Gender is often considered a cultural and political minefield, leading to everything from crude jokes to violence. Unfortunately, these heated discussions and policies often leave transgender and non-binary people vulnerable to ridicule, harassment, assault, and other types of mistreatment that can result in lasting emotional or even physical scars.
Identity is important for everyone whether they are comfortable with the gender they are assigned at birth or not. Healthcare needs to be a safe space for people who are seeking out gender-affirming care. Here’s why.
What is Included in Gender-Affirming Care?
Gender-affirming care describes any medications and procedures performed to support the gender identity of an individual. People who identify as transgender or non-binary might request one or more of the following gender-affirming procedures:
- Puberty blockers
- Estrogen therapy
- Testosterone therapy
- Gender-affirming surgery
Some of these procedures and treatments are reversible, while others are not. Each treatment is discussed with a medical provider in depth before proceeding, especially if the patient is under the age of 18.
Gender-Affirming Care Can Improve Mental Health
Gender-affirming care can have major mental health and emotional benefits for patients. For many patients, especially children and teens, the ability to access gender-affirming care can make a huge difference in self-esteem and well-being as they grow and develop.
Transgender and non-binary youth often face discrimination, bullying, and trauma, even before they reach puberty. With gender-affirming care, youth can feel more comfortable in their bodies and reduce stressors that can trigger mental health problems.
When people feel that their appearance matches their true identity, they are happier, more confident, and enjoy improved mental health. Although gender-affirming care cannot guarantee a person’s safety during their daily lives, it can make an enormous difference in how they feel, behave, and perceive themselves. Cultural change is slow, but individual change happens quickly.
Safe Care is Important
People who cannot access gender-affirming care through their primary doctor and referral network might resort to other means of getting the treatment they need. Purchasing anabolic steroids like testosterone illegally is just one consequence of being denied care.
Safe care is important. Healthcare providers face many challenges when it comes to complying with regulations while doing what’s best for their patients. Restricting access to gender-affirming care can lead to unsafe and illegal practices out of patients’ desperation.
Healthcare Providers Can Increase Trust with Gender-Affirming Care
Whenever someone walks into a doctor’s office, they should feel safe and valued as an individual. Without that, the all-important trust that is needed to promote excellent health outcomes is not possible. When someone who is transgender or non-binary cannot receive gender-affirming care or feel that their healthcare provider is judging them, trust is impossible to achieve.
Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals can help by supporting patients’ gender expression and using inclusive language. If gender-affirming care is restricted, patients are likely to withhold critical information, feel unsafe in the doctor’s office, and/or delay seeking treatment for health problems. This ultimately leads to poorer health outcomes.
Gender-Affirming Care Saves Lives
Studies have shown that LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at a rate of more than four times that of non-LGBTQ youth. Bullying, trauma, violence, a lack of support, and other cultural forces often lead young transgender people to contemplate ending their own lives. Some of these tragedies could be avoided by providing better support and care both inside and outside the field of healthcare.
Gender-affirming care isn’t just about using hormone therapy or surgery to change the way someone looks and feels. It can also save lives by providing much-needed mental health treatment and support for young people who don’t see any way out but suicide. Gender-affirming care is necessary for so many people in the United States, and it is an essential lifesaving tool in the modern healthcare landscape.
Social Affirmation is Important, but it Isn’t Enough
Social affirmation of gender includes adopting names, haircuts, clothing, and personal style in line with one’s gender identity. For those who are transgender and non-binary, social affirmation might also include using a different bathroom or changing their preferred pronouns.
Social affirmation is important, especially for children who have begun to realize that their identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. Although it is not technically medical care, social affirmation is an important part of providing gender-affirming care. Maurice Gattis, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Social Work and Senior Advisor to the Queer Research and Advocacy Center (Q Collective) at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains why:
“Chosen names affirm the identity of the individual and is in line with how they identify. Being misgendered or being called by a birth name instead of a chosen name when the chosen name is known, is a microaggression which has negative consequences for the target of the behavior. Microaggressions are associated with negative mental health outcomes such as depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation over time.”
Family, friends, and society as a whole play a role in social affirmation, or in tearing it down. But having support for social affirmation isn’t enough. Gender-affirming care can be critical for a person’s well-being, mental health, and confidence, regardless of their age. Young people who are denied gender-affirming care while using social affirmation to express their identity often develop mental health issues relating to this lack of access.
How to Protect The Right to Gender-Affirming Care
Several states have already written legislation against gender-affirming care. These bills are intended to prevent doctors from providing people under 18 with the care that supports a gender identity not assigned at birth, even with parental consent. They can result in serious fines and jail time for providers.
The role of doctors and nurses has changed over the years, but they have always played a role in influencing politics according to what’s in the best interests of patients. Today, healthcare providers need to stand up for gender-affirming care and help to normalize it within the healthcare system.
No one takes the decision to undergo hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery lightly. These are necessary procedures that affect a patient’s overall health and well-being. Transgender and non-binary people already face so much criticism in their daily lives, and they shouldn’t have to deal with it in the healthcare setting. If healthcare professionals don’t stand up for gender-affirming care, the ripple effect will continue to harm innocent people.