Words: Will Stroude
When 23-year-old Anick was born two months early, his parents immediately knew something was different about their third child.
Born with ‘atypical genitalia’, doctors quickly took Anick away to perform a chromosome test, which came back as XY. Determining that he was male, it was only a matter of months before Anick underwent the first of countless surgeries designed to ‘normalise’ his genitalia.
Diagnosed with a ‘disorder of sex development’, Anick spent his childhood in and out of hospital undergoing regular examinations and operations in front of a revolving door of medical professionals.
The reason behind these visits was a closely-guarded secret that only Anick, his parents, and older brother and sister knew.
“I spent my whole life knowing there was something different about me, because every six months I would go to a doctor and they would essentially measure my genitals in front of a group of medical students,” Anick recalls.
“I'd had few different surgeries growing up and it was all tests to see what would happen if they moved things around, or they wanted to go inside and see whether I had testicles or ovaries, things like that.
“It was very heavily medicalised from a very young age.
“It wasn’t until I was about 15 or 16 that I realised that not everyone goes through that.”
When he was 18, Anick learned the reality: He was intersex, a broad classification encompassing a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
Be it in variations in chromosomes, external genitals or internal organs, there are more than 40 recognised types of intersex. According to the Intersex Society of North American, between 1 in 1500 and 1 in 2000 babies are born with intersex characteristics.
That might more than you might think - but for Anick, growing up a different from the norm remained a lonely and isolating experience.
“I didn't really understand that other people were born like this as well, because everybody was telling me that something about me was not normal,” he says.
An apparent lack of understanding from the medical professionals Anick was constantly thrust in front of did little to help.
“My parents had zero information,” Annick tells us.
“My mum saw the word 'hypospadias', which is basically a condition where you're peeing not from the tip of your penis but from the slit, and she asked a nurse what it meant.
“She just burst out laughing and said 'you don't need to worry about it'.
“From the beginning my mum was made to feel really stupid, like she shouldn't be asking these kinds of questions.”
While some surgical procedures are carried out on intersex children for health reasons, many of the surgeries Anick underwent as a child were purely cosmetic, as doctors attempted to make Anick’s genitals fit the traditional male mould.
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This weekend was nothing short of life changing. I’ve been waiting for this particular surgery for over 12 years - this particular photo was taken before the pain killers wore off! I’m so grateful to have a supportive family, friends and excellent team of medical professionals - god bless the NHS! P.s. parts of my journey may be included in my upcoming BBC short doc 🎥 #life #love #family #instagood #instadaily #intersex #london #TheIntersexDiaries
Now in his 20s, Anick has decided to continue having surgery to give himself a more ‘male’ physique, but he firmly believes initial decisions over what do to do his body shouldn't have been taken during his infancy without his consent.
“I went through a whole period of blaming my parents and blaming the doctors for making these decisions on my behalf, but what I realised was they all thought they were doing the right thing,” he explains.
“They do these surgeries early because doctors generally think that if a child grows up with genitals that don't fit the male or female pattern - even if they're born like that and it poses no health risks - that it's better to 'normalise' the genitals.
“Having said that, I still spent every six months going back and having them look at me and tell me I was wrong.”
Views among the intersex community on the issue of early medical intervention vary greatly, but Anick believes purely cosmetics procedures shouldn’t be carried out until a child is old enough to consent - something he thinks should happen “after the age of 14, or 16.”
“The problem isn't the surgeries, it's the consent. If you choose to do the surgeries yourself, that's fine, but if things are forced in you then it's not," Anick says.
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“If I'm going to go through surgeries my whole life… it shouldn't be because they've already started something.
He goes on: "I felt really guilty about [undergoing more surgeries] at first, because I thought 'does this mean I'm no longer intersex?' But meeting other intersex people has taught me no, I'll always be intersex.
“A lot of the time I think 'would I do these surgeries if they hadn't already started it and [had] just left me the way I was'.
“It's about bodily autonomy [and not] about making changes that are out of date and in line with old theories of gender and sexuality.
“Gender binaries don't exist - intersex people are proof of that.”
After learning about his intersex identity, Anick decided to ‘come out’ to his extended family and friends, living openly as intersex and documenting his journey in a new BBC Radio 1 documentary, The Intersex Diairies.
“When I turned 21 and said that I wanted to tell people, my brother and sister were in tears and it was then that I realised it's not just been my secret, it's been my whole family's,” he says.
“I think it was hard for my parents when I first came out, but during the making of this film they've been really excited to learn that I'm not on my own.
“It really changed things for them and I hope it changes things for future parents, because if you have a child and you're thrust into this world of intersex, the decisions you make will have a huge impact in the child's life.”
While the reaction of Anick's family to his 'coming out' has been overwhelmingly supportive, ignorance about intersex issues in wider society has still led to problems, particularly when it comes to personal relationships.
“I went a on a date with this girl once and she said 'Well you're not really a boy are you' and I was like 'what does that mean?', he recalls.
“I was just amazed that someone would actually say it. I always thought people are thinking it but I didn't think it was the sort of thing people actually said.”
Anick made history this summer as part of the first ever official intersex group to march in Pride in London, but the University of Westminster graduate says that lack of understanding sadly extends to the wider LGBTI community too.
“I've met some people who are LGBT who say intersex doesn't really count because a lot of intersex people are straight”, he says.
“We got [the Pride in London] march on film and it's awesome - but straight away after the whole thing happened we were back to being ignored.
“It was a historic moment for intersex people, but again it was like 'do we not fit into this community either?'”
Despite the work still to do to bring intersex issues out of the shadows, Anick hopes that documenting his experiences and those of others will help hasten the day that intersex people no longer have to explain their own existence – and can enjoy bodily autonomy from birth.
“It's for the people who've never heard of it before, in the hope that one day we don't have to come out as intersex; it's just something we are,” Anick says.
“I hope it inspires and encourages people to looks at themselves and thing about how they can be more inclusive or think about what they would do if they had an intersex child.
“Intersex people should come out of their own accord, but I just wish it wasn't something that people thought was shameful.
“We should just be allowed to be who we want to be.”
‘The Intersex Diaries’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.