November 8th marks the end of a period of time I sometimes like to call “intersex season,” or more glibly, “interseXmas,” as letterer Jae Lin once painted on a holiday ornament. Between Intersex Awareness Day on October 26th and Intersex Day of Remembrance (IDoR) on November 8th, brands’ social accounts—and even some government buildings—light up in yellow and purple. Meanwhile, those of us involved in creating intersex media are left to wrestle with ~feelings~ around this temporary visibility and care.
Intersex season is joyful in that intersex people are generally warmer to each other, content calendars become available to us to provide more opportunities for education, and many of us are launching heartfelt advocacy projects into the world.
But intersex season is also a heavy time. IDoR is a reminder of the origins of medical and state violence against those of us whose bodies threaten a social order built on binary, anatomical reproductive roles. It’s an endcap that feels hard and flinching.
IDoR commemorates the birthday of one figure in this history, Herculine Barbin. In mid-1800’s France, Herculine kept diaries about her own experiences. Hers are some of our earliest found first-person accounts, in a time when European imperialism and eugenics movements would spread the poor treatment of intersex people around the world. Herculine’s diaries are also the seed of inspiration for the lamentably popular and communally criticized novel Middlesex.
No matter how many times I hear it, Herculine’s own story still chills me. When her sexual relationship with a woman was discovered, Herculine endured forced medical exams that focused on her unique genital anatomy being the “cause” for her wayward sexuality. Before anesthesia, forced surgeries were not yet common, but medicine was still given the power of enforcement. To prevent appearances of homosexuality, some European states forced people like Herculine to socially transition, no matter how they’d lived their lives. Herculine was driven cruelly away from the life she knew and forced to live as a man, leading to her death by suicide.
Herculine had no privacy, and no choice in her diaries being found, either. To call Herculine queer and intersex feels both tempting and inappropriate. I don’t know what language she would have used for herself. All I know is that she deserved better. We still do.
For the past four years or so, my mind has been stuck on how to make today’s intersex topics more accessible and expansive. This included political work as a Communications Director shaping ideas about legislation. It included work as a writer, trying to move beyond the flatness of “forced infant genital surgery is bad,” and into something more multidimensional. Intersex children become adults who deserve care and joy in the present.
During this year’s intersex season, a grant gave me the opportunity to pay fellow creators and activists to make a video series with this in mind. Among ourselves we often describe our dreams. One shared dream is retaining all of our dignity from medical institutions, living free from the legacy of Herculine’s treatment. The friends featured in these videos came together to select four topics that called to them at this moment.
Fundamentally, this video series became a push for more. Because freedom from abuse is a floor, not a ceiling. Joy is community, and joy is simply being able to exist in your own body. For intersex people who also hold other marginalized identities, that is uniquely political.
Days of remembrance seem to be about taking the joy with the pain. There’s been so much beauty, too. I’m reminded of a surreal weekend several years pre-covid. A fellow member of an intersex advocacy group and I decided to drive from San Francisco to Seattle. Even though we’d only be able to stay for about 36 hours, we decided that visiting a few other queer intersex friends was more than worth the drive. Together we were able to pool material resources and create a container for our joy. We melted into a puddle on the floor together, into the care of our chef friend roasting up breakfast, and into the sweet ease of shared understanding.
On IDoR I dream of being able to let my guard down for more than just one day. I want to feel that same gentle safety in my body when I’m with my non-intersex queer and trans siblings, and beyond. I want the ease of existing in all spaces, free from assumptions about what body parts I do or don’t have. I want to dismantle the surveillance of sex and gender. I want a deeper knowledge of the histories that brought us to this moment, so we can move forward with both confidence and humility.
Intersex communities are strong and vibrant. Our conversations beyond medical violations deserve space to be seen and grow. And we deserve softness in every season.
If you’d like to check out the whole intersex community video series, you can watch it here.