As the #transdocfail hashtag showed, many trans people are afraid of their doctors

Trans patients should not have to please medical staff before they can access treatment, writes Charlie Hallam.

There are a group of people in the UK who experience horrific abuse at the hands of people who are ostensibly responsible for their care. You might think that after the horrific revelations of the last few months that I am referring to children who are abused by those charged with caring for them, but no. I’m talking about trans* people. If you are a trans* person, not only are you required to live and behave a certain way to access treatment, but the situation is compounded by the fact that many trans* people are reliant for life saving treatment on the very doctors who perpetrate this abuse. They are prevented from speaking out to try and improve the system through the fear that if they are honest, they will forever be denied the treatment they need.

In most areas of medicine, the first stage when you identify that something is wrong is to visit your GP, discuss the problem, work out if treatment is necessary and then discuss with your doctor about what that treatment should be. From the stories shared on yesterday’s twitter hashtag #transdocfail, and from the stories I’ve heard from my partner and trans* friends, doing this with gender dysphoria would be the single worst thing to do.

Trans* people are scared of their doctors.

My partner came out and transitioned socially last spring, and our circle of friends includes a number of trans* people, some trans men, some trans women and at least one person who considers hirself agender. We know people who have finished the process of medical transition, people who are the middle of the process, and people who have transitioned and are receiving continuing care.

Bad experiences with GPs at the start of the process and experiencing difficulties in obtaining a referral to specialist services were a common theme on yesterday’s hashtag. Many people reported being dismissed in various ways at their first appointment, one being laughed out of the office, and another told, I'm not going to refer you (to GIC) because I don't believe in all that". In the last few months, I have myself heard an obviously female patient called up with what was clearly their male, pre-transition, name. Despite these obvious and apparently simple to fix problems, so many trans* stories about doctor’s failing patients end with the line, ‘but I daren’t say anything in case the clinic find out, object and decide that I’m not eligible for care.’

Half way through yesterday afternoon, I noticed a new presence on the hashtag – an anonymous account, @TransDocFailAno, where trans* people could submit their experiences via a tumblr to avoid having to out themselves to do so. Indeed, the only reason I am writing this article rather than any of the trans* people I know is that none of them are willing to do so. I checked.

One of the most difficult hoops to jump through is that of needing to spend a year living as the gender you wish to transition to before you are able to access any treatment at all. This is fraught with problems. Most people choose to start their year of ‘real life experience’ when they move from one setting to another in order to minimise the chances of someone using their old name or pronoun, but this isn’t possible for everyone. One of the things trans* people often prepare themselves for when starting to transition is the possibility of losing everything they’ve worked for so far, and stories abound of trans people losing partners, children, jobs, homes and lives as a result of social transition. However, the NHS still treat social transition as reversible, and a necessary prerequisite for the apparently irreversible hormone therapy to help trans* people pass as their proper gender.

I could go on for pages about the problems faced by trans* people accessing treatment, but at the core are two main problems. The first is the fact that gender is seen always and exclusively as a binary. It is assumed that if you were assigned male at birth and are not male, that in asking for any form of treatment you are asking the medical staff to make you as close to their idea of cis female as possible. For some people that’s what they need, but for others their gender identity doesn’t resemble what their doctors think of as correct, and the pressure that can be laid on them to conform to what is expected can be immense, and treatment that they need to eliminate their dysphoria can be denied because, for example, a trans woman would like to have a pixie cut, yet their doctor believes that all women should have long hair in order to present as properly female. There are a significant number of people who feel that their gender doesn’t fit neatly into either male or female, and would like medical help to change their presentation to more accurately fit their gender. At the moment, it seems that the only option available for these people is to lie, as if they tell their doctors the truth, it may be taken as evidence that they are not serious about transitioning, and they could forever lose the chance to access the medical care they need to cure their dysphoria.

The second problem is that so much of the process seems to serve the sole purpose of stopping you from making ‘a hideous mistake’. The process is lengthened by multiple appointments with psychiatrists and therapists whose role is to assess the mental health and sanity of those seeking treatment. Tweets yesterday on the @TransDocFailAno account and the #transdocfail hashtag made it clear that, for many medical professionals, depression and other mental health problems were considered to be barriers to treatment that in some cases were used as excuses to delay treatment for dysphoria, and in other cases only the dysphoria was treated and other mental health problems ignored. Mental health issues blocking treatment for dysphoria is dangerous when dysphoria creates those mental health issues, and depression is immensely common in trans* people.

As someone who writes regularly on the subject and is openly trans*, the Lib Dem councillor for Cambridge, Sarah Brown says, “The media are typically invested in presenting a rigid narrative about how trans people interact with medicine. The stories trans people would like to tell, stories of outrageous levels of systemic abuse and transphobia, don't fit this narrative and so go ignored and unreported. Social media is changing this. The stories trans people have to tell are reaching people who seldom hear them, and people are often appalled by what they hear. We can't even begin to tackle widespread medical abuse of trans people until there is wider awareness of just how bad it is.”

Reading this one sided article, one could be forgiven for thinking that all trans* people are on a one way road to misery and that transitioning is not worth it. I urge you, if you are worried about this, to check out the We Happy Trans project. Trans* people consider transitioning well worth doing it because in some cases the alternative is suicide. Just because the system is not yet perfect, it does not mean that trans* people should not seek treatment they think will improve their lives.

A hair cut should not lead to medical treatment being denied. Photograph: untitled by . ally/flickr. CC-BY

Fearless in the face of yarn, yet terrified of spiders, Charlie Hallam is a Sheffield blogger and activist. She can be found waffling about politics and yarn as @fearlessknits on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear