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World Health Organization Announces Landmark Change For Transgender Identity

The decision could help combat stigma against trans people

By Lauren Rearick

In what the Human Rights Campaign called a “liberating effect on transgender people worldwide,” the World Health Organization announced that it is changing its language pertaining to transgender people, away from the previously stigmatizing classification of "gender identity disorder" as a mental health issue.

As part of the new guidelines, the term “gender identity disorder” has been replaced with the term “gender incongruence,” which WHO defines as a “marked and persistent incongruence between an individual’s experienced gender and the assigned sex.” As CBS News explained, some countries following the previous guidelines required trans people to secure an official mental health diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” to begin transitioning, to undergo transition related services, or to change their birth name. Such stigmatizing diagnoses often resulted in the dangerous practices of conversion therapy and forced hospitalization.

The move comes following an announcement made in June 2018 that the organization, which oversees the international health systems of United Nation members, intended to move its definition of a transgender individual from a chapter on mental disorders to a chapter on sexual health. The group officially approved the change on May 25, 2019; it’s planned for all WHO member countries to follow the new guidelines by January 1, 2022, CNN reported.

The decision could help combat stigma against trans people, and would prove especially significant for trans people seeking healthcare that supports their gender identity. According to a study from the National LGBTQ Task Force, nearly 19 percent of transgender individuals have been refused medical care because they are transgender. 28 percent of transgender people surveyed had also postponed seeing a doctor for fear of discrimination.

In a statement made last year, Dr. Lale Say, coordinator of WHO’s Adolescents and At-Risk Populations team, told CNN that the term “was taken out from the mental health disorders because we had a better understanding that this wasn't actually a mental health condition and leaving it there was causing stigma. So in order to reduce the stigma while also ensuring access to necessary health interventions, this was placed in a different chapter."

LGBTQ+ organizations including The Trevor Project have praised the decision. "The Trevor Project hears from transgender young people every day who feel hopeless and alone because of harmful policies and the rejection they face from friends and family,” the organization’s Head of Communications Kevin Wong said. “Almost two percent of high school students identify as transgender, and this declassification will help them understand that they are valued and deserve respect around the world.”

To learn more about issues affecting trans people, head to trans.mtv.com.