BMJ article on gender dysphoria issues

A few weeks ago, the British Medical Journal carried two educational articles about management of gender dysphoria in the non-specialist setting (one written by a gender dysphoria specialist with input from patients, and one a collection of advice from transgender people). Transgender people can have some significant problems with healthcare both for their gender dysphoria care and for their general care, so, although this only affects a small minority of the population, this is an issue it’s important for me as a GP to be aware of.

I have a separate site where I keep the notes I make on any medical articles or educational modules I read, in order to refer back to them later. This time, however, I thought I might post them here; after all, transgender health care is an important topic to many people here. Here are the points covered by the articles:

  • When someone comes to you expressing problems with gender identity (‘you’, here, meaning GPs, not the general population), offer them referral to gender identity services ASAP. Waiting lists are horrendous, so, if a patient does want to explore the possibility of transitioning, the sooner they get on the waiting list to do so the better. As a GP, I’m very schooled in the approach of “let’s wait a bit and see how this goes with time”, and for a large proportion of the patients I see that is perfectly appropriate, but gender dysphoria is one of the situations where it isn’t. The gender identity services themselves will be the ones who can offer expert assessment and help patients reach an informed decision regarding transitioning. (As one of the patients in the second article pointed out, gender identity treatment has one of the highest satisfaction rates of any branch of medicine. Puts the desistance myth into perspective, doesn’t it?)
  • Take the trouble to find out what name and pronouns your patient wants to use, and use them. That, frankly, is just basic courtesy. However, be aware that, for safety reasons, a patient may need letters to be addressed to their old name for the time being (if they’re living with family members who are against the transition and unsupportive or even threatening over it). Use their new name and pronouns when discussing them with other healthcare personnel; it’s a way of respecting their gender even when they’re not there.
  • Transgender people who haven’t yet accessed proper treatment may be self-medicating with hormones purchased online. Ask about this and advise that it does carry risks and that ideally it should be stopped until the person is seen by the gender identity clinic. Of course, given the waiting lists, there’s a gulf here between ‘ideally’ and ‘bearably’. If a person can’t face stopping medication for the time it’ll take to get seen, advise them to let us know of side effects and to let healthcare practitioners they see know about the medication.*
  • Suggest informal on-line support groups while a patient is waiting to be seen. Tranzwiki.net was the example given.
  • Some surgical treatment can take place locally, such as hysterectomy/oophorectomy; however, do bear in mind that a person who has become visibly male may feel very awkward about attending a gynaecological clinic. One possibility suggested was that a patient in this situation could get a woman to accompany him to the clinic, if possible, so that he wouldn’t stand out as a solitary male in a sea of female patients.
  • Screening can raise unexpected problems. For one thing, gender-based automated systems in the NHS are not set up to deal with patients who’ve changed gender, and so they may not be called automatically for screening they should actually have (aortic aneurysm screening for MTF, cervical screening for FTM who still have a cervix in situ). Remember that the form that goes with the sample will need to clarify what’s going on so that the lab doesn’t simply assume that the cervical smear sample labelled as coming from Mr Fred Jones, M, to be a mistake. For another thing, the screening tools for things like risk of cardiovascular events or fractures include gender as one of the factors used to calculate risk, and the data on transgender people in this context simply doesn’t exist. It’s necessary to do some common-sense estimating and explain the uncertainties to the person in question.
  • On the topic of screening, the article also stated that AMAB women do not need routine mammography as, in the absence of progesterone, their risk of breast cancer is too low for it to be needed.
  • Conversely, an AFAB male who still has breasts should be advised to have mammography if in that age group, but may find it distressing to discuss the matter. The article ‘I am your transgender patient’ suggested that talking about ‘chest’ rather than ‘breasts’ might be easier for some men in this situation.
  • There isn’t any single rule or guideline for how transgender people feel about their gender, their identity, or their gender-specific body parts. They might be very distressed by some, quite comfortable with others. It’ll vary from person to person. This is one of the (many) situations in medical practice where you have to be sensitive to the person’s cues and willing to find out their wishes and to follow their lead.

 

*This, of course, raises the question of whether GPs in that situation should prescribe hormones themselves rather than leave the patient with the risks of buying hormones on-line. This wasn’t covered by the article. WPATH guidelines do touch on the possibility of ‘bridging’ prescriptions, but it’s a complicated issue that carries the risk of major medicolegal problems for the GP if they prescribe outside their area of expertise, and there are very good reasons why GPs would typically be unwilling to do this. This is beyond the scope of this particular article, which is why I haven’t gone into it further here.

Fact-checking transgender treatment myths, Part 2 – the David Reimer fallacy

In my last post, while discussing an inaccurate claim about transgender treatment recently made by Lenny Esposito on the Come Reason blog, I promised to come back to his past post Today’s Snake Oil Includes A Scalpel: The Damaging Treatment of Transgenderism for some much-needed fact-checking. In that post, Esposito claims that gender reassignment therapy is ‘a dangerous falsehood that many times proves deadly to the patients that should have been helped’, and goes on to cite various pieces of evidence to make a superficially convincing case for this claim. However, this is extremely misleading; Esposito’s post not only contains several significant errors and fallacies, it also ignores all the research that actually shows gender reassignment therapy to be beneficial overall for nearly all the people who opt for it. Some proper fact-checking is clearly sorely needed here and, with apologies for the delay in getting back to it, here we go.

There’s quite a bit in his post to discuss, so I plan to break it down into several short posts dealing with each point separately. First up, his discussion of David Reimer’s story.

[I]n 1967 he [Dr John Money] sought to change a two-year-old boy whose genitals had been damaged by a botched circumcision into a girl, reassuring the parents that the child would grow up never knowing the difference. But, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “the gender conversion was far from successful. Money’s experiment was a disaster for Reimer that created psychological scars he ultimately could not overcome.” David Reimer committed suicide at the age of 38.

While it’s not clear to what extent Reimer’s suicide was a response to his history of gender surgery and to what extent it was related to other significant problems in his very troubled life, there is no doubt at all that the gender conversion attempts performed on Reimer were, indeed, psychologically disastrous for him and contributed hugely to the distress in his life, and it is very likely that they played at minimum a significant role in his final tragic end. However, there’s a big problem with using that as an anti-gender reassignment argument: Reimer wasn’t transgender.

As Esposito himself states, Reimer was a boy who was reassigned to be raised as female after a badly botched circumcision operation destroyed his penis and John Money (who was hugely influenced by his wish to prove his particular theory about gender fluidity) convinced his family that raising him as a girl was the best way to salvage the matter. There were never any claims that Reimer was transgender. From a very early stage he clearly knew he was male and wanted to be male.

Now, of course, Reimer’s situation was unique and there are limits to how much of a conclusion we should draw from that one story; but it does strike me as notable that what we have in Reimer’s story is the story of a person being raised as female who knew all the time, on some level, that he should actually be male.  In other words, the experience that a transgender man [a person born into a female body but with an inner gender of male] grows up with. And he found it devastating and destroying. That really doesn’t strike me as a good argument for trying to convince someone who identifies with one gender that they’re actually the other.

Of course, I have little doubt that Esposito and his followers would argue that a transgender man’s experience of distress over growing up in the wrong body shouldn’t be treated in the same way because he isn’t ‘really’ a male (by which they would mean that he’s not chromosomally male, or possibly that he wasn’t born with a penis – I’m not quite sure what, specifically, their criterion is). But, whichever way you look at it, it strikes me as pretty illogical to take an example of someone who found it deeply distressing to grow up with an assigned gender that his own inner certainty was telling him to be wrong, who could not refuse his need to live as the gender that matched his inner knowledge of himself – and use that to bolster your claim that people who are deeply distressed at growing up with an assigned gender that their inner certainty tells them is wrong should not be allowed to live as the gender that matches their own inner knowledge of themselves.

Misinformation about gender reassignment therapy (part 1)

One topic that’s shown up on Christian blogs a lot lately (because it’s been in the mainstream news a lot lately) is that of transgender people and gender reassignment surgery. I’ve been reading a lot of dubious claims from these sorts of articles, which have been ringing my Fact Check Alert bell big-time. I don’t know a great deal about transgender issues, but, as a GP, I do know that medical opinion supports the availability of gender reassignment as a treatment for gender dysphoria. So, when non-medical groups with a heavy religious-based agenda in the matter try to claim that gender reassignment is bad for transgender people and we should be banning it in their interests, that rings alarm bells for me and I want to look at the evidence.

The latest such post that I saw was Bloodletting and the Modern Trans Movement, on the Come Reason blog by Lenny Esposito. Esposito argues that because doctors once used to believe in treatments such as bloodletting which are now discredited we should therefore assume that medical advice to provide gender reassignment therapy for transgender people is similarly incorrect. Or something like that, anyway. That of course is just a logical fallacy (by the way, if anyone knows the official name for that logical fallacy feel free to shout out – I don’t keep track of logical fallacy names myself) but the bit that hit my Fact Check Alert button in this post was this:

I’ve pointed out before how we have fifty years of data under our collective medical belts on gender reassignment surgery and we know that the suicide rate for those suffering from gender dysphoria is as high after sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) as it is prior to transitioning.

The link Esposito gave there is to a post he wrote last year titled Today’s Snake Oil Includes a Scalpel: The Damaging Treatment of Transgenderism, which rang my Fact Check Alert bell several more times and needs a post or several of its own to discuss, which I fully plan to do. In the interest of speed and clarity, I’m going to leave that to further posts rather than try to cover everything here. What it did not do, even with the cherry-picked and misleading evidence it cites, was support Esposito’s statement that suicide rates are as high after gender reassignment therapy as before. The post cited one study showing much higher suicide rates among transgender people post-reassignment than in the general population (though without pointing out that these high suicide rates were seen a few decades ago when anti-transgender bias was worse than it is now, and that they don’t show up in recent years), but nothing comparing rates of suicide in transgender people pre- and post-gender reassignment. So, whatever Esposito may have convinced himself he ‘knows’, he hasn’t in fact demonstrated anything of the kind.

So, I did a bit of digging around to see whether any such statistics do exist, and, as far as I can find out, they don’t. I did find this report on rates of suicide attempts in the transgender population overall, which is frightening; transgender people were almost ten times as likely as the general population to have attempted suicide at some point. Not surprisingly, this was strongly linked with experience of discrimination, bullying, rejection by family, or even outright violence, making it clear that, for those of us concerned about suicide risk among transgender people, one of the most important things we can do is to work to increase transgender acceptance. (Which, frankly, doesn’t seem to be a strong point among conservative Christians such as Esposito.) And this article cited studies also indicating markedly increased suicide rates in the transgender population (and, again, cited evidence that showed this to be linked to experiences of discrimination and family rejection).

However, I couldn’t find anything giving comparative figures for suicide rates, or suicide attempt rates, in pre-transition and post-transition transgender people. Which isn’t too surprising, by the way, since it’s the sort of question on which it’s hard to get data; but it does mean that it is not correct to state that we ‘know’ the suicide rates to be as high after gender reassignment as before. We know nothing of the kind.

So what information is available on how gender reassignment affects transgender people? Looking, I found this article reviewing the existing evidence as to how gender reassignment affects the mental health and quality of life of transgender people overall. According to the abstract, the authors of this summary found 28 studies that followed transgender people through gender reassignment therapy (surgical and/or hormonal) comparing their mental health after the procedure with before. What they found was that, psychologically, the majority of people were better off after gender reassigment.

Pooling across studies shows that after sex reassignment, 80% of individuals with GID reported significant improvement in gender dysphoria (95% CI = 68–89%; 8 studies; I2 = 82%); 78% reported significant improvement in psychological symptoms (95% CI = 56–94%; 7 studies; I2 = 86%); 80% reported significant improvement in quality of life (95% CI = 72–88%; 16 studies; I2 = 78%); and 72% reported significant improvement in sexual function (95% CI = 60–81%; 15 studies; I2 = 78%).

So, no matter how hard conservative religious groups or other anti-transgender groups try to spin evidence to make it look as though it supports their cause, the evidence is in fact that the best thing to do to help transgender people is a) to eliminate prejudice and discrimination against them, and b) to make gender reassignment available for those who, after counselling, want it.