Intersex is an umbrella term for over 48 types of people. THEO PANAYIDES meets an activist for their rights
I’m standing in the lobby of the Nicosia Hilton, watching the delegates file out as the ILGA-Europe conference comes to an end. They’re casually dressed, chatting in a babble of different languages, mostly but not only young. ILGA-Europe is an umbrella organisation for LGBTI activists, and I notice (maybe because I know what I’m looking at) a smattering of girls with mannish haircuts and boys with a swish in their step – but also many more who fit no obvious stereotype, looking indistinguishable from other tattooed, fashionably scruffy young Europeans.
The same might be said of Kitty Anderson, who’s part of the intersex community and indeed quite a notable activist – she’s the chairperson of Intersex Iceland, secretary of the executive board of Organisation Intersex International Europe, in the international secretariat of the National Queer Organisation of Iceland, and chairperson of the Icelandic Human Rights Centre – but has always faced a different set of challenges to, for example, a trans woman, whose mere appearance might often provoke a reaction. Her own appearance is entirely unremarkable, at least in terms of gender identity. “Nobody’s ever questioned that I was a girl,” she explains, speaking of her quite particular biology, “until I say this”.
We meet in the lobby, then retire to an outside table for the interview. Kitty has one of the top five firmest handshakes I’ve ever seen on anyone, man or woman, and initially seems brisk to the point of being brusque. She sits across from me, sorting out her phone, not making eye contact. We have to finish by 18:20, she warns (she actually says ‘18’, like an army colonel), because she has a meeting at 18:45, and it’s now 17:53 so there isn’t much time. “Let’s get started,” she instructs, all business. OK, I begin, why don’t you tell me your story? “In what context?” she shoots back. Uh-oh, I think, this is going to be a challenging one.
Fortunately, it isn’t. Kitty is candid and generally easy to talk to, a firm but amiable 34-year-old with a personality which – once she relaxes a little – is often surprisingly bubbly. I should’ve known from her Twitter photo (she’s @Kittyanders) which, unlike the kind of photo you’d expect from an activist and “intersectional feminist”, shows her sticking out her tongue and making deer antlers with her hands. “Life is fun!” she exclaims at one point – and can laugh, even about her troubles: I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, but this may be the first one that includes a young woman giggling like a schoolgirl and declaring “I want my balls back!”. Kitty laughs out loud – her laughter belying the seriousness of what we’re talking about – bangs on the table, and repeats: “I really want my balls back!”.
But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves. She was born in Reykjavik in the early 80s – a time, incidentally, when Iceland wasn’t quite the liberal paradise it now paints itself as; that was a time when closeted gay men would often flee to Denmark for a better life, and “homophobic bullying” was rife at the schools Kitty attended. When she was born, however, “my mother gave birth to a healthy little baby girl” and took her home, just like any other mum with her baby.
Six weeks later, Kitty was back in hospital for a hernia operation. “It was supposed to be like a routine one-hour operation,” she recalls, “but I actually ended up being on the operating table for five or six hours. My mother was just freaking out, she had no idea what was going on – the doctors wouldn’t tell her anything. When they brought me out, they just said ‘Yeah, everything is fine, you don’t have to worry about anything’. But then she brought me back a week later, because I was having infections from where the incision was – and then the doctor told her that I had a very serious chromosome anomaly”.
The doctors wouldn’t say any more; an expert was arriving from the US in a couple of weeks, they told Kitty’s mum, and he’d explain further. “They were scared,” she says now. “They didn’t know what to say, they didn’t understand.” When they’d opened her up for the hernia operation, they hadn’t found a uterus or ovaries, no female sexual organs at all. “I was born looking like any other girl,” explains Kitty, “but I had XY [i.e. male] chromosomes and internal testes”. The expert, when he arrived, told her mother that the testicles would very likely give her cancer at an early age, and had to be removed. “The expert also advised my mother not to tell me anything until I reached puberty. They would have to tell me then, because they’d removed the part of my body that would produce hormones, so for me to go through puberty it would have to take place in a doctor’s office through hormone treatments.”
So she grew up feeling just like any other girl?
“Yes…” she replies rather hesitantly. “Close enough,” she adds with a shrug. It’s hard to say, since she grew up in two cultures, Iceland and Scotland – her dad is Scottish, hence the surname; she also has an Icelandic matronymic, ‘Kristinardottir’ – and never really felt like she fit in. She was also “a very headstrong girl,” she recalls, “and I couldn’t understand why there were, like, completely different rules for the girls and boys in my class”. Her mother (who seems to be the closer of her two parents) is “a feminist through and through”, and young Kitty was raised on the principle of equality between the sexes. She describes getting in a fight with a boy at school (this was in Scotland, in Monifieth near Dundee); she punched the boy, and the boy punched her back – but then “he was the one who was taken aside, then his father shows up furious, screaming at him to apologise to me.” Kitty shakes her head in disbelief: “I started it! I was just like ‘Really? I get away with stuff like this? That’s not right!’. [But] I think that’s nothing really to do with my biology. I think that’s just my personality”.
It’s significant that the story she picks to illustrate feminism has her being an aggressor, not a victim. She doesn’t seem the type to play victim. At one point, chatting a bit too excitably, she knocks over a full glass of water, which spills all over the table – but she doesn’t miss a beat, righting the glass, dabbing briefly at the tablecloth and picking up where she left off as though nothing had happened. (Is she all right? Shall we move to another table? “Yeah, I’m fine.”) Falling apart isn’t her style; she seems firm and, as she says, headstrong. She describes herself as “quietly stubborn” during the difficult years in her early teens, when she learned the truth about herself and became alienated and angry, losing trust in everyone and even doing a stint in a state psychiatric ward.
Her mum handled the big moment well, or “as well as you can handle telling your child a secret you’ve kept from them for their entire life”. Kitty doesn’t blame her. But finding out that adults had lied to her made her lose all respect for them. Interestingly, the lie itself (viz. that she was intersex) doesn’t seem to have been as traumatic as the fact of having been lied to – though she did go through a bad time for a few years, “I just thought of myself as a freak. I was told I would probably never meet anyone else like me”. In fact, recent Dutch research has shown that around 1 in 200 people are intersex – an umbrella term covering over 48 different “variations in biology”, used for people whose sex characteristics “don’t quite fit the typical definition of male and female bodies”.
Intersex is of course the ‘I’ in LGBTI, but it’s slightly separate from the rest of the acronym. For a start – and most importantly – intersex isn’t a sexual orientation: “There are straight intersex people, there are bi intersex people, lesbian, gay, pansexual, asexual”. For another thing, whereas gay, lesbian and trans activists typically target discrimination in daily life, intersex activists’ main gripe seems to be with the medical profession (which is not to say that everyday discrimination doesn’t exist, of course). “No more surgical or medical interventions unless they’re actually medically necessary,” replies Kitty when I ask what their main demand is, and regales me with horror stories like clitoral reductions and intrusive vaginoplasties, even in very young children.
“The medical community sort of labels us as medical disorders. We’re ‘disordered’ women or ‘disordered’ men, which is complete bullshit!” she says hotly. “Intersex characteristics are just naturally-occurring variations that have been occurring since forever”. It’s a case of incompatible approaches: doctors see a patient to be ‘cured’ – but the patient wants to be seen as a human being, whose un-typical body should be treated with respect.
What tips the balance, according to Kitty, is that most of these so-called cures do more harm than good – Exhibit A being her own removed testes. Despite what that expert told her mother, her risk of cancer from her natural sex organs was roughly comparable to any random woman’s risk of breast cancer – and “we don’t walk around offering every woman a double mastectomy”. Her body should’ve been allowed to produce testosterone, as intended (she’s “androgen-resistant,” she explains, so she wouldn’t have transitioned to male or appeared any less feminine), instead of her puberty being mismanaged with hormone treatments that ended up creating all kinds of health hazards. Above all, she notes, “the fact is that lifelong hormone treatment has greatly increased my risk of breast cancer. So basically what they did was replace one hypothetical, theoretical cancer risk with a much realer cancer risk. So no,” exclaims Kitty, and bangs on the table with that rather incongruous giggle: “I want my balls back!”.
Did the hormone therapy work, though? Did she successfully go through puberty, and have sexual feelings?
“That’s a very personal question, which I won’t be answering,” she replies unexpectedly. “Or, like, about sexual feelings in general.”
It’s a bit surprising, given how open she’s been about everything else – but of course it makes sense that Kitty Anderson should want to keep her private life private. (She does have a 14-year-old stepson, so she’s clearly not alone in the world.) It’s easy to forget – in an age when everyone claims to be tolerant, and mainstream politicians line up to win brownie points by supporting LGBTI rights – how odd it must feel for someone like Kitty to be interviewed at length about things she’s always kept quiet, or at least discreet. She’s always been an activist, one of those people with a lifelong itch to improve the world (even as a child, she took part in SOS Children’s Villages and helping Romanian orphanages) – yet she’d always been active in other causes, like asylum seekers in Iceland. “It took me until I was 30,” she admits wryly, “to reach the level where I could start working as an activist on my personal cause”.
Even in a mostly sympathetic environment, even in a country that’s now among the world’s most liberal, even with her self-reliant, quietly stubborn personality, it hasn’t been easy. These days she’s happy to discuss her life as a means of raising awareness, says Kitty, even in places where “you wouldn’t expect people to be okay,” like Eastern Europe – but back in her teens, before she’d come out (even to friends), she was lost in self-loathing, ignoring all adult demands and immersing herself in books, everything from Shakespeare to Poe. The turning point, when Kitty was 15, was the birth of her cousin – another intersex baby, with the exact same biology. “I couldn’t transfer those feelings that I felt about myself over to this little perfect being,” she explains wistfully. “One day, when I was doubting myself at home, my mother was like ‘Is that what you think of your cousin?’ – and then everything clicked. I was like, ‘No!’. So, from the age of 15, I started accepting who I was…”
‘Intersectional feminist, activist and sometimes fairly random,’ says the Twitter bio beneath that funny photo with the waggling hands and the tongue sticking out – and ‘random’ is a pretty good word to describe the workings of this endlessly diverse world in which we live. Why are some people intersex, or gay, or this or that? Why is my reality different from yours? Why should someone be born a certain way, and have their life shaped by it? It’s a lottery, and all we can do is accept it – though of course the way life is lived hour-by-hour can’t be random, not for an organised person like Kitty. It’s now 18:20 – actually closer to 18:33 – and she needs to get to her meeting.