“Is it a Boy or a Girl?”: Birth and Gender in Twenty-First Century America and Beyond

It is the third word said about each of us and the answer to the first question ever asked about all of us: boy or girl. When a baby is born a doctor looks at their genitals. If the doctor sees a penis they declare, “Its a boy!” If the doctor does not see a penis they declare, “Its a girl!” Then a permanent “M” or “F” is inscribed on the infant’s birth certificate that will follow them for the rest of their life. The new arrival’s gender becomes government record before the child even knows what gender is let alone their place in it.

When new parents announce a birth the first question on everyone’s mind is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Then the parents dress the newborn in either pink or blue to make sure there is no confusion over the appearance of the child’s genitals and, by extension, which gender within the binary they are raising the child to be for the rest of their life. If the parents inquired what their expected child’s reproductive anatomy looked like on a prenatal ultrasound they begin to gender the coming baby before the child even comes out of the womb. This early gendering sets into a motion an array of behaviors from buying certain toys, clothes, and decorations to choosing from only certain names, throwing “gender reveal” parties, and forming strong expectations regarding the infant’s future. These expectations are oftentimes so strong any break with them is met with pain, grief, distress, fear, anger, and violence.

For those of us who are intersex, being assigned a gender can be a source of great pain. When doctors cannot determine a baby’s sex immediately a medical emergency is set in motion. Surgeons are called in, endocrinologists are consulted, whole medical teams are formed, tests are administered, and the offending ambiguous body parts are surgically modified to fit into what the wider society has deemed to be standard for male or female. In most cases parents are not even consulted on these decisions and if they are consulted they are usually pressured into going along with normalizing procedures regardless of medical necessity or the serious life long consequences for the child, which often include sterility and lose of genital feeling. Not to mention all of the ethical issues surrounding the hormonal treatments many intersex people go through in adolescence in an effort to keep shoe horning them into the side of the gender binary to which they were assigned regardless of their actual sense of self.

Then there are those of us who are trans and do not identify with the gender we were assigned at birth. Such an early misidentification often leads to a great deal of distress and struggle in a society built on a strict binary. Trans people are more likely to attempt suicide, face violence, be denied health care, and experience poverty as a result of institutionalized cissexism and transphobia with trans women of color being particularly vulnerable. For many of us in the trans community our birth assigned genders are horrible mistakes we spend a lifetime correcting at great personal risk.

In many ways the different experiences of interphobia and transphobia intersect in how the medical gaze aggressively genders bodies from birth to death with no room for variation even in newborns. The surgeries many trans people elect to undergo in the process of affirming their gender identities had their start being performed on intersex infants and children who could not consent to such procedures. The same hormonal treatments trans people have to go through all kinds of hoops to gain access to are given without any question to intersex children. Both intersex and trans people find themselves having to educate medical professionals about their bodies in ways their non-intersex and cisgender counterparts never do. Those of us who live at the intersections of intersexuality and transness find our experiences are incoherent even within trans and intersex communities. All of this has at least some roots in deeply entrenched cultural beliefs that gender is easily recognizable at birth, binary, natural, biologically determined, and fixed. These are the cultural beliefs that make grown people think they know who a child is based on their genitalia and lead them to be fearful whenever faced with any challenge to those beliefs, even when said challenge comes in the form of a helpless baby.

This is the reality of birth and gender in twenty-first century America, where a simple “M” or “F” plays a role in determining the civil rights and privileges a person is afforded in important areas of life and being intersex or trans is met with oppression. Fortunately there are signs these practices are changing for the better. Transgender adults and children, in particular, are gaining visibility. Nonbinary identities are becoming better known to the general public. Intersex activists have made strides in raising awareness and working toward changing intersex health care. More parents are questioning and even out right resisting societal pressures to impose a particular gender on their children based solely on genitalia, especially when they are only infants.

I dream of a day when we put our babies in rainbow hats and are not so quick to assign gender to infants, or at least learn to take such assignments with a grain of salt. Besides a gender assignment at birth doesn’t yield all the information we are told it does even when it comes to biology. No one is testing the karyotypes of babies or conducting ultrasounds of their internal reproductive systems let alone thinking of the possibility the child may be trans. For all anyone knows in those first moments of life the healthy newborn everyone assumes has ovaries, a uterus, and XX chromosomes because the doctor said its a girl actually has internal testes and  XY chromosomes or the baby the doctor so confidently declared to be a boy due to the presence of a penis may one day disagree with that doctor’s assessment and grow up to be a woman.

So the next time someone you know has a baby maybe just ask if the baby is healthy rather than the classic, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Afterall you’re asking about a baby. No one knows who they are yet.

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The “I” Does Not Stand for Invisible: Intersex Pride and Remembering Queer History in the Trump Era

It’s that time of year again. It’s Pride Month, a time when the LGBTQIA+ community gathers to celebrate our history and the many ways there are to be queer with parades, festivals, music, and, of course, lots of rainbows. What a better time to spread some love and intersex pride?

For those who may not know intersex refers to those who were born to bodies considered non-standard for male or female in terms of chromosomes, hormones, gonads, and/or genitals and is the “I” in LGBTQIA+. Since intersexuality comes in a variety of manifestations we be can found in every gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, region, and time period. Some of us are straight. Some of us are queer. Yet all of us have a stake in LGBTQIA+ liberation in a world where interphobia, transphobia, femmephobia, homophobia, biphobia, and acephobia form interlocking systems of subjugation in which any deviation from the gender binary in body, sexuality, expression, or identity is met with cruelty, abuse, violence, and erasure. There can be no intersex liberation without trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and asexual liberation and vise versa. That is why intersex presence at Pride is critical. It is high time people learned the “I” does not stand for “Invisible.” We exist. We are not impossible. We are not disordered. We are not aberrations. We are here. We are everywhere.

So many of us have experienced shame, stigma, secrecy, and erasure living in a binary gender caste system that deems us to be impossible. Still we survive and even thrive. Yes, many of us have stories of pain, trauma, and shame that need to be shared, but we also have stories of joy, hope, and pride. Those are the stories we need to tell: stories of love and acceptance; stories of courage and hope; stories of wellbeing and vitality; stories of healing and perseverance; stories of pride. Let’s tell more of those stories for Pride month and all year round. The world definitely needs such stories, especially in the current political climate.

In the United States we are now living under an administration with a dangerous anti-LGBTQIA+, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, basically anti-every-minority-group, “America first” agenda. Every day brings new shockwaves. Federal bathroom protections for trans schoolchildren have been rolled back. Multiple attempts at a Muslim travel ban have happened. Deportations have increased. Threats to women’s healthcare and reproductive rights have multiplied. Environmental protections are coming under attack. The list goes on and on. At the same time many Pride events and the larger LGBT+ movement are being coopted by dominant capitalist, colonial, white supremacist, heteronormative, and patriarchal traditions in the form corporate, military, and police sponsorships. A good example of this form of cooption is Well Fargo’s sponsoring of Capital Pride while continuing  to invest in the private prison industry that harms so many queer and trans lives. Not to mention the respectability politics, biphobia, and transphobia that infects much of the mainstream gay (and sometimes lesbian) movement, which tends to focus only on privileged, cis, white, gay men and leave out women, trans people, gender nonconforming people, multisexual people, and people of color.

In the midst of the current administration’s dangerous agenda and the trends of cooption at many Pride events we must come together across our differences and remember the radical roots of Pride. The reason why we have Pride in June is to commemorate the Stone Wall riots. The first Pride was literally a riot. And it wasn’t just any riot. It was a riot with trans women of color at the forefront who sparked revolutions. We must remember this history and own it. After all, this is protest; not a parade. In our activism we must remember there can be no sexual or gender justice without ability, racial, economic, and environmental justice and recognize the necessity of intersectional praxis that centers the most vulnerable in our society.

That is why this Pride month I am recommitting myself to love and social justice work that is truly intersectional within my communities. I will tell share my story as an intersex person openly and honestly. I will enjoy the celebrations and wave my rainbow, nonbinary, bisexual, and intersex flags proudly. I will remember those have gone before me and resist injustice like they did at Stone Wall and beyond.

Introductions to Intersex Traits: What is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome?

This is the second in a series of posts in which I cover the basics of a particular intersex trait. For the purposes of this blog an intersex trait is defined as a bodily characteristic or set of bodily characteristic that have been determined to not be standard for male or female. This determination can be primarily chromosomal, hormonal, gonadal, and/or genital. Some examples include Turner syndrome, Congenital Androgen Hyperplasia, and cliormegaly. In this post I will focus on Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS).

AIS is an inherited intersex condition (expect for the occasional spontaneous mutation) that occurs in approximately 1 in 20,000 live births and results in partial to complete inability of the body’s cells to respond to androgens, which are the hormones commonly associated with male physiological development. Depending on the extent of the insensitivity, AIS can present in a variety of ways. Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) in most cases results in a 46XY karyotype, undescended or partially descended testes, a short vagina without a cervix and no uterus or fallopian tubes. In some cases infants born with CAIS do not show obvious signs of the condition until puberty and are assigned female at birth without any question. In other cases the signs of the condition are obvious from birth. During puberty those with complete CAIS develop breasts as the body converts some testosterone into estrogen. However, they do not start a menstrual cycle without a uterus. Also, due to their insensitivity to testosterone, they grow little to no armpit and pubic and do not have any acne. Partial Androgen Insensitivity (PAIS) often results in an individual with a 46XY karyotype and ambiguous genitalia that can either be described as a large clitoris or a small penis. Here it is also important to note PAIS may actually be quite common and has been suggested to be the cause of infertility in many men whose genitals are typical in appearance.

Some of the most common medical responses to AIS involve medically unnecessary surgical interventions. These procedures involve removing internal testes and/or modifying genitals to appear more male or female. Along with these surgical interventions, there is also a history of parents and medical professionals refusing to disclose an AIS diagnosis to affected individuals. As well-intentioned as these responses may be they are actually problematic for many reasons, the most obvious being the fact these surgical interventions are mostly performed on infants and children who cannot consent. While it is true removal of internal testes is advisable in some instances due to cancer risks, cases of testicular cancer before puberty are extremely rare and there is no reason why such surgeries cannot be delayed until the individual is an adult with the ability to make an informed decision. As for genital surgeries, being born with genitals deemed to be ambiguous does not pose any physical dangers in and of itself. Unless the genitals in question have formed in such a way that bodily functions like urination are disrupted and the child’s life is threatened there is no medical reason to modify an infant’s genitals. Thus the reasons behind the surgeries performed on infants and children with AIS and other intersex conditions are purely cosmetic and often rooted in cisheteropartriarchy. A good example of this is the practice of lengthening the vaginas of infants and children with CAIS. The most commonly cited reason for vaginoplasty in these cases is to enable the female-assigned infant to one day have cis/heteronormative, penetrative sex as an adult. Under this line of reasoning there is absolutely no consideration of the various ways the individual’s gender and sexuality may develop over time let alone any concern for their future sexual pleasure should the procedure fail. After all she’s going to grow up to be a married woman and it’s all about her future husband’s pleasure, right? Once again such surgeries should not be imposed on anyone. Instead they should be offered later when the person is able to make an informed decision.

Beyond the physical and mental repercussions of nonconsensual surgeries there are the psychological consequences of secrecy regarding a diagnosis of AIS. While nondisclosure is done in the interest of sparing the individual unnecessary upset and confusion the actual lived experiences of those in the AIS community indicate such secrecy is actually harmful. Most people diagnosed with AIS who were not told of their condition have reported feelings of shame and confusion upon discovering they have AIS and advise full and complete disclosure from the beginning. A prominent example of this can be found in the narrative of Georgiann Davis, who tells of her experiences with AIS, nonconsensual childhood surgeries, and nondisclosure in Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis as part of her investigation into intersexuality, intersex rights movements, and current diagnostic nomenclature. Along with her own story Davis also includes insights from interviews she conducted with intersex people on their experiences with medical terminology and practices.

Rather than approach AIS with secrecy and nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries medical professionals, families, and individuals with AIS should work together for the well-being of those diagnosed with AIS in ways that respect their bodily autonomy and humanity. This means ending the imposition of medically unnecessary surgeries on infants and children and creating supportive environments free of shame, stigma, and secrecy. Above all individuals with AIS should take the lead in these efforts, challenging abuses of medical authority as necessary and supporting one another.

Access to support groups has also proven to be helpful for many individuals with AIS and their families, especially when first adjusting to a new diagnosis. An excellent example of such a group working today is the DSD-AIS Support Group. In this case DSD stands for Differences in Sex Development as opposed to the highly medicalized Disorders of Sex Development terminology that has been highly debated within the intersex community over the past decade. The group started out as a support group for women with AIS, but recent decades has branched out into a larger support group with a mission of, “Promoting support, education, and outreach to foster healthy outcomes for adults, youth, children, and families affected by Intersex/Differences of Sex Development.” This includes not only intersex women with AIS, but also intersex men, transgender, and nonbinary people with AIS and anyone else with an intersex trait and their families. Such support groups help individuals and families realize they are not alone, find resources, and exchange information. They can also be valuable educational spaces for medical professionals and others who wish to be allies to the intersex community.

Sources and Further Reading 

  1. http://www.isna.org/faq/conditions/ais
  2. http://www.isna.org/faq/conditions/pais
  3. https://www.childrens.com/specialties-services/specialty-centers-and-programs/gynecology/what-we-treat/androgen-insensitivity-syndrome
  4. http://aisdsd.org/
  5. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis Georgiann Davis

 

Book Review–Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul by Leslie Feinberg

Why is there prejudice against trans and gender nonconforming people? When did it start? Where did it start? How did it start? These are questions Leslie Feinberg sets out to answer in Transgender Warriors: From Joan of Arc to RuPaul in a world that largely takes sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, transphobia, homophobia, and similar forms of institutional subjection for granted.

For the purposes of this analysis Feinberg utilizes the broadest definition of transgender possible in embracing the word as an umbrella term that covers anyone who transgresses gender lines. This includes groups as diverse as, “transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, transgenderists, bidgenders, drag queen, drag kings, cross-dresser, masculine women, feminine men, intersexuals (people referred to in the past as “hermaphrodites”), androgynes, cross-genders, shape-shifters, passing women, passing men, gender-benders, gender-blenders, bearded women, and women bodybuilders who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body.” Some of these words have gone largely out of use, others have been redefined, and entirely new words have been added since Transgender Warriors was written in 1996. Many of the aforementioned terms, including intersex, have even experienced contested belongings under any of kind trans umbrella whatsoever in recent decades. While these rapid language shifts may be confusing at times, these changes are actually a positive sign. The fact our language on gender is changing at all means people are actually talking about these issues and it is having an impact. Plus Feinberg’s technique of using the term transgender in the most inclusive possible can still be useful for emphasizing how the issues gender transgressors from drag queens to intersexuals face on a daily basis are interconnected. After all none of us are free until all of us are free.

Feinberg also makes a significant contribution to anti-imperialist struggles with a compelling examination the connections between the rise of class divided societies, patriarchy, and the rise of European imperialism. Coming from an explicitly anti-racist, Marxist position, Feinberg avoids analyzing cultures they do not belong to and instead focuses on the central role the emergence of class divided societies and European colonialism have had in the development of prejudice against trans people. An example of this can be found in how colonizers forced their binary gender system on native cultures who recognized more than two genders. In fact not only were gender variant people not oppressed, they were revered and played important roles in their communities. There is also evidence this was also the case in Europe at one time in the far distant past. However all of that changed in the transition from matrilineal, egalitarian, communal societies in which resources are shared to patrilineal, class divided societies in which the majority of the wealth is consolidated among small groups of powerful men through means of inheritance from fathers to sons, private land ownership, and exploitative rent collecting practices that serve to direct wealth away from the lower classes. Such a system also necessitated a rigid gender divide and eventually evolved into the forms of patriarchy, racism, classism, imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia that we know today. This new way of viewing history also implications for how live and seek change in the present.

In the interest of praxis Feinberg and connecting theory to lived experience Feinberg also makes connections between the historical research and her own lived experiences as a “anti-racist white, working class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female revolutionary communist.” These insights help to ground all of the historical theories covered in their meanings for the present context and brings the reader into Feinberg’s vision for a future free of oppression, a future in which everyone has access to their own history and is honored in their gender.

In the end I would recommend this well-crafted and well-researched book for anyone interested in trans history and social justice. In particular I would recommend to anyone who is gender transgressive and wrestling with the questions Feinberg poses. There is nothing as powerful as knowing one’s own history. Once any subjugated people realizes their marginalization is not an inevitable, ahistorical fact of life that has existed for all times and in all places, and can actually be changed in the present there is no going back.

Documentary Review–Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric

This past February National Geographic broadcasted a documentary on transgender identities entitled Gender Revolution with Katie Couric acting as a kind of guide. Intended for a wider audience the documentary covers the basics of sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality. Nonbinary and intersex issues also receive some air time, but the main focus remains on binary transgender people, theories on why they exist, and how “this whole transgender thing” is having a moment. While any positive transgender representation on television is certainly welcome, the documentary does oversimplify and essentialize gender. As a result the documentary falls short in its representations of the intersex community.

First the documentary could do a better of making the distinction between intersex and transgender. While there is some overlap between the intersex and transgender communities (of which I am an example), the majority of intersex people do not identity as trans and the majority of trans people are not intersex. Also the two communities face different, albeit interconnected,  issues. For example, transgender people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of access to often necessary hormonal and surgical treatments while intersex people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of ending nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants and children. It is important these differences be acknowledged when intersex and trans issues are covered together. Gender Revolution does not adequately present these distinctions. This is mainly due to the fact that their main focus is on transgender and not on intersex issues.

Second are the interviews covering intersex narratives. These include interviews with the parents of a toddler who was diagnosed with androgenic hyperplasia at birth and an interview with an intersex trans man on his traumatic experience with early surgeries. For the most part these stories are handled well. The accompanying statistics and discussion of the failed “John/Joan case” help to further enlighten the audience on the issues intersex people face on a wider scale. Yet the coverage takes a problematic turn with the inclusion of a doctor who justifies his recommendation for medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children, saying he would opt for surgery if the child was his and the number of people who have issues after such gender assignments are small anyway. Such statements go completely against the lived experiences of intersex people. Regardless of gender identity most intersex people who undergo nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries in childhood suffer trauma as a result and have to deal with the life long physical consequences often in the forms of decreased sexual function, increased injections, and sterilization. In fact entire civil rights movements have been organized against the practice and are continuing to do so to this day. Seriously including a doctor who justifies nonconsensual surgeries on intersex infants and children in a documentary covering these issues is problematic at best even it can serve as an example of how many medical professionals have continued these contested practices into the present.

Now there are some things Gender Revolution does well. It manages to make the basics of trans issues from generation gaps within trans communities to transgender health care accessible for those who otherwise would never have learned about them. In this way the documentary does well as an educational tool, especially for the cis majority. Even with it’s problems I would still recommend it to those who are in the early stages of learning about what it means to be transgender means as it manages to impart the basics in a gentle and accessible manner through the familiar styles of Katie Couric. However it should be viewed critically and with caution, especially when it comes to the segments on intersexuality.

 

Being Nonbinary and Intersex: My Identity at the Intersections of Sex and Gender

Recently I decided to write this post on my own identity at the intersections of sex and gender in an effort to improve intersex representation in any small way I can. Looking back on my journey so far I can’t help but think of how my life might have been different if I had been exposed to more diverse representations of intersex experiences with gender from the beginning. In writing about my own gender identity and how it intersects with my intersexuality I hope to help others in my intersex and nonbinary communities who are wrestling with similar questions concerning their own identities. Before delving into the details let me be clear this post is only a snap shot of my gender identity as it exists today. Anything I write here can change and that’s okay. Everyone has the right to experiment and to change their mind multiple times in the process. Going forward I reserve the right to be complex. Also I do not speak for all intersex people. Each person is different and I can only speak to my own personal experiences. Now with that out of the way let’s begin.

Some of the words I like to use for my gender identity include gender fluid, nonbinary, genderqueer, demiwoman, woman, and questioning. Sometimes I’ll even combine some of these words and describe myself as a nonbinary woman or genderqueer woman to indicate while I do sometimes identify as a woman I, as a gender fluid person, do not identify exclusively as a woman. What all of this means is my gender changes. Sometimes I experience these states one at a time and other times I experience some or all of them simultaneously. This can be pretty confusing, especially for those who are not familiar with nonbinary experiences. Even I will be the first to admit I’m still sorting it out, but I will do my best.

Some days I feel strongly as a woman and enjoy being seen as such. Yet there are also days when I feel somewhat or partially a woman (demiwoman), feel some frustration with being seen exclusively as a woman, and wonder if being called a woman, female, or a she really tells the whole story of my gender identity. I like to think of these experiences in terms of colors. For example, let’s say deep red represents the gender woman. That would make being a demiwoman a lighter shade of red or pink. Under this analogy it can be said these aspects of my gender identity range from deep red to pink.

Then there are also days when I like to describe myself as genderqueer. During these times I feel the gender binary does not adequately describe my gender identity and my gender actually exists outside of and beyond male and female. I use the term genderqueer to describe these aspects of my identity because I really like the political connotations and the broadness of genderqueer as an identity term offers when used to communicate an identity that queers gender by virtue of its existence outside of and/or beyond the gender binary.

Along with genderqueer I also like using the term nonbinary. This is mostly because it is more widely known than words like genderqueer and it also conveys a wide range of meanings. To be more specific I use the term nonbinary to describe those aspects of my gender identity that are neither of the binary genders or exist somewhere in between them, but always tilting toward the woman side. Plus there are times when my gender is confusing and difficult to define and for now nonbinary seems to be the best way to describe it. A few more specific terms I am currently exploring include gender neutral, neutrois, aporagender, multigender, and poly-genderflux, but these topics are for another post. Sufficed it to say I have a lot more questions and exploring ahead of me.

This fuller understanding of my gender identity has come after a long road of soul searching, questioning, and self reflection that will likely continue for the rest of my life. So far since coming out to myself as a gender fluid, genderqueer, nonbinary, intersex, Turners (demi)woman I have found my intersexuality does intersect with my gender identity in important ways and even overlaps with my gender identity. This is because I live in a cultural context in which sex is socially constructed as a gendered category and plays important roles in how gender is socially embodied. In this way being intersex has a significant affect on my gender identity and has come to play an indispensable role in how I understand, experience, and embody gender as an individual on an identity level and at a larger societal level.

How do you understand your gender? How did you come to that understanding? How do others perceive your gender? How do you feel about that perception? What words do you use to express and communicate your identity? Why have you chosen those words in particular? How does your gender intersect with other identities you hold?

 

My Life on the Edges: A Story of Gender Complexity, Fluidity, and Expression

I am a neurodivergent, queer, bisexual, gender fluid, nonbinary, genderqueer, intersex (demi)woman diagnosed with Turner syndrome. This is the story of my life on the edges so far.

When I was born a doctor declared, “Its a girl!” To everyone present this seemed like a perfectly reasonable assertion. By all accounts my little body appeared to be what is considered typical for a baby girl and there were no other official options. Before I could even say anything for myself the word “female” was plastered permanently on my birth certificate, my parents gave me a culturally feminine name, and brought me home where a green room with all the essentials for a newborn were waiting for me. I was a very small baby, but healthy. Everything was going “normally” for this new Upper-Midwestern, middle-class, straight, suburban family.

As a child I gravitated toward stuffed animals, drawing, looking for doggies in the neighborhood, and assuming myself and my younger brother with elaborate games of pretend. I was the kind of kid who would pick up the Candy Land game and pretend it was a storybook rather than play the game itself. My favorite movies included Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and anything with a dog in it. A complete sense of gender had yet to take form and I didn’t really question my girlhood. At least I don’t remember doing so. I must have been too busy pretending, learning, and pestering Mommy (who is allergic to practically anything with fur) for a dog to be too concerned. Although I do remember being very vocal whenever someone told me I couldn’t do something like go shirtless, wear a suit, pretend to be a boy, or sing “the man song” from Mulan or suggested I had to do something such as like pink or play with dolls because I was a girl. I was going to play how I wanted and that was that as far as I was concerned. Looking back, I remember being a happy child who loved pretending and couldn’t do anything but be unapologetically herself. This continued even as I entered the wider world of school.

Once I started preschool it didn’t take long for the adults in my life to notice I still wasn’t learning how to recite my letters or count. As a five-year-old I was having too much fun playing and enjoying the family’s new, hypoallergenic puppy to be worried about any of this so my parents worried for me. It got to the point where my mother was concerned enough to bring me into the pediatrician’s office. There I chatted up the doctor using a larger vocabulary than expected of a small child, which left the doctor asking my mother why we were there in the first place. She then explained I still didn’t know my letters or numbers and expressed her concern that I might have a learning disability. While the doctor was surprised he assured her that I was still young, it was too early to tell if there was anything “wrong,” and I would learn eventually. This reaction reveals prevalent assumptions concerning what learning disabilities look and sound like that would come to dog me going into my formal education.

Since the general population tends to associate learning disabilities with visibly below average verbal skills and intelligence it took some time for my disability to be formally recognized as my above average verbal skills were problematically taken as signs of intelligence and therefore the absence of a learning disability. At first my teachers, while still expressing concern for my learning difficulties, had the same reaction as the pediatrician, “She’s still young. It’s too early to know if she has a learning disability. She’ll learn.” Fortunately I had parents who were excellent advocates for me and ensured I received the attention and resources I needed throughout elementary school. For a long time it was believed I had dyslexia given my tendency to write letters and numbers backwards, but I was not officially given any kind of diagnosis until much later. In the meantime, with the help of parents, teachers, special ed paras, and individual education plan caseworkers, I learned to read and write and even thrived academically with certain accommodations. By the time I was in fourth grade one of my teachers discovered I had a knack for creative writing. This positive feedback opened up a whole new world of communication for me and I started to write down the stories I had been either pretending or drawing all of my life. I even started to dream of becoming a writer like the authors of the books my mother read to me and my brother every night. The Harry Potter books in particular were abundant sources of inspiration as well as motivation to continue reading.

Along with new academic skills I also gained a fuller understanding of gender in elementary school. I grew my hair out down to my waist, started playing with the doll house my grandmother made for me in addition to my other toys, and would describe myself as a girl without hesitation. Still in terms of my gender expression I wasn’t the sort of child people called a “girly girl,” but I also wasn’t the kind of child people described as a “tomboy” either. I just lived my life as a girl somewhere in between those two labels and for the most part I was fine with doing so. At least I don’t remember my gender assignment causing me any distress or confusion in those days. At school and at home I was treated as a girl and told to expect growth spurts, breast growth, and menstruation in the coming years and had no reason to question what I was being told. It seemed to be just the way things were and I knew of nothing else. With no knowledge of options beyond the sex/gender binary I was fine with being a girl and expected I would develop into a woman in the same way as the other girls. I thought everything would go on like that forever. Then the transition to middle school approached.

Middle school came with a lot of changes in school, teachers, grading methods, routine, and classmates. All the other kids around me were suddenly growing very quickly and some of them were even showing visible signs of starting puberty. I, however, was still very short and relatively the same. At first this fact didn’t concern me or anyone around me much. My parents aren’t tall and everyone including me was under the impression my breasts were beginning to develop. Once again everything seemed to be going “normally.” For better or worse that wouldn’t last.

The signs anything other than average was happening became obvious at my twelve-year doctor’s appointment. The pediatrician’s face fell while examining where I fell on the growth chart compared to the year before. He then said he wanted to measure me again, which only confirmed what he had seen. I was already leveling off on the growth chart. This warranted a referral to a pediatric endocrinologist and a series of blood tests. A few months later a blood test revealed I had Turner syndrome, a genetic condition which in my case manifested in a 45X karyotype, nonfunctional ovaries, and a lack of spontaneous visible puberty. What we thought was breast development turned out to be only baby fat. In response to my body failing to reach expectations I was put on growth hormone injections in the hopes of reaching a height of five feet with plans to start estrogen and progesterone therapy after a few years.

Middle school was a particularly awkward time for me. My peers were changing and I was remaining more or less the same. I was never bullied, but over time I started to feel isolated and betrayed by the fact that everything adults had told me to expect as an adolescent wasn’t happening for me and I would never have the life they told me I would lead. I started to question everything I had been taught about gender and my place within it. I even felt different in some inexplicable way from the Turners girls and women I met at the support group meetings held at the clinic, which made me feel even more alone and confused. I was adrift without any references or language for what I was going through.

Then to make matters even worse my individual education plan was revoked when I was in the eighth grade because I was receiving good grades. As far as the administration was concerned my academic success meant I no longer needed accommodations. I, on the other hand, knew my academic success was an indication the accommodations I was receiving were effective and I still needed them. Even then on some level I knew I was being punished for being on the edge of what society constructs as disabled subjects who are deserving and in need of accommodation and which are not. Fortunately my parents and teachers agreed with me and took steps to ensure I received the help I needed for the rest of my time in middle school and going into high school. My parents were shortly after these events made aware of the option to receive accommodations through a 504 (a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act), which meant I needed an official diagnosis.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long to receive a diagnosis. After a few hours of tests the following summer a neuropsychologist diagnosed me with nonverbal learning disorder, which is common among people with Turner syndrome and usually presents itself in the form of low nonverbal skills, issues with spacial reasoning, social difficulties, slow processing time, and perfectionism as well as compensatory strengths in verbal skills. The diagnosis explained so much. It explained why making friends had always been so difficult, why it took me longer than most to learn new information and complete various tasks, and why I could be such a perfectionist particularly with my schoolwork. It also legitimized my need for accommodations in the eyes of the school’s administration going into high school, which was a relief.

Life improved in high school. I took advantage of opportunities to travel abroad, cut my hair to a more comfortable length, wrote for the school newspaper, gained the confidence to take advanced placement courses in European history and English despite my parents’ initial discouragement because of my learning disability, and still found the time to write my first attempt at a novel. Plus graduating from growth hormone replacement therapy to estrogen/progesterone replacement therapy allowed me to catch up with my peers in terms of physical development, which helped to resolve a lot of the social awkwardness I had been experiencing. At the same time this transition also meant going through a rough adjustment period. After starting a regiment of “birth control” pills to induce menstruation it took time to find the right medication, which meant I had issues with irregular periods. I remember my first period was at the age of sixteen and lasted for a whole month and it wasn’t the last time either. For a while I can recall having a long period like this roughly every three months and would need to go on progesterone for ten days to stop it. This lasted until my doctors and I finally found the right balance of hormones.

Still through all of its difficulties and benefits going on estrogen and progesterone replacement therapy seemed like the next logical step at the time. I had been told all my life I was a girl, would grow breasts, menstruate, and be attracted to boys. Going on this medication was presented as the next step in the treatment of Turner syndrome to ensure all of those steps happened for me. I had no resources to explore other options or seriously question any of the messages I was receiving about my gender and my body from doctors and the larger society. All the literature I read on Turner syndrome upon my diagnosis stated only girls had Turner syndrome, all of the people diagnosed with Turner syndrome I met identified or at least presented as girls and women, and no one ever made any references to anything beyond the binary or how you can still be a woman without breasts and a menstrual cycle. There was certainly no mention of sexuality in these materials let alone people with Turner syndrome who are not heterosexual. The only option at the time was deference to parental and medical authority, which meant adherence to certain cultural beliefs and expectations. This included the cultural belief that to be a woman is to have certain secondary sex characteristics and exclusive attractions to the “opposite sex” as well as the expectation that this category of “woman” is one I must belong to unquestioningly and unambiguously for the whole of my life because a doctor said so after a quick glance at my genitals when I was only seconds old. Given all these factors the decision to go on hormones was not really a decision at all. There was no real discussion about it, no consideration of how my identity might develop, nothing.

All the while I went forward with hormonal treatments and still felt different in a way I couldn’t explain. Most of my peers loved wearing dresses and putting on makeup and never expressed a desire to wear a suit as well as dresses on certain occasions, go without makeup most days, keep their body and facial hair all the time, or even feeling ambivalent about their breasts at times like I did. Even though I knew I could still be a woman and choice not to shave, not wear makeup every day, don a suit, and feel indifferent about my breasts sometimes, in my case there seemed to be something else going on at a deeper level that I could not explain. All I knew was no one seemed to feel the same way about their gender I did and it left me wondering what it all meant. Why am I not like the other girls? What’s going on with me? In short I was still confused, but having no words or role models to turn to all of these questions were buried underneath massive piles of internalized oppressions, fear, and insecurity.

Looking back on what this time was like I have a memory of my teenage self lying awake in a hotel bed with a burning question. I can’t remember exactly how old I was or where I was staying or why I was traveling. All I know is I was probably in my mid-teens and was likely traveling with my family on one of our annual family vacations. Lying there in the dark I began to wonder if I was bisexual. At the time it was difficult for me to say anything on the subject since I didn’t have much experience even in the way of crushes on anyone, male or female. In the end I concluded I was not bisexual. I just couldn’t think about being different in more than one way let alone begin to contemplate the nuances and complexities of being differently gendered specifically. This mentality continued for years.

What finally saved me was the coming out of a family member. Shortly after I turned sixteen one of my grandparents came out to me and my younger brother as a transgender woman and almost immediately we saw the parallels in our journeys. I can still remember the two of us sitting together on my parent’s family room floor and talking about our experiences with hormone replacement therapy the same day she came out to me in person. Finally, I felt understood. Looking back, I was probably identifying with her on an even deeper level as my own identity was developing in a direction more similar to my bisexual, transgender grandmother (who I now call Gran) than the rest of my heterosexual, cisgender family members. Still I needed language to explain it.

The first word I gained was intersex, which refers to those who’s chromosomes, hormones, gonads, and/or genitals are not considered standard for male or female. I was a senior in high school and had agreed to participate in a panel on families and gender transition along with both of my grandmothers and my aunt. In preparation Gran had written our bios for the event. She showed me mine, which described me as a heterosexual, cisgender woman. Gran then asked me if I felt that was accurate and I said, “Yes.” At the time I was very inexperienced sexually, had only just learned of the term cisgender, and had absolutely no concept of the variety of genders besides male and female out there in the world. I just didn’t know there were any other words to describe me. Then Gran surprised me when she said she wondered if I identified as intersex. Next thing I remember I was researching all I could about this new term and was stunned to find how much it fit how I felt about myself, my body, and my experiences as a person diagnosed with Turner Syndrome going through puberty with synthetic hormones. At the same I felt I had been kept in the dark about a significant part of my identity. All of my life there was a word for who I am and a much wider community of others like me and no one told me. No one told me there were entire groups of people like me who’s bodies didn’t quite fit into the narrow categories of male and female. Once I knew of the wider intersex community I couldn’t completely avoid the questions this new terminology and the diagnosis I had received years earlier posed for my identity: Who am I? What am I? What does this mean for my gender, for my womanhood?

Meanwhile I was also starting my first romantic relationship with a boy. Looking back, we weren’t compatible, but at the time it seemed like a good fit and I still don’t regret it. Yet I can now acknowledge I stayed in that relationship for as long as I did partly out of my subconscious fear of rejection on account of my intersex status and deep need for affection as reassurance of my worth as a desirable partner in spite of my sterility. It took leaving home and gaining some independence to get past these fears and see my own worth.

College opened a whole new world. I moved to a small college town in a neighboring state, met new people, and joined groups like Student Senate, PRIDE, and the campus feminist organization. In my academic life I took classes in new subjects including religion, women’s and gender studies, and anthropology with names like Reading the New Testament Through Marginalized Eyes, Gender Activism in a Global Context, and Participating in the Divine. There I found a passion for a social justice and conducted research on hormone replacement therapy among Turners women, investigated masculinity and virginity in the Gospel of Luke, the feminine divine in Christian traditions, and conducted a series of oral history interviews with my grandmothers on their experiences as a trans-cis couple.

In my personal life I gained more confidence and eventually left my significant other after three years of being together. We had been drifting apart since I started college and it was becoming clear the relationship was no longer healthy for either of us. After a period of grief for the loss of my first relationship and the death of my dog from old age, I started to branch out and allow myself to explore the full scope of my sexuality as a newly single person. I started to really internalize the lesson that people with Turner syndrome, like everyone else, come in all sexualities and this part of my identity was worth exploring. Gradually I became comfortable with my attraction to a cisgender woman classmate I was getting to know as well as others who did not identify as men to my knowledge. I even got to the point of coming out to family and friends as bisexual starting with my grandparents and my younger brother. Throughout this process I had fairly positive reactions and overall felt comfortable in my sexual identity, but something still didn’t quite feel right. Something was still missing.

By the time I graduated from college I had some important questions about my gender. Why did people asking for my pronouns tend to leave me somewhat uncomfortable answering only she/her/hers pronouns and wondering if there was more to the story? At the same time why did answering only they/them/theirs pronouns not feel right either? Getting others to alternate between singular they and she/her/hers pronouns seemed like it would be too much of a struggle in most cases. I didn’t know enough about other pronoun options to feel completely comfortable using them for myself. I knew he/him/his wouldn’t feel right. I just couldn’t explain it. Most of the time I felt the term woman described me well, but there were also times when I felt the term didn’t fit me entirely on its own. The same was also true of the term nonbinary by itself. At least I knew the term man didn’t work. It was all really confusing, but I was beginning to develop a new vocabulary complete with words like nonbinary, genderqueer, demigender, and gender fluid to explore and help me in my quest for my authentic gender identity; an identity I like to describe these days as woman, but not strictly so and not entirely fixed either. The truth is my identity is complex and always evolving. It very well may be a month from now I will be using different words to describe my gender identity and expression and that’s okay. Everyone should be allowed to experiment and change their mind. I’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.

For now, I am on a year-long hiatus between college and graduate school. It has given me the time to read, earn some money as a part-time filing clerk for a small insurance agent, and further explore new terminology and forms of expression. The more I learn the more questions I have, which means I am always figuring out my gender and my identity as a whole. Still I proudly live and move along the blurry borders between and beyond male and female, straight and lesbian, cis and trans, binary and nonbinary. It is a wonderful, complex, and beautiful place to live. This space is my birthright no matter what anyone else has to say about it, because at the end of the day I am who I am in all of my complexity and nothing can change that fact.

What about you? Where do you live and move? How do your identities intersect? What words do you use? What are your edges like? What’s your story?

Questions Raised in a Queer Studies Panel: Identity, Community, and Coherence

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel for an undergraduate queer studies class at Augsburg College. The panel also included a seventy-one-year-old transgender woman and a transgender man in his late twenties. Over the course of the panel we covered a wide range of topics including gender identity, sexuality, trans and intersex experiences with medical professionals, life after college, and more. The students and the professors alike asked compelling questions, but there was one question in particular that stood out for me.

Toward the end of the panel one of the professors raised a question concerning the use of themes such as wholeness, congruity, and coherence in trans narratives and theology and anti-ableist critiques of such language as problematic for disabled people. The other panelists described the feelings of wholeness and congruity they experienced in their transitions even in the midst of the difficulties of achieving total coherence in more than one marginalized identity, the most vivid example being how trans and bisexual identities intersect. I, however, had very different feelings on the matter that are more in line with the critiques coming from disabled communities. This is because, in the same way disabled people live in a world that constructs being able-bodied and neurotypical as the standard of wholeness, intersex people like me live in a world where being born to anatomy that fits neatly into the sex/gender binary is constructed as the only way to be coherent.

As a queer, genderfluid, intersex person living in a world in which medical authorities see me as having a “disorder of sex development,” prescribe “feminizing treatments,” and deny even the possibility of my gender identity and my sexual identity, I will never feel whole, congruent, and coherent. Even moving between my Turners community and my wider intersex community, two groups one would think would obviously understand each another, there is oftentimes a sense of disconnect. Most of the Turners women I have met are simply unaware of the wider intersex community let alone the wider trans community community and often have difficulty understanding all of my identities. At the same time too many of the few who are aware of intersex and trans identities suffer from high levels of internalized interphobia, transphobia, and biphobia that render them unable to accept me let alone even attempt to understand me. They seem to believe the ways in which I self-identify somehow implicate them. Then there are also the complications my bisexual identity brings on top of everything else. Combine all of this with the negative experiences I’ve had in support groups where there was intrusive medical supervision along with the wider culture’s common obsession with binaries and widespread lack of intersectional thinking and it is no wonder why I have yet to feel whole, congruent, and coherent as a social being.

Thinking on all of this I am left wondering: What does being whole, congruent, and coherent even mean anyway? Do we really need to be all of those things? Maybe we can embrace our multiplicities, our incongruities, our incoherence. Maybe we can learn to question the cultural belief in some magical, whole, congruent, coherent, singular, fixed identity just waiting to be found somewhere “in there” with just enough introspection and self-awareness. Maybe we can actually incorporate our pluralities and inconsistencies into the daily embodiment of our identities and recognize the pluralities in the embodied identities of others. Maybe then we could become who we can be.

What do you think? What identities do you bring to the table? What intersections do you call home? How do you embody your identities? What does wholeness, congruity, and coherence mean to you?