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A therapist and a scientist talk about how gender-affirming care impacts LGBTQ+ youth in Michigan

A therapist and a scientist talk about how gender-affirming care impacts LGBTQ+ youth in Michigan

Delia Giandeini/Unsplash

By Lucas Henkel

June 24, 2024

Republicans want to restrict access to gender-affirming care for LGBTQ+ youth in Michigan. Here’s what they have wrong—and how you can help make Michigan a safe place for everyone. 

At Greater Michigan Gender Services in Mount Pleasant, gender therapist Connor McGahan says that seeing anti-transgender legislation being proposed across the country by Republicans has several of his transgender and nonbinary clients worried.

“They are worried that it could start to happen here in Michigan, especially when Governor Whitmer is no longer in office,” he said in a recent interview with The ‘Gander. 

Alongside Democratic lawmakers, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has contributed to putting more protections in place for LGBTQ+ Michiganders since taking office—like expanding the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, education, and access to public accommodations, and  banning conversion therapy in Michigan. 

While many of these laws will keep LGBTQ+ Michiganders safe long after Gov. Whitmer leaves office in 2026, McGahan says that his younger LGBTQ+ clients have become increasingly worried about losing access to gender-affirming care—something the US Supreme Court will weigh in on this fall. 

“It’s so often talked about in media, like kids ‘changing their genders’ and doing all these ‘scary things,’ but that’s not actually what’s happening,” said McGahan. 

“I’ve noticed with my teen clients that, once they’re affirmed in their gender, they oftentimes are just comfortable enough to be themselves and for them to wait on hormones and surgeries.”

Gender-affirmative care is a range of interventions that can be social, psychological, or medical that support someone’s gender and identity. It can be as simple as allowing LGBTQ+ youth to wear the clothes they want, or be validated for who they are instead of who others tell them they are—it isn’t necessarily gender-affirming surgery and hormone therapy, contrary to what some Michigan Republicans may think

Only 13% of transgender and nonbinary young people in the US reported being on gender-affirming hormones, according to The Trevor Project’s 2024 US National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ+ Young People. Furthermore, just 2% of respondents reported taking puberty blockers, which can be used to delay the changes of puberty in transgender and gender-diverse youth who have started puberty. 

Despite the data, several Michigan Republicans have proposed pieces of legislation that would create major barriers for LGBTQ+ youth in Michigan seeking gender-affirming care—from outright prohibiting gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 18 in Michigan to changing the definition of child abuse to make seeking such care more difficult. 

McGahan says that these pieces of legislation continue to push the narrative that LGBTQ+ youth aren’t welcome in society—which can take a deadly toll on their mental health. Without access to gender-affirming care, transgender and nonbinary youth report higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. 

“It trickles down into people’s opinions and beliefs about trans folks, and then that affects their personal life with their friends and family. It affects every aspect of their life.”

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Helping LGBTQ+ youth ‘breathe’ easier

Whether you’re a lawmaker or not, experts say sharing factual, evidence-based research about gender-affirming care is one of the best ways to be an ally to LGBTQ+ youth—and one Michigander may have made the process a lot easier.

Before becoming a mixed-methods social epidemiologist and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and School of Public Health, Sarah Peitzmeier, Ph.D. was a public health student in Baltimore, Maryland. While there, she met multiple friends and fellow medical students who were chest binding—a process of compressing or reducing chest tissue using constrictive material.

Chest binding isn’t a new concept. Variations have been around for hundreds of years, but research surrounding the long-term health effects has been scarce. 

Looking for information to help other members of the LGBTQ+ community stay safe, Dr. Peitzmeier’s friends made a survey to gather first-hand experiences.

“They put out a survey and it went viral on queer Tumblr,” said Peitzmeier during an interview with The ‘Gander. Her friends received over 1,800 responses from transgender and non-binary youth from across the world sharing their stories. “After they had collected the data, they invited me to join the team to lead the data analysis and paper writing.”

“It was really eye-opening for me. So many people are [binding] every day and it’s such an integral part of their gender practice, but there’s no research to help support them in how to do that,” Peitzmeier said. “I would get emails regularly about the research from trans youth, their parents, and their pediatricians who also were trying to get more information about this.”

While the outpouring of responses signaled that resources like this were a priority for the community, Peitzmeier says the language used in her academic journals—along with those journals being stuck behind paywalls—made the vital data inaccessible. 

These barriers also made the research vulnerable to those reporting it out of context.

Peitzmeier said that some anti-transgender groups “twisted” the findings to promote their agenda. By doing so, these groups fueled anti-LGBTQ+ state legislators in their attempts to restrict what medical care people have access to. 

“The research was meant to empower folks with access to information. To see it misused by people was really heartbreaking,” she said. 

Unwilling to allow others to set the narrative, Peitzmeier collaborated with award-winning author and illustrator Maia Kobabe to publish the research in a comic book.

“There’s something about the interplay of the words and the pictures that just really helps build an embodied understanding of what’s going on. It gets these stories out in a really human way,” said Peitzmeier. 

Breathe: Journeys to Healthy Binding”—which was released in May 2024—is a 64-page graphic guide to chest binding featuring stories and experiences from real-life transgender and non-binary people. 

It also includes worksheets to help guide anyone along in their binding journey—including safe and unsafe binding gear, mood tracking, stretching exercises, and more. 

The book has already been reviewed by the School Library Journal, which called “Breathe” an “essential purchase for all secondary and public library collections” and noted that it provides health information “in a readily accessible manner that is otherwise difficult to find in science-based resources.”

Peitzmeier said she hopes that “Breathe” will allow readers to understand what gender-affirming care really looks like and positively impact LBGTQ+ youth—and potentially voters looking to elect lawmakers who know the facts. 

“It’s really important to use the voice you have and the vote you have to take a stand on what you care about,” Peitzmeier said. “There’s been an exponential increase in anti-trans bills across the nation, and that includes many bills being introduced in Michigan’s legislature.”

“Every vote truly does count, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Thinking about what matters to you and using that voice at the polls is really important.”

Author

  • Lucas Henkel

    Lucas Henkel is a multimedia reporter who strives to inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The 'Gander, Lucas served as a journalist for the Lansing City Pulse.

CATEGORIES: LGBTQ
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