I will be doing an Intersex 101 at Georgia State University April 5th, 2012 from 3-4:30pm. See flyer below for more information:
Every week Homofactus Press features a interview with a contributor from Visible: A Femmethology. Below is a excerpt from my interview. Click the link at the bottom for the whole thing and check out the archives for past interviews. I am honored to be published alongside so many smart and thoughtful queers!
How do you define your femme identity?
I am a queer intersex woman who purposefully and thoughtfully creates and plays with a feminine gender that was consciously created by and for me. My femme gender is smart, sassy, tough, glamorous and fun. My shoe collection consists of tons of heels (4″+ please!), skate shoes and lots and lots of boots. My style varies between classic pin-up burlesque bombshell, punk rock riot grrrl and the always trusty jeans and t-shirts. My armpits are always hairy but I shave my legs most of the time. Bikini Kill’s self-titled EP changed my life, yet Britney Spears is one of my favorites. When I grow up I want to be a combination of Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls and Ruth from Fried Green Tomatoes. My femme identity did not come easily or quickly, and I had to work through a lot of my own internalized femme phobia and misogyny to get here. My identity as a femme changes and gets deeper and more complicated daily. I love contradictions. I love the surprises people hold and the way that opposites can co-exist in one person.
How do other identities you have not only intersect with femme but also contradict it?
As an intersex person, I have often felt different from other femmes. So much about femme identity and femininity is linked to being penetrated vaginally (I was born without a vagina) and often to having children (I was born without a uterus too.) Being a femme woman in a body that was initially assigned female but finding out when I was a teenager that my body didn’t quite fit that narrow category definitely informed my views on my own gender identity. Many assumptions are made about me and my body because of how I present my gender, because of my time as a sex worker, etc.
I know I haven’t posted anything in a while. My life has been extra special chaotic and writing has gotten temporarily moved to the back burner.
I do have a couple of upcoming events that I wanted to share with folks:
Tuesday April 7th 7:00pm I will be doing a Intersex 101 at Agnes Scott College in the Teasley Auditorium which is located in the Science Building off of W. Dougherty St. This presentation will include basic intersex definitions, some or all of the film ‘One in 2000’ by Ajae Clearway, my personal story, plus time for q&a and discussion. This is a really good way to get the basics of what intersex is, learn about intersex activism, and how you can be an ally.
Thursday May 14th from 7:30-9:00pm I will be taking part in the official Atlanta Visible: A Femmethology launch party at Charis Books and More. This event is presented by Charis Circle and sponsored by the Atlanta Femme Mafia. It will feature readings from the Atlanta contributors featured in the two books including myself, Brook Bolen, Asha Leong, Margaret Price, and JD Dykes. It will be an evening full of fabulous writing on femme identity, thought provoking conversation, snacks, and fabulous fashion (I know I have been picking my outfit out in my head for months.)
There will also be another reading at Aphrodite’s Toybox sometime in the near future. Details TBA.
Please feel free to spread the word about these events and bring your friends, family, co-workers, next door neighbor, etc!
About 6 years ago, filmmaker Ajae Clearway came to Atlanta to interview me for a intersex documentary that evolved into One in 2000. Ajae and I were first introduced at the annual Our True Colors LGBT youth conference in Connecticut that my ex and I were sent to by Bodies Like Ours to present workshops for intersex youth and their partners, a workshop for teachers on supporting and working with intersex youth and a workshop for those in the mental health field about ways they can support intersex clients.
Finally in 2007, after years of Ajae interviewing intersex individuals (and funding the film out of her own pocket,) One in 2000 was finally released. In April 2008, Ajae came to Atlanta and we did 4 screenings of the film in 3 days (At Emory, Charis, Spelman and Agnes Scott.) We estimate that between 300 and 400 people saw the film over that 3 day period, which is pretty damn exciting.
If you missed the film and live in Atlanta, you will probably have another opportunity to see it screened with little ol’ me, as I am likely to do a few more screenings locally in the future. If you work for an institution or are in school and want to have your library order it, it can be purchased here at institutional rates. And be sure to check out Ajae’s production company, Polyvinyl Pictures here and support independent, queer, feminist, filmmakers! Also, I have heard that they have been showing the film on Logo these days, so if you have the fancy cable be sure to check it out.
Below is the speech I read as an introduction to the film for your reading pleasure.
I am glad to be here today with Ajae Clearway and am proud of my involvement in ‘One in 2000’. It is extremely important to listen to the voices of those of us who are intersex. Most of the information about intersex people comes from medical professionals and academics who are NOT personally affected. It is important to remember that the true experts on intersex lives are intersex people ourselves. I appreciate that ‘One in 2000’ focuses on the voices and experiences of these true experts.
I am an intersex person who was diagnosed as a teenager. The intersex condition I have, Mayer Rokitansy Kuster Hauser Syndrome (MRKH), is rarely diagnosed until we are teenagers, because it is rarely evident until puberty occurs and menstruation does not begin. I was, like many people with MRKH, initially misdiagnosed as having an imperforate hymen, which is when the hymen is thicker than is typically found. This can have medical complications, because it can prevent menstrual blood from exiting the body. My MRKH was discovered after an attempt was made to cut my non-existent hymen and they discovered that I was in fact born without a vagina, cervix and uterus (or my uterus is smaller than common). The trauma of going through multiple genital exams, followed by an unnecessary surgery, followed by even more genital exams and discussions of how to create a vagina was quite difficult for me, especially at the always awkward age of 15. Doctors were much more concerned with my lack of a vagina and creating one, than they were with my emotional well being after receiving an intersex diagnosis. I was not informed of the potentially health threatening symptoms associated with MRKH and only learned of them through of my own research. Additionally, as all of my “options” for dealing with my MRKH were discussed, the option of continuing my life without a vagina, was never offered to me.
Fully informed consent is something that is absolutely necessary before any surgeries are performed. I feel that no non-essential medical interventions should occur until the intersex individual is old enough to make a fully informed decision. In order to make a fully informed decision, all options need to be presented, along with the pros and cons. This list absolutely must include the option to have no surgery. Doctors should stress that choosing not to have surgery is as much of an option as undergoing surgical procedures.
Additionally, I have great concerns about the current push for the identification of intersex conditions in utero, and the treatment of these conditions. Eugenics has a very real and dangerous history in this country and is still a very real threat, especially to people with disabilities and people with intersex conditions. I fear that as the causes of more and more intersex conditions are discovered, researchers will start to look for “cures”. I am concerned that this could result in preventing the birth of intersex individuals altogether. Surgery also plays a similar role (as addressed in the film). Intersex people represent one of the many variations in human bodies and surgery is being used to essentially wipe out an entire group of humans and force us to assimilate. In my case, doctors and researchers do not yet know the “cause” of MRKH. I have serious concerns about what will happen once a “cause” is discovered.
Educating the public is a large issue for intersex activists. Most people are not aware that intersex people exist, although I am sure we can all agree that 1 in 2000 births is not very rare at all. It is estimated that 5 children a day have unnecessary cosmetic surgery performed on their genitals due to a intersex condition. The medicalization of intersex bodies is a huge problem. These surgeries are seldom medically necessary and are strongly influenced by our deeply embedded ideas about gender, sex, sexuality and the idea of “right” and “wrong” bodies. It is time to put a stop to these unnecessary, traumatic and often complication-ridden surgeries without fully informed consent. It is time to start listening to the voices of intersex people and letting us make these decisions based on facts and not on the fears of a society that is terrified of difference.
I am one of the lucky ones. Because of my late diagnosis and my inability to emotionally handle this diagnosis, I did not go through with any cosmetic surgeries to create a vagina. Instead, from age 15-18, I hid this dark secret. I was ashamed and felt like a freak. I thought that no one would want to be sexually involved with me if they knew my secret. For much of those years, even when sexually involved with someone, I did not tell them that I was born without a vagina. This made sex stressful and unenjoyable most of the time. I spent all of my early sexual experiences trying to avoid penetrative sex, without revealing that I had MRKH. When I was 18, I stumbled upon a workshop at a queer conference in San Francisco, which featured 3 intersex people sharing their stories. I did not know the word intersex, nor did I have any idea that this word applied to me. Although none of the people who spoke had MRKH, the similarities of their experiences to mine was uncanny. When I returned home, I starting researching intersex and learned about the intersex activist movement. When I learned that a whole movement existed to end the shame, secrecy and non-consensual surgeries on intersex people, I finally felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders. I learned that there is nothing wrong or shameful about my body, what is truly wrong and shameful is the way I and other intersex people are typically treated. I came out to the world as intersex. I finally felt empowered to be angry at the way I was treated and about the assumptions people make about my body based on my gender presentation. Having been involved in social justice movements for several years at the time, becoming a vocal intersex activist seemed like the logical next step. I only wish that one of the many doctors I saw as a teenager had told me the word ‘intersex’ and shared information with me about groups like the Intersex Society of North America years earlier.
Today, nearly 10 years after my diagnosis, I am living my life as an out and proud intersex person. I have elected to not have a vagina created and to instead keep my body as I was born. I have learned to love and be proud of my body, something I did not ever think was possible as a teenager. I have had wonderful, supportive partners, who love me and my body and wouldn’t change me for the world. I have given dozens of intersex presentations at colleges, universities, conferences and to community organizations both in Atlanta and around the United States. I have served on the board of directors of Bodies Like Ours, an intersex peer support and advocacy group and have pushed to get other social justice groups to include intersex issues in their work. The intersex movement has made much progress during it’s short existence. I look forward to the day when no intersex person ever feels ashamed of who they are and or the body they were born with. I look forward to the day when intersex bodies are no longer medicalized and there are no more stories to tell about painful, unwanted and unnecessary genital surgeries. I hope that ‘One in 2000,’ can play a role in making that a reality.
In February 2007, I was able to participate as a panel member for ‘Whose Vagina Monologues? Feminist Critiques of V-Day’ at Emory University. The description of the event read:
V–Day campaigns have become a powerful force, bringing visibility to various feminist and “women’s” issues on college campuses all over the U.S. While widely celebrated as a local and global achievement for feminism, V–Day‘s “movement to end violence against women” raises red flags for many feminists. The reclamation of the “vagina” as a site of female sexuality has been critiqued by feminists concerned with V–Day‘s heteronormativity. The use of vagina as that which defines and unites “women” has been broadly critiqued by feminists concerned with both intersex and trans politics. Post-colonial and anti-racist feminist critiques have also been concerned with the deployment of “vagina” as a concept with shared meaning and significance for women globally. Bringing together panelists with a wide range of concerns about and investments in V–Day and The Vagina Monologues, this event will provide a forum for debate about the pros and cons of the V–Day movement and the nature of our engagement with it.
The following is what I read when it was my turn to speak. I chose to focus on my critiques as an intersex person and a woman without a vagina. I certainly have major issues with V-Day and their views on sex work, but felt I didn’t have enough time to be in depth about sex work and intersex unfortunately.
Feminist Critiques of V-Day Panel Speech by Caitlin Childs:
I was 17 when I first heard about the ‘Vagina Monologues’. I was a young and idealistic feminist and was excited to hear about the commotion this play was causing around the United States. When I heard that the play would be performed at the Roxy in Atlanta, a group of friends and I went to see it.
I loved the first-hand experiences of women relayed through the monologues. I was excited by the possibilities of combining social justice activism with performance, two long-time interests of mine.
At one point in the play, a “Vagina Fairytale” was told. I would like to read you an excerpt from that piece: (Pages 99-100 of ‘The Vagina Monologues, V-Day Edition)
“Or the story of the stunning young woman in Oklahoma, who approached me after the show with her stepmother to tell me how she had been born without a vagina, and only realized it when she was fourteen. She was playing with her girlfriend. They compared their genitals and she realized hers were different, something was wrong. She went to the gynecologist with her father, the parent she was close to, and the doctor discovered that in fact she did not have a vagina or uterus. Her father was heartbroken, trying to repress his tears and sadness so his daughter would not feel bad. On the way home from the doctor, in a noble attempt to comfort her, he said, “Don’t worry darlin’. This is gonna be just fine. As a matter of fact, it’s gonna be great. We’re gonna get you the best homemade pussy in America. And when you meet your husband, he’s gonna know we had it made specially for him.” And they did get her a new pussy, and she was relaxed and happy and when she brought her father back two night later, the love between them melted me.”
That piece resonated with me in a way I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach. You see, when I was 15, I was diagnosed with what I now know is an intersex condition, when it was discovered that I was born without a uterus and vagina. Upon diagnosis, I went through multiple genital exams by multiple physicians, was initially misdiagnosed and given a painful and unnecessary surgery and was informed that I would need to have a vagina created via surgical or non-surgical methods at some point in my life. This experience was extremely traumatic and difficult for me. This was NOT due to being born with a body that doesn’t fit what is deemed “normal” for a girl or a woman, but was a result of being told that my body was “wrong” and needed to be fixed. It was due to doctors medicalizing this variance in my body and treating it as if it were a true medical emergency.
Because of all of the shame and trauma surrounding my diagnosis, at 17 when I first saw the Vagina Monologues, the friends who were with me were not aware of my intersex condition. Hearing this monologue and knowing that there was something seriously wrong with the way the play portrayed this young women and her experiences was not something I could articulate due to my own shame, silence and disempowerment.
About a year later, when attending a conference, I stumbled upon an intersex workshop and realized that this “condition” I had been diagnosed with at 15 was under the umbrella term of intersex. I learned that there was an entire movement of people organizing to stop the pain and trauma that people like myself go through as a result of being born into bodies that vary from what is supposedly normal. With this knowledge, I was finally able to deal with the trauma I had gone through years earlier and finally felt entitled to be angry. I found my voice and started to get more and more critical about our cultures narrow ideas around gender, sex, sexuality and bodies.
I finally realized why I had felt something so deeply in my stomach when I heard the “Vagina Fairytale”. I became critical of the sentiment behind this piece that implied that being a woman without a vagina was unacceptable and must be “fixed”. It implies that when vaginas do exist, they exist for husbands. It makes huge assumptions about this young girls heterosexuality. When doctor’s discovered I was born without a vagina, many of these same ideas and assumptions were made. No one ever asked me if I was interested in penetrative vaginal sex, let alone if I was heterosexual. It was clear to me that the doctor’s treating me felt that I needed to have cosmetic surgery on my genitals in order to be a real woman and though it wasn’t, they implied this would be medically necessary. I was never told that it would be equally acceptable for me to continue my life as a woman without a vagina.
In 2002, intersex activists wrote to Eve Ensler to point out the harm being done by the “Vagina Fairytale”. When Eve did not respond, activists contacted V-Day organizers to educate them about intersex genital mutilation and the intersex activist movement. Intersex activists asked V-Day to remove the “Fairytale” and to encourage V-Day to live up to it’s mission of ending violence against women and putting a stop to genital mutilation by including intersex people. Eventually, due to the pressure from intersex activists, V-day issued a joint press release with the Intersex Society of North America clarifying their position on intersex genital mutilation and urging local V-Day organizers to donate money to ISNA’s work.
In 2003, the “Vagina Fairytale” was removed from the V-Day script. However, a monologue from an intersex person’s perspective did not replace it. That year, V-Day organizers were told by the national office that they could plug additional monologues into their local productions of the play. Some producers chose to include monologues written by intersex individuals, but most did not. Later, V-Day reversed this and as it stands, local organizers cannot add any additional monologues to the script.
The more I thought about this and the Vagina Monologues as a whole, the more critical I became. The idea that having a vagina is the one thing that unites all women, just doesn’t work. Women exist with many different types of bodies, some with vaginas and some without. Vaginas do not make women, women.
The more I examined the Vagina Monologues, the more problems I saw. Why is it that the ritualistic cutting of women’s genitals in Africa is portrayed as serious and tragic, yet the “Vagina Fairytale” is written in a fun and lighthearted monologue? Why is it that genital cutting in other countries is portrayed as barbaric, yet there is no mention of the 5 intersex children per day who are given cosmetic surgeries on their genitals without their consent? Why is the word “mutilation” used to talk about genital cutting in Africa, but in the United States, it is a “fairytale”? Why is it that the monologues are all written from the first-person perspective of women, with the exception of the only monologue about an intersex person? V-Day’s mission states “Rape, incest, battery, genital mutilation and sexual slavery must end now.” In excluding intersex genital mutilation from their work, V-Day fails in its mission to end genital mutilation. By choosing to highlight genital mutilation in African countries, while ignoring genital mutilation happening daily in hospitals across the United States, V-Day perpetuates racist and imperialistic ideas that are dangerous to women and men, both intersex and not, around the world.
As feminists, it is important for us to be critical of art, culture, theory and activism done in our name. When a group touts itself as “The global movement to end violence against women’, we must challenge that group to examine what that really means and question whether that is truly accurate.
Due to the ignorance surrounding intersex, it is not surprising to me that Eve Ensler and V-Day have not been more proactive in their response to intersex activists. Education is one of the top priorities for those of us active in the intersex movement. How wonderful would it be for intersex people if Eve had used her platform to help stop the very real violence occurring multiple times per day to intersex people in the United States and beyond?
It is time to hold V-Day and Eve Ensler accountable for the harm and damage they are doing. It is time to challenge them to live up to their mission. It is time to end the secrecy, shame, non-consensual and damaging genital mutilations happening to intersex people daily.