Biological sex is a 'concept', says trustee of trans charity Mermaids

NHS doctor and trustee of controversial Mermaids charity sparks fresh trans row after describing biological sex as a ‘concept’ – as furious campaigners hit back: ‘It’s a fact of nature… every human being is either male or female’

  • Dr Katie McDowell questioned whether sex is a ‘simple and immutable thing’
  • They complained that ‘everybody is obsessed with genitals’ when defining sex
  • Campaigners hit back saying ‘biological sex is not a “concept” but a fact of nature’ and that ‘understanding biology is not “transphobic”‘
  • Mermaids has faced criticism related to claims about giving out chest binders

An NHS paediatrician and trustee of trans children’s charity Mermaids has said biological sex is a ‘concept’ and ‘not as simple as it’s made out to be’.

Dr Katie McDowell, who works at King’s College Hospital in south London, complained that ‘everybody is obsessed with genitals’ when defining sex.

The medic also accused the UK’s ‘very active gender critical movement’ – those who maintain biological sex cannot be changed – of being ‘very, very anti-trans and spearheading this horrendous attack on trans human rights’.

Last night campaigners hit back, saying ‘biological sex is not a “concept” but a fact of nature’ and that ‘understanding biology is not “transphobic”‘.

The row comes as Mermaids faces severe criticism for claims it gave chest-flattening devices to girls against their parents’ wishes and after another trustee quit over revelations that he spoke at an ‘academic’ conference hosted by an organisation that promotes services to paedophiles.

The World Health Organisation says sex has biologically defined characteristics whereas gender is based on socially constructed features. But interviewed for the podcast The Queer Non-Binary Doctor who will Trans-form how you Understand Gender, Dr McDowell appeared to question whether sex is a ‘very simple and immutable thing’.

NHS paediatrician and trustee of trans children’s charity Mermaids Dr Katie McDowell (pictured) has said biological sex is a ‘concept’ and ‘not as simple as it’s made out to be’

The medic said: ‘Even biological sex as a concept is not as simple as it’s made out to be, right?

‘Because what do you mean by that? Do you mean chromosomes? Do you mean hormone levels? Do you mean genitals? Everybody is obsessed with genitals.

‘Does it mean… what you look like? Because you know obviously you can have tall women, you can have very short men.

‘So I think even biological sex, which is what the gender critical people are obsessed with, is not as simple as it’s made out to be.’

The doctor, who uses the pronouns they/them, added that the issues surrounding biological sex was additional to what is described in medicine as ‘disorders of sexual differentiation or intersex’, rare conditions where people are born with atypical physical sex characteristics or a combination of male and female biological traits.

Dr McDowell, who used to be a primary school governor, added: ‘Even if you think that sex is a very simple and immutable thing, to say that should then determine exactly how you behave in society and what roles you should play, I mean God, it’s not the 1930s is it? It’s really problematic.’

Speaking generally about their medical work, Dr McDowell described preferring working in a post-natal ward treating newborn children to looking after adults, who could sometimes make ‘bad decisions’. Last month the Charity Commission began an investigation after Mermaids staff were accused of offering to send a breast binder to a girl they believed was 14 after being told she was banned from using one by her mother.

The row comes as Mermaids faces severe criticism for claims it gave chest-flattening devices to girls against their parents’ wishes and after another trustee, Dr Jacob Breslow (pictured), quit over revelations that he spoke at an ‘academic’ conference hosted by an organisation that promotes services to paedophiles

After the story broke, Dr McDowell tweeted praise for a ‘fab article’, which described Mermaids advice on breast binding as a ‘beacon of light’. Separately, Mermaids trustee Dr Jacob Breslow stepped down from the charity after it emerged that he presented research at an event in Baltimore in the US in 2011, which appeared to criticise society’s understanding of paedophiles.

Stephanie Davies-Arai, director of campaign group Transgender Trend, said: ‘Biological sex is not a “concept” but a fact of nature.

‘Every human being is either male or female, including people born with differences of sexual development, commonly known as intersex. Understanding biology is not “transphobic” and people have a right to disagree with an ideology.’

Responding to claims about chest binders, Mermaids said it was the victim of a ‘targeted, cynical attack’ and smear campaign and insisted it had ‘robust security and moderation processes’ in place to ensure its forums were safe for young people.

It said Dr Breslow should never have been appointed a trustee, adding that it was only told this month about his attendance at the 2011 conference and it immediately began investigating.

Mermaids declined to comment on Dr McDowell’s comments.

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