I’m 32 years old, and I didn’t find out I was intersex until two years ago, after both of my parents had died. In the midst of an ugly sibling fight over our parents’ assets, one of my six older sisters called me a “faggot.” When I dialed up another, the eldest, to complain about the insult, her response was unexpected. “I don’t know why she would say that, since she knows you were born a girl,” she told me.
I identified at the time as transgender, as someone who had been born male but had transitioned to female, so I thought this was a rare moment of acceptance and progressive thought. It seemed my sister was acknowledging that I was “born this way.” As I turned the comment over and over in my mind that night, however, something didn’t sit quite right with me. So, I called her again the next day.
“What did you mean, that I was born a girl?” I asked her.
She begged out of answering, saying that she didn’t want to change the way I felt about our parents since they had passed, but I persisted. Finally, she told me that I’d been born intersex, or as she called it, “a hermaphrodite,” and that everyone knew but me. According to my sister, when I was born the doctor told my mom that I was deformed, that I would need surgery and hormones to live a “normal” life… as a boy. My mom was sent home with me but told that she’d need to return to the hospital soon in order to “fix me.” I underwent surgery at some point thereafter to remove the “unwanted” female parts of my anatomy, my sister told me. Suddenly, the scars in my genital region, the ones my mother had told me were from chicken pox, made sense. I wasn’t, however, given hormones at the time. The why of this remains a mystery, as I can no longer ask my parents to explain their thought process from all those years ago.
Despite an effort to “normalize” my body with surgery, however, I never felt as though I fit in. I remember looking up at the sky at a very young age: “Why am I so different?” I just felt like there weren’t many people like me, and that I was really alone. I was a boy but feminine. I dressed up like Belle from Beauty and the Beast and the female Power Rangers. My parents let me do as I pleased, and indulged me with outfits meant for little girls; maybe they felt guilty about what’d they’d done and wanted me to be as “me” as possible regardless. I’ll never know.
Then, one day in kindergarten, my teacher noticed there was a penis beneath my dress. She called my parents in and told them they had to start dressing me like a boy or I’d be expelled. That day is burned in my brain, because when we got home, my dad, a barber, told me we had to cut off my Dora the Explorer bob. I cried, as I’d wanted to grow it even longer, and was held against my will, kicking and screaming, as he shaved it. I remember saying to him that I hated him, and him replying that he was so sorry, and that it was hurting him to cut my hair, too. He told me it was for my own good and safety, words I didn’t understand at the time but which stuck with me nonetheless. The first act of violence against my identity took place in the room where I’d had surgery; this was the second.
In the years that followed, I was forced to conform to gender norms as a boy. The small act of rebellion I was still allowed was a refusal to wear pants. I wore shorts year-round instead, which earned me the nickname chores (the Spanish word for “shorts”). I still had no idea that I was intersex; all I knew was that the identity being forced upon me didn’t fit.
When my sister revealed the truth to me so many years later, she also told me that my parents had finally tried to get me hormone treatment when puberty refused to take hold, but that it had been too late. This revelation dredged up the memory of an appointment I’d attended with my father when I was 13. I remembered that the doctor had asked me if I wanted to take estrogen or testosterone. I didn’t know what he meant, but I told him I didn’t want to take anything. Then I told him I definitely did not want to be a boy, but that I didn’t want my father to know I didn’t want to be a boy.
To his credit, this rural Washington state doctor didn’t tell my father the truth. Instead, he told my dad it was too late for me to get the hormones, and that they should let nature run its course. Today I’m grateful for that doctor; however, at the time, I still left his office “a boy.”
Three years later, when I was 16, I began to really question myself and my life and my identity. I became depressed and attempted suicide on multiple occasions. After the last time failed, I decided I was just going to be whoever I wanted. Myself.
I left home for Los Angeles to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. There I met my best friend Johanna. She told me that she was trans, and I said, “I am, too. I think.” At that time, I was dressing fairly androgynously, because that’s what felt best, but as she started taking me into trans spaces, I learned I had to become femme in order to be accepted. Otherwise, I was just “a gay boy in a dress.” I didn’t feel 100 percent onboard with the idea, but I didn’t know where I would find a community for the androgynous, and it was community I so desperately craved.
So, I began to transition via hormone therapy. In this period, I went home at one point and my mom said something odd, which was that she didn’t want me to be like my uncle, who had never married or had children. She also told me that she didn’t like me hanging out with the trans community because I was changing too much, and because I “wasn’t like them” as I’d been “born the way I am.” I argued that they were, too, not realizing at the time what she was trying to say.
My dad had always been more accepting than my mom, than most people, and when he was dying, something beautiful happened. He told my brother-in-law to call all of his daughters into the room. When we were gathered, he said, “You are all my daughters.” It was a such a beautiful moment of acknowledgement, one that healed the trauma from when he’d shaved my identity away as a kid.
After my mom died, and I learned that I was intersex, I realized that what she’d once said—that I was born this way—was her way of telling me that I was intersex. There was another revelation in this time period, too. The uncle she’d mentioned, the one she’d not wanted me to end up like, was also intersex. (By the way, intersex bodies often recur in family trees.)
This revelation helped me to heal my relationship with her, though she was already passed. I chose to replace the anger and resentment I’d felt with appreciation for the fact that she likely thought she was doing what’s best for me, trying to save me from the fate she’d seen my uncle suffer. I chose to accept that version versus the version of anger or mistrust or any sort of negative energy towards her and my father, these two beautiful beings who raised me with minimal education. With all of these realizations, I began the process of healing.
Learning that I was intersex, however, threw my life into a tailspin. At the time, I was doing trans advocacy work, and I wondered if I was an imposter. I didn’t know if I should separate myself not just from my work but from the trans community. Ultimately, I decided that no, I didn’t need to leave my work or my community because I had lived the trans experience before learning my truth. Instead, I added an identity for which I could advocate: intersex. Since then, I’ve identified as intersex trans femme.
I started to acknowledge my femininity and my masculinity at the same time. Finally, I understood why I have some soft features and why I have some hard features, and it allowed me to see myself no longer as what I need to change but as what I already am. There had always been a fight within myself—I was too feminine or not feminine enough—but the more I’ve allowed myself to be this androgynous being, the more that I continue to harness a power that is so beautiful and loving.
I know now that my parents did the best they could with the information and biases they possessed, but I would make different choices with my own child. Every intersex individual looks different—sometimes you might have a penis and a vagina, sometimes a penis and ovaries, etc. It takes innumerable forms. When you decide to change whatever it is that nature has made at such a young age, I consider this genital mutilation and therefore sexual abuse. You’re doing it without their consent, and you’re changing their entire lives. And yet, these surgeries are happening in secret all over the United States, and globally. It’s heartbreaking. We’re not close to enlightenment around this, though. California is the first state that’s tried to pass legislation banning doctors from performing such surgeries on babies and children, which tells you where we are as a nation.
If you’re not sure how to feel about the idea that intersex people should not be forced to gender conform, I invite you to consider how imbalanced this world is at present. We have a dominant gender and a submissive gender. To me, the intersex gender can help us to balance this imbalanced dynamic. I think that’s what we’re brought into the world to be: balance. I think there’s something very beautiful about having both genitalia.
Can you imagine what this world would look like if we acknowledged that intersex people exist rather than erasing an entire population out of existence?
To bring intersex populations out of the shadows, I believe we need LGBTQIA2S+ trainings in school wherein people of different identities speak about their experiences—a lesbian couple talks about lesbian sex, transgender people talk about trans sex, an intersex person talks about genitalia. In this way, these types of discussions would be normalized, and then people wouldn’t have to pose invasive questions (“What’s beneath your skirt?”) to strangers that make them uncomfortable and uneasy about their bodies.
I believe this would lead to a healthier society, mentally, because kids, like the one I once was, will be able to realize they’re not alone.
If you are intersex and struggling with your identity, that is the first thing I’d like you to know. I would also encourage you to harness your energy and focus on loving yourself and the body you’re in, because the shift in consciousness starts with that very personal change. If you are in a dark spot, cling on to the little bit of light for as long as you can until you find a bigger light to cling to. That’s what worked for me.
I know there aren’t many role models out there for intersex people to look up to, and it’s hard to talk about this stuff when elsewhere there’s just silence. I’m trying to create the change I need but there so many against it, and putting up a fight against so many bullies is scary.
Still, I’m going to do what I need to do to make it, and that’s loving the magical being I am, the one who was born between the sexes, perfectly.
Alexandra Magallon is a legal services client advocate for the Los Angeles LGBT Center who identifies as intersex trans femme. The intersex population has historically been erased, rendering it all but invisible. She offers her story (as told to Erin Bunch) to shed light on a closeted demographic that’s actually as common as redheads.
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