When I was 30, I appeared on a national TV program in Austalia, 60 Minutes, outing myself as an intersex person. I never imagined what the years ahead of me had in store. There was one thing that became obvious fairly quickly though; once “out” I would never be able to go back “in”. The world now knew I was intersex, and that was a label that was going to stick with me in all facets of my life.
The most difficult thing was that although society – my work colleagues, family, friends, neighbours and even strangers – knew that I was intersex, they didn’t know what that meant. Many erroneously assumed being intersex is about gender and that I must be ether a transgender or transsexual. Some thought I was a hermaphrodite with complete sets of both female and male genitalia. Some thought I was just confused. The reality is that I was born with an intersex variation called “Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome” (AIS). This means that, despite having a typical male chromosomal pattern and being born with testes, my body is not able to respond to male hormones in the usual way. As a result, I was born with a mostly female body, and a clitoris that was larger than usual. I do not consider this an impediment in any way. In fact, the opposite is true!
The development of an activist
I was born and raised in a wonderful community; the suburb of Altona in Melbourne’s west. I went to the local Catholic Schools. I formed many friends at school but I knew I was different from other girls – I was medicalised because of my clitoris. I had repeated and frequent invasive medical tests and examinations, but was told not to tell anyone about why. It was all a dark, shameful secret, and it involved my genitals. I was made to feel like a freak and that is pretty much how I saw myself growing up. It was as if there were girls, boys, and me.
Doctors removed my testes without my consent and without the approval of a court when I was 7. I was told I was going to hospital to have some “tissues” removed. I thought they meant Kleenex and wondered how they got into my abdomen. I recall the night before surgery crying in my hospital bed and thinking that it was probably my last night alive. I thought of my parents and siblings and how much I would miss them. When I woke up from surgery I was numb. Later, when I needed to go to the bathroom I recall getting stuck in the hospital corridor on the way to the toilet, and calling out for nurses to help. They were horrified to see me out of bed and helped me back. They told me about the operation and that I had to stay in bed. It was painful and confusing. I admit, even writing about this reopens the deep wounds from my childhood. When I was 11, doctors started me on female hormones to replace the hormones I would have produced naturally if I wasn’t castrated.
Being raised Catholic was a challenge growing up, and remains a challenge. There are so many strict rules about expectations of girls, our role and function in society, and prohibitions on what we can do. As a child, my first challenge was being denied the opportunity to be an altar boy. I didn’t understand or accept that I couldn’t assist a priest in the celebration of Mass just because I was a girl. I felt discriminated against. Then there were rules against girls being attracted to other girls. Why are boys only allowed to be attracted to other girls? Does this mean I am a boy?
In my teenage years, I slowly learned more about my body. I learned about my chromosomes, about my body’s inability to respond to male hormones, and about my infertility. I learned I was castrated. I was confused and felt alone in the world. Had I not had my love of music I am not sure I would have survived. My doctor repeatedly tried to convince me that I was more female than other women because my body couldn’t respond to male hormones, but that didn’t feel right to me. How could I be more female when I couldn’t even have a child? I never even menstruated.
I went to my first AIS Support Group meeting when I was 18. It was arranged by the hospital and I was very pleased to meet other women and girls with AIS, but discussion was controlled by the doctors and it didn’t feel like we were given the opportunity to discuss anything real about living with AIS and the way we feel.
My life in my twenties were turbulent but I was again blessed with great friends and loves who cared for me, put up with me, and accepted me fully. I never hid the fact I was having relationships with women, while also having relationships with men. Either way, I felt very comfortable in the LGBT community, and I could openly discuss who I am and being intersex. It was a community where I could openly be me for a change. It was liberating.
A life changing event occurred when I was 27. I had a serious motor bike accident resulting in a broken femur and hand, and partially collapsed lungs. I was lucky that the doctors saved my life and my leg after months of being in hospital. I wasn’t able to walk unaided for two years, during which time I had come to the conclusion that life was too short not to be me. I wanted to make a change in the world. At that point, I was no longer going to hide the fact I was intersex. Nature made me this way and I have nothing to be ashamed of.
If anyone should be ashamed, it’s the doctors that abused and mistreated me and my parents.
Not long after being able to walk again I reconnected with the AIS Support Group. The internet made connecting with intersex groups and individuals easier. I met the President of the group in Australia and helped them shift from being a group controlled by doctors, to being an independent and legally registered organisation. I joined the committee and met lots of other intersex people – including people with AIS that were not women! I helped start online intersex groups and discovered the vibrant, rich tapestry of intersex people. Sadly, it was a tapestry woven with lots of shame, secrecy, misinformation, abuse, mistreatment, misunderstanding, solitude and darkness. We are still fighting these challenges almost 20 years later.
Following a program about David Reimer, a boy who was raised as a girl following a botched circumcision in Canada, the television station contacted me about going public on their program about the treatment of intersex children in Australia. I agreed. Life would never be the same again. From that point, no matter what I did, it was somehow connected to being intersex. It was as if my identity had changed overnight. No longer was I seen as a woman. I was seen as something else. Some saw me as a man because I had the typical male chromosome pattern and was born with testes, others saw me as a bit of both. Some saw me as a transgender person.
Frankly, I understand and respect their confusion. I too was confused. What am I? Who am I? I simply wanted to be me. I longed for a simple life but it didn’t seem like that was an option.
Most intersex people identify as the sex they were raised and do not look sexually ambiguous. I find that for me some people see me as female and others as male. I mostly like this because it reflects what nature made me and how I feel.
I worked for a time for the Department of Defence as an airworthiness auditor and instructor, where I was perceived as a man. I chose to change my name from Antoinette to Tony to make life easier for people I interacted with. I also made the drastic decision to have surgery to reduce the size of my breasts, in order to fit in professionally. My breasts were a constant issue and a source of confusion. I also know politically it made my life easier not to have such large breasts. This is a decision I don’t completely regret. I think the bigger regret was being in the situation where I had to make that decision in order to fit into society and for my financial independence.
I went on to become the President of the AIS Support Group Australia as well as work in other areas, supporting and advocating for people and families affected by genetic variations. I wrote many submissions to politicians, human rights organisations, law reform commissions, ethics bodies, hospitals and any other organisation or person I thought might be able to help address the human rights issues facing intersex people. I later joined OII Australia and am pleased to now be a Co-Executive Director of that organisation.
I became involved in local issues two years after the TV program, and a campaign to save a local park from being sold by the local council. I was in the council chamber when a councillor singled me out, mentioning my former name was Antoinette and that I was a woman. I was shocked that my intersex variation could become an issue in this way. The comments were reported in all three local papers and the response from the community was humbling. The overwhelming response was that the councillor should not have made those comments. I’m pleased to say I now consider that former councillor a friend and he genuinely regrets those comments.
This incident encouraged me stand as an independent candidate in the council elections in 2004. I didn’t win that time but I stood again in 2008 and won that election very comfortably. In 2009 and 2010 I was elected to the position of Deputy Mayor, and in 2011 I was elected Mayor. I am currently an elected Councillor.
This all means that I became the first publicly ‘out’ intersex person elected to office anywhere in the world, but it wasn’t until I was elected Mayor that the world noticed. Suddenly, within a week I had 250,000 independent visitors on my website. I couldn’t keep up with all the media requests and emails of congratulations.
Quite quickly it appeared that I wasn’t just “Mayor Tony Briffa”, but “Intersex Mayor Tony Briffa”. Some newspapers would refer to me as that even when my intersex variation had nothing to do with the story. Often, they would also mention that I was born intersex and am biologically both female and male. Despite focusing on the usual tasks of being a Mayor, being intersex had suddenly morphed to be part of my public identity.
For the most part, the local community was wonderful. They know me. I’ve always lived locally and had not hidden the fact I was born with an intersex variation, was raised as Antoinette, went to the local Catholic girl’s school, married a local guy, divorced, changed my name to Tony, etc. Most assume I am a man, and I accepted that even though that wasn’t the complete me.
The local Maltese community, of which I am a member, has been extremely supportive of me. I admit I used to feel a sense of embarrassment and uncertainty about how they will respond to me because Maltese is an extremely conservative and religious culture. Thankfully, being intersex, open about my past and open about my bodily diversity has been very much accepted by them. I am very proud of being Maltese.
Being referred to as “Mr Mayor” was not easy. Inside I cringed every time I heard it because I felt the “Mr” denied my full self. “Madam Mayor” similarly would have felt strange because that too denied part of me. It’s funny how words have these affects. For the most part I just went on with the job and ignored the male/female salutations, just as I tried to ignore being constantly labelled the world’s first intersex mayor.
There is understandably a push to increase female participation in public roles including as elected councillors and mayors, but I experienced the effects of this in a bizarre and public way when I was elected Deputy Mayor. The other candidate for the Deputy Mayor position was a woman, so when I was successful there was much fuss made from her political supporters, including a former leader of the State of Victoria. He publicly stated that I should not have been elected because the role should have been allocated to a woman. This was almost laughable if it wasn’t so offensive. I strongly believe in affirmative action, but to ignore the facts of my biology and history, how I was raised, who I am, how I identify and the disadvantage I had to endure like other women growing up and as a woman in an industry dominated by men, was incredible! Essentially, this former Premier not only publicly criticised my election, but also in effect publicly declared me to be a man with all the privileges and advantages that presumes.
As Mayor, I was invited to various functions to attend on behalf of the city. I recall being invited to a Masonic Lodge and deciding to attend to see what that was like. I recall siting there thinking how strange it was to be in a men’s only space. Fortunately, I am not just invited to men-only spaces, but women-only spaces too. The Arabic Women’s group, for example, are extremely kind and welcoming, and they occasionally invite me to attend women’s only functions too. Their kindness and acceptance means a lot to me and helps restore a balance in my life, just as lesbian spaces do.
During an election campaign, the way that people perceive me can be challenging. I recall one incident when visiting a Muslim business, and a man didn’t want to shake my hand because he assumed I was female, while a woman didn’t want to shake my hand because she assumed I was male. It was a little awkward but I respect their choice and the way they see me. My experiences working in aviation in countries like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia were often more awkward, particularly due to additional security and safety issues.
It hasn’t always been positive. I have also been excluded from women-only events that other female councillors were invited to. I didn’t make a fuss or bring it to the attention of anyone at the time, but it was noted. One of the most distressing things I experienced as a mayor who is intersex was the stalking and harassment by a local resident who threatened harm me because, in his words, I was a “mutilated freak”, “homosexual”, “paedophile”, “transsexual” and worse. Stalking and harassment sadly resulted in a need for legal action.
Despite the negatives, my experiences as a publicly elected intersex person has been positive. My local community is obviously very accepting of my intersex status and personal history because I’ve been elected 3 times as an independent candidate – each time with the highest primary vote of all the candidates I was up against.
Earlier this year I was invited on a tour of a new, very impressive mosque in the city in which I am still a Councillor. I was apprehensive about attending due to the issue with the segregation of sexes, the requirements for women to cover their heads, and which rules would apply to me. I went nonetheless, determined that whatever I do I will respect their religion even if it meant wearing a head covering. At the beginning of the tour the Imam gave us an introduction to the mosque design and history, and then explained the requirements for women to wear a head covering. I raised my hand and explained that I was intersex and am therefore not exclusively female or male, and asked what he would like me to do in terms of whether I should wear the head covering or not. I explained I was happy to wear it if he wanted me to. The Imam spoke about intersex and acknowledged that he had already sought advice about my situation, and felt it was ok for me not to wear the head covering – maybe the suit I was wearing helped! Either way, I really didn’t mind covering my head. I had worn head coverings in mosques in Turkey as well as a kippah at Jewish funerals, so I am happy to respect the wishes of those whose special places I am welcomed in.
Being intersex and the experiences I had as a direct result, has also helped me understand a larger diversity of people and to have empathy for people who are different. It made me a strong advocate and helped hone the skills I’ve needed to represent and support our community.
I also like to think that perhaps my very public role as Mayor has helped raise awareness of intersex variations and people who have them. I know this is the biggest factor that will help reduce the shame and stigma still widely felt by intersex people today.
I understand and accept people are not aware of intersex variations and some people are confused about my sex and even about my gender at times. Ultimately however, they care more about what I do for them as their representative as a Councillor or previously as a Mayor and Deputy Mayor.
My hope is that my experience and successes demonstrates that despite our differences and the abuse and mistreatment many of us are subjected to, we can still aspire to achieve goals including public office – which is a pretty good indicator of public acceptance. There is hope. When I was a child I was concerned about my future – as were my parents – but I didn’t need to be. Intersex people can achieve goals and have successful lives.
In my experience people are very accepting and understanding, and appreciate openness. The fact I am open about my intersex variation and the past mistreatment, is often commented on by constituents as being a positive thing. A sense of humour and being honest about not having all the answers is also well received.
During a radio interview when I was Mayor I was asked whether I thought the public would find my sex confusing and whether it would be better for me to pick one sex and stick with it. I explained that I understood their confusion, and that they should try to see it from my perspective, because I’ve been confused about my sex my entire life. The reality for me is that, as a person with my particular intersex variation, I was born biologically partially female and partially male. That is my truth. In practical terms however, for my public life I still do whatever I can to make people comfortable with me. I accept whichever pronouns they use and do my best to serve them.
Thankfully I am able to be myself in my private life.
– Tony Briffa, September 2017.