My biggest fear? Periods. Not my own — I know I will never experience a visit from Aunt Flo. But I knew someday my daughters probably would, and that fact petrified me for nearly a decade. I mean, how was I supposed to guide them through this mystical female rite of passage when I was so clueless? Sure, together we read the doctrinal American Girl book “The Care and Keeping of You,” and they’d probably learn stuff from their friends, right? I thought I could avoid facing my fear for several more years. Shoot, they had just turned double digits. Surely I was off the hook for at least three or four more years?
It was a steamy summer morning just outside of Seattle. I had traveled cross country to attend my fourth intersex support group conference — an annual pilgrimage I cherished. An opportunity to be with my tribe. The other women there got me: they were intersex too. We referred to each other as sisters and in an attempt to fully accept ourselves we embraced the rare and beautiful orchid as a symbol of our intersex uniqueness. While we all had individual stories, we shared the unique bond of being born with physical sex traits (such as genitals, chromosomes, and/or reproductive organs) that don’t align with typical notions of either a “male” or “female” body.
My chromosomes are XY (typically male) and instead of ovaries, I was born with internal testes and no uterus. Yes, I have a vagina. It’s shorter than most and doesn’t lead anywhere.
Being born with a condition referred to as androgen insensitivity syndrome also meant I would never menstruate or have biological children. Instead, I was fated to become the luckiest mom in the world and adopted my identical twin daughters from an orphanage in Shanghai just days before Christmas, nearly two decades ago. These two precious gifts have brought me so much joy, and also, anxiety about being a real mother. A good mom. The kind of mom that knows from personal experience how to help their daughter when she gets her first period.
So back to the intersex support group in Seattle. A place where I could go and live my true authentic self. A break from faking it. My phone rang early in the morning just as I was going down to meet some of my orchid sisters for breakfast in the hotel dining room. It was Steven, my husband.
“So… Charlotte got her period this morning,” he said.
My first thought? Relief. I wasn’t there to screw up anything.
The irony was not at all lost on me that it happened while I was at my annual intersex conference.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I went to the drug store and got her a box of sanitary pads. I showed her where the instructions were, and then I took her to day camp.”
I immediately hung up with Steven and called the summer camp nurse to make sure she was aware that Charlotte might need assistance. She chuckled after I finished telling her about my phone call. “Charlotte has already come to see me this morning. Your husband bought her slim panty liners—they were pretty insufficient for what Charlotte needed. The poor thing bled through her shorts. But we’ve taken care of her and have plenty of spare products and extra clothes she was able to use. And now she knows what to get. Maybe tonight, have your husband run the store with her and let her grab what she needs.”
I was so grateful for how understanding the nurse was and all her wisdom in this issue. No doubt she had plenty of personal experience as well as experience explaining to young girls what was happening with their bodies. Had it been me at home, instead of Steven, I might have picked out the same slim panty liners that he did. I had no clue what a 10-year-old girl would need for her first period. I was no more experienced than my husband.
As time went on I continued to meet more and more intersex people. There are many different intersex conditions and therefore a wide variety of bodies and identities under the broad umbrella. Some identify as men, some women, and some neither really. Some, like myself, have been fortunate enough and persistent enough to become parents. By adoption or surrogacy, or even egg donation for those who were born with a uterus. Some hide their intersex status from their children, and from most of the world for that matter. I respect that choice. But it wasn’t for me. Being born with an intersex body — and more specifically, society’s reaction to it has caused me shame and a lifelong struggle with feeling authentic. I came out publicly a couple of years after my girls’ first periods. Living my life proudly and authentically was the only way for me to eliminate self-doubt. I wish that for all my intersex siblings.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit to my fear shifting from periods to worrying about the effect of my increasingly public persona as an out intersex woman and activist, on my girls. One evening, Charlotte had left a pile of her 8th-grade papers on the kitchen table, which wasn’t a rare occurrence, but that night, I noticed a yellow worksheet on top, which she had filled out by hand. It was an in-class assignment asking students to write about someone they admired and why. She had written about me, that I was intersex and so brave because I was talking about it and working to help other children and families to not have to suffer in the future. That I was helping other people to be proud of being intersex. And I shed a tear realizing she was empowered to talk about me and intersex so openly.
The following year, as the girls were finishing 9th grade, I received an email from one of the health and sex education teachers, reporting that during class that day, she was covering LGBTQ+ issues and briefly touched on intersex. The teacher told me that my daughter Alexandra’s hand shot up after her definition and that Alex politely told her that her definition was not really accurate and that she should “talk to my mom because she is intersex and an advocate.”
The teacher invited me the following September to talk to the health and biology departments to train them on intersex. The kids are alright.