Of conduct and controversy: trans health activism at EPATH

Here in the UK, health is a key priority for many trans activists. While progress is sometimes painfully slow, numerous debates, protests and consultations have informed gradual change within a range of healthcare settings, and a growing number of health professionals are prepared to actively support trans peoples’ access to affirmative care. However, discussion of trans healthcare in the UK has remained focused largely on the specifics of the UK context, even as important events that influence gender identity services in particular are increasingly taking place on the world stage.

In this post, I look at recent activism at “PATH” (Professional Association for Transgender Health) conferences in Amsterdam and Los Angeles, as background to unfolding events at this week’s EPATH conference in Belgrade.


WPATH Symposium 2016

Last year I wrote briefly about international activism taking place at the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) symposium in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This included two unofficial fringe events: a Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE) pre-conference, organised primarily by trans activists from the Global South, and the FreePATHH event, run by Dutch trans people living locally who couldn’t afford to attend the expensive WPATH event.

I myself experienced the WPATH symposium as exhausting, inspiring and frustrating. A myriad of positions on trans health care represented amongst the researchers, practitioners and activists present at the event, which is as it should be at any good conference. However, amongst the thought-provoking and challenging interventions, and numerous examples of progressive approaches and good practice, I also found myself overwhelmed by microaggressions from cis attendees, and thrown by the cognitive dissonance of experiences such as emerging from a session on trans-affirmative care only to find myself attempting to retain a professional demeanour whilst walking past individuas such as Kenneth Zucker. Zucker has been accused of subjecting gender questioning children to reparative therapy, and will also be known to UK readers for his participation in a recent BBC documentary (“Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?”), to which Trans Media Watch responded with an extensively researched letter of complaint.

It was in this context that numerous interventions – both formal and informal – were organised by trans attendees at WPATH. GATE held sessions on depathologisation for trans and intersex people. FreePATHH created a range of notes with “free advice for better transgender care”, which were distributed in a social area for conference attendees to read. Someone gender-neutralised the (binary gendered) toilets with holographic signs. I also heard informally about South African trans women confronting a racist presenter on a panel.

ClTZLM9VEAASI-e.jpg large

In this way, the WPATH symposium felt like a sometimes discouraging, sometimes productive site for real debate and contestation, both professional and political. My impression was that the the interventions that took place there would probably have a gradual impact on how trans health is understand and practised in the years of come, particularly following the creation of TPATH, a group for trans people working in trans health.  What I didn’t realise was the extent to which events would accelerate in the coming months.


USPATH Conference 2017

In February the first USPATH (United States Professional Association for Transgender Health) conference took place in Los Angeles, USA. At this event, tensions over the place of pathologising forms of care in general – and Kenneth Zucker’s ideas and practices in particular – came to a head.

In a Twitter thread written during the event, health researcher Zoé Samudzi describes how a number of academics and health practitioners, led by trans women of colour, spoke out against the inclusion of Zucker on the conference programme. One session (the first of two at which Zucker was due to speak) was briefly interrupted by an impromptu speech and later quietly picketed, after which hotel security threatened to call the police on a number of attendees.

The next day, community representatives – again led by trans women of colour – met with USPATH and WPATH organisers to read a list of demands. In the wake of this intervention, Zucker’s second talk was cancelled, and a formal apology for the initial heavy-handed response to protesters was posted to the WPATH website. This post, which also promised action to better involve trans communities in general and trans people of colour in particular in the work of WPATH, was removed from the website just two weeks later.


EPATH Conference 2017

Today (6th April) the EPATH (European Professional Association for Transgender Health) conference will begin in Belgrade, Serbia. This event is likely to be a somewhat more conservative affair than the USPATH conference due to disciplinary differences between trans health practitioners in the US and Europe: however, like the WPATH symposium, the conference programme incorporates a wide range of perspectives.

There will once again be an associated FreePATHH event on Saturday 8th/Sunday 9th, which is being organised by Serbian trans activists in collaboration with some of the Dutch individuals behind last year’s FreePATHH. It will include free talks and panels on trans and intersex issues in the former Yugoslav region, as well as arts performances and a football match. At the EPATH conference itself, TPATH will have a presence, seeking to bring together trans people working in the field.

One point of potential contention at EPATH is a code of conduct which has been drawn up for the event. In many ways, this document reflects standard conference etiquette, through (for instance) condemning individual harassment of attendees. However, there are also a number of points that appear to have been written specifically in response to recent events.

We expect all conference participants to be respectful in person and online towards other delegates, speakers, organisers, staff and volunteers.

We are committed to providing a harassment-free conference and training experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.  Harassment of participants, speakers, staff or volunteers in any form will not be tolerated.

 Harassment includes offensive verbal comments, and other forms of using disrespectful and pathologising language inconsistent with human rights standards, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing, photography or recording without explicit consent, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Conference participants asked to stop any harassing behaviour are expected to comply immediately.

Upon reading the code of conduct, I was immediately reminded of accounts written by trans woman who have accused controversial practitioners of inappropriately photographing them at past events. This is particularly interesting given that he’s been confirmed to speak at the conference. The reference to “pathologising language” also appears to be a nod to some of the practices at previous conferences that have distressed trans attendees.

However, the question remains about what counts as “offensive verbal comments”, “sustained disruption of talks or events”, or “recording without consent”. If a similarly filmed disruptive event occurs at EPATH as took place at USPATH, it could conceivably be framed as “harassing behaviour” within the context of the of the code of conduct, leading to protesters being ejected from the event. This is concerning because the participation of controversial clinicians such as Zucker is typically defended on the grounds of enabling “free speech” within the context of the conference: however, on these grounds, we might expect that conference attendees wishing to peaceably protest or strongly critique bad science might also be afforded freedom of speech.

I won’t be attending EPATH myself this year; like the FreePATH attendees, I simply can’t afford the expensive conference fees. However, I will be following events with great interest, and encourage other non-attendees with a personal or professional interest in trans health and/or trans activism to do the same.

WPATH 2016 poster: “A time of anticipation”

Here’s the poster I presented at this year’s WPATH Symposium:

Anticipation poster.png

You can also download a PDF version here.

The magnet is a metaphor for anticipation, which is both a product of and shapes feelings, emotions and experiences of time. This process is mediated by both trans community discourses and medical systems.

It’s very important to note that the majority of research participants had good things to say about the health professionals who helped with their transition. However, there is also a high prevelance of transphobia and cisgenderism within medical systems and clinical pathways. Anxiety and mistrust of practitioners within the trans patient population is endemic, and this is compounded by long waiting times.

My wider research looks critically at how discourses of trans health are differently understood within and between community/support spaces, activist groups and the professional sphere; however, the purpose of this particular poster was communicate some of the difficult experiences that current patients have with waiting. It sparked some productive conversations and I hope that further work will follow from this.

Sources:

Transitional Demands (Jess Bradley and Francis Myerscough)

Experiences of people from , and working with, transgender communities within the NHS – summary of findings, 2013/14 (NHS England)

Current Waiting Times & Patient Population for Gender Identity Services in the UK (UK Trans Info)

 

WPATH 2016: the activist fringe

I’m currently in Amsterdam for the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) biennial symposium. It’ll be the largest such conference that has ever been run, with 800 participants from across the globe. This will hopefully be the first of several posts exploring my experences at the conference (no promises, though!) – and I’m also planning to occasionally livetweet.

WPATH is an international body best known for publishing the Standards of Care, which offer guidance for practitioners supporting patients seeking to transition. The organisation has undergone a great deal of change over the years, reflecting wider shifts in understanding around trans people and our experiences. At present, the organisation’s wide scope incorporates a considerable range of views on how transition should and could be managed.

I’m here partly to present a poster detailing some of my research findings around patient experiences of waiting in the UK. However, as a sociologist with an interest in the evolution and negotiation of discourse and activism around trans health, I’ve been interested to see that at least two fringe conferences have been organised in Amsterdam to coincide with WPATH. I also thought it would be beneficial to share what’s going on with a wider audience – so, here goes!


GATE pre-conference

Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE) is a loosely-organised international trans rights organisation: a genuinely diverse multinational network of activists with strong representation from the Global South. One of their key priorities has been to campaign for the depathologisation of trans, although members have also been involved in activism around other issues, such as access to care.

Over the past two days GATE held their own conference in Amsterdam to discuss trans health. The event both stood alone as an independent conference, and provided activists with an opportunity to discuss WPATH. I wasn’t able to attend in person, but have heard that a broad consensus was reached on a couple of issues related to the classification of trans in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

The current version of the document – ICD-10, published back in 1992 – classifies ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ and ‘Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood’ as mental health issues. These diagnoses are widely used in gender clinics in countries such as the UK (note: these differ from the diagnosis of ‘Gender Dysphoria’ present in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM). Recent statements from the World Health Organisation indicate that the long-awaited ICD-11 will replace diagnoses of ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ with ‘Gender Incongruence’, and move these to the sexual health section of the document.

Whilst GATE’s long-term goal is depathologisation, at present they have decided to focus upon pushing for this move from classifying trans diagnoses as mental health issues to regarding them as sexual health issues, as a compromise that should ensure continued funding for transition from insurance companies and public health organisations. In addition, they are arguing against the existence of the category ‘Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood’, on the grounds that this is an unnecessary medicalisation of gender diversity in young children, whilst the ‘adult’ category is sufficient to guide medical interventions for adolescents. This perspective feeds into a wider discussion around the category that is also recognised in the WPATH programme, with time set aside for a formal debate.

GATE activists will be attending WPATH to argue these points, and also to advocate more widely for trans-affirming approaches to treatment.


FREE PATHH

FREE PATHH is an event that will take place this Saturday (18th), concurrently with the first day of the WPATH symposium proper (a handful of formal pre-conferences are taking place on Friday). Hosted by Dutch trans activists, it is a free event that anyone can attend. FREE PATHH organisers argue that the high fees for the WPATH event mean that ordinary Dutch trans people are unable to attend this event held in their own country to learn more about their own health. As such, there is little interaction between WPATH and local Dutch trans communities.

The few transgender people who can afford to be present at this important symposium, are exceptions. They can go, because they have to be present for work or because they have enough personal financial means. (FREE PATHH)

As one of those few trans people who can attend the WPATH symposium (in my case, because I was lucky enough to gain a grant in order to do so), I feel this is a really important point. WPATH undoubtedly exists to share information amongst professionals in a formal setting; at the same time, the issues at hand require input from the very people who are directly impacted. With trans people disproportionately likely to be on low incomes, even early career professionals might find themselves effectively frozen out.

The FREE PATHH programme includes talks and workshops in Dutch and English on a range of issues related to trans health, and will be filmed for later disseminaton. At the end of the day, a panel with individuals who have attended both WPATH and FREE PATHH will summarise both events. This should be a valuable opportunity to share insights from both international and Dutch work on trans health, from professional and community perspectives.

You can read the FREE PATHH programme here.

(Guest Post) Draft Protocol Review

A review of England’s draft protocol for gender dysphoria services by CL. You can read a copy of the draft protocol here, respond to the survey here, and read my own analysis here.

Following the lead of an information note published by the department of health, the draft protocol confirms and compounds the problems of treating gender dysphoria on the NHS. It would at least mostly standardise treatment protocols across England, burdening everyone with the same problems: We’re all in this together, right?

The Gender Services Clinical Reference Group is aiming to implement standardised service provision by April 2013 and has given interested groups until September 30 to respond. GIRES has responded, as has Terrence Higgins Trust’s Trans* Women’s Sexual Health and Wellbeing Group, whose submission I contributed to. Our issues with the Department of Health’s Information Note are seen again here, and I’d like to focus on those in particular: the framing, tailoring and requirements of treatment.

Framing Gender Services Treatment

A problem in the protocol that has carried over from the information note and current practice, is the framing of gender dysphoria treatment as the property of psychiatric specialists. Even in updating the condition being treated to ‘gender dysphoria’ from Gender Identity Disorder, which explicitly frames the problem as one with our gender identities rather than our physical characteristics and the dysphoria resulting from them, the protocol places gender dysphoric people under the care of “a mental health professional (eg. psychiatrist or psychologist) who specialises in transsexualism/gender dysphoria and has general clinical competence in diagnosis and treatment of mental or emotional disorders.”

The logic behind this in the current protocol is not forthcoming. Perhaps it is because there’s a likelihood of additional mental health issues due to the stress of dysphoria. Realistically, it’s because dysphoric people have always been treated as mentally ill, and tradition has kept us under the exclusive care of psychiatrists.

Assessment is a large part of the GICs role: confirming that we have Gender Dysphoria and are not merely deluded about our gender identities. Gender Dysphoria strong enough to necessitate transition is rare, certainly, and doctors are warned to be warey of ‘Zebra diagnoses’ (as House of God, the inspiration for ‘Scrubs’ described them). That is, when you hear hooves, think horse, not zebra. That’s sensible advice, but if you’re in southern African plains, thinking Zebra first might not be so unreasonable. In this case, if someone is distressed by their assigned gender and sexed body, identifies strongly as another gender and feels relief when living as that gender, a diagnosis of ‘trans*’ is the most likely answer. Trusting this principle would rob the GICs of hours of questions about your childhood hobbies and masturbatory habits, but it would free up a lot of unnecessary appointments.

Scotland has already moved away from the complete ownership of Gender Services by mental health teams, allowing patients to self refer to a GIC. This saves an appointment with a GP, one with a community mental health team and allows direct access. For those who need a diagnosis, removing these two stages of waiting, where ignorance or prejudice can delay or waylay a patient, can get them that diagnosis quicker. Given the burden on admin staff and funding, a time, appointment and money saving move like that is far better than the protocol’s recommendations.

Tailoring Service

The introduction to the protocol claims that it is ‘informed by the 7th edition of the WPATH Standards of Care’ – sadly, it isn’t based on them. Some key recommendations from the 7th SOC were: HRT could be prescribed without RLE and one assessment, Lower Surgery required only one year of RLE (rather, one year of HRT). None of those recommendations are followed here, so the role of the 7th SOC’s ‘informing’ is not apparent. As Ruth points out, this is essentially just the existing Charing Cross treatment.

The protocol makes references to giving patients time to consider other options, other approaches, time to reflect and, of course, the RLE’s time to consolidate. There can be great value in this and many people seek the GIC to explore and understand their gender identity. Chances to really assess their history, feelings and situation can be very valuable. A friend in this situation said that her diagnosis brought her great relief and confirmation of her feelings.

For others though, this is unnecessary. Many others will have thought, reflected and considered extensively, almost exclusively at times, before seeking a GIC: they know who they are and what they need. For them, the numerous stages to access a GIC, double assessments and arbitrary RLE periods merely delay them, take up clinic time and appointments and cause additonal frustration as they wait for their treatment.

Clinics shouldn’t be forcing surgery on everyone at the first appointment, but the slowest common denominator approach is hardly ideal either, and unnecessary, arbitrary waiting is positively detrimental in many cases.

Requirements

Despite the 7th SOC’s ‘informing’ of the protocol (perhaps they were low on coasters?), RLE remains a key feature of the proposed gender services. The protocol is unclear about RLE requirements for HRT, but indicates that full HRT can be prescribed ‘Dependent on whether an individual has socially transitioned in the sense of living full time’ or is likely to ‘do so immanently’. Top surgery needs a year of RLE, lower surgery needs 2 years.

The problems with this are numerous:

  • It’s arbitrary. There are medical reasons for a year of HRT for lower surgery, but not for living full time in role.
  • Requirements of being employed have nothing to do with a stable, well founded gender identity.
  • Whilst individuals vary greatly, some people have considerably more difficulty being read as their gender prior to HRT, and AMAB people are more likely to recieve certain forms of harassment if people read them incorrectly. Forcing people into public facing roles to get the treatment they need puts them at direct risk of violence, harassment and discrimination.
  • What ‘real life’ is being experienced? From my own and others’ experience, I know that living full time as a woman pre HRT is vastly different to being full-time after a year on HRT. The near daily abuse and marginalisation, with incumbent stress, is not the real life I’m  experiencing now, but was a feature of living as a woman who was visibly trans*. The RLE required is entirely unrepresentative.
  • For all the regional variation and obfustication, the 2 years of RLE for surgery is well known, and patients work to it. The lengthy requirement can prompt patients to ‘start the clock’ running on RLE long before they are ready. Who knows how much suffering has come from that, or from knowing that no help will come before an arbitrary deadline?
  • Patients remain on the GIC’s book during this period: the aforementioned zebras get called in for appointments to needlessly check that they’re still serious, then sent away to wait another 5 months. This takes up appointments that could help patients who are less certain of their needs.

Overall, this protocol standardises existing Charing Cross treatment, which is already behind the times in not adjusting to WPATH’s SOC 7, and seems particularly inadequate when compared to the updated Scottish protocol. Most worryingly, its requirements standardise the appointments that add to the waiting times, administrative burden (which currently means Charing Cross are taking 2-3 months to send appointment summaries) and sense of disempowerment that service users experience. With multiple screenings, assessment and ‘time for reflection’, it is particularly unsuited to those who have a clear understanding of their identity and wish to proceed, and who have thought over their option extensively prior to seeking a referral. If this protocol is to last for any significant time, it will hold service users to standards that are already inadequate – If the next update will last, we need to fight for a protocol that truly moves treatment forward, so make sure to give your views in the protocol’s survey.

Business as usual? A look at the draft English protocol for gender dysphoria

The main achievement of England’s new draft protocol for transition-related services is not to offer progress, but to codify certain elements of existing practice.

In this sense, it somewhat resembles Scotland’s new protocol, which was published a couple of weeks ago.

The Scottish protocol appears to have been based largely upon the services offered by Sandyford, the nation’s largest gender identity clinic. The English protocol seems rooted in current practice at Charing Cross, which plays a similar role within England and Wales. The differences between the documents hinge largely on the differences between the progressive policies instituted at Sandyford, and the more conservative attitude of Charing Cross.

In this article I’m going to examine some aspects of the draft English protocol that have really struck me, before discussing political elements of difference between the English and Scottish protocols. I also briefly talk about the survey that is being distributed alongside the draft guidance.

The Good

LanguageThe language used within the draft English protocol largely acknowledges the complexity and diversity of trans experience. It encourages a respect for patient identities in terms of correct name, pronoun usage etc. (regardless of legal status). There’s even an explicit acknowledgement of non-binary identities, although this is somewhat undermined by binary assumptions elsewhere in the document, and a focus upon transitions that follow the typical “female to male” or “male to female” routes.

Referrals – The document provides some important clarifications for referral to a gender clinic: that individuals do not have to have lived in their preferred gender role prior to referral, that neuro-diversity and mental/physical health issues should not be a barrier to referral, and that psychotherapy is not a necessary precursor to referral. However, these points are not made as strongly as they could be, leaving some room for (mis)interpretation.

Treatment process The document states that two appointments should be sufficient for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria (to be diagnosed according to the ICD-10 criteria, as opposed to DSM-IV). The prescription of hormones should (if appropriate and desired) follow this diagnosis, and surgery should follow within approximately two years. This might all sound very familiar to Charing Cross patients, but may work to reign in some of the more eccentric practices of smaller gender clinics such as Nottingham.

Overall – It will be beneficial to have this protocol at hand to bring local referral practices and the actions of smaller GICs in line with national standards.

The Bad

Referrals – Referrals must come from a GP or specialist (psychiatrist or psychologist), with clinics able to insist upon referral from a specialist. This means that long-winded battles for referral look set to continue as normal. In contrast, the new Scottish system appears allows individuals or GPs to refer to any clinic.

Treatment process – The protocol states that it is informed by the most recent edition of the WPATH Standards of Care. However, it seems (again, contrary to the Scottish protocol) to ignore large parts of the Standards of Care in favour of current Charing Cross practice.

For instance, FtM spectrum individuals must have been on hormones for at least six months and full-time for at least a year before top surgery is considered, and patients must wait at least two years before being offered genital surgery (although a referral appointment for surgery may take place after 18 months under some circumstances). This last point in particular is justified with reference to ICD-10. Interesting here that guidance for diagnosis from 1992 is given precedence over guidance for care from 2011.

Trans youth– There is an acknowledgement of the benefits of hormone blockers for under-18s, but (unlike the Scottish protocol) no real engagement with the possibility of hormones and surgery for trans people aged between 16 and 18. The protocol continues to relegate all young people to specialised – and limited! – youth services.

Overall – The document pays lip service to the WPATH Standards of Care but does not really live up to the spirit of those guidelines. This is particularly evident when the draft document is compared to the Scottish protocol. Patients are expected to put up with a long-winded, complex system in which treatment is spread out over many years.

The Ugly

Get a job – Patients are still expected to be in education or employment in order to gain a referral for genital surgery. If you don’t have a job or you’re not on a course, you’re expected to be involved in some volunteering role. It’s all about demonstrating your ability to move through the world in your “new” gender prior to irreversible surgery.

This requirement is patronising, stupid, and fetishises trans genitals. What other surgery requires that those who undergo it are in work? Why is it that genital reconstruction is seen such a massive step, but the permanent changes that come with long-term hormone therapy is not? Yes, surgery is a big deal, but it’s clear that clinicians regard this surgery as something else entirely.

I can’t understand how this can possibly be acceptable at the best of times, but at a time of recession and mass unemployment it strikes me as particularly cruel and unreasonable. How to account for individuals who cannot find a volunteering role in their local area? Individuals with anxiety issues? Individuals who are told by the Job Centre not to volunteer, with the threat of benefit withdrawal hanging over this order? And how can this possibly be acceptable when trans people face considerable inequalities in the job market (with trans unemployment estimated at 50% in some European countries).

Physical examination – GPs are apparently “expected” to perform a physical examination of trans patients. Why? No reason is given. The document simply states that: “The GP will be required to carry out a basic physical examination and investigations, as a precursor to those physical treatments which may later be recommended.

I simply cannot comprehend where this idea comes from. For many trans people – particularly those contemplating physical transition – the very idea of a physical examination is extremely unpleasant and can cause severe distress. There are times when pre-operative trans people might require a physical examination: such as immediately prior to surgery, or during a sexual health check-up. These experiences can be deeply unpleasant, but at least they’re necessary.

GPs are not trained to understand the complexities of trans people’s relationships with their bodies. In fact, most GPs don’t receive any training on trans issues whatsoever. What are they meant to be looking out for during such an examination, and how are they supposed to know? An invasive examination such as this should only be performed when necessary, by someone who knows exactly what they’re doing.

Discussion: England vs Scotland

The headlines from the Scottish protocol included a number of moves to bring treatment more in line with the most recent edition of the WPATH Standards of Care. These included provisions for self-referral and referral by GP, less waiting time for surgeries, access to a wider range of treatments (e.g. hair removal) and full access to treatment for individuals aged between 16 and 18.

Whilst representatives from groups such as the Scottish Transgender Network played a vital role in putting provisions such as these on the national agenda, it’s important to recognise that many of them had already been implemented by Sandyford GIC.

The message seems to be that the English clinics – who are almost entirely responsible for the development of this draft protocol – are not interested in developing new practice, let alone conforming with the seventh edition of the WPATH Standards of Care. Instead, they seem keen to maintain a tight control over the processing of patients, an approach that renders the draft protocol even more strict than a new national commissioning policy that is being simultaneously developed.

Survey

The survey that accompanies the draft protocol is extremely short. This makes it quick and easy to fill in, but the form also seems to have been designed to shut down unwanted criticism. The Department of Health appears interested only in how current experiences match up to the proposed protocol, and seems keen to avoid any kind of critical feedback on the document.

It is, however, possible to offer you opinion on the nature of the protocol itself. Here are some tips for doing so:

  • Where your experiences differ from the protocol in a positive manner (e.g. you didn’t receive a physical examination from your GP), emphasise how your experience was more positive than would be the case should the protocol be implemented as-is.
  • Where your experiences differ from the protocol in a negative way, emphasise any manner in which you think the protocol could go further to ensure better treatment.
  • If you have sought care outside of the NHS for necessary treatments (e.g. hair removal for trans women) explain why this treatment should be a necessary part of the protocol

Final thoughts

The introductory text to the survey suggests that current political and financial pressures on the NHS prohibit the introduction of any real changes within the draft protocol:

DH wants the final document to outline the current position for transgender people seeking gender reassignment services through the NHS. The document should outline what support and services a transgender person can expect to receive in the tight financial constraints currently placed on the NHS.

This doesn’t really make a huge amount of sense. Yes, if more trans people have access to services (e.g. laser hair removal), this will cost money. But surely there is a lot more money to be saved through progressive reform?

Insisting on longer real-life tests, longer waits for surgery and so on won’t save a lot of money in the long term. A similar amount of trans people will be accessing services: they’ll just have to wait longer as individuals in order to access the a services. The money will still be spent. So why have such long waiting times?

Insisting on referral through a specialist (i.e. psychiatrist or psychologist) won’t save money. How does the NHS possibly benefit financially from insisting that trans people see more specialists rather than having them directly referred to a gender clinic by their GP? This is particularly the case when specialists decide that they need to assess people over multiple appointments before referring them to a gender clinic. The individuals concerned experience a frustrating delay, and it costs more money because the NHS is paying for all these extra appointments.

This isn’t really about the money. It’s about gatekeepers maintaining a certain level of control over patients, and putting certain ideologies into practice. It’s about picking and choosing which parts of ICD-10 and WPATH SOC 7 fit best with their pre-existing ideas, and using those elements to justify existing practice. It’s about conservativism over progression: a wasted opportunity.

Scotland hands unprecedented power to trans patients

The big news from Scotland today is all about gay marriage. But last week, the Scottish government quietly unveiled an equally important move.

The new NHS Scotland Gender Reassignment Protocol will have a massive impact upon those who seek a medical transition. It dramatically cuts the time required for “real life experience” prior to surgery, confirms the necessity of contested interventions such as hair removal for trans women and chest surgery for trans men, enables teenagers to begin transition from 16, and – crucially – reinforces the right of trans people to refer themselves to Gender Clinics.

Some background
Last year saw the publication of the latest edition of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care (SOC). This seventh edition of the SOC saw a number of important changes that acknowledged critiques from trans communities as well as clinicians, leading to a focus upon gender variant identities and experiences in terms of diversity, rather than pathology.

Treatment is individualized. What helps one person alleviate gender dysphoria might be very different from what helps another person. This process may or may not involve a change in gender expression or body modifications. Medical treatment options include, for example, feminization or masculinization of the body through hormone therapy and/or surgery, which are effective in alleviating gender dysphoria and are medically necessary for many people. Gender identities and expressions are diverse, and hormones and surgery are just two of many options available to assist people with achieving comfort with self and identity. (p.5)

Thus, transsexual, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are not inherently disordered. Rather, the distress of gender dysphoria, when present, is the concern that might be diagnosable and for which various treatments are available. (p.6)

This emphasis upon individual difference and patient agency differentiates this seventh edition of the SOC from previous editions published by both WPATH and its predecessor, the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association. The change follows decades of lobbying from trans activists, academics and progressive professionals. We’ve gone from a world where post-doctoral researchers who happened to be trans – such as Virginia Prince – could publish research only with the approval of cis clinicians, to a world in which trans professionals like Stephen Whittle are setting the agenda.

WPATH are still far from perfect: see, for instance, the fact that they seem to think they are qualified to speak for intersex people. But, broadly speaking, the latest SOC is a definite step in the right direction.

Competing guidance
When WPATH speaks, medical providers don’t necessarily listen. Trans people are often diagnosed according to criteria set out guidance such as the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostical Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which treats us as mentally ill. Gender clinics in the UK often follow previous editions of the SOC, which encourage a patronising, controlling approach in practitioners.

For instance, a recent Freedom of Information request revealed that Leeds GIC “…follows the stages laid down within The Harry Benjamin International Standards of Care (this differs from the WPATH guidance), as we believe that hormone treatment is best undertaken after real life experience has begun…“: i.e. the clinic is relying upon outdated guidance, under which patients are forced to go “full-time” for some time before they are prescribed hormones. This will clearly cause difficulties for individuals who have trouble passing as cis without hormone therapy, and may leave them open to harassment or violence.

Even less regressive GICs in the UK currently do not comply with with the most recent edition of the SOC. This can be seen in the imposition of binary ideals of gender, the absence of treatment protocols for most trans adolescents, and a “real life test” of at least two years before requests for surgery are considered (as opposed to the 12 months recommended in the new SOC).

Of course, any revision of national medical practice takes time, particularly within a public body such as the NHS. Changes to the NHS care pathway in England and Wales are currently under discussion. Moreover, hormone regimes for teenagers are currently being trialled in London. I don’t know enough about the situation in Northern Ireland to write about what’s happening there.

It is against this backdrop that the new Scottish protocol has been introduced.

NHS Scotland Gender Reassignment Protocol: the headlines
The new Scottish guidance has been shaped by trans activists working with key figures within Scottish equality bodies and NHS Scotland. It won’t have an immediate impact upon the availability of services, with implementation being a long, complicated process. However, it is historic in that the published care pathway clearly empowers trans patients in a number of ways.

The Scottish Transgender Alliance highlight a number of important points from the protocol (emphasis mine):

  • people can self-refer to NHS Gender Identity Clinics (GICs) in Scotland.
  • that psychotherapy/counselling, support and information should be made available to people seeking gender reassignment and their families where needed.
  • that two gender specialist assessments and 12-months experience living in accordance with desired gender role are needed for referral for NHS funded genital surgeries and that arrangements for delivering agreed procedures are under review with the objective of ensuring that an effective, equitable and sustainable service is implemented.
  • only one gender specialist assessment is needed for referral for hair removal, speech therapy, hormone treatment and FtM chest reconstruction surgery and that these can take place in an individualised patient-centred order either prior to starting the 12-month experience or concurrently to the 12-month experience.
  • that, in addition to access to genital surgeries, access to hair removal is regarded as essential to provide for trans women and access to FtM chest reconstruction is regarded as essential to provide for trans men.
  • that surgeries which are not exclusive to gender reassignment, such as breast augmentation and facial surgeries, continue to need to be accessed via the Adult Exceptional Aesthetic Referral Protocol but there will be a more transparent and equitable panel process for making funding decisions in such cases.
  • that young people aged 16 are entitled to be assessed and treated in the same manner as adults in terms of access to hormones and surgeries.
  • that children and young people under age 16 are entitled to child and adolescent specialist assessment and treatment as per the relevant section of the WPATH Standards of Care. NOTE: at the time the protocol was created the staffing of a specialist Under 16s service at the Sandyford GIC in Glasgow was uncertain but it now looks likely that there will be a sustainable Under 16s service provided at the Sandyford GIC in Glasgow and this part of the protocol will soon be updated.

As the Scottish Transgender Alliance note, this protocol isn’t perfect, but it does represent an important step forward. If the protocol is properly implemented, trans people will no longer be forced to spend months (or even years) fighting for a referral, before waiting even longer for treatment as a GIC patient. Trans people will be able to access vital interventions such as hair removal on the NHS, and should be able to access proper counselling and therapy services.

A personal perspective
If a protocol such as this had been in place in England when I came out as a teenager, I could have gained a referral (or even referred myself!) to a GIC at the age of 16. Even with the massive waiting list for the GIC, I might have been on hormones at 17, and had surgery at 18. I wouldn’t have had to undergo anything like so many painful laser hair removal sessions, and those that I did undergo would have been paid for by the NHS.

Instead, my first GIC appointment was at the age of 19. I didn’t go on hormones until I was 20 (causing all kinds of havoc with my university grades during my final year as I underwent a second puberty) and had surgery shortly before my 22nd birthday. I paid for several laser hair removal sessions privately. One day I hope to afford a few more, as I never finished that particular treatment.

And I’m one of the lucky ones.

The future
I can’t really understand why this isn’t already all over the LGBT press, let alone the trans blogosphere. It’s a deeply important development.

The progressive nature of the new Scottish protocol provides a positive precedent for the rest of the UK. We can only hope that NHS protocols for England and Wales and for Northern Ireland follow suit. In the meanwhile, trans activists throughout the UK could do well to pay close attention to the situation in Scotland. The success of organisations such as the Scottish Transgender Alliance provide important lessons for the rest of us.