From boxes to galaxies: Dr. J. Garrett-Walker on emerging queer identities and the liberatory power of chosen names

By Riley DeHority and Sam Zlotnik

While identities are often viewed through the lens of binaries and boxes to check, Dr. J. Garrett-Walker is not a big fan of this approach: “Science is all about putting people in boxes. Personally, I hate boxes.”

Dr. Garrett-Walker is a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto who studies racial, religious, sexual, and gender identities in emerging adults. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, J. is exploring how young BIPOC queer and gender-expansive people are coming into their identities and navigating marginalization.

As head of the Identity, Advocacy, and Mental Health (I AM) Research Lab, Dr. Garrett-Walker seeks to answer questions such as: What do young people need to thrive? How can clinical psychologists, social workers, and communities best support them?

Riley DeHority sat down to discuss Dr. Garrett-Walker’s journey as a scientist and the values and motivations that have inspired it. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me about your academic journey. How did you get started studying psychology?

I’m a developmental psychologist, so I’m really trying to understand how humans develop over time. But when I was younger, I really thought I was going to be a pediatrician. That was my goal: I wanted to be a pediatrician.

Then I got to college and I realized I hated science. Actually, no, I don’t think I hated science. It was more that I had a teacher who I think was racist and didn’t really support me in their science course. I enjoyed science, but I didn’t feel like I had the support that I needed to go through with that. So when I took that intro biology course when I got to college, it really deterred me from pursuing becoming a pediatrician.

I guess at some point, maybe someone recommended that I should be a psychology major. Or maybe I just thought it was a good idea to take a general psych class. I think at the time, I didn’t even know what psychology was. I’m first gen, so my parents didn’t go to college and I didn’t really know what majors there were. I barely even knew what a major was.

So I took a psych class, and I was like, “Oh, this is kind of cool, let’s see what this is about.” And I think it was my junior year when I took a family psych class, and that’s what sold me on developmental psych. I was really intrigued by the developmental trajectory of a person, and also how family dynamics can contribute to either positive or negative developmental processes. And so that’s how I decided I was going to apply to developmental psych programs for my doctorate.

Could you explain what developmental psychology is and what you specifically study?

As a general field, developmental psychology is about how we grow and develop over time, looking at physical development, cognitive development, and social development. And I would say that the majority of the developmental psychology literature has been focused on children. We’re trying to understand how their brains work. How do they learn? How do they engage with each other?

As I got older and more involved in the field, I realized there was just so much work on children, and not enough work on other developmental periods that are super important. So for me, I was really interested in emerging adulthood. That’s 18 to 29 years old. I was interested in that timeframe, because so much happens, right? So much happens at that time!

For a lot of people, they go away to college, or they move out, they get jobs, and they are able to be more independent from their parents. And so that gives you a lot of freedom. And what we know about that developmental time frame is that folks really challenge their previous worldviews. They’re challenging what their parents taught them about religion, about work, about the world, about themselves. They’re able to really explore their identities. And so that’s why I was really interested in emerging adulthood.

As someone who wanted to explore queer folks, I knew that was such a prime time in the developmental process. I think things have shifted now, and people are coming out much younger than when I started doing this work. But for me, when I started this work, emerging adulthood was a time of coming out and really understanding one’s sexual identity and one’s racial identity.

How do you do your research considering that there are cultural differences and changes over time in how we even think about development?

You really just have to contextualize it. You do the science for the time in which you’re at, you talk about how things have shifted in the past, and then you can speculate about shifts in culture and how things might go in the future. But you know, there’s really no way to know what’s going to happen in the future.

Like with sexual orientations: when I started this work, your only options were gay, lesbian, and bisexual. No one really talked about any other sexual orientation beyond those. When it came to gender, within the literature, most people only talked about men, women, and trans women. There was no conversation about trans men; there was no conversation about nonbinary.

And so you just kind of work with what you have at the time, and you try to do the best science that you can, given the current context. And if you’re a good scientist, when you see those cultural shifts, you will make shifts accordingly. It’s like when I first started doing this work, and I would do surveys, I would ask what I knew were the most common identities at the time. But now when I do research, my list is way more expansive. I provide so many more options now if I want to know about participants’ gender or sexual identity.

So it’s really just about changing with the time. I mean, the whole point of developmental psychology is understanding development, right? Understanding how things shift and change over time. So as a science, we need to do that.

A lot of psychology doesn’t shift with the times. Psychology still has a strong history and current practice of not fully understanding the lived experience of multiply-marginalized people. So we still have a lot of work to do as a field. There are some intersectional psychologists who really understand how things shift and change and how we have to adjust. But there are far too many who don’t understand that. So the field has a lot of work to do.

Does ‘identity’ have a specific meaning in psychology?

It’s really about how we come to understand ourselves, or how we come to understand ourselves within our social contexts. So let’s just consider religion for right now. Most children are born into a family with a particular religion, right? They are taught how to move and behave within that religion. When they become teenagers, they might start to question that religion. And then as they continue to get older, depending on how they situate themselves within that religion, they either continue on with the understanding that their parents have, or they reconceptualize religion for themselves. Or they say, “I don’t want to be part of this anymore.”

Now, when we think about other identities, like let’s say sexual identity, you know, some folks might early on realize “I’m not liking or being drawn to the person or the people that society expects me to be drawn to.” And so then they have to start to think about how that works for them. And that’s a process, right? Like lots of things happen before you get comfortable enough in your own body to say, “hey, I’m queer”, “hey, I’m lesbian”, “hey, I’m pansexual.” So it’s a long process to really be able to acknowledge your identity, and to then share that identity with others.

So when we think about it from a developmental psych standpoint, we ask what are all those steps in-between? And how do folks fare in their wellbeing or mental health depending on the step they’re at as they reach what we would call a solidified identity?

How do you want your work to be applied? Like, what do you want people to take from that? Do you want to change policy? Or are you trying to just do basic science?

My hope is that my work will inform communities and will inform services. So a lot of my work is about intersectional psychology. So what are the lived experiences of racialized queer folks? How are queer folks of color maintaining positive mental health? How are their identities developing together? Or not together? And taking that information, how can therapists support them?

The number of Black clinicians is only 4% in the United States, and we don’t know the percentage of queer therapists. And where I am now in Canada, they don’t even get demographic information, so there’s no way to know how many racialized psychologists there are at all for any group. So there are not enough therapists or clinicians who mirror the identities of folks who are seeking mental health services.

My hope is that my work will provide therapists with an understanding of how complex and intricate it is to sit at the margins of multiple marginalized identities. So when you have a client who comes in who is Black and heterosexual, their experiences of race and gender are going to be very different than someone who is Black and queer. How can a therapist best support that person? What do they need to know? How do they need to tailor their clinical practice to support that person? How can their clinical practice be culturally informed?

That’s really what I focus on. In regard to research, we know that most researchers in psychology are still white, cisgender, and heterosexual. And they will do research on a variety of people of different racial identities and sexual and gender identities. But they’re not always super aware of how those things play out when they are synthesizing and writing up their data. Are they going to do more harm in how they’re articulating the experiences of racialized people and/or queer people?

So I hope that my work gives them some type of understanding that queer folks of color are not having the worst experience ever. Right? A lot of my work is from a positive psychology lens. I always try to lead with what good is happening. So much of psychology is pathologizing: “Oh, this group is doing so bad because of this. This group is doing the worst at this.” I’m like, “No, this group has been amazing at this. And this is what they need to be amazing at this.” So I’m really making sure clinicians and researchers are aware of how to best serve folks and to not do more harm in their writing.

And then also social service agencies can improve too: what do they need to know as they’re providing services to queer youth of color? Or young, racialized queer folks? So I’m just really making sure folks have this knowledge, this intersectional knowledge, to best support queer folks of color.

In your research, how do you navigate using discrete labels or categories for gender and sexual identities?

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need boxes. In an ideal world, our humanity as queer folks would not need to be proven through science. In an ideal world, no one would care if we were gay or not, if we were trans or not, if we were nonbinary not, if we were pansexual or not. We would just be able to live freely as our authentic selves.

But unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. And I think as scientists, it is still important for us to be able to make meaning and understanding of people’s lived experiences, and where they have similarities, because being able to do that allows us to say what needs to be said to best serve them.

Now, you know, there’s different ways you can collect this data. With my quantitative research, I provide a variety of labels that people can pick for their gender and sexual identities. But I always leave a write-in option in the event that my labels do not capture someone’s lived experience. And I think that’s the way that science needs to move when understanding gender and sexuality because when you only give a limited number of boxes, you’re normally missing the mark.

I think that, in an ideal world, we would view gender and sexuality as a galaxy, right, not like a spectrum that’s still on a line. Because that line is still a binary. And we need to view it as expansive, moving beyond this very limited spectrum idea. I just don’t know how you would capture that in research.

I was inspired to talk to you because of a tweet that you made recently, where you were telling young scholars that it’s okay to use a chosen name in your publications. Could you talk about your journey of using a chosen name in science and how you realized that was okay?

If I’m being honest, I didn’t start using my chosen name in science until last year. And I think that’s why I tweeted about it because I was looking at all my old publications, and I was furious. I was just mad, because for the longest time, everyone has called me J. All my friends call me J. A lot of my family calls me J. No one calls me by my legal given name. Even in grad school, everyone knew me as J, but when I went to write my first publication, no one told me I could publish under J. So I assumed I had to publish under my legal given name. So that started the trajectory of all my publications having a name that I didn’t like. I even applied for faculty positions with my legal name because I thought I had to.

So I basically went 10 years of people calling me by my legal name, even though I hated it. And then I just eventually got to a point where I was just like, “No, I don’t want this. Y’all need to stop calling me this. No one who really knows me calls me this. I don’t even like this name.” So a few years ago, I started making the shift at work. I was like, “Change this on the website, change this everywhere. I don’t want to see it anymore. Take it away.”

So that was a few years ago, and then just in 2020, I was like, “You know what, I’ve seen other people not use their full name on their publications. I’m gonna just try it out this time.” I told the publisher, “Don’t put that name. Just put J.” And from that day on, I’ve been publishing under that name.

I hope that there are so many queer and trans grad students who now know that they don’t have to publish under their legal name if they don’t want to. Since then, I’ve started to reach out to all the publishers of all my past research articles and book chapters, and I’ve asked them all to change my name.

Do you have other advice for gender expansive scholars about doing what you want in academic work?

Just do it. I mean, if I’m being honest, when I first applied to grad school, I was so scared to do queer work because I thought I wouldn’t get accepted. So when I wrote my personal statement for grad school, I was like, “I want to do research on single Black mothers and parent-child dynamics.” As soon as I got to grad school, I was like, “Haha, just kidding. Not doing that. I’m going to do queer research.”

But that was in 2006. The culture was very different. I mean, there were barely any people doing LGBTQ work back then. It’s a very different time now. So I definitely say do what drives your spirit and your heart to do good work.

If they’re telling you, “It’s not important to study gender expansive folks,” or “It’s not important to study nonbinary folks”, don’t listen to them. It’s so important. The work is definitely necessary, especially for trans masc folks and nonbinary folks. There’s just really not enough research on them. So just do it. Just do it.

%d bloggers like this: