Most people assume biological sex is either ‘male or ‘female’, but things are actually not as simple or binary as that. This misconception about binary sex isolates intersex people, making them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their bodies. But being intersex is a lot more common than one would think! About 1 in every 2000 babies born are intersex – this is equivalent to about 1.7% of the world’s population, and yet, due to a lack of awareness, intersex people exist as “minorities within minorities” and face discrimination not only from the mainstream heteronormative society, but also from other sexual and gender minorities.
Srishti Madurai is an organisation started by Gopi Shankar that works to generate awareness about the LGBTQIA community. The organisation runs a 24×7 helpline and provides in-person counseling services to community members in need. It also provides access to resources, research material and literature on LGBTQIA. Started in 2011, the organisation collaborates with schools and colleges where they conduct seminars and workshops to not just raise awareness but also make the younger generation more empathetic towards the oft-stigmatized community.
As part of Gaysi’s efforts to help the aim of Intersex Awareness Day, we spoke to Michael, a 23-year-old from Thirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, who is a member of Srishti Madurai. Raised in an Orthodox Catholic family as a female, Michael hopes to transition to male in the future, but is apprehensive about how his family might react.
“I was raised in a joint family where I was treated like a boy. I kept my hair short for the longest time. In 12th grade, I started thinking, ‘What if I wasn’t meant to be a girl?” he tells Gaysi.
These thoughts stayed with Michael and as a post-graduate student, he seriously started considering transitioning. “My parents used to say that it would have been better if I was a boy, but I don’t know how they will react to the idea of transitioning. My akka (elder sister) is close to me, but she has her own problems now that she is married, so I am not sure if she will be able to come through for me,” he says.
Also pressing is the fact that his parents are planning to finalise a wedding match for him by the end of the year. “It scares me,” he says. “Because I know I am not being true to myself and to whoever they choose. If I try to talk to my parents, I know they will dismiss my concerns as childish whims. I don’t know what to do.”
Unable to confide in his friends and worried, one day, Michael watched a TV show featuring Gopi Shankar. Fascinated, he looked up Srishti Madurai’s phone number on the their website. Since then, he says, he has found a support system. “I love my family. I don’t want to leave them or anything, but I know I have Srishti to back me if I do have to,” he says.
Another person we got in touch with was, unfortunately, rather reluctant to give us an interview. He was unsure about whether sharing his story would any difference. This uncertainty is certainly not new – and is also symptomatic of the unsupportive and hostile environments that exist for intersex people.
Today, boys can have dolls and girls can play with G.I. Joes and guns because we seem to becoming more open to the idea of letting children defy antiquated gender stereotypes. But even as we agree that gender is a social construct, we continue to ignore the fact that even biological sex does not always obey strict binaries.
We fail to realise that there are people whose genes cannot fit into predefined ‘male’ or ‘female’ boxes on an application form. Our biology textbooks don’t teach us about mosaic genetics – where babies can be born with XX chromosomes in some cells and XY chromosomes in others.
Of course, awareness of the complexities of biological variation is growing. The Indian government’s move to recognise the third category means that someday, people won’t have to face the pressure to fit into rigid boxes and will be able to lead a rich, fulfilling life free of discrimination over something they had no control over. Someday, the world will be an easier place for the intersex community, but until then we need to be open to their stories and experiences.
The interview was conducted by Radhika Anilkumar in Tamil and translated to English with her help.