This is a longer version of a review of Damien Riggs & Clare Bartholomaeus’ paper published in the Journal of Research in Nursing: Australian mental health nurses and transgender clients: Attitudes and knowledge. Cite as: De Souza, R. (2016). Review: Australian mental health nurses and transgender clients: Attitudes and knowledge. Journal of Research in Nursing, 0(0) 1–2. DOI: 10.1177/1744987115625008
I have never forgotten her face, her body, even though more than twenty years have passed. She was not much older than me and she desperately wanted to be a he. I had no idea how to respond to her depression and her recent self-harm attempt in the context of her desire to change gender. There was nothing in my nursing education that had prepared me for how I might be therapeutic and there was no one and nothing in the acute psychiatric inpatient unit that could resource me. I feel embarrassed now that I had no professional understanding and experience to guide me to help me provide effective mental health care to my client. I was an empathic kind listener, but I had been immersed in a biologically deterministic (one’s sex at birth determines ones’ gender) and binary view of gender despite my own diverse cultural background which I had been socialized to see as separate from my mainly white nursing education. I had not been educated to critically consider discourses of sex and gender, to provide competent safe care to someone who wanted to change her gender and express her gender differently from normative gender categories (Merryfeather & Bruce, 2014). My work has since led me to consider the ways in which “differences” are produced culturally, politically, and epistemologically specifically in terms of categories including “race”, ethnicity, nationality, class, and more recently sexuality and gender.
Four critiques of biomedicine as a dominant framework for understanding ‘problems with living’ have inspired transformation of the mental health system. Firstly, the emphasis on participation and inclusion through consumer-led and recovery-oriented practice has profoundly changed the role of consumers from passive recipients of care to being more informed and empowered decision-makers whose lay knowledge and personal experience of mental illness are a resource (McCann and Sharek, 2014). This reconceptualisation has been formalised in the ‘recovery’ model, which has critiqued the stigmatising judgements of medico-psychiatric discourse about deviance and their accompanying social exclusion and disadvantage (Masterson and Owen, 2006). The third has been the recognition of cultural diversity and a critique of the limits of universalism. Finally, gender activism has exposed fractures in the sex/gender system and has led to a greater awareness of diversity, with regard to gender and sexual orientation.
Of these critiques, gender activism has received the least attention in mental health nursing; which is a concern, given the negative effects of heteronormativity and cisgenderism. Mental health nurses must continue to challenge or trouble the dominant binary views of gender and the discourse of biological determinism, the notion that the sex that one is assigned at birth determines ones’ gender (Merryfeather and Bruce, 2014). There is growing evidence of negative attitudes, a lack of knowledge, and a lack of sensitivity toward people whom are expressing diverse genders and sexualities. This discrimination creates barriers to the patients’ health gain and creates disparity (Chapman et al., 2012; McCann and Sharek, 2014).
The reviewed article on the attitudes of mental health nurses towards transgender people is therefore timely, given the relative invisibility of issues of gender identity within nursing theory, practice and research. As Fish (2010) wrote previously in this journal, the culture, norms and values of social institutions can inhibit access to healthcare and reinforce disparities in health outcomes. Cisgenderism (the alignment of one’s assigned sex at birth and one’s gender identity and gender expression with societal expectations) suffuses every aspect of clinical access to and through services, from written materials including mission statements, forms, posters and pamphlets; the built environment such as gender-specific washrooms; and interactions with both health professionals and allied staff, all of which reinforce a message of exclusion of transgender people (Baker and Beagan, 2014; Rager Zuzelo, 2014). In turn, these exclusionary practices are shaped through a dearth of policies and procedures, and scant educational preparation at the undergraduate and graduate levels (Eliason et al., 2010; Fish, 2010).
Nurses have a professional responsibility to challenge structural constraints and social policies, rather than passively accepting them. This paper provided compelling evidence for how nursing as a discipline and mental health nursing as a unique speciality can critically reflect on discourses regarding sex and gender; and on how these influence practice and consequently, can develop safer, ethical, effective and high-quality care for people whom either change their sex or express their gender differently from the standard culturally determined gender categories (Merryfeather and Bruce, 2014). Furthermore, this paper challenges mental health nurses to challenge heterosexism and cisgenderism; to speak out about social determinants of health that contribute to health inequities and health disparities, such as transphobia; and to address discrimination against transgender people. These challenges must be embedded into processes at the organizational, regulatory and political level (DeSouza, 2015).
Baker K and Beagan B (2014) Making assumptions, making space: An anthropological critique of cultural competency and its relevance to queer patients. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 28(4): 578–598. doi:10.1111/maq.1212.
Chapman R, Watkins R, Zappia T, et al. (2012) Nursing and medical students’ attitude, knowledge and beliefs regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents seeking health care for their children. Journal of Clinical Nursing 21(7,8): 938–945. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2702.2011.03892.
De Souza R (2015) Navigating the ethics in cultural safety. In: Wepa D (ed.) Cultural safety. Port Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, pp. 111–124.
Eliason MJ, Dibble S and Dejoseph J (2010) Nursing’s silence on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues: The need for emancipatory efforts. Advances in Nursing Science 33(3): 206–218. doi:10.1097/ANS.0b013e3181e63e4.
McCann E and Sharek D (2014) Challenges to and opportunities for improving mental health services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Ireland: A narrative account. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing 23(6): 525–533. doi:10.1111/inm.12081.
Masterson S and Owen S (2006) Mental health service user’s social and individual empowerment: Using theories of power to elucidate far-reaching strategies. Journal of Mental Health 15(1): 19–34. doi:10.1080/0963823050051271.
Merryfeather L and Bruce A (2014) The invisibility of gender diversity: Understanding transgender and transsexuality in nursing literature. Nursing forum 49(2): 110–123.
Rager Zuzelo P (2014) Improving nursing care for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing 43(4): 520–530. doi:10.1111/1552-6909.1247.