An estimated 1.7 percent of the population is born with intersex characteristics—meaning they have genitals, reproductive organs, hormones, and/or chromosomal patterns that do not fit standard definitions of strictly male or female. Intersex activist Hida Viloria has long worked to end the egregious human rights abuses intersex people are subject to, including sex and gender discrimination and nonconsensual corrective surgeries.
In her memoir Born Both: An Intersex Life (Hachette Books), Viloria delivers a candid, provocative, and eye-opening account of gender identity, self-acceptance, and love, as well as a call to action for justice. Though Viloria was raised as a girl, s/he (Viloria’s preferred pronouns are s/he and he/r, pronounced “she” and “her”) knew s/he was different. In the excerpt below, Viloria describes, at age 26, the first stages of exploring what life might be like between genders, to be both and neither, after encountering the term “intersex” in a San Francisco newspaper.
January 21, 1996
The minute I sit up in bed I know with certainty what I want to do: I want to stop looking like a girl. By that I mean I want to stop wearing and doing all the things that I’ve been taught to as a woman: makeup, hairstyling, tweezing my eyebrows—even shaving my legs and armpits. All of it.
It’s hard to tell exactly what has made this desire so strong and this decision so clear. I guess it’s the combination of recently learning that I might be a hermaphrodite and being really, really fed up with being devalued as a woman.
Ironically, it’s my mother’s birthday—the woman who’s told me, since high school, that I look better with a little lipstick on. She’d hate this, I think, as I pick up the phone to make the birthday call.
Why have I bothered wearing makeup at all since I came out as a lesbian? I wonder. It only lessens my chances of meeting someone, because people incorrectly assume I’m into men. Have I done it because it felt right, or just because it’s what I’ve been taught to do? It’s hard to figure out because, either way, I’d taken to it like a fish to water.
But now, like hundreds of feminists before me, I decide that I shouldn’t have to alter my appearance with makeup and revealing clothes and uncomfortable shoes for people to find me attractive. Men, after all, don’t have to do any of that stuff. In fact, the less they do, the more attractive most women seem to find them.
Besides, a little voice in the back of my mind adds, you might not even really be a woman anyway. You might be intersex, like you read about in that article last year. I’m not sure, because I haven’t reached out to anyone, or done any research, but the possibility looms large.
When I take to the streets with my naked face and comfy clothes and sneakers, I immediately notice something new. Men are staring at me: gay men. I live in the Castro, the gayest neighborhood on earth, and these guys usually look right through me like I’m invisible.
Suddenly, beautiful gay men are staring at me with open, unabashed smiles. Instead of people finally knowing I’m a lesbian, it seems they suddenly think I’m a boy. My hair happens to be short, a cute pixie cut that looks super feminine with product and a made-up face, but without all that it seems to look like a guy’s haircut, because all the people at the shops I visit on my errand run are calling me “he” or “sir,” despite my voice, my short height, and my personality, which I’ve often been told isn’t very masculine. I find it almost hard to believe, given my past of being called a “beautiful woman.”
A guy in a gorgeous sweater who looks like a less rugged Hugh Jackman walks toward me on Market Street. As he passes he stares right at me with a look that evokes something I’ve never felt. There’s something about his lust that’s less predatory than when straight men have lusted after me. I turn around to get another look at him and catch him doing the same thing. Interestingly, getting cruised by this handsome gay man is kind of hot, but it’s not what I expected.
The weirdest thing about my change in appearance, though, is that I’d barely had to do anything. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. I’ve stopped doing things.
I didn’t need to put on a costume to become this new person. In fact, I’d taken one off, one I hadn’t even realized I was wearing. It turns out once the girl costume came off, there was a boy underneath.
Has he been here all along? I wonder. Have I just been covering him up with makeup?
The fact that I’m able to convince everyone around me that I’m male starts to feel like a cool kind of challenge, a nonstop acting gig, and I quickly realize that I am expected to act, in a lot of ways, just the opposite of how I had as a girl. “Excuse me, could I possibly trouble you for…” is no longer necessary. In fact, it isn’t cool to be too polite or nice as a guy. It comes off as weak.
“Hey, man, you got the time?” I yell to some guy across the street, and instead of giving me a why-the-hell-are-you-talking-to-me-in-that-unladylike-way look, he just hollers the time back with a nod.
I enjoy trying out all sorts of new things, like walking with a scowl on my face, thinking about situations that piss me off. And instead of being told to “smile,” I get a positive reaction. Guys show me more respect and girly girls seem to find it sexy. They stare at me from under long eyelashes with coy, inviting eyes.
I haven’t only stopped grooming myself as a woman; I’ve also stopped wearing women’s clothing. I basically switched from typically female to typically male grooming and garb, wearing my loose, unisex jeans and tee shirts to go with my new au naturel appearance.
Since I don’t have that much gender-neutral clothing in my closet, I go shopping and discover that men’s clothes actually fit me pretty well, with my small hips and breasts. They’re not sexy in the slinky way that women’s clothes are, but they give me an “I don’t give a shit” feeling that’s sexy in its own cocky way.
It’s a sturdy, uninhibited sexiness. Nothing hugging my body, constricting my movements and making me worry about having an ounce of fat. I guess a loose sundress would be the same, but I’d never been into those, and I always felt vulnerable to the wind blowing them up. There is no vulnerability with men’s clothes: The fabrics are thicker and the cuts less revealing, providing a protective barrier against the outside world.
My change in wardrobe reminds me of how some parents dress their babies in gender-specific clothing because, if they don’t, people might not know what sex they are. Oftentimes, parents need clothing to define their children as boys or girls.
It’s pretty much the same with me, except if someone got a good look at me naked, it might confuse, rather than clarify, the situation. As long as I remain dressed though, I can pass just as easily for a boy as a girl, depending on the clothes I wear.
I’m not sure which I prefer. I’m not even entirely clear on why I’m doing this or if it will last. Only one thing is clear: my life of being “such a girl” is, at least for the moment, a thing of the past.
Born Both: An Intersex Life by Hida Viloria, was published March 14, 2017, by Hachette Books.