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TV Review: Me, My Sex and I

17 October 2011
Appeared in BioNews 629

Me, My Sex and I

BBC1, Monday 5 September 2011

'Me, My Sex and I', BBC1, Tuesday 11 October 2011

'Me, My Sex and I' is a documentary about people who are born neither entirely male nor female. I must state at the outset that this programme is about the sex of the individual, and should not be confused with gender, which is how people identify themselves (something that many other TV reviews have got wrong in describing this programme). As the show makes clear, sex is not an 'either/ or' for many people; the real buzz word here is 'ambiguous'.

'Me, My Sex and I' has to be one of the best documentaries I have ever reviewed for BioNews. As I sat down late on a Tuesday evening I was not ready for how thought provoking it was, and for the number of acutely emotional stories covered. I found it truly eye opening, and won't look at sex and identity in the same way again. I urge you to watch the programme, and therefore feel I should warn you that this review contains spoilers.

However, I fear I may have oversold the show – there are some small downsides. First, the medical information is thrown at the audience at such high speeds that, as a layperson, I struggled to keep up at points. Second, the weird shots of people in underwear standing in the male and female symbols made the show look tacky; Channel 5-esque.

The documentary tries to unlock the hidden world of the 'intersex', who have been hidden through shame, fear and bigotry. It is estimated that disorders of sexual development (DSDs) affect nearly one in 50 people – the same number of people born as twins, or with red hair. DSDs covers around 12 disorders or sexual variations, but there are variations within these separate categories. Doctors and health professionals look at five main factors when determining sex, but these are not an 'either or' – they can be somewhere in-between. Initially, they look at the chromosomes – if the child has two X chromosomes they are genetically female, one X and one Y and they are genetically male. Then they consider reproductive cells (do they have ovaries or testes?), organs such as a womb, and finally look at what hormones are produced, and this will affect the development of the genitals.

The documentary gives the accounts of many professionals working in the field and many people affected by DSDs, often told through actors and blurred images to conceal their identities due to fear and (unnecessary) shame. For me, Janet's life story is possibly the most powerful television I have ever watched; it is truly inspirational to see how she struggled to break the shame and stigma through her life, and how she has overcome the odds to become a mother. Janet tells us: 'When my grandfather learnt there was a question of my sex it was suggested by him that they just let me die'.

Dr Tiger Devore, a psychologist and sex therapist born with a DSD, is a strong believer that medical professionals have often been too quick to resort to surgery at a young age. This can lead to problems in later life as the child develops, with some people calling surgery on DSD children mutilation. This is a theme which is heavily explored in the documentary.

Katie's story is different - when she was born there was no question over her sex; she was thought to be typically female. It was not until she was five and undergoing a hernia operation in which the surgeons found testes that any doubt occurred. It turned out that while Katie looked and felt like a female, she was genetically male with an X and a Y chromosome, and no womb. Even as doctors, Katie's parents were shocked and confused, her mother explained: 'What we were taught in medical school was that these women were not to be told their diagnosis of their chromosomes or that they had testes because it would be so devastating to them they would commit suicide'.

The history of how clinicians have dealt with people suffering from DSDs is shocking, and thankfully incredibly different to the nature of treatment today. Now, people are supported by multidisciplinary teams and helped not to feel shame or fear.

Finally, an anonymous person with partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (a condition where intersex females have XY chromosomes, and look male at birth) was interviewed. She described how, despite the fact doctors wrote 'male' on her birth certificate and she was raised as a boy, she now identifies herself as female. During puberty she developed female characteristics, causing both herself and her family to suffer abuse and bigotry. She now also faces a legal challenge – because she has the genetic makeup of a male, she cannot marry a man – they may only have a civil partnership.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (who has a mild form of hypospadias, which is 'where the hole through which urine and semen leave the body is not located at the tip of the head of the penis') feels that when the Gender Recognition Act was formulated in 2004 it did not adequately deal with XY-chromosome women. Such legal quirks cause many people with DSDs problems when interacting with the state, and as a budding lawyer, the legal issue caused by DSDs fascinated me.

This documentary is more thought-provoking and insightful than I am able to express in this review, and so I urge you watch this documentary – it is truly enlightening.

Me, My Sex and I
BBC |  11 October 2011
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