ILGA meets… Mani Bruce Mitchell, intersex human rights defender

A non-binary, queer and intersex person, Mani Bruce Mitchell has been the first person to publicly come out as intersex in New Zealand, where he established ITANZ – one of the organisations in the ILGA World Conference host ropu. We met them on the occasion of Intersex Awareness Day. 

Trigger warning: this interview contains graphic and derogatory language around non-consensual genital surgery, sexual assault and sex characteristics. Mani shares this information, as well as their healing process and work as an activist, to help further intersex persons’ human rights.   

Can you tell us something about your story? 

I am a post-war baby. I heard the story about my birth from my mum - I was in my early 20s at the time and this would be the ONLY time my mother talked of the circumstances of my birth, and of the fact I am an intersex person.

I had had questions, fuzzy disturbed memories of my childhood - so one day while visiting I asked my mum about the circumstances of my birth, she started in a very matter of fact way, speaking with no emotion, like she did, as was common of her generation: "We were in Auckland, staying with Peg and Bob, the waters broke. Dad got up and drove us into Auckland, we got to the maternity hospital and was met by a matron. My mum looked serious and folded her arms, her tone changes slightly, she instructed me to go with a young nurse to the birthing unit and to wait for the doctor to arrive." My mum paused and looked at me: “You did not wait and you were born before the doctor arrived. The nurse bent, down picked you up, with total horror now on her face - my mother continued - the nurse looked at you and said 'oh my god, it’s a hermaphrodite.’ My mother then started screaming and ran out of the room…".

I was left in a state of bewildered shock, I had never seen my mother show that kind of emotion, ever, and I had no idea what she was talking about.  I did not understand the word ‘hermaphrodite’, I did not relate it to myself…

My mum was gone for about ten minutes - she had been crying, her eyes were all red.

She came in, looked out the window (it was a beautiful fine blue sky day), and said "You know what, dear? I think it’s going to rain.... I think we should bring the washing in”. So that’s what we did. Neither of us referenced what had happened, it was as if we both understood we had accidentally stepped into some festering pond, and without any discussion both agreed to never speak about this 'issue' again.

My mother would die about 8 years after that conversation, and I would be 40 before I dared to start once again trying to make sense of those nightmare memories that dogged me... the fear and terror that seemed to cloak my heart.

I would eventually work  it out. Yes: I am an intersex person, I was born at the end of the spectrum where my genitals were outside the 'norm', doctors initially assigned me male - my first name was Bruce. My gender was changed to female at age one after exploratory surgery (laparotomy). I would go on to have multiple surgeries to 'feminize my body'. It was early I lost agency a sense of relationship with my own physical body: I became an easy target of sexual predators, there was more than one. I developed the capacity to wear a mask, I loved my parents, I wanted them to love me, not see me as a 'monster', and so I was very good at hiding what was going on: so developed was this capacity I had no idea who I was, what I felt, I was a head who could act out whatever I thought it was appropriate in any given situation.

How did you become an activist for the human rights of intersex people and the LGBTI community?

My first attempt  to figure out who I was, what I was, came as a teenager. I was at university, and I ‘decided’ I was a lesbian. A poor fit, in fact, but the best I could figure out given the alternate images to a het, cis identity that I had available to me. Poor in relationship skills, with no sense of self, boundaries, desperate to belong I would end up in a not okay 'abusive' relationship for 18 years.

The turning point came when I 'shared a little' with a friend. I was suicidal, depressed, desperate, and this friend introduced me to an extraordinary doctor, Hetty Rodenburg.

Hetty had also been trained in trauma medicine, and was a profoundly wise, and gentle doctor. It’s in her consulting room that things would start to change: it was a slow inch by painful inch process, and it would be many more years before I would find my own voice, my own solid sense of self. 

I am a trained teacher - and in my healing process I worked out I can’t change the past, or what happened to me, but I am a teacher, I can speak, I decided I (rather grandly) could be part of a change process... so that no child, NO family, would ever have to go through what I had gone through, what my parents had gone through. That was over 25 years ago.

I have been involved variously on the front lines since: my sense of self consolidated, very early on, though we had no words back then I saw myself as non-binary, as queer, as intersex. 

Was there a specific moment that made you decide you wanted to be involved in first person?

Through the work with my doctor, I attended a number of therapeutic healing retreats. Behind them was a philosophy of “first-person narrative”, of authenticity, the importance and VALUE of story. I also had had a parallel career in emergency services, I had been trained in media, I knew how to do interviews, manage myself in front of a TV camera: really, all these dispirit parts of self coalesced - it was strangely easy!

In 2017, you have been involved in drafting the Darlington statement, which sets out the priorities and calls by the intersex human rights movement in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Similar statements were also published in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Europe. Why are these statements happening at this particular moment, and how are they helping the intersex community in their demand to see their human rights respected?

I think there is critical mass in the community, we have found ways to be together, to be gentle with each other, and it’s not easy: so many of us have trauma stories that sit inside us. We are drawn together by the common desire to change things. What is SO interesting, if you examine these regional statements, is the similarity: it is striking.

We want to end surgery and the non-consensual use of hormones on children.
We want parents to have support and information.
To be peer connected.
We want the bodies of intersex people to be respected - to have bodily autonomy.
We want access to good, safe, respectful lifelong medical care!

There are other issues and they vary somewhat depending on geography.

Many of us are seeking reparations, apologies from those who have hurt us.
We want, need, the newest thinking and knowledge around identities to be woven into our care practice  one that recognizes that the people are complex and that binary constructs do not serve our community well.
A world that listens. Takes us seriously. Supports us - fights with us. 

The Rainbow Talk delivered by Mani at the 2016 ILGA World Conference in Bangkok, Thailand


ITANZ - Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand is among the host organisations of the 2019 ILGA World conference: could you tell us more about the work that the organisation is doing at the local level?

ITANZ is one of the world oldest intersex charities: we started our journey in 1996 after a retreat in California. For much of that time I have been the sole intersex person on the board, but in recent years that has changed: we now have a intersex youth run-, lead- program, we have had opportunities to meet here in Aotearoa as intersex people.

ITANZ is not a support organisation, we don’t have the funding or the resource to do that: we have for most of the last two decades been a training, education organisation, and we have worked very closely with government agencies - including our own Human Rights Commission.

What would you identify as turning points in raising awareness of intersex human rights situations globally?

It was the Internet. The start of the modern intersex activist/advocate movement has a direct correlation to the rise of the Internet: it did, and still does, enable a group of isolated, fierce and determined people to be connected and supported around the globe. Without the internet we would NOT have made the progress we have - this connected spiders web of people has been grown by the active support and funds from ILGA and the Astraea Foundation.

If you could share some tips for intersex allies, both within and outside the global LGBTI community, what would they be?

With a few exceptions, the intersex movement is poorly funded: do anything you can to support your local organisations/people. A RULE that all can apply: nothing about us without us, and please don’t add the I in a token way: if you are serious, engage the local community, talk, support - be led by them/us.

The new legally focused term for intersex is  ‘variations of sex characteristics’, and it’s not the same as ‘variations of sexuality or gender identity and expression’ (although some intersex people are also trans and/or queer). Take some time to inform yourself, read the declarations and the latest version of the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10.

As a rainbow community, we are stronger when we are working together (potentially) being allies. This requires some work: stretch out and do it -  Planet Earth will be a better place.

Thank you.

Huihuitia ō tātou ritenga; whakanuia ō tātou rerekētanga.
Gather up what we share in common; celebrate where we differ from each other.

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