Trans Research Lab pioneering rigorous research, advocating for populations it serves


By tapping into its talents and expertise, the School of Education is involved in a range of efforts designed to positively impact our community — and our world. Following are a few examples of how faculty, staff, students and alumni are working together and with valuable partners to push boundaries and deliver innovative programs that are making a difference in real and relevant ways.

Trans Research Lab pioneering rigorous research,
advocating for populations it serves

It’s not uncommon for counseling psychology programs to promote their efforts to integrate elements of multiculturalism, diversity and social justice into their teaching, research and service.

“Counseling psychology as a discipline, and this department here at UW–Madison specifically, has a historical commitment to social justice broadly,” says Anthony Flynn, a first-year Ph.D. student with the School of Education’s Department of Counseling Psychology. “When I was researching doctoral programs, the one here did the best job of showing that commitment is true. It’s not lip service, it’s embedded in their work.”

One excellent example is the groundbreaking work being done by the Trans Research Lab (TRL), a social justice driven lab conducting high-quality research that affirms the experiences of trans, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming (TNG) and gender diverse individuals. Led by Department of Counseling Psychology Associate Professor Stephanie Budge, TRL utilizes a critical lens to meaningfully transform and advance the position of trans issues within the field of psychology.

Fall 2018 Learning Connections cover at 300 px“One of the great things about this lab is that it’s not just about talk,” says Sergio Domínguez, a first-year Ph.D. student who was drawn to UW–Madison by Budge’s work. “It’s about walking the walk. Yes, there are other programs that are social justice oriented. But we like to get our hands dirty and work in the community.”

Flynn and Domínguez are two of about 20 students and a few community members involved with TRL, which focuses its research efforts on the emotions that trans individuals experience and their ways of coping.

Although it’s estimated that there are up to 1.4 million adults in the United States who identify as transgender, this population has not won the legal and social acceptance that gays and lesbians have. Research indicates that TNG and gender diverse individuals are particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns and psychological distress. Nearly 40 percent of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender  Survey reported that they recently experienced serious psychological distress, often related to mistreatment or harassment. Similarly, two out of every five respondents had attempted suicide, which is nine times the rate of the general population.

Since depression and anxiety are considered the most prevalent and treatable mental health disorders in the U.S., Budge explains that it’s imperative that treatments are tested for transgender individuals.

“When you hear about such disparities, you can’t help but ask, ‘What can we do about it?’” says Budge, who earned her Ph.D. from UW– Madison’s Department of Counseling Psychology in 2011 before founding the TSTAR lab at the University of Louisville, which was the first transgender-focused research lab in psychology.

Budge returned to UW–Madison as a faculty member in 2014 and today is regarded as a trailblazer in understanding how best to conduct research with transgender individuals.

Budge and her TRL team meet for an hour each week to discuss research projects at different phases. The majority of lab members identify as LGBTQ and indicate that they are interested in doing research to learn more about transgender mental health, and to empower and affirm transgender individuals.

Key TermsDuring the previous year, most of the meetings were devoted to conceptualizing the first randomized and controlled psychotherapy trial with TNG clients. The project provided accessible mental health care and looked at the effectiveness of focusing on contextual factors, rather than a diagnosis. Every individual in the clinical trial indicated that they experienced positive change, with a group receiving minority stress treatment improving at a faster rate.

In another project, TRL collaborated with colleagues at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital in the Trans Youth and Family Study. This longitudinal project conducted qualitative interviews with TNG youth (ages 7-18) and their caregivers, and followed these families living in different regions of the U.S. (the Northeast, South and Midwest) over six months.

In addition, the lab partnered with the Wisconsin Trans Health Coalition and the Trans Youth Resource Network on a quantitative survey administered to youth across Wisconsin. This project included qualitative focus groups in different regions of the state in an effort to determine barriers and access to health care for TNG youth.

One indication of the lab’s prowess is that 13 research proposals from TRL members were accepted and presented at the American Psychological Association’s 2018 annual convention August 9-12 in San Francisco.

But in addition to its rigorous research, the TRL takes its advocacy and social justice-related efforts seriously as well.

In a November TRL meeting, members discussed how best to craft a letter in response to the Trump administration’s efforts — according to a leaked memo and Oct. 21 report by the New York Times — to consider narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. Lab members also started making plans for hosting a Trans Day of Wellness in 2019. This event, made possible thanks to a grant from the Department of Counseling Psychology, will likely focus on trans competency training, likely in a smaller city or town outside of Madison or Milwaukee, where such efforts are typically centered.

Previously, in perhaps its most impactful advocacy work to date, lab researchers met two UW– Madison employees who sued the state and the UW System over a 2016 decision by the Group Insurance Board (GIB) for the State of Wisconsin to exclude health care for transgender people. Members of TRL wrote numerous letters to the GIB, while Budge served as an expert witness in lawsuits brought against the board. The GIB in August reversed its decision, and starting Jan. 1, trans individuals can have access to hormones and surgeries through group state insurance.

“That’s a big win,” says Budge.

Budge is sometimes asked if this advocacy work makes her research controversial or biased.

“No,” says Budge, who has presented nationally and internationally, and whose peer-reviewed research has been widely circulated and cited. “There would be nothing controversial about a psychologist working to validate the experiences of veterans or individuals suffering from depression. Counseling psychologists use the scientific method to help understand the communities they hope to serve, and how best to help them.”

Adds Flynn, the first-year doctoral student who previously served as a study coordinator with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center in Los Angeles: “An often overlooked element of our roles as researchers is science communication. If our findings end up being affirming of trans people, or gender or sexual minorities broadly — and we let people know — I don’t think that invalidates our findings in any way.” 

Some members of the Trans Research Lab
Members of the Trans Research Lab include (left-to-right) Eli Wachter, Sergio Dominguez, Cynthia Smith and Anthony Flynn.

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