DIVA columnist Valentino Vecchietti responds to episode five of the BBC drama

BY VALENTINO VECCHIETTI

A ripple of panic went through the intersex community when we heard that there was going to be an intersex character featured in tonight’s (10 February 2019) episode of Call The Midwife.  

Internationally, intersex people messaged back and forth sharing their concerns. Many expressed concern about whether the show had consulted intersex people. Many asked if the character would be treated with compassion, dignity, and respect.  

Intersex is already misunderstood because there is so little representation on television, film, and in media. If a programme gets it wrong, it could cause so much damage.

I am a leading figure in the UK intersex movement, and I campaign for intersex equality rights. I responded to this situation by contacting Jeni Noel at Ian Johnson PR. Jeni has been working with BBC’s Call The Midwife since the series began.  

Intersex character Lois in Call The Midwife
Image: BBC/Neal Street Productions/Hal Shinnie

Approximately 1.7% of the population are born with intersex variations. In the UK that means there are over 1.1million of us. There are more than 40 distinct and naturally occurring variations in sex characteristics. These are physical differences in our chromosomes, internal or external genitalia, and hormone patterns. The variations include: Swyers, Turners, Klinefleters, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), Hypospadias, Mayer-Rokintansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome (MRKH), and Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS).  

AIS is the variation that the character, Lois, has in Call The Midwife. Its old name is Testicular Feminisation Syndrome. It results in XY foetuses being insensitive to androgens, and so babies are born with external genitalia which appears female. This variation is typically not discovered until puberty does not occur.   

We need accurate and respectful representation on television, and in the media in general. If intersex is known about, and accepted by society, we  could live without fear or stigma. 

Currently, people with variations in their sex characteristics face many human rights abuses in the UK and worldwide. Infants with some variations are born with visibly intersex genitalia. In most cases, they  endure harmful, nonconsensual, cosmetic, genital, surgeries to make their bodies conform to typical expectations of male or female bodies. We campaign world wide for nonconsensual surgeries to end.  

We believe that we should be free to decide whether or not to have surgery when we are adults who can consent. Cosmetic surgeries should not be imposed upon infants. Parents agree to these surgeries because they are told that society cannot accept us, and that surgery will prevent us from being bullied and ostracised.   

Raising public awareness is key to changing how we are treated. This is why it matters so much that we are represented in media with compassion, dignity, and accuracy.

Jeni Noel is passionate about Call The Midwife, and what it stands for. She reassured me that the show did consult a person with this variation for Lois’s character. Jeni sent me a preview of episode five, so that I could discuss any concerns I might have. 

Ann Tricklebank, series producer and executive producer for series eight added, “We hope that those people with this variation will feel that we have tried to address some of the emotional challenges facing them as sensitively as possible.”

The team also understand the importance of raising awareness. Ann went on to say:  “We hope that the millions of people who watch Call The Midwife will have a deeper understanding of this variation, which we now know is more common than we initially thought.”   

I know that as an historical show, Call The Midwife can get it right when it comes to representing minority groups. Its story arcs have successfully portrayed ignorance and human rights abuses occurring in medical environments. Yet, also treated the families’ narratives with compassion and hope.    

Image: BBC/Neal Street Productions/Aimee Spinks

I cried watching the preview of tonight’s episode, because it hurt to see Lois’ character suffering. And I cried because I was so relieved at the kindness and compassion which was shown to her. At times it was difficult to watch, especially the distressing scene where the doctors’ examination of Lois feels dehumanising. Sadly, this scenario is well known to many of us. 

The love of Lois’ family, and of her fiancé was very moving. Ann Tricklebank explained: “We chose to tell the story of a young woman with an intersex variation because we wanted to dramatise the idea that we all fall in love with the individual, and that each of us is unique.”

By including an intersex character, I believe that Call the Midwife has made a good start. But we need more.

Variations in Sex Characteristics Call for Evidence, is a survey for intersex people, their families, and friends. As well as for those who provide support and services.  Please follow the link and fill out this survey, which runs until 28 March 2019. 

@ValentinoInter.

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