My Fight for Intersex Visibility in the LGBTQIA Community
This interview was conducted by and posted on Shondaland
For the LGBTQIA community, "chosen families" are essential in a world where acceptance comes at a premium. We must often turn to like-minded queer and queer-ally individuals to find support in a world that still too-often works against us. And while we absolutely must celebrate these non-traditional families for allowing the queer community to thrive in the face of adversity, the intersex community in the U.S. and abroad, however, can largely be overlooked among such rally cries for LGBTQIA amity, simply because many folks just don't understand the nuances of what "intersex" actually means.
For the record, "intersex" is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. And, according to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex people make up approximately 2 percent of the population, yet some might go their lives without knowing that they are, in fact, intersex. This is due to the fact that intersex-identified traits can vary from solely genetic ones — where some cells have XX chromosomes and other cells have XY — while in other cases, people might exhibit physical traits that indicate both male and female anatomical characteristics.
If the United States still has a long way to go in terms of intersex acceptance, imagine identifying as intersex in South Africa, where the fight to end the discrimination of intersex people is an ongoing one. With genital surgeries and non-consensual sterilization still being common practices in traditional/religious communities, it isn't uncommon for intersex individuals to flee to the U.S. in search of asylum. Tatenda Ngwaru, the subject of a new short documentary, She's Not a Boy, by Yuhong Pang and Robert Tokanel, is one of these people.
Having left her home in Zimbabwe in 2016 for what she presumed would be a community with a better understanding of her intersex identity, She's Not a Boychronicles Ngwaru's experience in New York City and her struggles to identify and connect with her queer community. From her home in Africa — where she grew up the child of a two retired schoolteachers — to NYC's annual Pride celebration — that doesn’t quite know what to make of her — Ngwaru's journey has been one of trying to find her place in the world. In a conversation with Shondaland.com, Ngwaru tells us of her journey toward finding her place in the world, and what drives her despite the drawbacks.
ALEX VELAZQUEZ: A running theme in the film is the concept of family and community, and you mention that you haven't found that within the LGBTQ community. Has that changed since making the film?
TATENDA NGWARU: Nothing has changed, to be honest. One of the reasons I feel that way is that I believe Pride should belong to everyone and right now there isn't enough representation for intersex people. Intersex is a topic that is just barely touched on. At Pride events and speaking engagements there are plenty of people who get to speak and be represented, but they tend to overshadow the intersex community, and I'm sure they don't mean it that way, but there just isn't enough representation.
AV: The concept of "chosen family" is so common within the LGBTQ community — have you found a form of that since moving to New York? Do you have a support system?
TN: Not really. It is hard. I have formed connections with very few people who have helped me financially and emotionally to try and start a life in America, but it can be exhausting; not only for me but for the caregivers because you start feeling like their responsibility.
AV: I know it was difficult learning that the LGBTQ community in the U.S. wasn't as educated or informed in what it means to be intersex as you thought, and so that's made it difficult for you to feel a connection to Pride, but I want to ask, in the spirit of the sentiment, what makes you feel proud?
TN: What makes me feel proud is to know that I am doing what I can. I feel that I am the change that I ask of people — because I never want to ask what I'm not giving already — so what makes me feel proud is to think there will be moments when people will learn every time they hear me speak, or every time they see my film. I feel like I'm on the right path. People are very receptive when you ask them to listen and you talk to them, so I'm very proud that I can reach out to people and educate them about intersex lives and LGBTQ lives.
What makes me feel proud is to know that I am doing what I can. I feel that I am the change that I ask of people.
AV: You obviously place great value on family, so did the dynamic within yours change between the time prior to you realizing you're intersex and after? If so, in what way?
TN: The relationship with my parents was hard prior to knowing I was intersex, because I was raised as a boy for a few years, and they were finding it hard to adjust to the life I had said I wanted to live, which is my true self as a woman. The community shamed them and they shamed me. My parents at one point did not want me in their home, until they realized I was not backing down from my truth. After finding out (from a doctor), it was an a-ha moment for them, because they had tangible proof that I was intersex and a woman inside and out. I knew already, so it was not a big deal to me, but having doctors confirm it was a good way forward with my parents. They went back to our community and family members and said we do not care what your perception is but we have a daughter now.
AV: They seem incredibly supportive.
TN: They are. You know, people ask me "How did you get through all the violence?" or "How come you're still alive?" It's because of my parents. I want the film to be a message to other parents — to show them that if you have a child and you love them unconditionally like my parents, there's nothing that could beat that. You will not be weathered if you have that.
AV: You also talk about the desire to meet a partner to share this journey with. How easy or difficult has it been to date as an intersex woman in NYC?
TN: Dating is hard. It's so hard because the moment I mention that I'm an intersex woman, even people within the LGBT community start looking at me like "What does that mean?" It's a new thing to them, and people are not very open to changing their mindset on something that they thought they knew.
I'll give you an example: If I try to date a gay man — I have had so many gay men that I've had a connection with – they say, "Well at the end of the day, I'm a gay man and you're a woman." Which is true. I'm a woman, but anatomically wise — who am I going to be with? Because if I met a straight man, he would say, "Well, I'm not sure because if I were to be with you, that would mean I'm not a straight man anymore."
The whole thing is just boxes — people just want to put you in a box, and that's a thing even in the LGBT community, which surprised me to see in New York. To think that they had come so far ahead with the movement and to then see just how unwilling they are to shift away from that box, that was kind of surprising to me.
AV: You briefly mentioned having lived as a trans woman. Would you say that was due to lack of general information on the difference between being intersex and being trans?
TN: Oh, totally! When I thought I was transgender, it was because that was the only word that sort of described being different. Because I was raised as a boy, and knowing that I was not a boy, I was trying to find the word that defined or that explained that. That's the reason I chose to make this film.
AV: Because mainstream media has such a huge impact on the general public?
TN: It's the only way to learn about the LGBT community and we don't see intersex people being represented, so it's hard for people to even know or find out that it is something that’s actually going on. Almost 2 percent of the population is intersex but people do not know that because they don't see us.
AV: How old were you when you learned of the term "intersex?"
TN: I didn't learn the term "intersex" until I was in my 20’s in South Africa.
AV: You came to the U.S. seeking asylum in 2016 and, as of the time the film was finished, your case was still pending. Has there been any progress?
TN: It's still pending. Thank God they gave me work authorization and social security in the meantime, but when it comes to the case to be approved, I think it's going to take a while.
I want to get people talking. I want people to learn. And I also want to learn from them.
AV: At an event captured in the film, you say, "I am a black woman, I am an immigrant, and I'm an intersex woman. That is something that is just built automatically to destroy me, but from that, I rise." That is such a powerful statement. Does being able to speak at these events make you feel powerful?
TN: Every time. I do not get paid for most of those things and I wish it were my full time job. What I came to America for was the freedom to speak my truth, which I do not have in my own country without being in danger, or without being laughed at. Every time I have a platform to speak, even if it's to only a few people, I feel very blessed and grateful because that is what I want to do. I want to get people talking, and I want people to learn, and I also want to learn from them. I'm educating and learning each and every time I stand in front of people. I feel very fulfilled and if I couldn't do that — I actually cannot imagine a life without the ability to reach out to people in some form or another.
AV: Who inspires you when you're up there speaking?
TN: Other women. Like my role model, Oprah Winfrey who is the ultimate speaker and giver. Shonda Rhimes, who has taken on the amazing responsibility of telling stories that are led by black women. Viola Davis, who is like a spirit sister with her talent and wisdom. There are so many women who help me to add fire to what I do because watching them being badasses in the world shows me a beacon of light and gives me hope.
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