Born Both, and Beautiful

What a rare treat it was to meet Hida Viloria, queer Latinx intersex activist and educator. At Seattle’s Elliot Bay Books, s/he read excerpts from her recently published memoir, Born Both, and discussed related issues with the folks who came for the event.

The book is not a light read, but a quick one -because Hida’s style is engaging and the chosen vignettes are compelling. The challenges that face intersex individuals, whose biology defies our social and legal insistence on splitting humans into two boxes (male or female) are well illustrated. Hida’s experience is specific, of course (because each individual’s intersectional identity is unique); and s/he spends a fair bit of time illustrating how those differences in experience influence divergent perspectives on the legal, social and medical issues related to intersex identity.

The initial, life-changing decisions for an intersex person begin at birth, when medical professionals feel obligated to assign a legal category to a baby – male or female, with no exceptions. For most intersex infants, there are no physical health implications from not fitting neatly into one box or the other. But many doctors continue to advocate for medical intervention (cosmetic surgery that impedes sexual function for the rest of the individual’s life, known as Intersex Genital Mutilation, or IGM) during infancy and during childhood development (generally sex hormones such as estrogen or testosterone), without consent of the child. This medical approach is based on the theory that every individual must conform to a binary gender identity in order to become a socially well-adjusted adult.

On one hand, Hida’s own story amply illustrates how frustrating (and sometime legally and physically perilous) it can be to attempt to live an authentic existence outside of the binary. It will resonate with any reader who feels that their humanity gets warped by the overwhelming social expections to behave ‘like a girl’ or ‘like a boy’.  No matter what culture you are raised in, being told that you must do/feel/act like this or that, because that is what a girl/boy/man/woman ‘naturally’ does, effectively eliminates self-determination. And the more we know of biology and sociology, the clearer the harm from jamming any human into a box becomes. Hida’s story details a series of attempts to fit into one box, the other box, and finally to live a hand-crafted life.

There is a great deal of food for thought about sex, gender and the politics of identity in Born Both. In terms of key advocacy points from the Intersex Campaign for Equality, two items stand out:
1.  Newborns who don’t conform to current medical standards for sexual dimorphism are just as beautiful and precious as those who do, and should not have cosmetic surgeries performed to “fix” them.
2.  Legally, if we are to label individuals by sex or gender, then a non-binary option is needed in order to recognize and protect the rights of individuals who are legally at risk if forced to choose between M and F.