GARDEN ROUTE NEWS - Despite growing global attention on and acknowledgement of gender diversity, young people who identify as transgender face an uphill battle for acceptance.
Transgender individuals are at an increased risk of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse, with almost half of transgender adults having suicidal thoughts and nearly a third attempting suicide.
Similarly, transgender youth - already facing the physical changes and emotional turmoil of adolescence - are at high risk for mental illness and life-threatening behaviours. Studies have shown that more than a third of transgender youth have a history of self-injuring behaviours and a third report at least one suicide attempt.
While almost one in ten teenage deaths in South Africa year is the result of suicide, the risk of suicide is even greater amongst transgender youth.
Not a disorder
Prof Gerhard Grobler, psychiatrist and past president of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop), said it is important to understand that identifying as transgender is not a mental illness or disorder.
"However, gender dysphoria - a state of intense distress that can arise from the sense of a mismatch between one's sex assigned at birth and one's lived gender identity - is a real condition that can benefit from treatment such as gender-affirming counselling or psychotherapy.
"Youth identifying as transgender may experience anxiety and depression, increasing their risk of self-harm, due to stigma, lack of acceptance, a feeling that they have to hide their true selves, low self-esteem, social isolation and, at its worst, bullying, harassment and abuse."
He said these risks have been widely shown to reduce significantly when youth receive social and psychological support in "being the gender they identify with and feel is their authentic self".
While the percentage of youth who identify as transgender is small (a study in the USA estimated 0,7% of teenagers aged 13-17, and 0,6% of adults), the spotlight has been turned on transgender teens in recent years through increased public and media visibility of transgender people and heated social media debates among high-profile figures.
People identifying as transgender is, however, "not a new phenomenon", Prof Grobler said, as gender non-conforming people have been documented in the histories of cultures across the globe, including in Africa.
Prof Grobler explained that "transgender" is an umbrella term encompassing various expressions where people's birth-assigned sex differs from their experienced gender identity.
Sex is assigned at birth as either male or female and has to do with physical, biological attributes, he said, while gender is a social construct of expected attributes, behaviours, roles and activity (including dress) assigned to males or females, and can vary in different cultures.
He said it is increasingly accepted by healthcare professionals that gender identity operates on a spectrum rather than being a fixed, binary "either/or" state.
He emphasised that gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. "Gender identity refers to one's internal sense of gender, of being male or female or non-binary. Sexual orientation refers to one's physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to others, and is not defined by gender identity. Transgender people could be straight, gay, bisexual or asexual, just as non-transgender people can be."
Not a phase
For parents whose children display gender non-confirming attributes and behaviours, Prof Grobler said it is vital to understand and accept that this is not "just a phase".
"Adolescents in particular are grappling with separation and independence, forming their own identities and autonomy. No one decides on or just chooses a gender identity overnight - appreciate that they have likely spent significant time contemplating this, and it has taken courage to share it with you.
While some children may later shift their gender identity again, rather than labelling it as a passing phase, treat it as real and accept their identity in the here and now," he advised.
Supporting a child or young person who identifies as transgender takes patience, understanding and being willing to advocate on behalf of your child, Prof Grobler said.
He highlighted some pointers for parents, family and friends:
• Every person's transition and how they choose to live differs. The process is complex.
Engage with schools to address your child's particular needs, with their consent.
• Respect your child's privacy and don't "out" them before they are ready.
• Don't force them to act, dress etc in a more gender-conforming way.
• Seek support from a mental health professional who is competent in working with gender diverse young people.
• Respect their choice of name and pronouns. Don't misgender or "dead name" (using their old name) a person - to them, it is like denying their existence.
• Don't make assumptions about how your child would like to dress, what sport they want to play and other gendered stereotypes.
• Don't make assumptions about their sexual orientation.
• Educate yourself on transgender terms, issues and rights so that you can advocate for your child.
Prof Grobler warned that there is no scientific evidence to support so-called conversion "therapy" aimed at changing a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, and that the evidence shows that these discredited practices are likely to be destructive.
"However, a transition in gender identity can be extremely stressful and psychotherapy can play a vital supporting role in helping a person come to self-fulfilling acceptance and self-actualisation, as well as developing the life skills to cope with prejudice, discrimination and rejection."
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