That BBC Intersex Programme

Well, I watched it, and like most some things it had some good points and many bad ones. It turns out that the program was made in conjunction with the Oprah network, and if you want to see it you can do so here – no DRM, no region restrictions.

I’m seeing a lot of complaint online from intersex activists, and this focuses primarily on the pathologising of intersex conditions. Unsurprisingly there is continued outrage at the use of the term, “disorders of sexual development”, and I noted that Dr. Devore, the one intersex medical expert involved, carefully used the word “differences” instead of “disorders”. In addition the programme, with the usual emphasis on “balance”, gave plenty of time to doctors who believe that surgical intervention to “cure” intersex babies is necessary and right. Intersex activists prefer to call this practice “mutilation”. As it can not only be painful and terrifying for the young children involved, but deprive them of sexual sensation when they are adults, you can see why.

Of course you can see why it happens too. The social stigma that is attached to having a child who is not clearly male or female is intense. Frightened parents are told that their children will be mercilessly bullied at school unless “corrective” action is taken, and in part this is true, though the bullying may well happen anyway. Parents have no way of knowing whether their kids will be happy with the decision they take, no matter which way they go, and the temptation to take action to protect your child against an apparent threat is very strong.

One thing that surprised me was that there was very little mention of gender identity, and none of it by the medical people. Transsexuals often start expressing a gender identity around the age of 2 or 3. You don’t have to wait until the children become adults to know what gender they think they are. But of course social pressures demand that you decide on a gender for your child from the moment of birth. No one is allowed time to make up their mind. Thus intersex kids are often assigned a gender, and are surgically “corrected” to conform to that gender, only to be very unhappy with that assignment as they grow up.

A further complication is that intersex people who want this fixed later in life cannot do so in the UK without jumping through a bunch of potentially unwanted hoops. The Gender Recognition Act applies only to transsexuals. You can’t just say, “look, my gender was indeterminate at birth, I was assigned X and I’d rather have Y”. This in turn has knock-on effects with things like the right to marry.

One other thing that struck me from watching the programme was that of the hierarchy of conditions. At one point a parent (or possibly an actor playing a parent) commented that it would have been so much easier if her child had been diagnosed with cancer, because at least then she could talk about it and people would be sympathetic. Instead her child had a condition that she would have to lie about because it was so shameful. This is idiotic, but given our society’s obsession with the gender binary it is the way the world is.

Possibly programmes like this will help. Although aspects of it were annoying, some of the participants, particularly Dr. Devore, were very impressive and may have helped change some minds. I was also pleased with the variety of different intersex conditions shown — intersex people are by no means all the same. So plus one to Oprah and the BBC for making an attempt. Equally, of course, many people may have been convinced by the doctors saying that treatment is necessary, so minus one there. That’s what you get when you try for “balance”. And finally, one of the things that really stands in the way of acceptance for intersex and trans people is how they are portrayed, not in specialist programmes like this, but in the general media. While the BBC and others continue to regard merciless bullying of anyone who doesn’t fit social gender norms as a legitimate form of “comedy”, the problems that intersex kids face will never lessen. The ball’s in your court, BBC.

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