Health: Help for transgender teens

Taylor Swope

On a sunny fall afternoon, Michael, a transgender 15-year-old from Dublin, and his mother, Robin, talked about the journey they have been on during the last five years. It's Tuesday, the day Michael now regularly meets with peers in a program called Genderscope at Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC), located in an old Victorian house on East Town Street, Downtown.

“My depression could have started when I was questioning myself, which started around fifth grade,” explains Michael, who was previously known as Meaghan and now goes by the nickname of Mikey. “I have been really tomboyish my whole life,” he adds, mentioning how he used to steal his brother's clothes to wear and always enjoyed playing with action figures instead of dolls.

Michael is one of nearly 30 youths who participate in the Genderscope program each week. “We serve a demographic of young people that are at a higher risk for school underachievement, substance abuse and suicide,” says KYC Executive Director Amy Eldridge. KYC is an organization dedicated to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth and their allies.

Nationally, statistics show such resources are desperately needed. Across America, one in every 137 teenagers identify as transgender, according to a report published last spring by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Still more identify as gay or bisexual.

Their mental health, as well as the mental health of their parents, friends and family, are at great risk. Gay and bisexual teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Those statistics come from the first-evernational study of lesbian, gay and bisexual students' health published in August 2016.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, suicide disproportionately affects LGBTQ communities, driven by stigma, abuse and harassment. In a 2015 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 40 percent of transgender adults reported attempting suicide. Of that 40 percent, more than 90 percent reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.

Eldridge, of KYC, says it's understandable that there is a higher occurrence of depression, anxiety and even suicide within the LGBTQ community. “We have a world that debates their humanity,” she says, adding that adolescence is hard enough without having to cope with the stigma of feeling different.

Starting in Middle School

For Michael, the fact that he was different started to sink in when he reached middle school. “I started self-harming,” he recalls. “And that's when my identity crisis really hit.”

Because he was presenting as a female, Michael now explains he tried to dress especially feminine so he could fit in with other girls. “I wanted to ignore the feeling and ignore the voice in my head telling me I was a dude,” he adds.

Michael credits the internet with helping him learn to accept himself, day by day. He discovered YouTube videos by transgender activists Ty Turner and Chase Ross. “Before that, I didn't know what I was. I figured out what being trans was through YouTube,” he says. “Once I found them, I felt like I had a community and I had more people who would understand me.”

As he began to understand his transgender identity, he then felt prepared to start talking to his family and friends.

“I felt uncomfortable in my own skin,” he says. “I told friends at the time what I was feeling, and they were really accepting and said they would call me whatever I want.”

He cut his hair short, which helped a little, but he explains he still felt shy about coming out because he was still presenting himself as a girl. That summer, he told his mom that he didn't feel like a girl. “I started with gender neutral, but I knew I was a boy,” he recalls.

His mother says, at first, this was all difficult to grasp. “When kids come out, they have done their research,” explains Robin. “We were just hearing it, and I didn't know much about the transgender community.” She admits she had a lot to learn.

Then, as soon as Robin knew Michael was transgender, he started talking about beginning the physical transition from female to male. He attended counseling on a weekly basis, and the counselor provided helpful resources. Michael started hormone therapy when he was 14.

Beginning to Thrive

“Transgender and gender nonconforming youth are just like any other children and adolescents, yet they have the additional challenge of navigating societal pressures that reinforce rigid and binary gender stereotypes,” says Dr. Scott Leibowitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health for the THRIVE program at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

The THRIVE program specializes in care for differences and disorders of sexual development, complex urological conditions and gender concerns. The program consists of a team of specialists including those in urology, endocrinology, gynecology, psychology and psychiatry, genetics, adolescent medicine, pediatric surgery and social work.

Leibowitz says children can present with gender-related concerns as young as 3 years old. Members of the THRIVE staff can treat youth up to age 22, depending on the specific medical discipline.

Children and adolescents are seen by providers trained to understand the aspects of overall health, including psychological, emotional and physical factors. Leibowitz's department conducts a gender-informed, bio-psycho-social assessment to provide broad context and a deeper understanding of the whole picture of the youth's psychological functioning, he explains. The team of physicians and health care professionals strives to address each patient's care holistically while adhering to evidence-based standards of care.

Leibowitz says it is encouraging to know that programs like THRIVE are growing in pediatric health care settings across the country. “The power of having a professional validate and affirm an experience that can be wrapped in stigma yields positive outcomes in ways that cannot be truly measured,” he says.

Youth who attend Kaleidoscope programming have the opportunity to visit with Leibowitz and his staff on a monthly basis. The THRIVE staff developed a program called Get Fit: Mind and Body that engages youth to prioritize their physical and emotional health. “We not only refer our patients to KYC, but we take an active role in volunteering our time to participate in such initiatives that include the Get Fit program, as well as periodically leading parent groups where we offer expert advice related to the care of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth,” says Leibowitz.

One of the greatest concerns for the LGBTQ community is finding safe spaces. Leibowitz says that families who come to THRIVE “can be comforted by the fact that we constantly strive to provide a health care environment that offers evidence-based care; empathetic, knowledgeable and compassionate providers; balanced, thoughtful and well-informed clinical decision-making; and a safe space where judgments are eliminated from the outset no matter what the beliefs and value systems are for the various individuals in the family.”

Just a couple of miles away, Kaleidoscope provides services for youths ages 12 to 19, as well as their families. While Michael attends Genderscope, there is a support group for families that meets at the same time on Tuesdays for convenience. Robin started attending the group to learn more about her son's identity, and now she is a facilitator. While there are parents who attend that may not yet be affirming, “at least they are willing to come,” says Michael.

“Parents need support, too,” says Robin.

“Now, they are the most supportive people in the world,” adds Michael, of his own parents.

“Tuesday is my favorite day of the week because I am coming here,” he continues. Aside from peer support groups, Kaleidoscope also offers a variety of programs and activities for LGBTQ youths. There are weekly social activities, including cooking and art clubs, as well as pizza and movie nights. Local celebrity drag queens Nina and Virginia West have donated a stage to the center for karaoke and other performance events. “Everything we do links to promoting overall health and wellness,” explains Eldridge. There is also a social justice theater and a bicycle club.

“This space belongs to the youth,” says Eldridge. “A lot of our youth come here with a sense of isolation and a sense of connection is key.”

National Resources

Given the reach of the internet, there are several organizations that offer help to youths and their families. The national Trevor Project is the only organization in the country that offers a suicide hotline for LGBTQ youths that is open 24 hours daily, says clinical director Ashby Dodge. “Our reach is through social media and digital volunteers,” she explains.

Another group is called the It Gets Better Project, based in Los Angeles. This group exists to uplift, empower and connect LGBTQ youths around the globe through the art of storytelling and building bridges to local community service providers, explains Columbus native and project Executive Director Brian Wenke. The organization's main focus is to communicate with LGBTQ youths through social media and other online platforms.

Wenke adds that the nonprofit recently launched a new educational initiative, which will support teachers' abilities to bring these conversations into the classroom. The staff has compiled some of the most popular stories submitted to the organization and have created interactive discussion guides to draw awareness to the LGBTQ youth experience.

GLSEN is another organization committed to creating safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. A Columbus chapter focuses on Franklin and its nine surrounding counties to support gay/straight alliances (also known as gender and sexuality alliances) in schools.

Alex Ryan, chair of the Columbus chapter, says there are nearly 40 other chapters throughout the United States. The organization conducts research to inform solutions for the educational system, including the National School Climate Survey, which is done periodically to measure schools' aptitude for dealing with the hostility and harassment associated with gender identity issues.

The group also presents educational materials around topics such as being an ally, identifying proper pronouns, bullying and coming out. “Students need to know they are not alone, and they have rights within their schools they may not have known about,” says Ryan. “We have to do all we can to give these students a chance to express themselves and learn about themselves without judgement or bias.”

A New Outlook

In 2015, Michael decided to change his name. “For Christmas, I gave him the name change document,” says his mother Robin. “I had all of the paperwork so he knew it was in progress.”

While their family's journey has come a long way in just a few years, the learning process continues. “We are still navigating a lot,” says Robin. “I want to protect him, but also need to get him prepared to be out in the world.”