At birth, Tony Briffa’s doctors couldn’t determine his gender. He had a rare intersex condition known as Incomplete Testicular Feminisation that made his gonads release estrogen even though he genetically tested as male. So on his doctor’s advice his parents raised him as a girl named Antoinette—they painted his room pink, gave him dolls at Christmas and made him wear frilly dresses to school.
The frequent hospital visits for hormone therapy and surgery made him feel like a freak: his parents had him castrated at age seven and even though he told his doctors as a pre-teen that he felt like a boy, they ignored him and continued administering female hormone therapy, something that filled him with desperation and thoughts of suicide as he entered his teenage years.
As an adult, Briffa married his first boyfriend, but the marriage didn’t last long. Because Briffa was raised a woman and felt attracted to females, he thought he might be lesbian, but his not-completely feminine body made him feel uncomfortable with that identity too.
He eventually became a full-time foster parent to two loving siblings—a 15-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy—and decided to go into Australian politics. And though he lost a federal election in 2000 and a state election in 2002, he recently got elected as the mayor of Hobson’s Bay, Victoria. As such, he’s the world’s first ever openly intersex mayor.
Though Briffa said he looks forward to serving his city with enthusiasm and pride, National LGBTI Health Alliance Board Member Gina Wilson says:
“Tony is an inspiration and a role model for a whole generation of intersex people, both those who have suffered early interventions and those who have come to their differences later in life.
“We share Tony’s hope that his election will break down taboos associated with intersex differences. Tony is a wonderful example of how intersex people can overcome the devastating and unnecessary medical treatment meted out to so many intersex children, and go on to become champions of human rights and cultural diversity for everyone.”
Life as a man has not been easy for Briffa. He has suffered repeated hospitalizations due to infections associated with his ongoing testosterone treatments. And because he cannot sexually function as a heterosexual male, he has avoided relationships with heterosexual women altogether, preferring instead to focus on his kids and community.
On his website, he writes:
“I feel very comfortable having accepted my true nature. I am not male or female, but both. I am grateful for the years I lived as a woman and the insight and experiences it gave me. I am still ‘Antoinette’ and have now also incorporated and accepted my male (‘Anthony’ or ‘Tony’) side. I feel whole. I’ll continue to live as Tony but I feel I am now at a point in my life where I can celebrate being different.”
In his community, Briffa has distinguished himself as a hardworking, resilient pragmatist with a sense of humor and an affinity for diversity and environmental issues. And even though only 1 in 113,000 people ever experience Briffa’s intersex condition, he offers a encouraging story for anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their own body, suffered years of abuse or felt confusion about their gender.
Image via Tony Briffa