Beyond Boxes: The Intersex Case for Intersectionality
Gender is fluid and sexuality is a spectrum, but the false binary of biological sex remains. While 150 million Intersex individuals worldwide stand as evidence to the contrary, they are often “normalized” in their youth by un-consented surgeries and stigmatized into silence thereafter. Whether by “bathroom bills” or medically-condoned genital mutilation, humans will continue to be forced into boxes that don’t exist until the Intersex movement has its moment. Gender equity activist Alicia Weigel shares her own experience at SXSW 2018 as an Intersex individual and a call-to-action for more intersectional advocacy within the LGBTQIA+ community.
My name’s Alicia. I’m named after a hurricane that hit Houston in the 80s (so you should have an idea of what you’re in for…) but I’m originally from Philadelphia. I live in Austin. I am a runner. I love to dance, especially to reggaeton. Soup dumplings are probably my favorite food, and raisins are definitely my least favorite… they’re weird and shriveled. I have a tattoo of orchids on my shoulder, because they’re the symbol of a movement I’m part of because, oh, yeah I was born intersex.
Those are all parts of me, all aspects of my humanity and my existence. I don’t find any of them to be a threat to y’all’s existence… but doctors and society have deemed that last descriptor, the intersex one, “not ok”…
SO not ok, in fact, that they operated on me as a kid to remove certain organs that they didn’t deem “normal”. They tried to surgically remove that aspect of my humanity. Unfortunately they didn’t know it wasn’t that easy to take from me.
But you know what they did take from me? They took my physical autonomy… my ability to live without supplemental hormones, which carry health risks and are expensive — especially under our current president and in our current system without universal healthcare.
They took from me my emotional stability, when I spent all my formative years believing I was completely alone because of a “secret” that society and medical practice told me I was never supposed to tell.
They took from me my fertility — my ability to produce natural children from my own genetic material, when they force sterilized me.
No… this isn’t a sci-fi novel, this is my life. But this isn’t a pity party, this is an empowerment party.
So let me back up a little and give you some context for everything I just mentioned, so you know why I’m here and why you’re here spending your Sunday listening to me.
I’m here, in this space, because a bunch of people here in this state of Texas wanted to push people deemed “different” into separate spaces, physically, to make themselves more comfortable, without regard to our shared humanity.
I’m referring to the discriminatory bill that attempted to force transgender people to use the bathroom aligning with the arbitrary gender assigned on their birth certificate.
So I’m going to kick off this discussion with the testimony I delivered against the proposed transgender Bathroom Bill this summer during a Special Session called by governor Greg Abbott to push an agenda of hate.
Think of this as a coming out story I shared not with a family member or close friends, but a committee of Texas senators, approximately 500 advocates from across the state and countless others watching on television screens throughout the capitol that day.
As I share this approximately 2 minute encapsulation of my entire life experience and who I am as a human being, try to put yourself in the mindset of one of the Texas legislators listening on the dais.
I know it’s hard, as we’re not all rich, white, cis-male members of the GOP, but as my boss always says: to have someone understand your life experience, it’s important to step into their shoes. So let’s all take off the sparkly rainbow platform stilettos of the LGBTQIA+ movement, and suspend reality for a second, to step into some boring brown penny-loafers:
Madam Chairperson and Members of the Committee,
My name is Alicia Weigel, I am a resident of Austin, the Director of a gender equality nonprofit, and I have XY chromosomes. I stand here today representing the I in LGBTQIA in the hopes that, because I look more gender-“normal” in the current societal conception of what that means, you might hear my words in a different light. Any discrimination stems from a lack of understanding, after all.
I stands for Intersex. Because of a condition called Complete Androgen Insensitivity, I was born phenotypically female, with a “woman’s” anatomy on the outside, but internal testes instead of ovaries — that were subsequently removed as to not become “pre-cancerous”.
This practice is now heavily contested only 27 years later, in light of the exponential advancement of modern medicine, as it is a remnant of this still present gender “ideal”, and wanting to “normalize” children from birth to avoid a life of hardship and shame.
While I find it absurd that I have to disclose my anatomical history to a room of complete strangers, legislators no less, that makes me feel more compelled to do so. Because while I’ll unfortunately never bear children, I am extremely privileged to have been born in a way that my discrepancy from the gender “norm” is not immediately apparent — not worn on my sleeve — and that has saved me much persecution up to this point.
I can tell you that I am very much a woman. Not that every woman — or any race, or any group of people — has any particular tendency, I paint my toenails, I read US Weekly. My mom will tell you I refused to wear pants as a kid, insisting on only purple or pink skirts, and I had way too many Barbies. I help manage Wendy Davis’s nonprofit focused on women’s rights because my experience as a victim of discrimination in the workplace, a survivor of sexual assault, and so much more, bind me to the common plight of what it means to be a woman.
Does that mean that, because of my genotypic XY chromosomes, I’ve been using the wrong bathroom my whole life? No. It means who cares what bathroom I use. If my life experience is equal to that of a female, I should be able to identify as such. And I do… I AM a woman. And regardless of my gender, a bathroom is a bathroom. It’s a place that all humans, regardless of gender, engage in a common activity we unfortunately have not yet evolved out of.
I urge you to reconsider your feelings on what I feel is an extremely harmful piece of legislation. One that tying your name to will, I believe, tarnish your legacy as a legislator. As generations become more accepting of, and adamant about enforcing, civil rights — if not for the betterment of the lives of others you don’t know and may never understand, think of your own families and how you want them to appear in history books.
Please vote no on Senate Bill 3.
So that was this summer, and we were able to kill that bill! But the fight’s not over, for trans people or for intersex people, so I’m going to backtrack a bit farther and give you a better sense of who I am as an intersex person to you help understand the challenges we face, and to unpack a few aspects of points touched upon in that testimony.
I’ve never fit into boxes.
In college, I couldn’t join a sorority, because I didn’t vibe with any one of the different reputations each had—the smart one, the fun one—because I felt I embodied, or recoiled from, certain elements of each of them (you’ll never see me in a pearl necklace).
I also didn’t fit into a given major… To my college’s chagrin, I was the one student out of a class of 4000 to graduate with an Independent Major because I wasn’t having any of the double major and minor combinations.
My favorite music doesn’t really have a genre label either… it’s that Latin beat, soul influenced, minimal, dream-poppy Afro-disco — you know, that Pandora station that doesn’t exist.
I feel the most comfortable and confident in conversation when I’m speaking with members of my god-family in Brazil who speak both English and Portuguese, because in speaking “Portinglês”, I can pick the words that make sense to me of the two languages. The increased options for vocabulary allow me to be my most expressive and paint the best picture of what I’m trying to say. The blend is the beauty.
Same with gender traits: I definitely have aspects typically considered “feminine” (for example, I am extremely in touch with my emotions) and “masculine” (I’m pretty assertive, or as Wendy would say “aggressive”).
And I was born with non-binary reproductive organs, physically, so wouldn’t it make sense that my mental, emotional and moral character might also not fit into an A or B category?
But the problem is, people want boxes. They want to make life “make sense” because it’s easier — easier for folks that “make sense” in our Caucasian, heteronormative, patriarchal system that is. But this need to “normalize” everything, even humans, comes from a place of fear.
We, everyone here in this room, are the antithesis of that. We accept that everything that exists, exists on a spectrum.
There is gender fluidity, sexual fluidity in terms of preferences, but also biological fluidity — a whole beautiful rainbow of intersex conditions that range from a “chimera” or two zygotes that fuse in-utero to create one human… a human with XXXY chromosomes.
Or someone like me, that started out with XY chromosomes but didn’t respond to certain hormones (androgens) in the womb, so stopped at a certain stage of developing before reaching what was obviously an “optional” finish-line.
I’m honestly not surprised… I’ve never been one to follow arbitrary rules, starting with incessantly questioning my mom’s “because I said so” when challenging a bed-time or why I had to eat my broccoli. So, yeah, I’m not shocked that the genetic material that would one day become Alicia, didn’t adhere to a typical development trajectory.
All humans actually start out with a common genital anatomy until 7 weeks after conception, when we then sexually differentiate. Some intersex folks like me stop there, and end up somewhere in between the sexes… hence, intersex.
But, unfortunately, and dangerously, a lot of people in our country, including politicians, no longer operate based on facts nor trust in science. So in pushing the bathroom bill, Senator Lois Kolkorst used flawed reasoning to assert that “biological sex is cut and dry” and once we go back to that then all these “perverted gender fluid believers” will go away. That’s when I decided that an intersex person showing up in front of her face would help prove her, and all the haters, wrong.
If they refuse to believe in the fluidity of gender and sexual preferences well then give them something they can see. You can’t deny a spectrum of biological sex when 150 million humans are visibly born not purely one or the other in terms of internal gonads and/or external genitalia. Let us be the physical, visible evidence they can’t deny — because sometimes, for some people, seeing is believing.
But in order to be that evidence; that tangible, visible, scientific evidence that every letter of the LGBT acronym exists, we have to exist. And that means our existence can’t be erased by surgeries before we’re old enough to say anything about it.
You heard that right: doctors, condoned by medical associations not only in third-world countries but here across all of our United States, enact un-consented and often medically unnecessary surgeries on children to “normalize” us at birth. To put it bluntly: they play god, pick a gender for a kid, remove or reconstruct anything that they don’t think fits that gender, and then tell the family they’re “fixed”.
So from a pure human rights standpoint, the UN Commission against Torture defines it as Intersex Genital Mutilation, or IGM. Think about Nazi eugenics, experiments that used to be done on slaves, or even fictional stories like Stranger Things where 11 is trapped in a research complex, against her will as a child… that is still reality for intersex kids like myself.
Let’s unpack what that means for our lives. From a physical standpoint, a doctor at Cornell University — my own alma mater — named Dix Poppas, performs surgeries on little girls he calls “clitoroplasties”. He has a literal measure of what he determines to be the normal size for a clitoris to be, and if it’s bigger: he cuts it down. That renders many of these girls unable to feel sexual pleasure or lead any sort of healthy sex life due to scar tissue, but also psychologically scars them for life… especially when he tests on them with a vibrator, after to gauge how much sensation they’ve retained, as part of his experiment.
So that’s physical and psychological scarring, but from an identity standpoint, things are just as bad. My friend Mo, co-founder of the Houston intersex society, was born with ambiguous genitalia — which was then removed, when the doctors and his family decided he would be a girl… so once he finally had the courage to transition and come out as who he is, he now bridges both the trans and intersex communities as a trans, intersex man.
That’s one way in which our experience is intertwined with the trans experience, in being persecuted by the “establishment” — in this case, the medical industrial complex that profits on surgeries, and operates on moralistic and discriminatory ideologies that we intersex folk don’t fit into.
Whereas trans people face barriers to getting the healthcare they need through barred access to surgeries sometimes needed to realize who they are, we are having those same surgeries — to rearrange, remove or otherwise reassign our gonads and genitals — forced upon us. If there’s anyone in this room that can tell me how that makes sense, I’m all ears.
But we all know why that is. It’s because the opposition to our existence isn’t scientific, isn’t logical, it’s based on a perverse conception of “morality” that views us as a threat to humanity.
However, surgically chopping something off a human child is not going to remedy the ills of humankind. There’s no bandaid for that kid undergoing series of surgeries they don’t need, and medical procedures can’t be used as a bandaid over societal stigma and shame.
We are people. Not specimens. Society creates stigma and shame; those are not natural phenomena, like we — intersex people — are. Babies aren’t born knowing racism, sexism, hate. But some babies are born not 100% “female” or male.
You can try to erase that evidence with your surgeries but we are still here.
And I can tell you as an intersex kid, that we are not “fixed” after these surgeries. This identity shapes so many of our life experiences: like the most traumatic period of any of our lives, junior high.
I remember when I was in middle school, we were separated by gender before all of our sex ed classes. I’d go with the girls, and they’d start talking about our periods — which I’d never get, and about the experience of having a baby — which I’d never have, and the shame and isolation I felt led me to such an extreme state of anxiety that I had what I now see, in hindsight, to have been a full-fledged panic attack, when I passed out in the classroom.
Or when I found out recently, that when two of my family members where getting a divorce, one of them used my intersex status as leverage to extort funds from another family member — threatening to “out” me, if this family member didn’t cede certain assets in the agreement.
So of course, my mom, as any mother bear would, threatened to bring down the entire world of that individual if he dared to so much as mention her child’s name again.
Let me make something very clear: I will not be your bargaining chip in a divorce, or any sort of disagreement. I will not be your guinea pig lab rat in medical experimentation.
I will not be your bandaid over serious issues of homophobia, toxic masculinity and fear of the “other” that permeates all aspects of our society.
I won’t be your bandaid — but I can be your bridge.
All of us in this room: our greatest “threat” to “normalcy”, is also our strength… As trans people, as intersex people, as bisexual people — we are the least understood but actually the most powerful.
I mentioned before the word “chimera”, when fraternal twins fuse in-utero into one person. My friend Koomah, the other co-founder of the Houston Intersex Society, is literally a super human. Two humans that combined into one.
And that view — appreciation at our fascinating and beautiful existence — has actually been the norm in many societies and even religions, from ancient Roman and Greek mythology, to modern religions like Hinduism and Kabbalah Judaism.
In some cultures, we used to be revered because we can transcend the boxes… They’re limiting. And that gives us more perspective. We refuse to settle with what we were given, so we are more resourceful.
As we talk about transcending boxes that might be used on a form, application or census, it’s helped me to think about race too. We had an interesting discussion about this in my last retreat for a fellowship I’m part of, and while I can’t claim to understand the experience of a person of color, here are my two cents on how our struggles are actually more similar than what you might think.
In Brazil, where as I mentioned I have family, you’re not considered “black” or “white” as you are in the US — it’s not a racial binary. Within the realm of being “black”, there is preto, pardo, negro, moreno and more… it’s all shades.
So while that leaves room for plenty of colorism and other issues, what it means to be black as we define it in the US is not only the shade of your skin; a white girl with a fake-bake is not black.
To be black is to share that common experience of black Americans; both the horrors of police brutality and discrimination, but also the music and the food and the style and the beauty that everyone wants to enjoy, mimic and in some instances, unfortunately, appropriate.
So similar to that range of skin colors within a community we simplify as “black”, to be intersex is not that we all have the same anatomy or physical appearance either; we are a huge range.
With Complete Androgen Insensitivity, I even have different biological characteristics than someone with Partial Androgen Sensitivity.
We exist with a broad variety of “conditions” not “disorders”, which is our first point of education for the medical, and broader community; similar to the former struggle to combat racist “phrenology” that intended to prove certain swaths of the population were scientifically less than others.
So that’s why we have to start by changing the “science”, a.k.a. the societal views of the medical community. We have to attack the problem at the root before we can stop intersex genital mutilation through surgeries altogether.
You can make a medical practice illegal, whether it’s negative or positive… let’s use abortion as an example, but that’s not going to stop people from performing it. If people really want to do something, they will find a way.
So what we have to do with intersex surgeries, (not abortions), is change the way people think… so that they’re not just being blocked from performing these surgeries, but rather they understand why they shouldn’t want, let alone “need”, to do them in the first place. To do that, we have to convince people that our humanity, the fact that we — two percent of the entire world’s population — are born like this, shows that being intersex isn’t a “disorder”, it’s a type of human.
Just like being “gay” isn’t a disorder, it’s just a naturally occurring phenomenon. While the world is still coming around to that idea, we have dramatically reduced the instance of “electro shock therapy” on gay kids in the past few decades alone, so I have hope — I know — that we can stop surgeries on intersex kids too.
We just have to take that first step, by helping people understand that being intersex isn’t a pathology, it’s our identity. We have to assume that identity, proudly. Being intersex is my identity. And it’s beautiful.
Intersex is beautiful. Trans is beautiful. That’s why I am an advocate for trans rights too.
We come with a range of physical traits, but as people who have and continue to face discrimination for our discrepancy from the gender norm, we all have certain things in common.
We all have experienced shame and stigma. We’ve all faced uncertainty as to the best way to care for our health and wellbeing due to the lack of proper medical care and resources. We’ve all faced questions as to who we are.
Whereas trans people are killed, or barred from public spaces, for who they are — we are chopped up as children, in one way or another, and forced to cope with little to no resources on how to do so.
But whether through bathrooms or surgeries, we all share that experience of being shoved into, or pushed out of, a box where we don’t fit. That perspective binds us, through empathy.
Empathy is learning an experience — not because you shared or experienced it yourself, but because you’re open to understanding someone else’s. It’s a choice, not a circumstance you were born into. We should recognize how powerful that is.
We need labels now — the LGBTQIA acronym, races, genders, nationalities — because we have to assert and demand improvement of specific issues all of these specific communities face.
But the more we can cross those barriers through radical empathy, the better chance we ALL have together.
This is our need for inclusivity and intersectionality… not for a reason of tokenism, but because we never know how one person’s perspective will be that one cog in the gear that makes that lightbulb go off for someone else in a way that no one’s had before.
This is why I chose to advocate against the bathroom bill in the first place… it wouldn’t affect me, but my new perspective perhaps changed the mind of someone on that committee who wasn’t open to hearing the perspective of those that would be affected — my trans brothers, sisters and comrades.
I didn’t say “this isn’t my fight”. I admitted the privilege of my circumstance, as a passable white woman, and asked to join the fight for people that I cared about… And what was my added value? One new perspective, from one more lived experience, that might shift the way someone would leap from fear to faith.
That was my choice. I mentioned that before in regards to empathy: empathy is a choice. It’s not an experience you were born into, it’s one you’re choosing to put on. Bravery is also a choice: I don’t believe, as many think, it’s something your born with — it’s a choice to move forward with something difficult, regardless of circumstances and fear — choosing to put a foot forward, rather than to stay still.
Choice is the most necessary, and powerful, thing that exists. It is the difference between life as a free agent and a slave to circumstance.
That’s why I fight human trafficking, but support voluntary sex work. That is why I support reproductive rights. That is why we cannot enact medically unnecessary surgeries on young bodies before they’ve had the agency to determine who they are.
In order to do that, we must all shift our thinking from a box to a circle. and then take that circle and make a ven-diagram with someone else’s circle, because our experiences overlap in ways that aren’t always immediately apparent, but there is always some nuance of someone’s humanity that we can relate to in some way shape or form.
We, as a country, made a choice to elect the leader we have. The more we all commit to understanding that nuance of the human condition (including in a political context), the less we will be limited to echo chambers and the more we’ll have productive conversations where — even if little by little — even the most stubborn of folks will start to understand one another through inevitable empathy.
So how do we accelerate that process?
What gave strength to the movement of the LGBTQIA moniker was a conscious decision to humanize an issue defined by a confusing acronym… to translate a combination of letters into experiences through stories.
We all believe in equality, but marriage equality really gained traction when the movement shifted away from the ideal of equality, and toward a conversation about people who love each other and want to enjoy that same symbol of love as the straight community.
We, as intersex people, want the same freedom to be who we are, openly and without shame, and without someone making a decision for us as to what that looks like… just like everybody else.
Humanizing this fight will help shift the perspective. Until recent years, that perspective has gone unnoticed because it had been too quiet on the ‘IA’ front, because the personal stories that give it meaning hadn’t yet been spoken.
In the past few years, we’ve had Pidgeon, Jonathan, Irene, Kimberly and so many more come forward, Emily (who sits in front of me), and then finally someone super visible: Hanne Gaby Odiele.
Inspired by this high-fashion model who came out as intersex in the glossy pages of magazines read by not just activists, but everyday humans — including myself — I finally felt compelled to share my own story.
Because one story breeds another and another, until it becomes part of our conscious understanding.
Once we all share our true selves, not with those like us but with those UNlike us, that is when true Empathy will occur by osmosis… or “the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.”… by proximity to those whose minds really need to be changed.
The less we segregate ourselves, even politically, in our own camps, the more this transfer of ideas and sentiments will naturally occur.
It’s not always easy, it’s sometimes painful, but this is a choice we all have to make. A choice to see and believe in nuance, to try to understand it through empathy, and to act on it.
We would not have killed that bathroom bill had it not been for the cis, trans, gay, straight, black, white, documented and undocumented allies who all chose to show up.
Now, it’s time to show up and stand for intersex issues.
So I’m going to ask everyone in the room who has the ability to do so, to literally stand. Can everyone please stand up for just one moment?
My boss (Wendy Davis) stood up for 13 hours to put a stop to an anti-abortion bill for her historic filibuster in 2013. And there she is standing right in front of you today.
She’s an example of how taking a true stand for something isn’t easy, isn’t comfortable, is sometimes painful, but when it’s worth doing — you do it for others who deserve that physical Deed.
Ok, y’all can sit down now, because I need you to conserve your strength.
I’m going to need each and every one of you to not just pay lip service to our movement, but I’m going to need y’all to stand, physically, in a room for the hearing of a bill that I’m working on alongside other amazing intersex activists across this state. I need y’all to stand at the capitol, again, like you did for Wendy in 2013, to fight again for our right to have autonomy over our bodies.
And if you are part of our global family and don’t have the pleasure of living here in Texas, I need y’all to stand for something by sharing our cause on social media, talking about it to your friends and family, and not being a passive bystander in the discriminatory fight against people like me and our right to exist.
Thanks for your time today, and for your commitment moving forward to live a life beyond boxes.
Once we prove humans don’t fit into boxes, through radically living our own unique experiences, we will realize we are no longer boxed in — the limit, literally, does not exist.
Alicia Roth Weigel is a campaign strategist for a the progressive movement — changing the political landscape for marginalized populations in Texas and beyond. Alongside student activists she helped train and candidates she helps manage, her work has contributed to various state-level laws and city ordinances against sexual assault and human trafficking. She also serves as an advisor for interACT, which employs legal and media strategies to advocate for the human rights of children born with intersex traits like her.