Hermaphrodite says 'my husband never knew'

For the first eight years of my life, I had no idea I was different. At a week old, I had been placed in a shoebox and left on the steps of a convent in the UK. Someone had scrawled "freak" on the side of the box.

I was raised by the nuns at the convent and wasn't encouraged to be curious about my body. Although there were other children, we never saw each other naked, so I didn't know that having both male and female genitals, like I did, wasn't normal. My vagina was perfectly formed, but above it lay testicles and what looked like the base of a penis.

I was dressed as a girl and raised as one. I never thought or felt like anything else. When I was nine, I was told that I would be leaving the convent and going to live with new parents in Singapore. I never knew why I was going so far - perhaps they were the only ones willing to adopt a child like me. I was taken to Singapore by a priest.

When we arrived, I was handed over to a couple called Mr and Mrs Chan*. He was a banker who worked hard and was rarely around. They didn't have children of their own and spoilt me rotten. I missed the convent but, in time, I came to love my new parents.

I can't remember how or when it happened as I was very young, but soon after I arrived in Singapore, I saw another naked person for the first time. I was astonished. Other children were not like me. It stayed in my mind but I said nothing.

LIFE-CHANGING SURGERY

Shortly after my 10th birthday, Mrs Chan explained I would have to go to the hospital, as it was time to make me like other children. There, surgeons performed an operation to remove my testicles. I was frightened and it was painful, but I trusted my parents. I was too young to understand what was happening. When the doctor said, in front of my parents and me, that it was unlikely I'd ever be able to have children, I didn't realise the significance.

Then, my adoptive father died suddenly. He left barely any money and I was eventually sent back to the UK. I was taken to a children's home in Birmingham. I was only 11 and on my own again. The memory of the operation and my life in Singapore began to fade and I made friends at school, but at times I felt very lonely.

One day, I went on a school trip to a museum. We piled into a room where there were some exhibits in jars, and one contained male and female genitals taken from a hermaphrodite. I remembered that I had looked like that before my operation. I was confused and frightened. What was a hermaphrodite? Did it mean that I was really a boy?

I wasn't close enough to any of the staff at the home to ask them, so I went to my doctor. He had all my notes and knew my history. I sat down at the clinic and burst into tears. I was just a teenager, scared, alone, with no idea of who or what I was. I remember him holding my hand and gently telling me that I'd been born with testicles and was a hermaphrodite.

The fact that I'd started my periods was proof that I was female, but he said that even though the outward signs of masculinity had been removed, chances were that the doctor in Singapore had been right - male hormones in my body meant I'd probably never have children.

I went numb. I don't remember leaving the clinic or going home. I didn't know who I was any more. Was I a girl or a boy? I loved wearing skirts and dresses, but was that enough? I cried for hours, thinking I'd never get a boyfriend, then made up my mind that I'd never tell anyone about it. That way, I wouldn't be seen as a freak.

LOVE, LOSS AND NEW LIFE

When I was 18, I moved out on my own. I met my first boyfriend, Patrick*, who was older and very charming. I never told him that I'd been born a hermaphrodite because I was frightened that he'd be disgusted. After a few months together, we had sex. I made sure it was in the dark because I had scars from my operation. I didn't use birth control because I didn't think I could get pregnant but, after a couple of months, I found I was expecting twins.

Until then, I never knew just how much I'd yearned for a family of my own. For days I kept touching my stomach just to convince myself that it was true. I was scared that the twins might have inherited my condition, but the doctors and nurses at the hospital told me there was no need to worry. I thought they might look at me oddly or make comments, but they treated me like any other mum-to-be.

Just when everything seemed to be looking up, tragedy struck. When I was seven months pregnant, Patrick was killed in a car crash. I was devastated. I barely had time to grieve because the babies were born a few days later, two months early. My little girl Kelly* was fine, but her brother was stillborn.

I was barely 20, but I had already seen death in the faces of my first love and my precious child. Those were dark days. If it hadn't been for Kelly, I might have done something stupid. But she needed me and I forced myself to carry on.

STILL A SECRET

I met my first husband, Peter*, about a year later. He was kind and gentle, and we got married but separated seven years later. I never did tell him about my operation - I was too scared. We'd had a son together, Lee*, and I concentrated on raising him and Kelly.

When they were 11 and 13, I told them all about my past. When I'd finished, they both hugged me. Their love and support have given me the courage to be more open about the way I was born. Friends have been surprised but simply shrugged. My children have never been teased about it.

Men have been more complicated, though. I'm currently single and, in the past, the few men I'd confided in about my condition got worried I was actually male and backed off - they simply couldn't cope. After a while, I started to keep it a secret from the men I dated. I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish things had been different in my life, but my experiences have made me who I am.

I know I'm female - I have my children to prove it. It would be nice if, one day, I could find a man who understands, but I'm not angry or bitter. I have my children, I have my life - I couldn't ask for more.

*Names have been changed. This story was first published in Her World magazine March 2014 issue.

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