Jun 262017
 

All lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB)* people are not the same. I’ve long been an advocate that it’s not “the LGB community”, it’s “the LGB communities“. Even within just the lesbian “community”, there are subgroups. Everyone has different experiences, needs, and expectations. There is no one universal experience, and no monolithic community.

The easiest example is gender nonconformity. Within lesbian and female bisexual communities, for example, there are women who dress and act more masculine (“butch”) and women who dress and act more feminine (“femme”). The same is true for gay and male bisexual communities. Another example is “coming out”. While it’s a common experience, it’s not universal. I myself never had to “come out” to my family because my family was very accepting.. Bisexual people who date/marry opposite sex partners may also not choose to come out.

Despite differences, we know that there are some generalities about LGB communities. We know that LGB people, as a whole, have higher rates of depression than their straight peers. But we also know that not all LGB people have depression. Could gender nonconformity be the key?

Portrait of a boy, c. 1800. A boy who looked like this might well end up with depression after being teased and bullied.

Portrait of a boy, c. 1800. A boy who looked like this might well end up with depression after being teased and bullied.

Today’s study looked at depression, gender nonconformity, and LGB status among young adults in the United States. They used data from the Add Health study. Add Health was a study that started in schools and continued through until the participants were up to 32. The participants in today’s study were age 18-32. 86.7-93.1% of the sample (women-men range) were heterosexual. The rest were mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly lesbian/gay, or lesbian/gay. Depression was measured with a validated scale. Sexual orientation was rated on a Kinsey-type scale. And gender non-conformity was measured with a scale of activities, including team sports, religious activities, video game use, housework, and social activities.

What were the results?

At first, it looked like all the non-heterosexual participants were at higher risk for depression. Bisexuals had more depressive symptoms than lesbian and gay participants. However once they controlled for gender nonconformity, lesbians and gay men did not have more depression symptoms than heterosexuals. Bisexual participants continued to have higher rates of depression and controlling for gender nonconformity.

Who tended to be gender nonconforming? Young men were more nonconforming than young women. Lesbians and gay men were more nonconforming than all the bisexuals (including mostly straight and mostly gay), who were about as nonconforming as straight participants.

And the depression? Young women were more depressed than men. Black, Latino, and Asian participants were also more likely to have it. The same was true for those with low parental education levels and families with financial problems. Participants who were gender nonconforming reported more symptoms of depression than those who were conforming.

Lastly, the researchers looked at whether that depression held over time. Gender nonconformity did not predict depression in the future. Bisexuals, lesbian, and gay young adults were also not at risk for future depression; only depression in the moment. However individuals who identified as mostly heterosexual continued to have higher rates of symptoms. Individuals who are Black, Asian, female, had low parental education levels, or severe family financial problems, continued to have depression symptoms.

What does this really mean?

LGB young adults as a whole continue to be at higher risk for depression. However, that risk appears to mostly be an effect of gender nonconformity as a young adult. Those who are gender nonconforming as young adults are at higher risk for depression as young adults, but six years later that risk goes away. Why? Gender nonconformity is visible, and likely to result in the individual being a target for discrimination, which can result in depression. But then why doesn’t it continue six years later? Either the discrimination reduces (teenagers can be notoriously mean to each other), or the individuals develop coping skills or move into a more accepting community.

Additionally, bisexuals and mostly heterosexuals are at higher risk for depression than lesbians and gay men. Why? Well, it might be because they can “hide” and look heterosexual. That means they don’t need to “come out”. But it also means there’s less acceptance and acknowledgement of their orientation. That could have big effects.

What do we do with this information?

First, we can keep an eye out for the gender nonconforming young adults in our communities, whether they’re straight, bisexual, gay, or somewhere in between. We can support them when they need it. And second, we can create a more accepting environment. The less discrimination and the more acceptance of gender nonconformity, the less depression we are likely to see. We can make the world a positive place to be for everyone.

Want to read the abstract for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

*: Please note that although today’s article does not use the word “cis” throughout despite the implication. The study in question examined cis individuals. However in my language, I use “men/male” and “women/female” to refer to gender identity, not biologic sex. So the general statements I make are intended to be inclusive of both cis and trans individuals, who can be lesbian/gay, bisexual, or straight.

Dec 192016
 

Given recent events in US politics, today’s study was especially timely. I thought I’d move it up in the queue. Yes, there’s a queue. In today’s study, Owen-Smith et al tried to answer the question “Is there a relationship between depression in transgender people and tolerance of transgender people in their surrounding community?” Logically it makes sense. But we have very little data. Science needs data. So Owen-Smith et al surveyed trans people with the help of a local trans organization.

Dr William' Pink Pills, once marketed as a depression "treatment"

Dr William’ Pink Pills, once marketed as a depression “treatment”

To measure tolerance, they used a simple 1-5 rating scale. They also asked about mistreatment and discrimination in the past 12 months. For depression they used two different scales: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CESD). The BDI was designed to detect and diagnose Major Depressive Disorder. In contrast, the CESD was designed to detect depressive symptoms, not necessarily the disorder. Between those two scales Owen-Smith et al captured both depressive disorder and depressive symptoms.

As with all studies they also asked about demographics. Age, education, race/ethnicity, and so on. Because this is a study of trans people they asked about hormonal and surgical status. If the participants hadn’t gotten hormones or surgery, Owen-Smith et al asked whether they wanted them.

What did they find?

In total, 399 people completed the study. 70% were trans women. 85% were white. 57% had completed college. 32% were currently receiving hormones and 7% had had surgery.

And 1 in 4 (~24%) said that most people in their area were tolerant of trans people. Roughly half (47%) of the sample had experienced abuse or discrimination. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no difference in abuse based on the tolerance of the participant’s area.

Roughly half of the group were depressed or had depressive symptoms. And this did differ based on the tolerance of the area. Trans people from less tolerant areas were more likely to have depression. In addition, the more abuse they had experienced the more likely it was that they experienced depression. Wanting or receiving hormone therapy was also associated with depression. In contrast, having a college degree was protective. Other factors like surgical status and race had no effect on depression.

What does this mean?

From this study, it seems that being in an area that is perceived to be intolerant of transgender people is associated with depression in trans people. Although this study can only show correlation, not causation we can potentially still make inferences. It may be that as areas become more tolerant, depression rates among trans people go down. Or that as more areas show their tolerance, depression rates will go down. Certainly this study seems to suggest that.

As always, this study has limitations. Its sample was probably not representative of the entire trans community, being mostly white well educated trans women. Results may be different in different groups of trans people.

Depression has serious effects on quality of life. Trans people are at high risk for depression already, with around half having symptoms. Compare that to roughly 4-9% (less than 1 in 10) of the broader population. And the worst outcome of depression, suicide, is high among trans people too. Anything that we can do to decrease suicide, we should do.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

Aug 012016
 

Welcome back to Open Minded Health Promotion! This week we’re looking at health promotion for transgender men and individuals assigned female at birth. Depending on your history some of these tips will apply more or less to you.

TransgenderPlease remember that these are specific aspects of health in addition to the standard recommendations for everyone (e.g., colonoscopy at age 50). Based on your health and your history, your doctor may have different recommendations for you. Listen to them.

All transgender men should consider…
  • Talk with their doctor about their physical and mental health
  • Practice safer sex where possible. Sexually transmitted infections can be prevented with condoms, dental dams, and other barriers. If you share sexual toys consider using condoms/barriers or cleaning them between uses.
  • Consider using birth control methods if applicable. Testosterone is not an effective method of birth control. In fact, testosterone is bad for fetuses and masculinizes them too. Non-hormonal options for birth control include condoms, copper IUDs, diaphragms and spermicidal jellies.
  • If you’re under the age of 26, get the HPV vaccine. This will reduce the chance for cervical, vaginal, anal, and oral cancers.
  • Avoid tobacco, limit alcohol, and limit/avoid other drugs. If you choose to use substances and are unwilling to stop, consider strategies to limit your risk. For example, consider participating in a clean needle program. Vaporize instead of smoke. And use as little of the drug as you can.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. While being heavy sometimes helps to hide unwanted curves, it’s also associated with heart disease and a lower quality of life.
  • Exercise regularly. Anything that gets your heart rate up and gets you moving is good for your body and mind! Weight bearing exercise, like walking and running, is best for bone health.
  • Be careful when weight lifting if you’re newly taking testosterone. Muscles grow faster than tendon, thus tendons are at risk for damage when you’re lifting until they catch up.
  • Consider storing eggs before starting testosterone if you want genetic children. Testosterone may affect your fertility. Consult a fertility expert if you need advising.
  • Seek help if you’re struggling with self injury, anorexia, or bulimia. Trans men are at higher risk than cis men for these aspects of mental health.
  • If you have unexplained vaginal bleeding, are on testosterone, and have not had a hysterectomy notify your doctor immediately. Some “breakthrough” bleeding is expected in the first few months of testosterone treatment. Once your dose is stable and your body has adapted to the testosterone you should not be bleeding. Bleeding may be benign but it may also be a sign that something more serious is going on. Contact your doctor.
  • In addition, talk with your doctor if you have pain in the pelvic area that doesn’t go away. This may also need some investigation. And s/he may be able to help relieve the pain.
  • Be as gentle as you can with binding. Make sure you allow your chest to air out because the binding may weaken that skin and put you at risk for infection. Be especially careful if you have a history of lung disease or asthma because tight binding can make it harder to breathe. You may need your inhaler more frequently if you have asthma and you’re binding. If this is the case, talk with your doctor.
  • If you’ve had genital surgery and you’re all healed from surgery: there are no specific published recommendations for caring for yourself at this point. So keep in touch with your doctor as you need to. Call your surgeon if something specific to the surgery is concerning. Continue to practice safe sex. And enjoy!
Your doctor may wish to do other tests, including…
  • Cervical cancer screening (if you have a cervix). The recommendation is every 3-5 years minimum, starting at age 21. Even with testosterone, this exam should not be painful. Talk with your doctor about your needs and concerns. Your doctor may offer a self-administered test as an alternative. Not every doctor offers a self-administered test.
  • Mammography even if you’ve had chest reconstruction. We simply don’t know what the risk of breast cancer is after top surgery because breast tissue does remain after top surgery. Once you turn 50, consider talking with your doctor about the need for mammography. In addition, if you’re feeling dysphoric discussing breast cancer then it may be helpful to remember that cis men get breast cancer too.
  • If you have not had any bottom surgery you may be asked to take a pregnancy test. This may not be intended as a transphobic question. Some medications are extremely harmful to fetuses. Hence doctors often check whether someone who can become pregnant is pregnant before prescribing. Cisgender lesbians get this question too, even if they’ve never had contact with cisgender men.

And most importantly: Take care of your mental health. We lose far too many people every year to suicide. Perhaps worse, far more struggle with depression and anxiety. Do what you need to do to take care of you. If your normal strategies aren’t working then reach out. There is help.

Want more information? You can read more from UCSF’s Primary Care Protocols and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.

Jul 182016
 

Transgender youth are a special population. Because of the relative novelty of treatment at any age much less for youth, data are scarce. A recent review article examining the published data on transgender youth was published. Let’s take a look at what they found.

First, how about prevalence? How many youth self identify as transgender? There are very, very, few studies that get good numbers on this. One study in New Zealand found that 1.2% of secondary school children identified as transgender, and 2.5% weren’t sure about their gender.

As we well know, being a gender and sexual minority can often be associated with health disparities. And this review reports on that too. Identifying as transgender was associated with negative psychological health. Specifically, being bullied, having symptoms of depression, attempting self harm, and attempting suicide were all more common in transgender youth than in cisgender youth. How much of that was because of discrimination and how much was because of gender dysphoria was not explored.

Researchers have also found that being transgender and having autism appear to go together. No one is quite sure why yet. There’s still a lot of research to be done to figure that out.

One interesting difference in the literature stands out to me, though. It appears that transgender men are more likely to self harm and transgender women are more likely to be autistic. Among cisgender people, cis women are more likely to self harm and cis men are more likely to be autistic. There are theories for why that sex difference exists, but there’s little to no agreement. It could be related to social environments, hormones, the environment in the womb, or any number of other factors. But the observation that transgender men and women more resemble their sex than their gender for self harm and autism is worth investigating further.

What about the effects of hormone therapy for transgender youth? Especially puberty suppression, which is the unique factor for their treatment? As a reminder, the treatment of transgender youth is largely based on the Dutch model. At puberty, children go on puberty suppressing drugs. They then go on hormones (and thus begin puberty) at age 16 and are eligible for surgery at age 18. There are efforts to deliver cross-sex hormones earlier, but the Dutch model is the standard that most of the research is based on. A Dutch study found that the psychological health of transgender youth improved after surgery. Their psychological health even equalled that of their cisgender peers! The researchers also found that youth continued to struggle with body image throughout the time they were on puberty suppression only. But their self-image improved with hormone therapy and surgery. None of the children regretted transitioning. And they said that social transition was “easy”.

One challenge to that particular Dutch study is that the Dutch protocol excludes trans youth who have significant psychiatric issues. A young person with unmanaged schizophrenia, severe depression, or other similar issue wouldn’t be allowed to start hormones. So the research was only on relatively psychologically healthy youth to begin with. It’s difficult to say if that had an effect on the study’s results. It’s also difficult to say whether the psychological health of a trans youth is the cause or the result of their dysphoria. A trans youth with depression might well benefit from hormone therapy, after all.

There are multiple questions still unresolved when it comes to treating transgender children. Does puberty suppression have a long term effect on their bones? Are there long-term physical or psychological health effects of early transition? How should children with serious psychological conditions be treated (besides the obvious answer — with compassion)? And on, and on.

The medical and scientific communities are working on answering these questions. But it will take time. And in the mean time — physicians and families do they best they can with what information we have. If you have, or are, a transgender youth please consider participating in a study so we can do even better for children in the future.

Want to read the review for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

May 082014
 

CC BY 2.0) - flickr user stevendepoloA little belated, but here’s the GSM health news that came out around April this year, in no particular order…

  • There was a new meta analysis of intestinal vaginoplasties published in April. This meta analysis overall found that rate and severity of complications was “low”, with stenosis the most common complication. There were no reports of cancer. Sexual satisfaction was high, but there were no quality of life measures reported. Quality of studies were reported to be low, though, and there was a distinct lack of use of standardized measures. Source.
  • Oncology Times released a review of cancer and cancer screenings in transgender people. Highly recommend you take a look at the source.
  • A study finds that trans men on testosterone have lower levels of anxiety, depression and anger than trans men not on testosterone. Source.
  • A review of current hormonal transition effects and aging determined that, based on current data, “Older [trans people] can commence cross-sex hormone treatment without disproportionate risks.” They note that monitoring for cardiovascular health is especially important for trans women, especially those who are on progesterones. Strength or type of hormones may need to be modified in order to minimize risk. Source.
  • As much of the sex positive community has known for a long time, the BMI of cis women is (in general) not correlated with sexual activity. Source.
  • In Croatian medical students knowledge about homosexuality was correlated with positive attitudes. Source.
  • Science is awesome! The Lancet reported success in engineering vaginas for 4 women with MRKHS. No complications over the 8 years of follow up, and satisfaction with sexual functioning. Fingers crossed that this technique can be used in the future for many more women! Source.
  • Remember that sexual orientation is not the same as behavior? In a recent analysis of previously collected data, 11.2% of heterosexual-identified sexually active (presumably cisgender) women reported ever having a same-sex partner. Another way of looking at it: 1 in 10 straight women have had sex with another woman. Source.
  • Don’t forget about aftercare and cuddling! Post-sex affection appears to be correlated with relationship satisfaction. Source.
  • Unsurprising but sad: Young LGB people are more likely to binge drink alcohol when they’ve been exposed to discrimination and homophobia. Source.