WPATH Draft on Gender Dysphoria 'Skewed and Misses Urgent Issues'

Becky McCall

December 10, 2021

December 17, 2021 // Editor's note: WPATH announced on December 16 that it is extending the public comment period for the Standards of Care (SOC) 8 until 11.59 PM EST on January 16, 2022.

New draft guidance from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) is raising serious concerns among professionals caring for people with gender dysphoria, prompting claims that WPATH is an organization "captured by activists."

Experts in adolescent and child psychology, as well as pediatric health, have expressed dismay that the WPATH Standards of Care (SOC) 8 appear to miss some of the most urgent issues in the field of transgender medicine and are considered to express a radical and unreserved leaning towards "gender-affirmation."

The WPATH SOC 8 document is available for view and comment until December 16 until 11.59 PM EST , after which time revisions will be made and the final version published. 

Despite repeated attempts by Medscape Medical News to seek clarification on certain aspects of the guidance from members of the WPATH SOC 8 committee, requests were declined "until the guidance is finalized."

According to the WPATH website, the SOC 8 aims to provide "clinical guidance for health professionals to assist transgender and gender diverse people with safe and effective pathways" to manage their gender dysphoria and potentially transition.

Such pathways may relate to primary care, gynecologic and urologic care, reproductive options, voice and communication therapy, mental health services, and hormonal or surgical treatments among others.

WPATH adds that it was felt necessary to revise the existing SOC 7 (published in 2012) because of recent "globally unprecedented increase and visibility of transgender and gender-diverse people seeking support and gender-affirming medical treatment."

Gender-affirming medical treatment means different things at different ages. In the case of kids with gender dysphoria who have not yet entered puberty associated with their birth sex, this might include prescribing so-called "puberty blockers" to delay natural puberty — gonadotrophin-releasing hormone analogs that are licensed for use in precocious puberty in children. Such agents have not been licensed for use in children with gender dysphoria, however, so any use for this purpose is off-label.

Following puberty blockade — or in cases where adolescents have already undergone natural puberty — the next step is to begin cross-sex hormones. So, for a girl (female) who wants to transition to male (FTM), that would be lifelong testosterone, and for a male who wants to be female (MTF), it involves lifelong estrogen. Again, use of such hormones in transgender individuals is entirely off-label.

Just last month, two of America's leading experts on transgender medicine, both psychologists — including one who is transgender — told Medscape Medical News they were concerned that the quality of the evaluations of youth with gender dysphoria are being stifled by activists who are worried that open discussions will further stigmatize trans individuals.

They subsequently wrote an op-ed on the topic entitled, "The mental health establishment is failing trans kids," which was finally published in the Washington Post on November 24, after numerous other mainstream US media outlets had rejected it.

New SOC 8 "Is Not Evidence Based," Should Not Be New "Gold Standard"

One expert says the draft SOC 8 lacks balance and does not address certain issues while paying undue attention to others that detract from real questions facing the field of transgender medicine, both in the United States and around the world.

Julia Mason, MD, is a pediatrician based in Gresham, Oregon, with a special interest in children and adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria. "The SOC 8 shows us that WPATH remains captured by activists," she asserts. 

Mason questions the integrity of WPATH based on what she has read in the draft SOC 8.

"We need a serious organization to take a sober look at the evidence and that is why we have established the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine [SEGM]," she noted. "This is what we do — we are looking at all of the evidence."

Mason is a clinical advisor to SEGM, an organization set-up to evaluate current interventions and evidence on gender dysphoria.

The pediatrician has particular concerns regarding the child and adolescent chapters in the draft SOC 8. The adolescent chapter states: "Guidelines are meant to provide a gold standard based on the available evidence at this moment of time."

Mason disputes this assertion. "This document should not be the new gold standard going forward, primarily because it is not evidence based."

Speaking to Medscape Medical News, Mason explained that WPATH say they used the "Delphi consensus process" to determine their recommendations, but "this process is designed for use with a panel of experts when evidence is lacking. I would say they didn't have a panel of experts. They largely had a panel of activists, with a few experts."

There is no mention, for example, of England's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) evidence reviews on puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones from earlier this year. These reviews determined that no studies have compared cross-sex hormones or puberty blockers with a control group and all follow-up periods for cross-sex hormones were relatively short.

This disappoints Mason: "These are significant; they are important documents."

And much of the evidence quoted comes from the well-known and often-quoted "Dutch-protocol" study of 2011, in which the children studied were much younger at the time of their gender dysphoria compared with the many adolescents who make up the current surge in presentation at gender clinics worldwide, adds Mason.

Rapid Onset GD: Adolescents Presenting Late With Little History

Mason also stresses that the SOC 8 does not address the most urgent issues in transgender medicine today, mainly because it does not address rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD): "This is the dilemma of the 21st century, it's new."

ROGD — a term first coined in 2018 by researcher Lisa Littman, MD, MPH, now president of the Institute for Comprehensive Gender Dysphoria Research (ICGDR) — refers to the phenomena of adolescents expressing a desire to transition from their birth sex after little or no apparent previous indication.

However, the SOC 8 does make reference to aspects of adolescent development that might impact their decision-making processes around gender identity during teen years. The chapter on adolescents reads: "...adolescence is also often associated with increased risk-taking behaviors. Along with these notable changes...individuation from parents...[there is] often a heightened focus on peer relationships, which can be both positive and detrimental." 

The guidance goes on to point out that "it is critical to understand how all of these aspects of development may impact the decision-making for a given young person within their specific cultural context." 

Desistance and Detransitioning Not Adequately Addressed

Mason also says there is little mention "about detransitioning in this SOC [8], and 'gender dysphoria' and 'trans' are terms that are not defined." 

Likewise, there is no mention of desistance, she highlights, which is when individuals naturally resolve their dysphoria around their birth sex as they grow older.

The most recent published data seen by Medscape Medical News relates to a study from March 2021 that showed nearly 88% of boys who struggled with gender identity in childhood (approximate mean age 8 years and follow-up at approximate mean age 20 years) desisted. It reads: "Of the 139 participants, 17 (12.2%) were classified as 'persisters' and the remaining 122 (87.8%) were classified as desisters."

"Most children with gender dysphoria will desist and lose their concept of themselves as being the opposite gender," Mason explains. "This is the safest path for a child — desistance."

"Transition can turn a healthy young person into a lifelong medical patient and has significant health risks," she emphasizes, stressing that transition has not been shown to decrease the probability of suicide, or attempts at suicide, despite myriad claims saying otherwise. 

"Before we were routinely transitioning kids at school, the vast majority of children grew out of their gender dysphoria. This history is not recognized at all in these SOC [8]," she maintains.

Ken Zucker, PhD, CPsych, an author of the study of desistance in boys, says the terms desistence and persistence of gender dysphoria have caused some consternation in certain circles.

An editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior and professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Zucker has published widely on the topic.

He told Medscape Medical News: "The terms persistence and desistance have become verboten among the WPATH cognoscenti. Perhaps the contributors to SOC 8 have come up with alternative descriptors."  

"The term 'desistance' is particularly annoying to some of the gender-affirming clinicians because they don't believe that desistance is bona fide," Zucker points out.

"The desistance resisters are like anti-vaxxers — nothing one can provide as evidence for the efficacy of vaccines is sufficient. There will always be a new objection." 

Other Mental Health Issues, in Particular ADHD and Autism

It is also widely acknowledged that there is a higher rate of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diagnoses in individuals with gender dysphoria. For example, one 2020 study found that transgender people were three to six times as likely to be autistic as cisgender people (those whose gender is aligned with their birth sex). 

Statement one in the chapter on adolescents in draft WPATH SOC 8 does give a nod to this, pointing out that health professionals working with gender diverse adolescents "should receive training and develop expertise in autism spectrum disorders and other neurodiversity conditions."

It also notes that in some cases "a more extended assessment process may be useful, such as for youth with more complex presentations (eg, complicating mental health histories, co-occurring autism spectrum characteristics in particular) and an absence of experienced childhood gender incongruence."

However, Mason stresses that underlying mental health issues are central to addressing how to manage a significant number of these patients.

"If a young person has ADHD or autism, they are not ready to make decisions about the rest of their life at age 18. Even a neurotypical young person is still developing their frontal cortex in their early 20s, and it takes longer for those with ADHD or on the autism spectrum."

She firmly believes that the guidance does not give sufficient consideration to comorbidities in people over the age of 18.

According to their [SOC8] guidelines, "once someone is 18 they are ready for anything," says Mason.  

Offering some explanation for the increased prevalence of ADHD and autism in those with gender dysphoria, Mason notes that children can have "hyperfocus" and those with autism will fixate on a particular area of interest. "If a child is unhappy in their life, and this can be more likely if someone is neuro-atypical, then it is likely that the individual might go online and find this one solution [eg, a transgender identity] that seems to fix everything." 

Perceptions of femininity and masculinity can also be extra challenging for a child with autism, Mason says. "It is relatively easy for an autistic girl to feel like she should be a boy because the rules of femininity are composed of nonverbal, subtle behaviors that can be difficult to pick up on," she points out. "An autistic child who isn't particularly good at nonverbal communication might not pick up on these and thus feel they are not very 'female'." 

"There's a whole lot of grass-is-greener-type thinking. Girls think boys have an easier life, and boys think girls have an easier life. I know some detransitioners who have spoken eloquently about realizing their mistake on this," she adds.

Other parts of the SOC 8 that Mason disagrees with include the recommendation in the adolescent chapter that 14-year-olds are mature enough to start cross-sex hormones, that is, giving testosterone to a female who wants to transition to male or estrogen to a male who wishes to transition to female. "I think that's far too young," she asserts.

And she points out that the document states 17-year-olds are ready for genital reassignment surgery. Again, she believes this is far too young.

"Also, the SOC 8 document does not clarify who is appropriate for surgery. Whenever surgery is discussed, it becomes very vague," she said. 

WPATH Standards of Care 8 is available for public comment until December 16, 2021.

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