Through their lens: Carly Larsson writes that stem cells could benefit the LGBT community

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California. We asked those students to contribute to our Instagram photos and YouTube videos about life in the lab, and write about their experiences.

In addition to carrying out a stem cell research project, the students were expected to carry out a secondary project relating their work to other areas of study.

Carly Larsson submitted this photo of Botryllus schlosseri embryos through our #CIRMStemCellLab Instagram feed. She worked in the lab of Anthony W. De Tamaso at UCSB

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual (LGBTQIA) stigmas have dropped dramatically in the past ten years. However violence against these groups continues and in many cases goes undocumented as hate crime. In 2011 alone a national study about transgender discrimination found that 61% of transgender/gender variant participants had been physically assaulted. These acts must stop and acceptance and education proliferated throughout the public. The medical and rather offensive term for an individual who identifies as transgender is “Gender Identity Dysphoria” (GID), though gender variance is a more accepted and widely used term among researches and the transgender community. Gender variance refers to anyone who identifies outside the binary Male/Female societal norms, and this is what makes so many of the uneducated uneasy [1]. Societal norms are what hold a culture together and influence people the most, but as seen throughout history these norms are often wrong and after perceptions have changed viewed as morally unjust persecution of a group(s) of people. Those most stigmatized for their struggle are the transgender individuals who seek gender/sex reassignment surgery.

The earliest gender reassignment surgeries took place in Europe during the 1950s, but wouldn’t be performed in the U.S. until 1966; the same year Dr. Harry Benjamin published “The Transsexual Phenomenon” and founded the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, Inc. (HBIGDA) an organization that would evolve into the modern, World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). Gender reassignment surgery never starts under the knife. It is a series of procedures that culminates in several surgeries that give an individual the genital appearance of the opposite sex. These are the usual steps proceeding surgery: diagnostic assessment, a two year period of GID symptoms, real-life experience immersing the individual in a life as the opposite sex, and hormone therapy (real-life experience and hormone therapy are ordered differently according to circumstances). After twelve months of real-life immersion and hormone therapy a transgender individual becomes eligible for gender reassignment surgeries. For trans-men these may include hysterectomy, salpingo-oophorectomy, vaginectomy, metoidioplasty, scrotoplasty, placement of testicular prostheses, phalloplasty (the creation of a neophallus or surgically constructed penis), and liposuction to reduce fat in hips, thighs and buttocks. A trans-women’s options include: orchiectomy, penectomy, vaginoplasty, clitoroplasty and labiaplasty reduction thyroid chondroplasty, suction-assisted lipoplasty of the waist, rhinoplasty, facial bone reconstruction (which may include hairline correction, forehead recontouring, brow lift, rhinoplasty, cheek implants, lip lift, lip filling, chin recontouring, jaw recontouring or tracheal shave) and blepharoplasty [2].

This entire process includes years of body dissatisfaction, many painful and expensive surgeries uncovered by insurance, and all forms of persecution and societal isolation. Despite the expense of theses surgeries they only provide the appearance of functioning genitalia [2]. To the transgender community functioning and sensatory genitalia is a thing of dreams and science fiction, but if health professionals and researches can begin to understand these people’s plight more advanced technology may provide these organs. The stem cell technology already being studied could eventually be used to “grow” and “print” functioning or at least sensatory genitalia. These technologies include the regrowth/new growth of organ tissue, 3D printing and scaffolding of biological agents (stem cells), reconstructing and rerouting nerves (another technology being aided by stem cell therapy), and a better understanding about genetic sequences coding for Male/Female functions [3].

With these future surgeries on the horizon and increasing acceptance the transgender communities’ quality of life will be greatly improved. The term ‘body dissatisfaction’ is an understatement for these people; they are locked inside a body of the opposite gender, and instead of being offered the compassion they deserve the transgender community is stigmatized by society as unnatural and sick [1]. One in 11,900 men and one in 30,400 women identify as transgender, and with current population numbers that is an incredibly large number society is choosing to isolating and allowing to suffer [2]. Society must evolve and learn to accept all people who identify as LBTQIA and offer them all the resources and medical attention they deserve.

Carly Larsson


[1] LANGRILL-MILES, T., RAHILLY E. (2013). A Change of Heart: Outlooks on Gender
Variant Youth, Past and Present. Research Mentorship Program (unpublished).
[2] Trimarchi, M. (2008). How Gender Reassignment Works.

[3] Ice,V. (2010). Total Gender Change within a Decade. Humanity+.

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