In a historic milestone, the World Health Organization is no longer classifying gender nonconformity as a “mental disorder.”
A Human Rights Watch representative hailed the United Nations health agency’s change, saying it will have a “liberating effect on transgender people worldwide.”
A revised version of WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) has changed “gender identity disorder” to “gender incongruence” — more generally know as gender dysphoria — which is now part of the chapter on sexual health. The now-dropped “gender identity disorder” had been included in the chapter on mental disorders. Gender incongruence in the updated manual is characterized as a “marked incongruence between an individual’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned sex” at birth.
It’s a breakthrough for transgender adolescents and adults around the world, who may soon be able to still seek medical care, but without being categorized as “mentally disordered.”
The change was announced last summer, but a resolution to amend the health guidelines was officially approved last Saturday.
“It was taken out from mental health disorders because we had a better understanding that this was not actually a mental health condition, and leaving it there was causing stigma,” said Dr. Lale Say, a reproductive health expert with WHO.
Dr. Jack Drescher, who served on the working group for the manual update, noted that misclassifying transgender status as a mental disorder “contributes to precarious legal status” as well as “human rights violations.”
Graeme Reid, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights director at Human Rights Watch, said the changes should immediately begin to have a ripple effect around the world.
“Governments should swiftly reform national medical systems and laws” that conformed with this “now officially outdated diagnosis,” he said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch notes that there is a growing global consensus among health care providers worldwide that experiencing a gender different from the one assigned at birth isn’t a disease, but rather a “natural variation of human experience.”
Far more work still needs to be done to increase understanding of gender nonconformity, advocates say. But a profound shift in medical perspectives is a significant change.
“Transgender people are fighting stigma and discrimination that can be traced in part to medical systems that have historically diagnosed expressions of gender nonconformity as a mental pathology,” Reid said. He emphasized that it’s the “stigma, discrimination, and bullying – and not anything inherent in gender nonconformity – that can inflict mental health problems in transgender people.”
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