As we providers begin to gain a better understanding of the complexities of gender identity and expression, studies examining the health of transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) youth are emerging. Multiple studies have demonstrated the mental health disparities that TGNC youth face, but more studies examining other health risks and disparities are needed.
Prevalence of TGNC students higher than expected
Previous studies looking at prevalence rates of TGNC youth often dichotomized gender identities into binary (masculine or feminine) groups and were not inclusive of nonbinary and questioning identities. This may have led to underestimation of the size of this population.2,3 This study assessed for TGNC identities by asking, “Do you consider yourself transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, or unsure about your gender identity?” Given the prevalence of TGNC identities in this sample, it is likely that TGNC youth will be encountered in general pediatric practice. As such, it is important that we as providers continue to build our competency in working with this population.
Statistically significant differences in health status were identified
Almost two-thirds (62%) of TGNC youth identified their health as poor, fair, or good as opposed to very good or excellent, compared with one-third (33.1%) of cisgender youth. Over half (52%) of TGNC youth reported staying home from school because of illness at least once in the past month, compared with 43% of cisgender youth. About 60% of TGNC youth reported a preventive medical check-up in the past year, compared with 65% of cisgender youth. In terms of long-term health problems, TGNC youth reported higher rates of long-term physical (25% vs. 15%) and mental health (59% vs. 17%) problems than did their cisgender peers.
Role of perceived gender expression
A unique aspect of this study was that it sought to examine the effect of perceived gender expression (the way others interpret a person’s gender presentation; their appearance, style, dress, or the way they walk or talk) on health status and care utilization. Categories of perceived gender expression included very or mostly feminine, somewhat feminine, equally feminine and masculine, somewhat masculine, or very or mostly masculine. The prevalence of TGNC adolescents with an equally feminine and masculine gender expression was highest for both those assigned male (29%) and assigned female (41%) at birth, compared with other perceived gender presentations.
TGNC youth who were perceived to have a gender expression that was incongruent with the sex assigned at birth were at higher risk of reporting poor health status. For example, in TGNC participants who were assigned male at birth, those perceived as equally feminine and masculine (49%) or somewhat masculine (58%) were significantly more likely to report having poorer general health than those with a very masculine perceived gender expression (32%).
Suggestions for providers
The authors of the study and the accompanying commentary by Daniel Shumer, MD, MPH, suggest that there are things we as health care providers can do to address these barriers.
- Recognize that health disparities exist in this population. Individuals perceived as gender nonconforming may be vulnerable to discrimination and have difficulty accessing and receiving heath care, compared with their cisgender peers.
- Screen for health risks and identify barriers to care for TGNC youth while promoting and bolstering wellness within this community.
- Continue to promote access to gender affirming care. Data suggest that children who receive gender affirming care achieve mental health status similar to that of their cisgender peers.3,4,5
- Continue to develop an understanding of how youth understand and express gender.
- Nonbinary youth face unique barriers when accessing health affirming services because of fears that their gender identity may be misunderstood. These barriers lead to delays in seeking health care services, which may lead to poorer outcomes. As providers, educating ourselves about these diverse identities and being respectful of all patients’ identities can help reduce these barriers.
Dr. Chelvakumar is an attending physician in the division of adolescent medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Ohio State University, both in Columbus. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at.