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Film honors transgender pioneers

pride-828056_1920I knew little about the film "The Danish Girl" last weekend when, diverted from a sold-out showing of the Oscar favorite the "Revenant," my husband and I disappointedly walked down Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz to another theater to see the film about a transgender woman instead.

It proved to be a fortuitous diversion. "The Danish Girl" is artistically gorgeous and well acted, as today’s Academy Award nominations point out. The film received nominations for Eddie Redmayne as best actor in his role as a transgender artist, best supporting actress for Alicia Vikander, his wife who stands by him as he confesses that he believes he was born in the wrong gender and begins to dress as a woman they call Lili — and nods for costume design and production design as well.

But the film struck a more personal chord, halfway through its viewing, when I sucked in a short gasp realizing that, in addition to being a love story with a socially relevant message, the film was recounting a piece of medical history. And suddenly, the film took on a frightening edge.

I knew from my research for a story I wrote for Stanford Medicine magazine in 2012 titled “Transition point: The unmet needs of transgender people,” something of the challenges facing transgender people today as they navigate the medical world trying to get the care they need. The story describes the paucity of evidence-based medicine for transgender health care and the lack of training for physicians on how to provide care. As I wrote in the story:

The problem is that in the United States, most physicians don’t exactly know what treatment for the transgender patient entails. For an untrained professional, it’s a challenge to provide care to a patient with a penis who wants a vagina, or to a patient who has been tortured emotionally by being told she’s a boy when she knows she’s a girl. General practitioners — the majority of doctors who treat patients in the United States — are equally unprepared to care for those transgender patients after they have begun to take hormones and have undergone genital-reconstruction surgery. The lack of medical education on the topic, a near-total absence of research on transgender health issues and the resulting paucity of evidence-based treatment guidelines leave many at a loss.

The film, as I suddenly realized sitting in the darkened theater, must have been inspired by those transgender pioneers in 1920s Europe who chose to undergo the first experimental sex reassignment surgeries. Of course, as with any surgery, there had to be those first patients. I’d just never thought about it before.

In fact, I later learned, the film was inspired by the real life Lili Elbe, a Danish transgender woman born in 1882, who was one of those first patients. The film honors the memory of these brave transgender pioneers, and, perhaps, will prod others to consider the continued inadequacies of medical care today, and what can be done to improve them.

Previously: Stanford study shows many LGBT med students stay in the closet, Study shows funding for LGBT health research lacking, offers solutions and Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered health issues not being taught in medical school
Photo by nancydowd

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