When I first met Jim, it was in a social setting and I didn’t think twice about his gender. Why would I? I noticed his loud quick laughter, dark hair, dramatic flair, caring nature, and a certain sense of elegance. In the middle of interviewing him about being intersexed I start to really see both genders in him. His personality stays the same, but as he talks, first the feminine surfaces and then the masculine. I find it incredibly cool and a little weird. Jim says, “I’m always going to look a little bit in between. I still confuse people. I know people who will look at me and, despite the ruff, they still can’t decide what I am. I don’t give a rat’s ass.” So… this is what it means to be intersexed.
I ask Jim to explain and he tells me, “Intersexed is a catch-all category used to describe the children that used to be called hermaphroditic, children who at birth display either both gender characteristics together, imperfect of either, or neither. We are essentially, the third gender that no one knows what to do with.”
Even though the intersexed condition is not uncommon, many people don’t even know that they suffer from it. For years, all obviously intersexed babies were assigned a female gender because, “it’s easier to dig a hole, than build a pole.” It was assumed that with nurturing and hormones, these children would be happy girls.
Jim was raised a girl and didn’t find out that he was intersexed until he was an adult. He was working with a urologist on some health problems and she noticed that his urethra lacked an outer sphincter. Jim continued, “Then she looked further and we discovered a few more things. I have an ovary but it’s way down low, not where it should be, a testicle, and ovo-testicular gonad. My uterus is one-sided, it’s literally like half of one. It’s badly misshapen. It’s very small. I have a prostate and seminal vesicles on the left side. I also have some scar tissue on the left side that looks like something was removed – because it was.”
Jim’s own birth story is horrifying and stereotypical for intersexed babies. He was born dangerously premature to very young parents. They were told that their son would die and they didn’t even see him for 3 days. Jim relates that after 3 days, “the doctor panicked and didn’t know what to do with me.” Although Jim didn’t know any of this until he was an adult, the small hospital where he was born in rural east Texas in 1975, “had done a clumsy, half-assed attempt at sex re-assignment surgery. So what they did was this: I apparently did have a penis, although a very small one. You know the fat pad where the penis sits, they took it, they slit underneath the penis, cut up and sort of around it, took the ligament, cut it and moved everything down to create an outer labia. I don’t have inner labia. All I’ve got is an entrance, which is more or less normal sized. It’s cone shaped and my cervix is the size of a dime.”
Jim’s childhood was difficult. His mom believed (and maybe still believes) that he was switched with another baby at birth – an impossibility in a small hospital with a birth every 3 months. When he was only a few months old, she left him home alone with a 20 pound cat trapped in the crib with him . His grandmother found him and took him to live with her. He bounced back and forth for a while. His parents had another baby when he was almost 4.
Several months after that, while Jim watched his mother change the baby’s diaper, he noticed his brother’s penis. “I informed my mom that I was a boy like my brother, only my penis wasn’t very big. I was sitting on the end of our couch and my mother backhanded me so hard I fell off the couch. Then she picked me up and spanked me. I spent the next 3 days in bed and that’s all I really remember. I never brought the subject up in front of them after that. I was not stupid.” It was the only time his mom ever hit him.
As a child, Jim never felt like a boy or a girl. In imaginative play he was always a pony or a dragon, something where gender wasn’t an issue. Around 10 or 11, Jim ran into troubles with his parents again. “Sex was not a topic in our house. At all. Gender was not a topic. It was just expected. They were a little concerned that I expressed desires like wanting to grow up and be a priest in the Catholic Church. And they told me, ‘Well you can be a nun.’ I didn’t want to be a nun, I wanted to be a priest. The nuns just sit over there with their rulers and their rosaries and I wanted to be a priest. They kind of blew it off.”
By age 12, Jim started rebelling – wearing boy’s clothes, rejecting his birth name (which he hated) and going by Tig, short for Tigger, a childhood nickname. He was struggling to fit in at school. He says, “I was having authority issues. I had gotten into some fights with some of the kids that called me a lesbian and I didn’t know what that was, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t complimentary. I bit a kid’s ear half off one day when I couldn’t take being teased anymore.”
His parents found him a boarding school for gifted kids which Jim describes as, “400 hyper active, hyper intelligent largely unsupervised teenagers in a dorm, left to our own devices except we were expected to go to college classes. Mayhem ensued.” It was in this environment that Jim started really living as a boy. Or perhaps a goth icon, according to his story. Although he knew what transgendered was at this point, he didn’t feel particularly transgendered – he was just more comfortable living with a male persona. He dated both boys and girls, including a man she would eventually marry.
Jim tells me that the real gender questioning happened after graduation, after getting bullied into marriage. “I had been dating this boy through the end of high school and beginning of college. He was a gorgeous guy. My parents bullied me into getting married. Just flat out bullied me into it cuz weddings are like crack in Texas. I was 19.”
Jim’s marriage was short-lived. I’m going to save time and just say that the guy was a dick. But during their marriage, Jim did have a non-viable pregnancy. He also spent time, “really into the Domme thing. I played the dominatrix to the hilt. I was walking around with this corset on, I tight-laced for years. I was really into the kink scene, he was too, a lot of strap-on play, a lot of naughty play, you know.” I try to imagine this conservative-looking man in front of me, in his white button-down shirt, and burgundy pull-over sweater in bitch boots, leather coset, and whip. I find that it’s not hard at all.
Jim’s husband screwed him over and Jim ended up in Seattle. He moved in with the man who would become his partner, David. While it took them a little while to get together, they have now been partnered for 13 years. It was to David that Jim first expressed interest in transitioning to a male persona. Jim tells me, “I finally realized I was just happier in a male persona than a female persona and I looked at Dave in the middle of a crying jag one day and said, ‘I just want to transition.’ “ Even though Jim’s degree in psychology is in abnormal sexuality, he hadn’t known until that moment that he wanted to transition.
“I didn’t have a lot of the trauma that I hear other people talk about because I guess on the very inside I always felt I was somewhere in between male and female anyway. It wasn’t that big of a deal to pick one or the other. I knew which one I was happier as, but I would not have been broken up if I had to have been female for the rest of my life, I just felt like there was a screaming gay guy wanting to get out.” Jim explains. He goes on to say, “I really don’t feel any more masculine than I am feminine. I’m just me.”
I’m still concerned about intersexed babies. What happens today when a child is born with an unclear gender? Jim tells me that it’s still a bit up in the air. Best practice is that no surgery will be performed on the child’s genitals unless it is necessary to save the baby’s life. Give the child a gender neutral name. Wait until they are 3 or 4 and let them tell you which gender they are. But I wonder if there is a better answer.
I ask Jim if it helps to have a gender identity. “Yes, it absolutely does. I feel more comfortable living my public, outside life in a male persona.” But would he be comfortable living as a 3rd gender if our culture adopted such a gender? “I probably would. If it were socially okay, I probably would.” Jim has stressed to me over and over, in many ways that he feels between genders, not neither, bot both, between. Isn’t there some way to honor that?