For the first 42 years of her/his life, Hiker Chiu (丘愛芝) didn’t know who she or he was. Born and raised a girl, Chiu liked to play with dolls and dreamed of getting married and having babies. Then at the age of 10, her body stopped growing. While other girls reached puberty, Chiu waited for her first period, which never came. And her breasts didn’t develop as her classmates.
“My world collapsed. I was living in fear, not knowing what I would become,” Chiu says.
Being a person whose body doesn’t easily fit in with what is considered standard for female or male, Chiu felt alone. The unexplained scar on her/his belly only deepened a sense of secrecy and shame.
It wasn’t until decades later when s/he came across XXY, an Argentinian movie about a 15-year-old intersex person, in 2008 that Chiu began to understand who s/he really is. In 2010, Chiu made the debut public appearance as an intersex person at the LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei, becoming the country’s first and so far only openly intersex advocate.
“It started out simply: I want to find others like me,” the 47-year-old Chiu says.
Intersex is a term used to describe people whose biological sex is ambiguous. There are a range of variations in sexual characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, genitals and internal reproductive organs that don’t allow an individual to be clearly identified as male or female. For example, if a person with male chromosomes does not respond to androgens in the usual way, the result is a feminine appearance ranging from ambiguous genitalia to the development of breasts, vagina and clitoris.
Chiu, on the other hand, is a genetic female whose body produces high level of androgens, resulting in an enlarged clitoris and absence of puberty. The various degrees of intersexuality are not medical conditions but parts of the natural continuum of anatomical and genetic variations, says Chiu.
“The LGBT movement has taught us that gender is a spectrum. What people don’t realize is that sex is also a spectrum, and each one of us is a variation in between the two ends,” s/he explains.
In reality, however, our society operates on the principle that there were only two sex categories – male and female – and nothing in between. Intersex infants are assigned a sex at birth, and surgical operations may follow in order to conform their physical sex characteristics to that assignment. When s/he was a six-year-old, Chiu’s clitoris was surgically reduced to a “proper” size. Growing up, Chiu had a vague memory of her lying on an operating table, but the procedure was never mentioned again in Chiu’s household.
“When I was little, I could sense my parents’ feeling of guilt toward me without knowing why. I thought there must be something wrong with me to make them feel that way. I felt something was hidden, and it was shameful and should be silenced,” Chiu says.
Many intersex individuals, however, are not aware that they are intersex as their genital variations were “corrected” through “normalizing” surgeries typically performed at birth. Chiu says the practice was introduced to the US in the early 1950s and soon spread to Taiwan, where the first intersex person was discovered and “cured” in 1953.
Over the years, the advent of intersex activism, which started in the US in the early 1990s, has expanded the knowledge about intersex people. Yet, in the eyes of intersex activists like Chiu, progress has been too slow to put an end to surgery without consent of the intersex person. Intersex advocates and experts have long criticised the necessity of early interventions, urging surgery on an intersex individual should wait until that person can make an informed decision so as to ensure the right of bodily integrity and self-determination.