PSU professor pioneers potentially life-saving trans research
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: May 27, 2020
About 41% of Americans who identify as transgender — someone whose personal identity doesn’t align with their assigned biological sex — have attempted suicide.

Portland State University Assistant Professor Deanna Cor said that this statistic, from the U.S. Trans Survey, should be weighed in conjunction with the fact that trans military populations are twice as likely to die by suicide as their cisgender military peers. The suicide rate for those who have served in the military is already 1.5 times that of the general population.

The grim statistics inspired Cor, who works in the PSU College of Education, to research how trans people who have served or are serving in the military are receiving mental health support. She wants to know if nonmilitary providers are competent to work with people who are trans and have served or are serving in the military. 

Cor joined forces with Megan Doughty Shaine, an assistant professor of Psychology and Counseling of Hood College in Maryland. They recently learned that their collaborative research will be published January 2021 in the Journal of Counseling and Development. Through this work, Cor and Shaine plan to:

  • First, create advocacy for trans veterans and active duty personnel (after developing an understanding of their experiences with nonmilitary mental health providers); and 
  • Second, use the research to shape competencies, or methods for counselors to work with trans military personnel and veterans.

Cor and Shaine spearheaded this research for trans people who have served or are serving in the military because, they say, no one who has devoted their life to their country should be shunted aside.

The problem

“These are people,” said Cor, a licensed professional counselor who practices at PSU. “These are human beings who are willing to do the thing that most of us aren’t willing to do, which is go to combat and serve the country. While not all military personnel see combat, many of our participants did. Trans people serve in significantly higher numbers than the rest of us. They are about honor, duty and justice.”

Cor said that the research began in April 2018, in a time when the federal government still allowed trans people to serve openly in the military. Cor said that “unit cohesion,” is cited as one of the reasons for banning trans people, a notion that involves a military group’s sense of commitment to one another. Unit cohesion is the same reason why the military originally banned women from serving on the front lines in combat, Cor added. 

Cor explained that the ban on trans people serving in the military, enacted in April 2019, has led to trans people being discharged from the military, honorably or dishonorably, depending on their commanding officer’s discretion. This decision meant that many trans people were ejected from the life and career they knew. For some, that was the most painful part.

The people

U.S. Army Capt. Jacob Eleazor, who served in the Kentucky Army National Guard, was able to remain in the Individual Ready Reserve after transitioning from female to male. Eleazor said his current situation is like having a “toe in” and “like a holding position” in the military. But he misses his active role.
“It’s pretty crushing,” he said. “I feel like a lot of times, even when we’re having conversations about this topic in the media and in academia, it’s cisgender voices talking about the topic and that can be very frustrating.”

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Amanda Fisher, who works in Seattle, transitioned from male to female while in the service and is among the last trans people in her branch of the military. Fisher said that dressing in a feminine way felt like “a warm hug for my soul” and the transition fulfilled her. Despite the trans military ban, Fisher said her supervisors in the Coast Guard have been supportive and have sought to help her navigate the difficulties around simply being who she is. This situation plagues Fisher, but she’s not placing blame.

“It’s not something I blame on the military,” Fisher said. “We live in a very binary society.”

However, the experience has still been painful. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced in a tweet that the “United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” Trump instituted and maintained that order, despite ongoing legal opposition. Fisher said that was hurtful and unexpected, but it did not erase the joy she felt in 2016 when then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced a decision to rescind the ban on transgender people serving in the military.

“I was sobbing at my desk,” Fisher said, “That was a very powerful moment. I normally am not a very emotional person, but that’s what happened.”

Fisher thought she’d have to transfer out of the military because of the ban, but has so far had the good fortune to remain. However, many other trans people are in a difficult state because, without an honorable discharge, service women and men lose their right to health care and other benefits through the military. That may leave trans people vulnerable in a society where they already experience oppression, Cor noted. Many people can readily adjust to civilian life, especially if they are held within a support network of loved ones or do not feel the stress of leaving the military so keenly. But others may plunge into a deep depression and may even die by suicide.

“This is life or death,” Cor said. “People are dying. This is not theoretical or conceptual. This is real. People are going to be discharged from the military; they are going to feel like they have lost all that they have worked for; and they are going to come back to a society that systemically doesn’t accept them.”

The process

For Phase 1 of the research, Cor and Shaine connected with 50 survey participants through SPART*A, a group for and by trans people who serve or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. The researchers recruited for a quantitative data (research results in numbers) study, and invited participants to be interviewed for one hour to establish qualitative data (a method of developing in-depth understanding through interviews and analyzed by themes).
Ten participants joined in the qualitative interview portion.

For Phase II, Cor and Shaine intend to interview mental health counselors with the help of fellow project researchers. The work is groundbreaking, but blazing a new path is not unusual for Cor.

Cor has published multiple articles and book chapters and delivered presentations in the area of improving multicultural and social justice counseling competencies for students and practicing counselors. She led the establishment of the Oregon chapter of the Association for LGBT Issues in Counseling in 2018 and is the inaugural president of the organization. 

The Oregon Counseling Association in November 2018 presented Cor with the Human Rights Award for demonstrating an exceptional level of professional and personal commitment in the areas of human rights and the advancement of human dignity. 

Her specialties as a counselor include exploring life transitions, working with LGBTQ+ people and helping people with their relationship needs. Cor said she tapped into her clinical specialization in the queer and trans population for her research project with Shaine, but Cor also possesses a deeper connection to her work in the LGBTQ+ community.

“My queer identity offers me a window, but I never assume my identities or personal experiences speak on behalf of anyone else’s experience,” Cor said.

She does hope that, with her research and this little portal, she can help others, through the implementation of her advocacy and competencies for nonmilitary mental health providers. Eleazor, a member of SPART*A, agrees.

“I think it’s particularly important for people working with trans folk to be well-versed in issues in the military and vice versa,” Eleazor said.

Photo 1: Deanna Cor, Ph.D., pioneers trans research. Photo courtesy of Deanna Cor

Photo 2: U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Amanda Fisher, who works in Seattle, transitioned from male to female while in the service. Photo courtesy of Amanda Fisher

Photo3: A sreenshot of SPART*A's main webpage showcases its military focus. Photo by Jillian Daley

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