LAWRENCE — Transgender and gender-diverse youths face a great deal of discrimination, hostility and tension in their daily lives, especially those who live in rural areas where there are fewer transgender youths and low levels of support and resources. A new study from the University of Kansas found that these youths not only have strategies for surviving, but they often turned from resilience to resistance, and that path can lead the way forward for defending their rights.
Meg Paceley, associate professor of social welfare at KU, and colleagues have been working with transgender and gender-diverse — or TGD — youths in rural areas and throughout Kansas and the Midwest for several years. In interviews originally intended to determine the role of families and communities on the youths’ perceived well-being, they found something more.
“With qualitative research, sometimes we find things we weren’t originally looking for. In this case, that was resilience and just surviving in difficult or hostile situations,” Paceley said. “The more we analyzed the data within a resilience frame, we realized there was more there, including resisting oppression.”
Paceley and co-authors Jacob Goffnett of the University of Arkansas; April Diaz, KU doctoral student in social welfare; Shanna Kattari of the University of Michigan; and Jennifer Navarro and Emera Greenwood, KU graduate students in social welfare, wrote a study about their findings from in-depth interviews with 19 TGD youths in two Midwestern states. It was published in the open access journal Youth.
The study found the youths’ resilience and resistance strategies fell into three primary categories: Intrapersonal, interpersonal and community/macro. Previous research has demonstrated the negative effects discrimination and hostility can have on TGD youths in areas such as health outcomes, mental health and academics.
In terms of intrapersonal responses, or those on an individual, personal level, the youths’ resistance often took the form of affirming themselves, maintaining authenticity, resisting oppressive narratives and finding hope. The strategies were ways to oppose messages meant to disbelieve, harm or oppress them.
“Sometimes I just allow myself to feel sad, and I just say, 'I know these people are saying these things about me. And I know they don’t think that I can be this, even though this is what I am…it doesn’t matter what they think. I’m still valid,'” one youth said.
Interpersonal strategies, or those in which the youths resisted oppression in their relationships with others, fit in themes of avoiding hostility, educating others and standing up for themselves and others.
“We saw youth talking about not necessarily cutting someone off, but saying, ‘I don’t deserve to be treated this way, so I’m not going to be,’” Paceley said. “Or advocating for others who maybe didn’t have as good of an experience as them, so they decided they would stand up for them.”
Community and macro resistance strategies happened when the youths decided to take action such as engaging in activism and organizing or enhancing visibility and representation. Several respondents described joining organizations, advocating publicly for transgender and gender-diverse rights or being active in campus organizations. Some said others were not speaking up about discrimination and their rights, so they were moved to take action.
The findings are especially important at a time when states across the country are passing anti-transgender laws, curtailing rights or dehumanizing gender-diverse individuals. Young people in rural areas have been shown to experience higher levels of discrimination, harassment and the negative effects that come with them, Paceley said, and even when such laws don’t pass, the rhetoric and public discussion surrounding them can have lasting, traumatic effects. For that reason, understanding how TGD youths foster resilience — but more importantly, resistance — is vital in advocating for at-risk populations and understanding how they can avoid the common negative outcomes seen among TGD youths.
“Resilience is important for several factors such as health outcomes, how individuals cope or respond to things that shouldn't be happening to them,” Paceley said. “But we also need to realize that resilience is often passive while resistance is active. We should also identify how to reduce the harms that come to TGD youth in the first place, so they don’t have to demonstrate resilience to oppression.”
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