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Intersexuality row: UCT’s VC backs off but specialist says it's a ‘necessary conversation’

Social media criticism of a University of Cape Town seminar on science and intersexuality has drawn an apology from UCT’s vice-chancellor and the abandonment of LGBTQIA+ issues in the series, writes MedicalBrief. But the urologist involved says that there was no harmful intention in her comments and this was “a conversation that needed to be held”.

The seminar, What does science say about LGBTQIA+?, was hosted last week by UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, with Dr Kgomotso Mathabe, a practising urologist and a member of the Steve Biko Academic Hospitalʼs Gender Clinic. It was streamed on social media and raised the ire of LGBTQIA+ community over Mathabeʼs comments that being born intersex could be potentially life-threatening and might require medical correction.

In addition to finding the title of the seminar “distasteful”, gender groups also commented that the seminar itself could be seen as “misinformation”.


VC apologises that she “got it wrong” despite “good intentions”

Phakeng has since released “an unreserved, unqualified apology”. According to a statement from UCT, the apology came after “some deep reflection” on Phakeng’s part, who was “deeply saddened” by the pain the seminar had caused.

“Professor Phakeng respects the rights of the LGBTQIA+ and has decided to put on hold any other sessions on LGBTQIA+. She will continue with any other subjects she may have planned as part of her #StrengthInDiversity series on social media.

“She will meet with the LGBTQIA+ community in sessions over the next few weeks in an effort to learn, understand, grow and try to heal some of the hurt caused.

“Professor Phakeng has as a Vice-Chancellor been most committed to transformation, inclusivity and diversity and we have no doubt she will remain absolutely committed to drive these forward.

“Her intention with the session was to bring a spotlight to matters that marginalise and deeply hurt the LGBTQIA+ community and this was done in an effort to bring change. Unfortunately, even though the intention was good, she got it wrong in this one instance, and she has now offered an authentic, heartfelt apology.

“We have no doubt that the VC will continue to advance LGBTQIA+ issues and other issues of inclusivity, and that UCT will continue to be at the forefront of the fight for dignity and equal human rights for all.”

The VC would meet with the LGBTQIA+ community in sessions over the next few weeks “in an effort to learn, understand, grow and try to heal some of the hurt caused.”

The university said it respected the rights of the LGBTQA+ community on its inclusive campus and beyond. The matter was receiving the urgent attention of the Chair and Deputy Chair of Council.

“UCT will immediately put together a panel to review the matter and come up with the university’s position. The panel will have LGBTQA+ representation,” UCT said.


Mathabe says “this was a conversation that needed to be held”

Mathabe later told Radio 702 that there had been no harmful intention. “If people did experience it that way, that certainly was not the intention. I apologise for that feeling that was triggered and for hurting people.”

“However, this was a conversation that needed to be had at very many levels … there are lots of things we don’t know outside our areas, lots that goes on that we don’t know,  so if this issue served to open up a door and start a conversation, that’s good."

On the Gender Diversity Coalition's objection to her statement that “intersex is a condition that is potentially life-threatening”, and their argument that “intersex is not what you are born into, it’s what your body tells you”, Mathabe told Radio 702: “Put simply, when a baby is born, we must be able to look at its external genitals and be able to say it’s a girl or a boy. If a trained medical health professional cannot make that call, because of physical issues, we call it intersex… and it opens up a whole new door.”

She added, “Every single letter in LGBTQIA+ stands for something different, yet unfortunately, we lump them altogether. There is a huge difference between every one of them and a huge difference between intersex and transgender, for instance. Intersex is also called ambiguous genitalia, or a disorder of sexual development, and is a definite medical condition. Intersex and transgender are like  chalk and cheese.”

The intersex diagnosis was complex, said Mathabe, not just from a physical aspect but from a hormonal one too.  Was that a small penis or a large clitoris? “And how does the child pee, because the hole at the tip of the penis is then not where it should be, so the child pees and it runs down his/her leg.”

“You also have to look at enzymes, adrenal glands, oestrogen or testosterone levels … when one enzyme is not working, sodium levels can go too high, and then the kidneys not able to handle the levels, so the doctors then have to carry out tests related to kidney function and the adrenal system…. all of this must be taken into account, discussed with parents.”

Surgical decisions are never carried out without lengthy discussion beforehand and mandatory consent forms being signed, she added. “I am very happy to have conversations with anyone about these issues…. conversations are less violating than me with a scalpel… by then I have to have some degree of certainty that I am doing the right thing for that person.”


702 interview:Intention was not to harm – Dr Mathabe apologises for LGBTQI+ seminar remarks


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Massive study concludes that there is no 'gay gene'


Academic medicine must step up with LGBTQ patients


Survey looks at LGBTQ Americans' experience with discrimination


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