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A few states now cover the cost of medical treatment for people who are transgender. Oregon is one of them, and it's gone a step further than most states. Medicaid in Oregon now pays for drugs that suppress puberty in children who think they might want to change their gender. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting talked with one 13-year-old and her family about the process.
KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: Michael was born biologically male 13 years ago on the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. Mom Dee remembers buying dresses for three nieces when Michael, who now goes as Michaela, was about six.
DEE: When she saw those dresses, her eyes just lit up. And she said, who are those for? I'll never forget it. And I said, well, these are for the girls. And I said, do you like them? And she said yeah. So I said, well, do you want to try any on? If any of them fit you, do you want to wear them? And she said yeah. And she just twirled and twirled in that dress. It was so wonderful. And that's when I knew at that point.
FODEN-VENCIL: To protect her privacy, NPR has agreed not to use Michaela or her mother's real names. That's because some kids didn't respond well when Michaela turned 7 and started experimenting with a more feminine lifestyle and clothes.
DEE: She wouldn't wear her pink and purple to school anymore like she used to. She was starting to get teased, which was way too hard for me to take.
FODEN-VENCIL: Michaela says friends of her older brother Ray teased her.
MICHAELA: I don't really remember any of that, other than some of Ray's friends did (crying).
DEE: It's all right.
FODEN-VENCIL: The family decided to move to Portland when Michaela was 8 so she could live as a girl and attend a school where nobody knew any different. And when she hit puberty at 12, she turned to Karin Selva, a pediatric endocrinologist with Randall Children's Hospital in Portland.
KARIN SELVA: Any boy who wants to look like a girl can just grow your hair long and, you know, put some mascara on, put a dress on and they'll look very female. But as soon as puberty hits, that's when the body pretty much turns on someone who is transgender.
FODEN-VENCIL: Michaela wants to transition from male to female, meaning she doesn't want to grow an Adam's apple, facial hair or a heavy male body structure. To stop that process, she now gets an injection once every three months.
MICHAELA: It hurts really bad.
FODEN-VENCIL: Michaela has private insurance. But the medication she gets, which Medicaid now covers, is Lupron. It's been used for years on children with precocious puberty, that is, children who start puberty too early. It's also used for prostate cancer and fibroid tumors.
Dr. Selva says it just gives a child more time to come to a decision about their gender identity. And once they've decided, they can start taking the hormones for the gender they'd like to be, or they can stop taking the medication and allow their bodies to develop unhindered. But, says Dr. Megan Bird with Legacy Medicine Group in Portland, there are side effects.
MEGAN BIRD: So the biggest risk that we talk about is bone deposition.
FODEN-VENCIL: She says there's no evidence puberty suppression increases the risk of osteoporosis later in life, but there isn't much research either. She says there are other concerns, too.
BIRD: You know, kids who first start Lupron get headaches and hot flashes sometimes, although those are usually only for a few weeks, and then they go away. Other issues is that they're out of synch with their peers. So if you delay a kid at 12, and their peers are developing breasts and they're a late bloomer in that sense, that can be disruptive to their life as well.
FODEN-VENCIL: Teens who completely suppress puberty are likely to be sterile, too. But Bird says it's now possible to have a temporary puberty just long enough to harvest sperm or eggs for later use, but not so long that a teen begins to grow sexual features, like breasts or an Adam's apple.
Dr. Ariel Smits is the medical director for the group that recommended Medicaid pay for transgender treatments in Oregon. She supported it because she says the medical literature is clear. Hormone therapy, surgeries and puberty suppression help people live happier lives.
ARIEL SMITS: People with gender dysphoria that did not receive treatment had a much higher rate of hospitalizations or ER visits or doctors' visits for depression and anxiety, and they had a pretty significantly high suicide-attempt rate. Some studies found about 30 percent.
FODEN-VENCIL: When people get treatment, she says, those rates drop to a level much closer to that of the general population. For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.
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