The stigma around intersex is so high, because it threatens to destroy the lines between femininity and masculinity.
My grandparents like to tell me this story of how when my fourteen-year-old mother got her first ultrasound of me at seven months without my deadbeat father, my legs were crossed. My surprise baby shower was full of green and yellows, the anticipation killing my family. I still wonder if it was more disappointing to carry this newborn home in pink, then carrying their middle school child home with a set of stitches across her stomach. She was only 4’11 after all.
“Look, look! I can move it on its own.”
“Wait, we need to look at this more in depth,” my girlfriend says shining a phone light above me. I am leaning back on my elbows, pulling the hood back of my clitoris.
“It is a chunk.” We laugh while examining my anatomy.
“How have I never known?” I pause, remembering all the past partners of men, all the acting, never once did I orgasm.
“I mean, it’s not a bad thing. I’m actually kind of jealous, the way you can orgasm in like five minutes.” I give her a shove, but it was true, it was impossible to miss, and even easier to stimulate.
“I guess you right.” A tear escapes, and I draw immediately inward. I brush it away, but not before Kinsey notices.
“What’s wrong. You know I don’t care right? This is not what this,” she points back and forth from me to her, “is about.”
“But what if I am… intersex.”
“What if you are? Does that change anything?” I keep trying to get rid of this idea that sex and gender are the same. I know this, I vouch for this, and yet something is different now. “You feel like a woman, right? You never thought of yourself as a man, or have you?”
“Ha, oh God no. I don’t think I would ever identify as a man. I love myself as a woman. I still am a woman.”
“Then why are you so upset?”
“Cause, what if they just chose for me?” The silence fills the room. We both knew I was happy just the way I was; a queer woman. But that couldn’t minimize the fact it could be off of someone else’s choice.
My partner goes on a rant about how she loves me no matter how I choose to express myself. She tells me that anatomy is on a spectrum anyway, that there are differing levels of testosterone and estrogen in everyone. She says that there simply are men with small penises and women with larges clits. She says I may not even fit the criteria for intersex. She is still speaking, but my mind is elsewhere. What if my family chose because my dad wasn’t around? Is that really why it was green and yellow for my baby shower? Were my legs really crossed in the womb? What if I am making this up? I am making this up, surely a doctor, a gynecologist would have said something by now.
Male and female genitals grow from the same tissue, but testosterone makes them look and develop differently. So, an enlarged clitoris can be something between male and female, otherwise known as intersex. The day after the conversation I had with my partner I was already obsessed, I had called my family, I had called a local gynecologist, and I had become an investigative journalist: determined to figure out if I, like so many others, was assigned a binary sex at birth. Sex assignment of intersex babies are decided through consent of the parents, when the infant is legally too young to consent on their own.
In biological terms, sex may be determined by a number of factors present at birth including: the number and type of sex chromosomes, the sex hormones, the type of gonads (ovaries or testicles), the internal reproductive anatomy, and external genitalia. In summary, there are many different ways one can be determined “intersex.” The lists of sub-categories under the umbrella term “intersex” were vast, and I was shocked I hadn’t heard of one. There are over 40 intersex variations, a few of the more common conditions that suggests sex variation outside the typical binary sexes are: Klinefelter Sydrome, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, and Congeital Adrenal Hyperplasia. Klinefelter syndrome (KS) also known as XXY, is the set of symptoms that result from two or more X chromosomes in males. The primary features are sterility and small testicles. It is found in 1 in 1000 births.
Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) is when there is a partial or complete inability of many cells in the affected genetic male to respond to androgenic hormones. This can prevent or impair the masculinization of male genitalia in the developing genetic male (chromosomal XY) fetus, as well as the development of male secondary sexual characteristics at puberty. It is found in 1 in 13,000 births. Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) is when a person with XX chromosomes has adrenal glands (on the kidneys), which when making cortisone, end up also producing an unusually high level of testosterone related hormones. This can lead to an enlarged clitoris and typically more ‘male’ or masculine traits. Like AIS, it is also found in 1 in 13,000 births.
What adds to the complexity of intersex is that sometimes intersex variation can be identified at birth, but in other cases variations can occur after puberty. We can accept that there’s variation in other biological traits. There’s a spectrum of heights, hair colors, eye colors etc. So why is the mixture of sex related traits an individual can have not an accepted spectrum of its own?
My first exposure to intersex, before examining my own body came my freshman year of college. I was handed a black and white print out photo of a woman of the name Caster Semenya. Semenya up until this point to me was an Olympian track legend, who crushed her competitors in the women’s 800m, representing her country of South Africa. She was the epitome of black excellence, but today in my educational psychology course her face was attached to harsh headlines: “Maybe Not 100%,” “Outrage at Caster Tests,” and “Prove You Are Not a Boy.”
At the 2009 Berlin Olympic games, Semenya took the gold easily, beating her runner-up by nearly two seconds. Her athleticism, the history she made was soon overshadowed when a bitter reporter called Semenya a man. The one remark caused an uproar. People switched the narrative from what she did at the games, to what she is, and the media had a field-day. At only 18, Semenya was humiliated and barred into being tested to “prove” her gender.
The public invalidated her athleticism because she appeared too strong to compete with the other “ladylike” women. Semeya was tested, was cleared as being a woman but not without more backlash. Results allegedly were released, stating she had testosterone levels three times the average female, and had not ovaries or a uterus but rather internal testes. Her private records were put on public display at the young age of 18, overshadowing her gold medal victory for her home country.
Due to this controversy, the Olympics set a precedent that no intersex woman could participate in the Olympic games unless they were taking medication to reduce their testosterone levels to the average levels found in most woman. Semeya’s times dropped, but in July 2015 another Olympic runner challenged the rules regulating testosterone levels. And because officials didn’t have evidence into how much of an advantage having higher levels of testosterone, the rules were revoked and Semeya could run as herself again. Semeya ran in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio and won.
I remember sitting in my psych class pondering the amount of shame Semeya must’ve felt then in 2009, but then again in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I sit here now and Semeya’s case holds a more significant meaning. What if Semeya and I hold more in common that our black womanhood, what if we share the heavy burden of never being woman enough to not have to prove it?
I never in my life questioned my womanhood until that afternoon with my partner. The word “other” rang in my ears until it was all I could hear. It had drowned out my partner’s affirmations and my own self-love in a matter of minutes. We are quick to fear ourselves when we do not fit into binaries and definitive boxes. When our beings threaten to destroy the lines between femininity and masculinity.
If all forms of differentiation are included, then the number of intersex births globally comes out to about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. This is as much as 4% of the population. To try to imagine 4%, the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population. There are quite a few people who may be like me, unaware that intersex people exist beyond our stigmatized ideas of them. If this is the case, why so much stigma surrounding intersex? If it is normal, if sex is seen by doctors and scientists on a spectrum, than why is the middle point seen as an abnormality? This question, even today, for me goes unanswered. All I know is that my genitalia does not define my value, and that is enough.