A Trans/Queer/Intersex Primer: Career Counseling Concerns
by Caroline Gould
A student of indeterminate gender, with a lip ring, baseball cap pulled low, and obviously brilliant mind is asking you what to wear for a consulting interview. Another, identifying as trans, applying for public school teaching jobs, wants to know how he should list his college internships performed under another name and gender.
For career counselors unfamiliar with the transgender, queer, and intersex populations, negotiating these kinds of issues can feel like entering a dark room with shin-hungry furniture. The vocational concerns, legal rights, and language are in developmental chaos right now. Through my experience as a psychotherapist, a teacher trainer for the Massachusetts Department of Education Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, and now a career counselor, I have had to pull together both a structural understanding of these populations and some rules to guide me, as I encounter yet another client who doesn't easily fit a heterosexual, male-female, masculine-feminine role.
One early mistake I made was thinking that a gender variant person must be gay. Now, years later, as I facilitate discussions about these issues in clinical and academic settings, I use a model taught to me by Grace Stowell, the executive director of the Boston Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Youth (BAGLY). The idea is to separate the concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality:
Sex: Physiology, the bodies into which we are born. Although the majority of births are clearly male and female, there is a continuum between, with different combinations of X and Y chromosomes and differing amounts and kinds of hormone washes during gestation. People who used to be called "hermaphrodites" are rejecting that clinical term and calling themselves intersexed (1-2% of the general population).
Gender: The social manifestation of masculinity, femininity, a combination of both, or a lack of either. This has an internal identity (that which we know ourselves to be), with an outward expression that may or may not be the same as the internal identity. In addition, there is the perception of others - which may or may not be congruent with our internal identity or expression.
Sexuality: Behavior - with whom, what kind, how often, where, etc.
Not everyone agrees with this particular structure, and not everyone uses the same words in the same ways. Consider this list of identities: androgyne, bigendered, butch, crossdresser, genderbender, genderqueer, F2M, femme, he-she, MTF, non-op, post-op, queer, she-male, stonebutch, trannie, transgender, transman, transsexual, transvestite, and transwoman. Some of the people who SEEM to fit these terms might be very insulted if you even spoke these words in their presence.
What then is a counselor to do? People form the language of their identities in different places at different times. What has helped me negotiate this changing terminology is to keep in mind four recent and relevant waves of social liberation over the last 40 years: Feminism, Gay and Lesbian identity politics, Queer Activism, and now the Transgender/GenderQueer and Intersex movements.
Feminism challenged stereotypic gender roles (expressions and perceptions), but it relied on the fundamental assumption that male and female physiology always determined gender identity. Gay and Lesbian identity politics continued to question those gender roles as it challenged the norms of opposite-sex sexuality. Queer Activism - which has to a large degree been an academic and youth anti-identity movement - reacted to the labels and boxes of the two previous movements, and sought to further stretch the norms of sexuality and gender identity rigidity. Now transgender/genderqueer folks are looking to end any definitive rules of either gender or sexual identities, and alongside intersex people, are claiming the fluidity of sex as well (Davis, 2000).
The following three precepts are useful guidelines for career development professionals working with people who are trans, queer or intersex (t/q/i):
- 1.People are who they say they are. That's it. Don't waste your time worrying about who they "really" are, or were, or will be. It doesn't matter what they look like or who you think they are. Just accept the identity they seem to be or tell you, and use the pronoun they ask you to use.
- 2.Gender variant people face the potential of violence 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which plays out in many aspects of vocational life. Interview attire and replies need to be thought out in advance. References need to be prepared. Collegial relations once on the job need to be considered - i.e., how much of what to share with others. Isolation is the enemy of most all human beings, so access to resources such as t/q/i -friendly organizations and events is essential.
- 3.You bring your knowledge of the career counseling field. Your clients bring their identities, their possibilities and their limitations. It is only through partnerships that you work out what will be the best (most successful, safest, most rewarding) path and solutions. You cannot be expected to have all the answers to all the issues facing every sub-population of trans, queer, or intersex people before they actually sit across from you. There are too many possible permutations/amalgamations/combinations of identities/expressions/behaviors to work out one or two "right" ways to counsel t/q/i people. If instead you focus on being respectful, being realistic, and working in a partnership, you are more likely to be a supportive resource.
When a career counselor sits across from someone from the trans/queer/intersex communities and tries to be helpful, it is important to realize that it is not just the vocational issues that need to be considered. How you interact with your client, the words you use (and don't use), can make or break your helping relationship. With a structural understanding that separates sex, gender and sexuality informed by successive waves of social liberation, plus the three precepts identified, you will be able to continue your own journey of enjoying the incredible diversity of human beings that might ask you for career assistance.
Davis, L. J., (2000). Gaining a Daughter: a Father's Transgendered Tale. National Transgender Advocacy Coalition website, http://www.ntac.org/news/00/08/26daughter.html
[Eds. Note: if the above reference does not connect, try http://transequality.org/]
Caroline Gould has been a psychotherapist, a trainer and regional coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Education's Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, and is now a career counselor with the Smith College Career Development Office. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex issues have been her focus in all three positions.
Caroline can be reached at