TRANSforming Gynecology

Addressing the sexual and reproductive health needs of trans and gender nonconforming patients

Separating gender identity from sexual identity to allow for more comprehensive history-taking


 

Grouping the term “transgender” in the abbreviation LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) has historically been empowering for trans and gender nonconforming (GNC) persons. However, it also has contributed to the misunderstanding that gender identity is interchangeable with sexual identity. This common misconception can be a barrier to trans and GNC patients seeking care from ob.gyns. for their reproductive health needs.

Doctor talking with teen girl. Rawpixel/Thinkstock

By definition, gender identity refers to an internal experience of one’s gender, of one’s self.1 While gender identity has social implications, it ultimately is something that a person experiences independently of interactions with others. By contrast, sexual orientation has an explicitly relational underpinning because sexual orientation involves attraction to others. The distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation is similar to an internal-versus-external, or a self-versus-other dichotomy. A further nuance to add is that sexual behavior does not always reflect sexual orientation, and sexual behavior can vary along a wide spectrum when gender identity is added to the equation.

Overall, health care providers should be careful not make assumptions about a patient’s sexual orientation based on a patient’s gender identity. When approaching a sexual history with any patient, but especially a transgender or GNC patient, providers should think deeply about what information is medically relevant.2 The purpose of a sexual history is to identify behaviors that contribute to health risk, including pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection, and social problems such as sex-trafficking or intimate partner violence. The health care provider’s job is to ask questions that will uncover these risk factors.

With the advent of a more inclusive attitude toward gay and lesbian partnership, many providers already have learned to collect the sexual history without assuming the gender of a person’s sexual contacts. Still, when a provider is taking the sexual history, gender often is inappropriately used as proxy for the type of sex that a patient may be having. For example, a provider asking a cisgender woman about her sexual activity may ask, “how many sexual partners have you had in the last year?” But then, the provider may follow-up her response of “three sexual partners in the last year” by asking “men, women, or both?” By asking a patient if the patient’s sexual partners are “men, women, or both,” providers fail to accurately elucidate the risk factors that they are actually seeking when taking a sexual history. The cisgender woman from the above scenario may reply that she has been sleeping only with women for the last year, but if the sexual partners are transgender women, aka a woman who was assigned male at birth and therefore still may use her penis/testes for sexual purposes, then the patient actually may be at risk for pregnancy and may also have a different risk factor profile for sexually transmitted infections than if the patient were sexually active with cisgender women.

Dr. Andrea B. Joyner

Dr. Andrea B. Joyner

A different approach to using gender in taking the sexual history is to speak plainly about which sex organs come into contact during sexual activity. When patients identify as transgender or GNC, a provider first should start by asking them what language they would like providers to use when discussing sex organs.3 One example is that many trans men, both those who have undergone mastectomy as well as those who have not, may not use the word “breasts” to describe their “chests.” This distinction may make the difference between gaining and losing the trust of a trans/GNC patient in your clinic. After identifying how a patient would like to refer to sex organs, a provider can continue by asking which of the patient’s sex partners’ organs come into contact with the patient’s organs during sexual activity. Alternatively, starting with an even more broad line of questioning may be best for some patients, such as “how do you like to have sex?”

Dr. Joey Bahng

Dr. Joey Bahng

Carefully identifying the type of sex and what sex organs are involved has concrete medical implications. Patients assigned female at birth who are on hormone therapy with testosterone may need supportive care if they continue to use their vaginas in sexual encounters because testosterone can lead to a relatively hypoestrogenic state. Patients assigned male at birth who have undergone vaginoplasty procedures may need counseling about how to use and support their neovaginas as well as adjusted testing for dysplasia. Patients assigned female at birth who want to avoid pregnancy may need a nuanced consultation regarding contraception. These are just a few examples of how obstetrician-gynecologists can better support the sexual health of their trans/GNC patients by having an accurate understanding of how a trans/GNC person has sex.

Dr. Joyner is an assistant professor at Emory University, Atlanta, and is the director of gynecologic services in the Gender Center at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Dr. Joyner identifies as a cisgender female and uses she/hers/her as her personal pronouns. Dr. Joey Bahng is a PGY-1 resident physician in Emory University’s gynecology & obstetrics residency program. Dr. Bahng identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them/their as their personal pronouns. Dr. Bahng and Dr. Joyner reported no relevant financial disclosures

References

1. Sexual orientation and gender identity definitions. Human Rights Campaign.

2. Taking a sexual history from transgender people. Transforming Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

3. Sexual health history: Talking sex with gender non-conforming and trans patients. National LGBT Health Education Center at The Fenway Institute.

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