“How long have you been on T?”
“Really? Wow, I would have thought so.”
I was asked about my assumed HRT status by another trans person for the first, but not the last, time a year after I came out. Even in this community where body modification and gender nonconformity are common, my body presents a source of confusion, unable to be easily designated within established categories of how sex and gender are thought to work.
Growing up in northern California in the 90s, I was rarely pressured to be feminine, but I was assured by everyone that I was indeed female. It was assumed I would outgrow my childhood desire to be or become a boy, and I was prepared by puberty books for the changes that would represent my physical passage into sex-normative white womanhood. My body, however, had other ideas. Rather than the expected metamorphosis from typical girl into typical woman, I experienced a jarring hybrid of male and female puberty. I grew breasts but I also grew thick, dark hair all across my arms, legs, torso, chin, and upper lip. My period eventually appeared but never cycled regularly. No one had warned me this was a possibility.
Bewildered and ashamed of my unruly body, I devoted myself to an arduous process of hair removal which continued throughout my time in college, even as my understanding of sex and gender shifted through learning about transgender and nonbinary identities. After several years of questioning whether these embodiments might fit me, I came out as trans and genderqueer. As I tinkered with my gender presentation, cutting my hair and changing my wardrobe, I finally found the courage and curiosity to end my decade-long dedication to shaving and plucking. The results were dramatic. With a patchy but unmistakable beard and mustache, strangers regularly called me Sir, glared at me in women’s restrooms, and registered visible shock at the unexpected pitch of my voice. Left to its own devices, my body looked, felt, and was received as distinctly other than what I had always been told I was.
At the time I came out as trans, my knowledge of intersex was based in mainstream misconceptions that intersex people are extremely rare and always recognizable at birth. However, as I began to read more about sex diversity, I learned that while some intersex traits are immediately identifiable in newborns, others may not be distinguishable until puberty or later in life, and the overall number of people with bodies that fall outside the typical male/female binary is much higher than people assume. I began to realize perhaps I wasn’t just transitioning away from an assigned womanhood, but that I never had been sex-typically female in the first place.
The framework and support afforded me by the trans community were essential to pursuing this discovery, but also highlighted my additional sources of difference. My body is trans because I am trans, but it is not trans in the same way as many of my endosex (non-intersex), trans masculine counterparts. With a complicated mix of emotions, I read A. E. Osworth’s description of painting their nails for the first time in years after embarking on a second puberty: “I loved how they looked against my yoga mat—I looked lovingly down at them while doing push-ups only testosterone has allowed me to do.”
When I paint my nails, I sometimes get called “faggot” by strangers on the street who assume I am a feminine man. At 15, I looked down at my hands in horror as the hair above my wrists darkened of its own accord. My facial hair arrived with my first, and only, puberty. After 14 years, my period has never become regular. Doctors have pressured me to “fix” my body with feminizing hormones, androgen blockers, and electrolysis. I have always been able to do push-ups. This feels significant.
Within a binary understanding of sex, a binary understanding of gender, or a binary understanding of the separation between sex and gender, I am impossible. Being intersex does not make me trans, as intersex people can be cisgender, transgender, nonbinary, or none of the above, and intersex people’s genders, like our bodies, are all unique. However, my experiences of sex and gender are not discrete. My body is naturally hyperandrogenized, but I choose to embrace these traits because they affirm my (trans)gender identity. If I wasn’t intersex, I wouldn’t look how I do without HRT, but it was my transness that lead me to challenge and reject the belief that it was a sign of shame or failure to let my body be how it already was.
As a sex and gender-illegible person in a fiercely gendered world, I can either apologize for my body or defend it. I am tired of apologizing. Instead, I am continuing to unlearn the lie of sex as a binary, which is rooted in eugenics and white supremacy, and using my position of privilege and access as a biologist to advocate for a more nuanced and accurate approach to teaching biological sex in high school and college classrooms. Through performing as a genderfuck drag king, I am exploring gender on my own terms. In online communities and support networks, I have finally been able to see my experiences validated and reflected back by other intersex people, whose stories mirror mine far more than I had expected, in spite of our different physical variations. I stand in solidarity with my intersex siblings who have been subjected to traumatic and unnecessary childhood surgeries to make their bodies look more sex-typical or lied to about their intersex status, and I am committed to working towards ending these human rights violations. I understand now that I have options for medical care beyond trying to make my body less androgenized, though finding providers who support this approach remains a challenge. While I am still considering medical transition, I am letting myself live with the full complexity of my naturally occurring traits before I decide if or how to shift them. I recognize that getting to experience my own unaltered body is a privilege which many intersex people have taken away from them as children, but which all of us deserve.
Through all this, after years of questioning and searching for explanations, community, understanding, I can begin to glimpse a world in which I might exist in my full, complicated reality, not as defective, but as simply different, real and possible.