Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: Intersex (for lack of a better word)

Intersex (for lack of a better word)
Thea Hillman

Published by Manic D Press

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

“I believe in speaking to people in a language they’ll understand. I’ve got CAH [congenital adrenal hyperplasia] when I talk to doctors; I’m intersex when I talk to activists; I’ve got a medical condition when I talk to my boss.” (“Condition,” 148)

What about when Thea Hillman talks to her audience – whether live or reading? Intersex (for lack of a better word) is a story of, literally, coming to terms (or, better, defining one’s own terms rather than being defined by someone else’s), first with a childhood diagnosis of CAH, then through her own shifting gender and sexual identities, and continuously with perceptions both within and outside her social worlds of family, friends and, increasingly, the interlocking sex-radical/queer/trans/intersex communities of the Bay Area. Intersex, far from being a three-act Hollywood melodrama of finding (or accepting) oneself/falling in love/reuniting with family/triumphing over (or through) the medical establishment/insert autobiographical cliché here, is a radical adventure through narrative instability and the erotics of constant redefinition.

Told in fragments each titled by, and circling around, a single word (starting with “Haircut” and ending with “C/leaving”), Intersex is an openwork text full of better words that – as Hillman suggests – speak vividly to different listeners of subjective and social experiences around the slippage, claiming and shifting of identity. Pieces such as “Opinion” (an op-ed on Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex) and “Already” (a scorching erotic encounter) differently but consistently apply careful pressure to the word intersex as a portmanteau that contains “a bunch of people who have a variety of bodies, some radically different from each other, and even more different experiences” (148).

So, for lack of a better word, the book could have been called Human. There’s something for everyone here: family Christmases and sex parties rub up alongside each other provocatively; school bullies and shit bosses are seen off, years – but only pages – later, by activist community; the ordinary misery of break-ups mingles with the extraordinary trauma of invasive medical encounters. The second half of the book, in pieces like “Allies,” “Out,” and “Community,” explore the tension between waving intersex aloft as a banner under which a community can gather in order to educate and create change, and its inexactness.

That inexactness creates the space for Intersex: for its tapestry of individual, contradictory, telling details that, told with such precision and care, texture a life (Gram’s Alzheimer’s, the anal fins of mosquito fish, Queeruption), and for Hillman’s ability to combine skilfully the telling of a tale and the revelation of its import, not only for people living sex and gender differently, but for what those experiences might bring to the political sphere at large.

In “War,” Hillman writes: “Being in love is the opposite of being at war… I take the war on terror personally because the war on terror is really a war on difference, because my body strikes terror in the hearts of other Americans. My body and the bodies of the people I love are the most intimate sites of American imperialism” (95-96). Thea Hillman is who we need in the battle for hearts and minds.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



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