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My intersex wake-up call


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 have been instances when cultural and religious fundamentalists have disrespected and rejected her because she didn't conform to their expectations.

Tony knows full well that the intersex community is 'still fighting social stigma and raising awareness of difference ... I would love governments, churches and NGOs to understand we are people, just like them. We are made this way.

'Being intersex is not easy for the intersex person, or our parents. I regret the shame, secrecy and lies that were told to us, and the way my parents were treated. The medicos should have just told us, "You have a healthy, normal girl who's got some boy parts as well."

'Nature made me part male and part female, and I'm comfortable with that. I am biologically both; my experiences and my biology does not limit or define me. I'm considered by some to have a major defect, but I am a happy, fulfilled person.'

Tony now lives openly with her spouse (they married in New Zealand) as an intersex person. 'I am sometimes listed as an indeterminate,' she laughs, 'but I know who I am. Intersex people want the same as other people — they want loving relationships, and to be able to adopt and have families.'

Do you recall my friends and their newborn baby, and my first question to them? Tony says she has learnt that her first response is, 'Is the baby healthy?' followed by 'How's Mum doing?'

Life, and love, can escape cages of cultural proscription and prejudice.

I caught myself recently about to blurt out my normal question to a work acquaintance with some good news. Instead, I asked Tony's questions. I've learnt — rather, I'm learning — that gender and biology do not conform to pre-judged expectations. We are more complex creatures; as some hoary old wisdom suggests, we are 'amazingly and miraculously made' (psalm 139:14).

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, intersex, LGBTI



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Existing comments

Interesting article but would Tony want to be referred to as 'she'?

Reader | 14 June 2014  

Fantastic article, that is until the very last phrase. A quote from the Bible's Old Testament when its "hoary old wisdom" has been responsible for the persecution and death of diverse minorities for thousands of years? Incredibly insensitive and thoughtless. Besides intersex isn't 'amazing and miraculous'; it is simply how biology happens on occasions which is suppose to be the message of your article.

Eric Glare | 14 June 2014  

Hi Reader, Tony does prefer to be referred to by the feminine pronoun; it's good of you to think considerately, thank you. Hi Eric, sorry you are offended by the 'amazing and miraculous' paraphrase of the scriptural passage about people being 'fearfully and wonderfully made' and 'knit together' in their mother's womb. The point I am trying to evoke is that we, all of humanity, are made in the image of God. I hope this clarifies the use of the passage for you. Regards, Barry

Barry Gittins | 15 June 2014  

What a thoughtful, balanced piece Barry. You had me at the headline.

Jen | 15 June 2014  

Perhaps more people should listen to the words of Walt Heyer, who in his book 'Paper Genders: Pulling the Mask off the Transgender Phenomenon' (2011), states that it is damaging and destructive to engage in sex change. He should know – he lived through the experience himself as ‘Laura Jensen’ before finding his way to realising that he was just wanting to escape who he was. He realised the problem underlying his desire for a sex change. With some help he returned to his original gender. He says that desire for gender change more likely masks other problem - eg early childhood abuse, mental health problems or something else. He says it is very irresponsible of sex change surgeons not to explore the underlying problems. Heyer has met with and talked to 1,500 people who have had sex change operations who regret it. Heyer states without hesitation that the operation was harmful psychologically and physically. His website is interesting: http://www.sexchangeregret.com/

Skye | 16 June 2014  

Tony,( and others) evidently share a problem (for humans) with God, about how we refer to them when our limited terminology usually is specifically sexually generic with pronouns. We regularly refer to God as "He", and despite some occasionally pointed use of "She", most people find it difficult to accept this. It seems in PNG there is a term "Em", which is non-specific, and can refer to either gender. "It" does not seem acceptable, so perhaps some more evolution of language in needed if we are to cope verbally with such different instances. I knew a young girl who had an unusual form of elephantiasis, in which one side of her body grew out of proportion to the other, and she comforted herself and disarmed the comments of her classmates by pointing out, "Well that's how God made me." Perhaps we need to access her wisdom.

Robert Liddy | 16 June 2014  

Surely every birth is a miracle, just one we seem to take for granted. Skye, I suspect there is a vast difference between someone who makes a decision to change from one gender to another and one who has attributes of both and is faced with being called indeterminate. One size doesn't always fit all.

Margaret McDonald | 16 June 2014  

I wonder if Skye understands, as Margaret does, what this article is about?

Ginger Meggs | 16 June 2014  

Thank you for an enlightening article, Barry. It will help some of us understand intersex people - but I fear it will be many years before there is wide understanding. I feel we were moving towards greater acceptance of minorities of all kinds in Australia, but this Government is not likely to help the process at all, judging by the picket-fence morality and attitudes expressed by several senior ministers.

Rodney Wetherell | 16 June 2014  

Fantastic article, I have been following this topic for some time now after being horrified to learn about how poorly and inconsistently this condition (intersex / births where gender is not readily apparent) is handled despite being remarkably common. Skye does need to go back and read the article again, but her comment is also indicative of how poorly this issue is understood. Many people are just not aware of it at all, so a casual reading of an article such as the one above leads them to assume it is referring to other gender issues with which they are more familiar.

Jenny | 20 June 2014  

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