Hida Viloria is a writer who holds a degree in Gender and Sexuality from U.C. Berkeley. She is also an activist for intersex people — (formerly known as hermaphrodites) Her memoir “Mighty Hermaphrodite” will be published next spring.
SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) — A lot of people have been outraged by the gender verification testing that South African athlete Caster Semenya has been put through, and have been trying to be supportive of her; but in doing so, they often further prejudice against the very thing which she appears to be: intersex.
Intersex people (formerly known as hermaphrodites) are those born with bodies that are difficult to classify as either “male” or “female.”
Since results of Semenya’s tests were apparently leaked, it seems that her body doesn’t conform to the definition of “female” as one who has ovaries.
I’m intersex because, while I have ovaries, menstruate and can get pregnant, my genitalia is somewhat male-looking (simply put, I have a clitoris that’s much larger than average.)
Throughout my childhood, I never thought I was anything other than “female” because that’s what I was labeled and raised as. While I felt more aggressive than other girls, I didn’t think that anything other than male and female could exist. So I just thought of myself as a “different kind of woman.” Ultimately, my assessment was pretty accurate.
I was raised in a strict Catholic home, where nudity and sex talk was unheard of, so having no one to compare my genitals to, I was unaware that mine were different.
I’m very lucky to have escaped the “corrective” surgeries and/or hormone treatments that are the norm for intersex infants, because my father went to medical school before these practices began (in the mid-late ’50’s), and knew that you shouldn’t operate on a baby unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Later, when he wanted to give me estrogen pills at puberty to ensure that my body “feminized” (he told me that the pills were to make me grow taller), my mother objected, saying it was experimental and that I didn’t need it. Thankfully, she won out.
Thus, no one ever told me there was anything wrong with my body (that didn’t happen until a gynecological visit when I was twenty), and I grew up loving it just the way it is. I still do. While many doctors would refer to my clitoris as “grossly enlarged,” I have to tell you, having an overabundance of the only organ in the human body whose sole purpose is pleasure is far from a negative thing!
I came of age sexually with my second boyfriend in high school. I broke up with him because I knew that I preferred girls, but I couldn’t act on it yet. Once I did, in college, it confirmed that girls were what I’d always longed for, and it was then that I realized how much my body differed from theirs.’ Still, I had no name for my difference.
At the age of twenty-six, I finally discovered I was “intersex” from a newspaper article. Fortunately, it was not about me specifically but about intersex in general, and I’m glad that I, unlike Semenya, had time to process the information and come out about it when I was ready to. I still had other issues I was dealing with — namely: racism and homophobia — so it took a year for me to embrace this additional minority status.
Once I did, it was a positive turning point. I’d always felt strongly masculine and feminine, and now it made sense why these two presumably “opposite” traits existed, in me, side by side. I didn’t think being intersex was a bad thing to be. I’d already learned that people can be prejudiced against things they’re unfamiliar with, or are taught to dislike, and that we shouldn’t take on their bigotry.
On April 19, 2002, I appeared on the television news program “20/20” with a prominent urologist and “expert” on intersex conditions. When asked why he supported “corrective surgeries” he answered, “Society can’t accept people of different colors, and now we’re supposed to accept somebody with genitalia that don’t match what their gender is? I do not believe this society is ready for it.”
Intersex folks are not some new invention that people need to be “ready for:” we exist and always have. Resistance to accepting us has created the mess that Semenya now finds herself in. If medicine had been more upfront about intersex conditions rather than pretending they’re just male and female as usual, they could have avoided ruining the career of some athletes.
Whichever condition Caster Semenya has, she shouldn’t be made to suffer for others’ mistakes. Since infancy, she’s been legally labeled, raised, and accepted as female. To be told that she can’t compete as one now would be like being a U.S. citizen all your life, but being suddenly denied a passport because somebody decided that the city you were born in is actually, sorry, on the wrong side of the border.
For thirteen years I’ve been outing myself as intersex just to let folks know we exist, and I’m happy to say I’ve seen progress. I look forward to one day telling my god-daughter about how it used to be for us, and to hearing her say, “Wow, I can’t believe some people had problems accepting intersex. Humans can be so weird.”