Are You Still Queer if People Can’t Always Perceive Your Identity?

What it’s like to be intersex and nonbinary in a checkbox world.

An orange silhouette of a person in a crowd of Africans.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Photo by Trevor Cole/Unsplash.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

From the very beginning, I was defined by my ability to pass.

Based on the results of an amniocentesis, my parents had been expecting a baby boy. When I came out, an apparently healthy apparent girl, the doctors told them, “We don’t know what’s wrong with it, or how long it will live.” My mother, who I’ve never seen cry, was in tears on the phone with her own mother, not knowing what to do.

Within days, my parents found a doctor who was able to diagnose me: I had Swyer syndrome, an intersex condition. It was treatable. I would live a long and healthy life, just like any ordinary girl—with only a few differences, which they could take care of. My parents were reassured.

I don’t mean to paint the doctors who treated me in a negative light. I did require medical treatment, and I’m lucky that I was diagnosed and treated so early on. (I was also lucky not to be born with atypical genitalia, and so to avoid the medically unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries inflicted on so many other intersex folks.) But the treatment was rarely, if ever, framed as being for my benefit. Everything, from the surgery I had as a toddler, to the hormones I started taking as a preteen, was so that I could be normal. So that I would look normal to the people around me. So that someday I could have a normal husband and a normal family.

I don’t resent normalcy or passing—to the contrary, I appreciate passing all too much. Being able to pass as a cis woman has made my life easier, safer, and more comfortable. My willingness to hide part of my identity has allowed me to move in the world in ways that I never could have if I were obviously, gloriously queer.

As a Peace Corps volunteer living in West Africa, being openly queer could have been life-threatening. I adapted: I wore skirts, I got used to being called “mama” or “auntie”, I pretended to have a husband to ward off unwanted advances. But I’d always been intersex, and I’d recently started identifying as nonbinary—I needed some way to express that identity. Women in West Africa often wear their hair short, so I felt safe buzzing my hair to look more butch. I reveled in it every time someone called me “whiteman” (Westerner) or referred to me using pidgin English’s gender-neutral pronouns.

Now that I live in Texas, I find it more difficult, not less, to walk the line of affirming my identity to myself while remaining safe. There are no cultural differences to exploit in deciding how to dress or express myself, so I find myself reverting to the mean—growing my hair long, letting it slide when people call me a woman or, worse, a girl. It makes me feel bad, especially when I spend time with queer friends who can’t pass or don’t choose to. Is my identity even real if I don’t express it in a constant, intentional way?

As much as intersex people face discrimination and misunderstanding, we do have the privilege of having physical proof of our identities. When I find myself doubting that I’m intersex enough, or nonbinary enough, I think of my hormone replacement therapy and the scars on my stomach. I think of the things my body can and cannot do, and how different I am from a typical, nonintersex person. I know who I am.

And there’s something incredibly powerful—revolutionary, even—about challenging someone’s understanding of gender with your very existence. I hate when people use facts about intersex conditions to make a point without actually caring about or advocating for intersex rights, but I love bringing it up myself to educate. Surprising people with the information that I’m intersex when they were just explaining why nonbinary genders don’t exist is a powerful experience. Choosing to come out at the exact right moment makes me giddy, and it’s one of the privileges that I have only because I am able to pass.

But passing too well carries its own dangers. When I seek medical care, the quality of the care I receive depends on the doctor or nurse knowing basic facts about my body. Too often, health care professionals see the little sex checkbox at the top of the page and assume that they know everything they need to know. I’ve had doctors assume that my HRT was actually a contraceptive and suggest that I use a different method for a while. I’ve had doctors ask me if I’m pregnant minutes after I’ve told them that I have no ovaries.

So there needs to be a balance, and I’m still not sure that I’ve found it, or that I’ll ever find it. Whether I try to pass is not a binary decision, because I decide whether to pass in lots of different contexts, with lots of different potential consequences. When I feel safe, I revel in expressing my identity and sharing it with the people around me. When I feel vulnerable, I allow people to assume what they will and try to get to a place where I can safely be myself. And when I interact with the medical community, I steel myself for the unpleasantness of having to beat someone over the head with facts that they’d rather ignore, just so that I can receive adequate care.

Like many people, I dream of a world in which the concept of passing doesn’t exist—a world in which there’s no societally imposed default to emulate or from which to diverge. But I live in this world, where I sometimes have to make compromises or put forth extra effort to ensure my safety. I have the time and energy and privilege to make sure that I stay safe, that I pass when I need to and don’t when I can’t. At such a distance from the dream, I only wish that every queer person could say the same.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.