For me, being intersex has been nothing short of difficult, scary, painful, and shameful. When I was four years old, my family or the doctors or both, decided I needed ‘corrective’ genital surgery, because my genitals were non normative. I don’t know much about the details of how the decision was made because my family hid this from me and never explained or talked about what happened to me. It was off limits.
I don’t remember exactly what my body looked like before my surgery. I do remember having my surgery though. I was four. I was told it was because I couldn’t pee straight and that it needed to be fixed. I was taken to the hospital and walked back to the operating room. I remember resisting and crying on the way. I remember begging the nurse and my family not to go through with this. They tried to bribe me by telling me I could ride in a toy car for little kids to the operating room. They told me everything would be okay. They lied.
When I awoke, my genitals hurt and were bloody and swollen. They asked me to go to the bathroom to see if I could still pee. I’d had no trouble peeing before the operation, but they’d cut some things off, sewn some things up and rearranged things down there and they wanted to make sure everything still worked. I went to the bathroom with my mother and tried to pee a little. It burned. I quickly gave up on that, and insisted I didn’t have to go pee. My mother turned on the water in the sink while I sat in the stall. I pretended to try, and told her once more that there just wasn’t anything to pee out.
She gave up, and the doctor told her to call later and let them know if I’d gone to the bathroom. I walked around my grandmother’s house for days without any underwear and a t-shirt of hers because any contact with my genitals was so painful. They brought me ice cream to pacify me.
I don’t remember speaking to my family about the surgery again until about 20 years later when I confronted my aunt about it and asked her for details. This was after four years of not having contact with any of my family, due to my queer and trans* status. They weren’t safe people; we’ll leave it at that for now. I met up with my aunt in a McDonald’s with my partner at the time and asked her about what had happened. She said that I was “peeing out of the bottom of my genitals” and that it needed to be fixed. I asked her what was wrong with that. It’s not hard to sit and pee after all, half of the population or more do it every day.
A year later I heard from my mother for the first time in five years over Facebook. She said something impersonal and superficial, and I used it as an opportunity to bring up the surgery. I told her what I’d learned about being intersex. I sent her information about intersex people and trans* people and asked her to read it. She replied by saying she only intended to say hello, indicating she had no intention or interest in reading or learning about these things.
It was disappointing, but I was used to it. I can’t pretend I haven’t hurt over it, but I’ve tried to convince myself that biological relation doesn’t mean someone cares about you or that they have some kind of inalienable bond with you across space and time. My grandmother told me I would never have anyone feel proud of me or appreciate me again after I moved away and reduced my interactions with my biological “family” to e-mails and nothing more. They all stopped speaking to me soon after, mostly in response to me criticizing their homophobia, racism and various other hateful beliefs.
I didn’t officially come out to them until much later due to the fear their reaction stirred up in me and to the abuse they’d already inflicted on me throughout my childhood. When I did come out, it was only to certain people: my sibling, and two aunts, people who had minimal or no authority over me as a child. Word got around and from what my brother tells me, they reacted as though I’d murdered someone and would soon be falling into the deepest pits of hell for my ‘sins.’
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Knowing my history, as with many other intersex people, has been nearly impossible. It’s been hidden from me by my family, doctors, society. I didn’t even know intersex people existed until I was 21 years old and in college. After an exam with a doctor and a comment asking if I’d had genital surgery for my ‘condition,’ I got curious for the first time and felt brave enough to research it. What I found was life changing to say the least. I’d already started experimenting with my gender and how I would express it, and I’d always felt like something wasn’t quite right about it and my body’s history. Of course having an intersex condition doesn’t imply any particular sexual orientation or gender, but at the time I had such a limited vocabulary and this felt like a justification of my newly-discovered queer identity. I needed hard scientific evidence that there was a cause to all of this, that it was out of my hands to some extent, because I’d been raised to hate and fear people like myself. Gender-nonconforming behavior or queer sexual orientations were things that would literally get you killed. I was brainwashed by an extreme fundamentalist Southern Baptist family and culture, and I really did believe and fear burning in hell and bringing on bad fortune and punishment from a god that didn’t like queer people.
Having some kind of tangible physical evidence of the nonsensical, illogical things I’d been conditioned to believe was both relieving and terrifying. I had no understanding of where I was going and was battling internalized homophobia, transphobia, and intersexphobia every day. I became very depressed and had regular anxiety attacks. I had to convince myself I was not mentally ill, live as intelligently as possible and take care of myself. I had to prove to myself I wasn’t going to be irresponsible, frivolous and dangerous, as I’d been led to believe all queer people were. What made it even harder was the negative portrayal and information about queer people that was available and prevalent, and the way people around me reacted to me exploring and expressing my identity.
Some people began to look at me as though I was unreliable, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, deviant and sick. My grandmother had once suggested that I was doing this to be popular. What a joke. I wish I could be more ‘popular’ and accepted for being queer and intersex and trans*. Others asked invasive questions about my genitals. Some, such as my partner at the time, felt my femininity diminished hers and that I was now competition. Many agreed with the doctors. Doctors are seen as all-knowing and infallible, and if they did this, they had good reason.
The doctors themselves were less than helpful. When I first found out I had an intersex condition, I had a doctor try to convince me that wasn’t actually intersex,because my genitals had been normalized and didn’t look like some of the “most ambiguous” genitals he was aware of and had pictures of in a book. It seemed as though he was trying to comfort me, as though if I’d left believing I was intersex, it would somehow be a bad thing, a crisis.
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I didn’t tell another doctor or seek any assistance on the matter until four years later. The doctor is now my OB/GYN and prescribes me hormones. He understood me for nearly two years as just your average transgender person. The reason I told him about my intersex history was because I wanted to change my birth certificate gender marker. The law in North Carolina states one must have a letter from a physician saying the person has undergone “sex reassignment surgery” and if it does not say exactly that, then no change to the gender marker will be made.
I hoped to find a way to get my birth certificate changed. Could we argue that my surgery as a child was “sexual reassignment” and get my gender changed? My doctor no; technically that was a “female-to-male” surgery and the surgery I needed to have and document for a gender change would need to be a “male-to-female” surgery. So essentially, because some asshole doctor somewhere decided to perform this surgery, and assign me male, I have to fix his mistake by having more surgery. How is that okay? How is that logical? But this is what my doctor told me would need to happen before he wrote a letter.
Many trans people don’t want surgery or can’t have surgery for medical reasons or because it costs tens of thousands of dollars, and that can prohibit someone from legally being recognized as the gender they are, ever. This group of people includes me. It was interesting to see my doctor’s face and reaction when I told him the only thing I would change about my body would be to undo the surgery that was forced on me as a child and that otherwise I was not unhappy with my genitals and didn’t want to change them. He replied, “Well, you can undo it if you have the surgery.” He seemed perplexed that I wasn’t unhappy or loathing of my genitals and advised that I remove, cut, and scar more of my genitals in order to cover up the first surgery.
But not only did I not loathe my genitals, removing more sensitive, functional genital tissue, including a large portion of the glans of my clitoris to reduce its size to a more “normal” size seemed like a bad idea to me. I enjoy my sex life and surgery seems like it would reduce functionality and sensitivity.
I know lots of trans people decide to have genital surgery, and of course that’s their right. But it’s also my right to elect not to. It’s terrible to push someone to choose surgery or expect them to simply because they are trans or intersex. I’d been traumatized by the mutilation that was forced on me as a child, and have no desire to relive it.
This discussion ended with him trying to convince me that I wasn’t intersex, that due to the fact it was successfully erased by surgery, I was essentially making it all up. In his words, my surgery was to “correct a birth defect,” it was not mutilation. He discouraged me from investigating further and looking into my health further; “It’s probably an isolated thing,” he told me.
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So as it stands, I have conflicting documents. My birth certificate says “M” while my drivers license and the social security administration say “F.” And eventually, when I get together the money to buy a new one, my passport will say “F.” But who cares, right? My various IDs should be enough, right?
As it turns out, no. If it were discovered that my birth certificate were in conflict with my ID, my ID would be reverted to male. If I were to unfortunately be caught walking while trans* and brought into custody or arrested for any reason, I’d end up in a facility with males and treated as a male.
I already have to deal with the fact that if I apply for a job and they run a background check, they will find out that I had a previous name, one that doesn’t fit my appearance or gender. So I will either have to let them know up front – to prevent being accused of fraud or deception – by filling out “previous names” on the application, or I can hope they don’t actually run a background check and find out what my old name was. It’s unfortunate, unfair and illogical that intersex people get assigned a gender and a sex and are expected to either stick with them (even if they’re wrong) or fix someone else’s mistake with expensive, risky surgery on their genitals.
I’ve wondered what would happen if someone like myself asked my genitals be returned to their normal state, as they were before surgery. Would any doctor be willing to leave their operating room with genitals that weren’t part of this constructed binary? I don’t foresee ever being able or allowed to exist as something physically “in between” to any degree in so far as my genitals are concerned. That body, my body, is unacceptable. If we define sexual orientation based on anatomy, as most people do, who would an intersex person be expected to be with in order to be heterosexual? We are destructive to heteronormativity, to the notion of “men and women”, even to ideas like “gay” and “lesbian” if we define sexual orientation purely by anatomy. So what’s next? Where do we go from here? And how do we get there without violating the bodies and identities of more intersex people?
About the author: Amelie is an intersex, queer, trans* woman pursuing a Master’s degree in pure mathematics. She attained her undergraduate degrees in German and Mathematics, and has studied abroad in Germany at Ruprecht-Karls Universität Heidelberg. She has experience with working inside the university system with administrators and educators to change policies and develop educational programs offered to faculty, staff, and students. She has also experienced first hand the way in which gender and sexuality are understood in western European countries. When she isn’t studying mathematics, she is active in the community and tries to educate and raise awareness around intersex and trans* issues.
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