[This talk contains mature content]
I have a vagina.
Just thought you should know. That might not come as a surprise to some of you. I look like a woman. I'm dressed like one, I guess. The thing is, I also have balls. And it does take a lot of nerve to come up here and talk to you about my genitalia. Just a little. But I'm not talking about bravery or courage. I mean literally — I have balls. Right here, right where a lot of you have ovaries. I'm not male or female. I'm intersex.
Most people assume that you're biologically either a man or a woman, but it's actually a lot more complex than that. There are so many ways somebody could be intersex. In my case, it means I was born with XY chromosomes, which you probably know as male chromosomes. And I was born with a vagina and balls inside my body. I don't respond to testosterone, so during puberty, I grew breasts, but I never got acne or body hair, body oil. You can be jealous of that.
But even though I don't actually have a uterus — I was born without one, so I don't menstruate, I can't have biological children. We put people in boxes based on their genitalia. Before a baby's even born, we ask whether it's a boy or a girl, as if it actually matters; as if you're going to be less excited about having a baby if it doesn't have the genitals you wanted; as if what's between somebody's legs tells you anything about that person. Are they kind, generous, funny? Smart? Who do they want to be when they grow up?
Genitals don't actually tell you anything. Yet, we define ourselves by them. In this society, we love putting people into boxes and labeling each other. It kind of gives us a sense of belonging and teaches us how to interact with one another. But there's one really big problem: biological sex is not black or white. It's on a spectrum.
Besides your genitalia, you also have your chromosomes, your gonads, like ovaries or testicles. You have your internal sex organs, your hormone production, your hormone response and your secondary sex characteristics, like breast development, body hair, etc. Those seven areas of biological sex all have so much variation, yet we only get two options: male or female. Which is kind of absurd to me, because I can't think of a single other human trait that there's only two options for: skin color, hair, height, eyes. You can either have nose A or nose B, that's it, no other options.
If there are infinite ways for our bodies to look, our minds to think, personalities to act, wouldn't it make sense that there's that much variety in biological sex, too? Did you know that besides XX or XY chromosomes, you could have XX and XY chromosomes? Or you could have an extra X — XXY. Or two extra — XXXY. Goes on from there. And for those "normal" people with XX or XY, what does that mean? I have XY chromosomes. If my DNA is found at the scene of a crime — not saying it will, but, you know, we'll see.
If my skeleton is discovered thousands of years from now, I'll be labeled male. Is that the truth? My balls would say so. But what about the rest of me? And what if a woman has ovarian cancer and has to have her ovaries removed? Does she still qualify as a woman? What about other intersex people who are born without balls or ovaries or with just one or a combination of the two? Where do they go? Do you have to have a uterus to be a woman? There's a lot of us who are born without one.
And everyone's favorite part, genitalia: you either have one or the other, right? You either have a six-inch-long penis that's exactly this thick, jutting straight out of the body at a 90-degree angle, or you have a vagina that's this wide internally and a clitoris that's half an inch above the vaginal opening and labia that look exactly like they're supposed to look like, according to that one porn video you watched that one time. You know the one. If you've been with more than one sexual partner in your lifetime, and you line them up, one by one, I guarantee you can identify them just by their genitalia.
Think about it. Go on.
I see you. No judging. Just notice. All different, right?
The sex and gender binary are both so ingrained in our society, that we never stop to think about it. We just automatically place each other into one box or the other, as if it actually matters. Until somebody comes along to make you question it. And if you're thinking that I'm the exception, an anomaly, an outlier: intersex people represent around two percent of the population. That's the same percentage as genetic redheads. It's about 150 million people, roughly, which is more than the entire population of Russia. So there's a lot of us, needless to say. We're not new or rare. We're just invisible. We've existed throughout every culture in history. Yet, we never talk about it.
In fact, a lot of people might not know that they're intersex. Have you had a karyotype test to determine your chromosomes? What about a full blood panel for all of your hormone levels? A friend of mine found out last year, in his 50s. The executive director of interACT, which is the leading organization for intersex human rights here in the US, she found out she was intersex at age 41. Her doctors found out when she was 15, but they didn't tell her. They lied and said that she had cancer, because that seemed like an easier option than finding out she wasn't "fully" a woman. This kind of thing happens a lot, where intersex people are lied to or kept in the dark about our bodies, which comes as a surprise to a lot of people. But we live in a society that doesn't talk about sex or bodies at all, unless it's to mock or shame each other.
I found out I was intersex at age 10, and for the most part, I was fine with that information. It didn't really faze me; I was still developing my understanding of the world. It wasn't until I got older and realized I didn't fit society's expectations of me, that I didn't belong, that I was abnormal. And that's when the shame started. How many times have you seen kids play with the "wrong" toys for their gender? Or try on the "wrong" clothes? All the time, right? Kids don't have these ideas about gender norm, they don't have shame about who they're supposed to be or what they're supposed to like or love. They don't care about any of this stuff. They don't have shame until we put it on them.
I also had doctors lie to me. At age 10, they told me that I would also get cancer unless I removed my balls. Then they proceeded to tell me that every year. Until today, there are still doctors who want me to remove them. But there's literally no reason. If a typical XY male, like yourself, has testicles, and one is undescended, there's a high chance of it becoming cancerous — or a higher chance of it becoming cancerous. They need to thermoregulated. So they drop down away from the body to cool off, or they shrink back up to get warm. Mine don't need to do that. They're not responding to testosterone, they're not producing sperm. They're fine right here inside my body. Yet, because there's such a lack of information about intersex people, my doctors never understood the difference. They never really understood my body.
As I got older, I had another doctor tell me that I needed to have surgery on my vagina. She said that until I had an operation, until she operated, I would not be able to have "normal sex" with my husband one day. Her words. I didn't end up going through with the operation, and I'm incredibly grateful for that. I'm not here to talk about my sex life.
But let's just say it's fine.
I'm fine, my body is fine. You actually wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between me and another person unless I told you; you wouldn't be able to tell that I was intersex unless I told you. But again, because of the lack of understanding about bodies, my doctor didn't understand the difference. And for the most part, my sex life is fine. The only issue that really comes up is that sometimes, sexual situations bring up memories of doctors touching me, over and over again since I was 10. I've been really lucky to escape — I didn't think I would get emotional — I've been really lucky to escape the physical harm that comes from these unnecessary surgeries. But no intersex person is free from the emotional harm that comes from living in a society that tries to cover up your existence. Most of my intersex friends have had operations like these. Oftentimes, they will remove testes like mine, even though my risk of testicular cancer is lower than the risk of breast cancer in a typical woman with no predisposition, no family history. But we don't tell her to remove her breasts, do we?
It's rare to meet an intersex person that hasn't been operated on. Oftentimes, these surgeries are done to improve intersex kids' lives, but they usually end up doing the opposite, causing more harm and complications, both physical and emotional. I'm not saying that doctors are bad or evil. It's just that we live in a society that causes some doctors to "fix" those of us who don't fit their definition of normal. We're not problems that need to be fixed. We just live in a society that needs to be enlightened.
One of the ways I'm doing that is by creating a genderless puberty guidebook that can teach kids about their bodies as they grow up. Not their girl bodies or their boy bodies — just their bodies. We often place unrealistic expectations on the things that our bodies do that are outside of our control. I mean, if one man can grow a full, luxurious, hipster beard, and the other can only grow a few mustache hairs, what does that mean about who they are as men? Nothing. It literally, most likely, just means that their hair follicles respond to testosterone in different ways. Yet, how many times have you heard a man ashamed about something like this?
Imagine a world where we could live in a society that teaches us not to have shame about the things that our bodies do or do not do. I want to change the way that we think about biological sex in this society — which is a lot to ask for. You could say it's ballsy, I guess.
But eventually we accepted the world as round, right? We no longer diagnose gay people with mental disorders or women with hysteria. We don't think epilepsy is caused by the devil anymore, so that's cool.
We constantly change and evolve, the more we understand as a society. And biological sex is on a spectrum. It's not black or white. Not only could that knowledge save intersex kids from physical and emotional harm, I think it would help everyone else, too. Who here has ever felt inadequate or ashamed because you weren't girly enough, you were too girly, you weren't manly enough, or too manly? We constantly shame people for not fitting into a box, but the reality is, I think we shame others because it prevents them from seeing that we don't fit inside our boxes, either. And the truth is that nobody actually fits in a box, because they don't exist. This binary, this false male-female facade is something we constructed, we built ourselves. But it doesn't have to exist. We can break it down. And that's what I want to do. Will you join me?