Building a trans-affirming mental-health program

Building a trans-affirming mental-health program

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In the last 10 years, feminist and women’s spaces have grappled with how their histories and missions connect with transgender communities and how they want to be accountable to these connections. These spaces include community events, health centers, colleges, bookstores, festivals and philanthropic efforts. When this issue arises, many become resistant or paralyzed, which can result in stumbling over policies, making arbitrary decisions or falling back on legal definitions and perceived notions of safe space. These groups do not have a framework or a productive process by which to actively address this emerging issue.

Women’s Therapy Center is a women’s nonprofit in Philadelphia that decided to address this issue head-on. WTC has provided quality, affordable psychotherapy to low-income women since 1972. We serve a group of women who are working but often do not qualify for subsidized benefits and are often only a paycheck away from poverty. They are housekeepers, hair dressers, nannies, baristas, waiters, sex workers, artists and students. They want support but many barriers prevent them from accessing help — long waiting lists, insurance requirements, lack of finances or transportation and fear of stigma, sexism and judgment. WTC was formed to remove these barriers and offer quality, affordable mental-health services that promote healing and growth over pathology and profit. The agency provides psychotherapeutic services in a feminist environment created by collaboration, client empowerment, affordability, a de-emphasis on diagnosis, racial equity and recognizing the ways in which our experiences with oppression are shaped by our concurrent identities. WTC offers individual, couples and group psychotherapy to 350 clients a year on a sliding-fee scale.

As an organization, WTC made the commitment to becoming fully trans-inclusive and affirming in all of its services because this fit with our feminist mission. Several years prior, transgender communities began giving WTC feedback and advocating for more competent and inclusive mental-health services. These communities expressed the need for non-pathologizing therapeutic spaces where transgender people could be their authentic selves. Community members stated that they wanted a space that was feminist and worked from a gendered place, not just a “gay” space or a mental-health space. They requested psychotherapy that would understand and address the consequences of transphobia and discrimination such as loss of job, family, children and social supports.

Philosophically, WTC was well-positioned to offer a safe and affirming space to provide therapy for trans communities. As feminist psychotherapists already working from a gendered place, WTC understood how certain gendered experiences call for particular needs around attunement and clinical intervention. Thus in 2012, WTC decided to address this issue with an intentional process. WTC embarked on a journey that has included educational trainings, hard discussions, more training and more discussions. In June 2013, the same week that DOMA was overturned, WTC staff and board unanimously voted to provide fully trans-inclusive and affirming services. WTC committed to being accountable to build trust within trans communities, particularly due to a divisive history with feminist spaces and mental-health providers.

This process of exploration, education, dialogue and community-building led to a historical moment for a feminist organization. WTC, however, still has many steps to take to become truly trans-affirming. We have committed agency time and resources and are partnering with over 25 key transgender stakeholders who have helped guide this effort. After several meetings, the community came up with the following recommendations: provide training and supervision; alter the physical space, forms and online presence; increase trans representation on staff and board; and work with trans communities to build accountability and create programming.

A strategy they proposed was to host a community forum to present WTC’s services and process around becoming trans-affirming; engage in a dialogue around specific mental-health needs for transgender communities; and listen to community feedback and answer questions. This forum is a priority because, in order for WTC to be successful, it needs to offer a space where community members can partner with WTC. It won’t matter if we offer psychotherapy that is affirming if the community doesn’t feel like it has impacted the process or defined how its needs could be met.

The forum, funded by Delaware Valley Legacy Fund and Bread & Roses Community Fund, is 6-8 p.m. May 1 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. Refreshments will be served. We invite anyone who is invested in helping WTC achieve this goal. If you are interested, RSVP at 215-567-1111, ext *811 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

WTC is enthusiastic about this next phase of growth for the organization. The community forum will be a significant step in this journey and WTC hopes you will join us for this auspicious occasion.

Alison Gerig, LCSW, is executive director of Women’s Therapy Center.

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