EXPERT ANALYSIS FROM AACE 2016
ORLANDO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Old notions about transgender and transsexual individuals are changing, driven by the emergence of transgender identity, scientific evidence, political activism in those communities, and the gay and lesbian rights movement, as well as patients demanding to be part of the decision-making process.
The terminology has evolved as well. What was called transsexualism in the DSM-III in 1980 became gender identity disorder in the DSM-IV (1994; 2000), and in the current DSM-5 is gender dysphoria. Terminology is still in flux with the possibility that terminology may evolve to “gender incongruence.”
The umbrella term “transgender” now covers transsexual, crossdressing, bigender, drag queen/king, female/male impersonator, and gender queer, and probably more, according to Eli Coleman, Ph.D., professor and director of the program in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. “Probably the most proper term you hear now is ‘trans,’ ” he said during a session on transgender medicine at the annual meeting of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
The DSM-5 criteria for gender dysphoria include a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and the assigned gender for at least 6 months with at least two of the following: an incongruence between one’s felt gender identity and one’s primary and secondary sex characteristics, a strong desire to be rid of one’s gender, a strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender, a strong desire to be of the other gender (or an alternative gender from the assigned one), a strong desire to be treated as such, and a strong conviction that one has the typical feeling and reactions of the other gender. Dr. Coleman said a further criterion of the DSM-5 is that “the condition is associated with clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.”
A new view of trans
There is now an awareness of a spectrum of gender identity and an affirmation of the right of individuals to express that identity as they would like. Many treatment options exist, and it is up to the individual to decide which way and how far they want to go. Dr. Coleman quoted the late Virginia Prince, a transvestite and a pioneering transgender activist: “If you get on a train in Los Angeles bound for New York, you don’t have to go all the way to New York. If you want, you can get off in Chicago.” So even if a person wants to undergo medical transitioning, hormone therapy does not necessarily have to be followed by sex-reassignment surgery.
Dr. Coleman is past president of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH, www.wpath.org), which has published “Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People,” Version 7 , a set of guidelines for health care providers. The guidelines are designed help patients achieve comfort with their gendered selves, maximize their overall health and psychological well-being, and achieve self-fulfillment. If untreated or undertreated, gender dysphoria is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, according to WPATH. Hormone treatment may reduce gender dysphoria symptoms by reducing the characteristics of the original sex and inducing ones of the opposite sex. Hormones can be used before or after sex-reassignment surgery, or on their own for patients not seeking surgery who “want [to] … get off in Chicago,” Dr. Coleman said.
Gender nonconformity is not pathological
“Gender nonconformity is not pathological, yet gender dysphoria is a specific distress that can be alleviated through medically necessary treatment,” Dr. Coleman said. “Gender dysphoria may be classified as a mental disorder [but] not necessarily a lifetime diagnosis.” It is the stress of the dysphoria that may be diagnosable and treated, but being gender nonconforming in itself is not the target of treatment. He said mental health professionals therefore have an important role in addressing the negative effects of stigma and helping the individuals become comfortable with a form of gender expression that suits them. This role requires a mental health professional who is skilled in this area.
Treatments to try to change gender identity and expression to become congruent with the sex assigned at birth have failed in the past and are no longer considered ethical, he said. Dr. Coleman suggested that intervening with medical treatments early to suppress puberty and then offering feminizing or masculinizing hormone therapy at the appropriate time may be the best course of action to avoid or alleviate gender dysphoria. He said studies have shown that sex-reassignment surgery can provide “an undeniable effect” on outcomes such as “subjective well-being, cosmesis, and sexual function.”
He recommended that health care professionals become familiar with transgender health care issues, examine their own attitudes and beliefs about these issues, seek out educational opportunities, and get to know and consult with experts in transgender health care. But that is not enough.
“You’ll never understand the condition if you just listen to your patients in the office,” he said. “You’ve got to get into a car and talk to somebody or have coffee with them and really get to know them outside of the office.” That includes meeting with transgender people several years after they have transitioned, who can give insights into the process that are not apparent from just seeing patients in the office in the midst of their gender dysphoria.
The knowledge gained must also be imbued in the health care professional’s staff as well. “You’ve got to have the right attitudes, but you’ve got to train your whole staff about this … that [patients] cannot be treated badly at all,” he said.