UCLH Gender experts in BBC documentary 

12/10/2011 00:00 

Last night BBC One showed a compelling documentary about the lives of people born with 'disorders of sex development', with contributions from members of the UCLH team - consultant gynaecologist Sarah Creighton and consultant clinical psychologist Dr Lih-Mei Liao.

Consultant gynaecologist Sarah Creighton

"Is it a boy or a girl?" is usually the first question to be asked about a newborn. It tells us a great deal about the importance of sex as a social category, and about our binary understanding of it. The documentary, Me, My Sex and I interrogates our conditioned mind about sex and gender.

It takes us through certain biological scenarios, when embryonic sex differentiation and development is interrupted by genetic factors.

The outcome is a much broader range of sex anatomies and identities than most people realise.

For example, women and girls with female-typical appearance can have male-typical sex chromosomes (46XY) and internal testes. Babies born with ambiguous or male-typical external genitalia can have female-typical sex chromosomes (46XX), uterus and internal vagina.

These genetic conditions have historically been referred to as 'hermaphroditism' and, more recently, as ‘intersex’. In scientific communities, they have become known as 'disorders of sex development' (DSD).

Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Lih-Mei Liao

Atypical sex development is about as common as twins or red hair. Yet it continues to be misunderstood by the public and shrouded in unnecessary shame and secrecy. Since the 1950s, babies born with ambiguous genitalia in Europe and North America have typically been socially assigned female, partly because it was thought to be technically easier to surgically alter the genitals to fit with the female gender. Parents were often told by doctors not to tell anyone (including the child) about this. The severest critics of this kind of medical management have been adult service users who have grown up not knowing what was wrong and what had been done to them, and those who resent the invasive and irrevocable surgery to which they had not consented.

The UCLH team, which also includes Dr Gerard Conway, Professor Christopher Woodhouse, Maligaye Bikoo, Dan Wood, John Ackermann and others, has provided important scientific evidence to challenge the traditional medical paradigm and was a first group to formulate inter-disciplinary, patient-centred care. They are recognised as international opinion leaders in the DSD field.

Last night’s programme featured insights from people living with DSD. Their powerful stories challenge the belief that gender is binary and suggest that ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ are not just biological but psychological and social, along a multi-dimensional continuum of possibilities.

Click here to view the programme.


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