International Women’s Day, 2022

International Women's Day, 2022: photos of IHRA and IPSA board members Dr Anita Jacombs, Michelle McGrath, Dr Alice de Jonge, and Dr Agli Zavros-OrrToday, 8 March, is International Women’s Day. A theme of this year’s event is to end bias, and working towards a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive, free from bias, stereotypes and discrimination. Here, four of the women directors of Australia’s intersex organisations speak up on ending bias.

Dr Anita Jacombs, IHRA board director, says:

Females come in all shapes and sizes. For a few of us with intersex variations, we also have differences in our chromosomes, and/or our hormones and/or our female organs, all the things that determine our physical form and sex/gender identity at time of conception and early embryonic development. With over 40 intersex variations described intersex conditions are rare, but as a group we make up just over 1% of the population. For many of us with intersex variations our childhoods have been shrouded in complex medical procedures and diagnoses, medicalisation of our conditions, silence or lack of information about our bodies and/or diagnoses resulting in confusion, secrecy and shame.

For me, my intersex condition is part of a complex of other anatomical anomalies and was not fully diagnosed until I was 16. A difficult age for most teenagers, but made exceedingly confusing when everything I knew about being female and what my body should be and do was taken from me. The diagnostic process was long and confusing, required many different tests, being repeatedly questioned by lots of different doctors and specialists and recurrent physical examinations. Ultimately there was surgery involved. The physical scars are still present but so too are the psychological ones as well.

My life journey from this moment took a totally new path, a long individual path that I walked alone as I knew no one with what I had. My journey propelled me to understand who/what I was physically and ultimately who I am emotionally (this has been a lifetime journey and like many of us will continue until the day I die). My need to understand my physical self has also become my profession. As a child who loved the physical science, I pursued biology and genetics at university. Then medical genetics and finally I did medicine and now practice as a doctor. With the love of an amazing family and partner they have supported me through the roller-coaster of my life and they helped me see that I am a beautiful and intelligent female worthy of all I have achieved, even during the times I struggled to accept myself.

Like many women who have had their self-identity or self-worth questioned, abused or destroyed, the stigma of silence and shame and the judgement of others remains a huge burden and barrier for intersex females to engage with all aspects of life.

Michelle McGrath, committee member of Intersex Peer Support Australia says:

I was born with XX chromosomes, that makes me a woman right? Well not necessarily. Having been born with variations of sex characteristics, also known as intersex, and in the 1960s the times were very black and white.

I was stereotyped from the day I was born, my body was different but it wasn’t allowed to remain that way, because of my XX chromosomes I had to ‘look’ like a woman. I underwent surgical interventions as a child so that I could ‘fit’ in with society, be accepted by a man and get married to one.

My body was harmed, it suffered irreversible damage from the ‘normalising’ surgery, these damages caused deep mental and physical scars that are with me for life. This surgery changed my genitals, so they could match ideas about what is appropriate for my chromosomes, I would be a stereotypical woman or so medicine thought.

I grew up without the stereotypical images, I played sports that I liked, cricket and football were my favorites, and I rarely wore a dress or skirt because it didn’t feel right on me. I liked to play outdoors, I loved fishing (and still do), getting dirty, playing with bugs and I hated dolls. I had friends from both genders, and we had great times living life like kids should.

No matter what the surgeons did to me it was never going to change who I am, because this comes from within.

Being a woman for me is not about my looks, it’s not about owning a uterus, it’s not about having children or having a period, it’s not about what you wear or who your attracted to.

Being a woman is about being the best version of a human being I can be, it’s about being compassionate, loving, caring and supportive, and most importantly living the life I want to live.

Dr Alice de Jonge, IHRA board director, says:

IWD draws attention to an important feature of what it means to be a woman. The daily experience of discrimination and disadvantage arising from social expectations of biology, appearance, and role. Intersex women live with all of this, plus more. Lower pay and fewer opportunities – minus many compensating joys of shared sisterhood. It means not even being able to share memories of the highs and lows of puberty (which sound amazing!) – something which never actually happened for me. Both woman and intersex – balanced between a role you were never quite made for; and being the eternal outsider.

Dr Agli Zavros-Orr, IHRA board chair, comments:

The heteronormative understanding of female, girl, woman has created deeply entrenched biases in society about half the world’s population. This has, and continues to impact on their safety, health, wellbeing, access, engagement, participation and prosperity of those who were assigned female at birth or who choose to identify as female. The treatment of children born with variation in sex characteristics is also affected by this bias.

Heteronormative, endosexist and sexist biased define the lived experiences of this group of the population. I believe that biases associated with femaleness is part of the shaming of intersex bodies. This shaming linked to the prevalence of the bias which is reinforced by public pedagogies of beauty/or body aesthetic, sexiness, loveable-ness, worthiness, capabilities, and potentialities. Breaking the bias this International Woman’s Day is critical for the safety, health, wellbeing, access, engagement, participation and prosperity of all females, girls and women in the world.

We invite all our friends and allies to help #BreakTheBias for women and girls, including bias, discrimination and stereotypes affecting women and girls with innate variations of sex characteristics. Help make the world a safer place for all women and girls, irrespective of their sex characteristics.