New UCSF Series to Examine Gender Controversies

Katrina Karkazis

UCSF will host a new program series that will examine gender controversies recently in the news: the “sex testing” of South African runner Caster Semenya, the prescription of puberty-suppressing hormones for gender-variant youth, and the use of “gender identity disorder” as a diagnosis for transgender people.

Rounding out the series will be the UCSF premiere of the new documentary “Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up,” which features diverse teens talking about “gender rules” in their lives.

“Media reports on gender controversies are often incomplete, even sensationalized,” says series creator Shane Snowdon, director of the UCSF LBGT Center. “The experts in this series will dispel the misinformation that can surround these topics, which get a lot of attention, but are often misunderstood.”

On October 8, Stanford bioethicist Katrina Karkazis, PhD, MPH, will discuss intersex conditions, also known as “disorders of sexual development” or “DSD,” in light of the coverage surrounding runner Semenya, who underwent testing to “verify her sex” after winning an international gold medal. Karkazis, author of “Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority and Lived Experience,” will describe DSD/intersex conditions, then discuss recent efforts by advocates and health professionals to ensure that they receive respectful, state-of-the-art treatment.

“When Semenya’s test results were announced, some commentators used outmoded terms like ‘hermaphrodite,’ while others were pitying or mocking,” notes Snowdon. “This talk will offer reliable information about DSD/intersex.”

Gender Diversity

An October 13 presentation by gender diversity educator Stephanie Brill will focus on another much-misunderstood group: gender-variant youth, who identify with a sex other than the one assigned them at birth. “Like children with DSD/intersex conditions, these young people have long been invisible in our society—and need understanding and support,” Snowdon explains.

Brill, co-author of “The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families & Professionals,” will discuss the needs of gender-variant youth and the services being developed for them, including the prescription of reversible gender-suppressing hormones, a practice for which the Endocrine Society, the professional association of endocrinologists, released clinical guidelines earlier this year.

Transgender youth and adults alike are subject to the psychiatric diagnosis “gender identity disorder” or “GID,” the focus of the new documentary “Diagnosing Difference,” to be shown in the UCSF series on November 20. A diagnosis of GID, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” can be required for surgery to transition from one sex to another — and can also be experienced as profoundly stigmatizing.

In the film, directed by San Francisco psychologist Annalise Ophelian, leading transgender scholars, activists, and artists discuss how the GID diagnosis has affected them, debunking myths and misconceptions about transgender people in the process. “The film is an opportunity not only to explore the implications of a controversial diagnosis, but also to hear some of the country’s most accomplished transgender people talk about their lives,” Snowdon explains, adding that UCSF’s Center of Excellence in Transgender Health consulted on the documentary.

Controversies like those to be examined in the program series arise from shifts in thinking about gender — and that thinking, Snowdon says, is the focus of the documentary “Straightlaced,” which will premiere at UCSF on October 28 and 29, in showings co-sponsored by the Center for Gender Equity. The film is the newest release from Groundspark, the San Francisco non-profit that also produced “It’s Elementary,” the acclaimed film credited with calling national attention to anti-gay bullying in schools.

“It is fascinating and touching to hear the 50 very different teens in ‘Straightlaced’ talk about gender,” Snowdon says. “They talk about everything from ‘male’ and ‘female’ deodorants to questions like whether to take ballet or go along with anti-gay taunting in the locker room. They even talk about avoiding the bathroom so they won’t get beaten up, and the suicide of a classmate. By the end, you really do realize ‘how gender’s got us all tied up’—just as the film says.”

Adds Snowdon, “Our thinking about gender is complex, sometimes contradictory, and very deeply rooted. The four events in this series certainly won’t resolve the controversies they address — but they will definitely offer important new information and insights about gender complexities.” 

For more information about these events, visit the UCSF LGBT Resource Center website.