Op-ed: Intersex, the Final Coming-Out Frontier
Last night, before my OK Cupid-induced outing, I realized I was going to have to come out again, but not in the usual way. I’d found my date in a “girls who like girls” online search, so I obviously didn’t need to tell her I’m queer. But if I wanted to be able to talk about my work, as one usually does on first dates, I did need to come out as intersex.
Like most people, she’d heard the word, but didn’t know exactly what it meant. Just imagine that, if you will. Coming out as L,G,B, or T can be bad enough sometimes, but at least people know what it is!
Most everyone today knows that some people love the same sex and that some feel more like the opposite sex than the one they were raised as, but intersex people make us think outside these binary views because we’re talking about being neither male or female to begin with. It’s the double whammy of coming out as intersex: One, people don’t know what it is; and two, the concept of being intersex messes with lots of people’s entire worldview.
Intersex people have an actual congenital difference in biological sex, and we’ve been around as long as everyone else. As Plato said way back when, “The original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost…”
But why has our existence been so “lost.” as Plato put it, that even my date, a lesbian librarian from San Francisco, didn’t know what we are? Well, for starters, in a society opposed to things like marriage equality thanks to ideas about what it is to be “real men” or “real women,” acknowledging that humans aren’t all male or female in the first place throws a big monkey wrench into the heteronormative equation.
In fact, in an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court for the recent Proposition 8 hearings, lesbian biology professor and author Maria Nieto examined how the existence of intersex people supports marriage equality. She pointed out how absurd the “between a man and a woman” concept is, considering that, scientifically speaking, “man” and “woman” are invented categories.
Yet, even though intersex people can and have been used to support equality for gays and lesbians, we’re often forgotten in the struggle. For example, most “LGBT” organizations in the U.S. have yet to add the “I,” despite the fact that we’re on the front lines of homophobia. By this I mean that because our differences are noticeable at birth, the parts of our bodies deemed “queer” by heteronormative standards are often chopped right off.
The practice is called “normalizing” surgery, and I’m lucky — scratch that, I’m blessed — to have escaped it. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that, unlike many of my intersex siblings, I don’t have the loss the sexual sensation and/or function, or the psychological wounds, caused by medically unnecessary treatments meant to “correct” me.
So what’s it like coming out as an intersex adult with an androgynous body? In one word: bizarre. I’m basically telling people that my physical sex traits are different than what they’re used to. Specifically, that my actual genitals are different from most women’s. That’s pretty damn personal.
However, while this might be TMI for some people, I’m old enough to remember that coming out about sexual orientation used to be too, because you’re telling people about how you have sex. I still remember the “I don’t want to know what they do in bed” comments. But those early gay and lesbian activists dealt with the discomfort so others wouldn’t have to later.
I’ve been doing the same thing with being intersex, and I’m reaching out and asking folks not to forget the “I” in LGBTQI. Reminding people that biological sex is a continuum, just like the rainbow in our flag, helps us all. It also makes it easier for intersex folks to come out and for parents to choose to accept their kids, if people know what intersex is (and if you need help explaining, please see “Brief Guidelines for Interex Allies.”
Speaking of, I’m happy to report that once I got the intersex definition squared away with my date, she didn’t care at all. In fact, she asked me out on a second.
HIDA VILORIA is chairperson of OII, the world's largest intersex advocacy organization, and director of its American affiliate, OII-USA. She has written about intersex issues for Ms., The Global Herald, CNN.com, the American Journal of Bioethics, and others, and has been a guest on numerous television shows, including 20/20 and Oprah. You can read her blog Intersex and Out.