YU Prof Wins 2022 Always OutFront Award For Work with Trans Community

Faculty News

May 17, 2022

Yorkville University professor Dr. Heather Dannison recently won a 2022 Always OutFront Award in recognition for her work within the LGBTQ+ community in southwest Michigan. 

A licensed psychologist and professor in Yorkville’s Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology program, Dannison said she was “touched” to have been nominated for the award by a co-worker, who singled her out for her work with her transgender clients. 

Dr. Heather Dannison with 2022 Always OutFront Award
Dr. Heather Dannison with her Always OutFront Award

“My nominator was a colleague; someone who knows my work intimately and who is part of the community – and that part, I think, was the most important to me,” she said of her nomination for the award, which is given out annually by OutFront Kalamazoo.

“Her take on it was that I’m helping people and I’m saving lives – and when I step back from that statement, I mean, it’s such a big thing to say. But the reality is that there’s a lot of suicidality and a lot of harm done to (the transgender) population, so, man, if what she said is true, it’s a huge honour.”  

Dannison said her interest in working with the transgender community was first piqued back while she was studying toward her Master’s degree in Community Counselling at Western Michigan University. 

She was taking a class in couples’ therapy at the time, and thought it might be interesting to better understand how tran-cis couples navigate transitions within their relationships. 

“This was in 2009. A lot has changed in the last 12 years, so it was kind of cool to be doing that work when there was not a lot of research out there,” Dannison said, noting that, while she is not trans herself, she is part of the queer community.

“Through talking to couples for this qualitative study, I became really invested in working with trans folks. A big part of it was wanting to serve a population that needed (counsellors), who wanted to work with them and who would have some empathy.”  

After earning her Master’s degree, Dannison went straight into doctoral studies in Counselling Psychology at the University of Memphis, during which she continued seeking out opportunities to work with the queer and trans community. 

It’s work, she said, that she continues to approach even today with a lot of humility, knowing the privileged position she’s in. 

“I learn a lot from my clients and I do my own research to keep up on the language and keep up on the medical interventions and all that stuff – but it really comes down to just trying to be open,” she explained of her private practice work, in which she counsels trans clients both individually and in group sessions. 

“I’ve never questioned my own gender, so I’m going to have blind spots, but I work really hard to just be really open and empathic and validating. I’m never going to fully understand, but I certainly can be an advocate and use my power and my privilege.”

And that, Dannison said, is a lesson she’s now trying to instill in her MACP students at Yorkville. 

She sees her role as a professor as being one in which she can pass on to the next generation of counsellors the sometimes life-and-death importance of validating people’s gender identities.

“I ask for pronouns and I try to talk about diverse populations as much as I can, even outside of diversity class, because it’s important,” she said. 

“I try to bring those conversations into the picture as much as I can, so that trans and queer folks are not forgotten about in terms of interventions and therapy and all that good stuff.” 

She does so, she said, because she’s seen firsthand what a difference it can and has made in the lives of the trans clients she serves – both through counselling them and through the letters she writes for them in support of their gender-affirming treatments and surgeries. 

“Medication and surgery and style changes can be transformative, and they’re important because people need to feel like they can show the world who they are,” she said. 

“It’s really beautiful to see people who were suicidal a year ago, who have been on hormones for six months, and who are now a different person in so many ways – mostly emotional and mental health wise. It’s just really amazing.”