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My intersex wake-up call

  • 16 June 2014

Friends of mine had their first child recently and my first, 'obvious' question — 'Is it a boy or a girl?' — was answered by a jubilant, sleep-deprived father: 'It's a girl!'

Life is complex, however, and our all-too-human desires for normalcy and 'simplicity' (embodied in my automatic query) are sometimes revealed to gleam in the light of unintended prejudice. The reality for some Australians is that my question isn't always as easily answered.

A while back I joined social workers, chaplains and clergy in an educational seminar facilitated by Tony Briffa, vice president of Intersex International (Australia) Ltd. The gig was prompted by the growing awareness and acceptance of diverse sexuality and gender, and the changing legal landscape: on 1 August 2013, Australia became the first country to offer legal protection against discrimination to the intersex community.

Tony served as the world's first intersex mayor (of Hobson's Bay in Melbourne's south-western suburbs), and has been a public face for the intersex community, having 'come out' as an intersex person on the Nine Network's 60 Minutes program in 2005, and appearing last year on the ABC's 7.30 Report.

She provided a dignified introduction to the issues faced by intersex persons. Her story is similar to that of others in the intersex community, and resonates with other misunderstood minorities in our society. How we respond to the wellbeing and human dignity of intersex individual mirrors our society's health writ large.

Tony was born as Antoinette, with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, and underwent numerous procedures and operations as a child. Oestrogen treatment, from 11 onwards, was later followed with testosterone treatment at 30 when she experimented with living as a man (she worked for a time for the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police, often seen as 'male'-dominated sectors).

She shared that according to Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, one in 280 children are born with biological intersex variations; other figures suggest that one in 1000 Australians are born intersex.

Categorising or counting the intersex population is a difficult process, further complicated by the reality that some parents choose to abort children who may be born intersex. In Victoria alone, 165 foetuses were terminated between 1989-1998 because they were intersex.

Intersexuality is not strange or abnormal; when we treat people as aberrant, by enforcing a culture of heteronormativity, we do them and ourselves a grave disservice.

Sadly, Tony's openness and honesty, her generosity of spirit, has not always been reciprocated. There