I am privileged to work in a university hospital system where I have access to colleagues with expertise in LGBT health; however, medical providers in the community may not enjoy such resources. Many transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) youth now are seeking help from their community primary care providers to affirm their gender identity, but many community primary care providers do not have the luxury of referring these patients to an expert in gender-affirming care when their TGD patients express the desire to affirm their gender through medical and surgical means. This is even more difficult if the nearest referral center is hundreds of miles away. Nevertheless,
If a TGD youth discloses their gender identity to you, it is critical that you make the patient feel safe and supported. Showing support is important in maintaining rapport between you and the patient. Furthermore, you may be one of the very few adults in the child’s life whom they can trust.
First of all, thank them. For many TGD patients, disclosing their gender identity to a health care provider can be a herculean task. They may have spent many hours trying to find the right words to say to disclose an important aspect of themselves to you. They also probably spent a fair amount of time worrying about whether or not you would react positively to this disclosure. This fear is reasonable. About one-fifth of transgender people have reported being kicked out of a medical practice because of their disclosure of their gender identity.1
Secondly, assure the TGD patient that your treatment would be no different from the care provided for other patients. Discrimination from a health care provider has frequently been reported by TGD patients1 and is expected from this population.2 By emphasizing this, you have signaled to them that you are committed to treating them with dignity and respect. Furthermore, signal your commitment to this treatment by making the clinic a safe and welcoming place for LGBT youth. Several resources exist that can help with this. The American Medical Association provides a good example on how to draft a nondiscrimination statement that can be posted in waiting areas;3 the Fenway Institute has a good example of an intake form that is LGBT friendly.4
In addition, a good way to help affirm their gender identity is to tell them that being transgender or gender-diverse is normal and healthy. Many times, TGD youth will hear narratives that gender diversity is pathological or aberrant; however, hearing that they are healthy and normal, especially from a health care provider, can make a powerful impact on feeling supported and affirmed.
Furthermore, inform your TGD youth of their right to confidentiality. Many TGD youth may not be out to their parents, and you may be the first person to whom they disclosed their gender identity. This is especially helpful if you describe their right to and the limits of confidentiality (e.g., suicidality) at the beginning of the visit. Assurance of confidentiality is a vital reason adolescents and young adults seek health care from a medical provider,5 and the same can be said of TGD youth; however, keep in mind that if they do desire to transition using cross-sex hormones or surgery, parental permission is required.
If they are not out to their parents and they are planning to come out to their parents, offer to be there when they do. Having someone to support the child – someone who is a medical provider – can add to the sense of legitimacy that what the child is experiencing is normal and healthy. Providing guidance on how parents can support their TGD child is essential for successful affirmation, and some suggestions can be found in an LGBT Youth Consult column I wrote titled,
If you practice in a location where the nearest expert in gender-affirming care can be hundreds of miles away, educate yourself on gender-affirming care. Several guidelines are available.focuses on the mental health aspects of gender-affirming care. The SOC recommends, but no longer requires, letters from a mental health therapist to start gender-affirming medical treatments and does allow for a discussion between you and the patient on the risks, benefits, alternatives, unknowns, limitations of treatment, and risks of not treating (i.e., obtaining informed consent) as the threshold for hormone therapy.6 This approach, known as the “informed consent model,” can be helpful in expanding health care access for TGD youth. Furthermore, there’s the Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guidelines7 and the University of California, San Francisco, Guidelines,8 which focus on the medical aspects of gender-affirming care, such as when to start pubertal blockers and dosing for cross-sex hormones. Finally, there are resources that allow providers to consult an expert remotely for more complicated cases. Transline is a transgender medical consultation service staffed by medical providers with expertise in gender-affirming care. Providers can learn more about this valuable service on the website: .
Working in a major medical center is not necessary in providing gender-affirming care to TGD youth. Being respectful, supportive, and having the willingness to learn are the minimal requirements. Resources are available to help guide you on the more technical aspects of gender-affirming care. Maintaining a supportive environment and using these resources will help you expand health care access for this population.
Dr. Montano is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh and an adolescent medicine physician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Email him at.
3.American Medical Association.
8.2nd edition (San Francisco, CA: University of California, San Francisco, June 17, 2016).