, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp 461-476
Date: 23 Oct 2009

From Mental Disorder to Iatrogenic Hypogonadism: Dilemmas in Conceptualizing Gender Identity Variants as Psychiatric Conditions

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Abstract

The categorization of gender identity variants (GIVs) as “mental disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association is highly controversial among professionals as well as among persons with GIV. After providing a brief history of GIV categorizations in the DSM, this paper presents some of the major issues of the ongoing debate: GIV as psychopathology versus natural variation; definition of “impairment” and “distress” for GID; associated psychopathology and its relation to stigma; the stigma impact of the mental-disorder label itself; the unusual character of “sex reassignment surgery” as a psychiatric treatment; and the consequences for health and mental-health services if the disorder label is removed. Finally, several categorization options are examined: Retaining the GID category, but possibly modifying its grouping with other syndromes; narrowing the definition to dysphoria and taking “disorder” out of the label; categorizing GID as a neurological or medical rather than a psychiatric disorder; removing GID from both the DSM and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD); and creating a special category for GIV in the DSM. I conclude that—as also evident in other DSM categories—the decision on the categorization of GIVs cannot be achieved on a purely scientific basis, and that a consensus for a pragmatic compromise needs to be arrived at that accommodates both scientific considerations and the service needs of persons with GIVs.