In 1989, I was glued to Life Goes On on ABC. It was the first television series with a regular character with Down syndrome, Corky, and he was played by Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone with the genetic chromosome disorder portrayed as a normal, happy, healthy human being. Moreover, Corky was just like the rest of us. Not simply sweet and loyal but also, occasionally, an asshole. You know, a teenager. The series went on to break barriers: the following seasons, Becca (played by Kellie Martin) dated Jesse, a high school student with HIV (Chad Lowe won an Emmy for the role). That was around the same time that two girls kissed on CBS's Picket Fences, Sandra Bernhard came out as queer on ABC's Roseanne, and gay, HIV-positive activist and MTV's The Real World star Pedro Zamora wed Sean Sasser in TV's first real-life same-sex wedding.
It was exhilarating as TV was changing people's perceptions of bisexuals, lesbians, and gay men, and people living with Down syndrome, disabilities, HIV, and AIDS. The recent dawn of transgender characters (on Amazon's Transparent and Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and Sense8) may have overshadowed how MTV has simultaneously helped usher in a new era of visibility for young people who are intersex.
Faking It (which was, unfortunately, just canceled) is a comedy about friendship, family, and fitting in. It follows two teenage besties, Karma and Amy, who are erroneously "outed" as a lesbian couple in their suburban Austin, Texas, high school. As they play along for the sake of the popularity it brings, one of the girls realizes she might be queer. In 2016, that's passe stuff. What's not is that Amy's stepsister, Lauren (played by Bailey De Young), is intersex -- and her coming-out process helps educate audiences without us even realizing it.
Faking It is advocacy, activism, and education all rolled up in a veneer of entertainment, and for intersex young people, it's changed everything.
"When we were in the writers' room and came up with the idea that Lauren could be intersex, I had no idea what a groundbreaking decision that would become," says executive producer Carter Covington. "Lauren and her journey will always be a milestone for the intersex community and their struggle for visibility and acceptance. I am incredibly proud of that legacy and grateful to the many people who opened up their hearts and shared their experiences."
Covington says pitching MTV on Lauren's intersex story line was nerve-racking. "I was so nervous they would get cold feet!" he recalls. "When I finished laying out the season's twists and turns, Susanne Daniels, then president of MTV, said, 'I have a few concerns.' I immediately launched into statistics about how common being intersex actually is -- as common as being a redhead -- and what a ripe area this was for exploration. She interrupted me and said she had no issues with Lauren's story line; she loved it!"
Being intersex means you have one of several different conditions, such as androgen insensitivity syndrome, like Lauren on Faking It. But generally, if a person is born with reproductive organs, genitalia, or chromosomal patterns that don't fit the "standard" definition of male or female, that person is intersex. That happens in around 1 in every 1,500 to 2,000 births, according to the Intersex Society of North America, which adds that "a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won't show up until later in life." Some people go a lifetime without realizing they are intersex. In fact, it's so common, writes Sherri Groveman in the 1999 landmark book Intersex in the Age of Ethics, there are more intersex people than Jewish people in the world.
When Emily Quinn came out as intersex in 2014, MTV was there. Literally. The now-26-year-old former animator for Cartoon Network had worked on shows such as Adventure Time, Teen Titans, GO!, and DC Nation. Quinn came out as intersex on an MTV PSA for Faking It (with De Young) because her story "would help other intersex kids who were going through similar experiences."
Like a lot of intersex people who are still in the closet, Quinn says she most feared coming out to the people closest to her. "I had no idea if I would be accepted by them, and I was terrified of their reactions. So much of our lives are spent in shame and secrecy."
Her coming-out experience was so moving, Quinn left Cartoon Network to become an activist with interACT, an advocacy organization whose mission is to eliminate unconsented medically unnecessary genital "normalizing" surgeries on intersex children.
"It was a scary idea to leave animation -- I had worked so hard to get where I was, so part of me felt like I was throwing that all away," Quinn admits. "But I realized that it would be more fulfilling for me to do advocacy work full time, directly helping my intersex community."
Quinn says we're seeing a new wave of intersex visibility in pop culture. Her own YouTube series, Intersexperiences, is just one example. In addition to consulting on the development of a script for a Lifetime TV pilot based on I.W. Gregorio's young-adult novel, None of the Above, about an intersex teenager, she and her interACT team also have reality TV projects in the works.
Quinn credits Faking It with helping normalize intersex identity. Every episode dealt with a different part of Lauren's journey, and a lot of them don't have to deal with her being intersex at all... Being intersex is just a part of us, but it's not everything."
Faking It also made history by casting out intersex activist Amanda Saenz as an intersex character on the show. Saenz, a 21-year-old who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, is a senior at the University of Washington and has been involved with interACT for three years.
A TV junkie who has been keen on the growth of queer representation in mainstream pop culture, Saenz was "surprised, ecstatic" at being invited to play an intersex advocate on-screen. "It wasn't until I saw myself on TV that it felt real. I'm a part of history, and that still blows me away."
Saenz says, "There are scenes that I really identify with. The struggle Lauren has with being intersex, her experiences, are incredibly honest and, perhaps more importantly, real. I have been in her place many times. She is an incredibly authentic character, and I think a lot of that has to do with interACT's involvement in the show."
Kimberly Zieselman, the 49-year-old executive director of the Sudbury, Mass.-based interACT, was also born with intersex traits, "including XY -- typically 'male' -- chromosomes; internal testes; no uterus, ovaries, or fallopian tubes; and a short vagina," she says. "My intersex status was discovered at age 15 when I failed to go through puberty like typical girls. I was rushed to surgery to remove my 'partially developed ovaries' -- lie -- so they wouldn't become cancerous -- lie. I was told my condition was extremely rare and I would never meet anyone else like me and I should just move on and keep it private. From that grew years of hidden shame and self-doubt."
Eight years ago, Zieselman obtained her medical records and learned the truth, with terms like "male pseudo-hermaphrodite and testicular feminization. It was pretty traumatizing," she says. "At this point I was married -- and still am -- to a great man and have two adopted children. Learning the truth was ultimately extremely liberating."
Before Faking It, Zieselman says, intersex characters on TV were medicalized, pathologized, or presented "only for shock value." In one episode of House, for example, "a young model with AIS gets admitted into the hospital -- she is mistreated by the team of doctors, ridiculed for being intersex, and is blatantly misgendered.
Even Masters of Sex, surprisingly, got it wrong, says Quinn, in an episode with an intersex baby. "It portrayed the doctor as adamantly against genital surgery, with the father adamantly for it. The whole episode made it seem like doctors don't do these surgeries if they can help it. That's a total lie, especially for that time period...they [still] haven't stopped yet."
These unnecessary but common surgeries on intersex babies have recently been declared "torture" by the United Nations, whose Special Rapporteur on Torture stated, "Children who are born with atypical sex characteristics are often subject to irreversible sex assignment, involuntary sterilization, involuntary genital normalizing surgery, performed without their informed consent, or that of their parents, 'in an attempt to fix their sex,' leaving them with permanent, irreversible infertility and causing severe mental suffering."
The United Nations not only calls for governments to end these surgeries but, Zieselman says, "specifically acknowledges the powerful role of the media in raising awareness about intersex human rights."
Could we be witnessing a seismic shift in pop culture? Even cartoons like Steven Universe are offering label-less but real diversity around sex, gender, and sexuality now. "Representation is so important in the media, especially for children," the former animator, Quinn, notes. "Kids aren't nearly as bigoted as adults, and teaching them about the diversity of human experiences and bodies will really help the next generations to become more accepting and open-minded. It also tells the kids who might be intersex, trans, or gay that their experiences are natural and normal."
Covington, the gay married father who developed, produced, and helped write Faking It, is still a bit awed by the reaction. "So many intersex youth have used Lauren as a way to start a discussion with their friends about their own story."
Covington says Faking It's intersex and LGBT story lines garnered the show "die-hard fans and kept us on the air for 38 episodes." He hopes it "has shown what a deep well of stories there are in the intersex experience, just waiting to be explored. Storytellers will be drawn to that, since everyone is looking for something fresh. I know I'm not done creating intersex characters, but...I won't be the only one."