While we have more open conversations about gender today than in the past, there is still a lot of confusion and misinformation around issues such as gender dysphoria, the subject of this blog.
Those working with or responsible for children and young adults who are struggling with their gender identity can make a positive contribution to their wellbeing and development by becoming better informed and offering help and understanding.
What is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is when a person of any age feels emotionally and psychologically different from the biological sex they are assigned at birth, and suffers distress as a result.
This might be a child born male who feels female or a child born female who feels male. In some cases it might be an individual who presents as neither male nor female, or both male and female, and may identify as non-binary, genderfluid or, more informally, genderqueer.
The condition is believed to have its roots in pregnancy, possibly from a variance between the way hormones affect the brain and the reproductive organs, or for other reasons such as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) where a foetus is not sufficiently sensitive to hormones during growth, or possibly because of medication taken by the mother.
Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness but is accepted by the NHS and other bodies as a medical condition, which can lead to anxiety, distress and depression, for which treatment can be offered. Not all transgender (or trans) people experience gender dysphoria and the condition is different from transvestism and separate from sexual orientation.
How many people have gender dysphoria?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission conducted a survey of 10,000 people in 2012, of which 1% were gender variant. The lack of studies make it hard to give accurate figures on gender dysphoria, however, as the condition becomes more widely discussed, it’s expected the number of diagnoses will rise.
What are the effects of gender dysphoria?
Children and young people with gender dysphoria can feel isolated and misunderstood through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. As many people do not understand the condition, those affected can suffer prejudice and bullying.
Being listened to and receiving support from an early age can make a significant difference to their self-esteem and wellbeing.
What are their legal rights?
Following the Equality Act of 2010, people of all ages, including minors, should have the choice of how they want to be addressed respected – including whether they prefer the personal pronouns of “he” and “she” or the neutral “they”. They do not need a medical diagnosis or treatment for this to be required.
Educators and youth leaders at all levels should be aware of their responsibility to correctly address those with gender dysphoria and to offer the appropriate support under their legal duty of care.
What are the signs of gender dysphoria?
Some girls are tomboys and some boys dress up in their mother’s clothes – this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have gender dysphoria.
However, if a child continually insists they are of the opposite sex, wants to wear clothes and play games associated with the opposite sex, wants to urinate like and have the genitals of the opposite sex, and becomes distressed by puberty, in particular physical signs such as facial hair or developing breasts, it’s possible they have the condition.
By the time they reach their teenage years and adulthood, they are likely to be clear in their own minds that their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, accompanied by a need to hide or remove any physical signs of their given sex. Supressing these instincts can be difficult and can cause significant distress, as far as depression and thoughts of suicide (see our blog on Safeguarding: Suicide).
What help is available for those with gender dysphoria?
Your GP should be able to refer you to an NHS Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) for assessment, help and an individual treatment plan. There are eight GICs across the UK.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, you can also call the Samaritans’ free phone number: 116 123 or email email@example.com.
Other sources of help:
The Beaumont Society: www.thebeaumontsociety.org.uk; 01582 412220
A national self-help body, which is run by and for the transgender community, with a strong support network and membership option with discussion forums.
Mermaids: www.mermaidsuk.org.uk; 0344 334 0550 (usually open 9am-8pm, Mon-Fri); firstname.lastname@example.org
An organisation working to raise awareness about gender nonconformity, with support for young people and families, including discussion forums, email support and residential weekends.