Sara Kelly Keenan is 55 years old, but right now she’s experiencing a rebirth. Born intersex — male genes, female genitalia, mixed internal reproductive organs, according to NBC out — Keenan’s parents and doctors chose to keep her sex a secret from her, attempting to make life easy as possible by assigning her a sex. First, they checked “male” on her birth certificate. Then, a few weeks later, she got another one. This birth certificate listed her as “female” and it’s how she identified for most of her life. Now, Keenan — who is proudly intersex but uses female pronouns — has a birth certificate that validates her non-binary sex status. But why did it take so long?
There are two major problems here: One is identifying what intersex really is and how often intersex individuals are born. In order for that to happen, The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) states on their website, all medical professionals would have to agree on what intersex truly means. But since medicine is an art as much as it is a science, experts often disagree on how to distinguish someone who is intersex from someone who is considered “strictly male or strictly female.” The other problem is factoring in the social stigma of what being intersex means. In fact, ISNA points out that problems associated with intersexuality are rarely about gender in themselves but about the “stigma and trauma” of being intersex in a society where it’s not seen as acceptable:
In our culture, sexual variation which blurs the line between male and female is stigmatized. Intersexuality is so highly stigmatized that, until recently, the phenomenon was little known outside related medical specialties. Thus, the birth of an intersex child is emotionally traumatizing: Parents are traumatized because the birth of a child with sexual ambiguity violates a deeply held world view, and because it elicits parental feelings of shame and guilt. Patients are traumatized because they are made to feel utterly unique, alone, and unacceptable. Not only patients and parents, but doctors as well are traumatized.
In addition, ISNA states that often it’s the parents that are treated as the patients rather than the children, meaning that there can be a conflict between what the caregivers want and what’s best for the child. But with approximately one in 1500-2000 births resulting in a child who is intersex, Keenan says that there must be an option for those who identify as such to be recognized.
For Keenan, who began hormone therapy at 16 — according to NBC, she was referred to as “a girl who can’t make hormones” — the fact that she’s been issued a birth certificate that states that she’s intersex has been “shocking and empowering,” especially considering the fact that she didn’t even know that she was intersex until 2012, when her father finally admitted that doctors had suggested that she have a penis be constructed to “match her chromosomes.” He had refused. Today, we might be outraged at such a confession, but in the 1960s, when people who were intersex were still referred to as “hermaphrodites” and any non-binary gender variance would have likely been met with scorn and derision.
But that’s all changing. Keenan may be the latest person to celebrate the victory of being recognized for who she truly is by the courts, but she’s not the only trailblazer for people who identify as intersex or non-binary this year.
Keenan’s historic birth certificate arrived during a historic year for gender politics that began with the nation’s first legally non-binary person, Jamie Shupe—who changed gender in Oregon this June. Keenan’s case is also a parallel to that of Dana Zzyym, a Colorado Intersex person who filed a lawsuit against the State Department after the agency refused to issue a third-gender passport. All three cases have led to government agencies racing to catch up, unable to ignore court orders and city-issued documents.