TONY BRIFFA

 

NICHE IDAHO Campaign: "I", Tony (YourStory)

Photo: Cathryn Tremain

"Chosing the Right Gender" The Age, 1 February 2005.

Despite a difficult childhood, Tony Briffa is a resilient pragmatist with a wonderful sense of humour, writes Lily Bragge.

When Tony Briffa was born at Altona Hospital in 1970, doctors were unable to determine his gender. The younger of a set of twins, Briffa's sister Catherine was confidently announced to be a girl, but for Tony, there was much doubt.

Sent to the Royal Children's Hospital for further investigation, it was discovered that Briffa had been born with a rare intersex condition known as Incomplete Testicular Feminisation (now referred to as Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome).

Establishing that Briffa was genetically male, doctors decided he would be better off assigned as a female. His parents were advised that he was a girl, and to raise him accordingly. They were not told their son had testes; just that he had gonads (which medically, can be either ovaries or testes).

Maltese immigrants with limited English, Briffa's parents did not question the diagnoses and accepted that "Antoinette" did not have female reproductive sex organs, would never be able to have children and would require a number of surgeries, as well as lifelong hormone treatments.

"In order to make sure that I accepted being a girl, my parents were advised to unambiguously raise me as one. That meant a pink room, lots of dolls for Christmas and birthdays, frilly dresses and my ears being pierced when I was two." So as not to disrupt his schooling, Briffa's childhood was punctuated by summer holidays spent at the Royal Children's Hospital.

By the time he turned seven, his phallus had started to grow. He says that doctors falsely informed his parents that his testes were cancerous, which resulted in him being castrated and consequently prevented him from masculinising any further.

About 5000 Australians are currently diagnosed with atypical genitalia. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome affects one in every 133,000 people.

Briffa says the examinations he was subjected to every few months as a child and adolescent made him feel like a sideshow freak.

Believing it to be a form of child abuse (albeit unintentional), the constant invasive examinations left Briffa physically and emotionally damaged.

Brought up as a girl and being conditioned to think and act as one definitely did not translate into feeling like one. A tomboy, he was not interested in stereotypical girlish pursuits, and was always fighting with boys.

He began receiving hormone treatments at 11, which resulted in him going through an artificial puberty. From the age of 12 onwards Briffa repeatedly told doctors he was not a girl, that he was a boy and did not want breasts, indeed, he requested a mastectomy.

They refused, informing him that no matter how much testosterone they pumped into his body, it would reject it. It was not until 1999, that Briffa discovered this to be untrue.

"They didn't tell me I had Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome; they told me I had Complete AIS. They didn't explain there was a difference between the two."

Partial AIS meant that he would have masculinised to a certain degree without medical intervention. Rather than having synthetic femaleness forced upon him, he is adamant that doctors should have held off performing the surgeries and hormone treatments until he was old enough to choose which sex he would rather live as. Frustrated, angry and depressed, he occasionally contemplated suicide as a teenager. "It was like being in a black, endless tunnel with no light."

Describing himself as a fairly popular girl at school, he says he never socialised outside of it. "I had lots of friends, but I never even went to one school dance. I just threw myself into school work and music."

After VCE, he enrolled in an engineering degree at university (a course where he was only one of two women in the year). "Well, there was one woman, 49 men and then there was me."

Briffa tried his best to accept being female. "In desperation I tried to be what everyone wanted me to be - a normal girl." He married his first boyfriend. Briffa's husband knew the truth about his condition, but the marriage was short-lived. Naturally attracted to females, he then identified himself as a gay woman. "That wasn't comfortable either, because to be a lesbian, you actually need to be a woman."

In 2000, at the age of 30, Briffa decided once and for all he would live how he'd always felt - as a male.

At only 158 centimetres, Briffa cuts a stocky, diminutive figure. Without medical intervention he would have reached a normal stature. "Doctors made me 5 feet 2 inches on purpose. My estimated height (if I'd been left alone) was between 5 feet 8 and 5 feet 10, and that was considered far too tall for a girl. So now, I'm a very short man. It's something I always feel inadequate about." An aerospace engineer with the Department of Defence, Briffa still lives in Altona where he is a community activist and passionate advocate. He has just been elected president of the Seabrook Community Centre and is secretary of the AIS Support Group, as well as the second-term president of the Genetic Support Group of Victoria.

A third-generation Altona resident, he is passionate about the area and its people's welfare. After two unsuccessful attempts at standing for parliament as a Greens Party contender in the 2000 federal and 2002 state elections, he ran as an independent candidate for Hobsons Bay Council in November.

He received 27 per cent of the primary vote and came in second behind the incumbent ALP councillor.

A full-time foster parent to two siblings, a 15-year-old girl, and 13-year-old boy, the teenagers have known him as a foster mother and foster father. Briffa says neither of them have an issue with it; he is simply Tony.

Rather than being bitter and vengeful, the years of taunts, insults and prejudices have left Briffa a resilient pragmatist with a wonderful sense of humour. He is however, fierce in exposing the truth and seeking justice. Currently involved in legal action, he is suing two of his doctors for alleged malpractice against him from the age of 18 onwards. He says if he could, he would seek the same regarding his entire childhood, but the statute of limitations has now passed, leaving him no legal avenue to pursue such litigation.

Briffa has not had surgery to rebuild his genitalia and, at this stage, does not intend to. Having encountered myriad problems with the ongoing testosterone treatment he now receives, he has been subjected to repeated infections and hospitalisation.

Preferring to concentrate on priorities such as his kids, family and community commitments, he sees having an intimate relationship as problematic. "I would obviously want a relationship with a heterosexual female and I can't really function as a heterosexual male so I tend to avoid relationships to be honest."

"Raised as a girl, Free as a man", Sunday Herald Sun 30 May 2004

by Mary Papadakis

A rare intersex condition robbed Tony Briffa of his childhood.

Despite being genetically male, he was thrown into a world of irreversible and invasive surgical procedures and encouraged to play with dolls because doctors believed he should be raised as a girl.

Mr Briffa, 34, was born with partial androgen insensitivity syndrome - a genetic condition in which the body is unable to respond fully to hormones called androgens, and male and female sexual characteristics exist to varying degrees. It affects about one in every 130,000 people.

When he was born, doctors couldn't determine whether he was a boy or girl and thought it was easier he be raised as a girl with his non-identical twin sister, Catherine.

Mr Briffa, an aerospace engineer and foster father of siblings Monique, 15, and Chris, 12, always felt like a misfit. His early memories are of being examined at the Royal Children's Hospital.

"I felt like a freak. I knew there was something different by the way they treated me. I was some sort of curiosity."

At seven, he was castrated. At 11, he started estrogen therapy, causing him to grow breasts.

Mr Briffa, president of the Genetic Support Network of Victoria, told doctors at 12, he wasn't a girl.

"Everyone kept trying to convince me I was," he said. "No matter how much I hated dolls, I'd always get them for Christmas."

Things became more confusing for Mr Briffa when he started high school at Altona's Mount St Joseph Girls' College.

Mr Briffa, born without a uterus or ovaries, knew he didn't belong.

"I wasn't like my twin sister and the other girls at school," he said. They would always talk about things like boys and periods. I couldn't relate to it."

Mr Briffa, a Hobsons Bay activist, started life as a male as an adult.

He spoke out about his ordeal after what he describes as an attempt by Municipal Association of Victoria president Brad Matheson to discredit him before the elections.
Cr Matheson publicly referred to Mr Briffa's past life as an ALP member named "Antoinette".

Mr Briffa, of Altona, who is taking legal action over his medical treatment, said his condition was kept in the dark.

"I didn't know I was genetically male until I was 16 or the true nature of my condition until I was 30," he said.

He is calling on the Government to stop irreversible procedures being performed on children.

Mr Briffa said he had come to terms with his ordeal thanks to the support of wonderful friends, family and colleagues.

"I have absolutely nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of."

"Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, What?" Story published in M.C.V. (Melbourne Community Voice) 12th October, 2001.

If you think growing up gay was tough, try this one for size: you're a 14-year-old boy and you start growing breasts.

Or this: your name is Anna, you're 21 and about to get married, and your mother says you can never have children.

Catherine Watson explores the world of intersex.

Tony Briffa is an engineer, a foster parent, and the Greens candidate for Lalor in the next Federal election. He also has a former husband, and once considered himself a lesbian. Briffa's story is a graphic demonstration of the complex lives of intersex people.

"I was in the lesbian scene for a number of years and everyone assumed I was a woman," Briffa said. "What they didn't know was that I am genetically male and had testes when I was born. I have never had a uterus or ovaries. I looked completely female because of the treatment I had as a child, but was I a lesbian? Conversely, if I was in a relationship with a man - and I was married to a man once - would I be in a homosexual or heterosexual relationship? I had female written on my birth certificate, and I was born with a vagina..."

A year ago, Briffa began testosterone treatment and is steadily becoming more masculine. These days, he says, "I'm just a guy."

After a protracted battle with the authorities, he has even had his true sex recognised with the issue of a corrected birth certificate.

Like many intersex people, Briffa was born with the physical characteristics of both male and female. The ambiguity is due to a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS).

People with AIS do not respond - or respond only partially - to the chemicals such as testosterone which determine our biological gender. Some have complete sets of male and female external sexual organs*1. Others have chromosomal variations which can only be detected by genetic testing. Others may look female but have internal testes and typical male chromosomes. There are around 19,000 intersex Australians, many of them part of the gay community. To outsiders, they usually look like typical men and women.

"Some of us look a little 'ambiguous'," says Briffa, also the president of the Australian AIS Support Group, but that's usually from the inappropriate medical treatment we received as children. Particularly when a mistake was made in the gender of rearing and the initial decision was surgically or hormonally reinforced."

Briffa was two years old when doctors at the Royal Children's [Hospital] removed his testes. At seven his penis began to grow anyway, so they castrated him. Then they treated him with oestrogen all through his teenage years to make him conform to the female identity they had assigned him at birth. When he was 12, he told his doctor he didn't feel like a girl but he was ignored, as was his request for a mastectomy.

But while his requests and feelings were of no interest to the doctors, his body was an object of endless fascination. Every few months, much to his distress, he was called into hospital to have his genitals examined, often in front of medical students. No one ever asked him if he minded.

People with AIS used to be referred to as hermaphrodites.

These days they refer to themselves as "intersex" people, a term which acknowledges that gender and sexual identity is more complex than can be revealed by chemical or genetic analysis. Lately there has been something of an upsurge in the subject of intersex people, with Briffa appearing on '60 Minutes' and 'Squeal' and in an article in 'Good Medicine' magazine.

He says the Internet has been a powerful tool for enabling AIS people to get together, talk about their experiences and lobby for political change. What is perhaps most remarkable about Tony Briffa is the courage and resilience he has shown after so many years of confusion and unhappiness. Today he is a man of wide interests and concerns, an "advocate for the rights of all people and animals", as he describes it.

"My family and upbringing helped foster the belief in me that I can do anything I want to," he says. "I want to make a difference in the many issues I believe in, and stopping genital mutilation on children with intersex conditions is one of them. What is most important for intersex people is the acceptance of sexual and gender variations," says Briffa. "We believe in relationship recognition irrespective of gender, and we believe in the legal recognition of one's self-identified gender. In this we have common ground with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities."

The thing he finds most difficult to accept about his past is the arrogance of his doctors in not listening to him. "It would have been a lot easier to shift socially into my correct gender role when I was a teenager. Making mistakes is bad enough; not learning from them is inexcusable."

He is also sad for his family, who have supported him throughout his ordeal but who have also lost a daughter they knew for 31 years. "I feel bad about their profound loss," he says, "even though I know I'm just being true to myself."

Tony's Links

Tony Briffa's Official Website

"Fight to be a man", BNews, 27 May 2004

"Intersex surgery disregards children's human rights", Nature Vol 428, 15 April 2004

"Intersex debate", BNews, 5 June 2003. Tony's letter regarding the claims of some transsexual radicals that transsexualism is a form of intersex.

"Discrimination against people affected by intersex conditions". Tony's submission to the NSW Law Reform Commission, Feb 2003.

Neglected Communities Forum, NSW Anti-discrimination Board, NSW Parliament House, 25 February 2003.

"New intersex study fuels debate" ABC, 17 September 2002. Tony's comments about the Johns Hopkins research.

Tony on 60 Minutes (Australia), Channel 9, 25th June 2000.

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