FEATURE: A 63-year struggle for intersex recognition and rights

May 15, 2024

Peter Tatchell Foundation has shared the heart-breaking personal story of an intersex woman, Yvonne Grey, to shine a light on the ill-treatment and struggles of intersex people. Peter Tatchell, the foundation’s director, said: “Family and medical abuse of intersex people is global. Stigmatisation and discrimination are rife. This is a personal tale of inspiring resilience in the face of cruel adversity.”

Yvonne Grey writes: It is 12 June 1961 – the name on my UK birth certificate is David Todd. But in the box denoting my sex there is simply a red horizontal line.

Fifteen years later, in 1976, I saw the document for the very first time as my brother taunted me: “There you are, you see, you’re a nothing. You’re not a boy or a girl – just a nothing.”

What my father had tried for so many years to conceal from me in the right-hand drawer of his writing bureau, is that I was born intersex – or what medics use to refer to as a “True Hermaphrodite”. That is, I had a reproductive and sexual anatomy that in biological terms doesn’t neatly fit either the box of female or male. Hence the red line, marked crudely in pen.

However, it wasn’t simply a matter of striking through the truth; my father also insisted, often aggressively, that I was male and that I call myself a boy.

I was born intersex, but I have wanted to be female my entire life – from the earliest age that I could express a recognition of myself. My family denied me my true self all my life, even now as I approach my 63rd birthday.

At the age of about nine, I had a junior school teacher who learned how I was being forced to be male and saw the physical pain and discomfort I was suffering.

This teacher was the only one I could confide in about my desire to be a girl. I knew I would be in big trouble with my parents if they found out about me telling her this.

One night the teacher appeared on a TV quiz show, and used the opportunity to very bravely mention the way I was being abused. When being introduced, she announced her name and then said: “I am here to let one of my pupils know that he isn’t a boy but a girl”.

My parents saw the programme and my father went berserk. He lifted me bodily over the settee and threw me into the passageway. The teacher went on to say more things about me but l could not hear a word, as my parents were screaming and shouting their heads off. They said they would deal with the teacher the next day and l was sent to my room. The door was locked, so l had to stay there and heard nothing more.

The following day l did briefly meet the teacher at school and l told her exactly what had happened at home. Soon after that she was escorted out the building. She lost her job for defending me. She was my hero. Her last words were: “At least my conscience is clear.” She was the only person to speak to me the way a decent person should. l never saw her again and nobody else ever supported me again for a very long time.

When I was 11, my father gave me some strict instructions: “Never say to anyone that rubbish that you want to be a girl”. My father got very angry with me when I replied that being a girl was what I wanted. He overpowered me and, unzipping my pants, groped my genitals and screamed in my face repeatedly: “What am l holding sir? What am l holding?”. I was very afraid. My mother just stood there and my brother laughed. My father would not release me until l said what he was holding.

Soon afterwards, I was told I needed a routine operation. I found myself in the local Tynemouth Victoria Jubilee Infirmary being interrogated tersely by a surgeon: “OK, you’ve had long enough to make your mind up about what sex you want to be. So, do you want to be a boy or a girl?” I was shocked by this confrontational manner and immediately shouted “GIRL!” and “FEMALE!”.

This resulted in an argument between the surgical team concerning how they should proceed. One of the team then turned to me and said that he must act as my father wanted and make me a boy.

Fearful of what would be done, l tried to escape from the bed, but the ward orderly held me down and l was put to sleep against my will.

While I was under gas, the doctors circumcised me, but they also did something to my upper lip, right under my nose, which left me in agony. No explanation was given, but that was the only part of my face where I ever grew facial hair.

Curiously, they made a permanent cut in the nail of the second smallest toe on my right foot. I was told that this would be a lasting mark to indicate how I was born different. The medical staff were very dismissive and would not answer my questions about this medical marking of my body without my permission.

In 1974, when I was 13, my father drugged me and tied my arms and legs to a chair. An unknown man came into the room with a briefcase and conducted a sort of backstreet laryngoplasty. He inserted a medical device to force open my mouth and then put a strange instrument down my throat. He did something to my throat, I don’t know what, with the aim of lowering my voice to make me sound more like a boy. I never consented to that either!

The following year, my whole school class year went to Switzerland skiing. My parents refused to let me go, citing the reason that nobody wanted me to go and no one liked me. But the real reason was probably because this was before they had my original birth certificate changed from a red line to say boy. This meant that with my sex blank, I could not get a passport and therefore not travel.

You must understand that my family treated me like an unloved mistake. All that I ever got to hear about my condition was very limited and either guarded or overheard by accident.

Later in 1975, aged 14, I felted so abused that I attempted suicide by hanging. I tied a rope to a punch bag hook and stepped off a bench to dangle by my neck. My father had been spying on me, as he often did, and kicked open the door, gasping with shock but also with a smile on his face.

He said that he would like to see me die there and then but that would “complicate” things. At that point, after leaving me to choke for a short while, he pushed the bench back under my feet but left the rope around my neck. l struggled to remove the rope but father slapped my hands away, so the rope stayed there. He then undid my pants and groped me.

Eventually, he bored of this, lifted me off the hook and threw me into the corner of the room. That was when he made the mistake of gloating and telling me that he had the surgeons sew me up as a baby. This procedure was because, he said, when l was born, urine didn’t come out where it should but came out “there”. He pointed and touched my scrotum.

“lt was me that did this to you,” he said vengefully. “I don’t want you to die today David. l want you to die every day for the rest of your life.” He then ordered me downstairs. l overheard him describing my suicide attempt to my mother. She told him: “So why didn’t you just let him hang?” You can imagine how worthless and loathed that made me feel.

l remember Mr Cundell, the form teacher, scolding me that same week in school. Referring to the rope marks around my neck, he accused me in front of the whole class of having a love bite from my “homosexual lover.” He then threatened me with ”Caesar” – his leather corporal punishment strap. It was open season on me by everyone in my life. I was totally isolated and victimised, with no one to protect and care for me.
At the start of my early twenties, there was a new attempt to erase my history: I was ordered by my family to go with my brother to the local Register Office in North Shields to obtain a fresh birth certificate with the word “male” written on it. I was frog marched there. My brother beat me up outside the building. I was threatened with being made homeless by my own family unless I agreed to the change. The original birth certificate – like my true identity – was, according to my father, “not for me to have.” The change was duly made and from then on I was officially a man – despite being intersex and wanting to live as a woman.

Undeterred by this birth certificate change, and by the family’s pressure, threats and demands, at 22 I said to my GP that I wanted surgery to make me fully female. He told me I had a uterus, but that far from it being my choice, it was actually my family’s right to decide whether I should be a boy or a girl. I was 22 and still expected to live according to my parent’s diktats.

Even at this age, I had to ask my father for permission to start the process of becoming female. In response, he beat me up and threw me through a glass door. My mother spat on me, called me mad and screamed that l would bring shame on the family name.

My father reluctantly told me l could have my original birth certificate with the red line, still shut away in the bureau drawer, but only if l promised to never again demand a “sex change.” I refused.

After being thrown out of the family home, my GP also cut me off; telling me I would never be allowed to see my medical notes again, and that I must just live as a man as my family had decided.

When I was sent to another doctor in Newcastle, she basically made fun of me and referred to me as a transvestite. She told me to go away and live as a man for the next ten years – if, after this time, I still wanted to be female, then I could come back and see her.

Later on, after much effort, I succeeded in changing my name on official documents, like my driving licence, from David Todd to Yvonne Grey. This legal change was executed on 23 March 1990, with solicitors in Wallsend. But I could still not change my birth certificate.

In early 1990 or 1991, I finally managed to be seen at Charing Cross Hospital gender identity clinic in London. But things were about to get worse. One day, the doctor in charge of my case, Dr X, sent an assistant into the waiting room to get me to sign what she called a “consent form”. She apologised for the treatment I had received so far, and the length of time it had taken for them to understand what I was. She indicated that as soon as I signed my name in the space on the front of the document, then I would get the treatment I truly deserved.

It all appeared to be an elaborate trick. When I tore off the false front cover of the document, I found the title: Survey on the Sexual Habits and Fantasies of Male Transvestites. Inside was a series of tick-box questions, including: “Do you prefer the imagery of young boys or young girls in school uniforms or normal clothes?” Medical staff suddenly appeared and seized the form from me, muttering words that sounded like: “Don’t worry, we’ll get him another way!”.

My life changed for the better, in 1994, aged 33, when I met Professor Richard Green, a colleague of Dr X. He showed me my medical notes in a buff cardboard folder with bold red letters across the front: “On no account should the contents of this folder be shown to this patient”.

At last, I got the truth. Professor Green explained that l was a very rare type of person called a “Congenital Eunuch” or “True Hermaphrodite” – a person born with ambiguous genitals. This is different from Mixed Gonadal Dysgenesis (MGD), a condition that affects how the body grows and develops before birth and at puberty. People with MGD have gonads (glands) that may not develop fully, and they may not make typical amounts of hormones, whereas I had an ovotestis, which contains both ovarian and testicular tissue.

Professor Green explained that my medical notes still had chromosome karyotype XXY (an anomaly) written on them but the truth was that I had XY (the male chromosome), despite having a female uterus and one oviteste (mix of a testicle and an ovary). He said that is why he classified me a “True Hermaphrodite”.

After Dr X found out that Professor Green had given me this information, I never saw my notes again.

I did finally get my operation, in 1997. But they cut out my womb, despite me saying that I wanted to be a woman. It was sealed in an airtight plastic bag with my name and hospital number and said something like: “Adult human uterus and oviteste”. lt was shoved in my face as l lay on the hospital bed, and then it was snatched away. My wishes counted for nothing – again! I wonder if it is now in a museum of medical curiosities?

It is 2024 – the name on my birth certificate is still David Todd and the copy at the General Register Office has the word “boy”. They are still trying to pass me off as a male when in truth I am intersex – a “True Hermaphrodite” – and when I had always wished to be a woman. Sixty-three years on, and I am still fighting for the recognition of who I truly am: Yvonne Grey, proud intersex woman!

For legal reasons, Peter Tatchell Foundation has concealed the identity of Dr X at Charing Cross hospital in the 1990s. The foundation has published Yvonne’s story in good faith and believe her to have “given a true account of her decades of neglect, abuse and erasure”.