A rare condition meant doctors weren’t sure what sex Joe was born. With support from
Princess Diana, he was finally accepted as a girl. Then came a shattering discovery
Joe Holliday was born in 1988 with the rare condition cloacal exstrophy His genitals were never formed, leaving doctors stumped at his birth In 1998 he legally became Joella after living as a girl since the age of one Now, aged 27, he tells of his transition to become male once again
Mum remembers it vividly — the look of horror on the midwives’ faces as I was swiftly lifted up and away from her after my birth. ‘So what is it? she asked. ‘A boy or a girl?’ ‘All in good time,’ one of them responded as she rushed to wrap me in a white sheet, determined Mum would not see me. Her colleague at Warneford Hospital, in Leamington Spa, Warwicks, had already darted out the door. We’ve talked about it often, Mum and I. How she felt the sudden change in atmosphere the moment I was delivered.
How my dad stood there silently at her side, apparently in shock. ‘But can you just tell me what I’ve got? Is it a boy or a girl?’ she asked, more urgent now. ‘Not yet,’ the doctor replied. ‘Not yet?’ Mum was indignant. ‘What do you mean, not yet? Can’t you tell the difference?’ But Mum, prone on the bed, couldn’t have seen what the others already had — that my abdomen, pelvis and entire mid-section were so malformed, so incomplete, that no one actually knew the answer to her question. Instead, she watched in silence as I was wheeled away in a see-through cot, tightly wrapped so that only my head was visible.
Joe was born with cloacal exstrophy, a rare condition which meant his genitals never formed.
I was born on January 24, 1988, with a very rare condition called cloacal exstrophy, which affects just one in 400,000 live births. At some point during my development inside the womb, various processes simply stalled. My abdominal wall never grew, my urinary and digestive tract failed to complete and my genitals were never created. I had an opening in my abdomen where my bladder and some of my intestine poked through, and for the first few months of my life, that gaping hole remained. And though doctors at my birth thought that I was probably a boy — the genital structure was uncertain but probably more male than female — they told my mother in no uncertain terms that I would never be able to function as a man.
Though his genitals never formed, doctors told Joe’s parents he was most probably a boy. He was raised for the first year of his life as male.‘He will have sexual urges, but won’t be able to act on them,’ said one doctor. ‘I’m afraid the psychological impact of that could be unbearable for him.’
My parents were both 19, ordinary people from the village of Pinchbeck near Spalding in Lincolnshire. The pregnancy was an accident, though they were engaged. My father was at university in Warwick and my mum worked shifts in a local bar. But now they had me to contend with — this tiny scrap of intensely vulnerable humanity. Even handling me took courage. It took half an hour of painstaking cleaning and swabbing with tweezers and surgical-grade gauze to change every nappy.
But more, even greater, shocks were to come.Shortly before my first birthday, in late 1988, mum got an appointment with an eminent urologist at Great Ormond Street to discuss surgical procedures that could help me Shortly before his first birthday in 1988, Joe’s mother was told by another surgeon that he should have been raised a girl. From the age of one he was then raised as Joella, a girl.
I’d been in and out of hospitals in Birmingham and Warwick, but this was different — this was my future — and they made the trip to the famous children’s hospital in London full of nervous hope. Looking back, that meeting represented a crucial fork in the road of my life. My entire existence turned on it. Having examined me, the surgeon very matter-of-factly told my parents what he thought. ‘You’re raising this child as the wrong sex,’ he said. ‘This child needs to be raised as female.’
There was a second of silence as mum took in the words, then she exploded with anger. ‘Are you stupid?’ she raged. ‘I’m not listening to this.’ Mum was fighting to hold back tears, but as the surgeon started outlining how he could repair my pelvis and close my abdomen, she was forced to take note. ‘If Joel had been born in my care, I would never have assigned him to the male sex,’ he continued. ‘We would have treated your child as female from the start.’ Before we left, he had a piece of advice. ‘Should you go down the route I suggest, I think it would be wise to select a date to make the switch and give yourself an opportunity to let go of your son and welcome your daughter.’ After a great deal of soul-searching, they chose my first birthday to do just that.
From now on, I would be not Joel Holliday, but Joella. Little did they know I was about to become one of the most famous children in the UK, feted by the press, courted by celebrities and known even to Princess Diana. It was mum’s crusade to have my birth certificate changed that put me on the front pages. She’d assumed it would be a simple procedure to have the official listing of my sex altered from male to female, but in the early Nineties, the law was adamant it couldn’t be done. If I was a boy at birth, I was a boy for life.
Frustrated by endless legal brick walls, mum contacted the media to draw attention to the injustice of our case. Meanwhile, mum’s relationship with my father had ended, and she’d met another local chap called Jason Farmer, the kind man I began to call Dad. ‘She’d assumed it would be a simple procedure to have the official listing of my sex altered’: Joe’s mother was adamant that the law be changed. At their wedding, there I was dressed in a long gown with bows and frills. I knew it wasn’t me, but I went along with it all. Mum wrote to celebrities to request their support for our campaign and one went to Princess Diana. We were amazed when we got a reply from her secretary a few days later.
‘The Princess read your letter with great concern,’ it said. ‘She has asked me to say how touched she was to receive it and to thank you for taking the trouble to write. Among recipients of letters detailing the family’s struggle was Princess Diana who sent a heartfelt reply
‘The Princess will have you in her thoughts and sends you and Joella all her love and very best wishes.’ I was only eight, but I started to appear on breakfast TV shows with Phillip Schofield and Richard and Judy. Most people were kind, and our campaign began to gather pace. We even flew to New York to appear on a chat show, all expenses paid. By stark contrast, I was being horribly bullied at primary school. I’d always worn a nappy and colostomy bag — I had no choice — which was common knowledge in the village. The kids at school could be vicious. They’d surround me and pull my skirt up to try to look at my stomach, laughing and pointing. Once they dragged my tights down and exposed my nappy, then ran off cackling while I straightened myself, horribly demeaned.
I began to hate school with a real passion. It was in 1998 — nine years after I became Joella — that legal history was made and we won the birth certificate battle. Thanks to our lawyers, and an outpouring of public support, Mum got her way and the law was rewritten to allow my gender to be changed. There was a big party at home, and the next day I was on the front of every national newspaper.
Yet my life was beginning to feel complicated, and in my teens it began to spiral out of control. In the back of my mind was always thoughts of the future. I was taking daily medication to induce puberty, to start to grow breasts, but I knew I’d never have a relationship. I couldn’t get a job because I was chronically sick with stomach problems, and I’d never have a family. I would walk down the street seeing other people talking and laughing and feel so different to them. It was as if I wasn’t entirely human. In December 1998, at the age of 10, Joe appeared on the front pages of national newspapers as Joella after legally having his sex changed I wore plain T-shirts and jeans, make-up was a mystery to me and I got my hair cut short because it was easier.
In childhood, I’d wondered if my love for cars and football was significant, but had always told myself that lots of girls liked those things. I’d always adopted male roles in play, wanting to be the fireman or the hero, never the princess. At times, I felt as though I wasn’t entirely human I told myself none of it meant anything. I was attracted to women, not men, but so what? Thousands of people are gay.
Still, I began to sink into a proper depression and at my lowest I made plans to take my own life. I was so desperate, I honestly believed it was the best thing for everyone. I was pulled through by counsellors and anti-depressants, yet still felt confused and unhappy. At the age of 25 I decided to see a hormone specialist at Pilgrim Hospital in Boston, Lincs. Perhaps something was wrong with my medication. He ordered a chromosome test. Once again my world spun on its axis. This was the one thing that might give me an answer to the question of my gender. Yet it had never seemed of great importance to me; in fact, I felt the results had greater implications for Mum because for her they could throw up feelings of guilt and regret. How wrong could I be.
‘My life was beginning to feel complicated, and in my teens it began to spiral out of control’: Thoughts of suicide began when Joe was a teenager and young adult It took several weeks for the results to come back. Back in the endocrinologist’s office, I scanned the paperwork and my eyes fell upon the letters XY. Male. ‘The chromosome test should not be treated in isolation,’ he was saying. ‘We must treat these results as a small part of the entire picture.’ ‘But the results were XY?’ ‘Well, yes, but due to the cloacal exstrophy, your reproductive organs never developed and the female classification was made, quite properly.’ ‘But if I hadn’t had cloacal exstrophy, I would have been male?’
‘That is one way of viewing things, but it can be unhelpful to deal in hypotheticals.’ Hypotheticals, he called them — but this was real life to me. I’d never been able to suppress who I really was I began to think thoughts I’d never dared to allow before. It occurred to me that I’d spent my life being told I was a girl, and telling myself I was a girl, but had never been able to suppress who I really was. I was a man and I was living a lie. For so long I’d struggled to form relationships and friendships, and it was all because I didn’t know who I was.
Everyone had gone to such trouble to get my birth certificate changed that I’d never allowed myself even to contemplate that I was actually male. I’ve had to keep telling myself that an important legal point was made during Mum’s campaign and it wasn’t a waste of time. Having said that, I feel strongly that I want my birth certificate to be returned to male. I feel as if my identity was stolen from me when I was one, and I want it back. Until recently, medical wisdom was that boys born without a penis should be raised female because in many ways it’s easier. But if research once suggested this was the right thing to do, my case surely proves that it’s not.
Gender is far more than a matter of clothes or conditioning. I was raised a girl in every way, but I was absolutely a boy. Getting the chromosome results undid a great deal of the confusion and damage. I have now made the switch from taking oestrogen to testosterone and am on the list for surgery to construct a penis. It has been strange seeing my body shape change, but it feels right. One of the biggest challenges of transitioning back to male was in deciding when and how to stop living as ‘she’ and start being ‘he’. Buying a pair of men’s shoes was one of my first milestones. I’m 27 now, and know it’s a long road ahead, emotionally and physically. I have no set vision of the future; I’m just hoping to be more comfortable in myself. A while back a thought flashed through my mind: ‘What if something happens to me before I get all this done?’ The thought frightened me and suddenly I realised I was looking forward to the future. It was then that I knew I was doing the right thing. That was the moment I knew I was all right.
- Adapted from She’s A Boy by Joe Holliday with Louise Chapman, published by Thistle Publishing today at £9.99.