As legislation aimed at curbing the rights of transgender people has gained momentum, Sidney Trantham, Ph.D., a Brookline, Mass. psychologist who works with transgender and non-binary youth and their families, began to sense a shift in what he was hearing from other professionals, educators, and parents.
“I feel as though there’s a new questioning of non-binary and transgender identity” after a period of greater acceptance, he said. “I’ve been hearing some of the language that has come into play the last year and a half, such as ‘they don’t know who they are’ and ‘they shouldn’t be make life-changing decisions,’” he said.
Trantham also feels a wariness he had not felt previously, having read news reporting of bomb threats against Boston Children’s Hospital, home to the first pediatric and adolescent transgender health program in the U.S. and where Trantham trained to conduct gender identity assessments.
The revival of right-wing discourse around queer adults “grooming” children has added another dimension of concern to Trantham, who identifies as queer.
Though he has not had specific threats directed against him, he’s begun taking safety measures such as locking the waiting room door in his office suite as well as locking the door to his office when he sees patients in-person, a precaution he didn’t take before the pandemic.
He also uses Zoom’s security features to guard against “Zoom bombing” — uninvited guests entering and disrupting meetings, often with obscene, racist, and anti-LGBTQIA+ material or sentiments.
“I’m still doing this work, but carrying a lot more anxiety than I did two years ago,” he said. Yet he is quick to add that his primary concern is for the youth and families he works with.
“[Parents] have to worry about how safe their child is going to be,” he said. “I used to focus more on ‘what does my child need to do to be healthy, happy, and to thrive?’” he said.
“Now, they have to worry about how safe their child is going to be. They have to worry about people saying that they are hurting their kids, and about the possibility of being called child abusers and investigated by authorities for supporting their child’s gender identity and gender expression, which is happening in some states.… It’s heartbreaking.”
As certain types of violence, most notably gun violence and political violence, have escalated in recent years, psychologists and mental health professionals may, like the general population, be more vulnerable.
While exact figures on threats to psychologists are difficult to come by, a past report from the American Psychological Association Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance estimated that 15-25 percent of psychologists may be at risk of being physically assaulted by a client during their careers.
Another task force report from APA’s Division 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology, Section on Clinical Emergencies) determined that 35-40 percent of psychologists in clinical practice were at risk of such an assault. (Inquiries to the APA and specific divisions did not turn up more recent figures.)
Meanwhile, a one-time report published last year by the APA’s Task Force on Violence Against Educators and School Personnel found that 15 percent of school psychologists and social workers had reported at least one incident of verbal and/or threatened violence from a student during the Covid-19 pandemic, while 22 percent had experienced such a threat from a parent.
The same research found that 18 percent of school psychologists and social workers had experienced physical violence from a student aggressor during the pandemic.
The nature of psychologists’ work may put them at risk. A psychologist in Connecticut who did not wish to be identified has, for the past three and a half years, been the target of online threats related to her work conducting custody evaluations. She adds that she is not alone — other psychologists in the state who have done similar work have also been harassed, she said.
“Litigants who have lost their kids ganged up against psychologists and formed a web page,” she said. The site, TheFamilyCourtCircus.com, includes anti-Semitic and racist commentary on judges, lawyers, psychologists, and others who are in some way involved in family court systems. (The Virginia man behind the website, a former Connecticut resident, was arrested in July and charged with 18 counts of felony stalking and electronic stalking.)
Along with derogatory descriptions, the psychologist saw a photo of herself on the website with what appeared to be bullets. She also has received threatening emails.
“I was fearful for my safety; I was fearful of my children’s safety,” she said. Since she began being threatened, she has taken a number of safety measures, including installing an alarm system in her office and buying keychain alarms for herself and her staff. She and her staff members never leave the office individually at night, she added.
The psychologist said that police and the FBI would not take action because “the threats weren’t specific enough.” (The website founder was ultimately arrested because three of his online targets were sitting Connecticut Superior Court judges.)
She has stopped conducting custody evaluations, which she said has resulted in a significant loss of income. Despite the arrest, she still is targeted online and fears that the damage to her reputation online could curtail her volume of work.
Asked why she thinks conducting custody evaluations have become targets of threats, she said she believes it’s the tendency of like-minded people to find each other online.
“A lot of people have put it on the political situation, but I’m not sure I buy into that,” she said. “In the past, if you angered one person, it wasn’t threatening,” she said. “Now, people find each other and mobilize.”