Monday, October 3

How the Center for Gender Affirming Medicine is helping Ohio’s transgender youth survive & thrive

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The walls of Quinn Sullivan’s bedroom are covered in sketches.

Tacked between crooked band posters and photos of friends, Quinn’s own work stands out: on a small canvas, a painted torso features a pair of identical half-moon scars stretched across the chest like wings.

“I have this plan to create a queer-experience exhibit,” he says. “I have a lot of artwork that relates to my experience and puts it outwards.”

Before coming out to his parents as transgender two years ago, the 17-year-old couldn’t see much of a future for himself: “Ever since I can remember, ever since I found out and understood [my transness], I just stopped looking ahead.”

But today — with the help of his family and a team of knowledgeable and affirming healthcare providers at Akron Children’s Hospital’s Center for Gender Affirming Medicine — Quinn is planning for the future again. 

This time, with much higher hopes.

Taking the first step

When they were still kids, Quinn and his younger brother, Cameron, played on an inflatable water slide in their backyard in West Virginia. Standing at the top, Quinn told Cameron that he didn’t identify with the gender assigned to him at birth.

Years later, in middle school, Quinn came out as nonbinary, but still struggled to articulate his gender. 

The art of Quinn Sullivan (Photo Credit: H.L. Comeriato)

As he approached high school, Quinn’s parents, Jennifer and Randy, knew their small, West Virginia hometown may not be the safest or most welcoming place for him. So in 2018, they moved to Ohio, where he could start high school under a new name. 

Still — like more than 70% of the 150,000 trans and gender diverse teens living in the United States — Quinn grappled quietly with depression, anxiety and gender dysphoria.

By 2020, he knew that he was a transgender man, and had even come out to other students and teachers at school. When a friend accidentally outed Quinn to his mom — a licensed and professionally trained social worker — she staged a family mental health intervention to help him get the care he needed.

“I was in a very bad space mentally,” Quinn says. “There was a lot of crying when it all came to a head. It was like, ‘Okay, I need to go to therapy. This is what needs to happen for me to be okay again.’”

How gender affirming healthcare saves lives

Trans and gender diverse youth are more than 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers. They also experience disproportionately high rates of homelessness and housing instability, intimate partner violence, mental illness, sexual assault, addiction and incarceration.

Coupled with staggering health and income disparities caused by harassment and discrimination, the barriers to care that young trans and gender diverse people face are enormous — even when they seek out gender affirming care as legal adults.

By the time her son came out as transgender, Jennifer knew the risks.

She also knew that building an affirming and supporting environment for Quinn at home could save his life, so she helped him come out to his dad — then helped him navigate difficult conversations with friends, family and eventually doctors and other healthcare providers.

After a general psychological evaluation, Quinn was referred to the Center for Gender Affirming Medicine, where he was connected with a gender-informed therapist and set up with a team of professionals to help manage his care, including a medical doctor, an endocrinologist and a social worker.

About 40% of trans youth do not receive the gender affirming healthcare they need due to concerns about obtaining parent or caregiver permissions. But for Jennifer and Randy, the decision to support any care recommended by doctors and researchers was a simple one — especially after learning more about the positive health and wellness outcomes.

Gender affirming care is recommended for young transgender people by every major medical association in the United States, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

[Gender affirming care] can increase the odds of a patient doing well in school, increase self-esteem and decrease the risks of bullying,” says Dr. Crystal Cole, who serves as the center’s medical director.

“There’s so much focus on the medical part, but there are so many different levels that are all part of caring for these patients,” Cole says. “What gets lost is that we’re also treating a population that is high risk for poor mental health outcomes.”

But with long-term, individualized care that affirms who they are through therapy, counseling and medical treatments like reversible puberty blockers and gender affirming hormones, Cole says those outcomes can shift — and that young transgender people are often able thrive at home and at school with the right care.

“I’ve seen how these patients transform,” she says. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and the gender affirming piece is really that missing link that’s preventing them from being who they are.”

For trans youth, affirming caregivers can make a big difference 

Jennifer and Randy were born and raised in a small, West Virginia town.

“Everybody knew the lesbian,” Jennifer says. “You just didn’t talk about it. There was never any of that same kind of acceptance.”

In their own family, the pair have taken a different approach.

The Sullivan family (Photo Credit: H.L. Comeriato)

At home, Quinn is unapologetically loved and valued. Everywhere, there are signs that his family uplifts and celebrates him as his most authentic self: his paints and easel spread across the upstairs landing, family photos proudly displayed in every room.

When Quinn legally changed his name — another affirming process associated with lower rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among trans youth — Jennifer and Randy shared photos with friends and family to celebrate.

Studies have shown that simply using a transgender person’s name and pronouns correctly can reduce their risk of attempting suicide by nearly half. When trans and gender diverse young people receive consistent affirmation and support from the most important people in their lives, who are often parents or caregivers, they are far more likely to live long, healthy and fulfilling lives.

“Because we’re so open about it, I find it’s been helpful for other people,” Jennifer says. “We’ve had so many people reach out to us asking to talk.”

Mostly, she says parents are afraid of messing up — using an incorrect name or pronoun. But for Jennifer, making mistakes (and learning from them) is all part of the journey.

“You have to accept that you’re going to make mistakes as a parent, [especially]when you get thrown a curveball like this. But when you’re coming from a place of love, it’s all going to be fine,” she says. “Just love your kid. Period.”

Finally looking ahead

On a bright, winter afternoon, Quinn and his brother pile onto the couch with the family pets.

Behind them, their dad, Randy, stirs a pot of homemade chili on the stovetop.

Since coming out to his parents, Quinn has blossomed — qualifying for district championship races in swimming and earning a spot in the Columbiana County Honors Band. After graduation, he plans to study art history and studio art in Seattle, Washington. But just a few short years ago, he hadn’t even thought that far ahead.

“I didn’t see anything for myself,” Quinn says. “I still have a very hard time thinking toward the future, but I’ve gotten to the point where I have a general plan.”

“It’s weird,” he adds. “Being able to see that stuff.”

A future Quinn never expected is now wide open with possibility. When prompted for words of encouragement, he shrugs.

“You ultimately have the deciding factor in your entire life,” he says. “And, yeah, people are going to say things. People always say things. But in the long run, it really doesn’t matter, because no one gets to decide who you are other than you.” 🔥 

This story was  made possible through the support of the Akron Community Foundation.

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About Author

H.L. Comeriato is the staff writer for The Buckeye Flame. A queer and non-binary writer and reporter from Akron, Ohio, they covered public health for The Devil Strip via Report for America.

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