A broken story.
By Hana Aoi (E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: Vivir y Ser Intersexual)
This is the English version of the original one published originally in Spanish in Brújula Intersexual as Historia rota.
It’s a sidereal abyss, an immense void of unbearable darkness and quietness. You can’t see nothing; you can’t hear nothing. Still, there’s something out there: the debris of a story yet to be articulated.
To overlook the past constitutes a huge affront, whether it’s because you live in denial, or because your loved ones who took care of you as a child did. I’ve heard a lot people saying: “What is past, is past. Don’t look behind. Just stick to the present”. Still, when you are intersex, ignoring the story of your birth carry a lot of consequences and events in your life that develop into issues that, all of a sudden, become untraceable, because no one can remember when it started. You find yourself unable to rebuild a narrative and you really can’t talk to no one, for the ones who were supposed to know best are no longer there. Where are now the surgeons who cut you open, who took your gonads away, who shaped your body for society’s own satisfaction? Dead. Retired. Anonymous. Your files? Gone too. Disposed several years ago, because nobody claimed them. Your parents? They’d rather not to go back, it’s hurtful. Of course it is; back then there was so much fear, so much confusion, so they went by the “experts’” suggestion, and kept it to themselves. They kept quiet, hoping time, silence, and an overprotective upbringing lasted long enough so you wouldn’t need to look back. Until you were fully grown and self-sufficient.
But one day, it all falls into place. Then you realize: they’ve lied you all time. No matter how well intended it was, it hurts.
A broken story I say, because no one would speak of it. I was thirty when I finally got it. Not that I was clueless; as I was growing up, and out of necessity, my mother had to drop some answers to what were tangential questions. Unconsciously I was frightened too, I believed there was something crooked about me, because the memories of home and hospital I had left me that impression. In my thirtieth anniversary on this Earth, all the memories, the scars, the psychotherapy, the loose bits of information from my mom and the avalanche of data collected through years of suspicion and deduction gave form to a more or less articulated narrative. For a lack of a clinical file, my parents’ memory finally came through for me, and the story started to take shape.
Once upon a time, I was born, the youngest of three siblings. My sisters were excited about my arrival. Everything marched on as one would expect in a household with a newborn baby. But one day, after only one week of life, my mom concluded that she shouldn’t disregard what she had already noticed: that my body was different. My mom didn’t really know if it was something to worry, but it didn’t seem right as far a she knew. Should a little baby girl have a clitoris that big? A multidisciplinary team of physicians gathered. Oh what an occasion it was for them. They diagnosed me with “true hermaphroditism”, 47 XXY. They informed my parents they had to remove my ovotestes because of “the latency of cancer”. Also due to my “genital ambiguity”, they talked about viability as a girl or a boy, but they emphasized that it was better (easier, they meant) to feminize my body. After all, my parents had already two girls, so I would fit better. And so it was decided; my parents hoped for the best, and even since I was just six months old until I was eleven I underwent three different surgeries. One of my earliest memories comes from the second surgery: I was lying on a bed in a common room of a renowned public hospital of in Mexico City. The paediatric urology wing was on a floor in the middle of the building, because I remember the tawny light of the street lamp sneaking in through the long window, opposed to the dim white light of the halogen lamp from the corridor just outside. I was four, and I had a cast of some sort with the shape of a diaper, around my waist and covering my pelvis. I still can feel it’s rigidity and the fear I had of moving my body at all… More lucid is the memory of the third surgery. I just had turned eleven two weeks before. Although I was no defenceless creature, I meekly entered the hospital that time, and I was submitted to a vaginoplasty which I had only the faintest idea what would do for me. Mom had told me it was “to fix” my genitals so I didn’t have problems when I was older. I didn’t get what kind of issues those might be. I guess she thought unnecessary to explain what the vagina was (actually I mixed the notion of vagina with that of the urethra then and a after for a while), and what was the use everyone expected for it. I remember the months before that, the doctor who attended me inspected my genitals, and the week before, I think, they draw blood samples for the analysis prior to surgery. All those moments are like snapshots today, but snapshots that come with the memory of my skin hurting down there, the fingers covered by latex poking my urethra and my incipient vulva. It was my body he was touching, and I was uncomfortable, ashamed. But I endured it because if my mom had taken me there, so the fact of me being at hospital could only mean that it was all in my benefit, and if I had been going to those revisions and sample-takings, it was because something was wrong with me. Bottom line that was the problem: my body. So when the surgery finished and I was sent to my bed, one of the doctors artlessly said to my dad: “your daughter is ready for life”. To this day, I still don’t have a fucking idea of what life he had in mind. Certainly not the one I ended up living years later… A lot of white coats came to see, the residents along with the physician in charge, lifting my sheet on the lower end to inspect, to show and explain the young doctors what were they looking at. I was appalled, but again, I thought I should be okay, if my mom was allowing it, the physician was showing something that was fine now. Or was it? Because I still had to go to the clinic to the follow-ups, in those crowded third-worldly, khaki-walled cabinets (and this I’m talking about was one of the best public health facilities in Mexico), having to exhibit my body to this new doctor in charge of my case. At age thirteen he started asking if I had a boyfriend already. I’ve always been shy (a characteristic of the upbringing I had, I guess), and frankly boys weren’t of much interest to me. The question troubled me. A part of me wanted to reply: “No, and it’s not your business anyways!”. But my mother was there, and I politely said: “No, I don’t”. Now I know it wasn’t just chit-chat, and that he was aiming at something when asking those sort of things.
At that same age I started hormonal replacement therapy. I had to take one elliptic, burgundy pill a day: conjugated equine estrogens (CEE). I didn’t quite understand why I needed “extra” hormones (I wasn’t aware that I had no gonads anymore). I asked what was that pill for. My mom, the only possible source of answers at home, told me it was for my body development. I was embarrassed to keep asking. When it came to talk about my body, I was twice as embarrassed, because I wasn’t comfortable with the whole concept of adolescence for starters. I was fine with the idea of my body getting taller. I was nuts for sports since forever, and I loved basketball. But my mom would have me behave more feminine. I guess I’ve always had a feminine look, or androgynous at the very least, so I suppose she thought I would perfectly fit if I just used a bit of make-up and wore dresses and skirts and girly shoes. I did that, when I was a kid, and only a number of times. But as a teenager I most certainly didn’t, unless she urged me to do so. Again, now I understand why she felt the need to behave like that. On the other hand, I was embarrassed too because of the deep-rooted notion that there was still something wrong with my body, even if I hadn’t the language to name it, and that it was a source of shame and concern so we had to keep it secret. In this way, unconsciously, quietly, I was the family secret.
The fact that I never had any boyfriend nor girlfriend helped me to avert any confrontation about myself. However, at university I started to wonder why I didn’t menstruate. I knew that some girls would begin as late as twenty-one. It was like a clock ticking to me, and I couldn’t figure out why the period hadn’t come. A part of me was relieved, because I didn’t want to experience the nuisance I knew other women suffered, but it was the very idea of something wrong going on about my body that began to flow in my thoughts.
Also there was the part of the unfulfilled sexual desire; whenever I wanted to please myself, pleasure was brief and unsatisfactory. When I wanted to find what was supposed to be “the female organ of sexual pleasure” with my fingers, I only found discomfort and discontent, because wherever I touched I could barely feel anything pleasant beyond the mere pressure of my fingertips. The funny thing is that I felt how my body was aroused, but when I tried to keep it on, it just stopped. Later I figured some other ways to please my body, but since long I’ve come to terms with the fact that my genitals aren’t able to provide me with pleasant sensations. And when my mother, years later, finally confided me how my body was born and I joined the dots about the procedures I underwent, I knew for sure the sensitivity of my genitals had been affected during one of the surgeries. Of course, that’s not something my parents would know at that time.
There’s a consequence of growing up with the idea of your body being wrong and the unnamed and unfulfilled need of reassurance that you’re okay that I think is as damaging as surgeries: a low self-esteem. I grew up looking always for my parents’ (and every authority figure’s) approval on everything. For long periods of my life, my self-esteem was acceptable because I tried very hard to make up for the things that I knew or I felt I wasn’t good enough. I became a student of excellence, not just because I loved to learn, but also because I believed it was the only thing that would keep my parents from feeling disappointed of me. I thought I was worth no more than that. Thus, the day I announced I’d decided to major in History, which should have been a happy one, turn out to be depressive. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a “historian required” job advertisement in the newspaper. What got me was the rejection feeling I had that day when every member of my family gave me a piece of their minds. I wanted to please them so much that I picked the “easy” choice, and ended majoring in Computer Engineering, just because I would easily find a well paid employment and be self-sufficient. Sure, computers and programming were easy to me, but I didn’t love it.
Funny thing: even when you try to conceal your own self, it eventually blooms. Even if you have played the teacher’s pet role and the good girl too, because it’s the only way you got to behave in order to survive, the true call shows up. I began to write. I always had loved the readings of myths, fables, tales, novels. Ever since junior high I essayed to write my own stories. But it was only at university that I acknowledged how badly I needed it. However, when for mischance I mentioned my parents I’d like to dedicate my life to it, my dad lectured me about it. I remember how I cried that day, and from that day on I almost stopped writing. I muted my inner voice. Then my body started to complain. My health, which had been great since forever, started to decline. I got hepatitis A. I sprained my right ankle three times in five years, even when I hadn’t done any more sports nor exercises. That too: I abandoned sports, which was something I loved, because I sensed my mother disliked (although tolerated) the fact that I played football (something I did with fruition when I was a teenager and later on at university), probably because it wasn’t seen as a feminine activity in Mexican culture. My cholesterol and triglycerides levels raised above the norm, not because I was overweight, but because of the continued state of stress at work. Anxiety had been a constant in my life, so I thought it was ordinary too at work. I guess I knew I hated my career as software developer almost since it started. I was angry all day, I ranted about almost anything. I fell in love with a woman who loved me back but just as a friend, and in that regard I grew bitter. I went to three different psychotherapists, and while at first things would get smooth, and I felt optimistic about my future and made plans, it wouldn’t last.
And then I turned thirty, as mentioned before, and my life started to crumble, one year at a time, until at thirty-three things got out of control. No psychotherapist could help me to cope with the findings of my own story, and I turned against my parents. I started to inflict me physical damage and became deeply depressed. While I didn’t love it, I had been a reliable employee at every job I had; but when the very work assignments became impossible to accomplish and the pressure was unbearable, this is, when I became to hate not only that specific job but my career pick, I started to skip work and stay at bed all day, crying and cursing everything and everyone. I thought I had reached my lowest. So I quit. Then a week later a friend offered me a job of the same kind. I thought it would be different, as it was a different company and a better work environment. But the day before I’d started, I snapped. I cried like I had never cried before in my life. I kept saying out loud: “I can’t do this. Not anymore. Not anymore.” So my mother helped me to reach my friend and excuse me, that I wouldn’t be able to show up the next day, and that I would contact him. My friend understood.
So began the hardest year of my life: the year to learn to forgive, the year to learn to love myself, the year to learn who I really was and what I really wanted to do, the only thing I had never sat down to think thoroughly. And furthermore, the year to embrace my body as it was, not as it could’ve been. Interestingly, I started to menstruate due to a change in the hormonal replacement therapy, because the CEE had caused me a myoma in my uterus and I had a constant haemorrhage. The gynaecologist prescribed me contraceptive patches, and the haemorrhage ceased. The myoma also reduced it’s size. However, he warned me that from then on I would menstruate, because I took the CEE everyday, but the patches followed a menstrual cycle. So it happened. At first that angered me even more. Now that I had gotten used not to menstruate, the period came punctually every month! But as I came to terms with my body, I took it as a sign of me changing. Now I’m fine about it.
One of the things that troubled me during the time that I learned to deal with me being intersex was to accept myself as a woman in all aspects. I was really confused when I discovered the fact that I could’ve been raised as a boy, because as a kid, apart from the dresses and all that stuff, I always had the need to play along with the other boys, and once I even got in a fight with one. I played football at streets with my neighbours, all of them boys. My sneakers and I were one, I never was interested in heels and that sort of things. I liked boys (I actually had some crushes for some of my male friends), but I liked girls too, as early as kindergarten. Just when I got my first boyfriend at university I considered the idea of being more “feminine”, but I couldn’t just be like that. That relationship just faded as I distanced from him, because we wanted to have sex but I wasn’t sure that my body was okay when I compared the reflection of my vulva and vagina in the mirror with the pictures I search online. Then I thought only a woman would take me. And a year later I fell deeply in love with a friend, a girlfriend, who loved me back but not in a romantic way, but as a sister, as a confident, indeed as a best friend. Considered all these things, when I found the circumstances of my birth all I could think was that life, not just mine but life itself sucked. For a while I pondered the idea of transition my body, but I wasn’t sure, because I was so sick of surgeries, and I questioned myself: do you really think you’re a man? When the answer emerged smoothly, I discarded the idea. Later on, when I started to gather information about intersex, I wondered if I it could be that I was non-binary, or gender-fluid. But I understood as I let it marinate that this conception of my own gender wasn’t just something I could say like “hey, I like green”, but it should reflect a profound sense of oneself, of how one projects one’s own identity. It’s funny how long can be the path to become a woman. I’d been taken for granted a woman all my life; but it’s just since a while ago that I came to consider myself a woman. An intersex woman. And I’m in the path of learning how to embrace it, and enjoy it, and live it with fulfillment.
I’m not saying that being intersex it’s the cause of all my wrong decisions. But society played its part. My parents’ fears, the physicians’ authority, played a decisive part in the shaping of a psyche with a low self-esteem and a need for acceptance. This was society’s prejudices work. It’s not being intersex but the regard of society about it, the stigma, their notions on how should be a girl or a boy both in their body traits and their gender identity. I can see now a pattern among the stories of many intersex adults whose physical and mental health were undermined since their early years because their bodies posed a threat to the mind constructions of people around them. Kids, all kids, are very sensitive. They sense their parents fears easier than we think. And intersex kids sense fear, rejection, guilt, shame. Not all of them, fortunately. Some had the luck to have knowledgeable, brave parents who said “No” and instead chose to healthily discover a different world through their intersex children. Those are the experiences we need to replicate in this world in order to stop unnecessary suffering. Life itself is complicated. We have no need for further problems. And most certainly, surgeries and therapies haven’t proved to be any sort of solution. Maybe a brief relieve for stressed parents, who didn’t know they had a choice. Them, parents, need also our support. They have to learn that they’re not alone, and that there’s no rush.
We need no more broken stories. Intersex people should have a right even since they’re newborns to develop a life of their own, to explore what the world has for them, to bloom and discover who they are and who they want to be, and be the ones to call the shots about their own bodies. Well, that should be true for all people as a matter of fact. And as any other person, intersex persons should never have to live a broken story, cut and edited here and there, just to be liked.
As of today, I keep writing a new story for me. To make it of my own. To forgive where there was love, and to forget where there was ignorance and negligence. I don’t care for grudges. I rather want justice. Maybe not for me, but for others. I also want to help others if they ask me a hand.
As a conclusion, there’s something I’d like to ask from parents of intersex children in Mexico and worldwide: Seek for help!! Get informed, ask for advice, not just from one physician. Even if slowly, there’s a shift in the way some sympathetic doctors regard intersex. There’s nothing intrinsically unhealthy about having different sex characteristics from the usual notion of male and female. But learn about your children health needs, because each person is different. There are medical conditions not to be ignored that may be associated to a specific intersex variant. Approach intersex activist organizations, such as Brújula Intersexual or Intersex Day. They’ll be willing to offer their experience and counselling. Get rid of fears and doubts. Ask everything you need to ask. Just don’t stick to a “disorder of sex development” diagnosis, because that will work against your children best interest. Embrace your babies as they are. If needed, assign a gender, but don’t go for surgeries. You have in your arms little human beings with the potential of becoming full-grown, happy, fulfilled persons.