Over­com­ing trauma and in­tol­er­ance as an in­ter­sex ac­tivist

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY JULIET JAC­QUES Juliet Jac­ques is a jour­nal­ist and critic based in Lon­don and the au­thor of “Rayner Hep­pen­stall: A Crit­i­cal Study” and “Trans: A Me­moir.”

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.

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