Transition is an INTERVENTION, Not a Decision

In my post “What are you going to do about it?”, I discuss two very separate concepts: one’s gender identity and one’s “decision” about what to do about it. However, I made it clear that “deciding” not to transition is not usually a positive choice for a transgender individual. Today let’s break it down one step further and clarify what this “decision” means. Deciding to transition often means acting upon something that already is. That is, someone can be transgender in that they feel the brain gender identity they have is different than their assigned gender based on their natal sex. Is being transgender a decision? Absolutely not. You cannot decide to be transgender, just as much as anyone cannot “decide” on their gender before birth. I think talking too much about the “decision” to transition undermines what just simply exists; one’s brain gender identity. I want to acknowledge that there are some people who are transgender and who choose not to transition. This is a valid choice and one that is completely within their right. Let’s just say, for argument’s sake and the sake of this blog post, that transitioning is the natural response to one being transgender. If that is true, let’s stop thinking about transition as a decision and more as an intervention. I suppose this distinction has become more and more clear in my work with transgender youth and how different their process can be. Adults have the tendency to overthink everything, and so sometimes my work involves sitting with a client while they agonize over the “decision” to transition. Some of this includes not just IF they are going to transition but when, how, etc. It is somewhat different with transgender children. Because of their luxury of not yet having a brain trained to overthink things, they typically know just what they want to do about it. It is their parents/guardians, those in charge of their care, who typically stall the transition. They want their child to be SURE. They want their child to know all aspects of transition prior to “deciding to do so”. I have heard this statement so many times: “I just want him to be sure he knows what he’s getting into if he decides to transition” or “I just want to be sure she is mature enough to make a decision like this”, and “I told her if you’re going to make this decision I just want you to know what the consequences could be”. (If you have made a statement like this in my office, please know it is not about you specifically. I have heard these things too many times to count or to connect to one person or family. 🙂 ) Because children don’t overthink things, being transgender and transitioning* are fluidly, easily connected. Let’s try not to infringe our overthinking brains upon them. Let’s start looking at transitioning as an intervention, not a decision. If your child had a medical condition, and a doctor recommended an intervention that could make their lives a whole lot better, or potentially save your child’s life, would you put the decision on the child? Would you present the options to your child but then warn them to consider the financial implications, social implications, family implications on said intervention? Of course not. (For a similar concept covered in a different blog post, see “Oxygen”.) We are so used to warning our children of possible outcomes that we forget some are natural consequences to a circumstance, not something to avoid at all costs. Will there possibly be difficult times ahead for the transgender child who opts to transition? Yes. Will you be there to help them through it? Yes. Given how debilitating and dangerous dysphoria can be, I can assure you any stumbling blocks post-transition will likely be easier to overcome by the distress of not transitioning at all. Adults reading this who identify as transgender, what if you were to think of transitioning as an intervention instead of a decision? Would you give yourself more permission to act on how you feel and what you know you need? Would you be more willing to assert what you need from others, knowing this is something that is necessary for you?

*I want to clarify that for the sake of this blog post I am speaking of transition in fairly binary terms, that is someone transitioning from male to female, or female to male. However, plenty of people do not identify within this binary; some are gender fluid, some are genderqueer, some are bi-gender, some are agender, some are gender nonconforming. For these individuals, the “transition” and “intervention” may be somewhat different. It could just include having those around them understand them better, possibly change pronouns, and advocate for the use of proper treatment and pronouns. Those in charge of their care/their loved ones should also look at their stated preferences as interventions to how they feel, not “decisions” they are making to be a certain way gender-wise.

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Viral Video: Ryland’s Story

A very important video has gone viral with over 4.5 million hits in one week. It’s the story of young Ryland, a transgender boy who was allowed to socially transition at the age of 5. To see the video, click here. As a gender therapist, and a gender therapist who also works with transgender children, I’m thrilled to see this video in mainstream media: Huffington Post, People.com, Upworthy.com. It’s bringing awareness to an extremely important issue: not just that transgender children can transition, but it drives home the point that transgender people are born transgender. The age that one is consciously aware of being transgender or transitions can vary widely, but an individual does not become transgender over the course of their lifetime.

I had the honor of speaking about this issue on Good Morning America. To see the clip, click here. I said a lot more than what was aired, but there’s only so much they could fit into a 4-minute news segment. I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of those things now. These points are in direct response to the questions I was asked by Good Morning America about the video. Regular readers of this blog are probably well-versed in the answers below, but in case this post is read by someone seeking more education or to understand young transgender children, I wanted to be thorough.

Many people were surprised to read that 41% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide, while the rate of the general population is 4.6%. That staggering statistic, I believe, applies to transgender individuals who transition later in life and meet with familial/societal resistance, rejection, or shame. “New analysis of responses to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) shows that transgender respondents who experienced rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimization, or violence have a higher risk of attempting suicide.” I strongly believe that number will plummet in the coming years with increased awareness, education, and accepting, responsive families like Ryland’s. To read the full report from the Williams Institute, click here.

I was asked questions about what interventions are recommended for transgender children. For a transgender child as young as 5 or 6, the first step is social transition. This means changing pronouns, sometimes name, and some societal markers of gender such as haircut or dress. No medical interventions happen at this stage, contrary to some sensationalistic beliefs. The first medical interventions would be just before the onset of puberty, at which time hormone blockers would be introduced to prevent the body from going through the “wrong” puberty. As the teen ages, cross-sex hormones would be administered to initiate puberty of the preferred sex, which would produce some much-desired “gender markers”.

When a child has been clear about their gender identity and not transitioning causes distress, transitioning young can be incredibly beneficial to the individual. While not all transgender people are focused on “passing”, it is hugely important to many. “Passing” means being read in society as the gender with which you identify in your brain. Going to the grocery store and having the cashier address them with the correct gender pronouns… that is “passing”. Transitioning early and intervening before puberty takes over will allow that individual to pass as his or her “true” gender without question.

One thing I want to say is that I know many people worry that a very young child is too young to make such a big “decision”. I want to remind you that gender identity is not a decision. We all know very early on what gender we are. A transgender child of Ryland’s age is not making a “huge decision” to be a boy. He IS a boy. His parents were faced with a huge decision about allowing him to transition, and they made it based on Ryland’s asserted gender identity.

I thought Good Morning America did a good job of covering this video. I was pleased about the input from ABC’s Chief Health and Medical Editor, Dr. Richard Besser. “The more we’re learning about gender, the more we’re learning that this is really hard-wired. It’s hard-wired in the brain. And from very early, from the first couple years of life, children will recognize gender and then start to identify with gender.” My only feedback would be that he should have used male pronouns when referring to a transgender boy.

One thing that didn’t sit right with me was the way they worded the “teaser” for the upcoming segment on the video. “True Identity: The incredible story being shared coast to coast of one little girl who just wanted to be a boy. Why her parents encouraged her to change gender.”

This statement is misleading at best. First of all, this child is not a little girl. This child did not “want to be a boy”, this child has the brain gender identity of a boy. As the video said, this child did not say “I want to be a boy”, he said “I AM a boy”. Now, I understand those snippets are meant to be short and can’t cover it all, and they are geared to having people tune in to watch the segment. The part that got me the most was the last sentence: “Why her parents encouraged her to change gender.” If you are the parent of a transgender child, you probably understand why that sounds a little silly. Do these parents have some sort of ulterior motive to have a transgender child? Doubt it. Was this in their master plan? Likely not. Many of the parents of young transgender children I work with struggle extensively during the process of understanding their child’s true gender identity. It takes time to accept their child is transgender, and naturally, parents tend to agonize over allowing their child to transition. Supporting and responding appropriately to their child’s gender identity is not encouraging something that wasn’t there; you can’t make a child transgender. However, supporting and encouraging the child to live life as their true selves, that is selfless, unconditional love. For more reflections on how difficult and intense this journey can be for parents, see my blog post “Feelin’ The Love: Watching the Journey of Parents”.

In the video, the song fades from “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley to “Good Life” by One Republic as it shows Ryland transitioning. I think it was the perfect song choice. So many parents worry whether or not their transgender child can have a good life. The answer is: ABSOLUTELY. Thank you to Ryland and his family for being selfless and strong enough to share your story so that many more transgender children can have good lives, just like you.

On Being “Sure”

One of the first things that comes to most loved ones’ minds when told about someone’s transgender identity or plans to transition is “Are you sure??” In fact, this is often a question many of my pre-transition clients are asking themselves; “Am I sure??”. The question is worth asking, but the answer may not be a simple “yes” or “no”.

Most people are pretty darn sure of their gender identity. Cisgender and transgender alike, most are pretty darn sure. What confounds things is that only transgender people have to navigate through having a brain gender identity that differs from their birth sex, and having to first understand and then explain this to others. Still, most are pretty darn sure. Remember, gender identity is different than making the decision to transition. Often times, knowing one’s gender identity is the “easy” part. Pursuing a life to align one’s gender presentation with one’s brain gender identity? Now that’s the more challenging part.

So, “Are you sure?”. If you are a loved one who finds yourself asking this question, try to clarify what you are asking about. Are you asking about your loved one’s gender identity or plans to transition? If you separate the two, you may find more confidence in the first than the latter. If your loved one is sure of their (trans)gender identity, asking if they are sure about their transition may contribute to fears and anxieties surrounding this “decision”. Instead, ask “How can I help? What’s the first step?”.

Many clients I’ve met with who are contemplating transition have said to me, “I want to be 100% sure”.  My clients tend to be intelligent, high-functioning individuals who are used to doing things well, and they want this to be no exception. They research, they inquire, they ruminate, they agonize, they weigh the risks and benefits ad nauseum. After all this, they are still “not sure”. Why? Because there ARE risks, and because the process isn’t easy. Therefore, anxiety about this huge undertaking can be interpreted as not being “sure”. Again, not so much about the gender identity- if I can bring them back to that aspect of themselves instead of just the “decision” to transition, they are much more sure about their gender identity. A good example might be left-handedness. People are born left-handed, no? It used to be lefties were encouraged to use their right hands until it became habit. Gender identity is similar in that it is inborn.  It can be stifled to present differently, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the person. And what gender one presents as is far more pervasive than which hand is dominant!

One of my clients, a happy and insightful trans man, made mention to not feeling completely sure until AFTER he had transitioned. I later contacted him to write a little blurb for this blog post, and he delivered beautifully. Here is what he had to say:

“To be honest I wasn’t 100% sure about transitioning until I was already pretty far into it. One day about 4 years in I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life I recognized myself. I don’t think you can ever be 100% sure about anything in life, any decision, any path…it’s all educated guesses wrapped up in a hope for happiness.”

Isn’t this the case for most things? We make huge decisions all the time that will affect the rest of our lives: where to live, where to go to school, the career path to follow, to marry or not to marry, if yes who to marry, to have kids or not have kids, if yes how many, etc. Yet these decisions typically aren’t as agonized over as much or as misunderstood as gender transition.

I’m reluctant to compare gender transition to getting married, but the analogy really sticks in my mind. How many people are “sure” when they get married that they will be with the other person “forever”? Of the couples who eventually divorce, if you could ask them “but were you SURE when you got married?”, most of them would unequivocally say “yes”. Some may argue that gender transition is a more “serious” decision than getting married, but is it? Marriages often result in children, who are thereby affected by a divorce if it were to occur. If a capable individual decides to get married, they get married. However, if a capable individual decides to go through gender transition, the issue of being “sure” is one they will have to answer over and over again. I guess it’s because other people can understand marriage, but have a harder time wrapping their brains around gender transition. However, this should not matter when it comes to others and their decisions about their own lives. Not to mention the rate of transgender individuals later “changing their minds” about transition is FAR, FAR less than the current rate of successful vs. unsuccessful marriages!

I suppose feeling more at ease with one’s decision comes down to trust. If your loved one is telling you who they are what they have decided to do, trust them. If you are transgender and have decided to transition, trust yourself. If the person making this decision is of sound judgment and mind, there is no real reason to think this is an irrational decision that will ever be regretted. Additionally, if one has come to the decision to transition, it has not come lightly. Many transgender people agonize about the decision to transition long after one’s true gender identity has become consciously aware.

Perhaps being “sure” is an evolutionary process, and one that can only happen after the first step. I do know that trusting yourself is a good idea… of that I am sure. 😉

For those of you how have transitioned, how “sure” did you feel before? After?

Cross-Sex Hormones for Transgender Youth

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.

Insurance Victory

An issue that has caused frustration, sadness, and exasperation (and that is just for me- imagine how my clients must feel!) is the issue of exclusions for transition-related services for transgender individuals. Most healthcare plans have specific exclusions for anything related to gender transition. This includes but is not limited to hormone blockers, hormones, and needed surgery for transgender individuals.  In my opinion, this is as outrageous as healthcare plans excluding other major medical conditions. These exclusions leave me feeling very helpless, as I can see so clearly what my clients need: medical transition. And I cannot provide this!

As important as being able to access medical transition is being able to access EARLY medical transition when clinically necessary. However, even with the support and assistance of their parents, many transgender youth run into roadblocks when trying to get hormone suppressors. They are outrageously expensive, and most health insurances have exclusions that state they will not pay for anything related to gender transition. (Can you imagine, being one of these preteens/teens who are right on the doorstep of getting the treatment they so desperately need to survive, but they cannot afford it?)

Such is the same for many of my transgender adult clients. Surgery is an important part of the transition for most of my adult transgender clients, and yet most insurances will not cover it. This is a major power problem for those who cannot afford to pay for such surgeries out-of-pocket. It is my opinion that they shouldn’t have to.

On April 9, 2013, a ground-breaking ruling was made on this issue:

“California’s Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) has ordered California’s health plans to remove exclusions of coverage based on gender identity and expression…The newly issued DMHC letter instructs health plans to revise current plan documents to remove exclusions and limitations related to gender transition.  For transgender people, how and when they transition is typically a private decision made with their doctor. The American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians have all deemed transition-related care to be medically necessary for transgender patients.” Read more about it here.

I am truly curious to see how this plays out with all of my clients, and hope it is in reality as good as it sounds! To progress!

Feelin’ The Love: Watching the journey of parents

My work with my transgender clients often includes not only the transgender individual, but the family as well. As important as it is to be an advocate for my clients, it’s also essential I understand the process that is being undertaken by the loved ones of the individual. (See “It’s Hard for Moms”.) Many parents of my adult clients are very resistant to the idea of their “child” being transgender or transitioning, and are initially quite wary of me for supporting this venture. Typically with my adult clients I only hear of the resistance expressed by the parents without witnessing it directly. In session, I am privy to the intense longing of the individual for support and acceptance by their parents, no matter how old they may be.  This is yet another reminder that unconditional love from parents is crucial at every stage in one’s life.

When I work with parents of transgender youth, it’s a little different story. These parents are willingly seeking gender therapy for their children, searching for answers and a roadmap for this unforeseen journey. Fear and resistance are often still a part of the work, but there’s so much more than that.

I have seen parents evolve in the journey with their transgender/gender nonconforming child from tearful and terrified to peaceful and resolute. I’ve seen parents give their child space to express themselves in a way that allows the child to be honored and embraced, even if the parents are scared by the possible ramifications. Some parents accept very quickly while others fight to hang onto what feels safer and more familiar. Some become advocates, others are willing to share their stories, still others remain very private; all of them intensely love their child. To see a parent accept something they never wanted or saw coming is a source of true inspiration for me, and a very touching part of the work I do. I respect and admire these parents more than they know.

The passion I sense from these parents for their child can be expressed in all sorts of ways: fear, anger, pride, doubt, guilt, sadness, grief, bravery; the list goes on and on. I’ve always loved children, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I could truly understand the passionate love a parent has for their child. The kind of love that makes you willing to do anything for another’s happiness, willing to sacrifice, fight, and conquer all for the sake of your little person even in the face of your own anxiety or trepidation.

Sometimes I feel hot tears spring to my eyes* in the middle of one of these sessions with parents, especially with those early in the journey. What brings on these tears? Is it sadness? No. It’s not quite something I can explain. It feels like a mixture of compassion, inspiration, and awe at the intense love I’m witnessing, along with honor that I get to be a part of such a life-changing journey.  I’m definitely feeling the love, and in the end, I know the child will too.

*Not a robot.

Physical Transition Options for the Transgender Individual*

In conjunction with my last blog, “What’s in YOUR Pants?”, this blog is about physical transition options for the transgender individual. As stated in the aforementioned blog, many people ask about surgery the first time they hear about a transgender individual’s plans to transition. It may surprise many people to find out the transgender individual has no plans to pursue surgery, specifically genital surgery.

I recently watched a documentary called “Diagnosing Difference” by Annalise Ophelian (excellent; I highly recommend it!).  This quote from that documentary summarizes perfectly what I was trying to say in my last blog, and leads nicely into what I’m going to explain in this blog. “There’s this huge stereotype that trans people all have genital surgery, that we know that someone’s really the new gender because they’ve had genital surgery, and that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about trans people. In reality, the vast majority of trans people will never have any surgery, and many trans people have surgeries that aren’t genital surgeries. [Italics added.]  And some people don’t have surgeries and don’t undergo medical care related to their gender because they don’t want it, it’s not appropriate to them, there’s other ways that they’re expressing their gender, and some people don’t have it because it’s not available to them, it’s not covered by their insurance…and so for both of those reasons, rules that govern are you really trans or have you really transitioned based on genital status or surgical status are very damaging to trans people’s well-being.” –Dean Spade

Hormone Therapy

OK, so before I get to surgery, let me talk a little bit about hormone therapy, or hormone treatment. Hormones are often a huge part of the physical transition process. Transmasculine individuals can opt take Testosterone or “T” (by patch, cream, or injection, most commonly injection). Doses vary depending on the individual and his desire for physical outcomes. Often the first changes that occur from taking Testosterone are the deepening of the voice and facial hair. These are also two irreversible changes that occur from taking T. Other changes include changes in facial features, head shape, clitoral enlargement, and fat redistribution (less on hips/butt/thighs, more to stomach). For more information regarding this type of hormone therapy, visit http://transhealth.vch.ca/resources/library/tcpdocs/consumer/hormones-FTM.pdf or http://www.ohio.edu/lgbt/resources/transoptions.cfm.

Transfeminine individuals may opt to take Estrogen, which can be administered orally or by injection, most commonly in a pill form taken orally. This regimen often includes an anti-androgen such as Spironolactone, which blocks the effects of testosterone.  Results from taking Estrogen include but are not limited to: breast growth, softening of the skin and facial features, lessening of body hair, and changes in fat distribution (less on abdomen, more to hips and bottom). For more information about this type of hormone therapy, visit http://transhealth.vch.ca/resources/library/tcpdocs/consumer/hormones-MTF.pdf, http://www.transgendercare.com/medical/resources/tmf_program/tmf_program_6.asp, or http://www.ohio.edu/lgbt/resources/transoptions.cfm.

Female-to-Male Surgical Options

FTM individuals have the option of two types of surgery, commonly referred to as “top surgery” and “bottom surgery”. Top surgery refers to the removal of breasts, the shaping of a male chest, and re-sizing the nipples. In my experience, this is the most commonly pursued and desired surgery for the FTM individual. A main reason for this is that the removal of breasts eliminates the need to bind (http://www.ftmguide.org/binding.html) and also helps the individual “pass” as male. Many (if not most) FTM individuals pursue this surgery, and those who don’t often cite the obstacle of not having the finances for it. Top surgery commonly costs between $6-10k, out of pocket.  For more information re: FTM “top surgery”, please visit: http://www.ftmguide.org/chest.html.

As for “bottom surgery” (surgery to construct a penis), most FTM individuals do not pursue any genital reconstruction surgery (GRS). You read that right, most DON’T.  Finances are often a major obstacle; GRS costs anywhere from $20k to $70k, depending on the procedure.  Additionally, many FTM individuals are not happy with the options/projected results; techniques have not been perfected enough to deliver optimal results. Additionally, some FTM individuals don’t have a problem with their genitalia or see the need to have it changed. (Remember, one’s genitalia has more to do with one’s anatomy than gender. For a refresher on the difference between Gender and Sex, visit my blog Gender Vs. Sex.)

For those who do pursue “bottom surgery”, there are a few options. These include but are not limited to: a metoidioplasty, which involves cutting the ligament connecting the (now enlarged, thanks to T) clitoris and removing extra skin, resulting in a small phallus. The urinary tract can also be lengthened if the individual wants to be able to urinate while standing. Another surgery called a “phalloplasty” is basically the creation of a penis using skin from a donor site on the individual’s body, most commonly the forearm.  If the trans man desires testicles, the skin from the labia can be used to create a scrotum. At least six months after a phalloplasty, testicular and penile implants can be inserted.  To quote Hudson’s FTM Resource Guide, “Phalloplasty usually involves a urethral lengthening procedure so that the patient can urinate through the penis. Erections are usually achieved with either a malleable rod implanted permanently or inserted temporarily in the penis, or with an implanted pump device.”   For more information regarding GRS for FTM individuals, please visit http://www.ftmguide.org/grs.html or http://www.savaperovic.com/ftm-srs-metoidioplasty-total-phalloplasty.htm.

There are MANY different options for FTM individuals who don’t choose to or who can’t afford bottom surgery. There are all sorts of accoutrements available for purchase that allow the trans man to stand to urinate, wear a penis, and/or to have intercourse. In order to stand to urinate, there are “stand to pee” (STP) devices. (http://www.ftmguide.org/packing.html#stp)  If the trans man prefers to wear a penis, full-time if desired, this is called “packing”. (http://www.ftmguide.org/packing.html) There are a variety of different packers available for purchase.  (http://www.tranzwear.net/store.php?seller=TranZwear&navt1=101317&navt2=101323. For a 15% discount on purchases from tranzwear.com, use discount code “TRANZ” when checking out.)  For sexual intercourse, there are also a variety of options to choose from (http://www.ftmguide.org/packinghard.html).  I should add here that not all trans men choose to pack or wear any kind of prosthesis. As with any group of individuals, there is a spectrum of preferences about this!

Male-to-Female Surgical Options

Facial feminization is a common surgery pursued by MTF individuals. This can include changing the hairline, frontal bone contouring, mandible contouring, chin augmentation or reduction, rhinoplasty, lip augmentation, etc. I don’t know the exact numbers on this, but the cost of this surgery can be upwards of $30k. For more information on facial feminization, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_feminization_surgery. Some trans women opt to undergo breast augmentation surgery. (Estrogen often does not enlarge one’s breasts to more than a “B” cup.) http://marcibowers.com/grs/breastaug.html

As for MTF “bottom surgery”, often referred to as Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS) or Genital Reconstruction Surgery (GRS), many transgender women opt to undergo a vaginoplasty, using skin and tissue from the penis to create a vagina, clitoris, clitoral hood and labia.  This is another expensive surgery not covered by insurance; I don’t know the exact figures but what I could find implied a ballpark figure of $20k. Sue Boyd, LCSW, a trusted colleague of mine who works with more MTF individuals than I do, estimates that about half of her MTF clients opt to pursue this surgery “expense and all”. My guess is because the results are more satisfactory to the consumer than the current results of FTM bottom surgery. For more information on MTF GRS, please visit: http://www.thetransgendercenter.com/transgendersurgerymaletofemaleMTF.html or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_reassignment_surgery_(male-to-female)#Genital_surgery.

I should say again that all of the above depends on personal preference. Some individuals believe opting to get any or all of the above surgeries is a way of buying into the gender stereotypes prescribed by society, particularly about how a man or woman “should” look. To quote the film “Diagnosing Difference” again, “I think ‘passing’ is a word to discriminate us immensely. Not everybody can pass. And passing is something that the doctors will tell you to do, you try to pass. Well, no matter how much I pass, I will never be a biological woman. How about empowering me as the transgender woman that I am?” -Adela Vazquez

A moment on my soap box:

After reading all these extensive options a transgender individual confronts, don’t you wish things could be a little bit easier? They can be. By intervening EARLY with a child or pre-adolescent who has yet to start puberty, their future does not have to hold as many medical interventions! For the MTF individual, staring on hormone blockers pre-puberty would prevent facial hair from growing in, thereby preventing HOURS of painful and expensive electrolysis. Hormone blockers would also prevent one’s Adam’s apple from growing and the voice from deepening, which would eliminate the need for a “trach shave”… ouch! Similarly, staring hormone blockers pre-puberty for the FTM individual would prevent breast growth and ultimately prevent an expensive and painful “top surgery”. Additionally, for the transgender individual who desires to “pass” as their true gender, intervening early gives them the best chance at doing exactly that. For more information about hormone blockers and intervening early for transgender children, please visit http://transhealth.ucsf.edu/trans?page=protocol-youth.

*Disclaimer(s):

  • I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, not a medical doctor. The information contained in this blog should not be considered a replacement for medical advice or consultation.
  • The websites used in this blog should not be considered as endorsements but rather sources of information.

Reactions of Others Part 4: F-f-f-fear

Although I’m sure I’ll blog plenty more about coming out and coping with responses, this is the final installment in my recent four-part series “Reactions of Others”. In this blog I’m addressing the F word: Fear. Fear is often a huge component in the reactions of others. In fact, I’d be as bold to guess that when a transgender individual reveals his or her true gender identity and/or plans to transition, there are suddenly three participants in that conversation: the transgender individual, the loved one, and Fear. Of course, how much fear is present depends upon the nature of the relationship between the two people, how long they have known each other, and the world view of the loved one.

Any type of change can trigger the fear reaction. Many people prefer things to remain just as they are; familiar, stable, predictable. Change that is unexpected and unwelcome can signal something that is out of one’s control. I know many family members and friends feel out of control and powerless regarding this issue. Powerless to change it, powerless to fix it, sometimes powerless to understand.  Ultimately, many loved ones realize it is the decision of the transgender person to act on the transition even if they themselves don’t understand or want it. Many loved ones fear they are “losing” someone they love very much, and may not recognize the person they become. Many fear the one they care about will regret such a significant, life-altering decision. Most, at some point, worry about the safety of their transgender loved one.

In addition to these specific fears, having a close friend or family member come out as transgender questions the gender binary. Those who could previously organize gender into two neat little boxes can be thrown by the concept that gender can be fluid and dynamic. It can cause people to question core beliefs; something they always thought they understood. As you probably know, challenging core beliefs makes people uncomfortable. The less the person understands, the more fear will be present to take the place of knowledge and comprehension. Fear of the unknown is often NOT simply fear of the unknown, it’s a fear of the “what if”, or the “fill in the blank”. The ideas and worst-case scenarios people create cause more fear than simply not knowing.

Fear can whisper; fear can shout. Fear may be ever-present in the journey your loved ones take to acceptance, or it just may rear its ugly head every now and again. My hope is that when it does, recognize it for what it is. See the fear which may be disguised as anger, and masked in a lashing out you don’t deserve. Understand and expect the fear, as fear was likely a part of YOUR journey, too. Let your loved one know you’re in this together, the two of you. Eventually fear can be on its way.

Published in: on January 25, 2012 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Reactions of Others Part 3: Your Alignment; Their Transition

I’ve talked a lot in this blog about the process of discovery transgender people go through and how there are often two major parts: realizing one is transgender (has the gender identity of something other than their sex at birth) and deciding what they are going to do about it, normally described as “transition”.  For the sake of this specific blog’s concept, I’ll be describing the process a transgender person goes through as alignment and the process the loved ones go through as transition.

If the transgender person chooses to go through the process of changing their gender, they are aligning themselves with their “real” gender. There are several definitions of align; the one I choose for this topic is “to move or be adjusted into proper relationship or orientation”. It’s critical people understand the choice to transition is a way of making things right, not deciding to change something that is already perfect. Deciding to align oneself is typically the result of many years of contemplation, possible ambivalence, agonizing, the weighing of options, and considering all outcomes.  Finally making the “big decision” can bring on feelings of relief, gratitude, and excitement, mainly because they have decided to ALIGN themselves, and that is a positive thing. Yet these feelings are not usually shared by the loved ones of the transgender individual. They are the ones who have to fully transition from an idea they have about who their loved one is to something different.

Transition: “change or passage from one state or stage to another”. When you reveal your gender identity and/or plans to align yourself, you are asking your loved one to adjust to the idea that you are about to change, when they like you just the way you are. 😉  (Additionally, the change loved ones anticipate tends to be more dramatic than what happens in reality, so there is fear involved here, too.)  They are often presented with years of your contemplation delivered in one single revelation; in a moment they are forced to adjust to an entirely different idea of you than they had in the moment before. Hundreds of things likely go through their heads in that moment; things that you have been contemplating for some time now. Whatever their initial reaction, remind yourself they are playing “catch up” and will likely need some time.

Although all of you are involved in this big change, these two perspectives can make this experience very different for each of you. This depends on whether you are aligning yourself with something that feels better to you, or having to transition to an idea that feels altogether foreign.

The Cold Lake Analogy

Picture this: you want to go swimming in a very cold lake. You first stick your toe in, shiver a bit, but forge ahead. Slowly, inch by inch, you submerge your body in the lake. It’s uncomfortable, but you’re determined to take a swim. Once you have been treading water for about 5-10 minutes, the water seems to feel much warmer. Eventually it’s hard to remember you thought the water was cold at all. You see your friend and yell, “Come on in, the water’s fine!”. They stick their toe in. Their response? “Are you serious?? It’s FREEZING!”.  Looking at you submerged in the water, smiling, your friend just can’t understand what it is you are doing, or how it feels good to you. This tends to be the way a loved one looks upon the transition; by the time the transgender individual “comes out”, they have been adjusting to the “water” for much longer.

One thing to keep in mind from this analogy is that the water both people are feeling is the exact same water; the same temperature. The difference in their interpretations of the feeling of the water largely comes from how long each has been getting used to it. The positive spin on this is that given more time, the other person may be treading water before you know it. 🙂

To the loved ones of transgender individuals: when your loved one reveals their plans to align themselves with their brain gender identity, please keep in mind they are revealing a way to make themselves right. They are not doing something to you, or trying to disrupt something you like just the way it is. They are trying to be whole; they are trying to be happy.

To the transgender individuals, this is my gentle reminder that you are asking your loved ones to jump into a very cold lake! Be patient, be kind (to them and yourselves) and keep your eye on the prize… YOU, aligned.

Reactions of Others Part 2: They Just Don’t “Get It”

In the years I’ve been doing gender therapy, I’ve come to realize a simple fact about the general population and their understanding of transgender individuals: some get it, and some don’t. I don’t know what the common denominator is in those who “get it”, or those who don’t, I just know there is a pretty clear delineation of these two camps. I also know that there is one thing that set me up well to go into this particular niche… I just “get it”. I don’t think that makes me better than people who don’t get it; there is no judgment there. I see it as a piece that is simply a part of some people, and not a part of others. For me, I “got it” first and then was educated on all the intricacies of gender identity and work with gender dysphoric individuals. Others, I suppose, may need to be educated first before they “get it”. The great news is that even those who initially don’t “get it” can come to understand and accept over time. Others still may never really understand, but can be loving and accepting about it anyway.

There are a lot of factors that impact how others receive the news that a loved one is transgender. One of the biggest obstacles is a lack of knowledge. Many people have never had any experience with knowing someone who is transgender and simply don’t know anything about it. When there is a void of knowledge, a plethora of opinions, guesses, and myths can take its place, all of which can contribute to a difficult response or a difficult processing of the news.

Many people have misconceptions and pre-conceived notions. Some have heard misinformation about transgender people; others have heard a little true information and then “filled in the blanks” with assumptions that may be fueled by fear or stigma. Having certain feelings about the issue can also fuel the guesses.  Having pre-existing negative feelings about transgender people will breed negative guesses, taking the place of fact or reality. Add worry and concern for the loved one who is transgender, and the result is a pretty tricky response to the to the big revelation.

If you are a transgender individual who is “coming out” to someone you care very much about and you value the relationship with this person, it is a good idea to provide information from the start or steer them in the right direction of where to find information. There are a lot of resources out there for loved ones.  Additionally, taking the time to explain your journey to self-realization of your true gender identity, and all the feelings (both positive and negative) that went with it may be just the information another needs to “get it”. You may feel exhausted and depleted by having already gone through a long and difficult internal journey to get to where you are, but taking the time to share this with your loved ones could go a long way.

Yet even when information is provided, many still do not “get it”. Some simply cannot wrap their brains around the concept. There’s a difference between having information/knowledge and “getting it”. “Getting it” takes some ability to see the gray area about things, and understand that gender is not black and white. Some people have difficulty seeing things in anything other than black and white. There could also be a variety of other things that contributes to one’s ability to “get it”. Personal experience, background, basic tolerance for those who are different, religion, empathy, the ability to see life from another’s point of view, etc.  Some are stuck in their own experiences, some are stuck in the gender dichotomy, some can only see what is concrete.

How much energy should be put into trying to make them “get it”? After making a reasonable effort to explain yourself or the basic concept of being transgender, providing resources, etc., there is a necessary boundary that needs to be set. Doing this too much can be depleting for the trans person who has multiple other demands in which to put their energy.  It’s also important to allow others the space to come around on their own, (you have likely been down a similar journey of doubt, fear, and eventually acceptance) and accept the possibility that it may not happen.  In those cases where your loved one doesn’t seem to understand after a lot of explaining and resources given, tell them you love them ask for what you would like from them in regards to your transition. If they love you, operating from a stance of love and compassion can go a long way even if one doesn’t “get it”.

 

I’ve been contemplating what the ratio of “get its” to “don’t get its” might be… To transgender individuals out there: what ratio of people in your life “get it” vs. those who don’t?