What a New Study Could Mean for Transgender Teens

With transgender visibility on the rise, the stigma is slowly, but surely, lessening. Now the focus has shifted from whether or not transgender children exist—as they most surely do—to what constitutes the proper course of action for kids with gender dysphoria.

One of the most popular and medically-recommended courses of treatment involves puberty-delaying drugs, commonly known as “puberty blockers.” These drugs inhibit the onset of puberty in teens, affording them the time and ability to evaluate whether or not they wish to undergo full hormone-replacement therapy, in which their bodies will develop in accordance with their true gender as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth.

While some have derided the practice of prescribing these medications, a recent study published in the journal of Pediatrics, suggests that transgender children who were given puberty blockers went on to experience long-term benefits.

“Since puberty suppression is a fully reversible medical intervention, it provides adolescents and their families with time to explore their gender dysphoric feelings, and [to] make a more definite decision regarding the first steps of actual gender-reassignment treatment at a later age,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Annelou de Vries.

While some suggest that children should simply undergo their body’s natural puberty and reevaluate how they would like to proceed once they’ve reached adulthood, there are many aspects of puberty that come with irreversible effects. For example, if someone assigned male at birth undergoes their body’s natural puberty, they will be stuck with a number of largely-irreversible body attributes like facial hair, a deepened voice, and a more masculine bone structure. If this individual is transgender, there is little they can do to reverse these effects. While electrolysis and laser hair removal can reduce or eliminate facial hair, one’s bone structure is set for life. While hormone replacement therapy, when begun after the conclusion of one’s natural puberty, can have an impact on body fat redistribution, breast growth, and other characteristics, the other option is to forego one’s first puberty so as not to be forced to fight against the irreversible results that one’s body has accumulated.

The recent study shows that transgender teens who were given puberty blockers had a tendency to grow into adulthood with anxiety, emotional distress, and body image struggles no more prevalent than the general population. Additionally, these children experienced an increased quality of life as they found that the symptoms of gender dysphoria lessened over time. As for transgender individuals who didn’t offset puberty during their teenage years, they experience anxiety, emotional distress, and body-image struggles at a significantly higher rate. Additionally, these individuals more frequently find themselves the target of employment, housing, and public accommodations discrimination.

It’s important to note that this study is very small—there were only 55 participants—and researchers insist that more work needs to be done to really build any solid conclusions. The delayed puberty treatment itself is relatively new—it’s only been around for 15 years, so its long-term effects are still being assessed. If anything, it’s encouraging that researchers are focusing on the issues young transgender individuals face, and that people are paying attention when scientific breakthroughs are established.

For many trans kids, going through their body’s natural puberty is one of the most distressing times of their lives. In a world where nearly half of all trans individuals attempt suicide at some point in their lives, it’s heartening to hear news of any treatment that may help some people experience fuller, happier lives.

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