The idea of getting stuck in the wrong body sounds like the premise for a movie in "Freaky Friday," a mother and a daughter swap bodies, and in "Big" and "13 Going on 30," teenagers experience life in an adult's body. These movies derive their humor from the ways in which the person's attitude and thoughts don't match their appearance. A teenager trapped in her mother's body, for example, revels in breaking curfew and playing air guitar, while a teenager trapped in an adult's body is astounded by the trappings of wealth that come with a full-time job. We laugh because the dialogue and actions are so contrary to what we'd expect from someone who is a mother, or from someone who is an employed adult.
But for some people, living as an incongruous gender is anything but a joke. A transgender person is someone who has a different gender identity than their birth sex would indicate. We interchange the words sex, sexuality and gender all the time, but they don't actually refer to the same thing. Sex refers to the parts we were born with; boys, we assume, have a penis, while girls come equipped with a vagina. Sexuality generally refers to sexual orientation, or who we're attracted to in a sexual and/or romantic sense. Gender expression refers to the behavior used to communicate gender in a given culture. Little girls in the U.S., for example, would be expected express their feminine gender by playing with dolls and wearing dresses, and little boys would be assumed to express their masculinity with penchants for roughhousing and monster trucks. Another term is gender identity, the private sense or feeling of being either a man or woman, some combination of both or neither [source: American Psychological Association].
Sometimes, a young boy may want to wear dresses and have tea parties, yet it's nothing more than a phase that eventually subsides. Other times, however, there is a longing to identify with another gender or no gender at all that becomes so intense that the person experiencing it can't function anymore. Transgender is an umbrella term for people who identify outside of the gender they were assigned at birth and for some gender reassignment surgeries are crucial to leading a healthy, happy life.
Gender Dysphoria: Diagnosis and Psychotherapy
Transgender people may begin identifying with a different gender, rather than the one assigned at birth, in early childhood, which means they can't remember a time they didn't feel shame or distress about their bodies. For other people, that dissatisfaction with their biological sex begins later, perhaps around puberty or early adulthood, though it can occur later in life as well.
It's estimated that about 0.3 percent of the U.S. population self-identify as transgender, but not all who are transgender will choose to undergo a gender transition [source: Gates]. Some may choose to affirm their new gender through physically transforming their bodies from the top down, while others may prefer to make only certain cosmetic changes, such as surgeries to soften facial features or hair removal procedures, for example.
Not all who identify with a gender different than their birth sex suffer from gender dysphoria or go on to seek surgery. Transgender people who do want gender reassignment surgery, however, must follow the standards of care for gender affirmation as defined by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).
In 1980, when gender identity disorder(GID) was first recognized, it was considered a psychiatric disorder. In 2013, though, GID was, in part, reconsidered as biological in nature, and renamed gender dysphoria. It was reclassified as a medical condition in the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), a common language and standards protocol manual for the classification of mental disorders. With this classification, transgender people must be diagnosed prior to any treatment [source: International Foundation for Gender Education].
Gender dysphoria is diagnosed when a person has a persistent desire to become a different gender. The desire may manifest itself as disgust for one's reproductive organs, hatred for the clothing and other outward signs of one's given gender, and/or a desire to act and be recognized as another gender. This desire must be continuously present for six months in order to be recognized as a disorder [source: WPATH].
In addition to receiving the diagnosis from a mental health professional, a person seeking reassignment must also take part in psychotherapy. The point of therapy isn't to ignite a change, begin a conversion or otherwise convince a transgender person that it's wrong to want to be of a different gender (or of no specific gender at all) . Rather, counseling is required to ensure that the person is realistic about the process of gender affirmation and understands the ramifications of not only going through with social and legal changes but with permanent options such as surgery. And because feeling incongruous with your body can be traumatizing and frustrating, the mental health professional will also work to identify any underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse or borderline personality disorder.
The mental health professional can also help to guide the person seeking gender reassignment through the next step of the process: real-life experience.
WPATH requires transgender people desiring gender reassignment surgery to live full-time as the gender that they wish to be before pursuing any permanent options as part of their gender transition. This period is a known as real-life experience (RLE).
It's during the RLE that the transgender person often chooses a new name appropriate for the desired gender, and begins the legal name-change process. That new name often comes with a set of newly appropriate pronouns, too; for example, when Chastity Bono, biologically born as Sonny and Cher's daughter in 1969, began her transition in 2008 she renamed herself as Chaz and instructed people to use "he" rather than "she" [source: Donaldson James].
In addition to a new name and pronouns, during this time gender-affirming men and women are expected to also adopt the clothing of their desired gender while maintaining their employment, attending school or volunteering in the community. Trans women might begin undergoing cosmetic procedures to rid themselves of body hair; trans men might take voice coaching in attempt to speak in a lower pitch. The goal of real-life experience is to expose social issues that might arise if the individual were to continue gender reassignment. How, for example, will a boss react if a male employee comes to work as a female? What about family? Or your significant other? Sometimes, during RLE people realize that living as the other gender doesn't bring the happiness they thought it would, and they may not continue to transition. Other times, a social transition is enough, and gender reassignment surgery isn't pursued. And sometimes, this test run is the confirmation people need to pursue physical changes in order to fully become another gender.
In addition to the year-long real-life experience requirement before surgical options may be pursued, WPATH recommends hormonal therapy as a critical component to transitioning before surgery. Candidates for hormone therapy may choose to complete a year-long RLE and counseling or complete six months of a RLE or three-months of a RLE/three months of psychotherapy before moving ahead with hormone therapy.
Upon successfully completing a RLE by demonstrating stable mental health and a healthy lifestyle, the transitioning individual becomes eligible for genital reconstructive surgery — but it can't begin until a mental health professional submits a letter (or letters) of recommendation indicating that the individual is ready to move forward [source: WPATH].
Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT), also called cross-sex hormones, is a way for transgender individuals to feel and look more like the gender they identify with, and so it's a major step in gender reassignment. In order to be eligible for hormone therapy, participants must be at least 18 years old (though sometimes, younger adolescents are allowed to take hormone blockers to prohibit their naturally occurring puberty) and demonstrate to a mental health professional that they have realistic expectations of what the hormones will and won't do to their bodies. A letter from that mental health professional is required, per the standards of care established by WPATH.
Hormone therapy is used to balance a person's gender identity with their body's endocrine system. Male-to-female candidates begin by taking testosterone-blocking agents (or anti-androgens) along with female hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. This combination of hormones is designed to lead to breast growth, softer skin, less body hair and fewer erections. These hormones also change the body by redistributing body fat to areas where women tend to carry extra weight (such as around the hips) and by decreasing upper body strength. Female-to-male candidates begin taking testosterone, which will deepen the voice and may cause some hair loss or baldness. Testosterone will also cause the clitoris to enlarge and the person's sex drive to increase. Breasts may slightly shrink, while upper body strength will increase [source: WPATH].
It usually takes two continuous years of treatment to see the full results of hormone therapy. If a person were to stop taking the hormones, then some of these changes would reverse themselves. Hormone therapy is not without side effects — both men and women may experience an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and they are also at risk for fertility problems. Some transgender people may choose to bank sperm or eggs if they wish to have children in the future.
Sometimes hormonal therapy is enough to make a person feel he or she belongs to the desired gender, so treatment stops here. Others may pursue surgical means as part of gender reassignment.
Surgical Options: Transgender Women
Surgical options are usually considered after at least two years of hormonal therapy, and require two letters of approval by therapists or physicians. These surgeries may or may not be covered by health insurance in the U.S. — often only those that are considered medically necessary to treat gender dysphoria are covered, and they can be expensive. Gender reassignment costs vary based on each person's needs and desires; expenses often range between $7,000 and $50,000 (in 2014), although costs may be much greater depending upon the type (gender reconstructive surgeries versus cosmetic procedures) and number of surgeries as well as where in the world they are performed [source: AP].
Gender affirmation is done with an interdisciplinary team, which includes mental health professionals, endocrinologists, gynecologists, urologists and reconstructive cosmetic surgeons.
One of the first surgeries male-to-female candidates pursue is breast augmentation, if HRT doesn't enlarge their breasts to their satisfaction. Though breast augmentations are a common procedure for cisgender women (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth), care must be taken when operating on a biologically male body, as there are structural differences, like body size, that may affect the outcome.
The surgical options to change male genitalia include orchiectomy (removal of the testicles), penile inversion vaginoplasty (creation of a vagina from the penis), clitoroplasty (creation of a clitoris from the glans of the penis) and labiaplasty (creation of labia from the skin of the scrotum) [source: Nguyen]. The new vagina, clitoris and labia are typically constructed from the existing penile tissue. Essentially, after the testicles and the inner tissue of the penis is removed and the urethra is shortened, the skin of the penis is turned inside out and fashioned into the external labia and the internal vagina. A clitoris is created from excess erectile tissue, while the glans ends up at the opposite end of the vagina; these two sensitive areas usually mean that orgasm is possible once gender reassignment is complete. Male-to-female gender reconstructive surgery typically takes about four or five hours [source: University of Michigan]. The major complication from this surgery is collapse of the new vaginal cavity, so after surgery, patients may have to use dilating devices.
Trans women may also choose to undergo cosmetic surgeries to further enhance their femininity. Procedures commonly included with feminization are: blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery); cheek augmentation; chin augmentation; facelift; forehead and brow lift with brow bone reduction and hair line advance; liposuction; rhinoplasty; chondrolargynoplasty or tracheal shave (to reduce the appearance of the Adam's apple); and upper lip shortening [source: The Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery]. Trans women may pursue these surgeries with any cosmetic plastic surgeon, but as with breast augmentation, a doctor experienced with this unique situation is preferred. One last surgical option is voice modification surgery, which changes the pitch of the voice (alternatively, there is speech therapy and voice training, as well as training DVDs and audio recordings that promise the same thing).
Surgical Options: Transgender Men
Female-to-male surgeries are pursued less often than male-to-female surgeries, mostly because when compared to male-to-female surgeries, trans men have limited options; and, historically, successful surgical outcomes haven't been considered on par with those of trans women. Still, more than 80 percent of surgically trans men report having sexual intercourse with orgasm [source: Harrison].
As with male-to-female transition, female-to-male candidates may begin with breast surgery, although for trans men this comes in the form of a mastectomy. This may be the only surgery that trans men undergo in their reassignment, if only because the genital surgeries available are still far from perfect. Forty percent of trans men who undergo genital reconstructive surgeries experience complications including problems with urinary function, infection and fistulas [sources: Harrison, WPATH].
Female-to-male genital reconstructive surgeries include hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) and salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries). Patients may then elect to have a metoidioplasty, which is a surgical enlargement of the clitoris so that it can serve as a sort of penis, or, more commonly, a phalloplasty. A phalloplasty includes the creation of a neo-phallus, clitoral transposition, glansplasty and scrotoplasty with prosthetic testicles inserted to complete the appearance.
There are three types of penile implants, also called penile prostheses: The most popular is a three-piece inflatable implant, used in about 75 percent of patients. There are also two-piece inflatable penile implants, used only 15 percent of the time; and non-inflatable (including semi-rigid) implants, which are used in fewer than 10 percent of surgeries. Inflatable implants are expected to last about five to 10 years, while semi-rigid options typically have a lifespan of about 20 years (and fewer complications than inflatable types) [source: Crane].
As with trans women, trans men may elect for cosmetic surgery that will make them appear more masculine, though the options are slightly more limited; liposuction to reduce fat in areas in which cisgender women i tend to carry it is one of the most commonly performed cosmetic procedures.
Gender Reassignment: Regrets
As surgical techniques improve, complication rates have fallen too. For instance, long-term complication risks for male-to-female reconstructive surgeries have fallen below 1 percent. Despite any complications, though, the overwhelming majority of people who've undergone surgical reconstruction report they're satisfied with the results [source: Jarolím]. Other researchers have noted that people who complete their transition process show a marked improvement in mental health and a substantial decrease in substance abuse and depression. Compare these results to 2010 survey findings that revealed that 41 percent of transgender people in the U.S. attempted suicide, and you'll see that finally feeling comfortable in one's own skin can be an immensely positive experience [source: Moskowitz].
It's difficult, though, to paint a complete picture of what life is like after people transition to a new gender, as many people move to a new place for a fresh start after their transition is complete. For that reason, many researchers, doctors and therapists have lost track of former patients. For some people, that fresh start is essential to living their new lives to the fullest, while others have found that staying in the same job, the same marriage or the same city is just as rewarding and fulfilling and vital to their sense of acceptance.
In many ways, the process of gender affirmation is ongoing. Even after the surgeries and therapies are complete, people will still have to deal with these discrimination issues. Transgender people are often at high risk for hate crimes. Regular follow-ups will be necessary to maintain both physical and mental health, and many people continue to struggle with self-acceptance and self-esteem after struggling with themselves for so long. Still, as more people learn about gender reassignment, it seems possible that that these issues of stigma and discrimination won't be so prevalent.
As many as 91 percent Americans are familiar with the term "transgender" and 76 percent can correctly define it; 89 percent agree that transgender people deserve the same rights, privileges and protections as those who are cisgender [source: Public Religion Research Institute]. But that's not to say that everything becomes completely easy once a person transitions to his or her desired gender.
Depending upon where you live, non-discrimination laws may or may not cover transgender individuals, so it's completely possible to be fired from one's job or lose one's home due to gender expression. Some people have lost custody of their children after divorces and have been unable to get courts to recognize their parental rights. Historically, some marriages were challenged — consider, for example, what happens when a man who is married to a woman decides to become a woman; after the surgery, if the two people decide to remain married, it now appears to be a same-sex marriage, which is now legalized in the U.S. Some organizations and governments refuse to recognize a person's new gender unless genital reconstructive surgery has been performed, despite the fact that some people only pursue hormone therapy or breast surgery [sources: U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Glicksman].
Author's Note: Stages of Gender Reassignment
It's interesting how our terminology changes throughout the years, isn't it? (And in some cases for the better.) What we used to call a sex change operation is now gender realignment surgery. Transsexual is now largely replaced with transgender. And with good reason, I think. Knowing that sex, sexuality and gender aren't interchangeable terms, updating "sex change" to "gender reassignment" or "gender affirmation" and "transsexual" to "transgender" moves the focus away from what sounds like something to do with sexual orientation to one that is a more accurate designation.
More Great Links
- American Medical Student Association (AMSA). "Transgender Health Resources." 2014. (April 20, 2015) http://www.amsa.org/AMSA/Homepage/About/Committees/GenderandSexuality/TransgenderHealthCare.aspx
- American Psychological Association (APA). "Definition of Terms: Sex, Gender, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation." 2011. (July 1, 2015) http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf
- AP. "Medicare ban on sex reassignment surgery lifted." May 30, 2014. (April 20, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/30/medicare-sex-reassignment/9789675/
- Belkin, Lisa. "Smoother Transitions." The New York Times. Sept. 4, 2008. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/04/fashion/04WORK.html
- Crane, Curtis. "The Total Guide to Penile Implants For Transsexual Men." Transhealth. May 2, 2014. (April 20, 2015) http://www.trans-health.com/2013/penile-implants-guide/
- Donaldson James, Susan. "Trans Chaz Bono Eyes Risky Surgery to Construct Penis." ABC News. Jan. 6, 2012. (April 20, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/transgender-chaz-bono-seeks-penis-genital-surgery-risky/story?id=15299871Gates, Gary J. "How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender?" April 2011. (July 29, 2015) http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBT-Apr-2011.pdf
- Glicksman, Eve. "Transgender today." Monitor on Psychology. Vol. 44, no. 4. Page 36. April 2013. (April 20, 2015) http://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/04/transgender.aspx
- Harrison, Laird. "Sex-Change Operations Mostly Successful." Medscape Medical News. May 20, 2013. (April 20, 2015) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/804432
- HealthResearchFunding.org (HRF). "14 Unique Gender Identity Disorder Statistics." July 28, 2014. (April 20, 2015) http://healthresearchfunding.org/gender-identity-disorder-statistics/
- International Foundation for Gender Education. "APA DSM-5 Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders: 302.85 Gender Identity Disorder in Adolescents or Adults." (April 20, 2015) http://www.ifge.org/302.85_Gender_Identity_Disorder_in_Adolescents_or_Adults
- Moskowitz, Clara. "High Suicide Risk, Prejudice Plague Transgender People." LiveScience. Nov. 18, 2010. (April 20, 2015) http://www.livescience.com/11208-high-suicide-risk-prejudice-plague-transgender-people.html
- Nguyen, Tuan A. "Male-To-Female Procedures." Lake Oswego Plastic Surgery. 2013. (April 20, 2015) http://www.lakeoswegoplasticsurgery.com/grs/grs_procedures_mtf.html
- Public Religion Research Institute. "Survey: Strong Majorities of Americans Favor Rights and Legal Protections for Transgender People." Nov. 3, 2011. (April 20, 2015) http://publicreligion.org/research/2011/11/american-attitudes-towards-transgender-people/#.VSmlgfnF9bw
- Steinmetz, Katy. "Board Rules That Medicare Can Cover Gender Reassignment Surgery." Time. (April 20, 2015) http://time.com/2800307/medicare-gender-reassignment/
- The Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery. "Phalloplasty: Frequently Asked Questions." (April 20, 2015) http://www.thetransgendercenter.com/index.php/surgical-procedures/phalloplasty-faqs.html
- U.S. Office of Personnel Management. "Guidance Regarding the Employment of Transgender Individuals in the Federal Workplace." 2015. (April 20, 2015) http://www.opm.gov/diversity/Transgender/Guidance.asp
- University of California, San Francisco - Department of Family and Community Medicine, Center of Excellence for Transgender Health. "Primary Care Protocol for Transgender Patient Care." April 2011. (April 20, 2015) http://transhealth.ucsf.edu/trans?page=protocol-hormones
- University of Miami - Miller School of Medicine, Department of Surgery, Plastic, Aesthetic and Reconstructive Surgery. "Transgender Reassignment." 2015. (April 20, 2015) http://surgery.med.miami.edu/plastic-and-reconstructive/transgender-reassignment-surgery
- University of Michigan Health System. "Gender Affirming Surgery." (April 20, 2015) http://www.uofmhealth.org/medical-services/gender-affirming-surgery
- World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). "Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People." Version 7. 2012. (April 20, 2015) http://www.wpath.org/uploaded_files/140/files/Standards%20of%20Care,%20V7%20Full%20Book.pdf
- World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). "WPATH Clarification on Medical Necessity of Treatment, Sex Reassignment, and Insurance Coverage for Transgender and Transsexual People Worldwide." 2015. (April 20, 2015) http://www.wpath.org/site_page.cfm?pk_association_webpage_menu=1352&pk_association_webpage=3947