Finding the Words

Martha Coventry

When I was growing up, and well into adulthood, I used to have a waking nightmare that a squad of men in uniforms would arrive at my door, take me into the night and execute me for not being a real woman. In my mind, they were always justified and I never raised my voice in protest. When my youngest daughter was two and I was 35, I was incapacitated nearly to the point of self-destruction by some unknown shame. I began intensive therapy, desperate to discover why I felt so bad, so tainted, so wrong. One Sunday morning, feeling inches away from disaster, I called my therapist. “I don’t know if this is important,” I told her, “but I had this operation.” There. I had said it out loud, and in that instant a tiny sliver of light appeared.

I knew nothing of what had been done to me when I was six years old. One evening, my mother came into the bathroom where I was playing in the tub. She told me that the next day I would have to go to the hospital for an operation. I remember something rushing out of me at that moment, like wind through a closing door. Did I put my hands down to protect the clit that stuck out innocently from between my labia? Not a word of explanation was ever given for the surgery, and when they cut out my clit, they cut out my tongue. I could not cry out to save myself, and that stifled scream wedged in my throat, blocking my voice. Endless fears about who and what I was took the place of words and they settled like darkness over me.

At age eleven or twelve, I had my first orgasm. Somehow I had brought myself to the edge and I just touched the opening to my vagina and it happened. Shockingly. Perhaps it was this new and powerful experience of pleasure from a place that held so much pain that made me determined to find out the truth about my body. A few nights later I crossed the living room, my bare feet on the cool cork squares carrying me towards my parents, the two people who were my only safety. They sat at the dining room table. Big black and white photos of my sisters and me were laid out under the light. My mother picked mine up and I heard the word “boy” come out of her mouth. Fear heaved in me. I was a boy. I was supposed to be a boy. It was too late to stop myself. “What was that operation I had?” I blurted, as my gut tightened against the blow of the answer. My father, a surgeon, looked at me. The father I loved with abandon. The father who agreed to let this be done to me. The father who cherished me above all else, turned and, with no idea of what his words would do to the rest of my life, said, “Don’t be so self-examining.” The moment of silence that followed that brusque dismissal lasted for almost twenty-five years.

In warfare there is a technique called sapping. Saps are trenches that are dug underground, unseen, silently, beneath an enemy’s fortifications. Eventually the walls collapse under their own weight. To be lied to as a child about your own body, to have your life as a sexual being so ignored that you are not even given the decency of an answer to your questions, is to have your heart and soul relentlessly undermined. The thing that makes you wild and free is insidiously crippled. To reclaim that childhood state of wildness, you have to rescue your own life and learn to speak about who you are. The life you had no power to save when you were three weeks, or eighteen months, or six years old, or thirteen, you have to save at twenty-eight, or thirty-six or fifty-five. You have endless chances. And it is never too late.

So it was at thirty-five that I first started to ask questions, ever so carefully, gently, still protecting the little girl terrified of her own reflection. I spoke with my father again, asked for my medical records, and heard my gynecologist read me the summary the hospital sent. Both men had the same sensible answer when I asked what sex I really was: I had children, wasn’t that proof enough? No, as a matter of fact, it wasn’t. During this time, I went to a resort in Arizona with my husband. I was fragile, with fear and love of myself battling in my head. For a banquet the first night, I wore a low-cut, elegant dress. My image in the mirror mocked me. My then short hair did not soften my throat, which seemed masculine and muscular. My arms stuck out hard, sinewy, and tan from my sleeves. I didn’t look or feel like a woman. I was in drag. I was a fraud. A mother with two young daughters at home, I spent the entire four days trying to find my way out of believing I was a man. It was as close as I’d come to losing my identity completely and it frightened me back into total and terrified silence. No more questions, no more exploration. I slammed shut and bolted the door that had so briefly and tentatively opened.

Eight years later, I got another chance. Sex had been my obsession all my life. I started young, playing naked with a girl friend in a sleeping bag, talking another into licking my pussy, being peed on in the woods by a neighbor boy and liking how wrong it felt. My cunt was alive, my scar extra sensitive then to any touch. But wreaking havoc with my budding sexual self was the constant reminder that I was a freak. I was not right in the place where everyone else was perfect. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to fuck. I wanted to be the hippie girl who smoked pot and got screwed everywhere and all the time. The first part came easily, the second part terrified me. The secret I carried about my body stopped every hand as it began its inevitable descent, and cut short every half-naked romp in narrow cabin beds. In high school, it was the sluts I envied, the girls I thought were so free with their bodies. Everything womanly and sexual, even yeast infections, had its allure.

I fell in love my freshman year in college with a kind and safe boy. One night, in bed, I told him about my operation—that I was different from other girls. He looked up from between my legs, said “Oh,” and went back to lapping happily away. Our first attempt at intercourse was right out of Sylvia Plath—it hurt, I hated it and it didn’t work. I married the boy and we spent hours together loving each other’s bodies, learning to come at the same time using our hands and our mouths. But in this society, and in my mind, it was the old in-and-out that counted. It was my measure of a woman and I was lousy at it. My vagina was shut tight and there was nothing that could be done about it. Not even my children could pass easily through that opening, and had to be birthed by Cesarean section. Years of fantasizing about sex ended with a new shame. A subtle and ever so devastating variation of the old shame.

When the inevitable end came to my marriage, I crashed. It was the response of a woman who was sick to death of being weird, of pretending, of feeling exhausted by a life of envy. Staring me in the face was the unavoidable fact that I was a sexual failure, had never satisfied the man who loved me, and had begun to hate the effort. I narrowly avoided the hospital because of sheer will, the constant attention of my father, my friends and my therapist, and the right prescription. When I surfaced, I found a raw and beautiful new life waiting for me. The Sufi poet Rumi said that the only way out of the pain is into the pain. I began to quit running from the fear and pain of my life. For a banquet the first night, I wore a low-cut, elegant dress. My image in the mirror mocked me. My then short hair did not soften my throat, which seemed masculine and muscular. My arms stuck out hard, sinewy, and tan from my sleeves. I didn’t look or feel like a woman. I was in drag. I was a fraud.

Instead, I turned to embrace them. In the light of a growing affection for myself and my body, they started to lose their power to harm me. Alone much of the time, I would read poetry aloud and sing out in a new strong voice when I walked my dog at night. I started swimming in the nude more and more. I lay in the woods naked, on the earth, in the leaves. I began to crave the feel of my own flawed body, its smells, the taste of its juices. I found new ways of getting pleasure, new ways to come. Sex with myself got noisy and I loved crying out and hearing the sound explode out of me.

In the midst of this love affair with myself, my father died. He was my hero, always, and my most beloved companion. The profound devotion we had for each other is one of the great blessings of my life. To have me clitoridectomized in order to protect me from being mistaken for a hermaphrodite was not meant as a betrayal of me, but simply one of those most diffi- cult decisions parents make that end up, tragically, to be wrong. Withholding the truth, when I asked him about myself, was a cruelty he could not understand at the time. Our life together was graced with too much love for bitterness to ever have a chance. In the end, his death did a surprising thing for me—it cut me loose to finally live my own life.

Lesbianism had always danced around me. Growing up, I thought that if I were attracted to girls, it would mean I was really a boy. When I read of women who loved women, like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, I ached at their bravery to claim who they really were. And although I felt an odd bond and natural connection with them, I didn’t even dare to play with the possibility myself. I had no idea who I really was, and I was way too afraid to find out. Besides, even if their loving was strange, their bodies were normal. I put myself, again, outside the fold. When I was twenty-two, I went into a gay bar with a friend in Quebec City, where I was studying. I was entranced. For the first time, in that dark and smoky place, I saw women dancing pressed up against each other. I went back to my dorm room and cried for the next four months, filled with anguish at my desire to return there and my fear at what it would prove about me. In the twenty years that followed, a sadness lived in me always that I would never know that kind of love. With the end of my marriage, the death of my father, and a growing determination to look squarely at my own life, I had no reasons to hold my desire at bay any longer. I was finally ready to let myself slowly fall into the patiently waiting arms of lesbianism. All the queerness I felt growing up finally had a home. Being a dyke fits my strangely hermaphroditic self so comfortably, so wonderfully. It feels totally and deeply right.

Embracing my love for women not only makes me happy, it is the thing that I had been waiting for to give me the courage to look at my body, and at who and what I truly was, without turning away. I could never have found my intersexual self until I had found and loved my sexual self. A friend introduced me to a new gynecologist—a wise, irreverent man—and he and I explored my body in detail. We prodded and spread, measured and probed with my complete medical records in hand, to understand what I might have looked like and exactly what the surgery had removed. I began to write vignettes of growing up, of sex, of gender struggles, of madness.

One of the things about being born with genitals that challenge what is considered normal, is that no one ever tells you that there is anyone like you. You feel completely and utterly alone. Even today, young children are never put in touch with others who are going through the same thing. You are purposely isolated, your difference covered up—and it is horrible. One day, I met with my writing teacher at her house. Next to my place at the table was a newsletter. Hermaphrodites with Attitude was written across the top. Upon seeing that word, which still had the power to terrify me, written so bold, so proud, I became suddenly unable to speak, even to breathe. Reading the text, I found my story in other people’s words. People I did not even know existed. It was as if my whole life had been lived to reach just this one moment. I took the newsletter home, and for days and days would pick it up in disbelief and hold it to my chest like a talisman.

And so it started, the strength that comes from finding those like you. The words that used to frighten me, make my skin crawl, like gender and hermaphrodite, roll off my tongue easier now. They are beginning to belong to me. I will never find the words of my six-year old self, and that is fitting. Today I have the reasoned and educated voice of a grown woman who knows harm when she sees it and is increasingly growing strong enough to name it and try to stop it. Saying this does not mean I am always brave, because I’m not. Speaking out as an intersexual, as a hermaphrodite, I go forward, but I also still retreat to protect myself. At one moment I may tell a friend my story, talk knowledgeably about it on the phone with a stranger. But then the subject comes up in a room full of people, and I speak in generalities, as if it were something that happens to other people. And I feel that silence between my legs, the place that sets me and my past apart from most other women. But I’m kind to myself when I can’t quite tell the whole truth, as all intersexuals should be. We have lifetimes of shame to overcome and, for most of us, this has been a secret that we have guarded with our lives and at great expense. Coming out as a hermaphrodite has its own precious timing. You can’t peel the chrysalis off a butterfly and expect it to survive any more than we can speak out, or even face our own truth, before we are ready.

If you are intersexed, listen to your heart—slowly you will emerge. It takes commitment and courage, it is frightening, but not nearly as frightening as that monster you created all those years out of your own sweet body. As you tell your story, and tell it again and again, a sort of transformation takes place. You start to speak for all intersex people who have ever lived and are yet to be born. Your intensely personal story drops into the background, and what comes forward is your story as myth, as a kind of transcendent truth. Try to love yourself enough to free your hermaphroditic voice, so we can all claim our lives, and the bodies we deserve to celebrate.