Bearing Witness: Exploring rites of passage as a supportive framework for Transgender youth
Humankind has been engaging in rites of passage since the beginning of time. Arnold van Gennep (1909/2004) coined the term “rite of passage” and defined it as a ritualistic practice, or set of practices, denoting or marking the transition of a person from one stage of life to the next. All rites of passage require the individual to shed their current roles, identities, self-concepts, and societal obligations, and pass through a space of change before resuming their new roles and identities in society. Bell (2003) adapted van Gennep’s rite of passage three stage model that incorporates separation, transition, and reincorporation as its core components.
Rites of passage marking transitions through developmental stages in life have traditionally been celebrated within a community context. However, modern western society no longer marks these transitions with traditional community rituals in a worthwhile way, and this lack of rites of passage negatively impacts the healthy development of people and culture (Scott, n.d.). In recent years, rites of passage programs have been created outside typical communities. These programs and program models, which have spawned from traditional rites of passage, are the focus of this paper.
One of the benefits of rites of passage experiences for youth is the opportunity for safe exploration and identity development. Rite of passage experiences for youth help individuals address some of the inherent uncertainty and struggle usually associated with adolescence. The space to explore and continue developing identity during such a confusing time as adolescence could be especially impactful for youth who are also from marginalized communities, such as the Transgender community.
Through web-based research, the authors reviewed inclusivity of and accessibility for Transgender youth within many current rites of passage programs and experiences. Additionally, through personal interviews, the authors examined approaches to working with common themes in transition through rites of passage experiences. The authors, viewing transition related to Transgender identities as a rite of passage, discuss increasing accessibility to current rites of passage programs, as well as propose the development of Transgender youth-specific rites of passage offerings to honor, support, and bear witness to the experiences of Transgender youth.
Community Context and Considerations
In order to understand the importance of creating accessibility for Transgender youth, subsequently referred to as Trans youth, in current rites of passage programming and experiences, as well as the need for Trans-specific rites of passage programs and experiences, a basic understanding of the Trans community and Trans issues is needed. Gender identity is an individual’s internal sense of gender, and gender expression is how an individual manifests their gender to the outside world. A transgender individual is someone whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. A cisgender individual is someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex that individual was assigned at birth. Non-binary is an umbrella term that encompasses gender identities that are outside of man or woman, inclusive of both man and woman, or in between man and woman. Transition in the life of a Trans person is defined by that person (Parker & Solymosy-Poole, 2016). This process can include surgery, hormones, name and pronoun changes, and many other things. Sometimes, transition includes none of these things. Some view transition as life-long, while others view transition as a period of time with a beginning and an ending. When the authors refer to transition within the Trans community, the definition of transition being used is however the person who is transitioning defines transition in their own life.
In much the same way, it is important to note that there is some fluidity in the definitions of the previously stated terms within the Trans community, especially due to how each individual claims different terms as identities. For example, some individuals may identify their gender as non-binary, rather than using non-binary as an umbrella term. Further, some individuals who identify as non-binary do not identify as Transgender. Rather than seeking to use absolute definitions for terminology, it is the commonly-accepted practice recommended by the Trans community to listen to, respect, and use the terms that Trans individuals use to define their lives.
Best practices for working with members of the Trans community require that professionals not only have an understanding of the community, but also an understanding of issues faced by the community. Individuals in the Trans community face many issues due to marginalization, and youth are particularly at risk (Parker, 2015). When considering other marginalized identities such as race, class, and ability, oppression experienced by Trans youth is compounded for those at the intersections of their transgender identities and other identities. For this reason it is important for professionals to understand the issues faced by Trans youth, as well as issues found at the intersection of their transgender identity and others such as race, class, and ability (Parker, 2015).
Rates of trauma due to violence are much higher among transgender youth than those of their cisgender peers (Grant, Mottet, Tanis, Harrison, Herman, and Keisling, 2011). Additionally, transgender youth are at a higher risk of homelessness (Hunt and Moodie-Mills, 2012; Keuroghlian, Shtasel, and Bassuk, 2014). Self-harm and suicide rates among transgender youth are higher, as are rates of substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors (Quintana, Rosenthal, and Krehely, 2010; National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2006; Hunt and Moodie-Mills, 2012; Advocates for youth, 2013). Those within the transgender community who carry additional marginalized identities are at greater risk for violence; lack of access to resources, jobs and housing; and risky behaviors.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (Grant, et. al, 2011), of the respondents who expressed a Transgender identity or gender non-conformity in grades K-12
- 78% reported experiencing harassment,
- 35% percent reported experiencing physical violence,
- 12% reported sexual assault.
- 15% reported harassment was so severe that they left school
- 51% who were harassed, physically or sexually assaulted, or expelled because of their gender identity or expression reported having attempted suicide
- 76% of respondents who were assaulted by teachers or staff alone reported having attempted suicide
The violence is not limited to schools. Trans youth experience violence in homes, shelters, on the streets, in detention and treatment centers, in hospitals, and many other settings (Grant, et. al, 2011; Quintana, et. al, 2010; Hunt and Moodie-Mills, 2012; Advocates for Youth, 2013). Seventy-seven percent of clients at a youth homeless shelter in New York City reported they had “experienced physical or emotional abuse, including assault, sexual assault, and even attempted murder at the hands of their families” after being rejected for their queer or Trans identities (Quintana, et. al, 2010, p. 9). Approximately one fifth of transgender individuals who participated in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had experienced violence at the hands of a family member because of their gender identity (Grant, et. al, 2011; Advocates for Youth, 2013).
Repeatedly, research has shown that queer and Trans youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population (Quintana, et. al, 2010). It is estimated that twenty to forty percent of homeless youth identify as queer or Trans despite making up only five to seven percent of the overall youth population (Quintana, et. al, 2010). These youth often end up on the streets as a result of rejection by family (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2006; Advocates for Youth, 2013; Hunt and Moodie-Mills, 2012).
Addressing Critical Issues Through Rites of Passage Programming
The authors reviewed the websites of over 30 different programs that resulted from the electronic search. Although the authors did not run any formal statistical analysis, it appears that well over half of these programs mentioned working with LGBTQ+, or Trans youth specifically. Almost exclusively, these programs and services were therapeutic in nature and focused on the treatment of mental health issues. No organizations offered rites of passage programs uniquely for Trans youth.
This review of current program offerings showed a general absence of Trans specific rites of passage programs. If Trans-specific programs or services do exist, they are not easily or readily available. The authors wish to make it explicit that this search and review of current programs and offerings is not exhaustive or definitive. Traditional indigenous, as well as other non-traditional community-based rites of passage likely exist. However, there is clearly a lack of program offerings for the larger Trans youth population, as evidenced by their lack of internet visibility. In today’s modern society, it is increasingly important to ensure that programs are both visible and accessible which necessitates having a strong web presence for populations where traditional practices have been lost.
Current Trans-Friendly Program Offerings
Although the authors were unable to find Trans-specific rites of passage programs, there are two organizations that offer programs to the LGBTQ+ community that are specifically inclusive of Trans youth. Both programs are named Queer Quest, but are run by different organizations. The first Queer Quest offering is through The School of Lost Borders. Their website states that the rite of passage offering for 2017 entails a seven day Vision Fast that is intended to give members of the LGBTQ+ community an opportunity to explore “what it means to be a queer and grow into adulthood,” while working with other members of the LGBTQ+ community (School Of Lost Borders, 2016). The second Queer Quest is offered through The Make Trybe Center for Transformative Design. Their Queer Quest program offers five two-hour group sessions, a weekend trip, and a follow up session over seven weeks which “offers identity exploration and sacred space specifically for LGBTQ+ youth and adults” (Make Trybe Center for Transformative Design, 2015). Although the Make Trybe Queer Quest does not restrict its population to youth only, it does appear to make a concerted effort to cater to the specific needs of youth. While it is unlikely that these are the only two programs that offer rites of passage experiences inclusive of Trans youth, they appear to be the most readily accessible for prospective participants due to ease of internet searchability.
Increasing Accessibility of Current Rites of Passage Programs
In conducting the web-based search for rites of passage programs and experiences, the authors were looking for any organization that explicitly indicated that the organization was LGBTQ+ friendly and Trans-friendly specifically. For the purposes of this article, the authors define inclusivity as the admission of Trans youth to programs, while accessibility indicates that an organization is working toward their program not being harmful toward Trans youth based on their Trans identities. It is important to note that many of the programs and experiences found in the web-based search only indicated inclusivity on their web pages, rather than accessibility. Although LGBTQ+ youth can show up and be a part of the experiences, the organizations responsible for the rites of passage offerings do not indicate that the programs and experiences have been redeveloped in ways that specifically meet the needs of Trans youth. Many organizations give no indication what it means to them to be “Trans-friendly.” Some organizations address accessibility for Trans youth by stating on their websites that youth can choose to be in the gendered group that matches their affirmed gender, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth. Although this approach can be affirming of many binary Trans youth, oftentimes organizations only have a boys group and a girls group, leaving many non-binary Trans youth without an affirming choice.
Making current rites of passage programs and experiences accessible for Trans youth needs to begin before Trans youth engage in a rite of passage experience. That is, organizations should begin working now to make their programs accessible as an intentional forethought, rather than an incidental afterthought.
There are many ways current rite of passage programs can become more accessible to Trans youth. Asking youth who they are, what they want to be called, and how they want to be referred to is one. Additionally, normalizing hygiene discussions related to menstruation for all participants, regardless of gender, is another. Splitting groups based on a different qualifier rather than gender would be another. Groups can be divided by age groups or interests. Youth can be given more than two choices, told a story to explain each group, and be allowed to choose for themselves what group feels empowering to them, as was done by a pair of guides in Boulder, Colorado with their development of the “Sun, Moon, and Star Society” (Sinopoulos-Lloyd & Sinopoulos-Lloyd). Staff can be trained to notice the ways they make cisnormative assumptions about how adulthood might look for youth who are participating in programs that are supporting that youth’s transition to young adulthood. That training should not stop at direct-care staff. All employees and volunteers should be trained to best serve Trans youth in ways that make programs more accessible and less harmful toward youth. Further, Trans adult role models actively seeking the opportunity to work with youth from their community can be hired to co-lead these programs. However, this must be an opportunity the adult is seeking rather than the organization tokenizing Trans people for the sake of the program.
Additionally, when Trans youth show up at organizations currently offering youth focused rites of passage programs and experiences, those organizations should create space for Trans youth to also honor transition related to their Trans identities. For many Trans youth who are transitioning, it is difficult to separate their transition into young adulthood from their transition related to their Trans identity. At the same time organizations create the space for Trans youth to honor transition, it is also necessary for those organizations to understand that some Trans youth may not need or want support around their gender identity. Thus, professionals are reminded that the participant is inclined to set their own intentions, and professionals should encourage the experience be youth-centered and youth-led.
In considering designing programs that cater specifically to the needs of Trans youth, it is necessary to incorporate the voice of the Trans community. As previously discussed, it is inappropriate to include Trans individuals in leadership and development roles as tokenizing them for a semblance of diversity. Instead, it is the responsibility of those currently in leadership roles to create programs and experiences that provide safe and inclusive spaces that encourage the inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds.
Creating Trans Youth-Specific Rites of Passage
Adolescence is often a time that individuals begin to intentionally and consciously explore who they are. It can be a confusing period in a person’s life, and it can also be an opportunity for significant personal growth. Transgender individuals face markedly more societal adversity than cisgender individuals in this exploration, not only in terms of gender and sexuality, but also in their sense of self and their role in the community. Rites of passage programs are uniquely suited to provide a structured, safe, and inclusive space for Trans youth to engage in a personal investigation, while being in community with other Trans people who are on the same path.
Participants seek out programs like rites of passage programs with a specific purpose in mind. They rely on the facilitators of the program to create a framework in which to explore their purpose. Here, a distinction must be drawn between goal directed and intention directed experiences. Part of the potency of a rite of passage experience lies within inexplicable nature of the liminal stage. It is in this stage that that change takes place. Participants are encouraged to explore who they are without the burden of their social roles and identities. Goals inherently restrict the free exploration of self within the liminal space by requiring the participant to reach or achieve some target. Because of the limited focus of a goal, participants who are goal directed, are not in a position to look for and receive experiences outside of their course. In contrast, intentions are open ended. An intention has direction without a precise outcome. When participants begin a rite of passage and enter the liminal space with intentions, they tend to be more open to meet aspects of themselves and of the world that they were unaware of when they began their rite of passage.
For Trans youth, the distinction between goal directed and intention directed programs becomes especially meaningful in relation to exploration of gender and sexuality. All too often, people working with Trans youth assume that gender and sexuality are aspects that participants are confused about and are seeking to explore. However, this mindset creates a facilitator led, goal directed environment that may stifle growth if this is not the direction an individual wants to go. Facilitators may guide participants to solidify and clarify their intentions, but should not judge or suggest goals or motives.
Although guidance around exploring gender, sexuality, sense of self, and any other aspect should be provided by those leading the program, the authors advise that the purpose of rites of passage experiences for Trans youth should only focus on these themes if directed by the participant. The purpose, then, of rites of passage experiences for Trans youth, should be to provide a space for participants to share their stories and be in relationship with other members of their community who have a shared experience. Most programs provide a space for cisgender youths to explore their adolescence and growth into adulthood. Programs designed to give Trans youth the same levels of support in exploring their unique circumstances on their own terms are vital.
One of the most powerful aspects of rite of passage experiences is the community that forms between members (Bodkin & Sartor, 2005). Trans youth often do not have access to the same level of community support as cisgender youth. The strength and profundity that can exist within a group of fellow rite of passage participants may be especially meaningful for those who do not experience this level of support in their daily lives. For the benefit of the participants, it is paramount that facilitators of rites of passage experiences keep in mind that, despite a sense of commonality, group members are encouraged to share, disclose, and participate in the group based on their level of comfort, not the expectations of the facilitator or peers. Through interviews with Trans individuals, the authors found that two other commonly reported aspects of transition in the lives of Trans youth correspond to established rite of passage practices. The first was the aspect of crossing thresholds, and the second was allowing for severance from existing aspects of the self through the metaphorical death and rebirth.
Through interviews with Trans individuals, the authors found that two other commonly reported aspects of transition in the lives of Trans youth correspond to established rite of passage practices. The first was the aspect of crossing thresholds, and the second was allowing for severance from existing aspects of the self through the metaphorical death and rebirth.
In rites of passage work, a threshold is both a general and specific term. A threshold represents a space between two realities. It marks the boundary between the everyday life of an individual, and the liminal space of change, growth, death, and life that is the heart of a rite of passage. Practically, a threshold is often a physical passage that participants pass; participants may traverse a sacred spiral drawn in the dirt, walk under a bent tree, or simply step over a line in the sand. Often, this crossing of the physical threshold is accompanied by a psychological threshold crossing in which the participant’s conscious choice to engage with their experience is affirmed. Participants are asked to examine both the positive and negative aspects of themselves and their experience, and to leave their personal story behind. The step of leaving one’s story behind at the threshold, creates a space to investigate the self without the bias of personal history.
By crossing a threshold, participants cross from one reality into a liminal space, and eventually return to the world they left. However, the potential power of a rite of passage is such that people are so changed by their experience, that they, and the world they re-enter, is often not recognizable from the one they left. In considering thresholds during transition in the life of a Trans individual, those who undergo aspects of transition such as surgery and hormones as part of their rite of passage may return to the world as a physically unrecognizable person. Further, many aspects of the rite of passage, may result in the Trans individual being greeted or perceived differently by their world.
For Trans youth, the experience of engaging in council practice with other Trans youth may be particularly powerful. Council practice is a gathering that gives each member of the group a chance to speak their truth (Zimmerman & Coyle, 1997). The intention in council is that each member is able to speak without over thinking their words, so that what is shared is what is true in that moment, rather than what the participant thinks sounds best. It is simply a time to be witnessed, and to witness the experience of others (Zimmerman & Coyle, 1997).
Because of the adversity that Trans youth face, their personal story may be full of painful memories, negative self-perception, and lack of community support and care. By allowing these aspects to temporarily die away, participants may become more aware of what role these aspects play in their lives, and may make room for other self-realizations that were previously overshadowed. The intention is to allow Trans youth to have an experience separate from their stories, as well as to develop a sense of commonality.
In conversations and interviews with members of the Trans community, several people spoke to the meaningfulness of allowing the roles and expectations forced on them by a biased society to symbolically die away. Like transition in general, this movement is deeply personal and unique to the individual. At times, our stories and histories take the place of self-identity; we define our beings by who we and others expect us to be. All people are vulnerable to defining their self-identity by their occupation, history, experience, by what they can, or should do; individuals from marginalized communities may be especially vulnerable to defining self in terms of societal roles. However, this type of self-identification tends to cloud the uniqueness of the individual and can prevent them from stepping into their true self. This is particularly true considering the lack of safety for Trans individuals who are able to step into their authentic selves. Rites of passage create a specific space for the symbolic death of story to take place. Threshold ceremonies provide an intentional space, and give express permission for participants to leave the stories of who they are supposed to be behind as they enter the liminal stage, and change the question from “Who am I supposed to be?” to “Who am I?”.
Why Create Trans-Specific Rites of Passage
When reviewing the rates of violence discussed at the beginning of this article, and considering the marginalization faced by Trans youth at the hands of educators, medical and mental health professionals, cisgender peers, and even family members, it seems apparent why Trans-specific rites of passage programming and experiences for youth need to be developed. Within the Trans community, there is one international event observed (Williams, 2015). That event, Transgender Day of Remembrance, is a time where members of the Trans community collectively grieve for members of the Trans community who were murdered or lost to suicide within the last year. Through seeing violence toward others like them, Trans youth are at the stage in life where they are becoming ever more aware of the hatred, fear, and misunderstanding much of the world has for Trans individuals. Thus, the authors are challenging you, the reader to stand up, in a culture that is constantly being violent toward Trans people, and create change through celebrating the beauty in the lives of Trans youth. Trans youth deserve to be celebrated and witnessed in allowing themselves to be their authentic selves, despite being in a world that would have otherwise. Developing Trans-specific rites of passage programs and experiences, as well as increasing accessibility of current rites of passage programs to Trans youth, allow others to honor, celebrate, and bear witness to Trans youth as they step out of trying to be what others expect of them, and move into living as who they are.
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