COMMENTARY

'I Think I'm Transgender': A Clinician's Guide to Next Steps

Elyse D. Pine, MD

Disclosures

February 19, 2021

A 16-year-old patient sits in front of you and says, "I think I'm transgender."

What do you do?

Whether you are an endocrinologist, family physician, pediatrician, or emergency physician, it's probably a situation for which medical school education did not sufficiently prepare you. What you know is that you want to do your best to guide your patient and offer every resource necessary for a healthy and happy life. The good news is that your patient trusted you enough to disclose this information to you.

Sadly, this isn't always the case. Twenty-three percent of transgender adults responding to the 2015 US Transgender Survey put off necessary healthcare because they fear being mistreated or disrespected. Nearly one third (31%) of survey respondents reported that none of their healthcare providers knew they were transgender.

Now that your patient feels comfortable enough with you to share this information, you must make sure you do everything in your power to continue to earn your patient's trust.

Language Matters

First, make sure that you are respectful with your terminology. Ask the patient for their name, pronouns, and gender identity. For example: "My name is Dr Pine, and my pronouns are she/her. What are your pronouns? How do you describe your gender identity?" Each person may have terminology that is specific to their own experience, so allowing people to use their own language is the most respectful method.

People may identify as male, female, transwoman, transman, gender-fluid, non-binary, agender, neutrois, pangender, two-spirit, or other options not listed here. Physicians can be supportive by ensuring that their paperwork or electronic medical systems are sensitive to the needs of the transgender community. Having an option for the patient's chosen name is courteous to all patients, regardless of gender identity; not everyone uses their legal name in everyday conversation.

Paperwork and electronic medical systems should ask for gender identity and sex assigned at birth, allow write-in options for issues of gender and sexual orientation, and ask for an anatomical inventory or organ inventory so that cancer screening can be conducted for the appropriate body parts.

Questions to Ask

Ask patients about their gender journey: How long have they felt this way? How did they come to understand themselves and their gender? When did they start to disclose their experience with others? With pediatric patients, I ask if they have discussed this with their parents/guardians, and if they would like to have that conversation together.

Ask how you can support the patient on their journey. Are they interested in therapy, puberty blockers, hormones, surgery? People may seek therapy for help coping with internalized transphobia, family rejection, or stigma. They may also want information or support with accessing hormones or surgery. In addition to individual therapy, there are numerous support groups for children, individuals, parents/guardians, and partners, such as PFLAG.org and Genderspectrum.org.

If you are the right kind of doctor and ready to prescribe, you can begin counseling. If not, you should know how to find local resources. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health has a directory of providers, and there are other resources listed below.

What Does Gender Transitioning Entail?

There are many components to gender transition. Some transitions may consist primarily of a social transition, with people using a different name, pronouns, and external expression, such as hairstyle and clothing. For others, there may be a medical component.

Mental health care is also an important component of gender transition for children, adolescents, adults, and family members. Mental health concerns are significantly greater in transgender and gender-nonconforming people, with higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, and neurodiversity on the autism spectrum. In a study of more than 6400 transgender people in the United States, 41% reported attempting suicide — a rate 25 times higher than that of the general population. Numerous studies show that hormonal treatment decreases depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety, and improves quality of life.

One common misperception, especially when working with children, is that youth transition involves a "sex change" (an outdated term) or any type of surgery. In reality, the main intervention before puberty is psychological support and social transition. The use of a chosen name at school, home, work, and with friends was shown to be associated with lower depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior. Another study demonstrated that children supported in their identities have mental health similar to that of cisgender siblings and peers.

When puberty approaches, if there is distress around natal pubertal development, then GnRH agonists or "puberty blockers" may be used to temporarily pause the pubertal process, but only after Tanner stage II-III is reached. These medications have been safely used for decades for patients with central precocious puberty. Access to puberty-blocking medication in adolescence (when desired) has been associated with lower rates of suicidal ideation in adulthood and can truly be a life-saving intervention.

When teens are older, they may choose to take gender-affirming hormone therapy to go through the puberty that is concordant with their affirmed gender. Adults who decide to transition medically may decide to take hormone therapy and may have gender-confirmation surgery, if desired, to align the body with their gender identity and alleviate gender dysphoria. Overall, access to medical care and hormone therapy have been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, and suicidality, and improve quality of life.

Sexuality and Fertility

It is important to understand that sexuality is separate from gender identity, and that attraction and sexual activity cannot be assumed. Take a sensitive romantic and sexual history from your patient to get the information necessary to counsel patients about safe relationships and sexual practices. It is important not to make assumptions; a patient who is asexual may still be having sex, and a transgender man may be having receptive vaginal intercourse and may need information about contraception and family planning.

Also, be careful about using clinical language. Some people may want to use anatomical terms, but others may be uncomfortable or triggered by them. For instance, a transgender man may use "chest" for breasts, or "genital canal," "junk," "dick," or "front hole" for the vagina. Ask patients what terms they prefer to use.

It is also important to consider the impact that medical and surgical interventions may have on fertility, especially when discussing the topic with children and adolescents who may not have spent much time thinking about family planning. Be careful not to make assumptions about plans for parenthood, and remember that there are many paths to becoming a parent.

What Does the Patient Need Right Now?

When I was a fourth-year medical student on my outpatient child psychiatry rotation, a 5-year-old child assigned male at birth was guarded and frightened of me until their mother said, "It's okay, Dr Elyse likes girl things too," at which point the child became animated and happy while chatting with me about Barbie dolls. My patient had already endured teasing about gender nonconformity, starting in kindergarten; it was unclear to my patient whether I would be a safe person or a bully.

The mother was kind and affirming, but she also wanted answers. Would her child grow up to be a gay man? Or a transgender woman? Would her child be able to live freely, or would they always be quiet around others, scared of what people might say? Would her child be safe?

We can't predict the future, but as doctors, we want to use all of our knowledge and tools to help our patients live healthy lives. In this case, it meant helping the mother know how to support her child's identity, how to advocate for a safe school and community, where to connect with other gender-creative children, and how to tolerate ambiguity and celebrate the child she has, not the child she expected.

We know that people with higher support and higher self-esteem can have greater resilience and greater success. This family may need medical resources for puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and even surgery someday, but reassurance is what was needed in the moment. When your patient comes out to you, they are trusting you. It is your obligation and privilege as a medical professional to help them begin a journey to an authentic life.

Resources

World Professional Association for Transgender Health

US-Based Youth Gender Clinics

Clinical Care Programs for Gender-Expansive Children and Adolescents

GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality

GLMA Provider Directory

Elyse D. Pine, MD, is a pediatric endocrinologist specializing in transgender care.

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