Born Both: An Intersex Life. By Hida Viloria. New York: Hachette Books, 2017. www.hbgusa.com. 339 pages. US $27. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.
Full disclosure: Hida Viloria is a close colleague of mine and also a personal friend.
Intersex activist and writer Hida Viloria has published her first book, a memoir that combines her own personal life with discussions of the politics of intersex activism. Intersex refers to persons, who by some counts amount to up to 2% of all humans, who are neither clearly and unambiguously male nor clearly and unambiguously female. The arrival of an intersex baby can trigger anxiety in both parents and physicians and a perceived though medically unnecessary and ethically unfounded desire to perform a surgical procedure (intersex genital cutting or IGC) to create a supposedly clear sex for the baby.
As far as I know and have read, not a single one of the many hundreds of survivors of IGC who have spoken or written on the topic are happy that the surgery was performed on them. Hida has been out for two decades as an activist against IGC and for a greater recognition by society of the multiple forms that sex and gender can take. In the former role, she founded the Intersex Campaign for Equality (Ic4e), also known as OII-USA, the American affiliate of the Organization Intersex International (OII), the world’s first international intersex organization.
Having set the context, it is now my great pleasure to review this truly unique, unquestionably brilliant, unforgettable book. For me, having reviewed over 200 books relating to gender and genital cutting, it is a genuine treat to read so much fresh writing from a true individual. Hida is not afraid to delve into a wide variety of personal topics including her relationships with her father and mother, the former of whom helped safeguard her from IGC, creating one of the few intersex activists who did not themselves suffer cutting as a child, and also sadly refused to accept her romantic interest in women. Her extended (pages 198-201) discussion of his dysfunction, complexity, and her ultimate disavowal of him is touching and poignant. Perhaps one of the most touching moments in a book stuffed with stories that fill up both heart and mind of a reader is her description toward the end of what turned out to be her final time with her mother, an extended stay in New York City while she was there to work with the United Nations. In the end, her mother came to understand and deeply appreciate her activism.
Born Both is remarkable precisely in that it does not hew to one topic nor to one category of book. Both a personal memoir and a political memoir, Hida reveals at numerous ways the profound interconnection in her life of personal and political issues. Hida is not a boy and not a girl, but is both, and neither, and this can be hard for people to understand and accept. At the same time, as far as I know, and as far as can be told from this book, she has had very little if any grief from the sexual partners she has had throughout her life, and more recently has found great happiness and fulfillment with her latest partner C. Hida also does not shy from fearlessly describing personal struggles she went through with relationships before finally meeting C.
As one of countless examples, fairly early on in the book (pages 33-35), Hida discusses an incident where she contemplates suicide. She goes so far as to have a bottle of poison in her hands and is prepared to finish things off but decides not to when a voice comes to her suggesting, “What if somehow, someday, there was a girl who could love you, love you in that way, but you never found her because you were dead?”
Hida goes through enough trials and tribulations to test anyone. At one point, even after groping her, a lesbian refuses to believe she is not a man. I found endlessly fascinating Hida’s discussions and repeated explorations of what our definitions of ourselves mean and their flexibility or lack thereof. At one point (page 96), she discusses how earlier in the history of gay pride marches, there were attempts to keep out of the parade “drag queens” and “bull dykes” who, more conservative and gender-normative gays and lesbians feared might make them look bad and might incite more prejudice. One friend of hers is attacked for being what she calls “a visibly gay—meaning, not typically masculine—man.”
Born Both is probably first a book about Hida Viloria and then secondly about intersex and about activism. The various things it does blend with and complement each other awesomely, and I would say go further in actually cross-advancing the various arguments she is making. A long Burning Man section is fascinating for someone like myself who has never attended the event, as is her ensuing self-description as a “well-hung woman.” Time and again, Hida shows us the breakdown of categories and her joy at being herself, at being both and neither. Children seem to have no problem accepting her liminal status.
Hida also describes in great, and fascinating, detail her groundbreaking participation in a meeting with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regarding the treatment of intersex athletes at the Olympics. Later she talks at great length about the more recently coined term for intersex, Disorders/Differences of Sex Development (DSD), which many intersex persons and activists understandably don’t like as (among other things) it categorizes them according to a condition.
Born Both is one of those books that has so many different things going for it that you simply can’t miss reading it. First of all, the author is charming as all get-out, and also a writer with crazy talent. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that combined such honesty with close attention to a story line. Nor can I recall when I last had the pleasure to read an author who blended so many different subject areas (gay life, intersex life, dating, political activism, figuring out one’s place in the world, relationships with relatives, and much more). Plus Born Both has a just-can’t-put-it-down readability. Highly, fervently recommended.