|Helen Webberley: Gender GP|
If you’ve read any of this blog at all, you will know how much I am looking for answers to my questions, not just about my own gender, but about the medical treatment of transgender people. You will also know how sceptical I am about the current state of the science behind gender treatment. I have (several times) approached doctors who treat transgender patients (including surgeons who perform sex reassignment surgery ) and also doctors who are themselves transgender, for their own perspectives. They have all quietly declined to be interviewed publicly.
So I wasn’t filled with confidence that Helen would agree, but I got in touch, and she replied immediately and very positively. Here she is, sitting on my virtual couch:
How did you first get interested in treatment of transgender people?
I have always been interested in equality and diversity – it has always appalled me that anyone should be bullied due to their size, colour, hair, gender, preferences, religion etc. I got very interested in Sexual Health in the 90s and did lots of specialist training in this area, and then taught widely on how the medical profession should not judge differing sexual behaviours.
When I became a GP in Wales, I had a transgender person asking me for help, and the nearest clinic was in London. I made it my business to find out more about gender issues and how to treat them, and how to help this person who couldn’t possibly travel to London. It was fascinating, and very rewarding.
What made you decide to pursue it as far as you have (the website, etc)? Why not just treat patients in your own region?
I love technology, and was intrigued as to why healthcare was so far behind the rest of business when providing services online. I made my own website www.mywebdoctor.co.uk offering free advice to those who couldn’t get in to see their GP. I thought it would sit at the bottom of the huge pile of websites in the sky, but I was surprised at how many people asked for help.
I had an idea to offer specific help for transgender people, so I made a special dedicated Transgender page. When I woke up the next morning, I realised just how big a need it was!! From here it has progressed to www.GenderGP.co.uk .
Do you still have a normal GP practice?
|Doctor, doctor! Gimme the news!|
What opportunities exist for other doctors who want to specialise in the treatment of transgender people?
There isn't really any official training available in transgender care. But with access to the Internet, there is now endless opportunity for doctors to read policies, guidelines and research to help them to understand more about the needs of the trans community and how best to help them.
I really believe that gender care should be a routine part of General Practice, just as contraception and menopause treatment is. GPs are good at dealing with stress, family issues, workplace problems and hormones. These are the nuts and bolts of gender care and GPs should be offering this routinely.
I have found that a lot of the dysphoria that gender variant people suffer is not due to their variance, but the attitude and responses from society and, ashamedly, the medical profession. If we sort that out, we are a long, long way toward making gender care very simple and easy and less demanding on the doctor and the patient. Trans people are startlingly well-informed: listen to them about their diagnosis and management plans – they have done most of the work for us.
I am presenting a piece of work at the WPATH this year – "Gender dysphoria or medical dysphoria: what causes distress amongst trans patients?"
I find myself concerned about transgender children. How does one determine whether it's ethical to treat children for transgenderism, especially since no long-term studies have been done looking at the outcomes?
The children I have met have been amazing. The diagnosis is often so clear cut, and allowing them to go through a life-changing puberty, that so clearly doesn’t match their true gender, is bordering on inhumane.
By blocking puberty and giving them time to mature and understand what they want and need for their future, you are preventing them from having to have life-threatening surgery in the future, and a life of mismatch and potential humiliation.
I so totally agree with you about the lack of evidence, and that we are guessing and feeling our way, hoping it is right. But we need to prevent transgirls developing into big hairy men, and transboys developing into shapely, delicate females. There is a reason why the suicide rate is so high in this group, and we must stop their bodies developing wrongly.
If you could wave a magic wand, and change one thing about the treatment of transgender people, what would it be?
Allow them to help shape and dictate their care. If they want to try hormones, take hormones, have an operation, change their bodies – make it easy for them, not the huge struggle they seem to face at the moment.
It seems that transgender issues seem to have burst onto the public stage in the last couple of years. Do you have any thoughts about why this might be? And where it might all lead?
The true prevalence of transgenderism of any degree (remembering that gender is a spectrum on which we all lie, somewhere between 0 and 100%) is massively underestimated, I expect. In the 80s, people felt more confident to come out as gay, and the same is happening now for the trans community. We are about to see the true extent of exactly how common it is to have some variance with your gender. Is ‘male’ and ‘female’ a human generated idea – and have we got it all wrong?
|Human X and Y chromosomes|
In the olden days, we also presumed that our sex-determination system also matches our sexual identity (who we are attracted to), but look how wrong we were about that. Again, society dictated that there would only be one sexual identity and we made all the rules about marriage and commitment to fit that. Latterly we have had to re-write the rulebook.
I believe that everyone is on a spectrum of gender (identifying as male or female or somewhere in between) and identity (fancying men or women or anywhere in between) and preference (liking pink or blue or fairies or sport or animals or trains). Society shapes this and suppresses our liberty to express somewhere else along the spectrum. I would love to see what happened in a new society, born without rigid rules and constraints and expectations. Would I have been a very feminine heterosexual?
My video talks about the sphere of diversity, and in that sphere are lots of spectra, and where we lie on each spectrum gives us a unique point within the sphere, unique to you and to me, and excitingly different.
Do you ever refuse to treat someone for gender issues? How do you determine if a person is suitable to be treated or not?
I would be very concerned about someone whose gender issues seemed to stem from a bad experience in earlier life. For example a person who wanted to hide from their genitals and sexuality due to a previous history of sexual abuse.
As my service is a remote service, I do not treat anyone who is shown to have manipulated the system in order to get medication.
Most people are absolutely honest and genuine and so grateful to have the chance to get the care they need, but sometimes I have to signpost people back to their GP.
Have you ever come under criticism from colleagues or the public for what you do?
Oh yes. In one year I have been reported to the GMC twice (but they have found no concerns) and threatened to once – all by leading doctors in this field in the UK.
|AMAB? I thought you said...|
Some of these healthcare professionals are supposed to be caring and helping the trans community, but the stories I hear of people’s experiences in their GIC make my toes curl, so I am not surprised that I am not always treated with respect. I wonder whether they are just keeping the GIC waiting list so long to fuel their private practice. I can’t see any other reason that they would not welcome an experienced GP who is helping relieve the burden of their work.
One of them publically wrote about how gender care that is straightforward should be delivered by people’s GPs, and in the same month I received a letter of concern from him via the GMC for doing just that!
Gender care needs to be brought under the auspices of General Practice, and done by good old (modern) GPs who are used to dealing with everyday people, every day. If we don’t start encouraging GPs to embrace this field of medicine, then the waiting lists for the GICs will soon be 10 years, not 2!
The public have been great, I have received so many letters, cards, reviews, testimonials – and every one has been truly complimentary. I have changed many lives for the better, and I expect saved a few desperate lives of people who thought they had nowhere else to turn.
Do you have any thoughts about the autogynephilia model of Bailey and Blanchard?
I had never heard of it so I just looked it up. The majority of transgender patients I have had the pleasure of treating could no way fit into this model. I guess that these ideas could be made to fit some people, but to generalise and say this theory explains gender issues is outright wrong.
I have never really thought about the philosophical arguments so much. I have always concentrated on the physical, psychological and social needs of my patients, so the theory is interesting but a bit mind boggling!
Which famous person would you most like to meet, and why?
My family and friends laugh at me because I just have no interest in ‘famous’ people. I would like to be famous for really transforming gender care in the UK and the rest of the world. I would like to shake hands with my future self for helping trans people to access safe and easy healthcare without fear of humiliation, prejudice or judgement.
As always in my interviews, I like to reflect a little about the answers.
First, Helen seems to be extremely unusual: a doctor who treats trans people and is willing to talk about it openly and willingly. She seems so open, so inviting, in contrast to the attitude of many other (but not all) doctors, which seems to be to be with awkwardness and silence (a vestige, perhaps, of the “shame, secrecy and trauma” which Alice Dreger talked about with intersex children).
I approached a surgeon who performs sex reassignment surgery, and he declined to be interviewed. In fact, he was barely polite with my request. He would not consent to be named publicly. When I offered him an anonymous interview, he was sure that he would be recognised by his answers.
So I guess my point is: so what? If you are a doctor, and you are performing perfectly legal operations, believing in good faith that you are acting for the benefit of your patients, why should you hide? Surely you either believe in what you do, or you don’t. And if you don’t, why are you doing it?
Helen comes across as completely the opposite. Open, friendly, non-judgmental. Willing to discuss some very sensitive issues very freely. I see her very much as a step in the right direction: the direction which says that you don’t need to hide if your gender doesn’t quite fit the slot, but are deserving of sympathy and acceptance and respect. She isn’t hiding; instead she is out there trying to be noticed.
I found myself surprised (read: astonished) that she had never come across the autogynephilia model. I thought everybody knew about that one! But again I find this refreshing: that someone can come to a field (you might say a minefield) like gender, and just apply their own take on it, and be so positive, without being subject to what other people want you to think about it.
I couldn’t help challenging Helen on some of her practices. I believe medicine should be guided by science, and yet the science is lacking in a lot of areas. Again I found her answer refreshing: “guessing, feeling our way, hoping it is right”. How humble, and how different from the dogmatic certainty of people like Paul McHugh.
I am impressed (in case you couldn’t have guessed) with Helen. I find myself hoping that she is in the vanguard of a new wave of doctors: open, receptive, non-judgmental, willing to listen to trans people instead of dictating to them . I wish there were a hundred like her—and perhaps soon there will be.
My thanks, as always, to Helen for her patience, not just with my questions, but with my flurry of emails requesting clarifications on several points. My thanks, too, to her husband Mike for reviewing the final draft.
Form an orderly queue, please. The doctor will see you now.
Addendum: 15th September 2017
The BBC reported this week that Helen Webberley has been "probed" for giving hormone treatments to children as young as 12. She has been blocked from unsupervised practice with transgender patients. Predictably, other media outlets have reacted with a more sensationalist spin on the story.
I am very disquieted by this news. As I stated above, I am impressed by Helen Webberley's stance on gender disorders. When I interviewed her, she told me that she had already been subject to scrutiny from the GMC as a result of complaints by others.
I know none of the details of the story, of course. But I find myself hoping that Webberley's clinical supervisor reports to the GMC that she is practising in good faith, within the boundaries of good medical practice and good medical ethics, and that she will be permitted to resume her normal practice. Transgender patients need good doctors, and that may mean that a few brave doctors need to blaze a trail for others to follow.