“Gender discrimination causes intersex surgery, causes transphobia, causes homophobia. So why not team up to solve the root cause of our common issues?”
This week I’m taking a break from my usual ramblings about the structure and intricacies of romance narratives to interview Hans Lindahl, the communications director for the intersex advocacy organization interACT. Hans also served as the consultant on my forthcoming novel, The Queen Has a Cold, and regularly does this kind of work for literature and media in addition to running a YouTube channel, writing for publications like Teen Vogue, giving expert testimony in intersex-related court cases, and making appearances around the nation and on the media.
“Intersex” is actually an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different conditions associated with variations in genitalia, sex traits, and chromosomes. I say “condition” here in the loosest medical sense because a major part of what organizations like interACT want to do is remove the stigma from intersex. As the trans rights movement has taught mainstream America that gender isn’t just a binary between male/female or masculine/feminine but a spectrum with lots of genders, intersex advocacy organizations try to debunk the idea that anatomical sex is binary. In reality, there are wide variations in human genitalia, way more than you probably learned about in your junior high sex ed class.
Many intersex people are subject to medical intervention, often at an early age. Decisions about their bodies are made by doctors and parents (and those parents are sometimes guilted and coerced by the doctors). The result can be surgical and hormonal treatments that impact the rest of the intersex person’s life. Organizations like interACT staunchly oppose these kinds of medical interventions – or, at least, want the intersex child to have agency in their own medical plan when they are an appropriate age to decide for themselves. Intersex advocacy organizations want the broader public and medical establishment to understand intersex as a normal development in an estimated 2% of the population.
I first learned about intersex about twenty years ago when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, a book that many intersex advocates consider harmful representation. (You can check out Hans’ fantastic explanation of why it’s an “irredeemable piece of shit” on YouTube.) Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with and being mentored by a number of scholars who identify openly as and study intersex, and I’ve learned so much about science, anatomy, history, and culture. When it came time to write my second book, I wanted to write a royal romance. Having an intersex character as the heir apparent hit two major goals for me: 1. fulfilling my promise of “romance for everyone” and 2. showing a unique challenge to the laws of inheritance that continue to plague modern monarchies. But because non-intersex writers and creators can easily do harm or misrepresent, I knew I needed an expert consultant (often called a “sensitivity reader”). I feel really lucky that Hans agreed to work with me on The Queen Has a Cold and wanted to share our fantastic conversation with you.
In this first of our two-part interview, Hans and I talked about interACT, intersex awareness, and the ever-changing politics of the LGBTIQA community. Next week, I’ll post the second half of our interview, in which Hans describes the process of doing consulting work – and the impact it’s having on the future of literature, film, and television.
Let’s start with your work at interACT. How did you get involved with the organization and become communications director?
I was a member of the youth advocacy cohort since I was a teen. Intersex advocacy had always been an anchor in my life, but I found out quickly that media work intersected very well with my education in public relations and art.
What accomplishment at interACT are you the proudest of?
Today I watched one of our younger high school advocates receive a college scholarship for their work. They were beaming, and that’s pretty cool. Helping others get their stories out there has been where it’s at for me. That’s come through writing testimony for legislative work, and from our media work, such as the articles and interviews we do.
You’re also an artist and a consultant. How do you see your work with interACT intersecting with this other work?
There’s a lot of overlap. My job during the day is Communications Director, so I’m working with press, advocates, and partners to promote the broader narratives around intersex that we want to see. A part of that is already consulting on larger entertainment projects that, say, want to include intersex characters. I personally consult on other things like scripts and books because I enjoy getting a feel for the landscape. It’s also very useful to understand what impressions creative people hold to begin with.
Can we talk a little about how intersex fits into the queer community? I know this is something you’ve talked about in past interviews. Who should and shouldn’t be included in the alphabet can sometimes be a contentious topic. Some trans activists I know would prefer to distance the trans rights movement from L, G, and B because trans isn’t a sexual identity and comes with other political and social tensions. Where do you see intersex fitting into all this? Is it an LGBTIQA community? Do the Ls, Gs, and Bs have a responsibility to include and learn about the Is, or would it be better for intersex activism if it were distinct from the alphabet umbrella?
I’m in favor of alphabet inclusion. (Considering also that there is much nuance, and there are safety considerations for people in anti-LGBT countries and home environments.) It’s about unifying social movements, and understanding the common issues we face.
I’d say to people who oppose this, can’t we move faster on solving problems with more people? If we look one level higher, the problems of gender discrimination are cause for violence against all LGBTQIA people. Gender discrimination causes intersex surgery, causes transphobia, causes homophobia. So why not team up to solve the root cause of our common issues?
On your website, you quote a comment someone left that says, “This intersex bullshit is just Satan doing evil.” Sometimes we hear the idea that “we’ve gone too far with gender” or that “kids today” like to defy tradition, etc. How do you respond to the idea that intersex is “new” or representative of some social shift away from tradition?
The ideas of gender and tradition that are referenced here have to be, like, 200 years old tops. If anything, we’re challenging recent ideas that are restrictive for everyone.
I think this is an interesting way to approach to the topic to non-trans, non-intersex people: the same gender ideology used against trans and intersex people is actually restrictive and harmful to cis folks as well. I feel like I grew up fortunate because, even though I was a girl, I was encouraged risks and be independent, but lots of girls in my social circle were constantly told what they couldn’t do because they were girls. And we know that cultural expectations for men and masculinity can result in men’s violence toward women, self-harm, and even things like mass shootings. I appreciate your point that actually dismantling some of these “traditional gender roles” might help everyone, not just intersex people.
That seems like a monumental task, albeit one that might be slowly happening, especially with younger people. But in the meantime, what’s the number one thing non-intersex people can do to be good allies?
I don’t think it can be boiled down so simply. But one thing I’d say might be, for all people, learn about the origins of ideas about sex and gender we see today. Peel back that curtain and you’ll learn a lot. Even if you’re not LGBTQIA, these ideas shape so much of all our lives, often in ways that are very restricting.
If there’s one thing: learn about how the idea of “opposite” sexes comes from recent, white-supremacist eugenics. The educator Alok does a great interview with Dr. Kyla Schuller, whose book The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the 19th Century explains the racism behind the sex binary.
I have also co-written two articles on intersex allyship and learning.
Do you feel like the tide is turning on intersex awareness and understanding?
I’d like to think so!
I like the idea of ending this week’s post on that happy note. As intersex awareness grows, there are bound to be more stories about intersex people in literature and media. Next week, I’ll share Hans’s thoughts on how writers and producers can do it in a way that is respectful to people’s lived experiences while still being fun to read and watch.
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