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Intersex woman operated on at birth had her truth hidden from her for 50 years

Emma Powys Maurice March 21, 2021
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A doctor examining a baby's foot

A stock photo of a baby. (Envato/Stock)

A woman who had to wait half a century to learn that she was intersex has finally told her story after discovering her hidden medical records.

Stephanie Vaughan was born in 1961 to a Yorkshire farming family, who raised her as a boy. She began questioning her gender when she was just eight years old, although she didn’t know how to put it in words at the time.

“It sort of started there, the doubting in my own mind; I started thinking something did not add up but I did not know what,” she told the Canberra Times.

For the most part she was able to suppress these feelings – until age 13, when she started growing breasts. “I was developing as a girl not a boy, and the confusion got worse,” she said.

“After an incident at school I realised I was different to the other boys in my class. I eventually spoke to my parents when I got the courage to do so.”

Stephanie’s parents took her to several doctors but all kept her in the dark. The first wanted “nothing further to do with it,” she said, and the second was no better.

“He examined me; it was really strange,” she recalled. “He asked me to go behind a curtain and undress while he had a conversation with my father.

“He was very kind to me and caring but after examining me he just nodded, told me to get dressed and then had a conversation with my father which I could not hear. When I came from behind the curtain my dad was waiting at the door, and when we got home I was told I had breasts because I was overweight.”

Stephanie was put on a strict diet which didn’t make the slightest difference to her appearance. “Even if I had been stick thin it would not have changed what was going on in my head,” she said.

The relentless bullying didn’t stop either, and she began hiding in town to skip classes. Stephanie eventually left school with no qualifications and went to work on her parents’ dairy farm.

“I thought that would be an end to the teasing and bullying, and it was to an extent; but it did not stop the confusion in my head. I used to go to bed at night and hope that I would wake up as a girl.”

intersex
The UN classes unnecessary genital surgeries on intersex babies as a human rights violation (Pexels)

Despite her secret wish Stephanie continued presenting as male, only allowing herself to wear female clothes in private. This continued until 2015 when she started experiencing thyroid problems.

“After numerous blood tests it became apparent that I was producing masses of oestrogen; much more than a female my age,” she said.

“The doctor first thought I had a tumour and I had every scan and test known to mankind. I was accused of self-inflicting oestrogen by an endocrinologist, which really upset me. My GP had faith that this was not the case, and she was just absolutely determined to get to the bottom of it.”

Stephanie was living in Australia at the time, but she and her partner Denise decided to travel back to the UK to seek her old medical records. What they found made them immediately suspicious.

“When I was sent the health records, half of them were missing. They were not just missing, they were blatantly covered up,” she said. “They were handwritten notes that had been photocopied and there were pages that were half folded over to hide something.”

When Stephanie pressed for more information she was told she’d been given “what the department considered to be in the patient’s best interest”, and if she wanted more she’d need to go to court.

Dispirited, she returned to Australia with the few medical records she had. It was enough to raise her doctor’s suspicions, and she was again referred to a specialist – but this time, things were different.

After examining her body the doctor showed her images of men with an L-shaped scar. Stephanie instantly recognised it, as she had one just like it.

“He said, ‘The problem with you being born intersex is that, 50 years later, it is impossible for me to tell you what degree of intersex you were born.’ I asked him to repeat what he had said, and he started saying it again and then realised that I did not know.”

Stephanie gradually learned that, like so many intersex children born in the 60s, her genitals were likely “modifed” to make them more “typical” of the gender binary.

These invasive procedures continue today and are widely condemned by the intersex community as well as the UN, which now describes them as a human rights violation.

Boston Children's Hospital will stop genital surgeries on intersex children
Intersex Justice activists protest non-consensual surgeries on intersex people. (IntersexJustice/ Twitter)

The revelation left Stephanie “shell-shocked”.

“I slipped into a downward spiral and by the middle of 2016 I was ready to throw in the towel,” she admitted.

Thankfully she pulled through with the support of her partner, who assured her that she would stand by her if she wanted to undergo gender-affirming surgery.

“She told me I was her best friend and that she did not want to lose me. She also said that she did not know what it would do to our relationship but we would cross that bridge when we came to it.

“I couldn’t believe what I had heard,” Stephanie said. “It was what I had wanted, but felt I never had the courage to do. With Denise’s support it made things possible.”

After psychiatric and psychological counselling she was given the go-ahead to undergo surgery, which took place in 2017.

At 56, Stephanie finally had a sense of peace in her own body – and an answer to the question she’d been asking herself ever since she was eight years old.

“I am proud that I am now living as the person I should have always been,” she concluded.

Stephanie has shared her incredible journey in her new memoir Half Him Half Her, which is available now on Amazon.

Related topics: intersex

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