Last week, I featured the first half of my interview with Hans Lindahl, in which we talked about the alphabet umbrella, queer politics, and Hans’ work as communications director for interAct, the advocacy organization for intersex youth. In this second half, we talk more specifically about Hans’ work as an expert consultant for literature and media with intersex characters. Often called “sensitivity reading,” this work is designed to ensure authors and producers creating characters with whom they don’t share a marginalized identity do so with respect to the community. Hans served as the consultant to my forthcoming second book, The Queen Has a Cold, which features an intersex heir to a European monarchy. In this interview, I got to learn more about Hans’ consulting process and how non-intersex creators can contribute meaningfully at a moment when audiences and readers are mindful to seek out #ownvoices work.
How did you get started doing expert consulting/sensitivity reading?
I think the first such project I personally did was for a graphic novel called Radify. That inquiry came through my work at interACT. Representation in the arts and media is huge to shaping public perceptions about what issues real intersex people face. I realized when working with the graphic novel author, how important this is.
What’s your process for doing the consulting/reading work?
I receive a good number of inquiries from my website. Once I’ve decided if a project is something I want to take on, and I’ve discussed with the author what their goals are, I do a first read of the material. Then I go back, think about their characters’ arcs, and make comments about what details might seem unrealistic. Maybe there’s anatomical combinations that aren’t really possible, or certain plot holes, cliches, or pitfalls the author might be falling into. I leave comments in the format that works for the author, and we discuss.
What kinds of things should writers avoid doing when creating intersex characters? What do you look for to flag as a no-no?
This could be a thesis. I’m tired of intersex being a plot device. If it’s a gimmick, reveal, fetish, or shameful secret representing someone’s entire personality, it’s not useful or creative.
What kinds of things do non-intersex writers do that make you especially happy or that you find especially useful or positive?
Engaging with the real issues faced by the marginalized populations they are writing. This can be through hiring a reader, educating oneself, etc., etc. I love seeing characters that aren’t just stuck in the basic place of “I have a shameful secret.” Like any character, intersex characters have other identities and motivations.
I’ve said “writers” here, but you also work with writers of prose, graphic novels, television, everything. Is there a difference in how you like to see intersex characters portrayed in print literature versus on screen?
On screen has the difficult added element of, there is no way to “look” intersex. I want to see good handling of the issues on both.
It seems to me that so much LGBTIQA literature focuses on the coming out process in one way or another. Do you think there’s a fair comparison to be made between gay, lesbian, and bi comings out and coming out as intersex, nonbinary, or trans? How do you feel about about the (over)representation of coming out in literature and media? (or do you even agree with me that there is an over-representation?
Hah! Yes, I agree. Yeah, the “coming out story” is important, but I think it’s limiting in several ways. One, these stories tend to only be about teenagers. It keeps us in the ageism of thinking, subconsciously, that having to “come out” is a newer thing or only limited to young people, or something that only happens once and then you’re done. It’s an appealing narrative in that it has a challenge, and then an endpoint, but we know in real life that it’s not an endpoint. Coming out stories might be overrepresented for some of those reasons. The coming out narrative also assumes certain things about frameworks of gender and sexuality, that are never uniform across all cultures and contexts.
Sexuality (LGB) coming-outs seem different to me than gender coming-outs (trans, non-binary). Both categories are also different than intersex comings-out. I’d even argue that intersex people don’t truly get to “come out” in the same ways—your parents and doctors and other authority figures might know very intimate details before you do, and they might make assumptions about your gender and sexuality via your body. To be intersex and have visible differences means you have less control over timing and disclosure, at least in your immediate family.
I think that’s such a useful thing for non-intersex people to understand – that intersex people are outed by parents and doctors, treated to medical interventions, had assumptions about gender and sexuality made about them sometimes before they even know they are intersex.
This is probably a good moment to talk about the body. You said before there’s no one way to “look” intersex. How do you feel about sex and nudity then?
Obviously, I write romance, and this blog is mostly about that, and romance always comes with love and usually sex. Are there specific sensitivities about love and sex that writers should be mindful of when creating romance with intersex characters? Can vivid depictions of sex be done, or should they be avoided? Are there specific things you’d prefer writers and creators to avoid or to be sure to do?
Your book does not include any sex scenes. I hope that’s not a spoiler?
It is, but it’s a helpful one, I think.
I was actually glad for that, since I think it would be challenging to write a sex scene with an intersex person as a non-intersex author. There are a lot of additional considerations: the fetishism concerns that might come with having a different body, medical trauma and scars, and different abilities when it comes to what types of sex an intersex person might be able to, or want to, have. On the other side of that, there certainly are intersex people who feel empowered and unique for their differences. It’s certainly tied to socialization and medical abuse. If a sex scene makes sense in the broader context of a story, just know the pitfalls with fetishizing or overly focusing on genitalia. Intersex people can have sensual, loving, interesting sex, just like any other person on the planet.
Otherwise, there’s also a place for good porn! God knows, we need that, too. But I’d rather see that be intersex-steered.
If we’re trying to avoid fetishization, do you think there’s value in quasi-educational narratives written for non-intersex readers or audiences? Stories, for instance, from the point of view of non-intersex people learning about intersex – or at this point, do we just need more stories from the point of view of intersex people?
Yeah, sure, let’s just do more of all of it.
What are your favorite kinds of intersex stories?
I see people from all kinds of identities saying this: just let us do regular person things. Like, we can be intersex, but can’t we be the prince, the partner, the zookeeper, the mortician, who happens to be intersex? Not all stories have to be a dramatization or over-reliance on secrets and disclosure.
What are your favorite non-own voices creations with intersex characters?
The non-own voices characters I like tend to be those that I read as coded intersex, even though I know they probably aren’t or that wasn’t intentional. For example, any character having a problem with penetrative sex, puberty, etc… I love the Netflix show from Japan, My Husband Won’t Fit, for this reason. I talked more about this in this interview.
What’s your favorite #ownvoices work with an intersex character?
I wish there were more. I love the short film Ponyboi, made recently by River Gallo.
The kind of expert consulting you do – sensitivity reading – is a growing field. As more writers seek out consultants, and as representations for intersex and other marginalized characters grows, I’m curious to know how you see this all evolving. What does the future look like?
I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ve heard some people express the view that you might have to have bad representation first, as a stepping stone to something better. I’m not sure.
We definitely need some larger cultural talking points. Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox created some of those for trans people, perhaps mainly binary transgender women. Intersex people don’t yet have that level of star power. In the case of Jenner, for example, I know she’s not the example a lot of people would have wanted, but her story certainly was a stepping stone.
I’m invested in creating nuance beyond “surgery bad, awareness good.” Do we still need to focus on the latter first? Often, we do. Although I’m seeing much more room for intersex people to tell their own stories, get discovered and elevated on their own terms. We’ve come a long way, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next few years.
You can learn more about Hans’ consulting services and see Hans’ own art at hanslindahl.com.
Jane’s book, The Queen Has a Cold, comes out from Bold Strokes Books in April.