Transgender Youth Don’t Have Anything Wrong With Their Hormones

Transgender rights march
Participants march for transgender rights on May 17 in Washington, D.C. Ted Eytan/Flickr/Creative Commons

A group of researchers may have put to rest the speculation still lingering in some medical literature that transgender people’s experiences are the result of a hormone imbalance.

On Tuesday, a group at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles published their first paper in an ongoing study on treatment for transgender youth. In total, 101 trans people between the ages of 12 and 24 enrolled in the study while they were patients at the hospital. Roughly half identified on the transmasculine spectrum of gender identity (those who were assigned female at birth but whose identities are either male or align more strongly with masculinity) and half on the transfeminine spectrum (those assigned male at birth but whose identities are either female or align more strongly with femininity). In an effort to understand the patients’ baseline physical and mental health characteristics, the researchers tested a number of traits, including their levels of estrogen and testosterone.

Both groups, they found, had normal hormone levels for the gender identities they were assigned at birth. Transfeminine youth had average levels of estrogen and testosterone well in the range considered normal for cisgender males (those assigned male at birth and who identify as male), and transmasculine youth had estrogen and testosterone levels in the normal range for cisgender females (those assigned female at birth and who identify as female).

"We've now put to rest the residual belief that transgender experience is a result of a hormone imbalance," Johanna Olson, the medical director for transyouth health at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and lead author on the paper, said in a release. "It's not."

The researchers also found that on average, the trans individuals in the study recognized a discrepancy with the gender they were assigned at birth at 8 years old, but they told their families about it much later—at 17 years old, on average.  

In addition, 35 percent of the participants experienced mild to severe depression, and more than half had considered suicide. Thirty percent reported having made at least one suicide attempt. That rate is three to four times higher than the general youth population, according to the study.

The researchers wrote that part of these high rates of depression may stem from the participants’ feeling the need to hide their identities from their families.

“Considering that transgender youth in this sample did not disclose their authentic gender to their families until 10 years after discovery, on average, it might not be surprising that many are using maladaptive coping mechanisms to manage such a profound undisclosed element of their core selves,” they wrote.

Trans youth, they write, are also likely to experience discrimination in wider society, "resulting in economic marginalization, incarceration, social isolation, and physical abuse," leaving them at higher risk for depression.

The research team plans to continue the study and explore what impact treatment at the hospital—such as puberty suppression or hormone therapy—has on the participants’ lives.

"My goal is to move kids who are having a gender atypical experience from survive to thrive," Olson said in the release. "With this study, we hope to identify the best way to accomplish that."