In Pursuit of an Identity: Gender Identity Program Opens

With growing acceptance of diversity in gender identity and expression, an increasing number of people are declaring themselves transgender, gender nonbinary, or gender nonconforming. The Columbia Gender Identity Program that opened in 2018 helps children, adolescents, and adults find an identity that is representative of them.

“Gender identity is vital to how we view ourselves and present ourselves to the world,” says Walter Bockting, PhD, professor of medical psychology, who leads the program with Melina Sevlever, PhD, assistant professor of medical psychology. “Finding an identity that is representative of who we are is not always easy, and it can be especially challenging for those who identify in a way that does not conform to traditional views.”

Many gender identity clinics have opened in the past few years, Dr. Bockting says, but the Columbia Gender Identity Program has a particular approach. “We believe that transgender care is not just hormones and surgery. It’s really about living your life as a transgender person or as the gender you perceive yourself to be.”

The majority of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming children, adolescents, and adults are resilient in the face of prejudice and lead healthy, happy lives. For some, however, stigma can lead to significant mental health concerns, such as anxiety, depression, and suicidality. In addition, some people have an internal struggle around their own identity and the incongruence between their gender identity and their sex assignment at birth.

“Our approach is characterized by understanding that mental health is a very important component of transgender care,” says Dr. Sevlever. “Everyone’s journey is unique, and we are here to provide affirming support at every step of the way. We provide thoughtful guidance related to questions that can arise regarding gender identity and role, including social transition and gender-affirming medical interventions.”

For people who choose medical interventions, the clinic provides access to specialists across Columbia University Irving Medical Center who offer a range of services, including primary and specialty care, hormone therapy, and surgery.

Gender identity is more complex than simply choosing between two options, and people may identify with both genders, neither gender, or describe their gender identity as nonbinary or genderqueer. 

“We’re now finding evidence from neuroscience that gender may be more of a mosaic of different patterns,” says Dr. Bockting. “Our understanding is evolving from the binary narrative of the male versus the female body and brain toward a multidimensional approach, and toward the idea that gender isn’t static but can change over time.” 

Columbia’s Gender Identity Program involves families in the care of youth who identify as transgender, gender nonbinary, or gender nonconforming. “When we involve families in treatment,” says Dr. Sevlever, “we are able to provide support for family members who may be struggling with complicated feelings about their child’s or family member’s transition toward a more comfortable gender expression.” 

The program has experience working with families from various cultural and religious backgrounds. “By providing support through that process, we’re able to help them refocus on strengthening and building a relationship with that child or family member,” says Dr. Sevlever.


Appointments are available by calling 212-305-6001.

Read a Q&A with Dr. Bockting in the CUIMC Newsroom.