A rare flower

2011-08-20 00:00

WHILE the current morning chill has most of us snuggling in bed for a little longer, Elle (formerly Neville) Durow is out at 3 am every day preparing food for the birds and animals that live around her home in Ashburton.

One would never believe that she is 71 — or that for 70 years she lived life as a man.

About three years ago Neville, as Elle was still called then, was diagnosed as having De la Chappel’s syndrome and that he was a XX-chromosome male. This occurs in one in 20 000 to 25 000 males.

“I have always had small breasts which I took as normal. I noticed that they had grown when I experienced them being painful after driving my tractor over corrugations and rough country. I visited a doctor who examined me and said that it wasn’t breast cancer but that my breasts were large for a man. He said that I had a condition known as gynaecomastia, which is fairly common in men, especially older men. Another said that I should have them removed. What surprised me was that neither doctor tried to get to the bottom of the problem. A third doctor that I consulted said that he suspected that I could have some chromosomal abnormality and took a blood sample.”

The results revealed that Neville’s oestrogen hormone levels were very high for a male and his testosterone levels were very low. Further scans and an internal examination revealed that he was a hermaphrodite with both an ovary and a testicle. The reason for the late sprout was that, due to his age, his testes had reduced the production of testosterone and his ovary was producing more oestrogen, resulting in him developing female secondary sex characteristics and his male organs shrinking in size. According to Elle, there have only been about 20 cases in which men have become female and about 100 cases in which females have become men.

“I consulted a psychologist when the initial medical diagnosis was made some three years ago. Her diagnosis was that I had a predominantly female brain. This affected my whole way of thinking and accounted for why I didn’t feel right doing typical manly things.

“Throughout my life I have always known that I was not a typical male and had tried to disguise the fact by taking up ‘typical male pursuits’ such as volunteering for military service in my 20s, even though I actually hated it. At one time I even used to avoid company when I was afraid that my femininity would show.

“Eventually, my psychologist advised me to try living as a woman for a short while. This scared me as I was certain that people would consider me to be a freak and that I would be the laughing stock of the community. I was also scared of how my family would react if I decided to transform. Then one day I spoke about it to a close friend. She said that she had noticed that I was a bit feminine and suggested I follow the psychologist’s advice.

“I did and broke the news to my family and all my friends by e-mail. I told them about my condition, told them that I would be living as a woman and asked them not to treat me as a freak. The next day I went and bought some female clothing, a wig and some make-up. The following day I started dressing and living as a woman. The reaction of all my friends and relatives has been mostly supportive, although some relatives still call me Neville.”

Durow initially came to the attention of Weekend Witness when she e-mailed publicity for animal rights to the office. Her eyes light up as she describes some of her encounters with the animals that venture onto her land — from porcupines to inyala, leopards to black mambas. Pictures of animals decorate her walls and the shelves in the room are crammed with books on wildlife.

She says she has never been married or sexually attracted to anyone, male or female, and I ask her if perhaps this lack of intimacy with humans led her to develop an affinity for animals.

“No,” she explains, “as a child I was raised in a family that always loved animals. As far back as I can remember there were always animals around — dogs, cats, chickens and even cows. Growing up in close proximity to animals allowed me to develop close bonds with them.”

While working as a television production lecturer in the 1980s, she made a video about an abattoir that led her to becoming a vegan.

“I used to produce educational videos for various occupations and that day when I went to the abattoir, the stunning machine was not working. I watched them slaughtering these cows without stunning them; putting the hook through them while they were still alive. I couldn’t take it. When I asked them why, a man said that there were 5 000 cattle to be killed today and 5 000 to be killed tomorrow and that they couldn’t wait. Since that moment, I have been a vegetarian.”

Her recent research into what “free range” actually means provoked her to drop eggs from her diet and embark on a completely vegan lifestyle.

“I am on the Internet all the time.” she says. “One has to keep their brain active.”

She writes her own monthly publication called Eco Focus and has created and maintains the website on her own. She also writes for a number of other websites and works closely with several wild animal sanctuaries and animal rehabilitation centres.

Twelve years ago she built her entire Ashburton house on her own, including much of the furniture. Today, she enjoys the serenity of its natural surroundings in the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy.

•To read or download the Eco Focus publication, visit www.eco-focus.info or www.ecofocusnews.com For information about the wildlife in the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy, visit www.mpushini-fauna.com

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