Sarah Graham: My intersex experience

In an open letter to the South African athlete, Sarah Graham, who was born intersex, offers advice and encouragement for the years to come

You are a very special woman: an extraordinary athlete and an inspiration to your South African nation. That has not changed and nothing the International Association of Athletics Federations tests find under their microscope will ever take that away from you.

Whatever happens in these next few weeks, whatever the truth behind all the rumours, media leaks and gossip, I promise you will discover the truth that most human beings are kind-hearted and that the human heart is by far the most important human organ; it has no gender and it's not interested in your sex.

When I was 25 I found out suddenly that I am an intersex XY woman. I have a very rare condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). This shocking revelation, after years of lies from my doctors, nearly killed me.

We have had very different lives and, of course, I can't imagine what it feels like to have soared so high, winning your 800m gold medal in such a spectacular fashion, and then having that great achievement pushed aside as the world's media descended on you, ignoring your feelings, confidentiality and basic humanity, and going in for the kill.

But just like you, Caster, I had never doubted my female sex – I have a female birth certificate and was raised as a girl and had no reason to question my biology. As an adult, I went into shock when my sex was suddenly questioned. And I couldn't cope with, nor accept, the news that my ovaries were in fact undescended testes. I left the gynaecologist's surgery feeling very alone in the world – a freak. My shame, self-hatred and sense of failure for being infertile ate at my already fragile self-esteem, driving me to self-harming behaviours: with alcohol and drugs, destructive relationships and putting myself in increasingly risky situations – tempting fate to destroy me.

The papers say you are now on suicide watch. Horrible though that is, as a counsellor, I'm glad to hear this. It's terribly sad, but up to 30 per cent of young intersex people do attempt to kill themselves. Even where there is good support in place – an endocrinologist, gynaecologist and psychologist working together in clinic is best practice – most intersex people and their families go through a very difficult adjustment period. Now 15 years on, and with the excellent support of Dr Conway and his team at UCL's Middlesex Centre, I am very happy, well-adjusted, recently married and I have turned my pain into my work – I'm a "wounded healer", helping others overcome painful challenges and be happy with who they are. Caster, I implore you, hang in there. It will get better.

I don't know your culture well but some people handle intersex much more sensitively than uptight White Europeans. Native American tribes call intersex "two-spirits" and revere us for being the best warriors and healers. Your South African sports minister, the Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile, made you a promise: "Caster is a woman, she remains our heroine. We must protect her." The world will hold him to his words.

Since you hit the headlines, every intersex person (that's about 4 per cent of the population) has been exposed to outdated, inaccurate, offensive words such as hermaphrodite. Self-appointed "medical experts", who often aren't working in this area of medicine, keep popping up to peddle prejudices and dangerous myths. Such as AIS XY women must have their testes removed straightaway. Wrong! We can keep them. It should be our choice, not that of doctors or fearful, ashamed parents. It means a slightly-increased risk of cancer, which can be monitored. But it's far better to produce your own hormones naturally rather than have a lifetime of HRT. I take a daily oestrogen pill and a small amount of testosterone gel. I'm a guinea pig. No-one knows what the future holds.

If you are a woman with testes, do not let the doctors, the IAAF, or embarrassed family members rush you into the operating theatre. You are lucky because you can choose to remain a woman with balls! One day you may even be able to laugh at this and enjoy the double meaning. But it will take a long time.

I didn't get given any choices. My doctors even lied to my parents and, aged seven, my "ovaries" were removed. We were told that if they weren't, I would "get cancer as a teenager and die". I am still traumatised by what happened in hospital 32 years ago: being treated like a fascinating "special little girl"/lab rat, prodded and poked by an army of medical students; held down and given an enema. And I can still picture the bloody scars on my little-girl body, and trace the start of the chilling loneliness; the only child in the Chelsea Hospital for Women.

Intersex is part of all creation and has an important place in the order of things. Operating on intersex children's bodies to "normalise them" is often damaging to future sexual responsiveness and sometimes fertility. It's not about what's best for the child or adult – it's politically driven, to make society feel safer and reinforce the gender boxes: male/female, pink/blue.

But the person most likely to pose a serious threat to and reject you – is you, Caster. If, in your hiding place, you can bring yourself to read and watch what people are saying, you'll find they are being kind. They are supporting you and sending you love.

Your head may be telling you that I'm wrong. And these next few weeks are going to be really tough as you wait for the IAAF Council to complete their examination of the "facts" and make their "final decision on this case".

One day you will understand you were made this way for a reason and you have more than one extraordinary gift to give to the world.

In love and in solidarity,

Sarah



Sarah Graham Solutions: sarahgrahamsolutions.com

Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group: www.aissg.org

The Intersex Society of North America: www.isna.org

The Middlesex Centre, UCL: www.uclh.nhs.uk/ middlesexcentre

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fund, London

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fu...

    Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Multicast, Low Latency

    £60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Mul...

    Network Infrastructure Engineer

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Infrastructure Engineer (...

    Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Multicast)

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Mult...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition