The Ethics of Navigating Teen Gender Transitions

Transgender teen Theo Zachariah began identifying as trans at age 13, and now at 16, takes testosterone.

(Courtesy of Miriam Zachariah)

At first, Miriam Zachariah's teenage nephew Theo, who was born female, came out as gay. But he "presented as very gender fluid," she says, which suggested that he hadn't made "a clear choice one way or another."

Families, physicians, and psychologists have pondered whether it's better, neutral, or worse to postpone gender transitions until adulthood.

Zachariah decided to ask her nephew, "Do you think you might be trans?" While he answered "no," the question "broke something open for him," she recalls.

A month later, at age 13, he began identifying as trans. And at 14 1/2, he started undergoing gender transition with an endocrine-blocking injection. More recently, at age 16, he added testosterone injections, and soon he won't need the endocrine blocker any longer.

"His voice is deepening, and his muscle mass is growing," says Zachariah, a principal of two elementary schools in Toronto who became her nephew's legal guardian while he was starting to transition.

There are many medical and bioethical aspects associated with the transition to one's self-identified gender, especially when the process involves children and adolescents. Families, physicians, and psychologists have pondered whether it's better, neutral, or worse to postpone the transition until adulthood, while remaining cognizant of the potential consequences to puberty suppression with cross-sex hormones and the irreversibility of transgender surgeries.

Studies have found a higher prevalence of mental health issues among transgender and gender nonconforming youth, particularly if they are unable to express themselves in the self-identified gender. Research also has shown that transgender adults in the process of transitioning initially experienced worse mental health problems than their adolescent counterparts.

The Endocrine Society, a professional medical organization that provides recommendations for clinical practice, stipulates in its guidelines that the diagnosis of gender identity be limited to qualified mental health professionals for those under age 18. This is important because children are still evolving in their thought processes and capacity to articulate themselves, says endocrinologist Joshua Safer, inaugural executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

A transition can begin safely in gradations, by allowing young children to experiment with haircuts and clothes of either gender before puberty. "If it just ends up being a stage of life, we haven't done anything permanent," says Safer, who is president of the United States Professional Association for Transgender Health as well as steering committee co-chair of TransNet, the international transgender research consortium.

After changes in appearance, the next step would be to try puberty blockers. Also used to halt precocious puberty, the injections are "a reasonably established intervention" for transgender youth, although there are some concerns that the drugs could interfere with bone health in the future, he says.

From a mental health standpoint, "hormones for youth who qualify for them have offered a tremendous boost in well-being and also a reduction in anxiety, depression, and suicidality that often plague transgender youth when they experience their bodies as totally discordant with their self-knowledge of their authentic gender," says psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health in the Child and Adolescent Gender Center at Benioff Children's Hospital of the University of California at San Francisco.

Many of these youth have either known about or have been living in their authentic gender since early childhood; others discovered their true identities in adolescence, often with the onset of puberty, says Ehrensaft, associate professor of pediatrics. The effects of gender-affirming hormone treatments are at least partially reversible, she adds, whereas surgical procedures are irreversible. Regardless of reversibility, best practices include careful consideration of all interventions to ensure they are in a youth's best interests in promoting gender health and general well-being.

When a child exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, parents and guardians should at a minimum take these feelings seriously.

In determining readiness for a transgender operation, an assessment of maturity is as important as chronological age, says Loren Schechter, plastic surgeon and director of the Center for Gender Confirmation Surgery at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. With the consent of a parent or guardian, he commonly performs mastectomies on adolescents at age 17 and sometimes earlier, based on the clinical circumstances and along with a multidisciplinary team that includes a primary care provider and a mental health professional.

"Typically, before surgery, people have had the opportunity and time to consider their options," Schechter says, observing that "the incidence of regret or changing one's mind is extremely low." Others may opt to transition socially but not surgically. "We recognize that gender is not binary," he explains. Some individuals may not "discreetly fit into male or female" in how they perceive themselves.

When a child exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, parents and guardians should at a minimum take these feelings seriously, not dismiss them. They may want to enlist the assistance of a gender identity clinic to address the social environment and guide the child in exploring activities with the self-identified gender, says Kelly McBride Folkers, research associate in the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University School of Medicine.

At one end of the spectrum, some parents and guardians are overzealous in supporting their child's gender-identity pursuits while the youngster is still in an early phase of decision-making. On the flipside, other parents and guardians are not at all supportive, leaving the child at risk for long-term psychological effects, says Folkers, who is also associate director of the High School Bioethics Project at NYU, an educational program that aids teachers and students in examining ethical and conceptual concepts across various areas, one of which is gender.

"It's important to help children navigate through this process early, so that they have all of the social and familial support they need if and when they choose to seek medical options for gender affirmation later," she says.

There are various reasons why children and adolescents want to explore the opposite gender when they reach puberty. "It's a small percentage who will persist and insist and be consistent with that opposite gender identity," says Nicole Mihalopoulos, adolescent medicine physician and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City.

Turning to a social work support system can help bring clarity for teens, parents, and guardians.

For those youth, it's appropriate to start the conversation about a medication to block puberty, but without actually promoting a hormonal transition to the opposite gender, in order for the child to further explore living as the opposite gender. "Children need to start at puberty because we need to know that their bodies are physiologically normal," Mihalopoulos says.

A lack of breast development in girls or a lack of testicular development in boys could point to an abnormality in the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or ovaries/testicles. "That needs to be identified and corrected first," she explains, "before I would say, 'Let's start on the medical transition path of the alternate gender.' "

For parents and guardians, says Theo Zachariah's aunt Miriam, it's very tempting to misinterpret a child's struggling attempts to articulate being trans as an adolescent identity crisis. That's when turning to a social work support system can bring clarity. A youth mental health agency with experience in trans issues made a positive impact on Theo's family through one-on-one counseling and in groups for teens and parents.

"The dialogue they were able to engage in with my nephew, his mom and us," she says, was very instrumental "in helping us all figure out what to do and how to navigate the change."

Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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