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Auteur: Dheera Sujan
Publicatiedatum: 23 april 2004
Publicatiemedium: Radio Netherlands – Wereldomroep
Type publicatiemedium: Radio
Link naar het medium: Radio Netherlands – Wereldomroep

Het verhaal van Alice Hamming, Miriam en Petra Klene is de hele wereld rond geweest. Ze zijn te gast geweest bij de Wereldomroep – Radio Nederland, waar ze hun verhaal in het Engels hebben verteld.

De inhoud van het radioprogramma:

Alice was 17 years old when she went to the doctor to find out why she still hadn’t got her first period. He sent her on to a hospital for an internal check.

There, she was taken into a room for an ultrasound test. As the test was being administered, she saw the technician frown; he said that the machine didn’t seem to be working, and they had better move to another room and try another machine. Again, there seemed to be something wrong. The technician left the room to call a doctor. The doctor looked at the machine, frowned too, and then did an internal check up. What he found was nothing. In Alice’s body, he found no womb, no uterus, no ovaries. Nothing. And that’s how Alice discovered she had AIS.

Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (known as AOS in the Netherlands) falls under the general medical condition intersex. AIS is a condition where a person with XY chromosomes (which would normally indicate a male, as opposed to YY which is female) is not sensitive to androgens, so though they have an XY chromosome, they develop in a female direction. Complete AIS means that the person will look completely like a girl from the outside. However AIS is only one of about 75 different intersex conditions.


It is not a common condition. In The Netherlands an estimated 270 women have it, though there’s a good chance that number is in fact considerably higher but remains unreported because of the taboo that surrounds sexuality that’s not considered “normal.”

Some babies are born with ambiguous genitalia, meaning either a larger than normal clitoris or a smaller than normal penis. Ambigiuous genitalia occur only in 10 percent of the cases of people born with AIS, and only a small proportion of these babies grow up wanting an operation to change their sex. This is one of the reasons that people with an intersex condition generally dislike being categorized as transsexuals. “Transexual people seek the help of a doctor to have their body changed. Intersex people seek help to get rid of the doctor who changed their body” runs a phrase in an AIS organization’s pamphlet.

Alice only found out she had no
womb when she was 17.

Ghastly tale

Despite the jokey tone, there is a serious point being made. In the past, doctors took matters into their own hands and surgically chose a sex for the child, often without properly consulting the parents. Petra Klene was born in 1948, a time when medical knowledge about intersexuality was minimal. When she was just 14 months old, a small change in her genitalia prompted her family to bring her to the doctor. He decided that surgery was the answer. Petra, the baby girl, was to be transformed into a baby boy. All the parents had to do was dress her as a boy, treat her as a boy, and, it was believed, she would grow into a boy. When she was nine, she was started on the first of a series of operations. There followed 15 operations in 11 years. She was never told of her condition, and neither doctors nor parents discussed the matter or consulted her in any way. “A telegram [would arrive that said] I had to be in the hospital in a couple of hours and the next day there was an operation,” she says bitterly. “Without telling me what they were doing, without guidance, without psychiatric help, nothing, nothing.”

Petra has reason to be bitter. She was forcibly raised as a boy. “It was difficult for my parents. I liked to play with girls, not boys. I had a high voice, almost no body hair, no male genitalia, it was impossible for me to join peer groups, I was very isolated and lonely and I had bad results in school.”

Buddhist peace

By the time Petra was in her 20s she’d had enough. She decided to stop the operations and, on the brink of suicide, left the Netherlands. At a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka she finally found some peace, consulted her abbot and was told to follow her heart. Petra came back to the Netherlands and went back to the doctors for a sex change operation. She submitted to yet another round of traumatic operations so that she could go back to being the woman she should have been.

Petra Klene has been living as a woman for more than 20 years. She’s happily married and helps counsel people with gender issues. But does she feel 100 percent a woman? “After such a horrible life, I feel 65 percent woman and 34 percent man – you never forget how you were raised. It did such damage and gave such big scars. It will never heal, never.” Petra’s story is a perfect example of why gender re-assignment operations for babies have been stopped in most of the western world.

Gone for good

“What will you say to that child when the larger part of the clitoris was removed and the child later says ‘I want to be a boy’? – you’ll never be able to bring that back” says Miriam, the forceful spokeperson for the AIS group in the Netherlands.

Miriam is keen to advocate that not everyone with an intersex condition shares Petra Klene’s horrific story. “We don’t see intersex as an illness,” she says. However she doesn’t deny that her intersexuality has been a hard burden to bear. “Its not easy as a young woman to hear that you will never have children, to go to doctors so often, to be on daily medication.” But the hardest thing of all according to her is the shroud of secrecy and misunderstanding that has surrounded this condition for so long. “Its not the intersex condition that’s a problem, it’s the strange relationship I have with my parents and the medical profession. They were not honest with me . . . and I still don’t trust doctors at this stage.”
That secrecy is dissolving, however, and sexuality doesn’t bear the weight of shame and scandal it once did. Because information is now so easily available through the Internet, children with the condition are no longer shut out of the loop. They’re told of their condition in stages as they’re able to understand it – its full medical, biological and psychological implications. And it is only when society is armed with the whole truth that Petra’s sufferings or the half-truths forced on people like Miriam will cease.

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