2022 has been a year of challenges but also opportunity and hope. We have experienced a climate of intense, harmful political 'debate', often contrary to scientific evidence and the lived-experience of the trans community. Whilst we are steadfastly focused on undertaking scientific research to improve trans health, in 2022, our voices as science communicators has never been more important.
As clinicians treating trans people and as researchers in trans health where >50% of our team are trans people with lived experience, we have a unique perspective to educate the public and influence policy debate. In 2022, we shared our research through media, peer-reviewed publications, national and international meetings, seminars, and conferences, and in training sessions with healthcare professionals. Refreshingly, we’ve seen Australians rebuke the politics of division at the Federal election and our resilient community come together.
Below are some highlights from our year.
Teddy Cook (ACON and research collaborator) with researcher Ariel Ginger at the AusPATH Conference in Darwin, May 2022, where Trans Health Research presented eight times.
Ground-breaking clinical research
During 2022, Trans Health Research remained at the forefront of clinical research into the effects of gender-affirming hormones on physical and mental health. Kylie King our ever-smiling research nurse has been the calm rock for our many clinical research participants in our bone and metabolic health study, testosterone trial, anti-androgen trial and micronised progesterone trial (still recruiting!) this year.
Endocrinologist and researcher Dr Brendan Nolan conducted the first ever randomised controlled trial for testosterone gender-affirming hormone therapy. This study demonstrated a significant reduction in gender dysphoria, depression and suicidality during the first three months of commencing testosterone. The importance of this research was recognised with the coveted Endocrine Society of Australia Bryan Hudson Clinical Endocrinology Award for the most outstanding research presentation at the Annual Scientific Meeting in Christchurch New Zealand.
Fellow Endocrinologist and Researcher Dr Lachlan Angus has also been busy with clinical studies, finishing data collection for a clinical trial comparing spironolactone with cyproterone acetate on feminisation. He is also working on a study examining the effects of bicalutamide.
Dr Ingrid Bretherton and Associate Professor Ada Cheung together with a team of basic science collaborators at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute published a preliminary study shedding light on how hormone therapy can impact the way genes turn on and off and immune function. More research is coming which will hopefully help us understand how hormone therapy might impact on infection risk or autoimmune diseases.
In another collaborative project, Associate Professor Ada Cheung teamed up with Sinclair Dermatology and new PhD student Dr Toan Tang, to examine the impact of gender-affirming hormone therapy on hair growth. We hope to better understand androgenic alopecia or pattern hair loss that occurs with testosterone therapy in particular. Recruitment for this project is ongoing (Melbourne-based).
Delivering trans health training to healthcare professionals, from left to right; Dr Alex Wong, Dr Clare Headland, Dr Sav Zwickl, and A/Prof Ada Cheung.
Trans people in sport
An increasing amount of attention has been directed toward trans people – and in particular, trans women – in sport. Associate Professor Ada Cheung has been committed to clearly communicating the science of the impact of gender-affirming hormone therapy on athletic performance. This has included numerous radio, news and television appearances such as on ABC Q&A, SBS Insight and Channel 10’s The Project, as well as an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, and engagement with leading sporting bodies such as World Triathlon and the Australian Institute of Sport. It’s come with many challenges, but Ada was grateful in 2022 to receive the GLOBE Ally of the Year Award and the Public Engagement Award from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at The University of Melbourne.
Given the dearth of research in this area, we have eagerly teamed up with researchers at Victoria University to launch the GAME study. In a world-first, we are following people over the first 12 months of gender-affirming hormones to monitor muscle strength, fitness and power, with recruitment ongoing (Melbourne-based).
The 'Trans in the Pandemic' Report, released in May 2022.
COVID-19 pandemic and the trans community
Back in May 2020, we conducted a survey aimed at exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Australian trans community. That study showed job loss, financial strain, and disruptions to healthcare including postponement of gender-affirming surgery were all common, and that rates of depression and suicidality had increased significantly during those early months of the pandemic.
It felt important to share these findings extensively, and to raise awareness with government and leading LGBTIQA+ and mental health organisations. In May 2022, we released the Trans in the Pandemic: Stories of struggle and resilience in the Australian transgender community report. This report was designed to make the research findings as accessible as possible, with a focus on infographics and community stories.
A two-year follow-up survey conducted in May this year, indicated that rates of depression in the trans community are still considerably higher than prior to the pandemic. We continue to share these research findings with media, organisations, and government, in the hope that they can aid funding requests and service allocation, to better support the trans community.
Meet some of the team! Back row: A/Prof Ada Cheung, Dr Sav Zwickl, Ariel Ginger, and Tomi Ruggles. Front row: Dr Julian Grace, Dr Brendan Nolan, Dr Alex Wong.
Supporting and connecting trans researchers
There are very few trans-affirming research spaces or opportunities for trans researchers to connect with one another. To address this gap, trans researcher Dr Sav Zwickl led organisation of the inaugural Emerging Trans Researchers Conference, that was held on Friday 18 November 2022. This was the first research conference of its kind in Australia, with all organisers and presenters part of the trans and gender-diverse community.
The conference program included research presentations by 18 trans and gender-diverse students and early-career researchers. Presentations covered a range of trans health-related topics, including healthcare experiences, eating disorders, and alcohol and drug services.
“I am really grateful to have been able to attend... The speakers were fantastic – very articulate and well-prepared. I was very impressed by the breadth of research”, stated one of the conference attendees.
The trans-affirming space provided an excellent opportunity for student researchers to develop their presentation skills and build self-confidence. For some, this conference was their first experience of presenting their research. “I really valued the opportunity to present my research, and I appreciated the effort that went into ensuring that the conference was welcoming and affirming – the whole day was so great”, said one of the presenters.
Aside from research presentations, the Conference also included a panel and Q&A session focused on managing mental health as researchers, and a debrief session that provided researchers an opportunity to reflect on the day and network with one another.
The full conference program and some of the research presentations can be downloaded here.
The need for more events by and for trans research researchers is evident. One trans student said, “It was great to be able to connect with other trans researchers”, while another stated that “I hope that we [can] keep networking and keeping track of each other’s ongoing work.”
To meet this need, Trans Health Research plan to host more events by and for trans and gender-diverse researchers in 2023. Trans researchers can provide input into the planning of these events and join a mailing list here.
In recognition of their leadership of the TRANSform project and their commitment to supporting other trans researchers, Dr Sav Zwickl received the Diversity and Inclusion award at the University of Melbourne’s Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences Staff Excellence Awards.
Dr Sav Zwickl (second from right, middle row) and Associate Professor Ada Cheung (far right, middle row) at the University of Melbourne’s Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Science’s 2022 Staff Excellence Awards.
And much more...
Interested in participating in research? All our clinical research (Melbourne-based) and online studies (Australia-wide) that are currently recruiting, can be found here.
Our research covers three main areas – healthcare access, gender-affirming hormone therapy, and mental health and wellbeing. You can access all our peer-reviewed publications here.
We also produce resources for trans people, trans allies, and for healthcare professionals supporting trans patients. These can all be found here.
Lastly, a big thank you to the over 2,000 trans and gender diverse people involved in our research during 2022 – without your willingness to give your time and share your experiences, none of this would be possible. Also, a huge thank you to our collaborators, particularly community organisations, advocacy groups, fellow researchers and scientists across the country, and to the breadth of clinicians treating trans folk who we have the pleasure of working with.
The Trans Health Research Team