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Intersex people break the binds of society’s rigid gender binary

Queer & There


The number of letters in the LGBTQUIAA+ acronym can be a bit overwhelming, even for someone represented by one of those letters. Some might wonder how many we actually need. The answer: as many as there are narratives that need to be heard.

As a gay man, I don’t know the journey of a trans woman; I haven’t experienced the nuances of being in a lesbian body. With each letter we validate an existence outside of our own. With each letter we say, “You are seen, and you matter.”

I was introduced to the story of the letter “I” in January of 2018 at a Gay Christian conference called Q Christian Fellowship. On the list of breakout sessions, one was titled “Intersex.” I had no idea what that was, so went out of pure curiosity to hear Lianne Simon and her colleague Dr. Megan DeFranza share intimate knowledge of what it means to be intersex.

Intersex” is an umbrella term that refers to individuals with both male and female biological characteristics. This manifests in an assortment of different ways, including women with male chromosomes whose bodies are unable to absorb testosterone, so present as female. For Simon, this meant having cells containing XO and XY chromosomes, resulting in her body having gonadal dysgenesis. She was raised as a boy, until she decided to have surgery to present as female in her 20s.

The intersex community is as diverse as the people that make up its membership. Their stories differ in details, but share a common thread — erasure.

Despite medical historian Alice Dreger’s findings that one in 300 babies undergo sex testing, and despite intersex individuals — according to Professor Anne Fausto-Sterling at Brown University — representing 1.7 percent of our population (roughly the percentage of redheads), we never hear of intersex. Why? In the words of DeFranza: “In the U.S., with the advancement of medical technologies, we have tried to fix them [intersex people], to heal them, to erase them.”

One such story is that of Fort Collins resident Dana Zzyym, 60, whose doctors and family didn’t just “cure” their intersex characteristics, but erased them from Zzyym’s memory.
Unbeknownst to Zzyym, their parents authorized a surgery when Zzyym was 5 years old, and never told Zzyym the details. Zzyym was told for as long as they could remember that they were a boy, even though they didn’t feel like a boy or a girl.

Curious about these feelings and the scar tissue around their genitals, Zzyym went to a neurologist to run some tests, which would confirm Zzyym’s suspicions — Zzyym was intersex. Since this discovery, Zzyym has been fighting for intersex rights, using their own story as a catalyst for others to fight for their identity on a legal level.

In 2011, when Zzyym was denied a gender-neutral marker on their driver’s license, they filed a lawsuit. They won, but victory was short-lived. Two years later, Zzyym would enter another lawsuit trying to get an accurate gender marker on their passport. The proceedings were arduous, ending just a few weeks ago in a federal court. On Sept. 19, U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled: “The authority to issue passports and prescribe rules for the issuance of passports under [the Passport Act] does not include the authority to deny an applicant on grounds pertinent to basic identity.”

Zzyym had finally won. But when I asked Zzyym about the ruling, they were not elated. If anything, they were hesitant. “I’m not holding my breath. I’m not celebrating till it’s all said and done,” they said. Zzyym is convinced that the state of Colorado will appeal the federal court’s ruling. They have until November to do so. Till then, Zzyym anxiously waits.

Why do we force people into a binary system that simply doesn’t exist? Why was Zzyym mutilated without their consent, leading to 50 years of confusion? Why was Simon forced to present as male, even though she loved dresses and couldn’t grow facial hair?

Their stories are here, and they’ve been a part of cultures across the globe for millennia. During my time in India, I saw intersex individuals walking the trains, blessing people. And ancient Hebrew culture recognized between four and eight genders.

A binary world isn’t the only option. But instead of changing a system, we change lives because we view them as broken. They’re not broken. They’re human, and it’s time we do more than give them a letter in our queer alphabet without learning anything about them.

When I asked Zzyym what they want, they said, “Instead of pointing out our differences, we should be celebrating them.”

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