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Made in God’s image

Some 20 people, comprising social workers, chaplains and officers, attended a training course on 3 April at The Salvation Army’s Mitcham Corps on engaging with intersex people*.
Click here to download report  or read on

intersex - boy or girl?

This training follows previous years’ training in engaging with members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community.  The Salvation Army hosted different speakers from the gay and transgender communities in 2012 and 2013 respectively.  On 1 August 2013, Australia became the first country to offer legal protection against discrimination to the intersex community.

The training, conducted by Tony Briffa, vice-president of the organisation Intersex International (Australia) Ltd., addressed ethical and privacy issues, suggesting best practice approaches to working with people in the intersex community and being aware of their needs.

Tony said that the intersex community is ‘still fighting social stigma and raising awareness of difference. Intersex is a biological condition and different cultures reflect different responses to children. Being infertile is often a huge issue for us; intersex people want the same as other people – they want loving relationships, and to be able to adopt and have families.

‘I would love for governments, churches and NGOs to understand we are people, just like them. We are just made this way.’

Tony explained there were ethical issues for intersex children and their parents, such as genital surgery on children that was not medically required and performed before the child was old enough to competently provide consent.  Tony compared this with female genital mutilation and also raised numerous issues around social inclusion.

Tony discussed the concept of ‘heteronormativity’, which means people are assumed to be exclusively male or female and heterosexual.

‘While most intersex people look like other males and females externally,’ she explained, ‘some are born looking atypical; in those cases the aim of doctors is to create a child that is exclusively male or female, and will grow to be heterosexual.  This denies them the right to bodily autonomy and can have significant impact on them later in life. It can also affect the relationship between the intersex child and their parents.’

Tony referenced the recent legal changes to birth certificates in the ACT** as an example of the need to consult with the intersex community about their needs.  ‘Incredibly,’ she said, ‘the laws in the ACT now allow intersex children to have a birth certificate that recognises their sex as not male or female. This is terrible. 

‘We always recommend raising a child as a boy or a girl, and their birth certificate should reflect that. If a child has a birth certificate saying they are not male or female, what happens at school?  Do they play in a boy or girl team at school sports? Gender is not an issue for the vast majority of intersex people.

‘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.”’

Tony Briffa shared deeply and joyfully about her own life and work to help others. She is an Australian, born with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, to Maltese Australian parents.

‘The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne says one in 280 children are born with biological intersex variations, while other figures suggest that one in 1,000 Australians are born intersex,’ Tony said, explaining that categorising the intersex population is a complex process that is further complicated by the fact that at times parents abort children who may be intersex. ’ (Tony stated that, in Victoria alone, 165 foetuses were terminated between 1989-1998 because they were intersex.)

There is also the daunting truth that many people live their entire lives not knowing that they are intersex.  

Education is a crucial measure in ensuring people are treated justly and with dignity. Tony explained that ‘92% of the time doctors get it right in terms of the assignment of gender at birth, but others aren’t as lucky.  In those situations it is not because that intersex person is transgender; they were just assigned the wrong sex by doctors at birth because of the physical characteristics.  A small portion of intersex people also identify as being both male or female, which is in line with their biology at birth. 

Tony, who was raised as Antoinette, underwent numerous procedures and operations as a child.  She was given oestrogen treatment from the age of 11, but at 30 experimented with living as a man and had testosterone treatment.  She worked for the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police, and later became the world’s first ‘out’ intersex councillor and mayor. She now lives openly as a person who is partially both male and female. 

‘Nature made me part male and part female, and I’m comfortable with that,’ Tony said. ‘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.

‘I am sometimes listed as an indeterminate,’ she laughs, ‘but I know who I am. I am worried, however, at what expecting parents are told about their children, even today. How much information is provided to them before they are given the option of terminating their pregnancy? How much do they know and understand?’

Tony’s advice to the trainees rang a familiar chord: treat people kindly. Graciously. And, she added, ‘don’t make assumptions about other people; ask them what they need.’ Education, she had found from long experience, is key to breaking down prejudice and superstition.’
Click here for Tony’s story on YouTube
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* Defining intersex:  Intersex Organisation International (Australia) explains intersex people are “people whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female. An intersex person may have the biological attributes of both sexes or lack some of the biological attributes considered necessary to be defined as one or the other sex. Intersex is always congenital and can originate from genetic, chromosomal or hormonal variations.”  Intersex is different to transgender or transsexual, and is about biology, not gender identity.’

** Tony referenced the recent legal decision by Australia’s High Court to allow Norrie May-Welby to be identified legally as ‘nonspecific’, neither male nor female. This was followed, sadly but predictably, by vitriolic social media diatribes.