Friday, June 5, 2015

From Secrets and Shame to an Authentic Self: How Caitlyn Jenner Could Reduce Stigma for Transgender People

When Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner revealed her new identity as a transgender woman this week, it sparked many news articles and conversations about what it means to be transgender.

“For many people, it is difficult to understand how you can feel like a different person in your own body,” said Marshall Forstein, M.D., chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s LGBT Caucus, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Adult Psychiatry Residency Training at the Cambridge Health Alliance. 

As celebrities like Jenner and Laverne Cox share their personal stories, they help reduce the stigma around being transgender, Forstein said. “The more that people get to know people who are living their authentic lives, the easier it is to understand.”

“I think any time there’s a sudden revelation of secrets there are different ways people metabolize that information,” said Forstein said. “Some people will say: ‘Wow, how brave.’ Others will doubt that someone could know they are transgender from such an early age.” Although research on transgender is limited, evidence shows that changes in the brain may occur even before people are born—leading to a disconnect between their outward appearance and how they feel.

Despite the limited research on transgender individuals, Forstein said: “One of the things we know is that, by and large, people who do transition begin to feel happier about this consistency of the internal and external experience.”

While many people who are transgender experience anxiety and depression, Forstein said that this is usually a result of keeping their authentic identity hidden: “It’s the pressure of stigma and shame from being other than what society wants you to be.” As defined by the DSM-5, gender dysphoria ends once an individual has transitioned to their authentic gender. “Put yourself in a situation where you’re not allowed to be you—like when left-handed children were forced to write with their right hands—what would that do to your mental health?”

As Jenner shared with more than a million Twitter followers on Monday: “I'm so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.”

By Amanda Davis, Deputy Director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, APA

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