'The Science of Gender' symposium pushes for action from health care providers

The 9th annual UCLA Mattel Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute Symposium began last Friday with a presentation about transgender and gender-diverse health care

“I need to disclose that my work would be newly categorized as a felony in Alabama,” said Daphna Stroumsa, MD, MDH, assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Michigan, during a presentation at the 9th annual UCLA Mattel Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute Symposium.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “The Science of Gender” and featured guest speakers from across the U.S and Canada, including Admiral Rachel Levine, MD, assistant secretary for the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

The symposium kicked off Friday, May 13, with a pediatric grand rounds presentation about delivering health care for transgender and gender diverse people.

“The recently enacted Alabama State Bill 184 criminalizes medically necessary care for trans youth, making it a felony for any person to engage in specific types of medical care for trans minors,” said Dr. Stroumsa. “I want to point out the impact of this law in your practice along with a slew of other anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation across the country.”

In 2022, there were nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed, many of which targeted transgender youth and their parents.

Second-year Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellow and selected speaker Esther Kim, MD, discusses her work titled “Exploring the mechanism of polyunsaturated fatty acids on pathologic neovascularization in oxygen-induced retinopathy,” with Marlin Touma, MD, PhD. (Photo by Alexzandra Lopez | UCLA Health)

“There are laws coming to a state near you – and I very literally mean a state near you in the very near future – which will affect patients presenting to your care,” they said. “Clinical education stepping up to the clinical plate and addressing the growing population is an important first step, but it is not enough.”

Dr. Stroumsa cautioned health care providers to prepare for the wave of consequences and aftermath of the anti-transgender bills.

Sherin U. Devaskar, MD, Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and the executive director of the UCLA Children’s Discovery and Innovation (CDI) Institute, presents Admiral Rachel Levine, MD, assistant secretary for Health, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, addressing virtual and in-person attendees of the 9th annual UCLA Mattel CDI Institute Symposium. (Photo by Alexzandra Lopez | UCLA Health)

Admiral Levine began the afternoon session of the symposium with a keynote speech about gender identity and health.

“I truly believe that having this conversation will help to foster a more connected and better future, where physicians and other medical professionals and scientists recognize that everyone is a person with fears and hopes, deserving of the same treatment regardless of their skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” she said virtually and to an audience at Tamkin Auditorium at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

“Addressing health disparities means considering those who have been historically and are currently denied opportunities, and unfortunately, they're often the same people who are disproportionately impacted by climate and environmental risks, poor access to quality health care and other social economic roadblocks to well-being.”

Admiral Levine said the Department of Health and Human Services is prepared to use every tool in their toolbox to expand and improve data reporting on populations that have been historically excluded from opportunities and resources.

“At HHS we are working to address this,” she said. “I strongly feel that we have not made progress unless we have made progress for all.

“We have to continue to strongly advocate for the most vulnerable in our community and that includes LGBTQ+I+ seniors, LGBTQ+I+ youth, LGBTQ+I+ immigrants and LGBTQ+I+ people of color – particularly trans individuals of color and trans women of color, who are at risk not only of discrimination or harassment, they are at risk for violence and even murder.”

At least 12 transgender people have been killed by violent means this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

First-year Pediatric Gastroenterology fellow Paula Prieto Jimenez, MD, discusses work titled “Defining the molecular basis of two monogenic diseases affecting the intestinal epithelium,” with Josephine Enciso, MD, director of Pediatric Fellows. (Photo by Alexzandra Lopez | UCLA Health)

Admiral Levine said that trans women are internationally recognized as a population group that carries a disproportionate burden of HIV, addiction and mental health issues that range from depression to suicide.

“I want to make clear that there’s nothing inherent with being a member of the LGBTQ+I+ community, of being transgender or gender non-binary, that would predispose someone to having mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and risk of suicide. It is the bullying, it is the harassment, it is the overt discrimination that we face that lead to those mental health outcomes,” Admiral Levine said.

To mitigate these risks and inequities, Admiral Levine says medical professionals must reflect upon the Hippocratic oath and desire to save lives and improve the quality of life for all.

“We need to say publicly, over and over again, to every LGBTQ+I+ person living in this country, to every LGBTQ+I+ youth, that it is OK to be you. It’s the right thing to do to stand up for your dignity and your freedoms,” she said.

Other noteworthy presentations included:

  • “Gender/Sex and Medicine: A Brief History of Subjects and Others” by Rebecca Jordan Young, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College and Columbia University.
  • “The Matter(s) of Gender” by Deboleena Roy, PhD, senior associate dean at Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
  • “Gender/Sex Diversity Beyond the Binary: New Scientific Approaches from Identities to Hormones” by Sari van Anders, PhD, Canada 150 Research Chair in Social Neuroendocrinology, Sexuality, and Gender/Sex at Queen’s University.
From left to right: Sherin U. Devaskar, MD, Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and the executive director of the UCLA Children’s Discovery and Innovation (CDI) Institute; Steven Mittelman, MD, PhD, professor of Pediatrics, chief, Pediatric Endocrinology, interim chief, Division of Pediatric Genetics; Anna-Barbara Moscicki, MD, professor of Pediatrics and division chief of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UCLA and CDI Institute co-director; Peter G. Szilagyi, MD, MPH, professor of Pediatrics, executive vice-chair and vice-chair for Research in the Department of Pediatrics, and CDI Institute co-director. (Photo by Alexzandra Lopez | UCLA Health)

An underlying theme of the presentations was advocacy.

“For almost 40 years now, I have considered it an honor to be a doctor. I believe in our role as healers and I believe in our role as truth tellers. The truth that we need to confront right now is that medicine and science are being politically perverted across this country in ways that destroy human life,” Admiral Levine said.

“We have reached a tipping point for the role of medicine and civic life and the health and well-being of LGBTQ+I+ Americans, particularly transgender and gender diverse.”

She says the attacks on LGBTQ+I+ rights are driven by an agenda that has nothing to do with science, empathy, compassion or understanding.

“We as doctors, we as scientists, we as people, who love our communities in our nation, have to confront the fact that the language of care and the language of compassion that we take for granted in our field is being used to literally tear our communities apart," she said.

"So we all have to stand up. It is our duty to stand up.”

For the full list of the poster titles and fellow poster presentations, visit the UCLA Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute.