Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health This is the seventh version of the Standards of Care. The original SOC were published in 1979. Previous revisions were in 1980, 1981, 1990, 1998, and 2001.
- Editor's Note: Some minor formatting changes made to enhance readability. No wording was changed
Purpose and Use of the standards of Care
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH, Formerly the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association) is an international, multidisciplinary, professional association whose mission is to promote evidence-based care, education, research, advocacy, public policy, and respect for transgender health. The vision of WPATH is to bring together diverse professionals dedicated to developing best practices and supportive policies worldwide that promote health, research, education, respect, dignity, and equality for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people in all cultural settings.
One of the main functions of WPATH is to promote the highest standards of health care for individuals through the articulation of Standards of Care (SOC) for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People. The SOC are based on the best available science and expert professional consensus. Most of the research and experience in this field comes from a North American and Western European perspective; thus, adaptations of the SOC to other parts of the world are necessary. Suggestions for ways of thinking about cultural relativity and cultural competence are included in this version of the SOC.
The overall goal of the SOC is to provide clinical guidance for health professionals to assist transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people with safe and effective pathways to achieving lasting personal comfort with their gendered selves, in order to maximize their overall health, psychological well-being, and self-fulfillment. This assistance may include primary care, gynecologic and urologic care, reproductive options, voice and communication therapy, mental health services (e.g., assessment, counseling, psychotherapy), and hormonal and surgical treatments. While this is primarily a document for health professionals, the SOC may also be used by individuals, their families, and social institutions to understand how they can assist with promoting optimal health for members of this diverse population.
WPATH recognizes that health is dependent upon not only good clinical care but also social and political climates that provide and ensure social tolerance, equality, and the full rights of citizenship. Health is promoted through public policies and legal reforms that promote tolerance and equity for gender and sexual diversity and that eliminate prejudice, discrimination, and stigma. WPATH is committed to advocacy for these changes in public policies and legal reforms.
The Standards of Care Are Flexible Clinical Guidelines
The SOC are intended to be flexible in order to meet the diverse health care needs of transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people. While flexible, they offer standards for promoting optimal health care and guiding the treatment of people experiencing gender dysphoria – broadly defined as discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics) (Fisk, 1974; Knudson, De Cuypere, & Bockting, 2010b).
As for all previous versions of the SOC, the criteria put forth in this document for hormone therapy and surgical treatments for gender dysphoria are clinical guidelines; individual health professionals and programs may modify them. Clinical departures from the SOC may come about because of a patient’s unique anatomic, social, or psychological situation; an experienced health professional’s evolving method of handling a common situation; a research protocol; lack of resources in various parts of the world; or the need for specific harm reduction strategies. These departures should be recognized as such, explained to the patient, and documented through informed consent for quality patient care and legal protection. This documentation is also valuable for the accumulation of new data, which can be retrospectively examined to allow for health care – and the SOC – to evolve.
The SOC articulate standards of care but also acknowledge the role of making informed choices and the value of harm reduction approaches. In addition, this version of the SOC recognizes and validates various expressions of gender that may not necessitate psychological, hormonal, or surgical treatments. Some patients who present for care will have made significant self-directed progress towards gender role changes, transition, or other resolutions regarding their gender identity or gender dysphoria. Other patients will require more intensive services. Health professionals can use the SOC to help patients consider the full range of health services open to them, in accordance with their clinical needs and goals for gender expression.
Global Applicability of the standards of Care
While the SOC are intended for worldwide use, WPATH acknowledges that much of the recorded clinical experience and knowledge in this area of health care is derived from North American and Western European sources. From place to place, both across and within nations, there are differences in all of the following: social attitudes towards transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people; constructions of gender roles and identities; language used to describe different gender identities; epidemiology of gender dysphoria; access to and cost of treatment; therapies offered; number and type of professionals who provide care; and legal and policy issues related to this area of health care (Winter, 2009).
It is impossible for the SOC to reflect all of these differences. In applying these standards to other cultural contexts, health professionals must be sensitive to these differences and adapt the SOC according to local realities. For example, in a number of cultures, gender nonconforming people are found in such numbers and living in such ways as to make them highly socially visible (Peletz, 2006). In settings such as these, it is common for people to initiate a change in their gender expression and physical characteristics while in their teens, or even earlier. Many grow up and live in a social, cultural, and even linguistic context quite unlike that of Western cultures. Yet almost all experience prejudice (Peletz, 2006; Winter, 2009). In many cultures, social stigma towards gender nonconformity is widespread and gender roles are highly prescriptive (Winter et al., 2009). Gender nonconforming people in these settings are forced to be hidden, and therefore may lack opportunities for adequate health care (Winter, 2009).
The SOC are not intended to limit efforts to provide the best available care to all individuals. Health professionals throughout the world – even in areas with limited resources and training opportunities – can apply the many core principles that undergird the SOC. These principles include the following: Exhibit respect for patients with nonconforming gender identities (do not pathologize differences in gender identity or expression); provide care (or refer to knowledgeable colleagues) that affirms patients’ gender identities and reduces the distress of gender dysphoria, when present; become knowledgeable about the health care needs of transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, including the benefits and risks of treatment options for gender dysphoria; match the treatment approach to the specific needs of patients, particularly their goals for gender expression and need for relief from gender dysphoria; facilitate access to appropriate care; seek patients’ informed consent before providing treatment; offer continuity of care; and be prepared to support and advocate for patients within their families and communities (schools, workplaces, and other settings).
Terminology is culturally and time-dependent and is rapidly evolving. It is important to use respectful language in different places and times, and among different people. As the SOC are translated into other languages, great care must be taken to ensure that the meanings of terms are accurately translated. Terminology in English may not be easily translated into other languages, and vice versa. Some languages do not have equivalent words to describe the various terms within this document; hence, translators should be cognizant of the underlying goals of treatment and articulate culturally applicable guidance for reaching those goals.
The Difference Between Gender Nonconformity and Gender Dysphoria
Being Transsexual, Transgender, or Gender Nonconforming Is a Matter of Diversity, Not Pathology
WPATH released a statement in May 2010 urging the de-psychopathologization of gender nonconformity worldwide (WPATH Board of Directors, 2010). This statement noted that “the expression of gender characteristics, including identities, that are not stereotypically associated with one’s assigned sex at birth is a common and culturally-diverse human phenomenon [that] should not be judged as inherently pathological or negative.”
Unfortunately, there is stigma attached to gender nonconformity in many societies around the world. Such stigma can lead to prejudice and discrimination, resulting in “minority stress” (I. H. Meyer, 2003). Minority stress is unique (additive to general stressors experienced by all people), socially based, and chronic, and may make transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals more vulnerable to developing mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression (Institute of Medicine, 2011). In addition to prejudice and discrimination in society at large, stigma can contribute to abuse and neglect in one’s relationships with peers and family members, which in turn can lead to psychological distress. However, these symptoms are socially induced and are not inherent to being transsexual, transgender, or gender nonconforming.
Gender Nonconformity Is Not the Same as Gender Dysphoria
Gender nonconformity refers to the extent to which a person’s gender identity, role, or expression differs from the cultural norms prescribed for people of a particular sex (Institute of Medicine, 2011). Gender dysphoria refers to discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics) (Fisk, 1974; Knudson, De Cuypere, & Bockting, 2010b). Only some gender nonconforming people experience gender dysphoria at some point in their lives.
Treatment is available to assist people with such distress to explore their gender identity and find a gender role that is comfortable for them (Bockting & Goldberg, 2006). Treatment is individualized: What helps one person alleviate gender dysphoria might be very different from what helps another person. This process may or may not involve a change in gender expression or body modifications. Medical treatment options include, for example, feminization or masculinization of the body through hormone therapy and/or surgery, which are effective in alleviating gender dysphoria and are medically necessary for many people. Gender identities and expressions are diverse, and hormones and surgery are just two of many options available to assist people with achieving comfort with self and identity.
Gender dysphoria can in large part be alleviated through treatment (Murad et al., 2010). Hence, while transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people may experience gender dysphoria at some point in their lives, many individuals who receive treatment will find a gender role and expression that is comfortable for them, even if these differ from those associated with their sex assigned at birth, or from prevailing gender norms and expectations.
Diagnoses Related to Gender Dysphoria
Some people experience gender dysphoria at such a level that the distress meets criteria for a formal diagnosis that might be classified as a mental disorder. Such a diagnosis is not a license for stigmatization or for the deprivation of civil and human rights. Existing classification systems such as the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) (World Health Organization, 2007) define hundreds of mental disorders that vary in onset, duration, pathogenesis, functional disability, and treatability. All of these systems attempt to classify clusters of symptoms and conditions, not the individuals themselves. A disorder is a description of something with which a person might struggle, not a description of the person or the person’s identity.
Thus, transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals are not inherently disordered. Rather, the distress of gender dysphoria, when present, is the concern that might be diagnosable and for which various treatment options are available. The existence of a diagnosis for such dysphoria often facilitates access to health care and can guide further research into effective treatments.
Research is leading to new diagnostic nomenclatures, and terms are changing in both the DSM (Cohen-Kettenis & Pfäfflin, 2010; Knudson, De Cuypere, & Bockting, 2010b; Meyer-Bahlburg, 2010; Zucker, 2010) and the ICD. For this reason, familiar terms are employed in the SOC and definitions are provided for terms that may be emerging. Health professionals should refer to the most current diagnostic criteria and appropriate codes to apply in their practice areas.
Formal epidemiologic studies on the incidence (the number of new cases arising in a given period) and prevalence (the number of individuals having a condition, divided by the number of people in the general population) of transsexualism specifically or transgender and gender nonconforming identities in general have not been conducted, and efforts to achieve realistic estimates are fraught with enormous difficulties (Institute of Medicine, 2011; Zucker & Lawrence, 2009). Even if epidemiologic studies established that a similar proportion of transsexual, transgender, or gender nonconforming people existed all over the world, it is likely that cultural differences from one country to another would alter both the behavioral expressions of different gender identities and the extent to which gender dysphoria – distinct from one’s gender identity – is actually occurring in a population. While in most countries, crossing normative gender boundaries generates moral censure rather than compassion, there are examples in certain cultures of gender nonconforming behaviors (e.g., in spiritual leaders) that are less stigmatized and even revered (Besnier, 1994; Bolin, 1988; Chiñas, 1995; Coleman, Colgan, & Gooren, 1992; Costa & Matzner, 2007; Jackson & Sullivan, 1999; Nanda, 1998; Taywaditep, Coleman, & Dumronggittigule, 1997).
For various reasons, researchers who have studied incidence and prevalence have tended to focus on the most easily counted subgroup of gender nonconforming individuals: transsexual individuals who experience gender dysphoria and who present for gender-transition-related care at specialist gender clinics (Zucker & Lawrence, 2009). Most studies have been conducted in European countries such as Sweden (Wålinder, 1968, 1971), the United Kingdom (Hoenig & Kenna, 1974), the Netherlands (Bakker, Van Kesteren, Gooren, & Bezemer, 1993; Eklund, Gooren, & Bezemer, 1988; van Kesteren, Gooren, & Megens, 1996), Germany (Weitze & Osburg, 1996), and Belgium (De Cuypere et al., 2007). One was conducted in Singapore (Tsoi, 1988).
De Cuypere and colleagues (2007) reviewed such studies, as well as conducted their own. Together, those studies span 39 years. Leaving aside two outlier findings from Pauly in 1968 and Tsoi in 1988, ten studies involving eight countries remain. The prevalence figures reported in these ten studies range from 1:11,900 to 1:45,000 for male-to-female individuals (MtF) and 1:30,400 to 1:200,000 for female-to-male (FtM) individuals. Some scholars have suggested that the prevalence is much higher, depending on the methodology used in the research (for example, Olyslager & Conway, 2007).
Direct comparisons across studies are impossible, as each differed in their data collection methods and in their criteria for documenting a person as transsexual (e.g., whether or not a person had undergone genital reconstruction, versus had initiated hormone therapy, versus had come to the clinic seeking medically-supervised transition services). The trend appears to be towards higher prevalence rates in the more recent studies, possibly indicating increasing numbers of people seeking clinical care. Support for this interpretation comes from research by Reed and colleagues (2009), who reported a doubling of the numbers of people accessing care at gender clinics in the United Kingdom every five or six years. Similarly, Zucker and colleagues (2008) reported a four- to five-fold increase in child and adolescent referrals to their Toronto, Canada clinic over a 30-year period.
The numbers yielded by studies such as these can be considered minimum estimates at best. The published figures are mostly derived from clinics where patients met criteria for severe gender dysphoria and had access to health care at those clinics. These estimates do not take into account that treatments offered in a particular clinic setting might not be perceived as affordable, useful, or acceptable by all self-identified gender dysphoric individuals in a given area. By counting only those people who present at clinics for a specific type of treatment, an unspecified number of gender dysphoric individuals are overlooked.
Other clinical observations (not yet firmly supported by systematic study) support the likelihood of a higher prevalence of gender dysphoria: (i) Previously unrecognized gender dysphoria is occasionally diagnosed when patients are seen with anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, substance abuse, dissociative identity disorders, borderline personality disorder, sexual disorders, and disorders of sex development (Cole, O’Boyle, Emory, & Meyer III, 1997). (ii) Some crossdressers, drag queens/kings or female/male impersonators, and gay and lesbian individuals may be experiencing gender dysphoria (Bullough & Bullough, 1993). (iii) The intensity of some people’s gender dysphoria fluctuates below and above a clinical threshold (Docter, 1988). (iv) Gender nonconformity among FtM individuals tends to be relatively invisible in many cultures, particularly to Western health professionals and researchers who have conducted most of the studies on which the current estimates of prevalence and incidence are based (Winter, 2009).
Overall, the existing data should be considered a starting point, and health care would benefit from more rigorous epidemiologic study in different locations worldwide.
Overview of therapeutic Approaches for Gender Dysphoria
Advancements in the Knowledge and Treatment of Gender Dysphoria
In the second half of the 20th century, awareness of the phenomenon of gender dysphoria increased when health professionals began to provide assistance to alleviate gender dysphoria by supporting changes in primary and secondary sex characteristics through hormone therapy and surgery, along with a change in gender role. Although Harry Benjamin already acknowledged a spectrum of gender nonconformity (Benjamin, 1966), the initial clinical approach largely focused on identifying who was an appropriate candidate for sex reassignment to facilitate a physical change from male to female or female to male as completely as possible (e.g., Green & Fleming, 1990; Hastings, 1974). This approach was extensively evaluated and proved to be highly effective. Satisfaction rates across studies ranged from 87% of MtF patients to 97% of FtM patients (Green & Fleming, 1990), and regrets were extremely rare (1-1.5% of MtF patients and <1% of FtM patients; Pfäfflin, 1993). Indeed, hormone therapy and surgery have been found to be medically necessary to alleviate gender dysphoria in many people (American Medical Association, 2008; Anton, 2009; The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, 2008).
As the field matured, health professionals recognized that while many individuals need both hormone therapy and surgery to alleviate their gender dysphoria, others need only one of these treatment options and some need neither (Bockting & Goldberg, 2006; Bockting, 2008; Lev, 2004). Often with the help of psychotherapy, some individuals integrate their trans- or cross-gender feelings into the gender role they were assigned at birth and do not feel the need to feminize or masculinize their body. For others, changes in gender role and expression are sufficient to alleviate gender dysphoria. Some patients may need hormones, a possible change in gender role, but not surgery; others may need a change in gender role along with surgery, but not hormones. In other words, treatment for gender dysphoria has become more individualized.
As a generation of transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals has come of age – many of whom have benefitted from different therapeutic approaches – they have become more visible as a community and demonstrated considerable diversity in their gender identities, roles, and expressions. Some individuals describe themselves not as gender nonconforming but as unambiguously cross-sexed (i.e., as a member of the other sex; Bockting, 2008). Other individuals affirm their unique gender identity and no longer consider themselves either male or female (Bornstein, 1994; Kimberly, 1997; Stone, 1991; Warren, 1993). Instead, they may describe their gender identity in specific terms such as transgender, bigender, or genderqueer, affirming their unique experience that may transcend a male/female binary understanding of gender (Bockting, 2008; Ekins & King, 2006; Nestle, Wilchins, & Howell, 2002). They may not experience their process of identity affirmation as a “transition,” because they never fully embraced the gender role they were assigned at birth or because they actualize their gender identity, role, and expression in a way that does not involve a change from one gender role to another. For example, some youth identifying as genderqueer have always experienced their gender identity and role as such (genderqueer). Greater public visibility and awareness of gender diversity (Feinberg, 1996) has further expanded options for people with gender dysphoria to actualize an identity and find a gender role and expression that is comfortable for them.
Health professionals can assist gender dysphoric individuals with affirming their gender identity, exploring different options for expression of that identity, and making decisions about medical treatment options for alleviating gender dysphoria.
Options for Psychological and Medical Treatment of Gender Dysphoria
For individuals seeking care for gender dysphoria, a variety of therapeutic options can be considered. The number and type of interventions applied and the order in which these take place may differ from person to person (e.g., Bockting, Knudson, & Goldberg, 2006; Bolin, 1994; Rachlin, 1999; Rachlin, Green, & Lombardi, 2008; Rachlin, Hansbury, & Pardo, 2010). Treatments options include the following:
- Changes in gender expression and role (which may involve living part time or full time in another gender role, consistent with one’s gender identity);
- Hormone therapy to feminize or masculinize the body;
- Surgery to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics (e.g., breasts/chest, external and/or internal genitalia, facial features, body contouring);
- Psychotherapy (individual, couple, family, or group) for purposes such as exploring gender identity, role, and expression; addressing the negative impact of gender dysphoria and stigma on mental health; alleviating internalized transphobia; enhancing social and peer support; improving body image; or promoting resilience.
Options for Social Support and Changes in Gender Expression
In addition (or as an alternative) to the psychological and medical treatment options described above, other options can be considered to help alleviate gender dysphoria, for example:
- Offline and online peer support resources, groups, or community organizations that provide avenues for social support and advocacy;
- Offline and online support resources for families and friends;
- Voice and communication therapy to help individuals develop verbal and non-verbal commu-nication skills that facilitate comfort with their gender identity;
- Hair removal through electrolysis, laser treatment, or waxing;
- Breast binding or padding, genital tucking or penile prostheses, padding of hips or buttocks;
- Changes in name and gender marker on identity documents.
Assessment and treatment of Children and Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria
There are a number of differences in the phenomenology, developmental course, and treatment approaches for gender dysphoria in children, adolescents, and adults. In children and adolescents, a rapid and dramatic developmental process (physical, psychological, and sexual) is involved and there is greater fluidity and variability in outcomes, particular in prepubertal children. Accordingly, this section of the SOC offers specific clinical guidelines for the assessment and treatment of gender dysphoric children and adolescents.
Differences between Children and Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria
An important difference between gender dysphoric children and adolescents is in the proportion for whom dysphoria persists into adulthood. Gender dysphoria during childhood does not inevitably continue into adulthood. Rather, in follow-up studies of prepubertal children (mainly boys) who were referred to clinics for assessment of gender dysphoria, the dysphoria persisted into adulthood for only 6-23% of children (Cohen-Kettenis, 2001; Zucker & Bradley, 1995). Boys in these studies were more likely to identify as gay in adulthood than as transgender (Green, 1987; Money & Russo, 1979; Zucker & Bradley, 1995; Zuger, 1984). Newer studies, also including girls, showed a 12-27% persistence rate of gender dysphoria into adulthood (Drummond, Bradley, Peterson-Badali, & Zucker, 2008; Wallien & Cohen-Kettenis, 2008).
In contrast, the persistence of gender dysphoria into adulthood appears to be much higher for adolescents. No formal prospective studies exist. However, in a follow-up study of 70 adolescents who were diagnosed with gender dysphoria and given puberty suppressing hormones, all continued with the actual sex reassignment, beginning with feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy (de Vries, Steensma, Doreleijers, & Cohen-Kettenis, 2010).
Another difference between gender dysphoric children and adolescents is in the sex ratios for each age group. In clinically referred, gender dysphoric children under age 12, the male/female ratio ranges from 6:1 to 3:1 (Zucker, 2004). In clinically referred, gender dysphoric adolescents older than age 12, the male/female ratio is close to 1:1 (Cohen-Kettenis & Pfäfflin, 2003).
As discussed in section IV and by Zucker and Lawrence (2009), formal epidemiologic studies on gender dysphoria – in children, adolescents, and adults – are lacking. Additional research is needed to refine estimates of its prevalence and persistence in different populations worldwide.
Phenomenology in Children
Children as young as age two may show features that could indicate gender dysphoria. They may express a wish to be of the other sex and be unhappy about their physical sex characteristics and functions. In addition, they may prefer clothes, toys, and games that are commonly associated with the other sex and prefer playing with other-sex peers. There appears to be heterogeneity in these features: Some children demonstrate extremely gender nonconforming behavior and wishes, accompanied by persistent and severe discomfort with their primary sex characteristics. In other children, these characteristics are less intense or only partially present (Cohen-Kettenis et al., 2006; Knudson, De Cuypere, & Bockting, 2010a).
It is relatively common for gender dysphoric children to have co-existing internalizing disorders such as anxiety and depression (Cohen-Kettenis, Owen, Kaijser, Bradley, & Zucker, 2003; Wallien, Swaab, & Cohen-Kettenis, 2007; Zucker, Owen, Bradley, & Ameeriar, 2002). The prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders seems to be higher in clinically referred, gender dysphoric children than in the general population (de Vries, Noens, Cohen-Kettenis, van Berckelaer-Onnes, & Doreleijers, 2010).
Phenomenology in Adolescents
In most children, gender dysphoria will disappear before or early in puberty. However, in some children these feelings will intensify and body aversion will develop or increase as they become adolescents and their secondary sex characteristics develop (Cohen-Kettenis, 2001; Cohen-Kettenis & Pfäfflin, 2003; Drummond et al., 2008; Wallien & Cohen-Kettenis, 2008; Zucker & Bradley, 1995). Data from one study suggest that more extreme gender nonconformity in childhood is associated with persistence of gender dysphoria into late adolescence and early adulthood (Wallien & Cohen-Kettenis, 2008). Yet many adolescents and adults presenting with gender dysphoria do not report a history of childhood gender nonconforming behaviors (Docter, 1988; Landén, Wålinder, & Lundström, 1998). Therefore, it may come as a surprise to others (parents, other family members, friends, and community members) when a youth’s gender dysphoria first becomes evident in adolescence.
Adolescents who experience their primary and/or secondary sex characteristics and their sex assigned at birth as inconsistent with their gender identity may be intensely distressed about it. Many, but not all, gender dysphoric adolescents have a strong wish for hormones and surgery. Increasing numbers of adolescents have already started living in their desired gender role upon entering high school (Cohen-Kettenis & Pfäfflin, 2003).
Among adolescents who are referred to gender identity clinics, the number considered eligible for early medical treatment – starting with GnRH analogues to suppress puberty in the first Tanner stages – differs among countries and centers. Not all clinics offer puberty suppression. If such treatment is offered, the pubertal stage at which adolescents are allowed to start varies from Tanner stage 2 to stage 4 (Delemarre-van de Waal & Cohen-Kettenis, 2006; Zucker et al., in press). The percentages of treated adolescents are likely influenced by the organization of health care, insurance aspects, cultural differences, opinions of health professionals, and diagnostic procedures offered in different settings.
Inexperienced clinicians may mistake indications of gender dysphoria for delusions. Phenomenologically, there is a qualitative difference between the presentation of gender dysphoria and the presentation of delusions or other psychotic symptoms. The vast majority of children and adolescents with gender dysphoria are not suffering from underlying severe psychiatric illness such as psychotic disorders (Steensma, Biemond, de Boer, & Cohen-Kettenis, published online ahead of print January 7, 2011).
It is more common for adolescents with gender dysphoria to have co-existing internalizing disorders such as anxiety and depression, and/or externalizing disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (de Vries et al., 2010). As in children, there seems to be a higher prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders in clinically referred, gender dysphoric adolescents than in the general adolescent population (de Vries et al., 2010).
Competency of Mental Health Professionals Working with Children or Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria
The following are recommended minimum credentials for mental health professionals who assess, refer, and offer therapy to children and adolescents presenting with gender dysphoria:
- Meet the competency requirements for mental health professionals working with adults, as outlined in section VII;
- Trained in childhood and adolescent developmental psychopathology;
- Competent in diagnosing and treating the ordinary problems of children and adolescents.
Roles of Mental Health Professionals Working with Children and Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria
The roles of mental health professionals working with gender dysphoric children and adolescents may include the following:
- Directly assess gender dysphoria in children and adolescents (see general guidelines for assessment, below).
- Provide family counseling and supportive psychotherapy to assist children and adolescents with exploring their gender identity, alleviating distress related to their gender dysphoria, and ameliorating any other psychosocial difficulties.
- Assess and treat any co-existing mental health concerns of children or adolescents (or refer to another mental health professional for treatment). Such concerns should be addressed as part of the overall treatment plan.
- Refer adolescents for additional physical interventions (such as puberty suppressing hormones) to alleviate gender dysphoria. The referral should include documentation of an as-sessment of gender dysphoria and mental health, the adolescent’s eligibility for physical interventions (outlined below), the mental health professional’s relevant expertise, and any other information pertinent to the youth’s health and referral for specific treatments.
- Educate and advocate on behalf of gender dysphoric children, adolescents, and their families in their community (e.g., day care centers, schools, camps, other organizations). This is par-ticularly important in light of evidence that children and adolescents who do not conform to socially prescribed gender norms may experience harassment in school (Grossman, D’Augelli, & Salter, 2006; Grossman, D’Augelli, Howell, & Hubbard, 2006; Sausa, 2005), putting them at risk for social isolation, depression, and other negative sequelae (Nuttbrock et al., 2010).
- Provide children, youth, and their families with information and referral for peer support, such as support groups for parents of gender nonconforming and transgender children (Gold & MacNish, 2011; Pleak, 1999; Rosenberg, 2002).
Assessment and psychosocial interventions for children and adolescents are often provided within a multi-disciplinary gender identity specialty service. If such a multidisciplinary service is not available, a mental health professional should provide consultation and liaison arrangements with a pediatric endocrinologist for the purpose of assessment, education, and involvement in any decisions about physical interventions.
Psychological Assessment of Children and Adolescents
When assessing children and adolescents who present with gender dysphoria, mental health professionals should broadly conform to the following guidelines:
- Mental health professionals should not dismiss or express a negative attitude towards nonconforming gender identities or indications of gender dysphoria. Rather, they should acknowledge the presenting concerns of children, adolescents, and their families; offer a thorough assessment for gender dysphoria and any co-existing mental health concerns; and educate clients and their families about therapeutic options, if needed. Acceptance and removal of secrecy can bring considerable relief to gender dysphoric children/adolescents and their families.
- Assessment of gender dysphoria and mental health should explore the nature and characteristics of a child’s or adolescent’s gender identity. A psychodiagnostic and psychiatric assessment – covering the areas of emotional functioning, peer and other social relationships, and intel-lectual functioning/school achievement – should be performed. Assessment should include an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of family functioning. Emotional and behavioral problems are relatively common, and unresolved issues in a child’s or youth’s environment may be present (de Vries, Doreleijers, Steensma, & Cohen-Kettenis, 2011; Di Ceglie & Thüm-mel, 2006; Wallien et al., 2007).
- For adolescents, the assessment phase should also be used to inform youth and their families about the possibilities and limitations of different treatments. This is necessary for informed consent, but also important for assessment. The way that adolescents respond to information about the reality of sex reassignment can be diagnostically informative. Correct information may alter a youth’s desire for certain treatment, if the desire was based on unrealistic expectations of its possibilities.
Psychological and Social Interventions for Children and Adolescents
When supporting and treating children and adolescents with gender dysphoria, health professionals should broadly conform to the following guidelines:
- Mental health professionals should help families to have an accepting and nurturing response to the concerns of their gender dysphoric child or adolescent. Families play an important role in the psychological health and well-being of youth (Brill & Pepper, 2008; Lev, 2004). This also ap-plies to peers and mentors from the community, who can be another source of social support.
- Psychotherapy should focus on reducing a child’s or adolescent’s distress related to the gender dysphoria and on ameliorating any other psychosocial difficulties. For youth pursuing sex reassignment, psychotherapy may focus on supporting them before, during, and after reassign-ment. Formal evaluations of different psychotherapeutic approaches for this situation have not been published, but several counseling methods have been described (Cohen-Kettenis, 2006; de Vries, Cohen-Kettenis, & Delemarre-van de Waal, 2006; Di Ceglie & Thümmel, 2006; Hill, Menvielle, Sica, & Johnson, 2010; Malpas, in press; Menvielle & Tuerk, 2002; Rosenberg, 2002; Vanderburgh, 2009; Zucker, 2006).
Treatment aimed at trying to change a person’s gender identity and expression to become more congruent with sex assigned at birth has been attempted in the past without success (Gelder & Marks, 1969; Greenson, 1964), particularly in the long term (Cohen-Kettenis & Kuiper, 1984; Pauly, 1965). Such treatment is no longer considered ethical.
- Families should be supported in managing uncertainty and anxiety about their child’s or adolescent’s psychosexual outcomes and in helping youth to develop a positive self-concept.
- Mental health professionals should not impose a binary view of gender. They should give ample room for clients to explore different options for gender expression. Hormonal or surgical interventions are appropriate for some adolescents, but not for others.
- Clients and their families should be supported in making difficult decisions regarding the ex-tent to which clients are allowed to express a gender role that is consistent with their gender identity, as well as the timing of changes in gender role and possible social transition. For example, a client might attend school while undergoing social transition only partly (e.g., by wearing clothing and having a hairstyle that reflects gender identity) or completely (e.g., by also using a name and pronouns congruent with gender identity). Difficult issues include whether and when to inform other people of the client’s situation, and how others in their lives should respond.
- Health professionals should support clients and their families as educators and advocates in their interactions with community members and authorities such as teachers, school boards, and courts.
- Mental health professionals should strive to maintain a therapeutic relationship with gender nonconforming children/adolescents and their families throughout any subsequent social changes or physical interventions. This ensures that decisions about gender expression and the treatment of gender dysphoria are thoughtfully and recurrently considered. The same reasoning applies if a child or adolescent has already socially changed gender role prior to being seen by a mental health professional.
Social Transition in Early Childhood
Some children state that they want to make a social transition to a different gender role long before puberty. For some children, this may reflect an expression of their gender identity. For others, this could be motivated by other forces. Families vary in the extent to which they allow their young children to make a social transition to another gender role. Social transitions in early childhood do occur within some families with early success. This is a controversial issue, and divergent views are held by health professionals. The current evidence base is insufficient to predict the long-term outcomes of completing a gender role transition during early childhood. Outcomes research with children who completed early social transitions would greatly inform future clinical recommendations.
Mental health professionals can help families to make decisions regarding the timing and process of any gender role changes for their young children. They should provide information and help parents to weigh the potential benefits and challenges of particular choices. Relevant in this respect are the previously described relatively low persistence rates of childhood gender dysphoria (Drummond et al., 2008; Wallien & Cohen-Kettenis, 2008). A change back to the original gender role can be highly distressing and even result in postponement of this second social transition on the child’s part (Steensma & Cohen-Kettenis, 2011). For reasons such as these, parents may want to present this role change as an exploration of living in another gender role, rather than an irreversible situation. Mental health professionals can assist parents in identifying potential in-between solutions or compromises (e.g., only when on vacation). It is also important that parents explicitly let the child know that there is a way back.
Regardless of a family’s decisions regarding transition (timing, extent), professionals should counsel and support them as they work through the options and implications. If parents do not allow their young child to make a gender role transition, they may need counseling to assist them with meeting their child’s needs in a sensitive and nurturing way, ensuring that the child has ample possibilities to explore gender feelings and behavior in a safe environment. If parents do allow their young child to make a gender role transition, they may need counseling to facilitate a positive experience for their child. For example, they may need support in using correct pronouns, maintaining a safe and supportive environment for their transitioning child (e.g., in school, peer group settings), and communicating with other people in their child’s life. In either case, as a child nears puberty, further assessment may be needed as options for physical interventions become relevant.
Physical Interventions for Adolescents
Before any physical interventions are considered for adolescents, extensive exploration of psychological, family, and social issues should be undertaken, as outlined above. The duration of this exploration may vary considerably depending on the complexity of the situation.
Physical interventions should be addressed in the context of adolescent development. Some identity beliefs in adolescents may become firmly held and strongly expressed, giving a false impression of irreversibility. An adolescent’s shift towards gender conformity can occur primarily to please the parents and may not persist or reflect a permanent change in gender dysphoria (Hembree et al., 2009; Steensma et al., published online ahead of print January 7, 2011).
Physical interventions for adolescents fall into three categories or stages (Hembree et al., 2009):
- Fully reversible interventions. These involve the use of GnRH analogues to suppress estrogen or testosterone production and consequently delay the physical changes of puberty. Alterna-tive treatment options include progestins (most commonly medroxyprogesterone) or other medications (such as spironolactone) that decrease the effects of androgens secreted by the testicles of adolescents who are not receiving GnRH analogues. Continuous oral contraceptives (or depot medroxyprogesterone) may be used to suppress menses.
- Partially reversible interventions. These include hormone therapy to masculinize or feminize the body. Some hormone-induced changes may need reconstructive surgery to reverse the effect (e.g., gynaecomastia caused by estrogens), while other changes are not reversible (e.g., deep-ening of the voice caused by testosterone).
- Irreversible interventions . These are surgical procedures.
A staged process is recommended to keep options open through the first two stages. Moving from one stage to another should not occur until there has been adequate time for adolescents and their parents to assimilate fully the effects of earlier interventions.
Fully Reversible Interventions
Adolescents may be eligible for puberty suppressing hormones as soon as pubertal changes have begun. In order for adolescents and their parents to make an informed decision about pubertal delay, it is recommended that adolescents experience the onset of puberty to at least Tanner Stage 2. Some children may arrive at this stage at very young ages (e.g., 9 years of age). Studies evaluating this approach only included children who were at least 12 years of age (Cohen-Kettenis, Schagen, Steensma, de Vries, & Delemarre-van de Waal, 2011; de Vries, Steensma et al., 2010; Delemarre-van de Waal, van Weissenbruch, & Cohen Kettenis, 2004; Delemarre-van de Waal & Cohen-Kettenis, 2006).
Two goals justify intervention with puberty suppressing hormones: (i) their use gives adolescents more time to explore their gender nonconformity and other developmental issues; and (ii) their use may facilitate transition by preventing the development of sex characteristics that are difficult or impossible to reverse if adolescents continue on to pursue sex reassignment. Puberty suppression may continue for a few years, at which time a decision is made to either discontinue all hormone therapy or transition to a feminizing/masculinizing hormone regimen.
Pubertal suppression does not inevitably lead to social transition or to sex reassignment.
Criteria for puberty suppressing hormones
In order for adolescents to receive puberty suppressing hormones, the following minimum criteria must be met:
1. The adolescent has demonstrated a long-lasting and intense pattern of gender nonconformity or gender dysphoria (whether suppressed or expressed); 2. Gender dysphoria emerged or worsened with the onset of puberty; 3. Any co-existing psychological, medical, or social problems that could interfere with treatment (e.g., that may compromise treatment adherence) have been addressed, such that the adoles-cent’s situation and functioning are stable enough to start treatment; 4. The adolescent has given informed consent and, particularly when the adolescent has not reached the age of medical consent, the parents or other caretakers or guardians have con-sented to the treatment and are involved in supporting the adolescent throughout the treat-ment process.
Regimens, monitoring, and risks for puberty suppression
For puberty suppression, adolescents with male genitalia should be treated with GnRH analogues, which stop luteinizing hormone secretion and therefore testosterone secretion. Alternatively, they may be treated with progestins (such as medroxyprogesterone) or with other medications that block testosterone secretion and/or neutralize testosterone action. Adolescents with female genitalia should be treated with GnRH analogues, which stop the production of estrogens and progesterone. Alternatively, they may be treated with progestins (such as medroxyprogesterone). Continuous oral contraceptives (or depot medroxyprogesterone) may be used to suppress menses. In both groups of adolescents, use of GnRH analogues is the preferred treatment (Hembree et al., 2009), but their high cost is prohibitive for some patients
During pubertal suppression, an adolescent’s physical development should be carefully monitored – preferably by a pediatric endocrinologist – so that any necessary interventions can occur (e.g., to establish an adequate gender appropriate height, to improve iatrogenic low bone marrow density) (Hembree et al., 2009).
Early use of puberty suppressing hormones may avert negative social and emotional consequences of gender dysphoria more effectively than their later use would. Intervention in early adolescence should be managed with pediatric endocrinological advice, when available. Adolescents with male genitalia who start GnRH analogues early in puberty should be informed that this could result in insufficient penile tissue for penile inversion vaginoplasty techniques (alternative techniques, such as the use of a skin graft or colon tissue, are available).
Neither puberty suppression nor allowing puberty to occur is a neutral act. On the one hand, functioning in later life can be compromised by the development of irreversible secondary sex characteristics during puberty and by years spent experiencing intense gender dysphoria. On the other hand, there are concerns about negative physical side effects of GnRH analog use (e.g., on bone development and height). Although the very first results of this approach (as assessed for adolescents followed over 10 years) are promising (Cohen-Kettenis et al., 2011; Delemarre-van de Waal & Cohen-Kettenis, 2006), the long-term effects can only be determined when the earliest treated patients reach the appropriate age.
Partially Reversible Interventions
Adolescents may be eligible to begin feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy, preferably with parental consent. In many countries, 16-year-olds are legal adults for medical decision-making and do not require parental consent. Ideally, treatment decisions should be made among the adolescent, the family, and the treatment team.
Regimens for hormone therapy in gender dysphoric adolescents differ substantially from those used in adults (Hembree et al., 2009). The hormone regimens for youth are adapted to account for the somatic, emotional, and mental development that occurs throughout adolescence (Hembree et al., 2009).
Genital surgery should not be carried out until (i) patients reach the legal age of majority in a given country, and (ii) patients have lived continuously for at least 12 months in the gender role that is congruent with their gender identity. The age threshold should be seen as a minimum criterion and not an indication in and of itself for active intervention.
Chest surgery in FtM patients could be carried out earlier, preferably after ample time of living in the desired gender role and after one year of testosterone treatment. The intent of this suggested sequence is to give adolescents sufficient opportunity to experience and socially adjust in a more masculine gender role, before undergoing irreversible surgery. However, different approaches may be more suitable, depending on an adolescent’s specific clinical situation and goals for gender identity expression.
Risks of Withholding Medical Treatment for 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.
Transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people might seek the assistance of a mental health professional for any number of reasons. Regardless of a person’s reason for seeking care, mental health professionals should have familiarity with gender nonconformity, act with appropriate cultural competence, and exhibit sensitivity in providing care.
This section of the SOC focuses on the role of mental health professionals in the care of adults seeking help for gender dysphoria and related concerns. Professionals working with gender dysphoric children, adolescents, and their families should consult section VI.
Competency of Mental Health Professionals Working with Adults Who Present with Gender Dysphoria
The training of mental health professionals competent to work with gender dysphoric adults rests upon basic general clinical competence in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health concerns. Clinical training may occur within any discipline that prepares mental health professionals for clinical practice, such as psychology, psychiatry, social work, mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, nursing, or family medicine with specific training in behavioral health and counseling. The following are recommended minimum credentials for mental health professionals who work with adults presenting with gender dysphoria:
- A master’s degree or its equivalent in a clinical behavioral science field. This degree or a more advanced one should be granted by an institution accredited by the appropriate national or regional accrediting board. The mental health professional should have documented credentials from a relevant licensing board or equivalent for that country.
- Competence in using the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and/or the International Classification of Diseases for diagnostic purposes.
- Ability to recognize and diagnose co-existing mental health concerns and to distinguish these from gender dysphoria.
- Documented supervised training and competence in psychotherapy or counseling.
- Knowledgeable about gender nonconforming identities and expressions, and the assessment and treatment of gender dysphoria.
- Continuing education in the assessment and treatment of gender dysphoria. This may include attending relevant professional meetings, workshops, or seminars; obtaining supervision from a mental health professional with relevant experience; or participating in research related to gender nonconformity and gender dysphoria.
In addition to the minimum credentials above, it is recommended that mental health professionals develop and maintain cultural competence to facilitate their work with transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming clients. This may involve, for example, becoming knowledgeable about current community, advocacy, and public policy issues relevant to these clients and their families. Additionally, knowledge about sexuality, sexual health concerns, and the assessment and treatment of sexual disorders is preferred.
Mental health professionals who are new to the field (irrespective of their level of training and other experience) should work under the supervision of a mental health professional with established competence in the assessment and treatment of gender dysphoria.
Tasks of Mental Health Professionals Working with Adults Who Present with Gender Dysphoria
Mental health professionals may serve transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals and their families in many ways, depending on a client’s needs. For example, mental health professionals may serve as a psychotherapist, counselor, or family therapist, or as a diagnostician/assessor, advocate, or educator.
Mental health professionals should determine a client’s reasons for seeking professional assistance. For example, a client may be presenting for any combination of the following health care services: psychotherapeutic assistance to explore gender identity and expression or to facilitate a coming out process; assessment and referral for feminizing/masculinizing medical interventions; psychological support for family members (partners, children, extended family); or psychotherapy unrelated to gender concerns or other professional services.
Below are general guidelines for common tasks that mental health professionals may fulfill in working with adults who present with gender dysphoria.
Tasks Related to Assessment and Referral
1. Assess gender dysphoria Mental health professionals assess clients’ gender dysphoria in the context of an evaluation of their psychosocial adjustment (Bockting et al., 2006; Lev, 2004, 2009). The evaluation includes, at a minimum, assessment of gender identity and gender dysphoria, history and development of gender dysphoric feelings, the impact of stigma attached to gender nonconformity on mental health, and the availability of support from family, friends, and peers (for example, in person or online contact with other transsexual, transgender, or gender nonconforming individuals or groups). The evaluation may result in no diagnosis, in a formal diagnosis related to gender dysphoria, and/or in other diagnoses that describe aspects of the client’s health and psychosocial adjustment. The role of mental health professionals includes making reasonably sure that the gender dysphoria is not secondary to or better accounted for by other diagnoses.
Mental health professionals with the competencies described above (hereafter called “a qualified mental health professional”) are best prepared to conduct this assessment of gender dysphoria. However, this task may instead be conducted by another type of health professional who has appropriate training in behavioral health and is competent in the assessment of gender dysphoria, particularly when functioning as part of a multidisciplinary specialty team that provides access to feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy. This professional may be the prescribing hormone therapy provider or a member of that provider’s health care team.
2. Provide information regarding options for gender identity and expression and possible medical interventions
An important task of mental health professionals is to educate clients regarding the diversity of gender identities and expressions and the various options available to alleviate gender dysphoria. Mental health professionals then may facilitate a process (or refer elsewhere) in which clients explore these various options, with the goals of finding a comfortable gender role and expression and becoming prepared to make a fully informed decision about available medical interventions, if needed. This process may include referral for individual, family, and group therapy and/or to community resources and avenues for peer support. The professional and the client discuss the implications, both short- and long-term, of any changes in gender role and use of medical interventions. These implications can be psychological, social, physical, sexual, occupational, financial, and legal (Bockting et al., 2006; Lev, 2004).
This task is also best conducted by a qualified mental health professional, but may be conducted by another health professional with appropriate training in behavioral health and with sufficient knowledge about gender nonconforming identities and expressions and about possible medical interventions for gender dysphoria, particularly when functioning as part of a multidisciplinary specialty team that provides access to feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy.
3. Assess, diagnose, and discuss treatment options for co-existing mental health concerns
Clients presenting with gender dysphoria may struggle with a range of mental health concerns (Gómez-Gil, Trilla, Salamero, Godás, & Valdés, 2009; Murad et al., 2010) whether related or unrelated to what is often a long history of gender dysphoria and/or chronic minority stress. Possible concerns include anxiety, depression, self-harm, a history of abuse and neglect, compulsivity, substance abuse, sexual concerns, personality disorders, eating disorders, psychotic disorders, and autistic spectrum disorders (Bockting et al., 2006; Nuttbrock et al., 2010; Robinow, 2009). Mental health professionals should screen for these and other mental health concerns and incorporate the identified concerns into the overall treatment plan. These concerns can be significant sources of distress and, if left untreated, can complicate the process of gender identity exploration and resolution of gender dysphoria (Bockting et al., 2006; Fraser, 2009a; Lev, 2009). Addressing these concerns can greatly facilitate the resolution of gender dysphoria, possible changes in gender role, the making of informed decisions about medical interventions, and improvements in quality of life.
Some clients may benefit from psychotropic medications to alleviate symptoms or treat co-existing mental health concerns. Mental health professionals are expected to recognize this and either provide pharmacotherapy or refer to a colleague who is qualified to do so. The presence of co-existing mental health concerns does not necessarily preclude possible changes in gender role or access to feminizing/masculinizing hormones or surgery; rather, these concerns need to be optimally managed prior to or concurrent with treatment of gender dysphoria. In addition, clients should be assessed for their ability to provide educated and informed consent for medical treatments.
Qualified mental health professionals are specifically trained to assess, diagnose, and treat (or refer to treatment for) these co-existing mental health concerns. Other health professionals with appropriate training in behavioral health, particularly when functioning as part of a multidisciplinary specialty team providing access to feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy, may also screen for mental health concerns and, if indicated, provide referral for comprehensive assessment and treatment by a qualified mental health professional.
4. if applicable, assess eligibility, prepare, and refer for hormone therapy
The SOC provide criteria to guide decisions regarding feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy (outlined in section VIII and Appendix C). Mental health professionals can help clients who are considering hormone therapy to be both psychologically prepared (for example, has made a fully informed decision with clear and realistic expectations; is ready to receive the service in line with the overall treatment plan; has included family and community as appropriate) and practically prepared (for example, has been evaluated by a physician to rule out or address medical contraindications to hormone use; has considered the psychosocial implications). If clients are of childbearing age, reproductive options (section IX) should be explored before initiating hormone therapy.
It is important for mental health professionals to recognize that decisions about hormones are first and foremost the client’s decisions – as are all decisions regarding healthcare. However, mental health professionals have a responsibility to encourage, guide, and assist clients with making fully informed decisions and becoming adequately prepared. To best support their clients’ decisions, mental health professionals need to have functioning working relationships with their clients and sufficient information about them. Clients should receive prompt and attentive evaluation, with the goal of alleviating their gender dysphoria and providing them with appropriate medical services.
Referral for feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy
People may approach a specialized provider in any discipline to pursue feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy. However, transgender health care is an interdisciplinary field, and coordination of care and referral among a client’s overall care team is recommended.
Hormone therapy can be initiated with a referral from a qualified mental health professional. Alternatively, a health professional who is appropriately trained in behavioral health and competent in the assessment of gender dysphoria may assess eligibility, prepare, and refer the patient for hormone therapy, particularly in the absence of significant co-existing mental health concerns and when working in the context of a multidisciplinary specialty team. The referring health professional provides documentation – in the chart and/or referral letter – of the patient’s personal and treatment history, progress, and eligibility. Health professionals who recommend hormone therapy share the ethical and legal responsibility for that decision with the physician who provides the service.
The recommended content of the referral letter for feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy is as follows:
- The client’s general identifying characteristics;
- Results of the client’s psychosocial assessment, including any diagnoses;
- The duration of the referring health professional’s relationship with the client, including the type of evaluation and therapy or counseling to date;
- An explanation that the criteria for hormone therapy have been met, and a brief description of the clinical rationale for supporting the client’s request for hormone therapy;
- A statement about the fact that informed consent has been obtained from the patient;
- A statement that the referring health professional is available for coordination of care and wel-comes a phone call to establish this.
For providers working within a multidisciplinary specialty team, a letter may not be necessary, rather, the assessment and recommendation can be documented in the patient’s chart.
5. if applicable, assess eligibility, prepare, and refer for surgery
The SOC also provide criteria to guide decisions regarding breast/chest surgery and genital surgery (outlined in section XI and Appendix C). Mental health professionals can help clients who are considering surgery to be both psychologically prepared (for example, has made a fully informed decision with clear and realistic expectations; is ready to receive the service in line with the overall treatment plan; has included family and community as appropriate) and practically prepared (for example, has made an informed choice about a surgeon to perform the procedure; has arranged aftercare). If clients are of childbearing age, reproductive options (section IX) should be explored before undergoing genital surgery.
The SOC do not state criteria for other surgical procedures, such as feminizing or masculinizing facial surgery; however, mental health professionals can play an important role in helping their clients to make fully informed decisions about the timing and implications of such procedures in the context of the overall coming out or transition process.
It is important for mental health professionals to recognize that decisions about surgery are first and foremost a client’s decisions – as are all decisions regarding healthcare. However, mental health professionals have a responsibility to encourage, guide, and assist clients with making fully informed decisions and becoming adequately prepared. To best support their clients’ decisions, mental health professionals need to have functioning working relationships with their clients and sufficient information about them. Clients should receive prompt and attentive evaluation, with the goal of alleviating their gender dysphoria and providing them with appropriate medical services.
Referral for surgery
Surgical treatments for gender dysphoria can be initiated with a referral (one or two, depending on the type of surgery) from a qualified mental health professional. The mental health professional provides documentation – in the chart and/or referral letter – of the patient’s personal and treatment history, progress, and eligibility. Mental health professionals who recommend surgery share the ethical and legal responsibility for that decision with the surgeon.
- One referral from a qualified mental health professional is needed for breast/chest surgery (e.g., mastectomy, chest reconstruction, or augmentation mammoplasty).
- Two referrals – from qualified mental health professionals who have independently assessed the patient – are needed for genital surgery (i.e., hysterectomy/salpingo-oophorectomy, orchi-ectomy, genital reconstructive surgeries). If the first referral is from the patient’s psychothera-pist, the second referral should be from a person who has only had an evaluative role with the patient. Two separate letters, or one letter signed by both (e.g., if practicing within the same clinic) may be sent. Each referral letter, however, is expected to cover the same topics in the areas outlined below.
The recommended content of the referral letters for surgery is as follows:
- The client’s general identifying characteristics;
- Results of the client’s psychosocial assessment, including any diagnoses;
- The duration of the mental health professional’s relationship with the client, including the type of evaluation and therapy or counseling to date;
- An explanation that the criteria for surgery have been met, and a brief description of the clinical rationale for supporting the patient’s request for surgery;
- A statement about the fact that informed consent has been obtained from the patient;
- A statement that the mental health professional is available for coordination of care and welcomes a phone call to establish this.
For providers working within a multidisciplinary specialty team, a letter may not be necessary, rather, the assessment and recommendation can be documented in the patient’s chart.
Relationship of Mental health Professionals with Hormone-Prescribing Physicians, Surgeons, and other Health Professionals
It is ideal for mental health professionals to perform their work and periodically discuss progress and obtain peer consultation from other professionals (both in mental health care and other health disciplines) who are competent in the assessment and treatment of gender dysphoria. The relationship among professionals involved in a client’s health care should remain collaborative, with coordination and clinical dialogue taking place as needed. Open and consistent communication may be necessary for consultation, referral, and management of postoperative concerns.
Tasks Related to Psychotherapy
1. Psychotherapy is not an absolute requirement for hormone therapy and surgery
A mental health screening and/or assessment as outlined above is needed for referral to hormonal and surgical treatments for gender dysphoria. In contrast, psychotherapy – although highly recommended – is not a requirement.
The SOC do not recommend a minimum number of psychotherapy sessions prior to hormone therapy or surgery. The reasons for this are multifaceted (Lev, 2009). First, a minimum number of sessions tends to be construed as a hurdle, which discourages the genuine opportunity for personal growth. Second, mental health professionals can offer important support to clients throughout all phases of exploration of gender identity, gender expression, and possible transition – not just prior to any possible medical interventions. Third, clients differ in their abilities to attain similar goals in a specified time period.
2. Goals of psychotherapy for adults with gender concerns
The general goal of psychotherapy is to find ways to maximize a person’s overall psychological well-being, quality of life, and self-fulfillment. Psychotherapy is not intended to alter a person’s gender identity; rather, psychotherapy can help an individual to explore gender concerns and find ways to alleviate gender dysphoria, if present (Bockting et al., 2006; Bockting & Coleman, 2007; Fraser, 2009a; Lev, 2004). Typically, the overarching treatment goal is to help transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals achieve long-term comfort in their gender identity expression, with realistic chances for success in their relationships, education, and work. For additional details, see Fraser (Fraser, 2009c).
Therapy may consist of individual, couple, family, or group psychotherapy, the latter being particularly important to foster peer support.
3. Psychotherapy for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming clients, including counseling and support for changes in gender role
Finding a comfortable gender role is, first and foremost, a psychosocial process. Psychotherapy can be invaluable in assisting transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals with all of the following: (i) clarifying and exploring gender identity and role, (ii) addressing the impact of stigma and minority stress on one’s mental health and human development, and (iii) facilitating a coming out process (Bockting & Coleman, 2007; Devor, 2004; Lev, 2004), which for some individuals may include changes in gender role expression and the use of feminizing/masculinizing medical interventions.
Mental health professionals can provide support and promote interpersonal skills and resilience in individuals and their families as they navigate a world that often is ill prepared to accommodate and respect transgender, transsexual, and gender nonconforming people. Psychotherapy can also aid in alleviating any co-existing mental health concerns (e.g., anxiety, depression) identified during screening and assessment.
For transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals who plan to change gender roles permanently and make a social gender role transition, mental health professionals can facilitate the development of an individualized plan with specific goals and timelines. While the experience of changing one’s gender role differs from person to person, the social aspects of the experience are usually challenging – often more so than the physical aspects. Because changing gender role can have profound personal and social consequences, the decision to do so should include an awareness of what the familial, interpersonal, educational, vocational, economic, and legal challenges are likely to be, so that people can function successfully in their gender role.
Many transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people will present for care without ever having been related to or accepted in the gender role that is most congruent with their gender identity. Mental health professionals can help these clients to explore and anticipate the implications of changes in gender role, and to pace the process of implementing these changes. Psychotherapy can provide a space for clients to begin to express themselves in ways that are congruent with their gender identity and, for some clients, overcome fear about changes in gender expression. Calculated risks can be taken outside of therapy to gain experience and build confidence in the new role. Assistance with coming out to family and community (friends, school, workplace) can be provided.
Other transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals will present for care already having acquired experience (minimal, moderate, or extensive) living in a gender role that differs from that associated with their birth-assigned sex. Mental health professionals can help these clients to identify and work through potential challenges and foster optimal adjustment as they continue to express changes in their gender role.
4. Family therapy or support for family members
Decisions about changes in gender role and medical interventions for gender dysphoria have implications for not only clients, but also their families (Emerson & Rosenfeld, 1996; Fraser, 2009a; Lev, 2004). Mental health professionals can assist clients with making thoughtful decisions about communicating with family members and others about their gender identity and treatment decisions. Family therapy may include work with spouses or partners, as well as with children and other members of a client’s extended family.
Clients may also request assistance with their relationships and sexual health. For example, they may want to explore their sexuality and intimacy related concerns.
Family therapy might be offered as part of the client’s individual therapy and, if clinically appropriate, by the same provider. Alternatively, referrals can be made to other therapists with relevant expertise to work with family members, or to sources of peer support (e.g., online or offline support networks of partners or families).
5. Follow-up care throughout life
Mental health professionals may work with clients and their families at many stages of their lives. Psychotherapy may be helpful at different times and for various issues throughout the life cycle.
6. etherapy, online counseling, or distance counseling
Online or etherapy has been shown to be particularly useful for people who have difficulty accessing competent psychotherapeutic treatment and who may experience isolation and stigma (Derrig-Palumbo & Zeine, 2005; Fenichel et al., 2004; Fraser, 2009b). By extrapolation, etherapy may be a useful modality for psychotherapy with transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people. Etherapy offers opportunities for potentially enhanced, expanded, creative, and tailored delivery of services; however, as a developing modality it may also carry unexpected risk. Telemedicine guidelines are clear in some disciplines in some parts of the United States (Fraser, 2009b; Maheu, Pulier, Wilhelm, McMenamin, & Brown-Connolly, 2005) but not all; the international situation is even less defined (Maheu et al., 2005). Until sufficient evidence-based data on this use of etherapy is available, caution in its use is advised.
Mental health professionals engaging in etherapy are advised to stay current with their particular licensing board, professional association, and country’s regulations, as well as the most recent literature pertaining to this rapidly evolving medium. A more thorough description of the potential uses, processes, and ethical concerns related to etherapy has been published (Fraser, 2009b).
Other Tasks of the Mental Health Professional
1. educate and advocate on behalf of clients within their community (schools, workplaces, other organizations) and assist clients with making changes in identity documents
Transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people may face challenges in their professional, educational, and other types of settings as they actualize their gender identity and expression (Lev, 2004, 2009). Mental health professionals can play an important role by educating people in these settings regarding gender nonconformity and by advocating on behalf of their clients (Currah, Juang, & Minter, 2006)(Currah & Minter, 2000). This role may involve consultation with school counselors, teachers, and administrators, human resources staff, personnel managers and employers, and representatives from other organizations and institutions. In addition, health providers may be called upon to support changes in a client’s name and/or gender marker on identity documents such as passports, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and diplomas.
2. Provide information and referral for peer support
For some transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, an experience in peer support groups may be more instructive regarding options for gender expression than anything individual psychotherapy could offer (Rachlin, 2002). Both experiences are potentially valuable, and all people exploring gender issues should be encouraged to participate in community activities, if possible. Resources for peer support and information should be made available.
Culture and its Ramifications for Assessment and Psychotherapy
Health professionals work in enormously different environments across the world. Forms of distress that cause people to seek professional assistance in any culture are understood and classified by people in terms that are products of their own cultures (Frank & Frank, 1993). Cultural settings also largely determine how such conditions are understood by mental health professionals. Cultural differences related to gender identity and expression can affect patients, mental health professionals, and accepted psychotherapy practice. WPATH recognizes that the SOC have grown out of a Western tradition and may need to be adapted depending on the cultural context.
Ethical Guidelines Related to Mental Health Care
Mental health professionals need to be certified or licensed to practice in a given country according to that country’s professional regulations (Fraser, 2009b; Pope & Vasquez, 2011). Professionals must adhere to the ethical codes of their professional licensing or certifying organizations in all of their work with transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming clients.
Treatment aimed at trying to change a person’s gender identity and lived gender expression to become more congruent with sex assigned at birth has been attempted in the past (Gelder & Marks, 1969; Greenson, 1964), yet without success, particularly in the long term (Cohen-Kettenis & Kuiper, 1984; Pauly, 1965). Such treatment is no longer considered ethical.
If mental health professionals are uncomfortable with or inexperienced in working with transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals and their families, they should refer clients to a competent provider or, at minimum, consult with an expert peer. If no local practitioners are available, consultation may be done via telehealth methods, assuming local requirements for distance consultation are met.
Issues of Access to Care
Qualified mental health professionals are not universally available; thus, access to quality care might be limited. WPATH aims to improve access and provides regular continuing education opportunities to train professionals from various disciplines to provide quality, transgender-specific health care. Providing mental health care from a distance through the use of technology may be one way to improve access (Fraser, 2009b).
In many places around the world, access to health care for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people is also limited by a lack of health insurance or other means to pay for needed care. WPATH urges health insurance companies and other third-party payers to cover the medically necessary treatment to alleviate gender dysphoria (American Medical Association, 2008; Anton, 2009; The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, 2008).
When faced with a client who is unable to access services, referral to available peer support resources (offline and online) is recommended. Finally, harm reduction approaches might be indicated to assist clients with making healthy decisions to improve their lives.
Medical necessity of hormone therapy
Feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy – the administration of exogenous endocrine agents to induce feminizing or masculinizing changes – is a medically necessary intervention for many transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals with gender dysphoria (Newfield, Hart, Dibble, & Kohler, 2006; Pfäfflin & Junge, 1998). Some people seek maximum feminization/masculinization, while others experience relief with an androgynous presentation resulting from hormonal minimization of existing secondary sex characteristics (Factor & Rothblum, 2008). Evidence for the psychosocial outcomes of hormone therapy is summarized in Appendix D.
Hormone therapy must be individualized based on a patient’s goals, the risk/benefit ratio of medications, the presence of other medical conditions, and consideration of social and economic issues. Hormone therapy can provide significant comfort to patients who do not wish to make a social gender role transition or undergo surgery, or who are unable to do so (Meyer III, 2009).
Hormone therapy is a recommended criterion for some, but not all, surgical treatments for gender dysphoria (see section XI and Appendix C).
Criteria for hormone therapy
Initiation of hormone therapy may be undertaken after a psychosocial assessment has been conducted and informed consent has been obtained by a qualified health professional, as outlined in section VII of the SOC. A referral is required from the mental health professional who performed the assessment, unless the assessment was done by a hormone provider who is also qualified in this area.
The criteria for hormone therapy are as follows:
- Persistent, well-documented gender dysphoria;
- Capacity to make a fully informed decision and to consent for treatment;
- Age of majority in a given country (if younger, follow the Standards of Care outlined in section VI);
- If significant medical or mental health concerns are present, they must be reasonably well-controlled.
As noted in section VII of the SOC, the presence of co-existing mental health concerns does not necessarily preclude access to feminizing/masculinizing hormones; rather, these concerns need to be managed prior to or concurrent with treatment of gender dysphoria.
In selected circumstances, it can be acceptable practice to provide hormones to patients who have not fulfilled these criteria. Examples include facilitating the provision of monitored therapy using hormones of known quality as an alternative to illicit or unsupervised hormone use or to patients who have already established themselves in their affirmed gender and who have a history of prior hormone use. It is unethical to deny availability or eligibility for hormone therapy solely on the basis of blood seropositivity for blood-borne infections such as HIV or hepatitis B or C.
In rare cases, hormone therapy may be contraindicated due to serious individual health conditions. Health professionals should assist these patients with accessing non-hormonal interventions for gender dysphoria. A qualified mental health professional familiar with the patient is an excellent resource in these circumstances.
Feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy may lead to irreversible physical changes. Thus, hormone therapy should be provided only to those who are legally able to provide informed consent. This includes people who have been declared by a court to be emancipated minors, incarcerated people, and cognitively impaired people who are considered competent to participate in their medical decisions (see also Bockting et al., 2006). Providers should document in the medical record that comprehensive information has been provided and understood about all relevant aspects of the hormone therapy, including both possible benefits and risks and the impact on reproductive capacity.
Relationship between the standards of Care and informed Consent Model Protocols
A number of community health centers in the United States have developed protocols for providing hormone therapy based on an approach that has become known as the Informed Consent Model (Callen Lorde Community Health Center, 2000, 2011; Fenway Community Health Transgender Health Program, 2007; Tom Waddell Health Center, 2006). These protocols are consistent with the guidelines presented in the WPATH Standards of Care, Version 7. The SOC are flexible clinical guidelines; they allow for tailoring of interventions to the needs of the individual receiving services and for tailoring of protocols to the approach and setting in which these services are provided (Ehrbar & Gorton, 2010).
Obtaining informed consent for hormone therapy is an important task of providers to ensure that patients understand the psychological and physical benefits and risks of hormone therapy, as well as its psychosocial implications. Providers prescribing the hormones or health professionals recommending the hormones should have the knowledge and experience to assess gender dysphoria. They should inform individuals of the particular benefits, limitations, and risks of hormones, given the patient’s age, previous experience with hormones, and concurrent physical or mental health concerns.
Screening for and addressing acute or current mental health concerns is an important part of the informed consent process. This may be done by a mental health professional or by an appropriately trained prescribing provider (see section VII of the SOC). The same provider or another appropriately trained member of the health care team (e.g., a nurse) can address the psychosocial implications of taking hormones when necessary (e.g., the impact of masculinization/feminization on how one is perceived and its potential impact on relationships with family, friends, and coworkers). If indicated, these providers will make referrals for psychotherapy and for the assessment and treatment of co-existing mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression.
The difference between the Informed Consent Model and SOC, Version 7 is that the SOC puts greater emphasis on the important role that mental health professionals can play in alleviating gender dysphoria and facilitating changes in gender role and psychosocial adjustment. This may include a comprehensive mental health assessment and psychotherapy, when indicated. In the Informed Consent Model, the focus is on obtaining informed consent as the threshold for the initiation of hormone therapy in a multidisciplinary, harm-reduction environment. Less emphasis is placed on the provision of mental health care until the patient requests it, unless significant mental health concerns are identified that would need to be addressed before hormone prescription.
Physical Effects of Hormone Therapy
Feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy will induce physical changes that are more congruent with a patient’s gender identity.
- In FtM patients, the following physical changes are expected to occur: deepened voice, clitoral enlargement (variable), growth in facial and body hair, cessation of menses, atrophy of breast tissue, increased libido, and decreased percentage of body fat compared to muscle mass.
- In MtF patients, the following physical changes are expected to occur: breast growth (vari-able), decreased libido and erections, decreased testicular size, and increased percentage of body fact compared to muscle mass.
Most physical changes, whether feminizing or masculinizing, occur over the course of two years. The amount of physical change and the exact timeline of effects can be highly variable. Tables 1a and 1b outline the approximate time course of these physical changes.
Table 1A: Effects and Expected Time Course of Masculinizing Hormones
|Effect||Expected onset||Expected maximum effect|
|Skin oiliness/acne||1-6 months||1-2 years|
|Facial/body hair growth||3-6 months||3-5 years|
|Scalp hair loss||>12 months||variable|
|Increased muscle mass/strength||6-12 months||2-5 years|
|Body fat redistribution||3-6 months||2-5 years|
|Cessation of menses||2-6 months||n/a|
|Clitoral enlargement||3-6 months||1-2 years|
|Vaginal atrophy||3-6 months||1-2 years|
|Deepened voice||3-12 months||1-2 years|
Table 1A: Effects and Expected Time Course of Feminizing Hormones
|Effect||Expected onset||Expected maximum effect|
|Body fat redistribution||3-6 months||2-5 years|
|Decreased muscle mass/strength||3-6 months||1-2 years|
|Softening of skin/decreased oiliness||3-6 months||unknown|
|Decreased libido||1-3 months||1-2 years|
|Decreased spontaneous erections||1-3 months||3-6 months|
|Male sexual dysfunction||variable||variable|
|Breast growth||3-6 months||2-3 years|
|Decreased testicular volume||3-6 months||2-3 years|
|Decreased sperm production||variable||variable|
|row 3, cell 1Thinning and slowed growth of body and facial hair||row 3, cell 26-12 months||row 3, cell 3> 3 years|
|Male pattern baldness||No regrowth, loss stops 1-3 months||1-2 years|
The degree and rate of physical effects depends in part on the dose, route of administration, and medications used, which are selected in accordance with a patient’s specific medical goals (e.g., changes in gender role expression, plans for sex reassignment) and medical risk profile. There is no current evidence that response to hormone therapy – with the possible exception of voice deepening in FtM persons – can be reliably predicted based on age, body habitus, ethnicity, or family appearance. All other factors being equal, there is no evidence to suggest that any medically approved type or method of administering hormones is more effective than any other in producing the desired physical changes.
Risks of Hormone Therapy
All medical interventions carry risks. The likelihood of a serious adverse event is dependent on numerous factors: the medication itself, dose, route of administration, and a patient’s clinical characteristics (age, co-morbidities, family history, health habits). It is thus impossible to predict whether a given adverse effect will happen in an individual patient.
The risks associated with feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy for the transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming population as a whole are summarized in Table 2. Based on the level of evidence, risks are categorized as follows: (i) likely increased risk with hormone therapy, (ii) possibly increased risk with hormone therapy, or (iii) inconclusive or no increased risk. Items in the last category include those that may present risk, but for which the evidence is so minimal that no clear conclusion can be reached.
Additional detail about these risks can be found in Appendix B, which is based on two comprehensive, evidence-based literature reviews of masculinizing/feminizing hormone therapy (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009), along with a large cohort study (Asscheman et al., 2011). These reviews can serve as detailed references for providers, along with other widely recognized, published clinical materials (Dahl, Feldman, Goldberg, & Jaberi, 2006; Ettner, Monstrey, & Eyler, 2007).
Table 2: Risks Associated with Hormone Therapy. (Bolded items are clinically significant)
|Risk||Feminizing hormones||Masculinizing hormones|
|Likely increased risk|| Venous thromboembolic disease
Elevated liver enzymes
Androgenic alopecia (balding)
|Likely increased risk with presence of additional risk factors||Cardiovascular disease|
|Possible increased risk|| Hypertension
Hyperprolactinemia or prolactinom
| Elevated liver enzymes|
|Possible increased risk with presence of additional risk factors||Type 2 diabetes|| Destabilization of certain psychiatric disorders|
Type 2 diabetes
|No increased risk or inconclusive||Breast cancer|| Loss of bone density|
Competency of Hormone-Prescribing Physicians, Relationship with Other Health Professionals
Feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy is best undertaken in the context of a complete approach to health care that includes comprehensive primary care and a coordinated approach to psychosocial issues (Feldman & Safer, 2009). While psychotherapy or ongoing counseling is not required for the initiation of hormone therapy, if a therapist is involved, then regular communication among health professionals is advised (with the patient’s consent) to ensure that the transition process is going well, both physically and psychosocially.
With appropriate training, feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy can be managed by a variety of providers, including nurse practitioners and primary care physicians (Dahl et al., 2006). Medical visits relating to hormone maintenance provide an opportunity to deliver broader care to a population that is often medically underserved (Clements, Wilkinson, Kitano, & Marx, 1999; Feldman, 2007; Xavier, 2000). Many of the screening tasks and management of co-morbidities associated with long-term hormone use, such as cardiovascular risk factors and cancer screening, fall more uniformly within the scope of primary care rather than specialist care (American Academy of Family Physicians, 2005; Eyler, 2007; World Health Organization, 2008), particularly in locations where dedicated gender teams or specialized physicians are not available.
Given the multidisciplinary needs of transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people seeking hormone therapy, as well as the difficulties associated with fragmentation of care in general (World Health Organization, 2008), WPATH strongly encourages the increased training and involvement of primary care providers in the area of feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy. If hormones are prescribed by a specialist, there should be close communication with the patient’s primary care provider. Conversely, an experienced hormone provider or endocrinologist should be involved if the primary care physician has no experience with this type of hormone therapy, or if the patient has a pre-existing metabolic or endocrine disorder that could be affected by endocrine therapy.
While formal training programs in transgender medicine do not yet exist, hormone providers have a responsibility to obtain appropriate knowledge and experience in this field. Clinicians can increase their experience and comfort in providing feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy by co-managing care or consulting with a more experienced provider, or by providing more limited types of hormone therapy before progressing to initiation of hormone therapy. Because this field of medicine is evolving, clinicians should become familiar and keep current with the medical literature, and discuss emerging issues with colleagues. Such discussions might occur through networks established by WPATH and other national/local organizations.
Responsibilities of Hormone-Prescribing Physicians
In general, clinicians who prescribe hormone therapy should engage in the following tasks:
- Perform an initial evaluation that includes discussion of a patient’s physical transition goals, health history, physical examination, risk assessment, and relevant laboratory tests.
- Discuss with patients the expected effects of feminizing/masculinizing medications and the possible adverse health effects. These effects can include a reduction in fertility (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009). Therefore, reproductive options should be discussed with patients before starting hormone therapy (see section IX).
- Confirm that patients have the capacity to understand the risks and benefits of treatment and are capable of making an informed decision about medical care.
- Provide ongoing medical monitoring, including regular physical and laboratory examination to monitor hormone effectiveness and side effects.
- Communicate as needed with a patient’s primary care provider, mental health professional, and surgeon.
- If needed, provide patients with a brief written statement indicating that they are under medi-cal supervision and care that includes feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy. Particularly during the early phases of hormone treatment, a patient may wish to carry this statement at all times to help prevent difficulties with the police and other authorities.
Depending on the clinical situation for providing hormones (see below), some of these responsibilities are less relevant. Thus, the degree of counseling, physical examinations, and laboratory evaluations should be individualized to a patient’s needs.
Clinical Situations for Hormone Therapy
There are circumstances in which clinicians may be called upon to provide hormones without necessarily initiating or maintaining long-term feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy. By acknowledging these different clinical situations (see below, from least to highest level of complexity), it may be possible to involve clinicians in feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy who might not otherwise feel able to offer this treatment.
1. Bridging Whether prescribed by another clinician or obtained through other means (e.g., purchased over the internet), patients may present for care already on hormone therapy. Clinicians can provide a limited (1-6 month) prescription for hormones while helping patients find a provider who can prescribe long-term hormone therapy. Providers should assess a patient’s current regimen for safety and drug interactions and substitute safer medications or doses when indicated (Dahl et al., 2006; Feldman & Safer, 2009). If hormones were previously prescribed, medical records should be requested (with the patient’s permission) to obtain the results of baseline examinations and laboratory tests and any adverse events. Hormone providers should also communicate with any mental health professional who is currently involved in a patient’s care. If a patient has never had a psychosocial assessment as recommended by the SOC (see section VII), clinicians should refer the patient to a qualified mental health professional if appropriate and feasible (Feldman & Safer, 2009). Providers who prescribe bridging hormones need to work with patients to establish limits as to the duration of bridging therapy.
2. hormone therapy following gonad removal
Hormone replacement with estrogen or testosterone is usually continued lifelong after an oophorectomy or orchiectomy, unless medical contraindications arise. Because hormone doses are often decreased after these surgeries (Basson, 2001; Levy, Crown, & Reid, 2003; Moore, Wisniewski, & Dobs, 2003) and only adjusted for age and co-morbid health concerns, hormone management in this situation is quite similar to hormone replacement in any hypogonadal patient.
3. hormone maintenance prior to gonad removal
Once patients have achieved maximal feminizing/masculinizing benefits from hormones (typically two or more years), they remain on a maintenance dose. The maintenance dose is then adjusted for changes in health conditions, aging, or other considerations such as lifestyle changes (Dahl et al., 2006). When a patient on maintenance hormones presents for care, the provider should assess the patient’s current regimen for safety and drug interactions and substitute safer medications or doses when indicated. The patient should continue to be monitored by physical examinations and laboratory testing on a regular basis, as outlined in the literature (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009). The dose and form of hormones should be revisited regularly with any changes in the patient’s health status and available evidence on the potential long-term risks of hormones (See Hormone Regimens, below).
4. initiating hormonal feminization/masculinization
This clinical situation requires the greatest commitment in terms of provider time and expertise. Hormone therapy must be individualized based on a patient’s goals, the risk/benefit ratio of medications, the presence of other medical conditions, and consideration of social and economic issues. Although a wide variety of hormone regimens have been published (Dahl et al., 2006; Hembree et al., 2009; Moore et al., 2003), there are no published reports of randomized clinical trials comparing safety and efficacy. Despite this variation, a reasonable framework for initial risk assessment and ongoing monitoring of hormone therapy can be constructed, based on the efficacy and safety evidence presented above.
Risk Assessment and Modification for Initiating Hormone Therapy
The initial evaluation for hormone therapy assesses a patient’s clinical goals and risk factors for hormone-related adverse events. During the risk assessment, the patient and clinician should develop a plan for reducing risks wherever possible, either prior to initiating therapy or as part of ongoing harm reduction.
All assessments should include a thorough physical exam, including weight, height, and blood pressure. The need for breast, genital, and rectal exams, which are sensitive issues for most transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming patients, should be based on individual risks and preventive health care needs (Feldman & Goldberg, 2006; Feldman, 2007).
Hormone providers should address preventive health care with patients, particularly if a patient does not have a primary care provider. Depending on a patient’s age and risk profile, there may be appropriate screening tests or exams for conditions affected by hormone therapy. Ideally, these screening tests should be carried out prior to the start of hormone therapy.
Risk assessment and modification for feminizing hormone therapy (MtF)
There are no absolute contraindications to feminizing therapy per se, but absolute contraindications exist for the different feminizing agents, particularly estrogen. These include previous venous thrombotic events related to an underlying hypercoagulable condition, history of estrogen-sensitive neoplasm, and end-stage chronic liver disease (Gharib et al., 2005).
Other medical conditions, as noted in Table 2 and Appendix B, can be exacerbated by estrogen or androgen blockade, and therefore should be evaluated and reasonably well controlled prior to starting hormone therapy (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009). Clinicians should particularly attend to tobacco use, as it is associated with increased risk of venous thrombosis, which is further increased with estrogen use. Consultation with a cardiologist may be advisable for patients with known cardio- or cerebrovascular disease.
Baseline laboratory values are important to both assess initial risk and evaluate possible future adverse events. Initial labs should be based on the risks of feminizing hormone therapy outlined in Table 2, as well as individual patient risk factors, including family history. Suggested initial lab panels have been published (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009). These can be modified for patients or health care systems with limited resources, and in otherwise healthy patients.
Risk assessment and modification for masculinizing hormone therapy (FtM)
Absolute contraindications to testosterone therapy include pregnancy, unstable coronary artery disease, and untreated polycythemia with a hematocrit of 55% or higher (Carnegie, 2004). Because the aromatization of testosterone to estrogen may increase risk in patients with a history of breast or other estrogen dependent cancers (Moore et al., 2003), consultation with an oncologist may be indicated prior to hormone use. Co-morbid conditions likely to be exacerbated by testosterone use should be evaluated and treated, ideally prior to starting hormone therapy (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009). Consultation with a cardiologist may be advisable for patients with known cardio- or cerebrovascular disease.
An increased prevalence of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) has been noted among FtM patients even in the absence of testosterone use (Baba et al., 2007; Balen, Schachter, Montgomery, Reid, & Jacobs, 1993; Bosinski et al., 1997). While there is no evidence that PCOS is related to the development of a transsexual, transgender, or gender nonconforming identity, PCOS is associated with increased risk of diabetes, cardiac disease, high blood pressure, and ovarian and endometrial cancers (Cattrall & Healy, 2004). Signs and symptoms of PCOS should be evaluated prior to initiating testosterone therapy, as testosterone may affect many of these conditions. Testosterone can affect the developing fetus (Physicians’ Desk Reference, 2011), and patients at risk of becoming pregnant require highly effective birth control.
Baseline laboratory values are important to both assess initial risk and evaluate possible future adverse events. Initial labs should be based on the risks of masculinizing hormone therapy outlined in Table 2, as well as individual patient risk factors, including family history. Suggested initial lab panels have been published (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009). These can be modified for patients or health care systems with limited resources, and in otherwise healthy patients.
Clinical Monitoring during Hormone Therapy for Efficacy and Adverse Events
The purpose of clinical monitoring during hormone use is to assess the degree of feminization/masculinization and the possible presence of adverse effects of medication. However, as with the monitoring of any long-term medication, monitoring should take place in the context of comprehensive health care. Suggested clinical monitoring protocols have been published (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009). Patients with co-morbid medical conditions may need to be monitored more frequently. Healthy patients in geographically remote or resource-poor areas may be able to use alternative strategies, such as telehealth, or cooperation with local providers such as nurses and physician assistants. In the absence of other indications, health professionals may prioritize monitoring for those risks that are either likely to be increased by hormone therapy or possibly increased by hormone therapy but clinically serious in nature.
Efficacy and risk monitoring during feminizing hormone therapy (MtF)
The best assessment of hormone efficacy is clinical response: Is a patient developing a feminized body while minimizing masculine characteristics, consistent with that patient’s gender goals? In order to more rapidly predict the hormone dosages that will achieve clinical response, one can measure testosterone levels for suppression below the upper limit of the normal female range, and estradiol levels within a premenopausal female range but well below supraphysiologic levels (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009).
Monitoring for adverse events should include both clinical and laboratory evaluation. Follow-up should include careful assessment for signs of cardiovascular impairment and venous thromboembolism (VTE) through measurement of blood pressure, weight, and pulse; heart and lung exams; and examination of the extremities for peripheral edema, localized swelling, or pain (Feldman & Safer, 2009). Laboratory monitoring should be based on the risks of hormone therapy described above, a patient’s individual co-morbidities and risk factors, and the specific hormone regimen itself. Specific lab monitoring protocols have been published (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009).
Efficacy and risk monitoring during masculinizing hormone therapy (FtM)
The best assessment of hormone efficacy is clinical response: Is a patient developing a masculinized body while minimizing feminine characteristics, consistent with that patient’s gender goals? Clinicians can achieve a good clinical response with the least likelihood of adverse events by maintaining testosterone levels within the normal male range while avoiding supraphysiological levels (Dahl et al., 2006; Hembree et al., 2009). For patients using intramuscular (IM) testosterone cypionate or enanthate, some clinicians check trough levels while others prefer midcycle levels (Dahl et al., 2006; Hembree et al., 2009; Tangpricha, Turner, Malabanan, & Holick, 2001; Tangpricha, Ducharme, Barber, & Chipkin, 2003).
Monitoring for adverse events should include both clinical and laboratory evaluation. Follow-up should include careful assessment for signs and symptoms of excessive weight gain, acne, uterine break-through bleeding, and cardiovascular impairment, as well as psychiatric symptoms in at-risk patients. Physical examinations should include measurement of pressure, weight, pulse, and skin; and heart and lung exams (Feldman & Safer, 2009). Laboratory monitoring should be based on the risks of hormone therapy described above, a patient’s individual co-morbidities and risk factors, and the specific hormone regimen itself. Specific lab monitoring protocols have been published (Feldman & Safer, 2009; Hembree et al., 2009).
To date, no controlled clinical trials of any feminizing/masculinizing hormone regimen have been conducted to evaluate safety or efficacy in producing physical transition. As a result, wide variation in doses and types of hormones have been published in the medical literature (Moore et al., 2003; Tangpricha et al., 2003; van Kesteren, Asscheman, Megens, & Gooren, 1997). In addition, access to particular medications may be limited by a patient’s geographical location and/or social or econonomic situations. For these reasons, WPATH does not describe or endorse a particular feminizing/masculinizing hormone regimen. Rather, the medication classes and routes of administration used in most published regimens are broadly reviewed.
As outlined above, there are demonstrated safety differences in individual elements of various regimens. The Endocrine Society Guidelines (Hembree et al., 2009) and Feldman and Safer (2009) provide specific guidance regarding the types of hormones and suggested dosing to maintain levels within physiologic ranges for a patient’s desired gender expression (based on goals of full feminization/masculinization). It is strongly recommend that hormone providers regularly review the literature for new information and use those medications that safely meet individual patient needs with available local resources.
Regimens for feminizing hormone therapy (MtF)
Use of oral estrogen, and specifically ethinyl estradiol, appears to increase the risk of VTE. Because of this safety concern, ethinyl estradiol is not recommended for feminizing hormone therapy. Transdermal estrogen is recommended for those patients with risks factors for VTE. The risk of adverse events increases with higher doses, particular those resulting in supraphysiologic levels (Hembree et al., 2009). Patients with co-morbid conditions that can be affected by estrogen should avoid oral estrogen if possible and be started at lower levels. Some patients may not be able to safely use the levels of estrogen needed to get the desired results. This possibility needs to be discussed with patients well in advance of starting hormone therapy.
Androgen reducing medications (“anti-androgens”)
A combination of estrogen and “anti-androgens” is the most commonly studied regimen for feminization. Androgen reducing medications, from a variety of classes of drugs, have the effect of reducing either endogenous testosterone levels or testosterone activity, and thus diminishing masculine characteristics such as body hair. They minimize the dosage of estrogen needed to suppress testosterone, thereby reducing the risks associated with high-dose exogenous estrogen (Prior, Vigna, Watson, Diewold, & Robinow, 1986; Prior, Vigna, & Watson, 1989).
Common anti-androgens include the following:
- Spironolactone, an antihypertensive agent, directly inhibits testosterone secretion and andro-gen binding to the androgen receptor. Blood pressure and electrolytes need to be monitored because of the potential for hyperkalemia.
- Cyproterone acetate is a progestational compound with anti-androgenic properties. This medication is not approved in the United States because of concerns over potential hepato-toxicity, but it is widely used elsewhere (De Cuypere et al., 2005).
- GnRH agonists (e.g., goserelin, buserelin, triptorelin) are neurohormones that block the gonadtropin releasing hormone receptor, thus blocking the release of follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone. This leads to highly effective gonadal blockade. However, these medications are expensive and only available as injectables or implants.
- 5-alpha reductase inhibitors (finasteride and dutasteride) block the conversion of testoster-one to the more active agent, 5-alpha-dihydrotestosterone. These medications have beneficial effects on scalp hair loss, body hair growth, sebaceous glands, and skin consistency.
Cyproterone and spironolactone are the most commonly used anti-androgens and are likely the most cost-effective.
With the exception of cyproterone, the inclusion of progestins in feminizing hormone therapy is controversial (Oriel, 2000). Because progestins play a role in mammary development on a cellular level, some clinicians believe that these agents are necessary for full breast development (Basson & Prior, 1998; Oriel, 2000). However, a clinical comparison of feminization regimens with and without progestins found that the addition of progestins neither enhanced breast growth nor lowered serum levels of free testosterone (Meyer III et al., 1986). There are concerns regarding potential adverse effects of progestins, including depression, weight gain, and lipid changes (Meyer III et al., 1986; Tangpricha et al., 2003). Progestins (especially medroxyprogesterone) are also suspected to increase breast cancer risk and cardiovascular risk in women (Rossouw et al., 2002). Micronized progesterone may be better tolerated and have a more favorable impact on the lipid profile than medroxyprogesterone does (de Lignières, 1999; Fitzpatrick, Pace, & Wiita, 2000).
Regimens for masculinizing hormone therapy (FtM)
Testosterone generally can be given orally, transdermally, or parenterally (IM), although buccal and implantable preparations are also available. Oral testosterone undecenoate, available outside the United States, results in lower serum testosterone levels than non-oral preparations and has limited efficacy in suppressing menses (Feldman, 2005, April; Moore et al., 2003). Because intramuscular testosterone cypionate or enanthate are often administered every 2-4 weeks, some patients may notice cyclic variation in effects (e.g., fatigue and irritability at the end of the injection cycle, aggression or expansive mood at the beginning of the injection cycle), as well as more time outside the normal physiologic levels (Jockenhövel, 2004). This may be mitigated by using a lower but more frequent dosage schedule or by using a daily transdermal preparation (Dobs et al., 1999; Jockenhövel, 2004; Nieschlag et al., 2004). Intramuscular testosterone undecenoate (not currently available in the United States) maintains stable, physiologic testosterone levels over approximately 12 weeks and has been effective in both the setting of hypogonadism and in FtM individuals (Mueller, Kiesewetter, Binder, Beckmann, & Dittrich, 2007; Zitzmann, Saad, & Nieschlag, 2006). There is evidence that transdermal and intramuscular testosterone achieve similar masculinizing results, although the timeframe may be somewhat slower with transdermal preparations (Feldman, 2005, April). Especially as patients age, the goal is to use the lowest dose needed to maintain the desired clinical result, with appropriate precautions being made to maintain bone density.
Progestins, most commonly medroxyprogesterone, can be used for a short period of time to assist with menstrual cessation early in hormone therapy. GnRH agonists can be used similarly, as well as for refractory uterine bleeding in patients without an underlying gynecological abnormality.
Bioidentical and compounded hormones
As discussion surrounding the use of bioidentical hormones in postmenopausal hormone replacement has heightened, interest has also increased in the use of similar compounds in feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy. There is no evidence that custom compounded bioidentical hormones are safer or more effective than government agency-approved bioidentical hormones (Sood, Shuster, Smith, Vincent, & Jatoi, 2011). Therefore, it has been advised by the North American Menopause Society (2010) and others to assume that, whether the hormone is from a compounding pharmacy or not, if the active ingredients are similar, it should have a similar side-effect profile. WPATH concurs with this assessment.
Many transgender, transsexual, and gender nonconforming people will want to have children. Because feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy limits fertility (Darney, 2008; Zhang, Gu, Wang, Cui, & Bremner, 1999), it is desirable for patients to make decisions concerning fertility before starting hormone therapy or undergoing surgery to remove/alter their reproductive organs. Cases are known of people who received hormone therapy and genital surgery and later regretted their inability to parent genetically related children (De Sutter, Kira, Verschoor, & Hotimsky, 2002).
Health care professionals – including mental health professionals recommending hormone therapy or surgery, hormone-prescribing physicians, and surgeons – should discuss reproductive options with patients prior to initiation of these medical treatments for gender dysphoria. These discussions should occur even if patients are not interested in these issues at the time of treatment, which may be more common for younger patients (De Sutter, 2009). Early discussions are desirable, but not always possible. If an individual has not had complete sex reassignment surgery, it may be possible to stop hormones long enough for natal hormones to recover, allowing the production of mature gametes (Payer, Meyer III, & Walker, 1979; Van den Broecke, Van der Elst, Liu, Hovatta, & Dhont, 2001).
Besides debate and opinion papers, very few research papers have been published on the reproductive health issues of individuals receiving different medical treatments for gender dysphoria. Another group who faces the need to preserve reproductive function in light of loss or damage to their gonads are people with malignances that require removal of reproductive organs or use of damaging radiation or chemotherapy. Lessons learned from that group can be applied to people treated for gender dysphoria.
MtF patients, especially those who have not already reproduced, should be informed about sperm preservation options and encouraged to consider banking their sperm prior to hormone therapy. In a study examining testes that were exposed to high-dose estrogen (Payer et al., 1979), findings suggest that stopping estrogen may allow the testes to recover. In an article reporting on the opinions of MtF individuals towards sperm freezing (De Sutter et al., 2002), the vast majority of 121 survey respondents felt that the availability of freezing sperm should be discussed and offered by the medical world. Sperm should be collected before hormone therapy or after stopping the therapy until the sperm count rises again. Cryopreservation should be discussed even if there is poor semen quality. In adults with azoospermia, a testicular biopsy with subsequent cryopreservation of biopsied material for sperm is possible, but may not be successful.
Reproductive options for FtM patients might include oocyte (egg) or embryo freezing. The frozen gametes and embryo could later be used with a surrogate woman to carry to pregnancy. Studies of women with polycystic ovarian disease suggest that the ovary can recover in part from the effects of high testosterone levels (Hunter & Sterrett, 2000). Stopping the testosterone briefly might allow for ovaries to recover enough to make eggs; success likely depends on the patient’s age and duration of testosterone treatment. While not systematically studied, some FtM individuals are doing exactly that, and some have been able to become pregnant and deliver children (More, 1998).
Patients should be advised that these techniques are not available everywhere and can be very costly. Transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people should not be refused reproductive options for any reason.
A special group of individuals are prepubertal or pubertal adolescents who will never develop reproductive function in their natal sex due to blockers or cross gender hormones. At this time there is no technique for preserving function from the gonads of these individuals.
Voice and Communication therapy
Communication, both verbal and nonverbal, is an important aspect of human behavior and gender expression. Transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people might seek the assistance of a voice and communication specialist to develop vocal characteristics (e.g., pitch, intonation, resonance, speech rate, phrasing patterns) and non-verbal communication patterns (e.g., gestures, posture/movement, facial expressions) that facilitate comfort with their gender identity. Voice and communication therapy may help to alleviate gender dysphoria and be a positive and motivating step towards achieving one’s goals for gender role expression.
Competency of Voice and Communication Specialists Working with Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming Clients
Specialists may include speech-language pathologists, speech therapists, and speech-voice clinicians. In most countries the professional association for speech-language pathologists requires specific qualifications and credentials for membership. In some countries the government regulates practice through licensing, certification, or registration processes (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2011; Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists; Royal College of Speech Therapists, United Kingdom; Speech Pathology Australia; Vancouver Coastal Health, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada).
The following are recommended minimum credentials for voice and communication specialists working with transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming clients:
- Specialized training and competence in the assessment and development of communication skills in transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming clients.
- A basic understanding of transgender health, including hormonal and surgical treatments for feminization/masculinization and trans-specific psychosocial issues as outlined in the SOC; and familiarity with basic sensitivity protocols such as the use of preferred gender pronoun and name (Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists; Royal College of Speech Therapists, United Kingdom; Speech Pathology Australia).
- Continuing education in the assessment and development of communication skills in trans-sexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming clients. This may include attendance at professional meetings, workshops, or seminars; participation in research related to gender identity issues; independent study; or mentoring from an experienced, certified clinician.
Other professionals such as vocal coaches, theatre professionals, singing teachers, and movement experts may play a valuable adjunct role. Such professionals will ideally have experience working with, or be actively collaborating with, speech-language pathologists.
Assessment and Treatment Considerations
The overall purpose of voice and communication therapy is to help clients adapt their voice and communication in a way that is both safe and authentic, resulting in communication patterns that clients feel are congruent with their gender identity and that reflect their sense of self (Adler, Hirsch, & Mordaunt, 2006). It is essential that voice and communication specialists be sensitive to individual communication preferences. Communication – style, voice, choice of language, etc. – is personal. Individuals should not be counseled to adopt behaviors with which they are not comfortable or which do not feel authentic. Specialists can best serve their clients by taking the time to understand a person’s gender concerns and goals for gender role expression (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2011; Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists; Royal College of Speech Therapists, United Kingdom; Speech Pathology Australia).
Individuals may choose the communication behaviors that they wish to acquire in accordance with their gender identity. These decisions are also informed and supported by the knowledge of the voice and communication specialist and by the assessment data for a specific client (Hancock, Krissinger, & Owen, 2010). Assessment includes a client’s self-evaluation and a specialist’s evaluation of voice, resonance, articulation, spoken language, and non-verbal communication (Adler et al., 2006; Hancock et al., 2010).
Voice and communication treatment plans are developed by considering the available research evidence, the clinical knowledge and experience of the specialist, and the client’s own goals and values (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2011; Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists; Royal College of Speech Therapists, United Kingdom; Speech Pathology Australia; Vancouver Coastal Health, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada). Targets of treatment typically include pitch, intonation, loudness and stress patterns, voice quality, resonance, articulation, speech rate and phrasing, language, and non-verbal communication (Adler et al., 2006; Davies & Goldberg, 2006; de Bruin, Coerts, & Greven, 2000; Gelfer, 1999; McNeill, 2006; Oates & Dacakis, 1983). Treatment may involve individual and/or group sessions. The frequency and duration of treatment will vary according to a client’s needs. Existing protocols for voice and communication treatment can be considered in developing an individualized therapy plan (Carew, Dacakis, & Oates, 2007; Dacakis, 2000; Davies & Goldberg, 2006; Gelfer, 1999; McNeill, Wilson, Clark, & Deakin, 2008; Mount & Salmon, 1988).
Feminizing or masculinizing the voice involves non-habitual use of the voice production mechanism. Prevention measures are necessary to avoid the possibility of vocal misuse and long-term vocal damage. All voice and communication therapy services should therefore include a vocal health component (Adler et al., 2006).
Vocal Health Considerations after Voice Feminization Surgery
As noted in section XI, some transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people will undergo voice feminization surgery. (Voice deepening can be achieved through masculinizing hormone therapy, but feminizing hormones do not have an impact on the adult MtF voice.) There are varying degrees of satisfaction, safety, and long-term improvement in patients who have had such surgery. It is recommended that individuals undergoing voice feminization surgery also consult a voice and communication specialist to maximize the surgical outcome, help protect vocal health, and learn non-pitch related aspects of communication. Voice surgery procedures should include follow-up sessions with a voice and communication specialist who is licensed and/or credentialed by the board responsible for speech therapists/speech-language pathologists in that country (Kanagalingam et al., 2005; Neumann & Welzel, 2004).
Sex Reassignment Surgery Is Effective and Medically Necessary
Surgery – particularly genital surgery – is often the last and the most considered step in the treatment process for gender dysphoria. While many transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals find comfort with their gender identity, role, and expression without surgery, for many others surgery is essential and medically necessary to alleviate their gender dysphoria (Hage & Karim, 2000). For the latter group, relief from gender dysphoria cannot be achieved without modification of their primary and/or secondary sex characteristics to establish greater congruence with their gender identity. Moreover, surgery can help patients feel more at ease in the presence of sex partners or in venues such as physicians’ offices, swimming pools, or health clubs. In some settings, surgery might reduce risk of harm in the event of arrest or search by police or other authorities.
Follow-up studies have shown an undeniable beneficial effect of sex reassignment surgery on postoperative outcomes such as subjective well being, cosmesis, and sexual function (De Cuypere et al., 2005; Gijs & Brewaeys, 2007; Klein & Gorzalka, 2009; Pfäfflin & Junge, 1998). Additional information on the outcomes of surgical treatments are summarized in Appendix D.
Ethical Questions Regarding Sex Reassignment Surgery
In ordinary surgical practice, pathological tissues are removed to restore disturbed functions, or alterations are made to body features to improve a patient’s self image. Some people, including some health professionals, object on ethical grounds to surgery as a treatment for gender dysphoria, because these conditions are thought not to apply.
It is important that health professionals caring for patients with gender dysphoria feel comfortable about altering anatomically normal structures. In order to understand how surgery can alleviate the psychological discomfort and distress of individuals with gender dysphoria, professionals need to listen to these patients discuss their symptoms, dilemmas, and life histories. The resistance against performing surgery on the ethical basis of “above all do no harm” should be respected, discussed, and met with the opportunity to learn from patients themselves about the psychological distress of having gender dysphoria and the potential for harm caused by denying access to appropriate treatments.
Genital and breast/chest surgical treatments for gender dysphoria are not merely another set of elective procedures. Typical elective procedures involve only a private mutually consenting contract between a patient and a surgeon. Genital and breast/chest surgeries as medically necessary treatments for gender dysphoria are to be undertaken only after assessment of the patient by qualified mental health professionals, as outlined in section VII of the SOC. These surgeries may be performed once there is written documentation that this assessment has occurred and that the person has met the criteria for a specific surgical treatment. By following this procedure, mental health professionals, surgeons, and of course patients, share responsibility for the decision to make irreversible changes to the body.
It is unethical to deny availability or eligibility for sex reassignment surgeries solely on the basis of blood seropositivity for blood-borne infections such as HIV or hepatitis C or B.
Relationship of Surgeons with Mental Health Professionals, Hormone-Prescribing Physicians (if Applicable), and Patients (Informed Consent)
The role of a surgeon in the treatment of gender dysphoria is not that of a mere technician. Rather, conscientious surgeons will have insight into each patient’s history and the rationale that led to the referral for surgery. To that end, surgeons must talk at length with their patients and have close working relationships with other health professionals who have been actively involved in their clinical care.
Consultation is readily accomplished when a surgeon practices as part of an interdisciplinary health care team. In the absence of this, a surgeon must be confident that the referring mental health professional(s), and if applicable the physician who prescribes hormones, are competent in the assessment and treatment of gender dysphoria, because the surgeon is relying heavily on their expertise.
Once a surgeon is satisfied that the criteria for specific surgeries have been met (as outlined below), surgical treatment should be considered and a preoperative surgical consultation should take place. During this consultation, the procedure and postoperative course should be extensively discussed with the patient. Surgeons are responsible for discussing all of the following with patients seeking surgical treatments for gender dysphoria:
- The different surgical techniques available (with referral to colleagues who provide alternative options);
- The advantages and disadvantages of each technique;
- The limitations of a procedure to achieve “ideal” results; surgeons should provide a full range of before-and-after photographs of their own patients, including both successful and unsuccessful outcomes;
- The inherent risks and possible complications of the various techniques; surgeons should inform patients of their own complication rates with each procedure.
These discussions are the core of the informed consent process, which is both an ethical and legal requirement for any surgical procedure. Ensuring that patients have a realistic expectation of outcomes is important in achieving a result that will alleviate their gender dysphoria.
All of this information should be provided to patients in writing, in a language in which they are fluent, and in graphic illustrations. Patients should receive the information in advance (possibly via the internet) and given ample time to review it carefully. The elements of informed consent should always be discussed face-to-face prior to the surgical intervention. Questions can then be answered and written informed consent can be provided by the patient. Because these surgeries are irreversibile, care should be taken to ensure that patients have sufficient time to absorb information fully before they are asked to provide informed consent. A minimum of 24 hours is suggested.
Surgeons should provide immediate aftercare and consultation with other physicians serving the patient in the future. Patients should work with their surgeon to develop an adequate aftercare plan for the surgery.
Overview of Surgical Procedures for the Treatment of Patients with Gender Dysphoria
For the male-to-female (MtF) patient, surgical procedures may include the following:
- Breast/chest surgery: augmentation mammoplasty (implants/lipofilling);
- Genital surgery: penectomy, orchiectomy, vaginoplasty, clitoroplasty, vulvoplasty;
- Non-genital, non-breast surgical interventions: facial feminization surgery, liposuction, lipofilling, voice surgery, thyroid cartilage reduction, gluteal augmentation (implants/lipofilling), hair reconstruction, and various aesthetic procedures.
For the female-to-male (FtM) patient, surgical procedures may include the following:
- Breast/chest surgery: subcutaneous mastectomy, creation of a male chest;
- Genital surgery: hysterectomy/ovariectomy, reconstruction of the fixed part of the urethra, which can be combined with a metoidioplasty or with a phalloplasty (employing a pedicled or free vascularized flap), vaginectomy, scrotoplasty, and implantation of erection and/or testicular prostheses;
- Non-genital, non-breast surgical interventions: voice surgery (rare), liposuction, lipofilling, pectoral implants, and various aesthetic procedures.
Reconstructive Versus Aesthetic Surgery
The question of whether sex reassignment surgery should be considered “aesthetic” surgery or “reconstructive” surgery is pertinent not only from a philosophical point of view, but also from a financial point of view. Aesthetic or cosmetic surgery is mostly regarded as not medically necessary and therefore is typically paid for entirely by the patient. In contrast, reconstructive procedures are considered medically necessary – with unquestionable therapeutic results – and thus paid for partially or entirely by national health systems or insurance companies.
Unfortunately, in the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery (both in general and specifically for gender-related surgeries), there is no clear distinction between what is purely reconstructive and what is purely cosmetic. Most plastic surgery procedures actually are a mixture of both reconstructive and cosmetic components.
While most professionals agree that genital surgery and mastectomy cannot be considered purely cosmetic, opinions diverge as to what degree other surgical procedures (e.g., breast augmentation, facial feminization surgery) can be considered purely reconstructive. Although it may be much easier to see a phalloplasty or a vaginoplasty as an intervention to end lifelong suffering, for certain patients an intervention like a reduction rhinoplasty can have a radical and permanent effect on their quality of life, and therefore is much more medically necessary than for somebody without gender dysphoria.
Criteria for Surgeries
As for all of the SOC, the criteria for initiation of surgical treatments for gender dysphoria were developed to promote optimal patient care. While the SOC allow for an individualized approach to best meet a patient’s health care needs, a criterion for all breast/chest and genital surgeries is documentation of persistent gender dysphoria by a qualified mental health professional. For some surgeries, additional criteria include preparation and treatment consisting of feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy and one year of continuous living in a gender role that is congruent with one’s gender identity.
These criteria are outlined below. Based on the available evidence and expert clinical consensus, different recommendations are made for different surgeries.
The SOC do not specify an order in which different surgeries should occur. The number and sequence of surgical procedures may vary from patient to patient, according to their clinical needs.
Criteria for breast/chest surgery (one referral)
Criteria for mastectomy and creation of a male chest in FtM patients:
- Persistent, well-documented gender dysphoria;
- Capacity to make a fully informed decision and to consent for treatment;
- Age of majority in a given country (if younger, follow the SOC for children and adolescents);
- If significant medical or mental health concerns are present, they must be reasonably well controlled.
Hormone therapy is not a pre-requisite.
Criteria for breast augmentation (implants/lipofilling) in MtF patients:
- Persistent, well-documented gender dysphoria;
- Capacity to make a fully informed decision and to consent for treatment;
- Age of majority in a given country (if younger, follow the SOC for children and adolescents);
- If significant medical or mental health concerns are present, they must be reasonably well controlled.
Although not an explicit criterion, it is recommended that MtF patients undergo feminizing hormone therapy (minimum 12 months) prior to breast augmentation surgery. The purpose is to maximize breast growth in order to obtain better surgical (aesthetic) results.
Criteria for genital surgery (two referrals)
The criteria for genital surgery are specific to the type of surgery being requested.
Criteria for hysterectomy and ovariectomy in FtM patients and for orchiectomy in MtF patients:
- Persistent, well documented gender dysphoria;
- Capacity to make a fully informed decision and to consent for treatment;
- Age of majority in a given country;
- If significant medical or mental health concerns are present, they must be well controlled.
- 12 continuous months of hormone therapy as appropriate to the patient’s gender goals (unless the patient has a medical contraindication or is otherwise unable or unwilling to take hormones).
The aim of hormone therapy prior to gonadectomy is primarily to introduce a period of reversible estrogen or testosterone suppression, before the patient undergoes irreversible surgical intervention.
These criteria do not apply to patients who are having these procedures for medical indications other than gender dysphoria.
Criteria for metoidioplasty or phalloplasty in FtM patients and for vaginoplasty in MtF patients:
- Persistent, well documented gender dysphoria;
- Capacity to make a fully informed decision and to consent for treatment;
- Age of majority in a given country;
- If significant medical or mental health concerns are present, they must be well controlled;
- 12 continuous months of hormone therapy as appropriate to the patient’s gender goals (un-less the patient has a medical contraindication or is otherwise unable or unwilling to take hormones).
- 12 continuous months of living in a gender role that is congruent with their gender identity;
Although not an explicit criterion, it is recommended that these patients also have regular visits with a mental health or other medical professional.
Rationale for a preoperative, 12-month experience of living in an identity-congruent gender role:
The criterion noted above for some types of genital surgeries – i.e., that patients engage in 12 continuous months of living in a gender role that is congruent with their gender identity – is based on expert clinical consensus that this experience provides ample opportunity for patients to experience and socially adjust in their desired gender role, before undergoing irreversible surgery. As noted in section VII, the social aspects of changing one’s gender role are usually challenging – often more so than the physical aspects. Changing gender role can have profound personal and social consequences, and the decision to do so should include an awareness of what the familial, interpersonal, educational, vocational, economic, and legal challenges are likely to be, so that people can function successfully in their gender role. Support from a qualified mental health professional and from peers can be invaluable in ensuring a successful gender role adaptation (Bockting, 2008).
The duration of 12 months allows for a range of different life experiences and events that may occur throughout the year (e.g., family events, holidays, vacations, season-specific work or school experiences). During this time, patients should present consistently, on a day-to-day basis and across all settings of life, in their desired gender role. This includes coming out to partners, family, friends, and community members (e.g., at school, work, other settings).
Health professionals should clearly document a patient’s experience in the gender role in the medical chart, including the start date of living full time for those who are preparing for genital surgery. In some situations, if needed, health professionals may request verification that this criterion has been fulfilled: They may communicate with individuals who have related to the patient in an identity-congruent gender role, or request documentation of a legal name and/or gender marker change, if applicable.
Surgery for Persons with Psychotic Conditions and Other Serious Mental Illnesses
When patients with gender dysphoria are also diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders and impaired reality testing (e.g., psychotic episodes, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, borderline personality disorder), an effort must be made to improve these conditions with psychotropic medications and/or psychotherapy before surgery is contemplated. Reevaluation by a mental health professional qualified to assess and manage psychotic conditions should be conducted prior to surgery, describing the patient’s mental status and readiness for surgery. It is preferable that this mental health professional be familiar with the patient. No surgery should be performed while a patient is actively psychotic (De Cuypere & Vercruysse, 2009).
Competency of Surgeons Performing Breast/Chest or Genital Surgery
Physicians who perform surgical treatments for gender dsyphoria should be urologists, gynecologists, plastic surgeons, or general surgeons, and board-certified as such by the relevant national and/or regional association. Surgeons should have specialized competence in genital reconstructive techniques as indicated by documented supervised training with a more experienced surgeon. Even experienced surgeons must be willing to have their surgical skills reviewed by their peers. An official audit of surgical outcomes and publication of these results would be greatly reassuring to both referring health professionals and patients. Surgeons should regularly attend professional meetings where new techniques are presented. The internet is often effectively used by patients to share information on their experience with surgeons and their teams.
Ideally, surgeons should be knowledgeable about more than one surgical technique for genital reconstruction so that they, in consultation with patients, can choose the ideal technique for each individual. Alternatively, if a surgeon is skilled in a single technique and this procedure is either not suitable for or desired by a patient, the surgeon should inform the patient about other procedures and offer referral to another appropriately skilled surgeon.
Breast/Chest Surgery Techniques and Complications
Although breast/chest appearance is an important secondary sex characteristic, breast presence or size is not involved in the legal definitions of sex and gender and is not necessary for reproduction. The performance of breast/chest operations for treatment of gender dysphoria should be considered with the same care as beginning hormone therapy, as both produce relatively irreversible changes to the body.
For the MtF patient, a breast augmentation (sometimes called “chest reconstruction”) is not different from the procedure in a natal female patient. It is usually performed through implantation of breast prostheses and occasionally with the lipofilling technique. Infections and capsular fibrosis are rare complications of augmentation mammoplasty in MtF patients (Kanhai, Hage, Karim, & Mulder, 1999).
For the FtM patient, a mastectomy or “male chest contouring” procedure is available. For many FtM patients, this is the only surgery undertaken. When the amount of breast tissue removed requires skin removal, a scar will result and the patient should be so informed. Complications of subcutaneous mastectomy can include nipple necrosis, contour irregularities, and unsightly scarring (Monstrey et al., 2008).
Genital Surgery Techniques and Complications
Genital surgical procedures for the MtF patient may include orchiectomy, penectomy, vaginoplasty, clitoroplasty, and labiaplasty. Techniques include penile skin inversion, pedicled colosigmoid transplant, and free skin grafts to line the neovagina. Sexual sensation is an important objective in vaginoplasty, along with creation of a functional vagina and acceptable cosmesis.
Surgical complications of MtF genital surgery may include complete or partial necrosis of the vagina and labia, fistulas from the bladder or bowel into the vagina, stenosis of the urethra, and vaginas that are either too short or too small for coitus. While the surgical techniques for creating a neovagina are functionally and aesthetically excellent, anorgasmia following the procedure has been reported, and a second stage labiaplasty may be needed for cosmesis (Klein & Gorzalka, 2009; Lawrence, 2006).
Genital surgical procedures for FtM patients may include hysterectomy, ovariectomy (salpingo-oophorectomy), vaginectomy, metoidioplasty, scrotoplasty, urethroplasty, placement of testicular prostheses, and phalloplasty. For patients without former abdominal surgery, the laparoscopic technique for hysterectomy and salpingo-oophorectomy is recommended to avoid a lower-abdominal scar. Vaginal access may be difficult as most patients are nulliparous and have often not experienced penetrative intercourse. Current operative techniques for phalloplasty are varied. The choice of techniques may be restricted by anatomical or surgical considerations and by a client’s financial considerations. If the objectives of phalloplasty are a neophallus of good appearance, standing micturition, sexual sensation, and/or coital ability, patients should be clearly informed that there are several separate stages of surgery and frequent technical difficulties, which may require additional operations. Even metoidioplasty, which in theory is a one-stage procedure for construction of a microphallus, often requires more than one operation. The objective of standing micturition with this technique can not always be ensured (Monstrey et al., 2009).
Complications of phalloplasty in FtMs may include frequent urinary tract stenoses and fistulas, and occasionally necrosis of the neophallus. Metoidioplasty results in a micropenis, without the capacity for standing urination. Phalloplasty, using a pedicled or a free vascularized flap, is a lengthy, multi-stage procedure with significant morbidity that includes frequent urinary complications and unavoidable donor site scarring. For this reason, many FtM patients never undergo genital surgery other than hysterectomy and salpingo-oophorectomy (Hage & De Graaf, 1993).
Even patients who develop severe surgical complications seldom regret having undergone surgery. The importance of surgery can be appreciated by the repeated finding that quality of surgical results is one of the best predictors of the overall outcome of sex reassignment (Lawrence, 2006).
Other surgeries for assisting in body feminization include reduction thyroid chondroplasty (reduction of the Adam’s apple), voice modification surgery, suction-assisted lipoplasty (contour modeling) of the waist, rhinoplasty (nose correction), facial bone reduction, face-lift, and blepharoplasty (rejuvenation of the eyelid). Other surgeries for assisting in body masculinization include liposuction, lipofilling, and pectoral implants. Voice surgery to obtain a deeper voice is rare but may be recommended in some cases, such as when hormone therapy has been ineffective.
Although these surgeries do not require referral by mental health professionals, such professionals can play an important role in assisting clients in making a fully informed decision about the timing and implications of such procedures in the context of the social transition.
Although most of these procedures are generally labeled “purely aesthetic,” these same operations in an individual with severe gender dysphoria can be considered medically necessary, depending on the unique clinical situation of a given patient’s condition and life situation. This ambiguity reflects reality in clinical situations, and allows for individual decisions as to the need and desirability of these procedures.
Postoperative Care and Follow-up
Long-term postoperative care and follow-up after surgical treatments for gender dysphoria are associated with good surgical and psychosocial outcomes (Monstrey et al., 2009). Follow-up is important to a patient’s subsequent physical and mental health and to a surgeon’s knowledge about the benefits and limitations of surgery. Surgeons who operate on patients coming from long distances should include personal follow-up in their care plan and attempt to ensure affordable local long-term aftercare in their patients’ geographic region.
Postoperative patients may sometimes exclude themselves from follow-up by specialty providers, including the hormone-prescribing physician (for patients receiving hormones), not recognizing that these providers are often best able to prevent, diagnose, and treat medical conditions that are unique to hormonally and surgically treated patients. The need for follow-up equally extends to mental health professionals, who may have spent a longer period of time with the patient than any other professional and therefore are in an excellent position to assist in any postoperative adjustment difficulties. Health professionals should stress the importance of postoperative follow-up care with their patients and offer continuity of care.
Postoperative patients should undergo regular medical screening according to recommended guidelines for their age. This is discussed more in the next section.
Lifelong Preventive and Primary Care
Transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people need health care throughout their lives. For example, to avoid the negative secondary effects of having a gonadectomy at a relatively young age and/or receiving long-term, high-dose hormone therapy, patients need thorough medical care by providers experienced in primary care and transgender health. If one provider is not able to provide all services, ongoing communication among providers is essential.
Primary care and health maintenance issues should be addressed before, during, and after any possible changes in gender role and medical interventions to alleviate gender dysphoria. While hormone providers and surgeons play important roles in preventive care, every transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming person should partner with a primary care provider for overall health care needs (Feldman, 2007).
General Preventive Health Care
Screening guidelines developed for the general population are appropriate for organ systems that are unlikely to be affected by feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy. However, in areas such as cardiovascular risk factors, osteoporosis, and some cancers (breast, cervical, ovarian, uterine, and prostate), such general guidelines may either over- or underestimate the cost-effectiveness of screening individuals who are receiving hormone therapy.
Several resources provide detailed protocols for the primary care of patients undergoing feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy, including therapy that is provided after sex reassignment surgeries (Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, UCSF, 2011; Feldman & Goldberg, 2006; Feldman, 2007; Gorton, Buth, & Spade, 2005). Clinicians should consult their national evidence-based guidelines and discuss screening with their patients in light of the effects of hormone therapy on their baseline risk.
Cancer screening of organ systems that are associated with sex can present particular medical and psychosocial challenges for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming patients and their health care providers. In the absence of large-scale prospective studies, providers are unlikely to have enough evidence to determine the appropriate type and frequency of cancer screenings for this population. Over-screening results in higher health care costs, high false positive rates, and often unnecessary exposure to radiation and/or diagnostic interventions such as biopsies. Under-screening results in diagnostic delay for potentially treatable cancers. Patients may find cancer screening gender affirming (such as mammograms for MtF patients) or both physically and emotionally painful (such as Pap smears offer continuity of care for FtM patients).
Gynecologic care may be necessary for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people of both sexes. For FtM patients, such care is needed predominantly for individuals who have not had genital surgery. For MtF patients, such care is needed after genital surgery. While many surgeons counsel patients regarding postoperative urogenital care, primary care clinicians and gynecologists should also be familiar with the special genital concerns of this population.
All MtF patients should receive counseling regarding genital hygiene, sexuality, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections; those who have had genital surgery should also be counseled on the need for regular vaginal dilation or penetrative intercourse in order to maintain vaginal depth and width (van Trotsenburg, 2009). Due to the anatomy of the male pelvis, the axis and the dimensions of the neovagina differ substantially from those of a biologic vagina. This anatomic difference can affect intercourse if not understood by MtF patients and their partners (van Trotsenburg, 2009).
Lower urinary tract infections occur frequently in MtF patients who have had surgery because of the reconstructive requirements of the shortened urethra. In addition, these patients may suffer from functional disorders of the lower urinary tract; such disorders may be caused by damage of the autonomous nerve supply of the bladder floor during dissection between the rectum and the bladder, and by a change of the position of the bladder itself. A dysfunctional bladder (e.g., overactive bladder, stress or urge urinary incontinence) may occur after sex reassignment surgery (Hoebeke et al., 2005; Kuhn, Hiltebrand, & Birkhauser, 2007).
Most FtM patients do not undergo vaginectomy (colpectomy). For patients who take masculinizing hormones, despite considerable conversion of testosterone to estrogens, atrophic changes of the vaginal lining can be observed regularly and may lead to pruritus or burning. Examination can be both physically and emotionally painful, but lack of treatment can seriously aggravate the situation. Gynecologists treating the genital complaints of FtM patients should be aware of the sensitivity that patients with a male gender identity and masculine gender expression might have around having genitals typically associated with the female sex.
Applicability of the standards of Care to People living in institutional environments
The SOC in their entirety apply to all transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, irrespective of their housing situation. People should not be discriminated against in their access to appropriate health care based on where they live, including institutional environments such as prisons or long-/intermediate-term health care facilities (Brown, 2009). Health care for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people living in an institutional environment should mirror that which would be available to them if they were living in a non-institutional setting within the same community.
All elements of assessment and treatment as described in the SOC can be provided to people living in institutions (Brown, 2009). Access to these medically necessary treatments should not be denied on the basis of institutionalization or housing arrangements. If the in-house expertise of health professionals in the direct or indirect employ of the institution does not exist to assess and/or treat people with gender dysphoria, it is appropriate to obtain outside consultation from professionals who are knowledgeable about this specialized area of health care.
People with gender dysphoria in institutions may also have co-existing mental health conditions (Cole et al., 1997). These conditions should be evaluated and treated appropriately.
People who enter an institution on an appropriate regimen of hormone therapy should be continued on the same, or similar, therapies and monitored according to the SOC. A “freeze frame” approach is not considered appropriate care in most situations (Kosilek v. Massachusetts Department of Corrections/Maloney, C.A. No. 92-12820-MLW, 2002). People with gender dysphoria who are deemed appropriate for hormone therapy (following the SOC) should be started on such therapy. The consequences of abrupt withdrawal of hormones or lack of initiation of hormone therapy when medically necessary include a high likelihood of negative outcomes such as surgical self-treatment by autocastration, depressed mood, dysphoria, and/or suicidality (Brown, 2010).
Reasonable accommodations to the institutional environment can be made in the delivery of care consistent with the SOC, if such accommodations do not jeopardize the delivery of medically necessary care to people with gender dysphoria. An example of a reasonable accommodation is the use of injectable hormones, if not medically contraindicated, in an environment where diversion of oral preparations is highly likely (Brown, 2009). Denial of needed changes in gender role or access to treatments, including sex reassignment surgery, on the basis of residence in an institution are not reasonable accommodations under the SOC (Brown, 2010).
Housing and shower/bathroom facilities for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people living in institutions should take into account their gender identity and role, physical status, dignity, and personal safety. Placement in a single-sex housing unit, ward, or pod on the sole basis of the appearance of the external genitalia may not be appropriate and may place the individual at risk for victimization (Brown, 2009).
Institutions where transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people reside and receive health care should monitor for a tolerant and positive climate to ensure that residents are not under attack by staff or other residents.
Applicability of the standards of Care to People with Disorders of sex Development
The term disorder of sex development (DSD) refers to a somatic condition of atypical development of the reproductive tract (Hughes, Houk, Ahmed, Lee, & LWPES1/ESPE2 Consensus Group, 2006). DSDs include the condition that used to be called intersexuality. Although the terminology was changed to DSD during an international consensus conference in 2005 (Hughes et al., 2006), disagreement about language use remains. Some people object strongly to the “disorder” label, preferring instead to view these congenital conditions as a matter of diversity (Diamond, 2009) and to continue using the terms intersex or intersexuality. In the SOC, WPATH uses the term DSD in an objective and value-free manner, with the goal of ensuring that health professionals recognize this medical term and use it to access relevant literature as the field progresses. WPATH remains open to new terminology that will further illuminate the experience of members of this diverse population and lead to improvements in health care access and delivery.
Rationale for Addition to the SOC
Previously, individuals with a DSD who also met the DSM-IV-TR’s behavioral criteria for Gender Identity Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) were excluded from that general diagnosis. Instead, they were categorized as having a “Gender Identity Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified.” They were also excluded from the WPATH Standards of Care.
The current proposal for DSM-5 () is to replace the term gender identity disorder with gender dysphoria. Moreover, the proposed changes to the DSM consider gender dysphoric people with a DSD to have a subtype of gender dysphoria. This proposed categorization – which explicitly differentiates between gender dysphoric individuals with and without a DSD – is justified: In people with a DSD, gender dysphoria differs in its phenomenological presentation, epidemiology, life trajectories, and etiology (Meyer-Bahlburg, 2009).
Adults with a DSD and gender dysphoria have increasingly come to the attention of health professionals. Accordingly, a brief discussion of their care is included in this version of the SOC.
Health History Considerations
Health professionals assisting patients with both a DSD and gender dysphoria need to be aware that the medical context in which such patients have grown up is typically very different from that of people without a DSD.
Some people are recognized as having a DSD through the observation of gender-atypical genitals at birth. (Increasingly this observation is made during the prenatal period by way of imaging procedures such as ultrasound.) These infants then undergo extensive medical diagnostic procedures. After consultation among the family and health professionals – during which the specific diagnosis, physical and hormonal findings, and feedback from long-term outcome studies (Cohen-Kettenis, 2005; Dessens, Slijper, & Drop, 2005; Jurgensen, Hiort, Holterhus, & Thyen, 2007; Mazur, 2005; Meyer-Bahlburg, 2005; Stikkelbroeck et al., 2003; Wisniewski, Migeon, Malouf, & Gearhart, 2004) are considered – the newborn is assigned a sex, either male or female.
Other individuals with a DSD come to the attention of health professionals around the age of puberty through the observation of atypical development of secondary sex characteristics. This observation also leads to a specific medical evaluation.
The type of DSD and severity of the condition has significant implications for decisions about a patient’s initial sex assignment, subsequent genital surgery, and other medical and psychosocial care (Meyer-Bahlburg, 2009). For instance, the degree of prenatal androgen exposure in individuals with a DSD has been correlated with the degree of masculinization of gender-related behavior (that is, gender role and expression); however, the correlation is only moderate, and considerable behavioral variability remains unaccounted for by prenatal androgen exposure (Jurgensen et al., 2007; Meyer-Bahlburg, Dolezal, Baker, Ehrhardt, & New, 2006). Notably, a similar correlation of prenatal hormone exposure with gender identity has not been demonstrated (e.g., Meyer-Bahlburg et al., 2004). This is underlined by the fact that people with the same (core) gender identity can vary widely in the degree of masculinization of their gender-related behavior.
Assessment and Treatment of Gender Dysphoria in People with Disorders of Sex Development
Very rarely are individuals with a DSD identified as having gender dysphoria before a DSD diagnosis has been made. Even so, a DSD diagnosis is typically apparent with an appropriate history and basic physical exam – both of which are part of a medical evaluation for the appropriateness of hormone therapy or surgical interventions for gender dysphoria. Mental health professionals should ask their clients presenting with gender dysphoria to have a physical exam, particularly if they are not currently seeing a primary care (or other health care) provider.
Most people with a DSD who are born with genital ambiguity do not develop gender dysphoria (e.g., Meyer-Bahlburg et al., 2004; Wisniewski et al., 2004). However, some people with a DSD will develop chronic gender dysphoria and even undergo a change in their birth-assigned sex and/or their gender role (Meyer-Bahlburg, 2005; Wilson, 1999; Zucker, 1999). If there are persistent and strong indications that gender dysphoria is present, a comprehensive evaluation by clinicians skilled in the assessment and treatment of gender dysphoria is essential, irrespective of the patient’s age. Detailed recommendations have been published for conducting such an assessment and for making treatment decisions to address gender dysphoria in the context of a DSD (Meyer-Bahlburg, in press). Only after thorough assessment should steps be taken in the direction of changing a patient’s birth-assigned sex or gender role.
Clinicians assisting these patients with treatment options to alleviate gender dysphoria may profit from the insights gained from providing care to patients without a DSD (Cohen-Kettenis, 2010). However, certain criteria for treatment (e.g., age, duration of experience with living in the desired gender role) are usually not routinely applied to people with a DSD; rather, the criteria are interpreted in light of a patient’s specific situation (Meyer-Bahlburg, in press). In the context of a DSD, changes in birth-assigned sex and gender role have been made at any age between early elementary-school age and middle adulthood. Even genital surgery may be performed much earlier in these patients than in gender dysphoric individuals without a DSD if the surgery is well justified by the diagnosis, by the evidence-based gender-identity prognosis for the given syndrome and syndrome severity, and by the patient’s wishes.
One reason for these treatment differences is that genital surgery in individuals with a DSD is quite common in infancy and adolescence. Infertility may already be present due to either early gonadal failure or to gonadectomy because of a malignancy risk. Even so, it is advisable for patients with a DSD to undergo a full social transition to another gender role only if there is a long-standing history of gender-atypical behavior, and if gender dysphoria and/or the desire to change one’s gender role has been strong and persistent for a considerable period of time. Six months is the time period of full symptom expression required for the application of the gender dysphoria diagnosis proposed for DSM-5 (Meyer-Bahlburg, in press).
The gender-relevant medical histories of people with a DSD are often complex. Their histories may include a great variety of inborn genetic, endocrine, and somatic atypicalities, as well as various hormonal, surgical, and other medical treatments. For this reason, many additional issues need to be considered in the psychosocial and medical care of such patients, regardless of the presence of gender dysphoria. Consideration of these issues is beyond what can be covered in the SOC. The interested reader is referred to existing publications (e.g., Cohen-Kettenis & Pfäfflin, 2003; Meyer-Bahlburg, 2002, 2008). Some families and patients also find it useful to consult or work with community support groups.
There is a very substantial medical literature on the medical management of patients with a DSD. Much of this literature has been produced by high-level specialists in pediatric endocrinology and urology, with input from specialized mental health professionals, especially in the area of gender. Recent international consensus conferences have addressed evidence-based care guidelines (including issues of gender and of genital surgery) for DSD in general (Hughes et al., 2006) and specifically for Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (Joint LWPES/ESPE CAH Working Group et al., 2002; Speiser et al., 2010). Others have addressed the research needs for DSD in general (Meyer-Bahlburg & Blizzard, 2004) and for selected syndromes such as 46,XXY (Simpson et al., 2003).
See also: Standards of Care Appendix
- Standards of Care (SOC), Version 7 represents a significant departure from previous versions. Changes in this version are based upon significant cultural shifts, advances in clinical knowledge, and appreciation of the many health care issues that can arise for transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people beyond hormone therapy and surgery (Coleman, 2009a, b, c, d)
- Gender nonconforming behaviors in children may continue into adulthood, but such behaviors are not necessarily indicative of gender dysphoria and a need for treatment. As described in section III, gender dysphoria is not synonymous with diversity in gender expression.
- Adapted with permission from Hembree et al.(2009). Copyright 2009, The Endocrine Society.)
- Estimates represent published and unpublished clinical observations.
- Highly dependent on age and inheritance; may be minimal.
- Significantly dependent on amount of exercise.
- Adapted with permission from Hembree et al.(2009). Copyright 2009, The Endocrine Society.)
- Estimates represent published and unpublished clinical observations.
- Significantly dependent on amount of exercise.
- Complete removal of male facial and body hair requires electrolysis, laser treatment, or both.
- Risk is greater with oral estrogen administration than with transdermal estrogen administration.
- Additional risk factors include age.
- Risk is greater with oral estrogen administration than with transdermal estrogen administration.
- Additional risk factors include age.
- Risk is greater with oral estrogen administration than with transdermal estrogen administration.
- Includes bipolar, schizoaffective, and other disorders that may include manic or psychotic symptoms. This adverse event appears to be associated with higher doses or supraphysiologic blood levels of testosterone.
- Readers may use this email link to report errors and/or omissions they have discovered, or to add additional material or comments regarding this article "Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People"
- Wiki Staff should discuss this article in the Wiki Staff Forum
- Susan's Place Transgender Resources Forums
- Susan's Place Transgender Chat
Browse: Gender | Cross-dressing | Intersexuality | Transgender topics | Transsexualism | Hormone Therapy | Surgery | Standards of Care | Legal Information | Psychology | Transitioning | Family&Friends | People | Books | Abbreviations | Browse All TopicsRead the FAQ | Return to the Main Page
Want to help us? Write New Articles and/or Expand Current Articles