BORN THIS WAY

IN­TER­SEX AC­TIVIST HIDA VILO­RIA

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

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.”

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