Why are NHS doctors are still treating trans people like they’re mentally ill?

“You’re an attractive girl, why do you want to do this?”

“You’re an attractive girl, why do you want to do this?”

“Do you ever wear make-up?”

“Are you domineering in sex with girls?”

The questions above come from a NHS psychiatrist.

On the receiving end, JR*, 23, polite, wide blue eyes, job in video production, started crying five minutes into the interview. She kept crying for the remaining hour and twenty-five minutes with the psychiatrist, a man in his fifties. Through other questions about why she had only got her hair cut short aged 19, whether her past relationships with women as a lesbian had been casual or serious, whether she was capable of forming lasting relationships, details of how she behaved in bed with them, and what age she’d thought she was gay, she had to explain the expression “gay scene”.

He asked me: ‘When did you cut your hair short?’ I said, ‘When I was 19’. You kept it long till then? Did boys come up to you?

It was harder to explain that having a short haircut was not the main sign of the creeping sense of misaligned gender that JR had begun to feel five years ago.  

That particular techniques in bed didn’t mean that she wasn’t like a woman. And that issues of fashion, haircut even sexuality were in many ways irrelevant to the feeling of being in the wrong body.

“He wasn't rude at all,” JR said of the psychiatrist, “just coming from a completely different angle at every point.”

Well-intentioned, he seemed uninformed about transgender people, gay people and, to an extent, women.

The question about whether she was “domineering” in bed is a case in point.

“I said that I had generally been with more feminine women, but that I didn't associate being feminine with being passive” JR recalled.

Raising her worry that being more gender-ambiguous would affect her job prospects, JR got this reaction:

“He said: ‘No you don't have to worry about that. The only time that would be awkward is if a more senior male colleague made an advance on you and that might affect your promotion chances’.”

That interview was four months ago and JR was sent to the psychiatrist because she is transgender and the NHS sends all transgender people to psychiatrists.

Uncertainty about gender is still listed in the psychiatrist’s diagnostic bible - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (pdf) (DSM) - produced by the American Association of Psychiatrists and used globally.

The most recent NHS guidance states that being trans is not a mental illness, but the feeling of a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity, and the discomfort that comes from thatIt is caused by brain development, they say:

The condition is increasingly understood to have its origins before birth. Research studies indicate that small parts of the baby’s brain progress along a different pathway from the sex of the rest of its body. This predisposes the baby to a future mismatch between gender identity and sex appearance.

Yet the institutions we have in Britain still route trans people through psychiatrists, and in many cases still treat them as though they are mentally ill.

“Psychiatrists often get asked to play a role in sorting out problems when other people can’t, and it’s not always very admirable,” says Christopher Cordess, Professor of Psychiatry at University of Sheffield.

“This sort of reference – when you have to go to a psychiatrist to get a signature – is society’s way of coping when it doesn’t know what to do but wants to keep a cap on something.”

He cites the case of abortion, also still “gatekept” by psychiatry.

“Psychiatry is horribly political.” said Cordess. “When I was training, homosexuals used to be referred to psychiatrists, now that’s slightly embarrassing.”

It was in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental health disorder.

And while the NHS is strapped for cash, changing attitudes doesn’t need to be expensive.

The 6,000 British people who are trans and who would like help for gender issues must first approach their GP, and then the GP must refer them to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist refers them to a Gender Clinic where the patient can finally receive specific counseling, hormones, or if they wish reassignment surgery. The patient’s local Primary Care Trust must be prepared to pay for that place.

“We actually wrote a paper called ‘Not so much a care path.. more a kind of steeple chase’” said Christine Burns, activist and member of an Advisory Group on trans issues for the Department of Health. Each of the three players in the referral process can be obstructive.                             

Doctor training is one reason why. Christine says:

“Gender issues are treated probably less than one day in their whole medical training. There is a wide-spread attitude that trans people are so rare that you’ll never come across one.  You get people who say ‘we don’t need to know about that because we don’t have any of those here’.

“That means you get people with unmet needs.”

Then there are the Primary Care Trusts who believe that trans people don’t exist.

“Some PCTs have not invested in enough places at the Gender Services Clinic” Christine says.

There are ten English regions with PCTs covering approximately four to six million people. Each of those will see 80-100 patients presenting to GPs each year. Some PCTs are not planning/ paying for enough places. You’ll hear things like ‘oh we don’t have those here’.

It is attitudes that Stuart Lorimer, a leading gender specialist in the NHS’s Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, wants to change:

“By far the most difficult, obstructive phenomenon that we face as a clinic is the attitude that we face from medical colleagues – GPs, other psychiatrists” he says in a 2009 interview on Burns’ website.

“I vaguely remember a time in the past when nobody knew anyone who was gay. And there were very peculiar mythologies about gay people. And then that seemed to change with increased visibility and now everyone knows someone who is gay, and that gave people a human view of things.

“Generally speaking, doctors who have helped someone through their transition, experience it as positive. I think the negative feelings usually spring from ignorance.”

According to a 2006 survey about trans medical care, 80 per cent of GPs have good intentions and want to help, but the majority of them – 60 per cent – lack information.

'Engendered Penalties' by Stephen Whittle surveyed 872 trans people and also found that  19.5 per cent of GPs were not trans friendly, in fact the opposite.

A negative attitude, and even just ignorance can have a bad impact on a vulnerable patient. And these people are vulnerable.

An August 2012 survey into trans mental health by the Scottish Trans Group and Sheffield Hallam university – found that depression affected 62 per cent of the 889 trans people questioned, anxiety 56 per cent. In the general population it affects one in ten.

These people were having a bad time in all areas of the NHS: 63 per cent reported one or more negative experiences in mental health services, 65 per cent in general services and a shocking 62 per cent at a Gender Identity Clinic, according to the survey. 

Of those, just under a third felt that their gender identity was not validated as genuine, instead being perceived as a symptom of mental ill-health. A quarter felt uncomfortable being asked about their sexual behaviours.

The first-hand experiences quoted by The Scottish Trans survey tell some shocking tales:

My doctor sent me to see a gynecologist instead of the Gender Identity Clinic. He said he didn’t see trans people but he wanted to have a look at me. He then called in my husband and asked if he was ok with me transitioning - I felt abused.

Another quotation cited a bad experience with a psychiatrist who suggested the only appropriate pronoun for the patient was “it” and claimed that bisexual people didn’t exist.

A third reported:

Questions were overly irrelevant, prying and sexual. My first doctor asked about masturbation repeatedly, which made me very uncomfortable...

A fourth simply detailed the mental stress caused by the delay, confusions and misunderstandings.

On the other hand, Jay* a 24-year-old languages student in London who saw a psychiatrist and received a referral to the Charing Cross gender clinic earlier this month, said the psychiatrist was pleasant and reasonable.

Christine urges a balanced view:

There are good doctors and there are bad doctors, and there are good doctors having a bad day and there are bad patients.

There are people who have bees in their bonnet, and think they can cure transgender people by talking. It depends really on whether you are the first person that that doctor has seen.

There may also be an economic argument for a more sensitive system: happier people cost less. The Scottish survey showed that 44 per cent of trans people used mental health services more before transition, and none used mental health services more after having been through gender services.

Questioned as to why there was such a variable quality of treatment for trans people in the NHS and such a high incidence of negative feedback, the Department of Health said that they were moving to regulate care commissioning from Primary Care Trusts so that there will be enough places at Gender Clinics, and to create a national body that would be responsible for keeping care standards consistent across regions.

The Department of Health reiterated that being transgender is not considered a mental health disorder by the NHS but that the role of psychiatrists was an important one to ensure that   “gender issues have their root in gender dysphoria and are not caused by other more complex psychiatric problems”.

The spokesperson added that the psychiatric assessment “could be a useful opportunity for the patient to discuss their condition with a professional.”

As for the psychiatrists calling patients “it”, and trying to work out what gender someone should be based on their haircut, the Department of Health said they would be commissioning a clear guide on transgender treatment that will be published this year.

* Names changed for the purposes of the article and pronouns used with agreement of interviewees.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.