I recently had the pleasure of talking to a member of our LGBTQ+ Christian community who has a very unique story. I’m grateful for their permission to share an abridged version of our conversation with you here on this blog, just in time for Intersex Awareness Day this Saturday. I hope you benefit as much as I did from our conversation…
Thanks for sharing your story with me. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m 83 years old, and I live in Ontario. I was raised Baptist and I’m a Wheaton College grad. My wife and I spent over 30 years working in the school system. At the tender age of 60 (!), I was hired by a church that was looking for a minister with plenty of life experience. I pastored for three and a half years. Then I worked as a chaplain. My wife passed away 6 years ago; we were married almost 55 years. Now I attend an Anglican church and I’m still involved in volunteer ministry.
Tell us some milestones in your journey of figuring out your gender.
I was assigned male at birth, but at age 14, when I was starting high school, I began to grow breasts. This was disconcerting, to say the least. I was attracted to breasts on women and girls, but not on myself. I was quite tall, but my body shape was developing more like a woman’s, with wide hips. I had no hair on my face, chest, arms, or back, and no real upper body musculature. I remember being asked to climb a rope and scale a wall in gym, but I couldn’t do it – I needed three guys pushing me and two pulling me to get over the wall. It was humiliating. At that time, I had no doctors asking or telling me why this was happening to me.
In university, when I was studying zoology, I was comparing semen samples under a microscope. I noticed that my male roommate’s sample was teeming with life, but mine didn’t seem to have any sperm present.
The first time I heard about Klinefelter Syndrome was in 1974, when a doctor mentioned I might have it. He went through a list of symptoms, including mental slowness and language learning disabilities. I assumed that because I didn’t experience those issues, I didn’t fit the criteria for having the syndrome.
In 1983, I had a double mastectomy, hoping it would help me appear more male. I now regret that I requested this surgery, but at the time, there weren’t people to counsel me or ask whether I really wanted to do this. The surgeon said that I would have to pay for it out of pocket, since it was classified as a cosmetic surgery. “However,” he said, “if I just mark down that it’s for Klinefelter Syndrome, OHIP will cover the costs.” He didn’t test me for it; he just wrote it down.
I didn’t find out anything else until I was 60 years old, when I started my job as a pastor and had internet access on my computer for the first time. I began researching and found out that learning disabilities are present in many people with Klinefelter Syndrome, but not all of them. It was like a food wrapper that says, “May contain nuts” but doesn’t necessarily contain them!
I decided to get tested a few months later, and found out I did indeed have Klinefelter Syndrome, in a mosaic form, which means 95% of my cells have XXY chromosomes, and 5% have XY chromosomes. I like to say I’m 5% male! Later that year, I saw an endocrinologist, who confirmed that during puberty, my testosterone level was only 22.5% of the average male level. The estrogen from the X chromosomes in my system had become dominant and had made my body more feminine. My endocrinologist prescribed me testosterone, and at age 61, I entered puberty all over again.
Does having Klinefelter Syndrome mean that you’re intersex?
That’s been an evolving question. A few years after I got tested, I got in touch with the Intersex Society of North America, which is now called Accord Alliance. At that point, their definition of an intersex condition was a sex difference that was visible in external genitalia at birth. They didn’t include differences in hormones, or differences in chromosomes, like Klinefelter Syndrome. These differences tend to become noticeable at puberty, or discovered later, when couples try to get pregnant. So at that time, in 2001, I was told I was not intersex, which felt like another form of rejection.
Later, Accord Alliance and the medical community shifted toward including all kinds of DSDs (Differences in Sexual Development) as intersex, including Klinefelter Syndrome. I became aware of this only a couple of years ago.
After my wife passed away, I found the birthday card she had bought for me for that year, in which she had written, “You’re the man that I married.” My reaction was, “Maybe. Or maybe I’m the intersex person you married.” I may look and sound male, but that doesn’t describe the way I feel. At times I’ve considered transitioning to female, but that would be difficult for me for several reasons. Today, I claim my identity as intersex.
How does being intersex relate to your faith?
When I was diagnosed, I felt like I was wandering the wilderness of faith. I didn’t feel like the church was a safe place for me; people reacted with non-acceptance or indifference. Even though I had a diagnosis, I still wanted answers about why God would give me a body with XXY chromosomes, and I couldn’t find them. The authors of scripture, with their ancient biology, didn’t write about people born intersex; you don’t even see infertile men in the Bible, only barren women.
I learned that you must be persistent and work hard for your answers. As I kept searching, I realized I still believed that goodness came from God. And the Bible says that God knew me before I was born, in my mother’s womb, where I already had my XXY genes. That meant I had to change my ideas about how God worked. My understanding of God was too small.
I know now that God isn’t limited by our binary, western mindset. Consider the vastness of the universe, and the diversity within God’s creation, down to the microscopic level! There are so many unique things God created that we’re only now discovering. As I encountered this extravagant God, I realized that while intersexuality may be something that the church can’t get its head around, God doesn’t have any trouble getting his head around it… He already knows all about it!
What else would you want the rest of the LGBTQ+ community to know about intersex people like you?
There are more of us than you think, even if you don’t recognize us. Depending on which DSDs are included, intersex people might be as common as redheads (approximately one-sixth of the world’s population). Things are improving in terms of research, awareness and testing. Most people born with Klinefelter Syndrome today are screened early, given learning supports at an earlier age, and prescribed testosterone as puberty begins.
Still, we need more education for the community, including those in the medical community. There are still needless and non-consensual surgeries being performed on perfectly healthy intersex people just to make their genitalia “normal” in the eye of the physician attending them, even though that standard is arbitrary. Non-essential surgery shouldn’t be performed on anyone who cannot consent to it.
And we need change in the church, which can so easily get set in its ways. The church’s seven last words will surely be, “We Never Did It That Way Before.” If the church can’t accept intersex people, whose chromosomal, hormonal, and other physical differences are biologically evident, how much more difficult will it be to accept people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum whose differences aren’t as physically visible or genetically traceable? It might be a long road, but at age 83, this is the message I want to get out before I go out!
For more information about intersex identities, visit Accord Alliance.