real life

'I'm intersex. It was a secret my parents kept from me for 17 years.'

In 1984, the same year that ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ was popular on the radio, I was born in the western suburbs of Sydney. It was an uneventful pregnancy according to my late mother. But my birth, at 1:27pm on the 16th of February, was followed by immediate panic and confusion. Not only were there serious medical issues, my genitalia failed to look distinctly male or distinctly female.

Even though the word wasn’t really used at the time, I was intersex. Like 1.7 per cent of the population, I had been born with ambiguous sex characteristics.

The doctors, according to my parents, contacted teams overseas and were advised to allocate me a binary sex. They chose female; a decision that would see me endure a life of surgery and hormonal interventions. It wasn’t until I was nearly an adult, that I learned that I was actually genetically 46XY – male. But in the medical world, it’s considered ‘easier to dig a hole than build a pole’.

Alex and other intersex people answer: what is intersex? (Post continues below.)

Video via ABC

Throughout my childhood, I thought that I was simply female, albeit, very tomboyish. I loved playing sport, hanging out with the boys, playing video games, the usual stuff associated with a stereotypical boy. But to the outside world, to myself, I was a girl. The only people who knew the ‘secret’ were my parents and my doctors.

I knew I didn’t produce hormones, but I didn’t know why. My intersex status was kept from me because that was the treatment protocol at the time. It was based on studies from the 1950s that suggested if you raise a person as a certain gender without telling them otherwise, they will simply conform to that gender. And so at various medical appointments throughout my childhood, I was asked to leave the room and wait outside, while my parents and doctors discussed my body and my future.

At age 13, I began female hormone treatment, but it only lasted a few months, as I soon worked out that it didn’t feel right. Despite being lectured for not taking my medications by doctors who felt they knew better at the time, I stuck by my choice and remained in-between; a teenager who still looked very much like a child, a teenager not going through puberty. That part didn’t really bother me. I was more interested in school and just being myself. Puberty seemed simply too weird for me, and just something that my friends would deal with.

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I was 17 years old, one week out of high school, when I was finally told the truth.

I remember that day, heading into the then Mater Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, for what I thought was a standard appointment with my kidney specialist. I sat down, with my mum next to me, and he began drawing a very silly but simple looking diagram of me, using only circles and ovals. He told me that I was 46XY, that they couldn’t determine my sex at birth and that I had to make a decision on which hormone I wanted to take.

I felt like my entire life had been a lie. In that moment, I had memories of the surgery I’d undergone when I was a child to create a vagina – I still remember that, and the night my dressings were removed ripping the stitches holding my new vagina together. Being a kid, I didn’t understand why they did it; I just accepted it at the time as part of my ongoing treatment.

I went into a period of grieving for the first few months after learning about my intersex status, grieving for the person I thought I was. I rapidly tried to look up on Google if there was anybody else like me out there, which is how I learned about intersex support groups. There was no support or information from the doctors about that. I had to find it all myself.

I'm now an advocate for the intersex community. Image: Supplied.
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I felt like I had to establish myself all from scratch. In my 20s, I finally began testosterone treatment. It made sense once I found out - 46XY equals testosterone, right? The concept of being intersex was put to the back of my mind, and I attempted to live as a typical male; that’s what I was told to do. I listened to the doctors and kept it quiet from others, except to those who knew me well already.

At age 26, I finally let go of the secret in a university assignment for a course on minorities. It helped me begin to accept my difference and understand where I fit in the world, but I still feel sad that I used words at the time including ‘deformity’ to explain my intersex variation to others. I no longer use that word.

'What I'd been through was institutionalised medical abuse.'

In the years that followed, I gradually began to appreciate that what I'd been through was institutionalised medical abuse. And my mum and dad had gone along with it, following doctors' advice. It definitely strained my relationship with my parents; my dad still gets stressed out talking to me about it. My mum passed away a couple of years ago, but I had tried to talk to her about it once in the car, and she just wanted me to get out and walk. To be honest, I think that they harboured a lot of guilt.

Thankfully, I discovered the queer community, and slowly began to integrate myself. Now I'm closer to many of my friends than I am to my family. It also helped me channel my anger into action, and become an advocate for intersex people.

***

Producers for the ABC show You Can’t Ask That began looking for intersex people approximately 18 months ago. Already having the experience of coming out on national television on SBS’s Insight, I felt an obligation to share my story again as a way to help other intersex people and parents of intersex kids to understand that medical interventions can have long-lasting effects and often aren't necessary.

It was also to clarify what intersex is, as it’s still a subject not well understood by the greater population. It's often mistaken for transgender, for example. But being intersex has nothing to do with gender identity; it's about what we are born with, sex characteristics that are not typically male or female, and there are up to 40 different variations of that – from differences in genitalia and internal sex organs, to genetics.

Now, as a 35-year-old, having been forced into gender roles twice in my life, I have come to a sense of self identity. I’m intersex, I’m non-binary and I’m proud. I have breasts and facial hair; both are simply part of me. I just wish, in hindsight, that I had a voice when I was undergoing those medical interventions and surgeries. But looking forward, I will do whatever I can to ensure that others do.

Tags: features , intersex , lgbtqi , real-life
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