Stepping Up

Therapist and social justice consultant Owen Karcher is working to turn agony into action to support trans and gender non-conforming people through a more mindful practice.

Today I read a story of another transgender woman of color who was murdered, the thirteenth this year in the United States. Last week I read about two transgender women of color who were jailed after hotel staff called the police on them for being transgender. Three weeks ago, I read a story of another transgender activist who committed suicide.

When I read these stories my heart sinks with sadness, grief and heartbreak, heavy and vulnerable with the fact that another member of my community was unsupported and unprotected. Transgender people are dying and feel as if they have no support and limited access to resources. Death—whether through murder, negligence, racism or suicide—has become an expected occurrence in trans communities. Discrimination and maltreatment are also common experiences for trans people seeking healthcare and human services.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, and as an advocate dedicated to social justice, I feel this reality is unacceptable, and I feel a sense of urgency to do something about it. I believe that I am not alone and that many others believe that trans and gender non-conforming people deserve to live lives where they have access to basic human dignities like housing, respect, employment and healthcare.

I have attempted to channel my heavy and discouraged feelings into the creation of something meaningful and productive. As a mental healthcare provider, social justice consultant with 10 years experience, and a queer, trans person, I have crafted a document of standards for providers in hopes that it will help others take stock of their current knowledge, skills, practices and environments and make the changes necessary to be more welcoming and affirming of trans and gender non-conforming people. I believe the stories of violence and suicide we so frequently hear in the news will become fewer as allies take concrete steps to strengthen their skills and organizations.

  Standards of Practice for Working with Transgender Clients 

• I will listen to and honor my client’s experiences.

• I will not assume their narrative is the same as the few I have heard about transgender people and the process of transitioning.

• I will not assume all transgender people coming into my office are mentally ill, need help with their gender identity, or that I know more about their experiences of gender than they do.

• I will do my best to respect my clients’ pronouns and names, even if/when they change.

• I will be conscious of my assumptions and biases about gender roles, expectations, and presentations, and how these are often racialized, ableist, culturally determined and class-based.

• I will respect and use the words my clients ask me to use for their identities, pronouns, and their body parts.

• I will not ask my transgender clients to educate me on what transgender means, and I will do my own work to understand the processes involved in accessing transition-related and transgender-inclusive care in our areas.

• I will work to understand the context in which transgender people navigate systems of care, paying attention to environmental barriers, policies, forms, and interpersonal interactions that may cause increased distress for my clients.

• I will do my best to interrupt where these systems harm my clients.

• I will listen when transgender people offer suggestions and insight on how to better meet their needs and serve their communities.

• I will build reciprocal relationships with transgender community members by inviting them into event and program planning processes from the beginning and showing up to transgender-led programs and events in my community.

• I will do my best to amplify the voices of transgender people by making positions of leadership accessible to them and will invest in their professional development and success through the sharing of resources and gainful employment.

• I acknowledge that all violence and oppression is interconnected and that my own liberation and wellness is bound to the liberation and wellness of trans* people, people of color, women, youth, and all others in my community.

© Owen Karcher, LLC 2015

If you are interested in learning more about how this document came to be or are interested in joining me in my work, I recently launched a business called Owen Karcher, LLC (arttherapymadison.com) in order to provide art therapy and social justice consulting and training. You can download the Standards of Practice on my website. As a mental health practitioner and social justice consultant, I help others reflect on their experiences of gender, sexuality and race and gain skills to make changes in their lives. I serve as a counselor for individuals and families and am dedicated to offering my services as a consultant to do assessments of organizational culture, policies and procedures, and to provide trainings to ensure staff and providers know how to be more welcoming to LGBTQ clients, customers and community members.

I believe education and commitment is key to building a more sustainable and effective movement toward equity for all. I also believe Wisconsin can be a place in which LGBTQ people can not only survive, but thrive. I sincerely hope you will join me in taking stock of your current practices and making changes in support of transgender communities in our state.


Owen Karcher is an art therapist and social justice consultant who has worked as a care provider and educator in the fields of mental health, violence prevention and intervention, child sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, and building healthy relationships.