Culturally Competent Research Assistance with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Populations

by K. J. Comerford, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

As a non-binary research assistant who works with TGNC populations, I value the opportunity to learn about the experiences of TGNC folks from varied backgrounds. This is important because it provides information on the unique qualities that shape individuals’ experiences, which can be useful in assessing ways to provide support that is both affirming and productive. Regardless of one’s own gender or sexuality identity, there are concrete skills that can be crucial for a researcher to use when working with TGNC populations. While different skills may be useful for certain situations, the skills I find most relevant to my role as an assistant in research include (1) active listening and exercising non-judgement, (2) utilizing appropriate communication strategies, and (3) seeking information through research and perspective-taking. Perhaps the most important of these skills is respect. In research, I think of this as exercising non-judgement, or specifically, the practice of listening to what people say, or don’t say.

Members of the TGNC population often experience social stigmatization and are frequent victims of discrimination, hostility, and violence (Xavier, 2012), and many of the societal problems faced by these folks are invisible to those who don’t experience them. For this reason, it is important for any researcher to be able to listen, take perspective, and not to make judgements about the experiences or identity of any individual. For example, in meeting a person who is wearing a dress and heels, assuming this person uses certain pronouns is a judgement. Instead, asking the person what their pronouns are, then using these pronouns in reference to them at all times is a more affirming and productive practice. It may feel uncomfortable to explain to somebody who is unfamiliar with TGNC population why you’re using a pronoun they aren’t familiar with, however, this respect is essential to the health and wellbeing of many members of TGNC communities.

Another very important skill relevant to working with TGNC populations in research is the utilization of appropriate communication strategies. To create an affirming environment, it is essential to know your participants’ communication styles and preferences, while remaining objective across our own communications. For example, sometimes we ask participants to send us pictures that reflect whether or not a certain behavior takes place. While some participants have expressed comfort in exposing personal details of their lives in these pictures, others choose to communicate in a broader, less detailed way.

In research, it is important to take into account a communication style that is best for the participant, it is also important to communicate objectively to avoid the possibility of providing unintentional reinforcement. To accomplish this, I try to keep my responses and personality consistent regardless of what response I am given. For example, if Desmond sends me a message that indicates that they haven’t practiced their valued behavior that day, I just say “Thanks for letting me know, Desmond!” If they send a message stating that they have practiced their valued behavior, I am careful not to say phrases I would naturally say in that situation, such as “That’s awesome!” Instead I just again say, “Thanks for letting me know, Desmond!” Understanding unique characteristics of individuals is essential to communication.

Finally, in working with TGNC populations in research, we must consider what specific
research is necessary to becoming informed on important issues and relevant terms. Before initiating important conversations, ask questions such as, “Have I adequately researched key subjects of this situation? Am I prepared to talk about this?”
Being informed in some situations might involve staying up to date on LGBTQIA focused research, critically examining methods used by other researchers and continuing to shape the study’s methods in a way that is affirming the unique needs of the population, considering different perspectives from the community (academic and non-academic alike), and consulting with other behavior analysts or receiving training before working with a marginalized population per the BACB Compliance Code’s guidelines (1.02 (b) Boundaries of Competence, BACB, 2016). This may be put into practice by generating a list of current journals that conduct research within the LGBTQIA population or cover LGBTQIA issues and routinely reading them, finding writers who cover theory and practice around LGBTQIA issues and routinely reading them, attending workshops and webinars to build and maintain cultural competency, or generating a contact list of BCBAs with experience working with LGBTQIA populations.

References:
Xavier, J., Bradford, J., Hendricks, M., Safford, L., McKee, R., Martin, E., and Honnold, J.A. (2012). Transgender health care access of Virginia: A qualitative study. International Journal of Transgenderism, 14, 3-17.
Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) Behavior Analyst Certification Board professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. 2016.

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