Many babies are born intersex with genitals that did not fully develop in the womb. In such situations, most doctors declare a state of sex unknown documentary online emergency, and quickly move to operate in an effort to “fix” the child and give it the appearance of either a male or female.
But this intervention is not always welcome: Many intersex adults that were surgically changed in infancy now insist they should have been given a choice in the matter. Welcome to the companion Web site to “Sex: Unknown,” originally broadcast on Tuesday, October 30, 2001. The film investigates the complicated world of gender identity. Listen in as Max Beck, a man who was raised as a woman, talks about his experience as an individual of ambiguous gender.
Do you have a personal story to share about a struggle with gender identity? In this confidential forum, relate your experience, or read the stories of others. In this excerpt from her recent book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Brown University biologist and historian Anne Fausto-Sterling argues for a redefinition of our two-sex-only world. She also offers new guidelines on how doctors should handle intersex babies. Intersex conditions have daunting names like androgen insensitivity syndrome and congential adrenal hyperplasia. In this feature, we translate and describe the full range of conditions. The sex of an egg cell is set as soon as it is fertilized, but what happens to that cell and the cells it divides into to make a baby boy or a baby girl?
To learn more about upcoming NOVA features, join our mailing list. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, The Northwestern Mutual Foundation, and Sprint. NARRATOR: In August 1965, in the small Canadian town of Winnipeg, Janet Reimer gave birth to identical twin boys. JANET REIMER: When I was a little girl I used to dream about having twins. And I always thought I would never be lucky enough to have twins. NARRATOR: Janet called her sons Bruce and Brian. JANET REIMER: We were so pleased and so proud and we settled right into our little one-room apartment.
NARRATOR: But within eight months events would take a dramatic turn. The twins began having trouble urinating. To relieve the problem their doctor suggested circumcision. On the 27th of April, Janet left her twins at the local hospital in Winnipeg. Circumcision was a straightforward procedure and she expected to pick up her boys the next day. But early the following morning she got a call from the hospital. JANET REIMER: When we first heard that there had been an accident we thought, “Well, what kind of accident could there be?
We went to the hospital and then the doctor said, “The penis has been burnt off from circumcision. And I could not comprehend what he was talking about, because, you see, I thought they were going to use a knife. NARRATOR: Inexplicably, the physician treating her son Bruce had chosen an extremely unconventional method of circumcision. Bruce’s penis had been completely destroyed. The doctors knew of no way to undo the damage.
But one American psychologist by the name of John Money advised the Reimers that they could best help their son by raising him as a daughter. It was a radical and untried course of treatment. It was a particularly dramatic case. Scientifically it looked beautiful because of the fact that there were twins involved. NARRATOR: This tragic situation made for a perfect case study.
What does gender mean if one male twin can be raised as a boy, while the other male twin becomes a girl? But no one knew if this experiment would work. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television. Scientific achievement is fueled by the simple desire to make things clear. Sprint PCS is proud to support NOVA. This program is funded in part by the Northwestern Mutual Foundation.
Some people already know Northwestern Mutual can help plan for your children’s education. And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. NARRATOR: In a quiet Manitoba suburb, the Reimer family was home trying to recover from a devastating accident. Just ten months earlier, their infant son’s penis had been destroyed during circumcision. In shock, the Reimers shut themselves off from the rest of the world. With their own doctors bewildered by what to do, they had no where to turn.