MSU social scientists developing innovative, effective research methods for studying experiences of transgender people

September 24, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

A team of Michigan State University social scientists and a co-investigator at the University of Oregon recently earned a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to develop new ways of measuring minority stress among transgender and gender diverse (TGD) people.

Caused by stigma, discrimination, social inequality and lack of social resources, minority stress is commonly experienced by transgender and gender diverse people. According to the research team, research-backed quantitative minority stress measures developed for TGD people specifically will help scientists to better understand this stress, and its negative impact on TGD people's physical and mental health.

While theories about minority stress  already exist, research leader and MSU psychologist Dr. Jae Puckett emphasizes that they need some serious updating. "Many of these research frameworks and measurements for assessing stress were developed for cisgender people," they explain. 

"When transgender and gender diverse people’s experiences are forced to fit into frameworks established for other populations, many of their experiences go understudied or completely unseen."

Dr. Puckett is working alongside fellow MSU social scientists, psychologist Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter and Dr. Heather McCauley from the School of Social Work, as well as anthropologist Dr. Zachary DuBoius from the University of Oregon, to begin researching new frameworks to better understand this phenomenon. 

The project will draw off previously-collected data from Dr. Puckett and Dr. DuBois centering around stress experienced by transgender people. This includes vicarious stress (distress due to exposure to stress narratives surrounding other TGD people), bodily vigilance (anxiety surrounding how one’s body/gender are being monitored by others), gender strain (stress experienced due to feeling limited in gender expression due to gender norms), and transitioning identity stress (tension between one’s current identity and past gender identification). The study will also incorporate measures of resilience that stem from past research done by Dr. McCauley.

“Without proper recognition of the unique challenges that impact trans people’s lives, knowledge that can help reduce disparities will remain insufficient," says Dr. Puckett. "One way to increase research in this area and provide the necessary tools for advancement in the scientific study of TGD people’s experiences is to develop and validate quantitative measures of these stressors." 

As trans-identifying scholars, Dr. Puckett and Dr. DuBois understand the importance of creating quantitative research measures of the experiences of TGD people. "These measures will be developed from narratives from TGD people themselves, rather than forcing our experiences into frameworks that were never meant for us," explains Dr. Puckett. "We hope that this work provides a strong foundation for future TGD health research to better recognize our lived experiences.”

Dr. DuBois also adds, “Collecting accurate and meaningful data within our communities is key and our aim is to create tools to help researchers do this more effectively, without reliance on measures that fail to include our experiences.” 

Each phase of this study will be informed by a TGD Community Board, which works closely with Trans-ilience: The Transgender Stress and Resilience Research Team led by Dr. Puckett, and a national panel of TGD scholars. Drs. Puckett, McCauley, and Anderson-Carpenter are also part of the MSU Consortium for Sexual and Gender Minority Health, an initiative within the College of Social Science, which brought together these MSU researchers.

Researchers Dr. Puckett, Dr. Anderson-Carpenter, Dr. McCauley and Dr. DuBois