Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Interview with Lianne Simon

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Lianne Simon, an American Christian writer, social activist, housewife, and the author of “Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite”. Hello Lianne!
Lianne: Wow! Hi. Thank you so much for asking me. I’m amazed at the number of interviews you’ve done. You go girl!
Monika: It has been two years since the release of your debut novel titled “Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite” about an intersex teen named Jamie who must ultimately choose between male or female. Were you satisfied with the readers’ acceptance of the book?
Lianne: Confessions was very personal to me, since quite a bit of it was drawn from my own childhood. I wanted to show people, especially fellow Christians, what it felt like to grow up between the sexes. I was a bit disappointed that no major Christian publisher would consider a book about intersex.
However, the reception by readers has been encouraging. I’ve had positive feedback from a wide variety of people, including conservative Christians and LGBT book critics.
At Easter, with a tea set in her basket.
Monika: Are you working on another book now?
Lianne: Yes. I have a fantasy short story due out later this year, and I’m working on my second novel. The main character this time is a girl with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. A clinic is able to harvest spermatogonium (immature sperm) from her gonadal biopsies and use them to fertilize human eggs. So she’s in a situation where she’s engaged to the man of her dreams, but she’s also the biological father of the babies in her best friend’s womb.
Monika: This is my first interview with a person who suffers from Mixed Gonadal Dysgenesis (MGD), a disorder of sex development. Could you elaborate more on this disorder?
Lianne: At conception, I got an X chromosome from my mother and a Y from my father. During the first few cell divisions, one of my cells lost a Y chromosome. Like the rest, it kept reproducing, but only cells with no Y chromosome.
Ordinarily, a fetus with an X and a Y in each cell turns out male. A fetus with only an X in each cell becomes female, but with Turner Syndrome. So my development got all confused, and I ended up between the sexes and have a number of the medical issues common to Turner Syndrome.
Sometimes my genetic variation results in a baby with one testis, one ovary, and ambiguous genitals. That’s the asymmetric form, called Mixed Gonadal Dysgenesis. Most kids with MGD, who have one good testis, want to be boys, regardless of what’s between their legs. I have the symmetric form—my two gonads were a mix of testis and streak ovary. It’s not uncommon for us to have a feminine gender, even though our genitals tend to be more masculine than those with the asymmetric form.
At nine, the size of a six year old.
Monika: What is the MGD treatment like?
Lianne: It used to be standard procedure to remove both gonads, perform feminizing genital surgery, and raise the child as a girl. Surgery, however, is no guarantee of gender, and many of the children considered themselves boys regardless.
Today, more families are delaying surgery and allowing their child to determine what gender they are and what surgery they want, if any.
Monika: When did you start feeling that there was something wrong with your gender identity?
Lianne: Actually, I think other people noticed first. As a child, I was always the smallest of my peer group, and had a cute pixie face and pretty eyes.
I have visuo-motor and spatio-temporal deficits, so I got hurt when I played rough and tumble games. I wanted to be a boy sometimes—tall, strong, and agile, but I knew I wasn’t. I liked dolls and dresses just as much, and wanted to be a mom when I grew up. But I knew I wasn’t a girl either, because they wouldn’t let me grow my hair long.
Monika: How did your parents react to your problems?
Lianne: For years my parents were afraid of losing me, so they didn’t seem to care about my gender. Dolls and other “girl’s toys” were okay, and I never got punished for borrowing my sister’s dresses. It wasn’t until I was nine that my health improved, and they started worrying about my gender. Dad never punished me for ‘acting like a girl,’ but it clearly made him sad. Especially my wearing dresses.
Fifth grade was the first time anyone in my classes was smaller than me. Karen and Linda and I used to play together during recess. Mostly hopscotch, as I was never any good at Jacks. When I was twelve, the principal led me over to the baseball field and talked some of the boys into helping me learn to play. They even signed me up for their Khoury League team. I was excited, because it meant I might get to be a real boy.
But I had the body of a nine-year-old, was hopelessly uncoordinated, and was competing with twelve-year-old boys. In the first inning of the first game, a pitch hit my bat, then my head, and knocked me down. When I was playing outfield, a ground ball took a hop, went right between my outstretched hands, and hit me in the face. Mom didn’t like my getting black eyes, so I quit. 
At twenty nine.
Later, one of the boys told me he loved me. I dreamed of being his wife and having his babies. My family moved again then. My parents let me babysit, but dresses and boys were not permitted. Dad kept my hair in a buzz cut because he said I looked like a girl otherwise. I left home for college at eighteen and returned with long hair and breast development.
Monika: Your endocrinologist faced a dilemma whether to provide you with estrogen or testosterone…
Lianne: Looking back on that visit still brings a smile to my face. I went to see the guy for hormones, and he spent the first ten minutes lecturing me about anorexia. He said if I didn’t gain weight, I’d die. If I didn’t agree to come back to the office once a week until I gained fifteen pounds, he wasn’t going to treat me at all. Period.
Then he recommended testosterone, anabolic steroids, and an exercise program to bulk me up. Give me facial hair. Broad shoulders. A deep voice. Muscles. And a raging sex drive. 
I kept on growing through college. I’m five-feet-six-inches tall. After being so small as a kid, I felt like I’d become a giant. Why destroy the rest of me? So I told him I wanted estrogen instead. He didn’t think I’d have any trouble being accepted as a girl, and estradiol would help me gain weight. So he agreed and gave me my first shot.
I puked every day at work for the next two weeks. One of the guys insisted I’d gotten myself knocked up. I cried. For any reason. And for none at all. My nipples hurt. I started growing pubic hair. And no matter how much I ate, my stomach insisted on more. But I finally got my puberty.
Monika: What did you feel after the gender reassignment operation?
Lianne: The twenty-five pounds I gained on estrogen all went to the right places. I wore a loose-fitting shirt to hide my breast development, and switched to junior size hip-hugger jeans. My depression vanished. But after a year on hormones, I was still working as a boy. 
When my parents divorced, they sold the house, and Mom sent me a check to pay for surgery. So I got my hair styled and boarded a plane to San Francisco—as a girl. When I arrived, someone in Dr. Brown’s office told me I had to wear a dress to my appointment with the psychologist. And to pick out a girl’s name. And use it.
At thirty two.
There was pain for a long time after surgery. But none of it mattered. Alejandra (another patient) and I went ice skating as soon as I was well enough. We shopped. We flirted with college boys. We went grocery shopping.
I don’t think it was the surgery so much as my first time living as a girl. People accepted me. Some of the boys thought I was pretty. They were nice to me—not like when I was supposed to be a boy. For the first time since I was a little kid, I fit in.
Monika: You have been blessed with the look of an attractive woman. Do you think it has helped you to live with MGD?
Lianne: Thanks. I would turn that around a bit. My condition gave me micrognathia—a small jaw, which resulted in more female-typical facial proportions. Or, as you would say, ‘the look of an attractive woman.’ Being tiny and frail as a child had a profound effect on my personality.
My lack of sexual development meant no muscles or hair or deep voice. So I never experienced some of the physical things boys do. I was the one nobody wanted on their team. The one who threw like a girl. Sounded like a girl. Looked like a girl. Yes, my condition, and the things I experienced as a result of it, made living as a girl easier.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Lianne: I would never tell anyone that marriage is easy. It requires submission to another person’s will, a readiness to forgive, and a whole lot of work. But in my experience, the intimacy you can share is much, much better than being alone. Love requires tenderness more than passion. Especially as you age.
Monika: How did you explain to your husband the facts that you were an intersex person? 
Lianne: My husband and I were introduced by a pastor from New York who was also a Jewish shadchan (matchmaker). We spent hours and hours on the phone, talking and praying. Each time I shared something personal, he reacted in a positive manner. So I wrote him a long e-mail in which I told him about my condition and my history. He called me and said he’d cried when he read it. I started looking at wedding dresses the next day. About a week later, he proposed, and within two months of our first telephone conversation, we got married. That was fourteen years ago.
With her dog.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of intersex people in the American society?
Lianne: We’re more visible now, but I’m not sure how much treatment has changed. A team approach has become more popular, but too many babies still undergo forced sex assignment surgeries. People in the older generations still suffer from shame brought on by their treatment. And, for the adults, proper medical treatment is difficult to find.
Relatively few of us are open about our conditions. How many public figures do you know—aside from a few activists—who are intersex? Actors? Politicians? A few female athletes perhaps, because sports are still so anal about a woman’s testosterone levels. 
When I talk to people about intersex conditions, the reaction is much more subdued than when I tell them I’m intersex. It’s one thing to know that, somewhere in the world, there’s a hermaphrodite, and quite another to have one standing in front of you. We are still exceedingly rare in people’s experience, almost to the point of being mythical.
Monika: Is there any research going on to solve the MGD problems?
Lianne: There’s quite a bit of medical research into Disorders of Sex Development, much of it that still treats these conditions as problems in need of solutions. I’m not aware of any MGD-specific studies being performed.
Monika: What do you think about intersex stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Lianne: The main issue I have with fictional accounts of intersex characters is their lack of grounding in reality. Intersex isn’t caused by incest. An intersex person cannot get themselves pregnant. And we aren’t both sexes—we’re between. There is only one bit of flesh that becomes a clitoris or a penis or something in between.
Many intersex conditions don’t involve genital ambiguity. Most aren’t androgynes—they live as typical men or women. For those of us who change our legal sex, it’s not usually due to a strong gender dysphoria. Most of the time, you won’t even know that the person with whom you’re speaking has an intersex condition. There’s really no reason to sensationalize intersex.
At her wedding.
Monika: You emphasize the role of religion in your life…
Lianne: I emphasize the role of Jesus Christ in my life and of the need for Christians to gather together for worship and community. My duty as a Christian is to love—especially those I might be tempted to consider my enemies. We’ve all messed up, so we’re all in need of a savior. Love points the way to him.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns?
Lianne: I am much more into support group work than activism. Although I speak to small groups, most of my lobbying is with individuals.
I did a video for The Interface Project, whose motto is “No body is shameful.” I’ve spent quite a bit of time chatting with the parents of intersex children and am happy to have them contact me at liannesimon at yahoo dot com.
Dr. Michael Kreuzer and I are hoping to make a presentation about intersex at this year’s Southern Comfort Conference.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Lianne: I’d like to finish my second novel soon and find an agent to represent me. Then I can return to my heart genre, which is fantasy. If my husband retires, perhaps we’ll finally take that trip to Scotland. My Kirkpatrick ancestors are from Kirkgunzeon. They were ‘thought to be faie,’ which is an old word for enchanted.
With her husband at a friend’s home.
Monika: What would you recommend to all people struggling with an intersex condition like MGD?
Lianne: I spent quite a bit of my life wanting to be male—or female—and ashamed that I wasn’t. Well, guess, what? I never will be. I didn’t have a typical childhood. A genetic difference altered my sex development, set the shape of my face, made me frail, and kept me from learning sports or dance.
My puberty came out of a bottle. I had surgery to allow vaginal intercourse. But I’ve also learned to be content with the body God gave me, and to fight for proper treatment by my doctors. I’m unique. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the black hole around which the rest of my life revolves.
The first time I met someone else with my condition was awesome. I discovered that they were pretty much just an ordinary person. So maybe I wasn’t a freak or a monster after all. A few days later it occurred to me that they were also real. So was my condition. About time to accept that.
Monika: Lianne, thank you for the interview!
Lianne: Thank you!

All the photos: courtesy of Lianne Simon.
Done on 17 June 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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