You may have heard the term “Trauma-Informed Care” lately.

It’s not something I had heard until a few years ago. The general concept of Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) is about changing our attitude towards people from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What’s happened to you?” I’m not an expert in TIC, but I work within the realm and understand the basic concepts and can apply them to my work.

If you work in any sort of service industry like retail or restaurant work, or social services such as a social worker or in case management or as a therapist, or if you happen to interact with people on any sort of regular basis, then you know that people can be hard to work with. People can be angry, resentful, hostile, and stubborn. You know the kind of person I’m talking about — people who don’t want to change even when the change will make their life better. And I get that — change is hard.  

From my experience, sometimes those individuals who are the most aggressive, the most difficult to work with, have had a lot of traumas in their life. Trauma looks different to different people, but trauma can be defined as any disturbing experience. It could be feeling unwanted as a child, experiencing sexual assault, losing a job, losing a loved one, navigating the healthcare system in the face of discrimination, and many other circumstances. Often, trauma is beyond our control. It’s something that’s happened to us without our consent.  

I’m talking about trauma in Trans Talk because almost every trans person has trauma related to their identity. I experienced trauma when I first came out to my family as a lesbian because I actually didn’t get to come out — I was outed. That was a traumatic experience for me. I’ve also experienced trauma when I was sexually violated. And I experienced trauma while learning to navigate the world as a man — entering public restrooms, going through the court system to change my name and gender, telling my friends and family who I really was, getting a job as my authentic self — all these things can be traumatic.  

When people have traumatic experiences, especially more than one or even ongoing trauma, it can be really difficult to navigate in the world and to see people who may be trying to help you as helpful. It’s easier to put up a wall and not let people in, rather than do the harder thing and be vulnerable and choose to trust people to do the right thing. Putting up that wall is a means of defense: it’s a person’s way of saying, “I’ve been hurt before and I’m not going to let it happen again.” It can look like anger, stubbornness, or hostility.  

When interacting with people who have experienced trauma, there are five guiding principles we can use. These five principles are safety (ensuring physical and emotional safety), choice (the individual has choice and control), collaboration (making decisions with the individual and sharing power), trustworthiness (task clarity, consistency, and interpersonal boundaries), and empowerment (prioritizing empowerment and skill building).  I can’t teach you everything about TIC in this short article, but you can learn more from The Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (ITTIC) at the University of Buffalo.  

Trans people have trauma. I can almost guarantee that most every person who does not identify as cisgender has had some sort of trauma related to their identity. In a world that is constantly trying to erase our freedom through anti-trans sports bills, and deny us our basic identity and rights through anti-trans bathroom bills, it’s hard to imagine any trans person who hasn’t found life difficult at times.  

So next time you find us “difficult,” maybe wonder “What’s happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” and then prevent retraumatizing that person, as well as helping to stop trauma in the first place.

Atticus Ranck (he/him/his pronouns) works in the Education and Training Program of the AIDS Institute for the New York State Department of Health. Atticus identifies as a trans man and he is married to a trans woman. Together, they are raising two puppies and a cat and happily live in rural upstate NY. Previously, he was the Director of Transgender Services at SunServe in Wilton Manors.