Earlier this year, 23-year-old Anick – who was born intersex – was getting ready for the last in a series of operations that would give him a fully-functioning penis. The BBC followed his progress.
“I’ve lost count of how many doctors and nurses have seen me naked over the years,” says Anick. “In the past few years alone it’s been more than 100.”
Anick was born with genitals that didn’t resemble either a boy’s or a girl’s. “The doctors said to my parents: ‘This child is mostly like a boy, but we’re not sure yet,'” he says.
He did have testicles but they were in the wrong place, so his first operation – to move them – came at the age of four months.
Throughout his childhood, people would tell Anick that he wasn’t really like other boys.
“I knew there was something different about me, but I didn’t understand what,” he says.
“I knew that my parents loved me, but at the same time they were taking me to the hospital every six months, where the doctors would use words like ‘abnormal’ and ‘atypical’ when they were talking about me.”
He found it hard to make friends at school, and remembers holding his breath as a young child, in an attempt to suffocate himself, and wrestling with the childproof safety caps on bottles of bleach.
After a more serious suicide attempt at the age of 14 he was given counselling, but couldn’t bring himself to reveal the source of his troubles to the counsellor.
“I didn’t want anyone else to know who didn’t need to know,” he says. “It was very, very isolating.”
“I thought no-one knew what was different about me, that I was the only one in the world, just some random miracle case,” he says.
It was only five years ago, at the age of 18, that he learned there was a name for this – and the reason for all his operations and hormone treatments: he was “intersex”.
This discovery, and the realisation that there are other people out there like him, made a huge difference, he says: “Suddenly I realised that I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am and how I was born.”
Doctors had also told Anick that he could begin reconstructive surgery to create a new penis when he turned 18 and could give his own consent. They told him not to rush to any decision and to go ahead only when he felt comfortable.
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Three years later, in 2016, Anick decided that he was ready.
“That’s when I had an epiphany,” he says. “I needed to start telling people. I needed to tell the truth. I was going to be going through a lot of major surgeries, and how many times can you have your appendix out? I’d lost count of the number of times I’d used that excuse.”
He began by telling his cousins, uncles and aunts and was surprised when they didn’t react with disgust.
“I didn’t know people could be so accepting of something I had been hiding for so long,” he says.
The final operation was scheduled for June 2018, giving Anick hope that before long he would at last feel confident enough to embark on his first ever romantic relationship.
It’s February 2018 and Anick is on his way to the Organisation Intersex International (OII) conference in Copenhagen. He’s excited but also really nervous.
“It’s quite surreal,” he says. “For the first time in my life I won’t be the odd one out. I’m finding out about my people – that sounds weird, but that’s what it feels like.”
Delegates like Anick are arriving from all over the world to discuss issues that concern all of them, and to share their experiences.
“As weird as this may sound, within a few hours of meeting we were all talking about our genitals,” Anick says.
An umbrella term used to describe people who are born with biological variations in their sex characteristics that don’t fit typical male or female categories
There are many possible variations, involving genitalia, ovaries and testicles, chromosome patterns and hormones
According to the UN, about 1.7% of people are intersex
He enjoys the feeling of being around people to whom he doesn’t need to explain himself. He wonders if this is how it feels to be “normal”.
But he’s also surprised to find himself feeling slightly isolated too, because so many people have experiences that are different from his. It’s unsettling.
“I’m with people who might understand how I’m feeling, but at the same time they haven’t been through the same thing,” he says.
Overall, it’s a bittersweet experience that leaves Anick with mixed feelings.
“It’s the story of my life,” he says. “I don’t fit in as a male, I don’t fit in as an intersex person. So what am I? Who am I? It sucks.”
Later Anick Skypes an intersex activist from Chicago, Pidgeon Pagonis. Like Anick, Pidgeon was born without a fully-formed penis or vagina – but in Pidgeon’s case surgeons decided to create a vagina, rather than a penis.
Pidgeon was raised a girl, but now uses the pronoun “they” rather than “she”. Only when they were at university did they learn the truth about the procedures they underwent as a child, and learn that they were intersex.
Pidgeon now regards these operations as unnecessary cosmetic procedures, and argues that using surgery to alter an otherwise healthy intersex child’s body is a violation of human rights.
“I would say, ‘Please let your child grow up as the intersex person that they are and let them one day have autonomy over their own bodies,” Pidgeon says.
“We should be pressuring doctors to stop perfecting surgeries for infants and start perfecting surgeries for intersex adults, who may want them.”
That’s an idea that chimes with Anick, who says that when he was growing up his family weren’t even made aware that waiting for surgery was an option.
“If a doctor tells you your child needs surgery – you just go along with that,” he says.
After attending the OII conference and talking to Pidgeon, Anick also thinks that many of the operations he had as a child were “purely cosmetic”.
He has been thinking hard about whether he definitely wants the operation he is scheduled to undergo, or whether it’s just something people have made him feel he needs in order to have a happier life.
But he decides to go ahead.
It’s now June 2018 and Anick is about to go into hospital.
A year ago doctors took skin from Anick’s left arm to create a phallus. It’s taken a year for him to be able to use it to go to urinate properly.
“You’ve heard of the phrase, ‘I wear my heart on my sleeve,’ well, I kind of wear my penis on mine,” he jokes, as he shows the large scar left behind on his forearm from where the skin was removed.
He goofs around as he gets changed into the surgical stockings, underwear and gown, a routine that’s all too familiar now.
Today a prosthetic device is going to be fitted into Anick’s penis that he will need to pump up if he wants to have penetrative sex.
“I kind of feel like a cyborg,” he says. “But at least I won’t have performance or anxiety issues.”
Part of him thinks it’s really cool that he is going to have this device implanted into his penis, but he does wonder how he’s going to explain it to someone when he’s in a relationship. He’s never had a relationship, though he’s hopeful that after this operation he will.
“Everything in my life is going to be different,” Anick says. “I’m finally going to have the closest thing to what other guys have, and maybe I’ll be able to experience what other people do when they’re my age. I’ve always avoided relationships out of disgust towards my own body and self- hatred, but I’ve really been working on getting over that.”
The operation goes well. Anick says that things down there look pretty different now. He’s not sure how long it will take him to get used to it.
As the painkillers wear off he gets ready to go home, where his parents are going to be looking after him. It’s awkward because his new penis has to stay in a specific position for the next week and it looks like he has a permanent erection.
“Whenever people come to visit me I just look really happy to see them, even when I’m not,” he says.
A month has passed. Since coming out of hospital Anick has been in a lot of pain. He’s never felt pain like this before, despite his long history of operations. There have been some complications and for the past month he’s had to make repeated trips back to A&E.
But Anick is trying to put all of that to the back of his mind.
“Today is a historic day,” he says. “It’s the first time that intersex people are going to be marching at Pride in London.”
Not all intersex people are lesbian, gay or bi, but some feel that Pride is a good place to let people know about the intersex community.
It’s a baking hot summer’s day and Anick together with about 30 other intersex people – most of them straight – join in the joyous, colourful celebrations taking over the streets of central London
“This time last year I had never met another intersex person,” Anick says. “I went to Pride on my own and was basically looking for my intersex family but couldn’t find anyone. Now this year I’m going with a whole group of intersex people.”
He can’t stop smiling.
“I can’t get my head around how much my life has changed in the past year,” he says.
“It’s just unbelievable that this has happened. There are so many of us here today. We’re all different ages, from different backgrounds, and different countries. Could you ask for a more inclusive day?”
It’s now August 2018. In the month since Pride, Anick has had to have another operation to fix things that had gone wrong. The prosthetic device implanted in his penis had become wrapped around one of his testicles causing him excruciating pain.
He’s still in pain now and has to be vigilant about infections, but he’s hopeful that he won’t need to have any more surgery for between five and seven years, when his prosthetic pump will need to be serviced or perhaps replaced if a newer model is available.
Because he won’t be in and out of hospital regularly Anick has been able to find his first proper job, working at the university where he got his degree. And he’s also finding that other things are changing too.
“As soon as I’d had the surgery I saw my body in a completely different way,” he says. “And now I’m more comfortable with it and talking about it that’s led to me forming closer relationships with other people.”
He’s been getting closer to his parents too.
“I grew up feeling like they didn’t do enough and they didn’t know what was going on,” he says. “But I didn’t realise how in the dark and overwhelmed they were. My parents weren’t supported enough and they only ever did what they thought was right.”
Overall, he says, having the operation has made him much happier. He’s even signed up to a dating app and has already been on a few dates.
“I’m just seeing what’s out there,” he says. “One of the first dates wasn’t that positive – I went out with a girl who told me I wasn’t really a guy. And then I went out with a guy but just didn’t feel anything, so I’m having the normal problems that people do with dating and relationships – that’s a nice feeling.”
And he hopes that talking about what used to be the biggest secret of his life might help other people in similar situations.
“I am normal, I’m just not common,” he says. “There is no one intersex story, but I hope that mine inspires other people to come forward with theirs.”
Source BBC News