I had surgeries that I know of when I was 4/5 and again at 8/9, in the 1960’s. The first was to deal with hypospadias as far as I can tell – my father would describe my attempts at urinating standing up as being like ‘peeing through a collander’. I know it was hypospadias because I remember the irritating web of stitches left after the surgery, and when examined as an adult by a urologist, he confirmed that is what the scarring looked like to him. The second was to deal with cryptorchidism, which again I can recall; I had bilateral cryptorchidism, and while the RHS was manually descended on its own some time after the first surgery, I was admitted into hospital around 8 or 9 for exploratory surgery to deal with the other. I was given a toy matchbox classic car for every day I was in hospital, and I still have the cars. I was in hospital for two weeks, and confined to bed for ten days after the surgery. The operation involved opening up my abdomen, via a 3″ incision on the LHS (I still have the scar just below the top of where pubic hair line now is) and relocating one gonad by suturing it to the inner thigh to prevent it returning back into the abdomen. After ten days, weak, the ward sister carried me to a bath of scalding hot water and dropped me in it, leaving me there while I struggled to breath and climb out of the bath by myself. I still remember how it felt to have the stitch removed that ran through the gonad attached to my thigh – it was excruciating, as no form of anaesthetic was used. I also had a series of injections every fortnight when I was 12/13 for six months.
Prior to my second surgery, and being sent to an all-male boarding school at nine, all my friends were girls. When I was 11 I was sent to an all-male day school, after a headmaster explained to my parents that because of my femininity I he could not guarantee I would survive into adolescence in an all-male environment like a boarding school. As it happened, I never virilised properly, so at school I spent a lot of energy trying to avoid competitive sports and nakedness around increasingly hairy young men. I was subjected to bullying and sexual assault at school. I was also stalked and molested by an adult male on the London Underground as I travelled to school – I put a stop to that by cutting up the back of the guy’s hand while he was assaulting me with a very sharp pocket knife purchased specifically for that purpose.
One of the hospitals where I was treated was St. George’s Hospital Tooting, then one of the centres in London for treating kids like me – of other children on the ward I was on, one was being treated for cleft palate, another was in an iron lung. The last hospital I attended was Guy’s Hospital, and it was from there I discharged myself. That was about the time that photo was taken, and I still recall the indignity of having to take off my trousers and underpants so that yet another man in a white coat could examine my genital and groin area, having no idea why – and recall being angry when he asked me what the mole on my groin was. I told him he was the f’ing doctor, so why was he asking me? I walked out and never went back.
I was never told what my treatment was for, apart from that it was normal for some people, and necessary. Of my surviving parents, I have given up trying to interrogate my mother, because she ends up crying, insisting that in those days they did what doctors said was for the best. The best I got from here was that they were going to call me ‘Michelle’, which is how I now come to use that name. I managed to access my GP medical records ten years ago – they were truncated at around the time the picture was taken, and in their place is a 2 page covering letter from Guy’s Hospital that detailed all my previous medical treatment, apart from the two surgeries and series of injections mentioned earlier (I had spent at least some time time in hospital almost every year for something or other, starting with pneumonia at 6 & then 18 months up till I was 16). The first entry in my medical notes at 16/17 is in pencil, and is the word ‘orchidopexy’. I avoided doctors as much as I could for the next 30 years.
I have tried to access my hospital records, yet despite the covering letter from them in my GP notes, Guy’s had no record of my being there, and St. George’s had an admission record on a date for when I would have been admitted for the second surgery – but no record of who the consultant I was under was, nor what I was admitted for.
I found it very difficult to sustain a sexual relationship, and I was married at 21, which lasted 15 months. I became very confused about my gender, and ended up in a psychiatric institution, where I was not allowed to leave until I stopped trying to discuss my gender. Every time I tried to deal with my gender issues over the next two years, I would be re-admitted until I learned to keep quiet about my confusion. This is the way things were in the 1970’s!
I became celibate for a number of years, at one point joining an Anglican religious order. When I did eventually persuade a GP to refer me to a Gender Identity Clinic several years later, there they initially accused me of procuring oestrogens on the black market (which I had not been) because I looked so ‘feminine’, but when they took my medical history they informed me that I had several signs of male underdevelopment – the things detailed above, the late and incomplete virilisation, and the lack of any children despite unprotected sex (I even tried for children with one partner). There was no counselling to accompany this information, and I had to go away and unravel what the implications of this alone – and with the help of a few intersex people I got to know, I began to make sense of my life. I decided to stop trying to fight what I now see as the gender reinforcement that had been part of my childhood and adolescence, and began living as female. I attended the Middlesex/UCLH intersex clinic, but they were never forthcoming about any specific diagnosis – suggesting that my problem had not been androgen resistance, but undervirilisation due to lack of testosterone production. I also had confirmed that I was infertile all along.
I learned much about myself, and intersex generally, but have never managed to obtain a clear diagnosis. The GIC I attended seemed to accept that I was intersex, although they could only offer treatment for transsexualism; and I recently saw an endocrinologist in NZ who confirmed for me a diagnosis of intersex, but without anything more specific than that.
I think I am left with a sense that because crucial information was denied me around adolescence, I was denied what I would have needed to make a better start with my adult life. I could have chosen a different path then, rather than one that was pretty self-destructive for at least ten years. I think that the question of transition, even, could have been laid to rest much earlier, as if I had been made aware of how different I was, rather than trying to hide this, I could have accepted myself that way in a way that meant gender roles were less relevant to me. I can never know, and I am sure that had I been assigned female in the way some people in my situation might have been, I would have felt just as ambivolent about that assignment as the way I was assigned.
I became so interested in what had happened to me and others, and kept silent, I undertook post-graduate research in this area. I was never awarded my PhD, because I was very committed to reflecting the experiences of the people I interviewed in their own words, as far as possible, in as unfiltered, analytical or critical way as possible – of prioritising their experiences over academic theories about them. One of the examiners refused to accommodate this, and so my PhD was never awarded and my work unpublished. It would have been one of few such pieces of research concerning intersex and transgender medical experiences undertaken by a transgender intersex person themselves. Perhaps the examiner’s intransigence was valid, but I for one am sick of hearing what other people think about intersex, about who is and isn’t really intersex, about the line between intersex and transgender – I am only really interested in what intersex people have to say themselves. On the whole, everybody else has let intersex people down, no matter how well-meaning they might think they are. That includes parents, specialists, academics and advocates. I am sorry if that offends people, but that is how I feel, and what I find tends to lie at the heart of a lot of the in-fighting in the community is directly connected to those well-meaning people who are not themselves intersex telling intersex people what they should or should not be thinking or saying about themselves. In a sense, my own experience with my thesis kind of proves to me that if we are allowed a voice, it tends to be the voice others allow us to have.
One interesting thing I did discover in my research, although my supervisors had trouble hearing this, was that in the UK, up until the mid-late 1960’s an intersex child was more likely to be assigned male than female if it was possible. This is very different from the experience in the USA, especially after Money. The thinking behind this was that in the UK where sex-segregated schools were more common than in the USA before the 1960’s, it would be less disruptive to have an intersex assigned male in an all male environment than an intersex assigned female in an all female environment – that the risks of the former being violated by their peers were seen as less than the latter violating their peers…
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