Featured Investigator: Jody Herman, PhD

Jody Herman HeadshotJune 2021: Jody L. Herman, PhD
Scholar of Public Policy, Associate Researcher
The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law

Jody L. Herman, Ph.D. is the Reid Rasmussen Fellow and a Scholar of Public Policy at the Williams Institute. Her research focuses on gender identity in survey research and the prevalence and impact of discrimination based on gender identity or expression, including minority stress, health, and suicidality among transgender people. She is a Co-Investigator on the U.S. Transgender Population Health Survey (TransPop), a nationally representative survey of transgender adults. She served as Co-Principal Investigator for the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey of transgender adults conducted in the United States to date. Her published research is routinely cited, including by major news sources, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and NPR. She holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Public Administration from The George Washington University, where she also earned her M.A. in Public Policy.

Q: What are your current research interests?
My research interests are focused on understanding the characteristics, health, and well-being of transgender people. I approach my work with a minority stress lens, but since my background is in public policy, I am particularly interested in structural stigma and the relationship between state and federal policies and trans people’s health and well-being. The lack of data about transgender people in the U.S. has been a barrier to our understanding of the experiences and needs of the trans population. So, one major interest of mine is to increase gender identity data collection, particularly through large, population-based surveys. We’ve made advances in that arena, especially since the 2011 Institute of Medicine’s LGBT health report recommended gender identity data collection in federal surveys. Yet, there’s much more work to do! In 2007, the LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality took matters into their own hands to create the data they needed to advocate on behalf of trans communities. I was honored to be a part of that effort, serving as a data analyst on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS)(’08-’09) and later as Co-PI on the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS). The 2015 USTS generated data that has been incredibly useful in studying trans health, especially distal minority stressors and their relationship to mental health. I am now serving as co-PI on the next iteration of the USTS, which will launch in early 2022. Another study I am currently working on as a co-investigator will continue pushing gender identity data collection forward. It’s an NIMH-funded study to improve sexual orientation and gender identity data collection in mortality data, particularly regarding violent deaths (1R21MH125360-01; PI John Blosnich). Trans people have an elevated risk of suicide attempts and we hear alarming stories about murders of trans people, particularly trans women of color. Without systematic data collection about suicide deaths and homicides of trans people, we are limited in our understanding to intervene and prevent these deaths. I am hopeful that this study will make a difference in creating the data we need.

Q: Tell us about your career path – how did you end up where you are now?
My career path had some twists and turns early on, and may seem less “traditional” for health research. I initially thought I wanted to be a high school history teacher. I got as far as my student teaching placement and quickly realized that was not the path for me. I wanted to do something that could make a positive impact on a different scale and was drawn to public policy. I received my MA in Public Policy from The George Washington University in 2004. While completing that degree, I volunteered with a local activist organization, the DC Trans Coalition, on public policy initiatives. I also volunteered with the organization HIPS, doing HIV harm reduction outreach with street-based sex workers in the HIPS outreach van. My volunteer work is really what propelled me to pursue my Ph.D. in Public Policy, in the field of Gender & Social Policy. My dissertation was about the prevalence and impact of problems trans people reported when using gendered public spaces, like bathrooms and locker rooms, and public policy responses. While finishing up my Ph.D., I went to a weekend-long training for grad students at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, a research center focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. I met Drs. Lee Badgett and Gary Gates and learned about their approaches to policy analysis. I applied for a two-year post-doc fellowship with the Institute and got it! I started there in fall 2010, bringing with me my dataset from the NTDS. I worked on adapting methods to study economic impacts and population estimation to gender identity discrimination and the trans population. I was then offered a full-time position and I’ve been with the Institute since. A big turning point for me in my approach to my work was when Dr. Ilan Meyer joined the Institute in 2011. I learned a great deal from him about minority stress and it was like a light bulb went off over my head. Public Policy is interdisciplinary and we learn a variety of methods, but everyone has their own perspectives that are informed by Economics, Political Science, or other disciplines that they have an affinity with. My perspective was informed more by Women’s and Gender Studies, understanding gender-based systems of oppression, but being able to articulate the cause of disparities in health and well-being through the minority stress model was an aspect of my perspective that was missing. My work, even when not directly studying mental or physical health, elucidated distal minority stressors that cause health disparities. Dr. Meyer encouraged me to apply for the NIH Loan Repayment Program (LRP) in Health Disparities Research and served as my mentor. I attended his NIH workshop, which guided participants through the various steps of applying for funding. His guidance and mentorship have been invaluable. It was tremendously exciting to then work as a Co-Investigator on Dr. Meyer’s NICHD-funded U.S. Transgender Population Health Survey (“TransPop”; R01HD090468; www.transpop.org), along with Drs. Sari Reisner and Walter Bockting. This groundbreaking study created the first nationally representative sample of trans people in the US. I’ve since been working as a Co-I or as an expert on NIH-funded studies on SOGI mortality data (1R21MH125360-01; PI John Blosnich), measuring stress for gender minority youth (1R21MD015945-01; PI Jeremy Goldbach), and hopefully will be working soon on a study of nonbinary youth.

Q: What organizational challenges have you faced?
One barrier I’ve come up against in publishing and in funding applications, especially early on, was having reviewers that lacked understanding of gender identity and transgender people. For instance, I remember one grant application I was a part of early on (to a federal agency outside of NIH) about violence against trans people and the reviews came back saying we had erroneously stated there were no studies of violence against trans people. As evidence, they listed a handful of studies about violence against cisgender gay men. They rejected the application. Additionally, I think it can be difficult sometimes when certain funding streams have strict rules about reviewers’ conflicts of interest. It’s getting bigger now, but the realm of trans health researchers and organizations has been relatively small and many of us know each other. I’ve been rejected from serving as a reviewer in competitive funding processes on trans health because I personally know one or more of the investigators. That’s understandable to me, but in a review process on trans health initiatives, I wonder who is left to review the pool of applications if no one can know each other. The field continues to grow, though, so perhaps this will be less of a concern moving forward. One last thing I will mention is that it was a pivotal moment in 2016 when sexual and gender minorities were officially designated a health disparities population at NIH. Not only was this a boon to trans health research generally, but also for me personally. I had been applying for the LRP before the designation and it was difficult to make the case to reviewers that my work on trans health should be considered eligible for the health disparities research program. After SGM populations were included, I finally was able to apply for the LRP with my research deemed eligible because it was SGM research. I did eventually receive an award. The establishment of the SGM Research Office (SGMRO) was also a pivotal moment and it’s been great to be involved with some of their initiatives.

Q: What advice do you have for trainees and researchers who want to work in this area or are interested in applying for NIH funding? 
Pursue research you are passionate about. Even coming from fields of study that may be less “traditional” for NIH-funded researchers, it’s worthwhile to contact program officials to talk about your research and where it might fit within NIH. Find a mentor who has a successful track record of NIH funding and learn from their experience. The Loan Repayment Program is an excellent program that can support you in pursuing your research goals. Definitely look into that! Dr. Meyer and I worked with Karen Parker and the fantastic folks at the SGMRO to host an NIH SGM Research regional conference at UCLA, and it was a great way to learn about NIH, the various priorities of the institutes, and how to make the most of the resources offered to help make your funding application a success. Seek out these types of workshops and opportunities to meet NIH officials and the excellent folks at the SGMRO. The NIH application process can be daunting. It’s great to have institutional admin support to go through the process. Find out if your institution can be of assistance. Finally, don’t give up. Listen to feedback and try, try again.

Q: Do you have any specific advice for working with and involving SGM populations in research?
 If you aren’t coming from a place of knowledge and connection, either personally or otherwise, with SGM populations, please first get to know the communities you want to research before you jump in. Involve the community in your research. Have community advisory boards. Your research will be better for it and you can make sure it will be of benefit to those you are working with, which for me is imperative. There are those in SGM communities who distrust researchers, and that distrust is based on negative experiences with researchers and also how research has been wielded against SGM people. Understanding that and entering the field with a bit of humility helps.

Q: Who inspires you?
A: The list is long, and certainly includes Ilan Meyer, my colleagues at the Williams Institute, and my colleagues outside of the Institute who I have been so fortunate to work with, like Sari Reisner, Sandy James, Walter Bockting, Mara Keisling, Tonia Poteat, and so many others. It has been so personally and professionally rewarding to be in a community of researchers who are doing amazing work, support one another, and have the interests of the community in mind. Those at my graduate institution, like Cynthia Harrison, who supported and guided my work, even though some didn’t really understand why I was so obsessed with bathrooms and writing all my course papers on the subject. I think of those who were community leaders in my early grad school days in DC, who inspired my entire career trajectory. People like Jessica Xavier, Earline Budd, Ruby Corado, the activists of the DC Trans Coalition, and the staff and peer educators at HIPS. They inspired my journey. Working on hard topics, like suicide, can sometimes feel heavy with the gravity of it all. The strength and resilience I witnessed from these leaders, who I saw bring the community together in times of fear and tragedy, has been instructive to me. The love of community that was the heart of their work is what I try to keep centered as the heart of my work.

Q: Any final words of wisdom?
Do work you are passionate about. Having a passion for your work will help you get over hurdles, push through barriers, and find intangible rewards in realizing your goals. For those like me who come to health research from less traditional backgrounds, it helped me when I realized health was a broader concept than I had previously thought. That allowed me to connect my work and use the approaches and methods I had learned to study health in ways I hadn’t considered. For those who may feel like outsiders to the type of research NIH supports, think again about how your research may be connected to health. You may find there’s a connection there you may have overlooked.