Support the client throughout their unique process

Explore dominant stories, power dynamics, and systems of oppression

The idea of a dominant narrative can be useful in any therapeutic framework seeking to implement social justice perspectives of client experience. Dominant narratives are those that are widely culturally-accepted and maintain the status quo. Narratives related to gender normativity are inextricable from all other forms of systems of oppression and social normativity. Oftentimes, the dominant narratives encountered by TNB people are also embedded in beliefs that are influenced by racism and white supremacy, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, sizeism, ableism, and myriad other forms of oppression.

As discussed in our review of the existing literature above, dominant narratives about coming out are strongly connected to the historical context of coming out. These narratives, for various reasons, often align with a view that coming out is compulsory. One implication of the historical coming out narrative is the assumption that TNB identities require disclosure due to difference or non-normativity, such as the belief that “passing” TNB people who do not disclose their TNB identity are “tricking” others (see Stryker, 2017 for more information about this, including the so-called “panic defense”).

A similarly influential narrative includes having to prove the existence of TNB identity from childhood to obtain validity. For many TNB clients, the presence or absence of this historical experience can permeate the coming out process. This may show up as questions such as: “Am I really nonbinary?” or “Have I known about my identity long enough to justify coming out?”

Some other dominant narratives that we have encountered that may influence our clients’ coming out stories are:

  • • “You are not trans/nonbinary if you are not out.”
  • • “You are not proud of being trans/nonbinary if you are not out.”
  • • “You must come out to impact politics.”
  • • “You are obligated to come out to be a role model for others.”
  • • “To really be trans/nonbinary, you have to have known since you were young.”
  • • “You are not trans/nonbinary enough to come out.”

These are just some of the examples of influential narratives, but there are many more. A search of TNB-created media may provide further insight into the impact of these and other dominant narratives. As a clinician, take time to examine your personal stances of these narratives and how this might limit or support your clients. Additional questions for reflection are included in the activity at the end of the chapter.

The pressure felt by TNB people related to coming out does not exclusively come from cisgender people. For some clients, the greatest pressure they experience comes from other TNB people. Regardless of the origin of the message, helping clients identify the influence of these expectations on their own lives can support them in creating a coming out process that is authentic for them.

When supporting clients in recognizing dominant narratives, it may be helpful to offer the perspective that these narratives are not stories that they made up or that come from within them. Dominant narratives can often trick us into isolation, believing that there is something inherently off about ourselves that de-legitimizes our TNB identities. Recognizing that these narratives impact others, including cisgender people, can remove this myth of isolation and allow our clients to start deciding whether these narratives are working for them or not.

It is important to mention that just because a narrative is a dominant one, it does not mean it is inauthentic or harmful for an individual. For many TNB people, coming out in support of political progress and becoming a role model for others is empowering and desired. For some, having a history of gender-variant experience to draw upon creates a foundation for a strong sense of certainty moving forward. These narratives become problematic when they co-opt a person’s authenticity and become the “only” or “right” way to be trans and/or nonbinary.

In addition to highlighting dominant narratives related to gender, it is essential to consider how dominant narratives intersect with all of a client’s identities, both in areas of privilege and areas of marginalization. As in all of your work, explore intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality, neurodiversity, disability, religion, and other relevant and meaningful identities. Clients who hold multiple marginalized experiences are likely to be more or differently impacted by dominant narratives.

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