WHO Reclassifies Trans People: From Mental Disorder to Sexual Health

By Penny Robo

When it comes to medical care, trans people have long been trapped between a rock and a hard place: the same mental health classifications that have been used to stigmatize us has also been our point of access to health services. The American Psychiatric Association used to have us classified as having “gender identity disorder”, changed it to “gender dysphoria” with the release of the DSM-5 to alleviate negative connotations but stopped short of declassification for a very simple reason: removing us from the DSM could be used as grounds for halting treatment.

This week, the World Health Organization made a move to further destigmatize by not simply renaming the diagnosis to “gender incongruence” (which I must admit sounds pretty slick, like the kind of forced slang you’d find in old sci-fi short stories, though to say it seems lightweight compared to the reality of it all is an understatement) but also moving it from the mental disorders category over to the sexual health section.

As stated on the WHO’s release: “The rationale being that while evidence is now clear that it is not a mental disorder, and indeed classifying it in this can cause enormous stigma for people who are transgender, there remain significant health care needs that can best be met if the condition is coded under the ICD.”

Reclassification has always been a scary prospect. Changes in terminology or category can often be weaponized, and outright removal may seem like the end goal, but that would also deny many people the ability to seek out and receive treatment… the current argument over whether the “sex” part of the CIvil Rights Act covers sexual identity or orientation is proof enough that people will use any technicality at their disposal to deny service, and lay claim to some purity of terminology as the base of their objection to taking care of other people.

How far this will trickle down remains to be seen. We’ll surely know more about the ripple effects by the time its January 1st, 2022 implementation deadline arrives.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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