Talking About Intersex Identities


Talking About Intersex Identities

by Claudia Astorino

I’m a parent of an intersex child and don’t know how to talk about intersex with them.  There are strained feelings between us because there have been few resources about intersex in general, and our child has had some upsetting medical experiences I feel responsible for.  How can we talk about these things?  I feel like we’re drifting apart and I don’t know what to say or how to start a conversation with them.
— Anonymous

Claudia Says:

Hi there, Anonymous. Having conversations about intersex with your intersex kid can be difficult, for sure. Many family units can feel like microcosms for how intersex is perceived and treated by societies – not acknowledging that intersex exists, avoiding talking about/conversations that touch on intersex issues, emphasizing that intersex is something “private” that intersex people should keep to themselves, normalizing and putting a positive spin on the non-consensual medical intervention intersex kids are forced to undergo, reinforcing gender roles in heavy-handed ways, and circulating feelings of shame, secrecy, doubt, and denial.  

There are a lot of thoughts and feelings to work through on both sides – with intersex kids and their parents.

I think it’s fantastic that you want to have a healthy relationship with your kid (who is probably awesome and wonderful in a variety of ways—YAY) and that you’ve identified that your lack of clear, healthy, honest communication about intersex issues seems to be getting in the way of that. I think this situation is, unfortunately, pretty common – it’s hard for parents and kids to overcome the ample, reinforced social stigma against intersex people to really try to understand what intersex is and what being intersex and their history of medicalization means for their lives and identity (and how parents can best support them). You’re in good company with many, many parents of (fabulous) intersex kids out there, but that doesn’t necessarily make your own situation any easier to navigate.

There’s no one magic bullet way to have a successful, productive conversation about any topic out there. You and your kid are individuals, and there are likely things that will work best for you that won’t work as well for others and vice versa. That being said, here are some general things to keep in mind that might be helpful for you as you begin to talk together and heal.

1) Your kid might not want to talk about intersex (right now). Everyone deals with stressors and emotionally upsetting things in different ways. For example, I tend to open my mouth and talk and talk and talk and TAAAAAALK until I’ve covered all the things that are weighing on my mind, and only then do I really feel better. Other people are more private and don’t necessarily want or feel the need to talk at length about their negative feelings, and of course, there are tons of subtle variations on these themes.  

In short: you may want to talk about intersex issues with your kid, but they might not want to. They might be working through how they feel about intersex on their own and don’t feel they can coherently articulate what’s going on internally yet. They might want to talk eventually, but need more time to work through whatever feelings they’re processing around this. They might want to address a few very specific questions, but not really talk about intersex generally. They might not want to talk about intersex at all for the indefinite future, for any number of reasons.  

Figure out if they’re open to having a conversation with you. Asking if they are and respecting their boundaries is important. A huge component of many intersex kids’ experience is not having control over their bodies or intersex status – other people make decisions about their body and intersex, and the intersex people themselves don’t. Forcing a conversation your kid doesn’t want to have might feel like yet another emotional violation, a reminder that they don’t have any control when it comes to intersex issues. Giving them the space they need – and allowing them to create that space with you – will empower them, and let them know you recognize their agency in this conversation and about their intersex bodies and status in general.

2) Let them guide the conversation. As aforementioned, intersex kids routinely don’t get a say (let alone the entire say) regarding what is and isn’t done to their bodies or how their intersex is conceptualized. Respecting their agency by asking them if they want to have a conversation is the first step. Your intersex kid needs to be able to steer and create this conversation along with you as an equal participant.

Ask open-ended questions. Don’t assume that you know what they think about intersex, how they identify with regard to their intersex (if at all), or how they feel about their medicalization. Ask them what they think and feel about these things, and especially about issues they raise. This is a great start to having open, healthy dialogue about intersex issues with your kid.

3)  You don’t have to know everything about intersex before starting a convo. There is a lot of information about intersex out there – in books, in articles, on the Internets – and it’s not reasonable to assume that you need to be an expert on all things intersex as a prerequisite to talking to your kid about it. You might be a parent, but you’re not omniscient. If you’ve felt like you have no business talking about intersex otherwise, that’s just not so. Your kid will likely appreciate your desire to engage about intersex, understand them better, and improve your relationship whether you’ve got all the answers or not. In fact, your kid – being the intersex person – probably has a lot to teach you about what it means to be intersex (and they probably won’t have all the answers, either). Take this as an opportunity to learn together while valuing your intersex kid’s unique insights.

4) Remember that you’re the parent, and they’re the kid. This one isn’t super-fun to talk about, but it’s really important. Your child is the intersex person who has undergone a lot of unwanted socialization and medicalization, and their thoughts, feelings, and experiences as the intersex person have to be prioritized in your family when you discuss and think about intersex issues. That being said, you – as the parent – have also probably had a lot of heartache, stress, and sadness around wanting to do the best thing for your kid and feeling pressure that you have to make decisions you should not have been asked to make for them. You aren’t intersex (or if you are, HI INTERSEX PARENTS!) and haven’t experienced the discrimination your kid has and can’t claim that as your own, but intersexphobia has affected you, too, and that should be honored.

But the point is:  the pain you’ve felt as a result of intersexphobia in society? This conversation with your kid – about THEIR feelings and experiences being intersex – is not necessarily the right place to work this out. When life unfolds in a way that the normalized, “ideal” Disney-esque scenario doesn’t take place, many parents have a tendency to think that it’s because they did something “wrong.” You may have internalized feelings of intersexphobia and shame without even realizing it. You might totally be on board that intersex is great and fine and something to celebrate and be proud of in principle, but still have a lot of guilt that you made your kid’s life more complicated because you passed on a gene, or there were certain hormone levels during your pregnancy, etc. that resulted in your kid’s being intersex.

Voicing these feelings to your kid is not productive in these conversations. You might be sharing difficult thoughts and feelings you’ve been having for some time, but saying these things to your kid is probably going to sound a lot like, “It’s my fault you’re intersex! I’m so sorry I made you a freak!” You are NOT saying that at all, but that might be what they hear, and the last thing your kid needs is further evidence society thinks they’re monstrous when they’re absolutely not, even a little. Worse, your kid might feel like they need to parent YOU and supersede their own needs to care for yours instead. This is not okay – you are the parent, and your kid should not have to do this for you.

In short, if you kid is born with blue eyes, do we say it’s the parent’s “fault” their kid has that eye color?  Are kids that have brown hair freaks because that trait was passed down to them from their parents?  No, of course not.  Why should there be any difference when we’re talking about intersex? You passed on some biological traits. That’s what we do—it’s how human reproduction works. Just because society isn’t largely accepting of intersex people at this time in history doesn’t mean that your contributing to your kid’s intersex is something shameful. You passed on the traits that make your awesome kid who they are.

Congratulations – you have an awesome kid!  What more could you want, ya know?

If you need to talk about your own feelings re: intersex, talk about them with others, but not your kid. You might be able to have a conversation many years and decades later to the tune of, “When I was young and didn’t understand what intersex was, I blamed myself – how misinformed I was!” But now is not the time to have that conversation.  This leads me to my last piece of advice…

5) Get yourselves the resources you need outside of your own conversations.  

Your kid may or may not want to have a conversation. In the conversations that do happen, you may learn that your kid is really upset that you played a large role in deciding what was (irreversibly) done or not done to their bodies, or being subjected to experiences they found psychologically and/or emotionally traumatic. You may both find that although starting up conversation is really needed, that this is just one thing that you need in a list of things that will help you to process and heal and celebrate intersex people and bodies.

I am a huge advocate of keeping yourself mentally healthy, and enlisting professional help in doing so if you’re privileged enough to afford doing so. I am seeing a trusted therapist now to work through a lot of the trauma I experienced as a kid via my medicalization and not-great family dynamics with regard to my intersex, and it is really helping.  Counseling is a great thing to consider – for your kid, for yourself, individually, and maybe together to work on interpersonal issues. There aren’t many therapists out there who specialize in counseling around intersex issues (mine doesn’t), but as long as they are trained in dealing with issues of depression, anxiety, and trauma, and are LGBTQIA-friendly and willing to learn about intersex issues they’re not already knowledgeable about, you can accomplish a lot in becoming more mentally healthy. For specifically dealing with issues of trauma, check out therapists who use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), especially the CBT technique called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP).

You might find that while your kid is happy to talk about intersex in general – with ANYONE, since it’s societally discouraged and medical professionals have likely suggested they keep quiet about it at all costs – they really need to talk to OTHER INTERSEX PEOPLE. In the dark ages, before the Internet was A Thing, I had few ways of getting in touch with other intersex people, and my intersex doctors flatly refused to put my family in contact with other families with intersex kids because of client privilege and liability issues. Now, intersex people are finding each other online through intersex organizations’ websites, blogs, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook – you name it. Intersex people are building community with one another virtually, and those who live close by one another can even meet up. When I met other intersex people, in real life, for the first time, I was floating on a cloud for weeks. It was literally life-changing to be in the presence of other people with experiences similar to mine. Having friends who get these intimate, emotionally charged parts of you that you’ve been dealing with alone for a long time is absolutely invaluable. Parents are also finding other parents of intersex kids through the internet, or learning more about intersex by reading work by intersex people. The internet is an amazing resource – fire up those search terms and get going!

I hope that these points help you, Anonymous!  Good luck initiating talking about intersex with your kid.  If things don’t go so well, know that by trying to start a conversation you’re opening the door for good things to happen later. I’ll be thinking about you.  <3

Claudia Astorino is an intersex activist living in NYC.  Claudia serves as Associate Director of Organization Intersex International’s USA chapter (OII-USA), coordinates the Annual Intersex Awareness Day (IAD) events in NYC, and writes for Full-Frontal Activism: Intersex and Awesome (her personal blog) and Follow her on Twitter @intersexgrrrl and tumblr at claudiaisintersex.