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Donna Riley: Transforming Discrimination Advocacy

Doctoral student blends research and personal experience to effect policy and raise awareness of transgender discrimination

Donna Riley has waited a long time to get where she is now. A previous career in mortgage banking seems like another lifetime for the 57-year-old, who received a master’s degree in social work from Stony Brook University in 2008.

Donna RileyNow a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Welfare, Riley finds herself in the right place at the right time: With the spotlight aimed squarely on New York State and its Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act — a bill pending in the legislature that would make it illegal to discriminate against anyone because of gender identity or expression — Riley is hoping to use her background as a licensed clinical social worker and outspoken member of the transgender community to continue efforts to raise awareness of marginalized populations, conduct research and strengthen ties with policymakers across the country. 

Riley’s advocacy is part of a growing national dialogue aimed at eliminating discrimination against transgender people and educating the general population about rampant injustices occurring in that community.

Two Washington, D.C.-based organizations — the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force — recently co-sponsored a survey of 6,450 transgender and gender-nonconforming participants on the impact of bias-related events in their lives. The study revealed some startling statistics:

  • 90 percent of respondents reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job
  • 78 percent said they faced severe harassment in childhood
  • 71 percent stated they attempted to avoid discrimination by hiding their gender or gender transition
  • 53 percent reported being verbally harassed in public places, such as hotels, restaurants, buses, airports and government agencies

Riley is well acquainted with the nature of those findings, both from her personal experiences and through those of her clients in her private practice.

“When I entered the public school system, I recognized that I did not feel like the other boys. To fit in, I developed a false male persona. I felt alone and isolated and didn’t think anyone else felt the same way I did,” she said. “It wasn’t until I read the story of Christine Jorgensen that I recognized there were others out there who felt the way I did.”

Riley’s ever-present desire to raise awareness of the discrimination afflicting the transgender population was evident a full decade before she received her master’s degree. In 1998 she began offering occasional educational workshops in the School of Social Welfare that explored the concept of gender identity. The workshops were geared toward future social workers as a way to impart a better understanding of the transgendered community.

She eventually expanded the workshops to include medical students, and in 2007 held a grand rounds presentation for physicians in the Department of Psychiatry. That same year, she taught medical and mental health professionals how to work with the transgendered community.

“When I first began running the workshops and doing the training, I focused more on telling my personal story,” she said. “With the education I received at Stony Brook, I began to shift the trainings to discuss clinical interventions and observations about my community, touching on my personal story to support the trainings and addressing topics such as relationships, depression, fear and social phobias.”

Riley credits the success of the workshops to the fact that she is a credentialed mental health counselor who is transgender. “It has helped me grab the attention of many people and change some misconceptions about transgender individuals,” she said.

Joel Blau, PhD, a professor of social policy and director of the PhD program in the School of Social Welfare, who met Riley when she attended his doctoral policy seminars and has advised her on policy issues, agrees. “Although many people are uncomfortable about this topic, her willingness to talk about it raises awareness and puts people at ease,” he said.

In her private practice —about 65 percent of her clients are transgender or who a family member who identifies as such — Riley has a small base of out-of-state clients who have contacted her through her affiliation with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. In addition, she is active on multiple listservs, Facebook and professional websites that list gender specialists.

Callout QuoteShe uses technology to further her clinical reach and bridge geographic distance, and began using online video chat sessions via Skype after a client from Mississippi contacted her. “At that point I recognized that many transgender individuals from many places around the country didn’t have one-on-one access to services,” she said.

Currently, she works only with a few clients on Skype, reserving its use for those who live far away or who have a physical disability or chronic illness. For those individuals, Skype is often the only access to therapy that they have, she said.

“Skype’s benefits, specifically for the transgender community, are huge. Often people are uncomfortable walking into a therapeutic setting and talking about their gender identity issues,” she said.

In addition to one-on-one therapy, Riley runs a transgender support group, Trans Affirmations, whose goal is to provide a support system for transgender/gender variant members and their families.

“By attracting different age groups to participate, younger group members connect to their elders through shared experiences,” she said. “Supportive connections are forged through narrative therapy, collaborative problem solving and identification of successful coping mechanisms.”

Another area that Riley is focusing on is the transgender experience of aging — the topic of her dissertation, which she plans to defend this fall.

“My initial hope was to look at the predictors of successful aging in the transgendered population from a policy and social perspective,” she said. “However, after reviewing literature on what the definition of successful aging is, I found a gap — and actually no definition — and anything that was referred to as the transgender definition of successful aging was extrapolated from the LGB community, which was insufficient.”

After consulting with Pamela Linden, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare and Riley’s principal investigator on her thesis, Riley forged ahead with her thesis topic.

“Donna is covering new ground with her research,” said Linden, who first met Riley when she attended a proposal-writing course Linden taught. “There is research on the general population and the needs of the elderly because there is so much discussion about baby boomers — we are going to have the largest cohort of elderly people ever — so Donna is exploring whether transgender people have the same needs.”

So far, Riley is uncovering some discernible differences between the populations. “The most common definition of successful aging is from a health perspective, and yet for transgender persons over 55, we often would use medical interventions — such as hormones and surgery — that could be seen as contraindicated for medically healthy living,” she said. “Another perspective might take into account cognitive functioning. How does living under fear and depression prior to transitioning affect our lives?”

Riley said she hopes to launch a national study on the same topic after she earns her PhD, as well as form professional relationships with researchers and advocates to help develop policies for transgender people who are aging.

As an organizer, researcher, advocate and counselor, Riley has served the transgender community in many capacities, but there is one career objective remaining that she hopes to attain.

“My ultimate goal is to teach in a faculty position at the University, where I can use my understanding of different populations to bring awareness to marginalized and oppressed communities,” she said, explaining that she came to that realization after teaching graduate students as part of her doctoral program’s requirements.

“I discovered that I have a strong affinity for teaching,” she added. “Through my experience with Stony Brook University, my eyes have been opened to avenues that I had never conceived of before.”

By Susan Tito


Stony Brook University News