Overcoming trauma and intolerance as an intersex activist
Hida Viloria was born neither completely male nor completely female — but was raised as a girl. Viloria’s memoir “Born Both” tells the poignant and powerful story of h/er struggle to understand and speak out about gender identity. Calmly and with dignity, Viloria describes h/er experience and how it blossomed from the personal to the political. Today, Viloria is an activist for the intersex community. (“Intersex” refers to a person born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the standard definition of female or male, such as someone who appears to be female on the outside but has a mostly male-typical anatomy inside.)
“I think we intersex folks are just one of nature’s marvelous variations — like redheads in a world of blondes and brunettes,” Viloria writes. “But each time I out myself publicly I remember that not everyone feels this way, and the fear sets in. I have to remind myself that ultimately it doesn’t matter . . . as much as people may view those who are different in a divisive, us-versus-them way, in actuality we are all fellow human beings who feel and want the same thing.”
Viloria’s awakening emerges out of family trauma, sexual violence and medical intervention. H/er childhood was marked by an abusive father, anti-Hispanic racism and homophobia. Viloria, who was born in 1968 in New York, found solace and connection with androgynous cultural icons — Grace Jones, David Bowie and Prince, and the memoirs of 19th-century French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin — who broke the silence around gender nonconformity. (After a long search for an appropriate pronoun, Viloria notes a preference for s/he and h/er.)
The book begins with an extraordinary level of violence: from Viloria’s father toward the rest of the family (particularly Viloria’s mother) and from racist bullies at school. Viloria finds that the advice to “ignore them” not only doesn’t work but makes h/er feel powerless. Later, a nightclub rape leads to injuries to h/er female body parts.
This sets up the book’s key political issue: the intersex community’s aim to stop doctors from performing nonconsensual genital surgeries on intersex infants and allow them to decide what — if anything — to do with their bodies as adults. Having been spared such invasion as a child (despite her mother saying, in a surprisingly casual aside, that the doctors “thought you were a boy”), Viloria becomes aware that h/er experiences are not like those of many people she meets through the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA).
Early on, Viloria tells a friend that both male and female “feel right,” and h/er playful humor and sharp observations about gender roles derive from moments when Viloria switches between male and female, or masculine and feminine. Viloria notes the different ways people interact with h/er and the different types (and genders) of people s/he attracts according to h/er presentation.
At one point, Viloria, as a man, is arrested for attacking police officers during a protest at the University of California at Berkeley. In court, dressed as a woman, s/he manages to get the charges dropped. “I know getting out of trouble wouldn’t have been so easy if I hadn’t been able to hide behind being a girl,” Viloria writes. “I also find it interesting to consider whether any of this would have happened if the police hadn’t thought I was a guy.”
As in Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” (2014), Viloria’s experiences of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism and erasure of her intersex status form h/er social consciousness and draw h/er into activism. S/he tries to raise awareness through the mainstream media, making a lot of stressful decisions while earning very little.
“Born Both” is especially strong on the dilemmas of “respectability politics,” as Viloria details not just the challenges of deciding how to dress for high-profile television appearances (on “Oprah,” “20/20” and elsewhere) and how much of h/erself to give away in pursuit of h/er goals, but also their effects on h/er personal life. S/he splits with other activists over different approaches — for example, when ISNA endorses efforts to replace “intersex” (which denotes a physical status) with “disorders of sex development,” which Viloria fears will be used to facilitate nonconsensual medical treatments.
There’s a lot of sadness in this book but no self-pity. The personal is not neglected: Viloria shares deep anguish in struggling to convey exactly what being intersex means to h/er mother, who finds various ways to avoid a full discussion; the relationship collapses in an argument about how Viloria played down h/er father’s abusive behavior during h/er biggest television appearance.
Viloria’s difficulties in reconciling h/erself with her family background tie into h/er struggles to find love, coming to a bittersweet conclusion after years of misunderstandings and violations. But the way s/he uses sex and sexuality to comprehend h/erself is rare in memoirs of this type. Viloria refuses to rein in h/er personality to fit some nebulous idea of a “good” intersex role model. The epilogue draws us back into a wider realm, looking at how transgender and intersex activists should support one another, with a brief reference to the Orlando massacre — a chilling reminder of this book’s urgency.
BORN BOTH An Intersex Life By Hida Viloria Hachette. 339 pp. $27
Hida Viloria wants to stop surgery on intersex infants.