Many intersex individuals underwent surgeries in our youth to force our bodies to fit the gender binary. Some, like mine, involved sterilizing us without our consent—stripping us of our reproductive freedom. Sound familiar?
There have been recent significant strides in the awareness of intersex folks—like the recent release during Pride Month of the documentary, Every Body, directed by Julie Cohen, of the film RBG. I also wrote a book called Inverse Cowgirl about my experience living intersex in Texas. Sharing your truth about being a woman born with balls for the first time in front of a panel of Southern legislators makes for a pretty interesting story. Before I publicly came out to the Texas state Senate, I first bared my soul to one of its former members—the former filibusterer and feminist, Wendy Davis—over a glass (or a few) of wine in 2017.
The ‘I’ in the LGBTQIA+ acronym stands for intersex. This descriptor accounts for the roughly 2 percent of the world’s population born with combinations of sex traits (hormones, chromosomes, internal reproductive organs and/or external genitalia) that don’t fit neatly into the M or F box on a birth certificate. That’s around the same percentage of humans born with red hair, though we’re far less visible; in fact, the ‘I’ might as well have stood for Invisible, until this year.
She and I founded a nonprofit called Deeds Not Words—after the suffragette’s motto—the year prior to help train the next generation of gender-equity activists here in the Lone Star State. The following excerpt from my memoir finds us cracking a bottle of red to celebrate the successes of our student advocates, until the party got … weird:
“Wendy, I’d like to tell you something before we head back to Texas, in case you want to fire me and look for a replacement.”
Her eyes widened with concern as she took another sip; who knows what she was expecting to come out of my mouth. I continued, “So you know how you sometimes read Vogue magazine?—because you’re so fashionable and all,” I started, attempting to butter her up with a compliment before I dropped a bomb that I was sure would be grounds for my termination.
She nodded, looking more confused than ever, as I forged forward: “Well, I was flipping through a copy in the office and there was a story in it about a model named Hanne Gaby Odiele. Hanne is something called intersex. Do you know what that means?”
This time she shook her head, still unblinking.
“I didn’t either before reading the article.” I took another gulp of red, spilling a bit on the table. “But it basically means that some people are born biologically between male and female, like with certain parts that don’t match what you’d expect just by looking at them—and in the article she talked about these surgeries that were forced onto her as a kid and hormones she has to take because of that and how doctors told her to never tell anyone and how she was always afraid when she was dating that someone would find out. And, well, I’d never heard that word before—they always just told me I have complete androgen insensitivity syndrome—but her story sounded just like mine, so that night I went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole for like six hours and as it turns out, I’m intersex too.”
Then I downed the rest of my glass.
Wendy paused for a moment, her initial concern softening from apprehension to something more caring. “I’m honored that you’re telling me this, truly,” she said, “but I’m waiting for the part that explains why I’m supposed to fire you.”
I took a deep breath. “Oh, well, you know, we do so much advocacy for abortion rights and I can never get pregnant, so I just figured perhaps you’ll be upset that I wasn’t truthful with you and maybe you’ll want to hire someone in my place who actually has experienced an abortion or might one day.”
I sloshed another deep pour from the bottle into my glass. “I’m just so inspired by all of our students’ vulnerability, sharing what they’ve been through in a way that they might heal themselves and help others, but I’ve felt like such a hypocrite the whole time … This is such a big piece of who I am and has colored more parts of my lived experience than you can imagine and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t keep it bottled in anymore.”
This time Wendy grabbed the bottle, emptying it into her own glass as I rambled on.
“So I’ve realized that as much as our work means to me, my story needs to be told and I want to share it in a way that might make some real change for people like me—just like our girls do. They’re honestly the teachers here; I’ve learned so much from their bravery and from yours. So if my ‘coming out’ is going to cause issues for us as an organization, I totally understand. I just can’t stay trapped in the closet. … I’ve been in here 27 years too long. And I hope that if I break free it will give more people the opportunity to do the same, like reading Hanne’s story did for me.”
I averted my gaze into the glass of wine I was gripping with both hands like a life raft. Then Wendy reached across the table and squeezed my hands with her own.
“First off, I am so very proud of you,” Wendy said. “Both for helping me build and run this organization but also for living out Deeds’ mission in the most beautiful way I could imagine.”
I inhaled, realizing I’d been holding my breath for who knows how long.
“This is exactly what we want for our girls and what I want for you—to be free from the shame society places on women’s bodies that weighs on us our entire lives. Your burden is a bit different and yet very much the same.”
I raised my eyes to meet her gaze as she continued: “This must all seem so scary and overwhelming, but if I can relieve at least one fear for you—I absolutely will not be firing you for being born the way you are. The fact that you still advocate so passionately for a woman’s right to choose, even though you’ll never face that same decision, only demonstrates what a beautiful human you are and how valuable you are to this movement.”
“Can you imagine if men took up the cause, as you have, how much farther along in the work we’d be? Regardless of what anatomy you were born with, you have a place here at Deeds Not Words and I’m honored to have you on our team—today of all days.”
Her story sounded just like mine, so that night I went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole for like six hours and as it turns out, I’m intersex too.
Wendy Davis was right about one thing: We’re all on the same team. We’re all fighting for consent—to make our own decisions about our bodies rather than have someone else make them for us. Many intersex individuals, myself included, have undergone surgeries in our youth to force our bodies to fit the gender binary better. Some surgeries, like mine, involve sterilizing us without our consent—stripping us of our reproductive freedom. Sound familiar?
The first lines of my book read, “I started writing this book the week that half of the United States lost the rights to their own bodies. These are rights I never had in the first place, even before the reversal of Roe v. Wade…”
My body autonomy was taken from me in infancy, from the very first operation that robbed me of my reproductive organs. Yes, that part’s a sob story—but it also gave me a 33-year head start on learning how to reclaim autonomy over your body after it’s been taken from you! I hope this knowledge, along with my experience as a political advocate, might help folks who are struggling to find a path forward in a world post-Roe.
Inverse Cowgirl offers this guidance and advice on healing, finding yourself and owning your voice. I hope you’ll find it valuable and enjoyable, and I ask only for your solidarity in return. The sooner we women break down the silos in our broader fight for body autonomy—joining the battles for abortion access and intersex rights, against sexual assault and human trafficking, all under the same united mantle—the sooner we all win.
From the book INVERSE COWGIRL: A Memoir, by Alicia Roth Weigel. Copyright © 2023 by Alicia Weigel. Published on Sept. 19, 2023, by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted with permission.
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