The baby whose 'gender went from male to female in just 24 hours'by Clare de Lore
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After damaging surgery as a child, Mani Bruce Mitchell is fighting to ensure intersex children are treasured, not fixed.
Bruce underwent surgery – his lower abdomen was cut open so surgeons could inspect his internal organs. The discovery that Bruce had a uterus, as well as the ambiguous external genitalia that had led to the operation, changed the course of Bruce’s life: the doctors declared the baby a girl and recommended further surgery when she was older.
Bruce Laird ceased to exist. Doug and Edith Laird went home to their farm in the Kirikau Valley, near Taumarunui, with a child they now called Margaret and raised as a girl.
No one in the tiny rural community spoke of Bruce again. When she was eight, Margaret had more surgery, feminising genitoplasty, to alter and cement the female identity she had been assigned. Other surgeries followed, including cosmetic surgery in her early teens to feminise her facial features.
Today, the child is a 65-year-old adult, and since coming out in 1996, has been Mani Bruce Mitchell.
One person out of every 2000 is born intersex – with both male and female characteristics. Sometimes the characteristics are visible, but in other cases, they are discovered only through genetic testing.
Wellington-based Mitchell, the founder of Intersex Awareness New Zealand, is a professional counsellor and advocate for intersex people.
Mitchell speaks softly while telling an often painful story of surgery, prejudice and abuse.
What was it like growing up being different, but in many ways just a normal child?
There was the idyllic reality of living on that farm – we were pretty crazy and wild and our farm was huge, so we did lots of things. It was magical and wonderful. But then there was the intersex reality for me that went alongside that. Whenever I went to see doctors or had periods of time in hospital, it was never talked about. It was like a separate reality.
Can you describe what happened to you physically over those early years of childhood?
I was identified, in the language we use today, very early as someone born with variations of sex characteristics. The language used when I was born was “hermaphrodite”. At the time of my birth, things were changing from the Victorian model to the one used now. Things we take for granted now, like soft-tissue scans, were not available then, so I had a laparotomy [a surgical incision into the abdominal cavity]. Once they established I had a uterus, my gender went in just 24 hours from male to female. They stitched me up and said, “Here’s your little girl.”
How did your parents react?
They never talked to me about that and it was only researching 40 years later, when Mum and Dad were deceased, that I found out more about the little rural community in which they lived and were well respected. The news got back to Kirikau Valley that I had been in hospital and my gender changed. The community met in the little hall and talked about it. They decided the kindest thing was to pretend I had always been a girl. None of them ever talked to Mum and Dad about it. The couple who told me this story – they were in their early seventies when talking to me – had not spoken to each other about it until I contacted them. It has been hugely informative for me in setting up Intersex Awareness New Zealand to look at this silence and realise how people – of that era and our current era – struggle with this issue.
Why do you think that is? Is it connected to even basic problems, such as people finding it embarrassing to call genitals by the correct term?
Absolutely, it is connected. In our Western culture, we don’t talk, and woven in is the fear of a child who is different turning out to be gay or lesbian. A child who is “normal” is assumed to be heterosexual. We are changing, thank goodness, but you have to see the context – this was 1953; Mum and Dad, like the rest of New Zealand, were just out of World War II and had just realised that there were weapons that could annihilate the human race. All people wanted was to get back to being normal and doing things like having families – not thinking about war and death.
What was your relationship like with your parents?
I had a very close relationship with my Dad, but it was based on not talking. He wasn’t someone who talked, but we did stuff together and I liked fishing with him. Mum really desperately wanted me to be a normal girl, to grow up and get married, and I was never going to be that. Right from when I was quite young, I was what people called a tomboy. Mum struggled with that.
Were you treated differently by schoolmates?
Some parents must have talked about me at home because some kids knew. It was a one-teacher school with a huge age range and when I went there at five years old, I vividly remember the older kids would take down my knickers and have a look. City people are horrified by that, but it was a very country thing to do in terms of bodies – just having a look. I hadn’t had genital surgery at that point, I had what would be called now a large clitoris, or a small penis, depending on how you want to put it. The one curiosity was, could I piss out of it? Whenever I went to the toilet the kids would rush around to see whether I was standing or sitting.
How old were you when you had the genital surgery?
I was eight. It was to make the external structure much smaller – it was pretty brutal. It left me, like a lot of people from that period, massively damaged. I don’t have sensation like most people do. Mum and Dad weren’t able to talk about what was going to happen, so I was confused about why I was going to hospital when I wasn’t feeling sick. After the surgery, I woke up in terrible pain with no explanations, and doctors and others coming to examine me. I was left to try to figure it out for myself.
A New Zealand doctor based in the US, John Money, was one of the prominent promoters of this model of surgery and of nurture as the answer to intersex. Do you think what happened as a result of Money and others like him is a scandal?
It is really complicated. John Money realised that parents found the birth of an intersex child traumatic and difficult. The theory developed that if you normalised the child, it would take away the parental distress. Normally, when you have a medical hypothesis, it gets tested and you work out whether you are right or not. You don’t normally do it by just carrying out experimental surgery. That is what happened and there was never any follow-up to ask: is this a good thing? Is it damaging? That model is largely unchanged today. We are still operating on people.
What do you think of this?
It is one of the reasons I set up Intersex Awareness New Zealand. The number of us doing this educational work around the world is not large, but we have formed really tight links and we are working to change this medical model.
What is the best thing that can happen to an intersex child?
We absolutely support any surgery that is life-saving, without question. Then, educating and training clinicians who do this work and providing support to parents. We can link new parents up with other parents who have had children like this and normalise this situation for them. Parents need to know that what their kids need most is love. Children need age-appropriate explanations. As they grow up and consolidate their gender identity and their feelings about their bodies, there will be some who decide they are fine with their different bodies and don’t want surgery. There will also be a group who decide they want surgery. That should be available to them as teenagers or young adults, so they are making that decision for themselves.
What progress are you making in changing the model so this becomes standard practice?
We have been working with the Human Rights Commission for the past 10 years, and we are about to embark on collaborative work with clinicians in New Zealand. It is quite historic; it hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world and I hope we come up with a new model. It has the support and backing of the Ministry of Health.
In the meantime, for new parents of an intersex child, is there a go-to book?
No, there isn’t. Contesting Intersex, The Dubious Diagnosis by Georgiann Davis is an academic book, but highly readable and there is a narrative in there for parents and clinicians. We don’t have a safe, easy-to-read resource for parents; we have leaflets and pamphlets.
Will you write a book?
I am in the process of writing my own story. One of the things that is important is to write it in my own voice, but also to honour my parents because now, as a clinician, I realise they did very well. They had no support or training and they were kind, loving people who wanted to do the right thing. They would be appalled to think that the surgery they consented to had such a horrifying outcome.
You feature in Rebecca Swan’s photographic book of people with variants of gender, Assume Nothing. Like all those featured, you were naked . Did that take courage?
It was transformative. Through my experiences of childhood I had learnt to be disconnected from my emotions. It is probably no accident I ended up working in Civil Defence, mostly with men who were as traumatised as I was, except their experiences were from war. When I left that job and retrained as a counsellor and psychotherapist, I had to learn to own my feelings and my body. Early on, most of my difference was taken out with a surgeon’s knife, and when I was living as a woman, until 1996, I would always remove the hair on my face because I was embarrassed by it. But as I was reclaiming who I was, I realised there is part of me that is female but also a part of me that is male, so I wondered what would happen if I let my facial hair grow? It was going to be an experiment over Christmas, but it was amazing and I keep it as a visible reminder to myself and to the world that I am different.
Do you get a lot of comments?
In Wellington, people are used to seeing me around, but when I go somewhere else, people stare. Young men have no hesitation in calling out abusive stuff. It is not easy to be different in New Zealand.
In the alphabet of LGBTQIA, the “I” gets a bit lost in the discussion as it relates more to physiology than orientation. Is it right to be under that umbrella?
Some people think it doesn’t belong under that rainbow umbrella, but I think it does. The original driver for intersex surgery came from the notion of normalising, and that equated to being heterosexual. Sexual orientation belongs to all of us. I met a wonderful woman at a conference a few years ago named Rose Pere. She is from the East Coast and there is an intersex condition that is common among the iwi and hapu of that area. She said the old people spoke of this and would say, “This child has been born, they are a taonga, sent by the gods to teach us something. This is a different child.” If we Europeans could have that as an idea, that they are treasures here to teach us – how transformative that would be.
You have paid a price over the years, including not having a long-term relationship. Is that something you regret or still hanker after?
It is not ruled out, but it would require a lot of time and energy from both of us, and I don’t have a lot of spare time. But I have extraordinary friends all over the world. I don’t lack love.
This article was first published in the June 2, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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