I’m 11, and I’m playing outside. It’s the summer before I start sixth grade, the last year of the endless summers I remember before junior high, when everything became so complicated for so many reasons that aren’t relevant here. It’s the last summer I remember truly feeling like a child.
I’m tossing a basketball around in the air, against the door of the garage in my aggressively small-town suburban neighborhood. My younger sister, the girl next door and I are talking and laughing and lazily passing the day by when we start sharing fashion opinions with each other. I remark that I think women “look hot in ties.” My sister and our neighbor burst out laughing for minutes.
I’m stunned. I said that so candidly. But I so obviously transgressed. After the fact, I am thinking about that moment as me having “blurted it out,” not just “said something.” My stomach jumps, I feel slight waves of nausea.
I didn’t mean it like that. They continue to laugh, and I laugh too, but in wonder at myself, and not just at the hilarity of my phrasing.
I think back on this moment many times after I learn that I’m intersex.
I’m 16. Which is strange, because I vividly remember being 14 when this all happened. But no, my mom confirmed I was 16 when we first went to Johns Hopkins Hospital – intersex central in the US, I came to learn. That says a lot about how young I felt and how overwhelming, complicated and adult the issues I had to deal with were.
I had been told that I didn’t have a uterus by my endocrinologist at Hershey Medical Center when I was eight. This was the first time I was told that it wasn’t just that I didn’t have a uterus – there were other reasons WHY I didn’t have a uterus. I heard the words “intersex” and “XY chromosomes” and “testosterone” but mostly I just remember being shell-shocked. The whole day is a blur. A surgeon tried to sign me up to “fix” my vagina on the spot, left his business card with my parents after they adamantly declined. I felt like a failure even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. Later, at dinner, I wouldn’t eat and ran away from my family in a crowded mall – something strikingly out of character for a goody-two-shoes like myself. I made a plan for how I was going to end my life during the car ride home, because this was too much, people like me just don’t – they can’t – exist. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here. But I convinced myself despite my subconscious yelling and handwaving otherwise, that I am a typical girl after all, I’ve just got these chromosomes and whatever else. I could allow myself to live now.
I didn’t realize it so consciously until writing this now, but: that was easily one of the worst days of my life. It might be the absolute worst, even.
The shame and stigma colored everything I was, liked and did in an entirely new light. All my actions seemed potentially menacing, painted in this sheen of ambiguity. Holding a tube of lipstick, I’d pause before applying it. If I wore it, did that make me just a girl wearing lipstick, or a boy in drag, or both at the same time? I didn’t know. Throwing a softball back and forth one day during gym, I mused, maybe I should be trying out for baseball instead of softball, maybe I should wear a cup, not because I need one, but because my chromosomes dictate I should have one. I had a vivid dream where everyone was changing into costumes for a play I was in, and I wanted to wear this pretty dress and I was giving everyone sideye and sour looks because everyone got to just take it as their due that they were SUPPOSED TO wear all the girl stuff or boy stuff that made me feel so conflicted inside. I never knew what I was supposed to wear or do – I just remember this overwhelming feeling of bitterness and despising everyone for having these easy, autopilot lives. Like, where the fuck was my Easy Bake identity?
I recognize now how messed up a lot of these thoughts were, and sometimes transphobic in addition to being intersexphobic. Simply, I was clueless. I’d never heard about feminism, or sex and gender theory. I saw the world in binary terms and I thought I was “normal” enough that I fit in most of the time. And then occasionally I’d have to mentally shoehorn myself back into place and be content with just-probably-almost-sort-of-normal and continue on with my life until I felt really “normal.” Except, inevitably, I’d have doubts again. The cycle continued.
I had so much pain and confusion.
In a lot of ways, it made it easier that I did not equate my seemingly involuntary elevator eyes as curvy female classmates walked by with sexual attraction. I clung to the pervasive concept that “girls are just pretty, I can appreciate our beauty in a non-sexual way!” Yes, many can.
I couldn’t, turns out.
In a similar vein to my lipstick-or-not, softball-or-baseball dilemmas, I wondered if I could ever really be straight or gay, or if I would always be bisexual by default since I was biologically “in the middle” anyway. (Or was I??) But my musings on this subject were purely academic. Had I actually understood that I liked girls, sadly, I would have probably “blamed” this on my intersex, assumed they had something to do with each other so being intersex maybe “turned me gay.” More complicated yet, I was a good, religious girl at a Catholic middle and high school where I took mandatory religion classes every year which were occasionally taught by priests or nuns. I knew that technically BEING gay wasn’t a sin, but you could never “act on it.” I mean, fornication alone was a mortal sin. GAY fornication was just unthinkably bad.
My eyes continued to trace girls’ bodies. I continued to know, somewhere in the back of my head, that some people weren’t straight.
I didn’t understand that those two things were interconnected for a long time.
But I put the pieces together eventually.
I was 23 and my face was warm. I was feeling…something, as I read those comics online, enraptured, at an obscene hour considering how early I needed to get up for work the next morning. I felt pinpricks of awareness, like when your arm has fallen asleep and it’s starting to come back to life, except I felt that in my mind. I was also acutely aware of the blood pumping through my legs, and my heart, and my crotch, ka-thump, ka-thump, and it dawned on me that I wasn’t just feeling something ABOUT these comics – I was IDENTIFYING with them. These comics about coming out that I randomly happened to stumble upon – I don’t even remember how or what sites I was on before that – made it all too clear that I liked women.
My long-term boyfriend and I eventually broke up and not because I liked women. Although my desire to be physical with women — something I had never done and was dying to, needed to do — was quickly becoming an ever larger issue in our relationship that, in retrospect, would likely have broken us up anyway. Finding myself single, I fired up the internets and created an OKCupid account, stating I was looking for women only. The first time I slept with a girl — who, four years later, is still my girlfriend — I knew I didn’t want to date guys again. This sounds like a total cliché and I’m a little uncomfortable with 1) how well it fits into the narrative of how you’re “supposed” to find out you’re gay, and 2) the offensive implication that you don’t really know your sexual orientation unless you kiss or sleep with someone, which I don’t endorse. But. In that moment, I knew I was gay, and that wasn’t just okay – it was amazing, because I knew it was true. I was ecstatically happy. Life was pretty great.
I didn’t have any of the crippling confusion of being intersex and gay the way I had in my younger years, being intersex and [anything else]. By that time, I had stumbled across other intersex people on the internet, some of whom even said that being intersex WASN’T a medical disorder. Being exposed to that idea was revolutionary, a huge turning-point for me in how I viewed and felt about myself and my supposedly not-normal body. I devoured intersex-positive perspectives I’d never encountered before. I was also fascinated that some of these people were not only unembarrassed about being intersex – they even IDENTIFIED as intersex (!!!)
I thought about all of this new info for a long time and found that many of my own views were in keeping with theirs. I considered how I identified – and didn’t – with my own body and history. I started a blog. I cold-emailed intersex activists to contribute to some events I wanted to hold in New York City, where I was living, on Intersex Awareness Day, Oct 26th. When I decided I wanted to be out, publicly, as an intersex person — something that’s sadly still pretty darn rare these days — I called up my mom and told her I wouldn’t be closeted anymore, as my parents and my doctors had not so much encouraged as mandated I be. I was going to be myself, and that wasn’t negotiable.
I also consciously started not hiding the fact that I’m intersex. Being out, I learned that people have a lot of questions about intersex, and I’ve been asked questions that range from the general and respectful to the highly personal if not downright offensive. This includes friends, acquaintances, People On the Internet, and medical professionals. These encounters showed me that there’s a split in how intersex people are perceived. Half of the time, I think people are aware on some level that there are ingrained, pervasive stereotypes about intersex people – that we’re always “in between” male and female, that we must be perfect androgynes, that we can’t like or do or wear anything too feminine or too masculine (or if we do, everything has to “balance out”), that we’re inherent bisexuals. We’re supposedly this perfect blend of all the bullshit stereotypes attributed to typical females and typical males which, shockingly, don’t fit y’all most of the time, either. The other half of the time, it’s clear to me that people are stumbling around in thick fog of confusion that makes them completely unable to even remotely fathom what “intersex” could mean. Trans* people, asexuals, and other non-binary folks also seem to deal with the paradox of Confidently Stereotyping But Wait Now I’m Confused. It’s strange and frustrating to confront these attitudes at once. I learned how to answer only questions I was comfortable with, or not answer any questions at all when I didn’t feel like it. I also learned to challenge whether it was okay to ask certain kinds of questions in the first place. I began to assert myself, to require respect from others when talking about intersex issues, especially when the focus was on my history, my body, and my identity.
That all happened about three years before I first spent the night with a girl in my bed. By that time, I knew who I was and I was comfortable being an intersex person. I’d also learned some things — a LOT of things — about feminism, sex and gender theory…I no longer felt like all my identities had to match up in one of two pre-approved ways. When I started identifying as gay, I was at a point in my life where, with my newfound politics, I saw no contradiction between being gay and being intersex. I still don’t. I could totally be an intersex lesbian if I said I was, right?
I’m 30 now. I’ve figured a lot of stuff out, although there’s always new challenges to process and work through. I’m sure it’ll always be this way. I think that’s just how life works.
In my day to day life, I’ve had to learn to accept myself and know that my likes, dislikes, personality traits, attitudes, and appearance don’t necessarily have anything to do with my being intersex. Or if they do, so what. My athleticism and sometimes aggressiveness might not have anything to do with intersex. I don’t freak out anymore about what had long been referred to as “man hands” by others, which I secretly worried were proof that my intersex was detectable to those who looked and thought hard enough. I had this idea, when I was younger and conceptualized intersex as a medical condition that I “had”— not as someone I AM, as an intersex person – that if only I could remove the intersex parts of me that I could get down to this true, authentic girl self that lived inside, untouched. Or maybe that part was tainted and I would never be my true self because the intersex parts were all swirled in or they changed me and I couldn’t go back and be the person I was “supposed” to be. This is all bullshit, I now realize, but I had to work through understanding that my intersex wasn’t this extra thing was messing up my true self. My intersex is part of me. I am my true self BECAUSE of the intersex parts, not in spite of them.
I’ve also embraced the parts of myself where intersex meets gay. There are stereotypes for what it means to be an intersex person, as I’ve discussed before, and what it means to be a lesbian. Interestingly, they actually overlap a lot – for example, that intersex people and lesbians both always dress like men or androgynously, act like men, are “aggressive,” and are athletic. Add to the fact that intersex people are often typified as not-straight and you’ve got a rather overlapping Venn diagram of lesbian and intersex stereotypes. This means that sometimes, doing something in my everyday life feels like I’m breaking barriers in two marginalized communities instead of one. Like when I put on my favorite red lipstick or cute dress with the A-line skirt with the pockets, I’m countering stereotypes about what lesbians look like AND what intersex people look like by letting the femme shine through! (If you consider the fact that I’m genderqueer, then that’s actually THREE communities, but I digress.) While this has the benefit of feeling doubly empowering on good days, things can also feel doubly worse when I encounter discriminatory people, read one too many shitty news headlines about LGBTQIA rights, or feel unseen due to femme invisibility or intersex invisibility. Of course, there also are lesbian and intersex stereotypes that don’t overlap; for these, it can be kind of overwhelming to mentally calculate how much I conform to these two different sets of stereotypes with regard to sex, sexual orientation, and gender. Dealing with stereotypes is hard sometimes.
Just because I am comfortable with being an intersex lesbian doesn’t mean, though, that other people don’t have questions about it. It’s not uncommon that someone, upon learning that I’m intersex and gay, will ask me if I actually can be an intersex lesbian. Since various sexual orientation and gender identity labels don’t make room for intersex people (like straight, gay, and cis*, which are defined assuming one is a typical male or female), some people think this somehow means that I can’t authentically identify that way. Frankly, dealing with these questions is both offensive and a pain in the ass. The approach taken in asking these questions is similar in tone to challenges as to whether you “can” use a word or a phrase a certain way, or if doing so constitutes a grammatical or syntax error. Like, my identity can’t be dismissed on semantic technicalities. It isn’t up for debate and you’re not entitled to weigh in on it, BYEEEEE.
All this being said, there is a complex duality to my being a happily out intersex lesbian. For me, for other queer intersex people, for so many queer intersex kids and their parents, this is a great, needed thing. In GENERAL this is a great and needed thing! Being out let’s others know that it’s not only okay to be intersex, it’s okay to be intersex AND queer. It gives people courage that if others can do it, then they can proudly live their truths, too. That’s a big deal when homophobia is a huge reason why intersexphobia exists. This should be a win-win-win-WIN! situation.
But then I remember that for a lot of people, I embody what they’re afraid of: I’m intersex and gay. My messages of self-positivity and acceptance of bodily diversity are effectively trumped by my existence as a living, breathing human. To some, it doesn’t matter that I’m happy being who I am because I’m proof that their kid could be intersex and gay too. It’s such a surreal thing to realize and re-realize and re-realize again as I go about my everyday life: oh yeah, you’re exactly who some parents don’t want their kids to be. Huh.
This is a real problem. Homophobia is strongly linked to how intersex people are viewed and treated by societies; apparently, it’s one thing to be intersex, but another thing entirely to be intersex and gay. The fact that intersex people might be gay apparently scares the shit out some people to the point where they perpetuate the cosmetic surgeries and “treatments” that their intersex kid can’t consent to, that may leave physical and emotional scars that will last well into adulthood. This homophobia-via-intersexphobia may even cause prospective parents to choose not to carry a fetus with intersex traits to term. And while I support any pregnant person’s right to choose, I can’t help but see this as anything but misguided at best, and eugenic abortion at worst.
It’s hard for me to conceptualize that this shit really happens. In moments, it seems simply absurd that parents and doctors go to such lengths to “fix” their kids when nothing is wrong with them. Like, what parents and doctors are actually afraid of is smiling, content babies that might grow up to be adults that are comfortable with the bodies we were born with. Adults that may or may not also happen to be queer. And it makes me angry and upset. I mean, WHY IS THIS THREATENING, you know? But many parents and doctors are threatened. They’re really afraid. And part of that has to do with this perceived link between being intersex and being gay. Without raising awareness that these things don’t go hand-in-hand – and even if you are gay, that’s not a problem anyway – medical “treatments” are going to continue. We need to continue to step up, speak up, say these practices are wrong, say they need to stop.
There’s still a lot of work to be done in intersex activism.
The bottom line is, I’m me. I’m a person with many different identities, and two of those identities are that I’m intersex and gay. Not all of my experiences as an intersex person inform my being gay, and vice versa, but the overlap is there and it affects things in ways that are both good and complicated at a time in history when homophobia and intersexphobia are alive and kicking. It’s not always easy to be intersex and gay; in these moments I remind myself that this is because of how society perceives us right now, and not because of me, myself. Because it’s okay to be who I am.
There are a lot of ways to be intersex and lot of ways to be gay. My experience is just that – my own. More intersex people are talking about their experiences being intersex and queer and I’m excited they’re happening. Additionally, there are a lot of important conversations that are beginning to be had among intersex people – what it means to be an intersex person of color, what it means to be intersex and trans*-identified, how class affects intersex people and exposure to medicalization, why sometimes more masculinely presenting or performing intersex people seem to have privilege over more feminine intersex people (which I call “intersexism”). These conversations are important, and I’m excited that they’re happening.
Talking about being gay and intersex is just the beginning.