BORN THIS WAY
INTERSEX ACTIVIST HIDA VILORIA
AS legislatures around the United States debate the use of public restrooms by transgendered people, there is a population with a vested interest that is usually left out of the conversation: intersex people — those born with male and female sex traits. Though policies are slowly beginning to change on this front, there is no official intersexgender designation in the U.S., so babies are declared male or female at birth according to their most defining external sexual characteristics. Medical protocol since the middle part of the 20th century has been to operate on newborns in order to “normalize” their genitalia if it is considered too ambiguous to assign a gender. Intersex activists refer to the surgery as infant genital mutilation, or IGM, and consider it a devastation that does not help most intersex people adapt to a binary gender in the long run. Even when they are not told the truth about themselves as children, they always feel that something is different. In adulthood, the effects of surgery can mean sex is at best unsatisfying or at worst painful. It is ultimately the parents’ decision whether or not they allow doctors to operate. In recent years, as more intersex adults have stepped out of the shadows to object to what was done to them, some families are choosing to keep their intersex children’s genitalia intact.
Hida Viloria is intersex and has no qualms about being called a hermaphrodite, a term that fell out of fashion long ago because it was generally considered derogatory. But with features that don’t read as either completely male or totally female, Viloria is likely to be taken for either a man or a woman on any given day — and that is perfectly acceptable. “I am truly gender-fluid, so whatever someone perceives me as is fine. That’s the gender expression that I’m giving to the world,” Viloria told Pasatiempo.
Viloria, whose first name is pronounced “Heeda,” was raised as a girl in Queens, New York, and did not find out that intersex people existed until the age of twenty. Now, at forty-nine, even as the gender-neutral pronoun “they” has come into somewhat common usage for many people who identify as transgender or gender-queer, Viloria prefers “s/he” and “he/r.” Pronounced aloud as “she” and “her,” these options account for he/r childhood and female socialization while appearing clearly intersex when written out — yet they do not present significant confusion on the page, a sticking point for he/r as a writer. Viloria, who moved to Santa Fe nine months ago after decades of living in California, is the author of the memoir Born Both: An Intersex Life, published recently by Hachette Books. Viloria reads from and discusses Born Both at Collected Works Bookstore on Saturday, March 25.
Possibly because he/r father is a doctor and his training was in Mexico in the years before IGM became standard practice in the United States, Viloria was never operated on, nor was s/he given hormones at puberty to push her body in one direction or another. As a prominent activist at the forefront of the intersex visibility movement since the 1990s, and the founder of the Intersex Campaign for Equality (the American affiliate of
I think the propensity to assess someone’s gender is hard-wired, because I see children do it constantly. I’ve had children ask me about my gender, and when I am allowed to explain intersex to them, they incorporate it so quickly it’s almost shocking.
the Organization Intersex International), s/he is comfortable speaking openly about the physical logistics of being intersex.
Viloria knew s/he was a lesbian from an early age. When s/he became sexually active, more than one woman suggested that s/he might be a hermaphrodite, but none of her sexual partners — man or woman — ever became angry with he/r or refused to have sex. If anything, Viloria’s sex life has been especially robust. Born Both offers numerous anecdotes about dating and intimacy as well as the story on he/r three weeks working in a peep show, where male customers were not at all put off by what they saw through the little window. Viloria made several excursions to the Burning Man gathering in Nevada, where s/he would dance furiously for days on end, stopping once in a while to sleep or eat, feeling free there to fully express androgyny. S/he made successful rounds of the television talkshow circuit at a time when LGBT topics were often presented as a kind of lurid societal underbelly. Later the budding writer appeared on 20/20 and the Oprah Winfrey Show and eventually began writing articles and essays about being intersex. Invariably, Viloria is told by interviewers how well-adjusted she seems — not just as an intersex person, but in general — s/he comes across as remarkably happy and easygoing.
“The person who promoted the use of ‘normalizing surgery,’ Dr. John Money, was a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s and ’60s,” Viloria said. “His doctoral dissertation was a study of 200 intersex adults — and he found that intersex adults had less psychopathology than non-intersex adults. He found that we are psychologically healthier. It’s ironic that he went on to promote the idea of ‘fixing’ us. However, his research remains.”
Viloria has been questioned about he/r gender in women’s restrooms, even though s/he is legally a woman. Men’s rooms are only an option if they have private stalls. Either way, there are people who will believe s/he isn’t where s/he is supposed to be. When Viloria was first getting involved with the intersex community, s/he was surprised to encounter pressure there to choose a gender identity. S/he experienced some similar tensions in the lesbian community when it came to gender expression — potential partners wanted either a femme or a butch woman. It was in the trans community that Viloria found a sort of acceptance, despite not being trans, but even there the issues can become so binary that s/he feels squeezed out.
“I think part of the reason that people have a problem with intersex is that they don’t like complicated issues. Everyone has a very individual gender expression and gender identity. Some people don’t allow for that; they marginalize anyone who falls outside the binary system. But not all trans people have the same experience; not all intersex people have the same experience; not even all women have the same experience,” Viloria said. “I like that ‘queer’ has become a label. It’s perfect for me. I’ve had people in presentations ask me how I can be a lesbian if I’m intersex, and I understand what they’re asking, but I think we can have multiple labels.”
Intersex people make up about 1.7 percent of the population; they are nearly as common as redheads. Viloria accepts that humans have an innate instinct to identify and categorize their environment and that it is natural for people to try to figure out if s/he is a man or a woman. A third gender designation for birth certificates and driver’s licenses— and a generation or so of education around it — would go far toward solving the problem of people’s discomfort or confusion. To that end, last year New York State issued the first intersex birth certificate in the country to an intersex adult, and because that is where s/he was born, Viloria has applied for he/rs. “I think the propensity to assess someone’s gender is hard-wired, because I see children do it constantly. I’ve had children ask me about my gender, and when I am allowed to explain intersex to them, they incorporate it so quickly it’s almost shocking. It is more confusing to them if I say I am a boy or I am a girl than if I say I’m a boy-girl, because that’s what matches the reality in front of their faces.”