs ascribed to us by the culture around us (including that of our family) and may not know that any other way of being is possible. Boys get blue items, are given toy trucks and guns, and are prompted to be assertive and confident. Girls wear pink, are given dolls to play with, and are encouraged to be empathic and compromising. These behaviors, beliefs and customs are socially constructed—situated in the context of historical time, social class, ethnicity, culture, power, politics, physiology, and psychology—but they are deeply entrenched in our psyches and ways of being.

Clinical Practice

As the presence and experience of transgender people has entered both public consciousness and mental health facilities, clinicians are now beginning to think about transgender/gender issues. However most clinicians are not trained to identify clinical themes prevalent for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, and consequently misunderstand their mental health and their global treatment needs. Our traditional training fails to address gender and sexuality development for transgender persons from a nonpathological perspective. In addition, negative countertransference from providers and institutions is common and lends itself to discriminatory practices or, worse yet, thoughtless analysis of clients’ needs that may lead to irreversible medical interventions. Common feelings and attitudes for inexperienced clinicians toward these clients may include anxiety, fear, disgust, anger, confusion, morbid curiosity, and rejection, all of which can severely compromise the therapeutic relationship, our ability to help, and an individual’s identity development and transition process.

The journey of self-discovery for gender nonconforming and transgender individuals is laborious and often lonely because, simply put, the desire to become more congruent with their “True-Self” in body and mind may require a shift in physical identity. Children tend to be the most disadvantaged in this phase of life as they may be required to repress their desires to play with “cross” gendered toys and are left feeling ashamed to admit their favorite colors and activities (e.g., the boy who is prohibited from playing with dolls and having a pink bedroom).

Children tend to be the most disadvantaged in this phase of life as they may be required to repress their desires to play with “cross” gendered toys and are left feeling ashamed to admit their favorite colors and activities.
As gender nonconforming individuals become more psychologically distressed they often feel the need to have a more congruent experience of their internal and external selves. They may need to first embrace a social transition—choosing an alternative name that reinforces their internal identified gender, dressing in a stereotypical fashion that supports their gender identification and engaging in “cross” gendered behaviors. In my clinical experience, when given the permission and support, gender nonconforming children and adults tend to become less anxious, depressed and gender dysphoric as a result.

However, some gender nonconforming and transgender individuals have a persistent need to modify or transition the physical attributes of their body to the opposite of their ascribed birth gender. This process is often too confusing for most people to comprehend, and is especially difficult because one’s gender expression and behaviors are typically the initial identifying marker for organizing one’s relational experiences among others. The clients with whom I work often desire bodily change not only to feel more congruent with their internal self, but with the hope of being experienced relationally as they truly are. For example, my transgender FTM clients use heavy-duty binders to flatten and contain their breasts so that they will not be mis-recognized as tomboys or lesbians. This experience of congruence tends to reduce gender dysphoric intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences. Our transgender clients need additional support around the use of physical and medical interventions, so it’s all the more important that we be well-educated and sensitive to these issues.

Gender Dysphoria

The new addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), released in May of 2013, has removed the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder and has re-classified Gender Dysphoria as a clinical condition that gender nonconforming, transgender and transsexual clients may experience. Gender dysphoric symptoms arise when one’s self-concept and expressed gender in relation to their ascribed gender is “incongruent.” The psychological distress that results from these internal and external conflicts can lead to dysphoria, depression and a host of other conditions commonly experienced by transgender or gender nonconforming individuals. This turmoil is often created by internalizing the “gaze” of the world around them, i.e., they experience a great deal of psychological discomfort due to being publicly misgendered. Yet, it is also important to note that many gender nonconforming and transgender clients do not experience Gender Dsyphoria. They tend not to make it to our consulting rooms.

What of the clients who do end up in our offices?
How do we help a transgender child assigned female at birth who is in distress after his first menstrual period?
If a gender nonconforming or a transgender client and his or her family seek our support, are we available to console them, educate and advocate on their behalf, and offer culturally informed and sensitive treatment to the client and the family without getting caught up in our own agendas? How do we determine whether a child is an appropriate candidate for social transition, hormone blockers or even cross-hormone interventions? How do we determine whether the child is an appropriate candidate for genital reassignment surgery, which is often irreversible? How do we think about their fertility options and future family plans? How do we help a transgender child assigned female at birth who is in distress after his first menstrual period? Some of these interventions may seem radical, but if we fail to educate and train ourselves adequately around these issues, we can actively cause harm to our clients. Self-harm (body mutilation), substance abuse, homelessness, suicidal ideation or even suicide attempts can result.

A number of other conditions emerge in gender nonconforming children, particularly when their families aren’t able to provide the support and unconditional love that is necessary for them to thrive. These include adjustment issues, depression and anxiety disorders, trauma, substance dependency, and characterological pathology. Clinicians must be aware that families, too, must be educated about transgender issues, learn skills for coping with the child’s gender change, and be able to mourn and seek social and emotional support for themselves. And, of course, many clients may have co-occurring conditions, such as Autism spectrum disorders, that are beyond the scope of this article.

When treating a client with a gender nonconforming or transgender identity, clinicians may find themselves involved in a few situations unique to these clients. They may be asked to assess and substantiate a client’s preparedness for various biomedical interventions—usually involving the Real-Life Test/ Real Life Experience or a Gender Readiness Assessment—which involves encouraging a gender nonconforming client to begin living in their self-determined gender role and then assessing the impact of that experience. For example, some clients might experience a reduction in gender dysphoric distress, while others—say those whose family or community context is hostile to their nonconformity—may experience an increase in symptoms. Though this assessment is no longer required by the Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People published by The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, many medical providers and insurance agencies require it for coverage.

Bridging the Gap

A transgender or gender nonconforming individual’s psyche and the issues they face are very complex—and at times, convoluted—with complications in the psychological, medical, legal, and social realms. Because of this complexity, and the severity of their suffering, it should not be left solely in the hands of clients to educate their clinicians, nor should these clients be put in the vulnerable position of relying on their clinician’s empathy to determine whether they will receive the care they require. An ignorant clinician who responds negatively to such clients—even if only at an unconscious level—can cause untold harm and make it that much more difficult for clients to seek the help they so desperately need. We need to take responsibility for becoming educated and seek guidance from gender specialists—trained providers who can inform clinicians about transgender history and integrate traditional psychoanalytic and psychodynamic perspectives with queer theory.

Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, director of Mental Health at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center in San Francisco, and her colleagues are doing groundbreaking work in this area, bridging the gap between developmental, biological, queer and psychoanalytic theory using what she calls a “Gender Affirmative Model.” She draws upon Winnicott’s ideas of “true gender self” and “false gender self” in formulating her notion of gender creativity to better understand gender nonconforming and transgender children and adults. Turning prevailing wisdom on its head, she argues against labeling gender nonconforming invidividuals as dysphoric and instead views their varied gender expressions as fluid, dynamically intertwined between biology, development, socialization, and cultural context in time. Gender is not binary and may change over lifespan.

Understanding the issues that gender nonconforming clients face creates the possibility of an authentic and empathically attuned treatment that can be a true corrective emotional experience. Having the competence and confidence to administer a Real-Life/Gender Readiness Assessment can make all the difference in our patients’ lives, allowing them to socially transition and integrate their gender identity with other aspects of themselves. Thinking of the client as whole is instrumental to their overall well-being.

Not until we as clinicians grapple with our own gender identity, behaviors, and attitudes can we begin to utilize our assessment skills in developing diagnostic impressions, identify and observe our countertransference feelings, and implement treatment interventions that will lead to a balanced internal and external sense of self that improves a client’s overall quality of life. I encourage all my fellow colleagues to become more cognizant of the their own identities, values, and beliefs, and particularly to confront their fears and prejudices when working with transgender individuals. We must become mindful of what we ask—and do not ask—in our clinical interviews.

Gender deviation is not pathological, and if you think it is, you’ve got some work to do.
We also mustn’t assume that gender nonconforming clients are coming to us because of their gender or sexual identity and be open in creating our hypthotheses about our clients’ needs and desires. Let us accurately reflect the true clinical condition with which our client’s struggle. As I noted at the beginning of this article: imagine making your way in the world where your very sense of being makes others anxious, confused, and uncertain of themselves. By becoming culturally competent, we will be better able to provide an empathic approach to treatment that considers a range of gender nonconforming expressions and behaviors as healthy, as an authentic gender identity and bodily presentation, albeit variant from societal expectations. Gender deviation is not pathological, and if you think it is, you’ve got some work to do. On the other hand, it’s important to not be reflexively “progressive” and mindlessly support a transition that is not first deeply understood clinically.

Reflections on the theory of gender development, diagnostic conditions, and clinical treatment implications must include the role of the clinician as a gatekeeper to another’s self-determined gendered body, heart, and mind. The exploration of the transference-countertransference relationship is paramount, regardless of whether you are a case manager, a medical doctor, or a psychotherapist. Let us play with gender, and in our journey, discover the kaleidoscope of possibilities for clients as well as for ourselves. As providers, it is our social responsibility to change the role of the clinician from a gatekeeper to one who can form a therapeutic relationship that offers a way for clients to integrate their sense of self in relationship to the other that can hopefully be emulated in the outside world. A solid sense of self is likely to build confidence and self-esteem that will foster healthier relationships and diminish uncertainty and fear, decreasing the risk of self-harm and—hopefully—violence toward gender nonconforming and transgendered individuals.

Recommendations for Clinical Practice

  • Ask your clients about their gender identity and preferred pronoun. Explore their internal experience and how it impacts them interpersonally.
  • Foster multiple and integrated identity development: race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, profession etc.
  • Educate parents about the importance of not pathologizing the gender expression of their children.
  • Treatment interventions should include allowing children the space to explore their gender expression, family education and support, as well as parental support to mourn the loss of their fantasies about their birth child's ascribed gender.
  • Collaborate treatment efforts with the providers involved, e.g., social workers, endocrinologist for hormone blockers and hormone treatment, family therapist, and treatment team staff.
  • Remember: Gender nonconformity is a natural expression of human development and experience.
  • Do No Harm: Seek consultation from a gender specialist. Monitor countertransference and refer out if you are not able to act fully in the best interest of your client.

Clinical Resources
  1. Report of the APA Task Force on Gender Identity and Gender Variance.
  2. Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People, Version 7.
  3. Achieving Optimal Gender Identity Integration For Transgender Female-to-Male Adult Patients: An Unconventional Psychoanalytic Guide For Treatment (2008), Karisa Barrow.
  4. Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-nonconforming Children (2011), Diane Ehrensaft.
  5. The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals (2008), Stephanie Brill & Rachel Pepper.
Deconstructing Gender: Self-Exploration Exercise
  • What is your own gender identity?
  • How old were you when realized you were a “girl” or a “boy?”
  • Who and what made this clear to you?
  • Did you agree with your parents clothing choices for you as a child?
  • What activities did/do you enjoy?
  • Have you expressed your own gender identity differently over the course of your life?
  • How do you feel about your body? Your genitalia?
  • What messages have you received about your gender and from whom (e.g. parents, media, religion etc.)? Were you “policed” by others around your identity, gender roles and social practices or body?
  • How has your gender shaped your beliefs, social engagements and practices?
  • What have you been allowed/encouraged to do because of your gender identity and what limitations have you faced (e.g. social sanctions/promotions)?

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Karisa Barrow Karisa Barrow, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty member at The Wright Institute and Argosy University. She is in private practice in Oakland, CA, providing psychotherapy and consultation for adults and children. She served as president for the Alameda County Psychological Association, is chair of the educational committee for the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, participates in the Child and Adolescent Gender Center, and lends her support to the Mind the Gap collaborative. She specializes in working with gender nonconforming, transgender, and GLBQ children and their families.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss the mental health epidemic among gender nonconforming individuals
  • Compare the medical and psychological interventions for transgender clients
  • Describe resources available to gender nonconforming individuals and their clinicians

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here