Hermaphrodites with Attitude Take to the Streets

Max Beck

In late October of 1996, Hermaphrodites with Attitude took to the streets, in the first public demonstration by intersexuals in modern history. On a glorious fall day, the like of which you can only find in New England, under a crackling, cloudless sky, twenty-odd protesters joined forces to picket the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Pediatricians in Boston (see cover photo —Ed.).

Deeply aware of the historical and personal significance of the action, and—correctly—surmising that a notebook diary would not be practical on such a whirlwind, windy week-end, I took a small hand-held tape recorder with me. What follows are excerpts from the resulting transcript.

October 24, 1996 2:45 PM, Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport

The trip has only just begun and I am already exhausted. Hot. Starving. Fifteen minutes until take-off. Every businessman boarding the plane looks like a pediatric endocrinologist, Boston-bound. Silly thought, testimony to what? My anxiety? My fear? My giddy anticipation? If these bespectacled, suit-and-tie sporting men were pediatricians, would they be flying coach on Continental, with a layover in Newark?

I’m headed for Boston, for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP). Tens of thousands of pediatricians. I’m not a pediatrician, though, nor am I a nurse; in fact, I barely managed to complete my B.A. I’m a manager of a technical laboratory. We don’t work with children, and the AAP certainly didn’t invite me, so why am I going? With the plane taxiing toward take-off, this is a lousy time to reassess. I’m going.

I’m going because I am intersexed. I’m going because the doctors and nurses who treated me as an infant and a child and an adolescent, and those who continue to treat intersexed infants and children today, consider me “lost to follow- up.” I was lost—that’s part of the problem. Now, I’m back.

9:02 PM: Boston’s North End

I’m comfortably ensconced in Alice’s warehouse condo in Boston’s North End, a renovated warehouse with a view of the city skyline, ceilings easily twenty feet high, exposed beams and brick, gorgeous tile floor. As I speak, my hostess is preparing an absolutely phenomenal meal. The aroma of roasted peppers permeates the entire space.

Tomorrow, the work begins; my project this evening is to unwind and enjoy this wonderful meal. Easier said than done. I’m feeling excited, enervated, I feel very alive, something I don’t feel very often, I feel very present and aware. It could be my exhaustion, it could be the Chardonnay. But I think, rather, that the excitement is anticipation about what we are about to do. Being here, finally being prepared to raise a voice, to be heard, to be seen, a vocal, out, proud hermaphrodite who is standing up to say, “Let’s rethink this, this isn’t working, we’ve been hurt, stop what you’re doing, listen to us!”

I’m really looking forward to meeting Morgan at the airport in the morning; it’s always amazing to make eye contact with someone else who has been there.

October 25, 7:38 AM Boston Commons

En route to my encounter with the AAP, walking the approximately two miles from my hostess’ domicile to the Marriott Hotel at Copley Square, I pause in the Boston Commons to enjoy a park bench, to sip my Starbuck’s decaf, and to watch a group of senior citizens performing Japanese swordsmanship on top of the hill beneath a monument to some forgotten general.

The city is cool this morning, but clear, and it promises to be a beautiful weekend. That’s good: we won’t be rained out.

I’ve got a stack of about ninety ISNA brochures in the bag at my side, crammed in the inside pocket of my leather jacket. If I want these pamphlets to get inside, I’ve got to get to the site of the Nurses’ Panel at the Marriott before they close the doors. Then it’s back out to the airport, to pick up Morgan.

My feet are already killing me.

October 26, 9:15 AM: North End

Morgan and I are sitting at our hostess’ breakfast table, pulling our thoughts together. In a few minutes, we’ll have to leave to pick up Riki at the airport.

The logistics of pulling together an action are mind-boggling. There’s no describing the thrill, though, of all that work, all those phone calls, all those miles. Riding a clattering subway on a Saturday morning, seated beside another living, breathing, laughing, swearing intersexual, hugging near-strangers at unfamiliar airports, then riding back, together, defiant, determined, organized, to the heart of so much of our pain, so much of our anger, so much of our need.

We gathered in front of the huge Hynes Auditorium, pamphlets and leaflets in hand, and met the AAP attendees as they left the convention center for lunch. The next hour-and-a-half was a blur, as we positioned ourselves in strategic locations before the Hynes, held signs and “Hermaphrodites with Attitude” banner aloft, distributed our literature, engaged AAP members and passers-by in conversation and debate, spoke to microphones, to cameras. In all that time, I recorded only one fragment of a breathless sentence:

Saturday, 12:20 PM Outside the Hynes

We’ve got all the exits covered, and it’s an incredible, incredibly empowering experience.

I remember the words I spoke to the TV camera, if only because I had scribbled a rough outline on the airplane, pirating mightily from Cheryl’s press release. And because the moment was so salient, so real. Me, Max, bespectacled, with blisters on my feet and chapped lips, speaking out to untold numbers of invisible viewers (and a few bewildered pediatricians behind me.)

When an intersex child is born, parents and caregivers are faced with what seems to be a terrible dilemma: here is an infant who does not fit what our society deems normal. Immediate medical intervention seems indicated, in order to spare the parents and the child the inevitable stigmatization associated with being different. Yet the infant is not facing a medical emergency; intersexuality is rarely if ever life-threatening. Rather, the psychosocial crisis of the parents and caregivers is medicalized.

Intersexuality is assumed to be a birth defect which can be corrected, outgrown and forgotten. The experiences of members of the intersex support groups indicate that intersexuality cannot be fixed; an intersex infant grows up to be an intersex adult. This hasn’t been explored, because intersex patients are almost invariably “lost to follow-up.” The abstract of a talk that will be given at this very conference by a doctor who treats intersex infants concedes that “the psychological issues surrounding genital reconstruction are inadequately understood.”

Part of the problem is that we were lost to follow-up, and there were reasons for that. But we’re here today to say we’re back, we’re no longer lost, and we’d like to offer some feedback. We’re here to say that the treatment paradigm for “managing” intersexuals is in desperate, urgent need of re-examination.

We’re back to say that early surgical intervention leads to more than “just” physical scars and sexual dysfunction. We’re back to say that the lack of education and counseling for intersexuals, our families and the community at large does not lead to a blissful, healthy, well-adjusted ignorance. Rather, it too often leads to a life-threatening shroud of silence, secrecy, and self-hatred.

I’m here representing over one hundred fifty intersexals throughout North America. One hundred fifty intersexuals are saying: Please! Listen! You doctors, you pediatric endocrinologists and urologists treating intersexuals, you nurses interacting with intersexuals and their families, listen to us! We understand intersexuality, not because we have studied the medical literature—although many of us have—not because we have performed surgeries, but because we have been grappling with intersexuality every day of our lives.

We’re here to say that those who would have us believe that intersexuality is rare, cloud the issue by breaking us and separating us into narrow etiological categories which have little meaning in terms of our actual, lived experience.

We’re here so that other intersexuals can find us—for many of us, finding others like ourselves has been a lifealtering, even life-saving, experience.

We’re here to reach parents before their intersex child is born.

We’re here to elicit the help of other sympathetic professionals.

We can take a stand as openly intersex adults without being crushed by shame!

And we did!

7:20 PM: Boston’s North End

Goddess, this is so sweet, so liberating! I was so reluctant a week ago, having my Jesus-in-Gethsemane experience, reluctant to accept—not an onus or responsibility but—to accept who I am. And here’s where the hard work really begins. I’m exhausted when I think of the road before us. But then, it’s nothing like the road behind us.

[AAP officials did not reply to a letter from ISNA, delivered several days before the convention, inviting them to talk with ISNA members before, during or after the convention. During the demonstration, a PR man came out to distribute an American Academy of Pediatrics press release asserting that “from the viewpoint of emotional development” the age six weeks to fifteen months is the optimal time for genital surgery, and announced that while AAP officials would be happy to meet with members of the press privately, inside, they had no interest in meeting any Hermaphrodites with Attitude —Ed.]

The Author (left) at AAP Demo, Boston, 26 October, 1996