Gender dysphoria in adolescents

Gender identity (photo credit: WVTF)

Being a teen is hard enough for anyone, but it’s much more difficult if you have gender dysphoria, or discontent with the sex and gender you were assigned at birth. In this essay, I examine some research studies about gender dysphoria in teens and how it relates to gender expression and being transgender.

Introduction

Gender identity is a topic that has interested me for a long time, so I took this opportunity to learn more about it. I am a proponent of challenging established gender roles, and I believe everyone is unfairly pressured to stay within their expected male or female gender roles in all stages of their lives, from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood. This pressure comes from myriad sources and affects everyone’s self-concept and self-worth. Those who fit most or all of their expectations are affected positively; those who do not are affected negatively.

It is common, for example, for girls to be labeled negatively as “tomboys,” and for boys to be labeled negatively as “sensitive” (Halderman, 2000). Most of us who have been negatively affected or otherwise confused by established gender roles can ultimately overcome those issues and remain with a gender identity that matches our biological sex. But for some people, the process is not so easy.

As some children grow up, they may come to realize their biological sex does not match their gender identity (Halderman, 2000). These issues can pose a significant dilemma that affects daily life. This is where gender dysphoria takes shape.

I’ve found that adolescence, the most crucial stage of self-discovery, is the most interesting stage in which to examine gender dysphoria. For the purpose of this essay, I will peruse a series of research studies to analyze how gender dysphoria in adolescents is treated and how the treatment affects them. Before doing so, however, it is important to understand the basic etiology of gender dysphoria.

Etiology

The American Psychiatric Association refers to gender dysphoria as “Gender Identity Disorder” in the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, or the DSM-IV-TR (2000). Within the DSM-IV-TR, two necessary components are given for diagnosing gender dysphoria. First, there must be evidence of a “strong and persistent cross-gender identification,” and second, there must be “persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex,” including feeling that one’s biological sex is inappropriate. These conditions only apply if one is not intersex, i.e. if one is male or female biologically, and in order to classify the symptoms as gender dysphoria, there must also be “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).

The DSM-IV-TR states that adolescents with gender dysphoria may have variants of typical symptoms seen in both children and adults. Young teens, for example, may be guarded and suspicious, making it more difficult to diagnosis them accurately. Other adolescents may also feel that their gender identity is “unacceptable to the family” and suffer problems in their social lives, choosing to isolate themselves, perhaps because of being teased or rejected by their peers. In circumstances such as these, the DSM-IV-TR suggests not to jump to any conclusions about a diagnosis, instead reserving such a diagnosis for adolescents who “appear quite cross-gender identified in their dress” and those who “engage in behaviors that suggest significant cross-gender identification” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).

Despite the components listed in the DSM-IV-TR, correctly diagnosing gender dysphoria may be a struggle in itself. The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-10, insists there must be “a profound disturbance of the normal gender identity,” asserting that “tomboyishness in girls and girlish behaviour in boys is not sufficient” (Arcelus & Bouman, 2001). It seems a fine line is drawn between gender dysphoria and typical conditions. Halderman (2000) suggests the steps for diagnosis are sketchy and poorly examined. He also notes that girls are much less likely to receive treatment for gender dysphoria, possibly because our society has historically seen masculine characteristics as desirable and has seen feminine characteristics as undesirable (Halderman, 2000).

Further, Richardson (1999) suggests the process of determining an adolescent’s level of “gender atypicality,” or how much the individual appears to reject his or her gender roles, is a gray area at best. He implies that society regards feminine boys and men with the same type of contempt and disgust historically seen for gay men. Ultimately, he says, deciding on the actual “disorder” in “Gender Identity Disorder” may be the hardest part. Controversy has ensued over the fact gender dysphoria is still included in the DSM at all. After all, the DSM used to classify homosexuality as a mental disorder until the 1970s (Richardson, 1999). This debate over the ambiguous methods of diagnosis for gender dysphoria is very important in understanding its etiology. In the future, it is possible that gender dysphoria will be redefined or no longer classified as a disorder.

Examination

The studies I chose to examine for this essay each focused on a situation that seemed less ambiguous, in which the adolescent clearly identified themselves as a gender that did not match their biological sex (i.e. transgender), wished to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and received proper treatment. For all intents and purposes, those symptoms were included under the umbrella of gender dysphoria as the DSM defined it in 2000.

As of 2000, there were two categories of treatment available for individuals with gender dysphoria. The first, psychotherapy, attempted to dispel the individual’s wishes to reassign their biological sex. The second is sex reassignment surgery. This procedure, once commonly known as a “sex change,” allows the individual to have a biological sex that matches their gender identity, with the goal of allowing them to live more happily (Meyenburg, 1999).

One research study of adolescents with gender dysphoria took place at the Frankfurt University Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Outpatient Clinic, as summarized by Meyenburg (1999). It includes four case examples of adolescents who sought treatment for gender dysphoria at the clinic throughout the 1990s. All of them came to the clinic with the desire for sex reassignment surgery. The objective at the clinic was to “encourage psychotherapy and discourage premature sex reassignment measures” (Meyenburg, 1999), which indicates the clinic had an agenda.

Christa, the study’s first example, was a seventeen-year-old girl who was a “clear-cut example” of being transgender. She always felt that she was a boy, and she was seeking sex reassignment. After two years of extensive psychotherapy, her desire for sex reassignment was not dispelled, and she eventually underwent the surgery. Sandra, another seventeen-year-old girl in a similar situation, was very depressed and sad because of her gender identity issues. She unexpectedly stopped coming to therapy sessions and never returned. Later, the clinic learned that she did not undergo sex reassignment surgery, and she instead chose to identify as lesbian (Meyenburg, 1999).

There were also two male examples. Martin was a seventeen-year-old boy who was believed to have a “severe case” of gender dysphoria. After his therapy sessions, he indicated that besides feeling like he had female facial features, he was gay, not transgender. Finally, Holger, a thirteen-year-old boy, was beginning to identify as female but also had male heterosexual desires to be with a woman. A few years of psychotherapy appeared to change Holger, as Meyenburg described: He began to identify as male and “he was developing a clearly heterosexual identity” (Meyenburg, 1999).

From these case studies, Meyenburg (1999) argued that patients can find a way to be content through psychotherapy and other life changes that do not involve “irreversible measures” (Meyenburg, 1999). But after reading his study, that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, the mixed results indicate that the adolescents’ gender identity was only being suppressed, not “cured” — much in the same way that parents once wanted to “cure” their child’s homosexuality, when we now know that being gay or lesbian is not a disorder and doesn’t need treatment. It seems to me that psychotherapy is a treatment that belongs in the past.

Another case study by Arcelus and Bouman (2000) examined the onset of gender dysphoria in a thirteen-year-old boy who also had a history of male-to-female crossdressing in his family. Although the study did not indicate if the boy ever received sex reassignment surgery after going through psychotherapy, the study suggested that there might be a link between gender dysphoria and fetishistic transvestism. The study also discovered there might be a discoverable genetic link for gender dysphoria, because some of the boy’s relatives whom he did not grow up with or around also experienced some symptoms of gender dysphoria (Arcelus & Bouman, 2000).

The last research study I examined was a larger one, conducted by Smith and van Goozen (2001), which studied 47 adolescents who received treatment for gender dysphoria. Among the participants, 20 people chose to undergo sex reassignment surgery instead of extensive psychotherapy, 21 received psychotherapy and would not have their sex reassigned, and six others would remain undecided about the various forms of treatment until they became older. Each participant was tested for regular functioning in psychological, social, and sexual areas.

The sex reassignment surgeries appeared to be successful, as none of the 20 people expressed any regret about their surgery in a survey conducted up to four years later. The study also reported, “The treated group was no longer gender-dysphoric and was psychologically and socially functioning quite well” (Smith & van Goozen, 2001), suggesting that sex reassignment is a reasonable form of treatment for gender dysphoria.

As for the participants who only received psychotherapy, they showed some improvement but as a group were not functioning as well psychologically as the group who received sex reassignment surgery (Smith & van Goozen, 2001). The trend across these studies suggests that psychotherapy should no longer be recommended, and more focus moving forward should be put on establishing a greater understanding of each individual person’s case and encouraging the most appropriate outcome for them fairly and without stigma.

Discussion

From these studies, it’s clear that treating gender dysphoria in adolescents is a complicated issue. Arcelus and Bouman (2000) propose there might be a “spectrum of cross-gender identification” (p. 410), which suggests there is more to gender dysphoria than “you have it or you don’t.” The etiology of gender dysphoria is immensely complex.

Adolescents face an incredible amount of pressure in their daily lives anyway, and adding gender identity issues to an adolescent’s individual situation makes everything that much more complicated. So, especially for adolescents, I do not necessarily agree with all forms of gender dysphoria being blanket-labeled as the same issue that requires the same treatment.

Before recent years, adolescents who were gay or lesbian were also told that they had a disorder; they faced even more unnecessary pressure and criticism in those crucial years of their lives and underwent treatment for something that could only be suppressed, not supposedly cured.

In some respects, gender dysphoria strikes me as a similar scenario. If gender roles were not so ingrained into society, and if children and adolescents were not routinely teased at the slightest sign of an unexpected gender expression, perhaps some people who are currently suffering would live happier lives without any treatment. Those who feel that their biological sex is acceptable, while having a gender identity that exists somewhere else on the spectrum, would not be pressured to change either their sex or their gender expression.

Of course, even with more evolved attitudes toward gender expression in society, many people who experience gender dysphoria are transgender and know they were born with the incorrect biological sex. If the proper surgical procedures can make them feel that they are in the correct body, and if more people who have gone through that process gain visibility, perhaps our society will come to accept transgender people in greater numbers.

Ideally, the entire spectrum of gender identity and expression could be viewed with acceptance. As Richardson (1999) states, it is largely a matter of exercising our own “mental freedom — specifically, that we free ourselves from an imaginative conformity with notions of how boys and girls should behave” (p. 50). If we as a society were to achieve that, it would be one of the greatest paradigm shifts we have ever witnessed.

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC.
  • Arcelus, J., & Bouman, W. P. (2000). Gender Identity Disorder in a child with a family history of cross-dressing. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. 15(4), 407-411.
  • Halderman, D. C. (2000). Gender atypical youth: Clinical and social issues. School Psychology Review. 29(2), 192-200.
  • Meyenburg, B. (1999). Gender Identity Disorder in adolescence: Outcomes of psychotherapy. Adolescence. 34(134), 305-313.
  • Richardson, J. (1999). Response: Finding the disorder in Gender Identity Disorder. Harvard Review of Psychiatry. 7(1), 43-50.
  • Smith, Y. L. & van Goozen, S. H. (2001). Adolescents with Gender Identity Disorder who were accepted or rejected for sex reassignment surgery: A prospective follow-up study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 40(4), 472-481.
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