A topic that comes up often in my work is the question of whether or not to treat transgender youth with cross-sex hormones. (For those of you who don’t know, this would include a Male to Female preteen/teen taking Estrogen, and a Female to Male preteen/teen taking Testosterone, in order for them to go through puberty in line with their brain gender identity. Read more about it here). I know this is a controversial topic, and there are as many opinions about this as there are professionals, if not people.
Of course, the first step in treating a transgender child about to enter puberty is usually hormone blockers. While incredibly expensive, I think most parents and doctors are more willing to allow the child/pre-teen to go on these because a) it buys them time, b) it prevents physical changes from happening during puberty that have to be “undone” later, and c) the changes are reversible. Remove the hormone blocker, and the individual goes through the puberty of their natal sex. Not so with cross-sex hormones. Many changes are irreversible, and can have life-long impact on one’s reproductive system. I understand the anxiety parents and doctors feel about transgender pre-teens starting hormones. I’m still a proponent of it, on a case by case basis.
I recently learned that the Endocrine Society guidelines recommend that endocrinologists wait to put pre-teens/teens on cross-sex hormones until the age of 16. In my opinion, this is too late. Most of their peers will be going through or will have gone through puberty by that age. One argument I’ve heard about this is that there are “late bloomers”. Sure, there are “late bloomers”, but these teens need not be. Being late to enter puberty means something entirely different to a non-transgender teen and a transgender teen. The former may be anxiously awaiting puberty. The latter may be close to suicide.
For those youth who do receive hormone blockers, this is a life-changer: their body is not going to go through the “wrong” puberty. However, even these pre-teens and teens struggle with gaining those important “gender markers” in order to help them pass in society; a deeper voice and facial hair for male teenagers, a more curvaceous figure for female teenagers. Without the needed physical help from hormones, passing can be very difficult. And being read as the wrong gender every day is an agony no teen should have to go through.
In my opinion, treatment before the age of 16 is medically necessary to support the mental health of transgender youth. I suppose if more people sat across from transgender pre-teens and teenagers the way I do, more people would agree. I see a sadness and a desperation in their eyes I simply do not think has to be a part of this process. I don’t have all the answers; I don’t have a medical degree that would help me understand exactly the process of cross-sex hormones in an adolescent’s body. I’m coming from a therapist’s standpoint who understands how crucial it is for teens to feel as though they fit in with their peers -as well as the need to be seen for who they really are- and the depression and suicidality that results when they don’t.
In the words of Karen, the mother of an FTM individual and author of the blog Trans*forming Family, “When a child is as sure as my son is, I think it is senseless and really torturous to make them wait until they reach some arbitrary age guideline. I realize this is anecdotal, but every trans teen I’ve known of who has been suicidal, depressed, or has self-harmed has been in that age range where they cannot get cross-gender hormones and/or surgery and are miserable due to dysphoria[…] the negative symptoms lift after medical transition, so why prolong their suffering unnecessarily?”.
Monica Nuñez-Cham leads the family support group for families with gender nonconforming and transgender children in San Diego. She is also the mother of Isaac (now 18), an FTM individual who started medical transition (cross-sex hormones soon followed by surgery) at the age of 13. “He wanted so badly to appear male and experience the same changes his friends were having (lower voice, facial hair, etc). He was very uncomfortable in his body and hated every feminine form (hips, butt, chest). I knew that the physical changes of T would help others who knew him as a “girl” to perceive him as male. The risks (that nobody could explain with certainty to me because there is not much research) were much lower than the 100% reality of seeing my dearest child in emotional pain every day and withdrawing himself from life. […] I always tried to listen to my heart and do what I thought was the best for him, with the tools I had at the time.
Hormones and surgery were the best decision we could have made. Isaac as a little boy was a happy one, always singing, talking, making friends and very easily expressed his feelings by kissing, hugging and verbally. Close to puberty he stopped being happy, to the point of not allowing me to touch him. After the T, he came back, not little by little, suddenly he was the same happy kid. After the surgery I was very surprised to see him just BLOSSOM in a spectacular manner.
I attribute his success as a person (academically, socially, emotionally) to the fact that we acted as soon as we knew how.”
The Harry Benjamin (now WPATH) Standards of Care were revised 7 times. In my opinion, the first version was hopelessly damaging to transgender individuals seeking treatment. By the 7th version, it is finally coming around to the way it should be: professionals supporting and making life easier for transgender individuals, not harder. Additionally, the Standards of Care were only created to be general guidelines to give those who are inexperienced some semblance of a plan. They are not laws that govern how a professional chooses to treat a transgender individual. Such is the same as the guidelines for the Endocrine Society, in fact it says so in their disclaimer statement: “Clinical Practice Guidelines are developed to be of assistance to endocrinologists by providing guidance and recommendations for particular areas of practice. The Guidelines should not be considered inclusive of all proper approaches or methods, or exclusive of others. The Guidelines cannot guarantee any specific outcome, nor do they establish a standard of care. The Guidelines are not intended to dictate the treatment of a particular patient. Treatment decisions must be made based on the independent judgment of health care providers and each patient’s individual circumstances.”
Wondering what the latest version of the Standards of Care say (in part) regarding prescribing hormones to transgender adolescents? “Refusing timely medical interventions for adolescents might prolong gender dysphoria and contribute to an appearance that could provoke abuse and stigmatization. As the level of gender-related abuse is strongly associated with the degree of psychiatric distress during adolescence (Nuttbrock et al., 2010), withholding puberty suppression and subsequent feminizing or masculinizing hormone therapy is not a neutral option for adolescents.”
I know of two gender clinics in all of Southern California who medically treat transgender youth.* These clinics, as you can imagine, have long waiting times due to the high demand and sheer number of patients in need.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I see my role as helping individuals live their lives as the gender they are in their brains. Most of the time this is not about helping them figure out their gender identity, but figuring out what they are going to do about it. For those children/pre-teens/teens who know who they are, and what they want to do, let’s help them do it.
Most people will doubt your judgment because of your age. It may take a lot more talking to convince the ‘adults’ that you really know who you are. -Chris, 19 (From the Advocates for Youth pamphlet, “I Think I Might Be Transgender, Now What Do I Do?”.)
*If anyone reading this has more information on endocrinologists who treat transgender youth in California, please private message me or include in the comments.