Ma vie en jaune*
The first time I remember thinking about my gender was when I was three. I asked my mother what colour people chose when they didn’t know what sex the baby was going to be. She said yellow. I asked for my room to be painted yellow and obtained a yellow shirt which I wore as often as I could. Most now are aware that some people with female bodies feel like boys, and vice versa. But then there are others, like me, who don’t feel like either.
Experiencing oneself differently when one has no language with which to express it is disconcerting. Back in 1976, understanding of queer identities was rare. For the next 11 years I saw myself as some kind of malformed girl. I wasn’t the only one aware of a difference. At school, I was always on the boys’ side in games against girls. They wouldn’t let me play football with them because I wasn’t a boy, but they let me referee because, they said, I wasn’t really a girl either. Girls distrusted me. I could dress like them, try to speak like them, but we couldn’t relate to one another. It was something that went deeper than my feminist politics or the fact I got into fights. They seemed to sense that I wasn’t one of them, as if I were an accidental spy.
Could transition have helped? I thought about it in my teens. I always dressed in jeans and t-shirts then; I cut off my hair and got serious about swimming in an attempt to build up my muscles. But I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t feel the same way, just from the other side. So I went on with my failed woman-ness, buoying my confidence by blaming women for failing to be more like me. When I was 28, I learned that I am intersex.
It can feel exhausting when every expression of selfhood is perceived as a political statement or demand for attention
It wasn’t a complete shock. I’d been very ill with hormone-related problems in my teens, had seen many specialists, but back then it was common for the truth to be withheld from children. I was not unlucky enough to have my genitals cut up in infancy, so only with the development of further health complications did the truth emerge. In time I would learn that most intersex people experience themselves as male or female, but at the time it felt like an explanation – it felt like permission. I had to rethink everything about who I was, and about who other people were. I had to accept my difference and stop railing against the world.
In the years since, I have grown increasingly comfortable in my identity; but it has been a strange journey because, at the same time, my body has disintegrated. Although the term intersex refers to a number of different physical variations, one thing many of us have in common is a greater vulnerability to auto-immune diseases. In my case it’s a mixture of several, including lupus and scleroderma. As a result, my muscle has wasted away, and I have been left with acute dysphoria – a sense that my flesh can no longer express my identity. Dysphoria is a word that tends to be associated with binary trans people. Non-binary people are sometimes perceived as experiencing a less extreme form of transness, as people who may need to change a little bit but not go ‘all the way’. But being in the middle (a description not all non-binary people would relate to) doesn’t mean feeling any more comfortable with a body that gives a misleading impression, or with other people’s reactions.
For me, there is no solution, no surgery that can resolve things. In a society that associates muscularity, physical competence and independence with maleness, disability renders everyone more feminine. It’s something I cope with day to day by trying not to think about it, and being housebound means that I can largely avoid being confronted by other people’s judgments. But the feeling of wrongness never goes away, and in the binary sex environments of hospitals it can become acute. There, I feel forced into a lie, required to perform continually. Little slips elicit hostility. Certain masculine traits can be profoundly unwelcome in female spaces, but I don’t mean to be an intruder; I would far rather be acknowledged as an outsider, be an ally rather than be subsumed.
Trying to find a place in a society that doesn’t recognize one’s existence is an endless struggle. It can feel exhausting when every expression of selfhood is perceived as a political statement or demand for attention. But today, even if the world cannot recognize me, I can at least be honest with myself, and a whole person.
Jennie Kermode is a writer and chair of Trans Media Watch, which is dedicated to improving media coverage of trans and intersex issues.
*‘My life in yellow’