The BBC Series – Countdown to Life: the Extraordinary Making of You – official complaint CAS-3492261-DLFVBV

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Series producer chose to erase any reference to intersex in a programme that led with a feature about the Guavedoches of the Dominican Republic

On the 21st September the BBC led a high profile, resource-rich series with a package about the Guevedoches of the Dominican Republic.  The pre-publicity in the press was unavoidable, and quickly ran around the world.

Long the subject of intense studies by clinicians from around the world, the Guevedoches embody an intersex variation known as 5-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome – 5ARD in shorthand.  The social and cultural isolation of village populations in the Dominican Republic have led to a far higher than usual concentration of this variation than is found elsewhere in the world.

The pre-transmission publicity from the BBC, and reprinted in salacious detail, spoke of girls who grow a penis – the colloquial translation of the word Guevedoches.  Nowhere was there any acknowledgement that this is an intersex variation, and nowhere was it acknowledged that this variation is not exclusive to the Dominican Republic.

The Open University are the science advisors to the BBC.  It is extremely regrettable that the BBC made a deliberate decision not to use the information the Open University shared with it. It raises legitimate concerns about the teaching material that the OU are producing to run alongside this series. The series producer, Gideon Bradshaw explains:-

Firstly, I’d like to explain the relationship between myself, as the programme maker, and the Open University. The OU worked closely with us on all the films giving us recommendations and advice about the science featured in the programmes. However as the programme making team, we hold the ultimate responsibility for content of the films.

Current orthodox intersex medical protocols concerning the discovery of a child born with 5-ARD is to assign them as female, perform invasive surgeries including castration,  precluding  endogenous hormone production, infant genital surgeries,  and a lifetime substitution with artificial hormone replacement.  A viewer would learn nothing of this from watching the programme.  The decision not to describe 5-ARD as an intersex variation was deliberate, as the series producer Gideon Bradshaw makes clear:-

“The series is an attempt to describe the full extent of development in the womb through a series of human stories. I’m sorry you felt we did not cover the Guevedoche story in sufficient detail and we did not describe them as intersex but there are reasons why we chose not to. We spent a lot of time with the Guevedoche and their families to allow them to explain in their own words how it has affected their lives. Since they do not refer to themselves as intersex neither did we, indeed the 5-ARD variation is so common in their community that they were incredibly open with us about their lives which, rather than sensationalising the community, allowed us to humanise them as we followed their progression through life. I’d like to assure you that the vast majority of comments we received about the programme through social media suggest that most of the audience felt that we achieved this.

What the programme and the producer failed to acknowledge is how many of the Guevedoches have been sent to the United States to undergo gender assignment surgeries.  The question of sensationalising the community was more than surpassed in the pre-publicity material used by the print media.

“You raise many points about the wider social and medical implications for people across the world who are born intersex. As you say, many of these issues were covered in the single issue programme ‘Me, My Sex and I’ but in this series, which was so multifaceted in its breadth we simply couldn’t cover every aspect of every story, time simply didn’t allow. In what time we had we instead stepped through the development of the sex organs in the womb and how that process is disrupted in the case of the Guevedoches. Since none of our contributors is considering surgery, that’s as far as our story could go.

Intersex erasure is very real.  It has been a component part of medical and societal attitudes toward intersex embodiment for decades.  That the producer claims the references was avoided to remove any suggestion of sensationalism overlooks the wall-to-wall coverage in the press that saw fit to describe the Guevedoches in the pejorative and de-humanising language of pseudohermaphrodite.  The Independent being the guilty party in this case, and one of the more egregious examples that made it into print.

A BMJ editorial this week acknowledges the continuing misassignment of children born intersex.  The admission that individuals continue to be assigned female because protocols deem it appropriate, in the face of mounting evidence that individuals are misassigned; something which has been long known by intersex individuals themselves, but dismissed as anecdotal by clinicians – with all the trauma that can often encompass – is simply unacceptable in the 21st century.

That situation applies to anyone born with 5-ARD in the UK.

That the BBC has actively, and deliberately participated in the erasure of acknowledging intersex embodiment is wholly unacceptable.  Whilst the programme package may have focussed on the situation in the Dominican Republic, echoing the many clinical researchers that beat a path there for the same reason, it completely fails to acknowledge that people in the UK, and beyond will be watching this, and implies that this variation is confined to dark-skinned people far away on an island more well known as a package holiday destination.

Gideon Bradshaw felt sufficiently comfortable enough to sign off in this manner

“Once again, I am sorry you felt that we didn’t deal with the issues around intersex in enough depth. There is definitely more to be said as science and society comes to more fully understand the full breadth of the human condition around sex and sexuality. I’m sure that the BBC will return to this subject in more detail.”

Intersex variation and the manner in which it is dealt with is a case of societal discomfiture,  not medical need.  The question has to be asked that if the BBC cannot sufficiently acknowledge that in a programme series that will be sold around the world, and dedicated to human being’s development, then when exactly does it think this is likely to take place?