Updated: Jul 28, 2021
By Genie Skaggs
There were two things medical professionals told me in the early days and weeks after my daughter was born in 1991 that shaped how I felt for many years. They made me feel alone, and I let them define me. Slowly, I have changed how those statements make me feel. I still have room to work and grow, but I have come a long way in this journey.
The first came just hours after Courtney was born. My husband was home calling all of our family and friends to tell them of our second child’s birth, a beautiful baby girl. The pediatrician came into the room where Courtney and I were to do the well baby check and just said, “Hmm.” I thought he had found webbed toes like my older son had. That is when he said the words to me I will never forget. “I am not sure if your baby is a boy or a girl. A specialist will be here later.” I had to call my husband and, through tears, ask him to stop calling people and to just come back to the hospital. The doctor left, and I was alone with my new baby. I remember feeling very numb, but also had a firm resolve to do all in my power to move forward with love in my heart for my child. It was the first time in my life that I can remember feeling what I now call “survivor mode.” I gathered as much information as I could (which at that time was not much) and got to work with the goal to raise my child to be independent, kind, and smart. This resolve would shape my love and decisions as a mother profoundly.
Through a test, we found out our baby had XY chromosomes, which are typically thought of as male, but Courtney presented predominantly anatomically female. All except for her descended gonads, or testes. We now have language to describe these natural biological variations as intersex. But at the time, these were uncharted waters for a new mother in an age where information was in a stack of encyclopedias in the garage. The doctors told us that the testes could become cancerous, so at six weeks they were removed. We now know that the rationale behind this information was coercive and intended to normalize my daughter’s genitalia rather than provide affirming and supportive care to an otherwise healthy baby.
The second blow came when we went to a geneticist. After a lot of questions, she looked at me and said, “Well, this runs through the mother’s line. Since there is no family history, you are newly mutated.” Mutated may be a common word in the scientific world, but to a new mother it causes trauma. Think about what that must feel like to be a new mother and to know that your genetics would lead to a barrage of difficult lifelong scenarios and circumstances for your child. The guilt and shame was isolating and insurmountable at times.
When I asked how common intersex was (in 1991 it was called testicular feminization), the geneticist told me it wasn’t even in their books. I was told to take my daughter home and raise her as such. The involvement from doctors in my daughter’s life would not stop there. We would go to the endocrinologist every six months to a year, and Courtney was later put on estrogen, when she felt comfortable at about 13 years of age. Involvement from doctors was heavy, but I wanted this to be Courtney’s decision in order to respect her journey.
My husband and I were open and honest with Courtney about how she was different whenever we talked about bodies and how they work. We consistently led with love and understanding. When she was young we would layer on age appropriate information, and she would say it was okay that she wasn’t going to be able to have children. I always knew that things were deeper and more complex.
We decided not to share Courtney’s intersex story with extended family, friends, or community members. Not because it was a secret, but because I very much felt it would be her story to tell. 1991 was a different time, and I believe that was the right choice at the time. Friends would talk about their inability to get pregnant, and I would think about being mutated. I felt alone with no one to talk to about the ins and outs of mothering my intersex daughter. I had no one, not one other person besides my husband, to talk to about my child being intersex. She was born in a time of no internet, very little social dialogue around sex and gender identity, and support groups being nearly impossible to find in my unique parenting situation.
In July of this year (2020) at the age of 29, Courtney made an intersex coming out video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4xCLcNHe_Q). I was extremely proud of her in the days following its release. She shared intimate parts of herself on her terms. With nearly 14,000 views, a tremendous amount of people heard her story and learned what it means to be intersex. The outpouring of love for her was incredible, and her growth as an individual has been heartwarming to watch. Many happy tears were shed in the days after her video release, and the kind words and support from friends and family has begun to help me feel less alone.
Courtney now proudly identifies as intersex-femme. She is brave, smart, strong, and confident. All the things you would ever wish for your child. As mothers, we all want to see our children happy, true to themselves, and independent contributors to society. Watching Courtney blossom, and loving her through that journey, has been incredible. Because of her authenticity, I am empowered to share my story, seek support, and am learning to be a proud parent of an intersex child. Our children deserve the space to be who they are as we wrap them in love and support their unique journeys.