Oct 172016
 
Barriers are not always as obvious as a wall

Barriers are not always as obvious as a wall

Although many want to, not all transgender people are able to medically transition. The transgender community has been vocal about their needs and the barriers to medical care. However we still need research literature on the topic. Some research has been done, but not enough. Today’s study looked closer at who is receiving medical transition treatment and who hasn’t, and why they haven’t been able to get treatment.

As a quick reminder, medical transition is the medical treatment transgender people receive to treat gender dysphoria. Medical transition physically changes a person’s body from looking like one sex to looking like another. It usually includes hormone therapy and surgery. For more information, I recommend reading Trans 101 for Trans People.

Back to our study! Sineath et al polled transgender people who attended the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC). SCC is a yearly conference dedicated to education and networking in the transgender community. Of the 453 participants who stared answering the survey, 280 completed it. Participants answered demographic questions. They also answered questions about the medical therapy they had received and wanted to receive. There was a free writing section where participants could detail why they had not received any treatments they wanted.

That’s rather striking change between those who started the survey and those who finished it. And unfortunately there were differences between the group who finished it and the group who did not. Those who finished it were more likely to be college educated and trans women. That means that trans men and less well educated people were under represented in this study. While I don’t think there was much that Sineath et al could have done to prevent it, this does mean that the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

What did Sineath et al find?

Of the 280 participants who completed the survey, the majority (84%) were trans women. The rest (16%) were trans men. In this sample, trans women were more likely to be white, in a relationship, and over the age of 40 than trans men.

59% of participants had used, or were currently taking, hormone therapy. Roughly equal percentages of trans men (63%) and trans women (58%) had ever had hormone therapy. Among those who had never had hormone therapy, 53% of trans women and 76% of trans men planned to have it.

Trans men were far more likely to have gotten chest surgery (26%) or want it (88%) than trans women (5% and 40%, respectively). Of all 280 participants, only 11 (3.9%) had received genital surgery. All 11 were trans women. Roughly equal proportions of trans men and trans women wanted genital surgery.

Interestingly, nonwhite and single participants were more likely to have received hormone therapy than white and partnered participants.

I confess, I would have thought that the white people would have had more hormone therapy than non-white people. White people tend to have more resources. Perhaps there are also more barriers though? There are resources specifically aimed at non-white trans people, and perhaps they’re being especially effective. I am not entirely certain what to make of this. If you have ideas, let me know in the comments!

As for single trans people being more likely to have hormone therapy than partnered, that is more immediately understandable. Married or partnered trans people may be negotiating their transition with their partner. Or they may be waiting for children to grow. Either way, a delay makes sense.

What barriers were keeping people from getting medical transition?

There was also a significant difference in why participants had not received medical care between trans men and trans women. For trans men, lack of qualified care was the most dominant factor. 41% of trans men in this study cited that reason. Another 29% cited cost. A scattering of others cited fear of surgery (6%), employment issues (6%), and “other” (18%).

Trans women had a different distribution of concerns. Cost was the most commonly cited reason for not getting medical transition (23%). Employment issues was second largest, at 19%. Others cited age (9%), readiness (9%), needing a psychiatrist letter (7%), not feeling like they needed surgery (6%), fear of surgery (4%), and inability to access qualified care (2%). 21% cited “other” reasons.

What does all this mean?

This study found that 59% of trans participants use hormone therapy. That’s much lower than other studies. According to Sineath et al, previous studies found rates anywhere from 70% to 93%. Why the discrepancy? Studies with high levels of hormone therapy usually were conducted at clinics. Clinics are where participants actively seek hormone therapy! That explains why 93% of trans people in some studies were on hormone therapy. But why the 70%? That number came from a one-time survey that wasn’t clinic specific. It’s difficult to say how many trans people actually do get hormone therapy across the entire US. The real number may be somewhere between 59% and 70%.

 

This study also found pretty significant differences in the barriers trans people reported. Trans men cited the lack of access to qualified care far more than trans women did. That makes sense. Trans women are far more represented in both popular and medical media. The medical care of trans women is often talked about. I see far more papers and case reports about trans women in the medical literature. More surgeons offer vaginoplasties than metoidioplasties or phalloplasties.

Trans women experienced issues with employment more than trans men. Again, this makes sense. Trans women typically have a harder time “passing” than trans men. Women are subject to employment difficulties and interpersonal violence more because they’re more visible.

I, personally, look at how many trans men are struggling finding qualified care. I’m listening most strongly to that. So much of the talk around transgender care is about trans women. It really is past time that trans men get as much, or more, focus.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this study is a solid contribution to our understanding of medical transition. Thank you to Sineath et al and all the participants at the Southern Comfort Conference!

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

Citation: Sineath, R. C., Woodyatt, C., Sanchez, T., Giammattei, S., Gillespie, T., Hunkeler, E., … & Sullivan, P. S. (2016). Determinants of and Barriers to Hormonal and Surgical Treatment Receipt Among Transgender People.Transgender Health, 1(1), 129-136.

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.

Jan 252016
 

800px-Mercury_fig_leafThe metoidioplasty is one of two potential genital surgeries for trans men. It takes advantage of the fact that trans men already have a penis: their clitoris!

With testosterone, the clitoris grows. A metoidioplasty removes tissue around the clitoris. This exposes more of it and helps it to hang in a more male position. That’s why a metoidoplasty is sometimes also called a “clitoral release” or a “free-up”. That’s it — that’s the core of a metoidioplasty.

In addition, the urethra can also be routed through the neopenis. At the same time the vagina can also be removed, and a scrotum made from the labia. A metoidioplasty does not remove the cervix, uterus, or ovaries. That would be a different surgery. However some surgeons will perform a hysterectomy at the same time as a metoidioplasty.

All in all, a metoidioplasty preserves the tissues that are already there. It shuffles them around into a masculine shape. Not everybody will have everything done, and there are many options.

Why would I want a metoidioplasty?

Everyone has their own reasons. Here are some that I have heard:

  • Ability to “pass” in male spaces, such as bathrooms and locker rooms. With genital surgery, the fear of having a towel around the waist slip at an awkward moment is gone.
  • Relieving gender dysphoria. What’s not to like about that?
  • Ability to pee standing up. Only with a urethral lengthening procedure, which carries its own risks.
  • Keeping erections and erogenous sensation. Some men are also able to have penetrative sex after a metoidioplasty.
  • Cheaper, easier to find a surgeon, and fewer surgeries than a phalloplasty with good results.

What is involved in metoidioplasty? What are my options?

Different surgeons will include different specific stages to a metoidioplasty. But the core of a metoidioplasty is clitoral release. The clitoris is freed from its surrounding tissues so it can hang the way a penis hangs.

Others steps are often included, including…

  • Vaginectomy: Removal of the vagina. May be required for some forms of urethral lengthening. Usually combined with a scrotoplasty, which fuses the labia together to make a scrotum. At the same time testicular implants can also be placed.
  • Urethral lengthening: The urethra is routed through the neopenis and lengthened using other tissue. This allows peeing through the penis and while standing.
  • Hysterectomy, oophorectomy: Removal of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.

I’ve heard there are different techniques. What are they?

The biggest difference centers around urethral lengthening. Since the urethra is only so long, other tissue is used to lengthen it. That tissue can come from the vagina or inner labia, or it can come from the inside of your cheek (“buccal”).

Surgeons often have their own individual techniques and strategies in addition.

Can you tell me more about the surgery? Does it require full anesthesia? How long would I be in the hospital? What kind of recovery time am I looking at?

It depends on which specific procedures you have done.

For a simple metoidioplasty only without urethral lengthening, vaginectomy/scrotoplasty, or hysterectomy, some surgeons will perform it under “twilight” anesthesia. This is also called conscious sedation. You’ll be relaxed and won’t feel pain but will likely stay awake. This level of sedation is also used by some dentists, so it’s not unique to this procedure. If you’re also having more intense procedures, like urethral lengthening, then you’ll be under general anesthesia.

The surgery itself lasts anywhere from 2-5 hours depending on what procedures you’re having. You’ll likely spend one night in recovery in the hospital. Full recovery time also varies. One surgeon advises bed rest for 24 hours, plus either 7-14 days off work with no heavy lifting for 2-4 weeks. Again — this depends on the intensity of your surgery.

What are the possible risks of metoidioplasty?

The usual risks with surgery apply here: adverse drug reactions, bleeding, infection and the like. Permanent loss/reduction in sensation may occur, as with all surgeries. And pain can persist for a long time.

The penis itself can end up twisted (torqued), which is repairable by surgery. The length may also be less than was hoped.

Urethral lengthening caries its own risks, including urethral narrowing or blockage, and urethral fistula. Urethral fistula is when a hole forms between the urethra and somewhere it shouldn’t be — so urine may spray from the underside of the penis, for example. Narrowing, blockage, and fistula can be repaired surgically. The stream of urine may also spray or be not what you expect.

What about scars?

The beauty of metoidioplasty is that it doesn’t leave very visible scars.

How will metoidioplasty affect my long-term health?

The metoidioplasty itself (the clitoral extension) doesn’t generally have long-term health implications unless there were complications. The same applies to the urethral lengthening.

Vaginectomy removes your risk for vaginal cancer. If you also had a hysterectomy/oophorectomy, you no longer are at risk for those cancers. However in order to maintain bone health it’s important to stay on sex hormones (testosterone) life-long.

Can I have penetrative sex with my partners after a metoidioplasty?

It depends, but the answer is definitely not “no”. Different people have different results, and different surgeons have different results too. Some surgeons report 4-6cm (1.6-2.4″) long penises, others boast 6-12cm (2.4-4.7″).

If being able to penetrate a partner is the most important thing for you, then you might want to consider a phalloplasty.

More information?

I am not a surgeon, nor an expert on surgeries! Check out some of these other resources and surgeon websites for more information:

Nov 162015
 

This week let’s take a break from genetics and ask: “Among transgender people seeking medical treatment, how many want what treatment? Among those who are not seeking out the traditional transition, what are their reasons?” As you might have guessed, a paper from the Netherlands was just online published ahead of print addressing these very questions.

360 people seeking treatment at a specific clinic in the Netherlands were surveyed; 233 (64.7%) of them were assigned male at birth (AMAB; mostly trans feminine) and 127 (35.3%) were assigned female at birth (AFAB; mostly trans masculine). Because this was a survey specifically asking about trans people who may fall outside the gender binary, I’ll stick to the AFAB/AMAB terminology.

The researchers also defined “full” and “partial” transition. For the purposes of this study, “full” transition was either:

  • Antiandrogens + estrogen + orchiectomy + vaginoplasty, for AMAB people
  • Androgens + mastectomy + hysterectomy/oophorectomy + phalloplasty or metoidioplasty, for AFAB people

Variations on these were considered “partial” transition, even if they included more surgeries (such as facial feminization surgery or breast augmentation). By using the terms “full” and “partial”, neither the researchers nor I are trying to imply that one form of transition is any better, desirable, or more “complete” than any other. It’s a historical term, and used here only as a label for one set of treatments that have been considered a “standard” treatment.

So — what did the 360 people want? 10 weren’t sure yet (2.8%). Overall, 253 (70%) wanted “full” treatment. and 97 (27%) wanted “partial” treatment. Of the 97 who wanted a “partial” treatment, 47 cited surgical risks and concerns about the ultimate result, 19 had no genital dysphoria and felt genital surgery wasn’t important for them, 5 felt they were too old, 4 had a non-binary gender identity, 1 was afraid of social rejection, 1 wanted to remain fertile, 1 wanted to go outside the country for surgery, and the others declined to answer.

If you look at the data differently, AFAB and AMAB people wanted different things. Among the 225 AMAB people who knew what they wanted, 180 (77%) wanted “full” treatment. Only 45 (19%) wanted a different treatment. 12 wanted hormones only, another 12 wanted hormones and breast augmentation, and another 10 wanted hormones and breast augmentation and facial feminization surgery.

AFAB people were less likely to want “full” treatment — only 73 of 125 (57%) wanted “full” treatment. Of those, 35 wanted phalloplasty, 12 wanted metoidioplasty, and 26 were uncertain. 52 of 125 (41%) wanted “partial” treatment, with the majority (31) wanting androgens, mastectomy and hysterectomy and 18 wanting androgens and mastectomy without hysterectomy.

That’s quite a difference between AMAB and AFAB people — 77% vs 57% wanting “full” treatment. When the reasons were compared, AFAB people were most likely to be concerned about the risks and results of surgery. AMAB people, on the other hands, were more likely to report feeling that genital surgery was unnecessary.

Of course, this was just one survey within one culture. However, it’s interesting food for thought and gives one set of ballpark figures for who wants what treatment.

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