What happens when your body is both male and female?

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

“Intersex” is an umbrella term that is used to describe individuals whose bodies don’t fall into the typical understanding of male and female. Photo by SAC GARCIA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Andy Andres, who was assigned and raised as a female, was elementary when he started developing male qualities. When the girls in his class started getting their periods, they’d ask Andy: “Hindi ka tinatagusan?” And because Andy couldn’t explain to them what he was going through, he would spill soy sauce on his skirt just so they would say: “Uy, natagusan ka!”

Ricalyn Cinco, on the other hand, was raised as a boy, but it was when adolescence hit when she started developing breasts. “Syempre hindi naman ako pwede mag-bra, hindi ba?” she shares. “Alam nung mga kaklase ko, lalaki [ako]. Lalapitan ako tapos, ‘pag natuwa sila, dadakmain nila ‘yung suso ko. Tapos ako… magrereklamo ba ako?”

These are examples of what would only be the beginning of the unknown traumas that many intersex Filipinos experience in their day-to-day lives. For a majority of them, this “act” would go on well into adulthood — from stuffing bras with pan de sal just to pass as female for a job interview, to quitting swimming because wearing a swimsuit would attract too many questions, even to being undressed by the teacher behind a classroom door just because they needed to know : “Ano ba talaga, babae ka o lalaki?”

Andy Andres was assigned and raised female, but started developing male qualities when he was in elementary. Andres is part of Intersex Philippines, a group of intersex Filipinos advocating for awareness and intersex rights. Photo by SAC GARCIA

What does “intersex” mean?

Before beginning to unpack it, it’s vital to understand that intersex is a highly complex subject that both the intersex community and medical community are still trying to learn about, contribute research to, and put together all the varying experiences that intersex individuals have.

Usually though, understanding it often begins with dismantling the “typical” ideas of gender and sex.

According to literature from AGA (A Gender Agenda), “when people think about the sex that people are born with, what we are actually thinking about is a set of biological characteristics we can easily understand to be male or female. That all men have the same biology and anatomy and that it’s specifically different from women’s.”

However, up to 1.7 percent of the population can have characteristics that are slightly different from what is traditionally understood to be specifically male or female, and this in-between is where the intersex spectrum lies. It’s important to note though that this doesn’t mean that intersex individuals are not male or female — just that their bodies vary from what most people understand to be typically male or female.

“Strictly, ‘intersex’ is not a medical term, although it is widely used by laypersons to describe the wide spectrum between the traditional dualism of man and woman,” explains Doctor Chiang Sheng, an obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in prenatal genetic counseling at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Mackay Memorial Hospital, Taipei. “Intersex may be termed medically as disorders of sex development (DSD), which includes various congenital conditions related to chromosomal, gonadal and anatomical sex and leads to ambiguity of genitalia.”

“Ang misconception kasi ng tao, akala nila the penis and the clitoris are two different things. Feeling nila parang there are only two genders based on the genitals. But the thing is, the genitals of a male and a female are one and the same,” Ruffy Yulo, a life coach and member of Intersex Philippines, explains. Photo by SAC GARCIA

However, while DSD may be the current medical term, some leaders of Asian intersex communities reject the label and prefer “diverse sex development” or “differences of sex development.”

Overall, “intersex” is likened to how the term “queer” is used today — an umbrella term that is used to describe individuals whose bodies don’t fall into the typical understanding of male and female.

Another crucial thing to understand is that there are 44 recognized types of intersex variation, which means there is a large diversity within the intersex community that needs to be acknowledged. A common misconception is that all intersex people are hermaphrodites (possessing both gonads in their body), but this is almost never the case. The term is so often used that it’s even now regarded as a derogatory term for plenty of intersex individuals. The truth is that an individual can pick up their intersex variation at any time during their life, and it happens because what we know to be biologically “male” and “female” parts have the same origins.

“Ang misconception kasi ng tao, akala nila the penis and the clitoris are two different things. Feeling nila parang there are only two genders based on the genitals. But the thing is, the genitals of a male and a female are one and the same,” Ruffy Yulo, a life coach and member of Intersex Philippines, explains. “Pareho po ang clitoris. Pareho po ang penis. It only differs in size and the way it looks because when you were inside the womb, when you were asleep, iba-iba po ‘yung nangyari sa development. At ang hindi po naiintindihan ng marami, all boys started out as girls.”

The beginning of the intersex struggle

The intersex experience is brimming with challenges from personal identity to systemic and social inequalities. For many intersex individuals, however, it begins at home, where often their situation is kept a secret from them by their families and their gender identity is chosen for them.

“I was raised [in a] traditional Chinese family,” Yulo shares. “I think the difficulty around there is that they always wanted a male in the family. Since I’m not exactly a boy, namili silang gawin [akong] lalaki.”

Growing up, however, Yulo wouldn’t experience puberty the same way a typical male would. It would only be much later that she would discover the truth. “‘Yung pagtapak ko ng 29, I found out about my condition through a doctor. Pinagdudahan ko pa nga ‘yun nung una. So nung time na ‘yun, nagalit ako sa pamilya ko kasi hindi ko naintindihan. Feeling ko I was betrayed the whole time,” she explains. Yulo would eventually undergo surgery and now identifies as female.

This reflects a bigger injustice that the Intersex community is fighting against: the forced decision regarding their gender identity and what would result from it.

“I-respect natin ‘yung karapatan nung bata kasi ‘yung may katawan ang magdadala,” says Jeff Cagandahan, pertaining to the majority of cases of intersex children whose sex is decided by parents and doctors once they are born. Oftentimes, children undergo "corrective" surgery, which intersex groups strongly oppose. Photo by SAC GARCIA

Jeff Cagandahan, the first Filipino to have his name and sex legally changed in court, says, “Sa case natin sa Pilipinas kasi, ‘pag ipinanganak ka na ganyan, ang gusto ng doktor is magdesisyon ka kaagad, magdesisyon ‘yung magulang. Kaya lumalabas din kami para mag-share ng awareness na hangga’t maaari i-suggest sa mga magulang na antayin na ‘yung bata ang mag-decide pagdating nang tamang panahon kung ano ‘yung gusto. Ang mangyayari, halos lahat nung naging kakilala ko na naging kaibigan ko — naoperahan na sila, pero pagdating ng pagtanda nila, kabaliktaran ‘yung gusto nila. ‘Yung iba nag-undergo na ng labing-isang surgery.”

This conflict isn’t unique to the Philippines however, with hundreds of intersex babies all over the world undergoing non-consensual, permanent surgery deemed as “medical intervention” resulting in physically and often psychologically damaging outcomes.

“I-respect natin ‘yung karapatan nung bata kasi ‘yung may katawan ang magdadala,” Cagandahan adds. “Maaaring ‘yung magulang concerned. Naiintindihan ko rin ‘yon. Kasi siyempre ayaw natin na ma-bully ‘yung anak natin. Yes, gusto natin maging normal ‘yung buhay ng anak natin kaya itinatago natin. Kaya hangga’t bata pa, itinatama agad ‘yung mga ganung surgery. Pero kung tutuusin, ‘yung may katawan dapat ang mag-de-decide.”

The importance of community

There is a large lack of intersex awareness and education both in the Philippines and all over the world and it manifests in a lot of harassment and shaming of intersex individuals.

“Lagi po akong na-bu-bully kasi ‘pag nasa CR po, doon ako sa cubicle. Sasabihin, ‘Bakit sa cubicle ka? Lalaki ka.’ Hindi po ako maka-ihi nang nakatayo kaya sa cubicle po talaga ako,” Andres shares. Often, because only urinals were available in male restrooms, Andres would use female restrooms instead where he would also be harassed or even be thrown out.

Cinco, whose father wanted her to be a girl but her mother wanted her to be a boy, grew up being ridiculed. “‘Ang nangyari sa desisyon, ipinasok ako ng grade one naka-boy uniform ako at the same time pinahaba ‘yung buhok ko,” Cinco shares. “‘Yung worst experience ko ‘yung pumila kami sa recess. Feeling ko babae ako, so pipila ako doon sa pila ng babae. Tapos ‘yung classmate ko, sabi, ‘Doon ‘yung pila ng lalaki. Dito ‘yung babae.’ Ang sabi ko doon sa classmate ko, ‘Babae ako.’ Nakasimangot siya. So ‘yung mga ganung experiences na talagang mahirap.”

The examples of experiences that Intersex individuals go through can go on and on, which has led them to living a life of hiding, of shame, and of fear. It has led to a life of never using a public toilet, never undressing in front of roommates, or even leaving their hometowns.

Intersex children are often ridiculed by peers for a lack of understanding. For Ricalyn Cinco, it was actually her teacher who spread gossip about her being intersex, which led to even more bullying. Photo by SAC GARCIA

“Nung nalaman nung teacher, ito ‘yung chismosa, kumalat sa buong school na ‘yun na nga, ‘Di ba, ikaw ‘yung may dalawang kasarian?’” Cinco adds. “Pati ‘yung kumadrona. Talagang chinika din sa buong barangay namin. At may isang nang-aasar sa akin… sa tuwing nakikita niya ako, lagi siyang, “Dang-Dong.” Ayoko ngang malaman ng iba kasi ayokong ma-judge nga, sinisigaw pa.”

“Ang kinakatakutan namin is getting harassed when you're in a public place,” Narissa Salonga, a member of Intersex Philippines, explains. “Ang thought process mo nung time na ‘yun is your security. Kasi hindi mo alam kung any time may nakakita, iba ‘yung pagkakaintindi, sasaktan ka ba nun?”

This is why the organization Intersex Philippines has become so crucial, even if they have only formally met twice so far. While a handful of members have communicated through an informal online group for the past few years, it was only recently that they’ve reached out to others and grew to about 40 members.

“Isa sa goal po kasi namin is ‘yung peer support,” Cagandahan, also one of the leading members, says. “Dahil pakiramdam mo nag-iisa ka, ‘pag may ganitong organization, support group, ma-fe-feel mo na parang pamilya talaga kami dito. Walang hiya.”

For many, this safe space has made all the difference, even helping save the life of some of their Intersex members.

“Nung naka-join ako last year, nag-iiyak talaga ako. Sabi ng kapatid ko, “‘Ate ba’t para kang tanga? Umiiyak ka hawak mo ‘yung cellphone.’ Nag-iisa lang talaga kasi ako. ‘Yung literal na alone ka lang na sabi ko, ‘Mutant ba ako? Bakit nag-iisa lang ako?’ Pero sa group chat na ‘yon, nauunawaan. Sa totoo lang, pare-pareho kami ng experience,” Cinco explains.

“Ang kinakatakutan namin is getting harassed when you're in a public place,” Narissa Salonga explains. “Ang thought process mo nung time na ‘yun is your security. Kasi hindi mo alam kung any time may nakakita, iba ‘yung pagkakaintindi, sasaktan ka ba nun?” Photo by SAC GARCIA

A minority group inside a minority group

One could say that the relationship between the intersex community and the broader LGBTQ+ community is extremely complex.

To start, both are minorities fighting for similar things like equality, representation, understanding, and gender identification laws, and are working for more inclusive communities. Commonly, the intersex community is also included under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.

“Working with [the] LGBT [community] for our movement is actually very helpful. Why? Because the LGBT movement actually focuses on human rights,” Hiker Chiu, co-founder of Intersex Asia says.

While no one under the broader community will disagree that human rights is the forefront of the battle, there are still other issues that intersex communities deal with that are not the same as the rest of the queer population. In fact, plenty of intersex individuals don’t necessarily identify as LGBTQ+ at all and are uncomfortable with the categorization.

“Ang definition is a genetic thing. ‘Yung iba, ‘pag kinukumpara nila ‘yung transgender sa intersex, akala nila it falls under the same category when it doesn’t because transgender [people] are genetically normal in essence. But for the intersex individuals, most of us, may genetic difference,” Cagandahan explains.

“In essence, wala naman talagang relation,” Yulo adds. “Kaya lang, because we’re really a minority, that’s why we were placed in that category. But if I think about it, hindi talaga kami swak doon sa category na ‘yon because we don’t identify ourselves as homosexuals.”

In the future, intersex people hope to be more accepted and understood. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, there is still a lot of confusion and ignorance about being intersex. Photo by SAC GARCIA

Another unfortunate yet common experience that intersex people have that may contribute to some hurt feelings regarding the LGBTQ+ community is the invalidation and erasure that they receive.

“Yun number one talaga sasabihin nila, ‘lesbiyana ka, homosexual ka!’ Pero alam mo sa loob mo na intersex ka, in between. Alam mo ‘yung sarili mo,” Cinco shares. “Akala lagi lesbian, lesbian. Hindi ko rin ma-define sarili ko na lesbian kasi sa sarili kong pagkaka-unawa o pagkaka-intindi, bago mo matawag ‘yung sarili mong lesbian, kailangan ikaw ay biologically healthy na babae. Hindi naman ako pinanganak na ganoon!”

But while some members of Intersex Philippines are comfortable with themselves now, it was not always the case, and the common mix-ups with LGBTQ+ result in a tremendous amount of confusion and identity crises.

“In my case, I was raised as male but later in life I found out I was [genetically] female. Since I was attracted to the opposite gender, I’m considered a heterosexual. In the eyes of others, akala nila bakla ako kasi I was raised as male. That’s the difficulty around it,” Yulo adds.

But even within many LGBTQ+ communities, there is still very little understanding and inclusion of intersex individuals. Leaders of the Filipino intersex communities have experienced attending LGBTQ+ gatherings where they are not necessarily acknowledged or represented.

“Parang ang sakit sa kalooban nung sinabihan ka na kasama ka rin sa umbrella tapos karamihan din naman sa nasa LGBT community walang idea about us,” Cinco explains. “Kung ‘yung mga tao sa labas parang walang idea, bakit din sila wala? Parang we’re separated. Ang sakit.”

Fortunately, the global LGBTQ+ communities are understanding that these issues and journeys are very personal to each person and makes sure to recognize and celebrate it. According to literature from AGA: “AGA wishes to acknowledge the diversity of intersex people, and that intersex issues are grounded in bodily diversity and not gender identity. We strive to create an environment where all intersex people feel welcome, regardless of how they identify.”