Is Growing up in Silence Better Than Growing up Different?

Morgan Holmes

In May, 1996, plastic surgeons at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital held a symposium which included a half day on genital surgery for intersexed infants. ISNA offered to put on a “Patients’ Panel” for the symposium. This offer was rejected. In spite of this, three ISNA members traveled to New York and presented their stories in a room adjacent to the surgeons’ symposium. This is the talk given there by Morgan Holmes. The surgeons said afterwards that nothing ISNA members said had changed their minds about any aspect of their treatment of intersexed infants.

I want, first and most importantly, to express my deep gratitude to our supporters, Dr. William Byne and Dr. Suzanne Kessler, who helped to make this talk possible. I also want to take the opportunity to thank ISNA president and founder Cheryl Chase, who opened the door for intersexed persons to come together and provide each other with a sense of belonging in the world.

There are few moments in life that were as important as the one when I first spoke to Cheryl. I was twenty-four years old, and for seventeen years I had been keeping significant facts about myself hidden from everyone I knew—even from my most intimate partners. I was in the final stages of writing my master’s thesis on the political and cultural demands being both met and reinforced in Western medicine’s traditional mode of providing a surgical “miracle cure” for intersexed features. I had only just begun, because of Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s influential article “The Five Sexes,” to tell people about my own history, but these were very “safe” people—my academic advisors, professionals who were used to dealing with topics about sexuality. But I still wasn’t talking to my family about my past and I had certainly never spoken to another human being that I knew to be like me. I had grown up thinking that the reason they had cut my clitoris off when I was seven years old was that I was the only one in the world like me.

I hadn’t smoked since a terrible bout of the flu when I was twenty-two, but I smoked during that phone conversation. Suddenly my pain had a mirror image, and as much as I had known, in theory, that removing the erotogenic tissue of kids was at best an inadequate solution, I had never felt how right I was except through my own pain. Now I heard it in someone else, too. But more than that, I heard and felt the anger, which like mine, tried to understand why we had been forced to pay with an ounce of flesh for the failure of our parents and their friends and relations to love us unconditionally.

Without meaning to sound arrogant, I would like to draw your attention to my intelligence; it is not a recent development in my life. I did not start out a fool. One of the few positive things my early childhood medical files attest to is the early indication of high intelligence and an ability to express myself with exceptional clarity. That intelligence was not respected.

I remember quite clearly what my body was like before the surgery performed in 1974 by Dr. Robert Jeffs at The Hospital for Sick Children. I have a tactile memory of how the clitoris felt between my fingers. I have absolutely no recollection of it causing me either pain or consternation. My pediatrician, however, told my father that my clitoris, because it could become erect, would make it uncomfortable to wear anything with an inseam, and he told my father that surgery would relieve the increasing trauma I was having about my body.

Well, by the physician’s logic, all penises should be removed at birth, and if my father had thought about it, he would have known that erections are not so much of an interference in his life that he would choose to have his penis removed. Furthermore, if anyone had thought to ask me why I was feeling traumatized, I would have been able to tell them that the reason I didn’t want to see the doctor was that I was tired of being trotted out for pelvic exams, of being referred from one doctor to the next as a fine example of how they could detect such an interesting case. But I didn’t tell—I was taught that children are to be seen and not heard and that you do not give an opinion unless you have been asked. Since then, I have decided that my opinion should be heard, regardless of whether or not it has been solicited.

As a premature baby, I had spent my whole life being examined by doctors who were, no doubt, very interested to see how the progesterones my mother was given would affect my body. And I had come to an age where I could protest, or at least cry when yet another man would want to pry my legs apart and stick his fingers up my vagina. What I am saying is that my medical “care-givers” failed to respect my autonomy or my intelligence when they assumed that because I was a child they could do whatever they wanted as long as my father provided his consent. And when I began to balk, instead of questioning their own treatment of me, they blamed my body and they cut it up.

They told my father I would be perfectly normal. They told my father that my problems would be solved. They told my father I would grow up to have a normal sexuality. Perhaps they didn’t realize it, but all these things were lies. Before the surgery, I never gave a thought to my body. You may say that I just don’t remember, but I have an exceptional memory. I remember. I know that nobody told me what I was going into the hospital for; they only told me that I might have a catheter. Nobody asked me how I felt, nobody explained to me what made me so interesting. And they certainly didn’t tell me they were going to amputate my clitoris. Indeed, it’s not even what they told my father.

No, they gave it a much more benign name: “clitoral recession.” And they didn’t explain to him that it didn’t mean that they would just be “backing it up a little,” which, until a year ago is what he thought had been done. But those were the days before you had to get “informed consent”—all you had to get was consent.

So I went into the hospital and I waited for six days while they buccal smeared me for the umpteenth time, and they did blood tests and urine samples and they punched a hole of skin out of my arm. Now that was a very painful procedure. I remember that the man who did it told me that he didn’t have very many friends. And he also told me that they were going to grow some of my skin in a dish so that if I needed some skin later they would have it. Another lie. The skin sample was used for my karyotype analysis. And I had no idea what he meant about me needing it later. I remember thinking to myself, “For what?” But children don’t get to ask the questions, or if we do, nobody thinks we are entitled to true answers.

When they were prepping me for surgery I still had no idea what was going to be done. When I woke up I was covered in orange paint from my navel to my knees on my inner thighs. And hurt! Very few people in this room have ever had their genitals sliced off. You can’t imagine how much it hurts to pee afterwards. And it hurts for a long time. However, nobody thought about my pain except to assume there wouldn’t be any: obviously the thing about the inseam was considered all fixed because my “Welcome Home” photos show me dressed in yellow wool pants—the early 1970s kind with the inseam that always seemed to cut too high.

It wasn’t until the iodine-paint was gone and the hurt subsided that I realized that I no longer had what I had had before. And that was the first time I realized I had been so ugly that they had had to change me. I remember clearly, standing in the bathroom at school, having just suffered through a horrible stinging pee, wanting to ask my friend Ijoma Ross if this had ever been done to her but thinking to myself that I shouldn’t ask her. It occurred to me that my classmates didn’t disappear for two weeks and come back to school unable to sit still because the inseam of their pants was rubbing against a fresh scar that burned and itched. I never spoke to anyone about it.

Yet it’s amazing how many of my father’s friends and relations seem to know all about it. I may not have been able to talk, but obviously other people were not so affected.

Years went by. I was a young adolescent. I learned in Health Ed class that a clitoris is a little button about the size of a pea. I didn’t think I had one. I tried to find it, but I couldn’t find anything like that. At the apex of my labia, I found only the apex… and it seemed no different from the rest of the tissue there, soft, indistinct. I began to feel like a real freak. The thought of having anyone come near me terrified me. I was afraid that people would find me repulsive and so, when my peers were going on dates, to dances, having sex, being intimate with others, I removed myself. At my first visit to the gynecologist, I was told I had venereal warts—pretty interesting considering that I was terrified to even hold hands with anyone—and the gynecologist refused to believe that I had never been sexually active. I was referred to a pediatric gynecologist at Sick Children’s Hospital. I explained to the doctor that I couldn’t possibly have warts and I told her why I wouldn’t let anyone near me. She assured me that I wasn’t a freak, that the surgeons had done a “very nice job” and that I would be sexually normal when I grew up. What she didn’t realize was that I was already growing up, but I was far from sexually normal. It is not normal for a 15-year-old girl to be afraid of relationships because she is afraid of being “discovered” as a fake.

A few years later, I made a decision not to have a relationship with a woman. It was a decision I made several times. By then I was having sex with men, but it wasn’t “normal.” I was having sex with men instead of with women because I realized that if the male surgeons had decided what a “normal vulva” looked like, then I could probably fool these boys with what I had come to call my “designer cunt.” But the women. Well, I didn’t think they’d be fooled. I thought they would know that I had been “fixed,” that I had a “fake one.” This was the sexual normalcy they promised my father. But, hey, I was sleeping with men—that is all it takes to be normal, so I guess they were right. Never mind that I didn’t enjoy it. Never mind that I did it only because I was afraid that the women I loved wouldn’t love me back. Never mind that I wasted my time in fear of being found out.

Skip ahead a few years of very bad sex and living in a closet. Go to university, read the Herculine Barbin story. I was twenty-two years old. I was living with the man I am now married to. I sat him down and told him that this book we were reading had a lot to do with me. He didn’t run away, he told me I looked perfectly normal to him, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a monster. Skip ahead another two years. I was twenty-four, and I decided that I was going to prove my place as a “true” woman by having a child.

Shortly before my twenty-fifth birthday, my son was born. And then it all unraveled. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s article “The Five Sexes” came out, and I realized that Herculine Barbin and I hadn’t been the only two monsters in history. I did some quick arithmetic and realized that there were thousands of people like me and I decided I was going to find them. I realized that I had never been a monster. I mourned for the lost potential. I am still mourning for what I could have done with my body but can’t. I still mourn for all the years I spent in silence, for all the loves I denied myself, and for the ways of loving that were physically, literally, removed from me.

What I know now is that I was fine until I was sent to that surgery room. I know that I never doubted myself before then. And if you think that is because I was too young to be sexual, think again; I’ve already told you that I remember how that clitoris felt between my fingers. My father, pressured by several medical experts, “consented” to a surgery that promised to make me sexually normal. What it actually did was change a perfectly healthy seven-year old girl into a woman who feared her own body and her past and who hated herself for being different. The cure taught me how to hate and fear. But that is what perfectly normal sexuality is all about—the hate and fear that is heterosexism and homophobia. And I ate it for fourteen years and vomited it up for another three after that.

For me the issue is not, primarily, whether or not we can develop a surgery that will not damage orgasmic function—of course, if we are going to perform phalloclit modifications they should not impede the function of that organ. But for me, the primary issue is that parents and surgeons are not entitled to attempt to dictate what sexual normalcy is. It is clear that the promise made to my father was not that I would be sexually happy—it was that I would be normal. I hope you will see that forcing a body to look typical is not the same as making a person feel normal and, in fact, as I believe my case shows, it may actually produce the opposite effect, making a person feel completely abnormal. It is not my personal opinion that genital surgeries should never be carried out on intersexed persons. It is my position that any surgery whose justification is cosmetic and/or the promise of sexual normalcy should be withheld until the person has reached an age to make that decision for him/herself.

Parents and doctors must give up ownership of the sexual future of minors. Children are no longer the property of their parents; we are not chattel. Our sexualities do not belong to the medical profession. It may be that if surgery had not happened when I was young I would have still chosen it. It is equally possible that I would have chosen to keep my big clitoris; the women I know who escaped surgery are quite grateful to have their big clits. That decision should have been mine to make. Without retaining that decision as my personal right, all other aspects of my sexual health have been severely limited.

The medical profession can’t give back what was taken from me. But it can listen to me. I was asked to address you today from my heart, at an informal level, not primarily as an academic, but as a person who has lived through the nightmare of early childhood surgery. But I want to remind my audience that I am an academic, that I do hold a graduate degree in this area of research, and that I am a doctoral candidate specializing in this field. As a medical anthropologist with an interdisciplinary viewing lens incorporating bioethics, I have a growing body of data that indicates that early childhood surgeries cannot protect children from suicidal feelings or attempts and, in fact, they may instigate them. And my data show that regardless of the measured nerve response of “corrected” genitalia, promises of sexual normalcy are not being met. The promise is not for the medical profession to make. “Sexual normalcy” is up to each individual to create for him/herself.

I believe the medical profession really does want our lives to be better. Please listen to us as we tell you how to meet that goal.