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NewsMay 14, 2021

Resisting oppression in the healing fields

Kimberly Cherry ’21 researches how transgender therapists face discrimination and barriers endemic in society at large

kimberly cherry outside
PhD graduate Kimberly Cherry ’21

Transgender and nonbinary people face discrimination and other challenges in perhaps all aspects of life. Therapeutic fields are no exception. That’s why practicing psychotherapist Kimberly Cherry, who identifies as queer and is earning her doctorate in Counseling Psychology, let her desire to see more queer and trans therapists shape her studies at Lesley.

“As I began preliminary research in these areas, I found that there was not much about the experiences of trans therapists, and much of the supervision literature about trans people focused on working with trans clients,” Cherry says. “I was curious about flipping that dynamic and drawing on the expertise and lived experience of trans therapists to understand what supervision can be.”

What she found is that the same prejudices and other challenges endemic in society at large are also on display in the healing arts, showing up throughout the career trajectory of trans therapists in the workplace, therapeutic relationships and within the therapists themselves.

“The field is contextualized by the same oppressive structures that we see in society — white supremacy, cisgenderism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc.,” Cherry says. “My research mostly examined cisgenderism, but trans therapists have unique experiences and perspectives of dominant culture based on their intersecting identities.

Kimberly Cherry pictured in her Commencement regalia
Kimberly Cherry hopes her research will honor and support trans therapists and also prompt clinical supervisors to “dive into their own self-work around gender and sexuality."

“Cisgenderism shows up in so many ways: in the assumptions people have about names and pronouns and the way people ought to dress, rigidly adhering to binaries, and pathologizing, rather than celebrating, the expansiveness of human sexuality and gender.”

Absent from the field, as well as society, is adequate understanding of power dynamics around gender, a lack of equity and ignorance of the way public policy affects trans people.

“I also heard other challenges around safety, self-disclosure and boundary issues that come up when serving a smaller community that they are also a part of,” adds Cherry, a Boston resident who is practicing via telehealth during the pandemic.

Cherry hopes her research will honor and support trans therapists and also prompt clinical supervisors to “dive into their own self-work around gender and sexuality, develop critical consciousness practices, engage in relational processes and conduct power analysis in their supervisory roles.”

Cherry sees reason for optimism, too, as she was impressed with her research subjects’ resilience, their commitment to their own healing work and self-care, and connections with other queer and trans people.

“I also found a theme of resistance to the structural oppression they faced. There were so many instances of advocating for themselves and their clients, organizing to make the system different through engaging in relational processes,” Cherry says. “Their stories taught me something about liberation, including my own.”