Dating as an Intersex Person
I was born with an intersex body. I first learned about the root cause of my intersex traits in medical terms, when I was diagnosed with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). In short, my body doesn’t produce enough of the stress hormone cortisol, which affects how the body manages carbs, regulates blood sugar, and maintains its metabolism, among many other essential functions. To compensate, I produce high amounts of testosterone. Androgens, such as testosterone, are hormones that create what would typically be described as secondary male characteristics, such as excess facial and body hair. Everyone produces androgens; some just produce more than others.
CAH affects people in many different ways. And it has taught me valuable lessons about self-acceptance.
It wasn’t until I was nine that I realized just how different I was. I was growing facial hair, my pit stains ruined all of my favorite shirts, and my entire body was covered in hair. I once nipped myself trying to cut all that hair off my stomach with scissors.
By the time I reached fifth grade, I knew that I was different. Other girls were developing breasts; I was developing thicker facial hair instead. It must have been around then that I noticed my large clitoris wasn’t as common as I thought it was. Neither was my Adam’s apple. One of my friends told all of the other girls in the locker-room that I had a penis because I had a visible bulge in my one-piece swimsuit. I realized that wearing swimsuits and using women’s locker rooms weren’t going to be safe options for me.
As a preteen, all I wanted was to be feminine; I wanted to wear pastels, go shopping for my first big-girl bra, and talk about boys. I figured that dressing as girly as possible would help me fit in, despite my body’s differences. I wanted boys to like me, not make fun of me for being too manly.
I had my first real boyfriend when I was 12. He was a nice kid who was also bullied, for his dry lips and older parents. Once word got out that we were dating, things got progressively worse. His friends told him that I was ugly and looked like a man. I remember him telling me that he would break up with me if the other kids kept picking on me. Yet he didn’t. We kept up our on-again, off-again relationship for three years.
By middle school, boys would only secretly flirt with me. They liked me, but feared my differences. I accepted that that was just the way things were. And though romantic interests feared my body, friends ignored it. It felt like my intersex traits were invisible to people when sexual attraction wasn’t a factor.
My friend group stayed the same through high school, and offered me support in coming out as a lesbian. But though my friends accepted and understood me as a queer person, I never felt accepted or seen as an intersex person. They didn’t understand what my being intersex meant, and I didn’t know how to explain it to them.
Eventually, identifying as lesbian gave me the tools necessary to settle into how I wanted to present myself to the world. I began exploring different ways to present as a masculine lesbian. I devoured YouTube videos on how to be a stud, a butch, a domme. During a shopping trip with my aunt, I snuck back into the men’s section of the store and bought myself my first men’s polo shirt. Polos and khakis were a part of our school dress code, but women’s polo shirts never fit quite right. My shoulders were broad and my biceps were muscular. If anything, wearing women’s clothing made my intersex characteristics more apparent. In my mind, a polo shirt from the men’s section symbolized gender neutrality.
By that time, I was exclusively dating cisgender women who identified as bisexual or lesbian, whom I felt more comfortable telling about my intersex traits. With cisgender men, the panic of rejection was palpable, and I’d go out of my way to hide my intersex traits by shaving every day and emphasizing feminine aspects of my appearance. Yet being with women made me feel like I could be myself. I could have hairy legs and wear cargo shorts, and many women found that attractive.
It wasn’t until college that I began to speak more openly about my intersex variation to all my romantic partners. Now that I’m in my mid-twenties, I’ve reached a point of self acceptance, and my dating experiences have been partly to thank in helping me understand myself and my intersex body. I’ve learned to ask questions of healthcare providers instead of just accepting their answers, and I’ve learned to be okay with the fact that my body doesn’t mirror that of many women. I am okay with the fact that for my partners, this means that physical intimacy with me might require a lesson on the anatomy of a person with a non-traditional body.
Twelve years of dating have also taught me to be okay with the fact that I’m constantly changing. Each relationship has helped me uncover parts of myself that were hiding behind a blanket of insecurity and low self-esteem. Even dating experiences that were less than ideal taught me how to experience the bad so that I can appreciate the good. I’ve learned that confidence is a skill that gets developed over time—in my case, one developed over the course of 12 years. I’ve worn many polo shirts during that time. Today, my polo shirts have turned into button-downs that are no longer a representation of who I desire to be, but a representation of who I am. ▼
Bria (they/she) identifies as a queer, intersex, masculine presenting black person. They are currently living in Delaware, but was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Bria works as the Program Coordinator for InterACT, a national intersex advocacy organization that aims to protect intersex youth from harmful practices by advocating for policy changes. Bria started doing advocacy work as a youth member with interACT where they published articles for the ACLU, TeenVogue, and Them Magazine. They were also the first out intersex person to speak about intersex issues on the steps of the Supreme Court. Email or follow them on Instgram: bria.b.king