The Truth of Growing Up Intersex: 'I Was Tired Of Keeping This Big Secret'

Anick spent his childhood being examined by doctors and hiding from family and schoolmates.
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Anick would never go to the bathroom on his own as a child. Whenever he needed the toilet he would ask his mum or dad, his brother or sister, to come and stand guard on the other side of the door so he felt comfortable enough to use the facilities without the threat of a stranger barging in. And if he was unaccompanied, he would simply refuse to go.

Feeling unable to take off his uniform in public or put on tighter clothes for exercising, Anick would not get changed in front of his classmates at school either. In fact, he doesn’t remember attending a single PE lesson between the ages of 10 and 13. “I’d always have a sick note I could use,” he says.

Admittedly, lots of children have self-conscious habits that disappear by adulthood, but Anick wasn’t just going through an awkward period. This behaviour was a tiny part of an intricately-woven double life that helped him conceal a part of himself.

On April 3 1995, Anick’s parents, Bharatee and Hasmukh, welcomed their third baby, two months before his due date. The couple who moved from Tanzania to the UK to settle with their family in Leicester, were immediately notified by doctors on the maternity ward that something was wrong with their baby. But medical staff couldn’t pinpoint what it was.

Anick was born with ambiguous genitalia, attributed to premature delivery. After a chromosome test of the baby came back with XY, doctors determined he was a boy and predicted his external sexual organs would develop as he grew up. “But as I continued to grow, down there it all stayed the same,” Anick, now 23, tells HuffPost UK.

People who don’t fit the usual biological definitions of female or male, like Anick at birth, are classified as intersex, an umbrella term which covers more than 40 different variations. For example, intersex people may have variations in their chromosomes, genitals or internal organs like testes or ovaries.

Depending on the individual case, these differences may be visible from birth or untraceable until, say, puberty, or even later in life. Worldwide, up to 1.7 per cent of people have intersex traits, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights

Despite doctors being aware of the term ‘intersex’, Anick’s parents were largely kept in the dark, he says, and barely told anything about what was happening with their son. “English is their second language,” he explains. “And at no point was there someone to translate what the doctors were saying. They were just told I needed surgery and trusted the doctors to get on with it.”

Anick.
Anick.

Then began years of surgeries that have kept Anick in and out of hospital all of his life – he has had eight major operations in the past two years alone and says he spent whole school terms when he was younger lying on a ward with doctors and medical students staring at his crotch.

“I grew up thinking I had some kind of medical disorder and I had no idea why I was born this way,” he says. Despite not knowing what the problem was, Anick was riddled with fear about people finding out. “I was very conscious about my body from a young age. I was always scared.”

The problem was exacerbated by his parent’s lack of information. Anick was born with hypospadias, where the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis. “My mum couldn’t pronounce it. She asked a doctor and nurse what it meant and they just laughed at her for pronouncing it wrong,” he says. “After that point she stopped asking questions.”

Families feeling excluded from decision-making, including whether or not an intersex child should have corrective surgery, is not an experience exclusive to Anick and his parents. In 2017, the BBC reported that doctors in the UK had routinely lied to patients with intersex conditions about their treatment and surgery and what they were having done until as recently as 2012, by which point Anick had been under medical supervision for 17 years.

This has led to a counter-movement against corrective surgery. InterACT Youth, an organisation advocating for intersex youth, is currently lobbying the government to outlaw it. Malta became the first country to do so in 2015.

Interact say: “For many years, the medical establishment has viewed babies born with atypical sex characteristics as having bodies that need to be ‘fixed’. Some intersex babies and older youth have undergone extensive, involuntary surgeries for no other reason than to make their bodies conform.”

“When I was 14 I tried to kill myself..."”

Anick continued to have surgeries, despite no one in his immediate family understanding the precise nature of the problem. And outside of his family, no one even knew what was happening. His parents didn’t tell any of their siblings. Only his own brother, 27, and sister, 31, were privy to the family’s big secret.

This mix of misinformation and silence around Anick being intersex only became more painful during his teenage years. “When I was 14, I tried to kill myself,” he tells HuffPost UK. After the suicide attempt, Anick was again admitted to hospital where he overheard nurses telling each other that they too would kill themselves if they had a body like his.

“Ten years ago, I never imagined living beyond this age,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll do everything by 21 and then I don’t need to live any longer’, because then people will start asking questions: ‘Why is Anick still on his own?’”

When his peers started dating and experimenting sexually, he put even more distance between himself and them – throwing himself into volunteering work. And he has still never been in a sexual relationship, he says. “When we were learning about sex education at school, I was sat there pretending my body was similar to all the other guys. I could never really trust anyone.”

Today, at 23, Anick has a successful job at the University of Westminster, is thinking about venturing into the world of dating and has started seeing a therapist (he wasn’t entitled to NHS counselling as a child – this was only introduced into legislation in 2006).

Anick.
HuffPost UK
Anick.

It wasn’t until he was 18, and searching for information on Google, that he finally discovered the word intersex and approached his doctor about it. Although his GP confirmed Anick’s suspicions that he was intersex, he says there was no sense of contrition for the years of confusion and ambiguity he experienced.

But by this point, despite still being terrified of judgement, he felt ready to tell other people. “I reached a stage in my life where I was tired of keeping being intersex a secret,” he says. “I didn’t know why it was such a big deal. I can’t change the way I am. No matter how many surgeries I have, I will always be intersex.”

Anick told his family he was going to announce it on YouTube. They stopped him. And for another couple of years the plan was put on ice. That was until he went on a year abroad to study in Australia.

Sitting around with his roommates one evening, he decided to test the water. “I basically just came out and said: I’m intersex. But no one knew what it meant. What then followed was a very confusing conversation with diagrams and everyone in their different languages trying to google it.”

The penny eventually dropped when someone said they had heard of the term hermaphrodite. It’s a word that the intersex community itself does not use (along with the medicalised ‘disorders of sexual development’ or DSD) because they are considered outdated, pathologising, inaccurate and have previously been used as slurs against intersex people.

Anick felt as though he’d made his own mental breakthrough, despite the language barriers. And when he got home, he went on a “tour” to tell his family members who by this point had been kept in the dark for two decades.

Anick and his family.
HuffPost UK
Anick and his family.

Today Anick is trying to be more open about being intersex, even working with the BBC on a radio documentary, ‘The Intersex Diaries’ – but it doesn’t come easily. Not only is he coming to terms with a lifetime of secrecy, but the medical interventions continue to treat the pain he is in from previous operations.

“Sometimes I just feel like I need to finish off the job,” he says. “But obviously this is very different to what happened when I was a child and was having non-consensual things done.”

Anick is also flying in the face of mainstream attitudes towards sex and gender, something that has become painfully obvious to him now he wants to be dating. “When I used to talk to my family about dating at 13- or 14-years-old, I’d always ask them: when do I tell someone I’m intersex? But because they all come form an Indian background they would say – you don’t need to worry about that until marriage. And by then everything will be fine,” he laughs.

Although he sees the funny side, Anick still asks himself the question: at what point do you tell your date that your genitals aren’t what they’re expecting? He tried signalling it on his profile on dating apps, but found people weren’t reading it. On another occasion he told a girl before a date, only to be told: “You’re not a real guy so I’m not interested.”

“That really knocked my confidence,” he says. “I feel like I’d be with someone and even if they do like me, it’s like they are putting up with my genitals, you know? But the future is a lot better than I was expecting or hoping. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

‘The Intersex Diaries’ will be available on Radio 1 iPlayer from 26 October.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk

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