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In 2013, whilst attending New York University School of Law Shana Knizhnik created the Notorious R.B.G. blog and t-shirts dedicated to the amazing Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020). Shana co-wrote the 2015 New York Times bestselling biographical book, Notorious R.B.G: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Irin Carmon. She is now a public defender and civil rights attorney.
In the October 2020 edition of Teen Vogue, Shana spoke publicly about being intersex. She was assigned female at birth, raised as a girl and her gender identity is as a woman. She also has XY chromosomes and has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). At 11 years old, her parents informed her that her ovaries had been removed when she was a baby, that she would not have monthly periods or biological children and would need to take hormonal supplements for the rest of her life. She wrote about her desire to be seen as a “feminine, straight, cisgender girl” whilst navigating her sexuality and trying to discover her true sense of self. She wrote that despite having come out as “queer” at college, she still did not wish for it to be publicly known that she was intersex.
Authenticity and being true to oneself is important to wellbeing and mental health. No one should have to publicly disclose their sex or explain their sex anatomy. However, by speaking up, Shana will have helped many other people feel that little less alone.
An “intersex” person is a person born with any of a range of biological sex characteristics that may not fit typical notions about male or female bodies. The range of biological deviation results in differences in genitalia, hormones, internal anatomy and/or chromosomes. It is for this reason that biological sex is said to be on a spectrum. The United Nations estimates that about 1.7% of people are born with intersex traits, which is about the same as the number of people born with red hair.
Intersex people can have any sexual orientation or gender identity. Some intersex people also identify as trans or nonbinary. Many intersex people identify as straight. Many do not realise that they are intersex until their teenage years. Sometimes, medical terms such as Differences of Sex Development (DSD), Disorders of Sex Development, Variations in Sex Characteristics (VSC) or Diverse Sex Development are used instead of intersex.
Sex verification testing in sports is now well publicised and can be devastating. Mokgadi Caster Semenya, the brilliant South African athlete identifies as a woman and has never publicly identified as intersex. Public reaction to the issue of whether her hormone levels were abnormal compared to other women must have been traumatic. India’s Pratima Gaonkaw committed suicide after public commentary on her sex verification test. Annet Negesa, the intersex Ugandan athlete had high levels of testosterone in her body. She underwent gonadectomy to remove internal testes in 2012 to enable her to compete in the woman’s category. Her career ended. She has since spoken of the misinformation she received about the surgical procedure. Removing gonads leaves a lifelong dependence on hormone replacement medications and permanent infertility.
Intersex activists and advocates
A number of prominent intersex activists and advocates have spoken out about the challenges faced by intersex embodied people and also on how to be better allies:
Ongoing issues include:
Some resources to increase intersex awareness or to be an intersex ally:
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