Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Hannah Ho: So, here we have Mani Bruce Mitchell. Mani Bruce Mitchell is the first out intersex person in Aotearoa New Zealand, and that happened in 1996. How did all that come about, Mani?

Mani Bruce Mitchell: Hi Hannah. Kia ora, and kia ora to everybody.

How did that come about? Well, it was a long journey. I was in my mid 40s when that happened. And so yeah, to talk about the coming out really we have to go back to the beginning. So, born in 1953 in Auckland, actually, even though my parents owned a very remote farm in the middle of the King Country.

My mum had lost three children with miscarriages, so she was under the care of a specialist. And this story is now somewhat famous because I've talked about it a number of times. But my mum and I only talked about the circumstances of my birth and my reality once when I was in my early 20s and asked her what had happened, because I had these vague kind of woolly memories that didn't really make sense.

And she said sure, "We were in Auckland staying at Peg and Bob's." She said, "My waters broke early in the morning," and she's talking in a sort of conversational way, like we are now. She said, "Dad got up." They drove from Te Atatu into Auckland to the hospital, were met by the matron, apparently a very fierce woman who told mum that she couldn't have her baby yet because there were no doctors in the maternity hospital. So mum and dad would have been separated, mum sent down to the birthing unit with a young nurse, and I believe I was born some 20 minutes later. And again, mum's just talking like this, conversationally.

And she said, "The nurse bent down to pick you up," and as my mum's talking, her voice changes, and she sort of screams out, "The nurse said, 'Oh my God, it's a hermaphrodite,'" and my mum runs out of the room.

Hannah: Wow!

Mani: So I'm left with this information, the word hermaphrodite, which at that point in time - this was my early 20s - I didn't understand what it meant, not really. I certainly didn't relate it to myself. I'm seeing my mum incredibly upset, and this is a woman of her generation who didn't show emotions. So I'm trying to put all this together, and she was gone for about 10 minutes, and when she came back she'd been crying, her eyes were all red.

She looked out of the window, and it was a very beautiful, blue sky, summer's day of the kind we haven't had much in Wellington this summer. She looks out and she goes, "You know dear, I think it's going to rain. We'd better go and get the washing in." So we both went down the steps out to the back of the house, got the washing, and neither she nor I ever talked about it again.

Hannah: Wow! So how did you start coming... Where did that conversation even come from, because you were saying you came out and your 40s, but you'd known before? You'd been thinking about it before? You'd been confused before? It was a completely random conversation?

Mani: I recognize now, as a child I'd tried to make sense of what had happened. I don't have any sense of there ever being a question around what people today would call my gender and gender identity, although I know that how I behaved as a kid from time to time got me into trouble. So I was a tough tomboy, at times, because I also liked dressing up and playing with dolls, those two sort of aspects of self.

But what I observed and noticed: when I was in a particularly butch or tomboy phase my mother would get very agitated, and during teenage years, which were hideous, she was always wanting me to have boyfriends, and I remember one year she bought me makeup for a birthday present, and these non-specific desires on her part for me to turn into what we would call a normal girl, and I use that word very cautiously.

Hannah: Yeah. So your parents were at the hospital and the nurse said, "Oh my God, it's a hermaphrodite." You weren't, obviously, sent home as a hermaphrodite, "Here's our new baby. Our baby's a hermaphrodite." [laughs]

Mani: Okay, yeah, let's go back to that. So, what happens - and I've had to fill the gaps in because I didn't have that conversation with my mum - I'm imagining at that point the hospital was mobilized, staff would have come running, my mum was probably sedated.

Hannah: So it was like an emergency.

Mani: Yeah, treated like an emergency. I'm taken away, and there would have been the first of many very invasive examinations. So let's be clear to people what's going on.

Hannah: To a newborn baby.

Mani: Mm-hm.

Hannah: Wow.

Mani: The more commonly used term is intersex, and it's a medical umbrella term that covers all kinds of conditions, and it's on a continuum, so at one end a baby would look completely normally male or female, at the other end of the continuum you would look at the genitalia and not be totally sure. And it's interesting; in this binary world of ours apparently you have to be male or female. That makes everybody happy.

So, at the time I was born, 1953, the paradigm that was still largely operating here in New Zealand was a Victorian one. And the thinking was derived from medical legal thinking, and it went something like: It was considered inappropriate to deny the rights and privileges to somebody who may potentially be male. Okay? So, under that paradigm, children for whom their genitalia was ambiguous - that's the term that's used - were largely assigned "male." So, my parents took home a male child with the name Bruce Mitchell Laird, and that's how I lived for the first year of my life.

However, things weren't completely normal. I would have had what was considered a small penis, and probably it was assumed undescended testes. So, just before my first birthday I went back to Auckland for another medical procedure where they quite literally cut me open and had a look...

Hannah: And you were otherwise healthy?

Mani: Oh, totally. Yeah. So this is huge, invasive surgery. They basically pulled all my guts out, on a little baby, and inside they found a uterus.

So in a 24 hour period I went from being my parent's son, future All Black, inheritor of the farm, to being their daughter and somebody's future bride, you know? And my poor parents with, as far as I can work out, no psychological support at all. So they went up with Bruce and they came back with Margaret. You know, huge!

I have reached the place where I can just think what that was like for them, which is good because there were many years where I was very angry at my parents, and thankfully they weren't alive because I would have hated what I would have done to them if they had been around as I tried to figure all this out and make sense of it.

Hannah: So you travel quite a bit, Mani, and you were saying that a trip to America was real major for you. When was that?

Mani: Okay, so you asked me before how this had gone. I have these periods of time in my life where I'd try to get information and make sense, and when I got that word "hermaphrodite," I actually couldn't find a place to hold that in my reality.

After my mum died, and that's about 24 years ago now, she left a whole lot of documents. She was a very organized person for all of us, and in my pile was my Plunket Book. And it was one day when I was going through that I found - it's weird; it's a shame you haven't got it to look at - that somebody has very carefully cut bits out of it, and what I think happened is my mum went through that book, and I think she thought she'd removed all the references to my being different, but there are two that are still in there. There's one, I think I'm aged about six months, and it says, "Nice Wee Lad." And then just before my first birthday it says, "Seen by Doctor Blah-Blah-Blah. Sex determined as female."

When I read that and realized that was a book about me, like, I just ran into this wall. I'd grown up on a farm. I'd been inculcated with our culture that said that you were either male or female. You know, so, how could I hold this information?

And the other thing I couldn't work out is: How the hell could someone make a mistake? At that point I didn't know anything about ambiguous genitalia; I just thought that children were born with genitals that looked typically male or typically female. So that's a journey. I'd get little bits of information, and sometimes I can hold it and sometimes I just pack it, sort of deep in my head.

But in my late 30s it gets harder and harder, and what I would recognize now is I was suffering from a form of depression. I'd become quite suicidal, and thank God I had a neighbor, a person that I had a lot of time, and I happened to talk to this person just randomly about some of the stuff that was going on. And she picked up on enough of it and said, "I think you need to see Hetty Rodenburg, who was a fabulous doctor. Hetty is still alive. At the time she practiced in the Hutt.

In those days I worked for the Regional Council, and it's funny to think, because we didn't do our own typing. We had typists who typed for us, this was pre-computers, and there was a fabulous person in the typing pool who's still a close friend, and I asked Gay if she would type a personal letter for me, and she said sure, mate, we'll do it after work. And so we sat, and do you know it took five hours to type that letter? And I will always hold Gay close to my heart because she did that letter without blinking, and that was my first attempt to try and put what I knew into words. It's interesting to think about now, how hard that was. Anyway, this letter went off, and I, unfortunately, don't have a copy of it.

And Hetty got the letter. She had what's called a closed practice, but she contacted me and said she would see me once [laughs]. So I went out, and that amazing doctor saw me that first time for an hour-and-a-half. And she would tell me later that she herself didn't know what intersex was. She carried out a very gentle... and it was probably the first time in my life that a doctor had touched me in a respectful way. You know, that in itself was so healing. And really, that's the start of the journey.

So, through Hetty I started going to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross workshops, which were therapeutic. They were week-long, intensive, live-in workshops for people who had experienced significant trauma in their lives, and that's really where I start to learn some basic tools that really anchored me as a person. I used to joke and say I was a head that towed a body around. It's not really very funny to me anymore, but that's what it was like. I lived completely out of my body, what we would call being emotionally illiterate.

So, I start the journey, and it's really once I'd become a bit more anchored in self, and start realizing that you're actually entitled to a good life, that I start my own research. And so, a friend, Jenny Rowan, who's now Mayor of Kapiti Coast, had been at a conference and she overheard someone talking about intersex in America. And so Jenny knew enough about my story to go, "I think this is someone that you need to be in touch," so I wrote to the organization in America, which is funny when I say organization because in those days it was just one person. And Cheryl wrote to me and we exchanged letters, and then invited me - well, invited lots of people - to go to California for the first retreat.

Hannah: Wow! And that's the first-ever intersex retreat in the world or in the States?

Mani: Yeah. No, no, no - in the world. And that, for me, was life changing because I....

Hannah: What year was that?

Mani: That's in '96.

Hannah: So that's in '96. Wow.

Mani: That's the first time that I meet other people. Pride of America managed, with Hetty's support and help, to get access to medical books. Those are an appallingly hideous way to try and work out who the hell you are. I mean, this is pathology photographs of people with their eyes blanked out and standing naked, and their different bodies on display.

So for me to meet another person, I recognize one of the things that has happened to intersex people is we have no echo, no mirror, and one of the things that you need as you're growing up is a developmental sequence. And I think a similar thing happens to many transpeople, as well. You know, you don't have that echo. There isn't that: this is what you're like.

Hannah: That reflection - to see yourself?

Mani: That reflection, totally. And so that 10 days that I was away in America and hanging out with other intersex people and hearing their stories was transforming.

So, I came back and made a decision to seat up a similar organization too, ISNA. It's changed and evolved over the years. It's become, these days, exclusively an educational training organization. In the early days I tried to have it more as a peer-support organization, but we didn't have the resources, we didn't have the trained people to manage that.

Hannah: Cool. So tell me a little bit about your work now. You work as a counselor? Who's your client base?

And you've also just come back from a weekend in Hamilton, for a real massive exhibition. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Mani: Yeah, well, I mean, my life has completely changed. So, around about that time that I first went to see Hetty, I was coping all right emotionally, because as I have explained, I was completely cut off from my emotions, so I functioned very sort of cognitively in my head, but it was really affecting my physical body and so I had something like a physical breakdown and had to leave my job. And in those days I was in a very good and well-paid job, so trying to work out how I could resurrect a career, and I'd been working in Civil Defense, and the area I'd been really interested in was Critical Incident Stress Management, which is really interesting because I'd never thought that it was about me; I always thought it was about looking after my staff, though I realize now, obviously there was part of me that was trying to understand.

And so it was fairly obvious, once I started thinking about it, that I could retrain as a counselor and pull across some of those skills and knowledge, which is what I did. I retrained as a counselor. I've had a very small private practice for years. It always ran at a loss, and I didn't see lots of people.

But then three years ago I was made redundant from my main job and had to face what I was going to do. And I made the decision that I'd always wanted to have this private practice and do more work in this area, and it just seemed like the right time to do that. So, I do; I have a private practice. I've developed a specialty working with people with gender issues, people who are struggling with difference, and that comes in many forms, it's not just around gender and gender identity and sexual orientation. There are many people for whom being different is hard.

Hannah: Is there quite a large education part there or is it quite separate from...?

Mani: Well, my original training was as a teacher, and it's funny because I spent a lot of my life avoiding or trying to get away from that, and one of the really nice things that's happened is I've actually accepted that I like teaching. I'm actually quite good at it, and there's a huge amount of training and education that needs to occur in this area.

We live in this, still, you know? Some things have changed, but some things haven't. We live in a very binary, Euro-centric world, and that's actually a poor capture of humanity. I think humans are far more diverse than that simple model would lead us to believe.

And one of the things that really interests me, in my research that I've done, is many so-called third-world countries have cultures where gender is captured in a much more complex way than the West has. In fact, here in the Pacific we have examples of that. And so I see that actually the West, who likes to think that they're the most advanced about everything, is not very well advanced in the area of gender and diversity, but it's changing - that's the good and exciting thing.

Hannah: And the Assume Nothing exhibition that you've just been up to in Hamilton. That's played a massive part, I think, in Aotearoa.

Mani: Huge! Huge. So, photographer Rebecca Swan originally took these amazing photographs that became part of a coffee-table book called Assume Nothing, and it is a book that captures gender diversity. Not just in Aotearoa because there are people from all around the planet in that book, though the majority of people would be from Aotearoa.

And when the book was launched, the book launch was seen by a filmmaker, Kirsty McDonald, who approached Rebecca to see if she could make a documentary film about Assume Nothing. Well, several years went by and that project developed into something that's more than that. It certainly does capture the process of Rebecca working with people, which is wonderful because she's an extraordinary person, but the Assume Nothing film, I think, has another layer. And if you like, photography is 2-dimensional, and Kirsty's film really made this a 3-dimensional reality.

Now The Dowse here in Lower Hutt picked up on this and in 2007, I think... no, 2008, the first exhibition opened, and that exhibition has gone on and travelled, so it's been the longest running in The Dowse, and then it went to Auckland, to Christchurch, Palmerston North, and finished in Hamilton.

And I'm so proud because for people who have seen the exhibition, a lot of the images involve what people would call nudity; so, beautiful, stunning photographs of people without clothes on. And yet, that's not what it's about. It's about this astonishing celebration of human difference, and I think it's how Becs has taken those photographs, and as I said, amplified by Kirsty's beautiful filmmaking, this exhibition has been a very safe way - and I like what you said, how huge it's been - because I don't know how many thousand people have now seen it, but I'm imagining it's getting up there. Probably over 500,000 people; I don't know. Huge numbers have been through wherever the exhibition has been.

And it's been a safe and gentle way for people to explore what many people find very scary. I think there's something core in humans that when we're around something we don't understand, it's frightening. And that exhibition has probably meant that there will be some young people grow up in Aotearoa who don't have to have the experience that I've had, and many other people have had, of it being frightening, of not getting the appropriate support.

Hannah: So, do you think what happened to you as a baby in the '50s would still happen today?

Mani: Sadly, it could still easily happen today. It would depend very much on the household that you were born into, the computer literacy of your parents, how comfortable they are with difference, and the other key ingredient is the medical people involved: so, the midwife, the specialists.

I'm please to say that there are people who are doing it differently in this country, but there are also people still in that old paradigm. And there are still parents who are freaked out having a child who is different. So on one side, parents will say they just want the best for their children, and I believe that's largely true, but there's also that sort of black-underbelly side, what Jung used to talk about as the shadow, where people are more concerned what are the neighbors going to think? How could you do this to the family? And all queer identifying people certainly know about that.

Hannah: So, you've done heaps, being a teacher, of the educational stuff that you've done within diverse queer communities as well as in mainstream, as well. And so a lot of your client base will be part of diverse queer communities. How do you think queer... Is there a Wellington queer community? Are there New Zealand, Aotearoa queer communities, and if there are [laughs], what could we all be doing better, or where do you see us heading?

Mani: Mm. Nice questions! I think the thing that's really changed for me is these days I'm very comfortable in my own skin, and I have fun doing this. So there's that element of celebration and playfulness, so I do not try to pass.

This is a radio interview, and for people who don't know me, I have facial hair - you can't describe it as a beard because it's not that substantive, but it's facial hair. I don't wear standard conforming clothes, and I'm doing more and more of that so I always wear a tie, but you might find me in a tie with a pink shirt, wearing jewelry with things that would be assumed to be masculine. And there's a level of deliberateness about it, but there's also just me being playful and wearing things that I like wearing. It's hard to do because they're not easily clothes to find. You know, you go into clothes shops and it's amazing how conforming just what the mass market is around what's available for people to buy. So I think that's the key.

And my parent gave me some really good things, and one of the things that my dad gave me, genetically, is a sense of humor, thank God!

[laughter]

Mani: We can do better. I think the queer community is quite tough on itself. Probably more accurately we should say queer communities. It's interesting; I think minority groupings, right across all cultures, can sort of start to have rules that are even fiercer than mainstream, sometimes. So I see that.

Hannah: So, kind of about policing.

Mani: Yeah, there's a right way to do things. And I guess where I'm coming from is I want people to pull forth this unique, beautiful being who they are, and I don't see that conforming to some kind of railway track conformist notion that people have to dress a certain way or wear a certain kind of clothes to pass. To me that's sad.

I love living here in Wellington because I think it's much easier to be ourselves here. It was interesting being in Hamilton. I had a very warm reception up there, met some fabulous people, but what I noticed is walking around the town people stared at me all the time, and people would talk, you know? As you're going down the street: Wow! Did you see that?

But a really nice thing happened. I was walking near the Technical Institute and there were some young people sitting at a table, and I'd gone past and it seemed weird to stop, so I just carried on, but I was out of eye contact, and this young Maori guy went, "Chur man! See that gender chick!" And it was said in a really kind of positive, excited way. That was probably the nicest thing. Most of the comments were more in the sort of shock.

And it's just an important reminder, because we can forget what Wellington gives us, and it is that ability to be ourselves in relative - and I say relative - safety. I would be pretty careful about where I walked around at night by myself.

Hannah: Yeah. So, gender chick! I haven't heard that term before.

Mani: No, me neither. [laughs]

Hannah: So, we've got GLBTI, and I think sometimes that's been extended to GLBTITTQF or something like that.

[laughter]

Hannah: We keep adding on and on and on. But the terms are changing, and young people are using different terms that aren't just in that little acronym. [laughs]

Mani: I love that, and I see that in some of the people that I'm working with. There's a real deconstruction and they wouldn't use that academic term, and it gives me hope because it does not seem to be as rule-bound. So people really sort of doing that "Who am I?" and pulling that forth; I get excited by that. And dear God, we need to attend to the language because it is so restricting. So maybe we just get back to it, you know? A simple word like queer, though, I know how some older people hate that term.

What would I like to see? I'd like to see us be more gentle with each other, more supporting, celebrating more.

Anything else? I'm very excited by the Gay Games coming here.

Hannah: Are you planning on playing anything?

[laughter]

Mani: Not at this point. I certainly plan to be involved, but it's probably going to be more in the sort of social educational component. It's interesting, I was a runner, and not a bad runner, when I was at high school, but I think my running days might be passed.

Hannah: Fantastic!

Mani: So, thanks Han!

Hannah: Awesome! Thank you very much, Mani Bruce Mitchell, for sharing with us.

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