It was strange.
To be back in that place, for entirely different reasons and with an entirely different reference point for who I am, what intersex is, and my relationship with intersex. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel, and I guess I am a little surprised in some ways, and not surprised at all in others, but what I am surprised about isn’t necessarily what I really expected.
Let me explain.
I am talking, first of all, about Baltimore, MD. I’ve been to Baltimore several times, since I was about 13, I guess. Although I’ve been to other places in Maryland – mostly to go to the beach with my family on summer vacations happily scrounging for tiny, tiny seashells – I’ve been to no other place more often than I have Baltimore. This is because, for several years of my life, I annually went for appointments at Johns Hopkins. You know, because I’m intersex.
Previously, I’d gone to Hershey Medical Center, from the time I was 8. It’s strange thinking about the contrast in my feelings between Hershey MC and Hopkins because I have so, so many feelings about Hopkins, and almost none about Hershey. I never really even realized that until just now. Some of my family lives in Hershey, and I’ve been there bunches of times, and it’s never bothered me once. Maybe I’d feel the tiniest bit uneasy passing HMC, but come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that I have several times (“Claudia, oh look, it’s the medical center.”), and I don’t think I really gave too much of a damn either way except to maybe purse my lips and grumble thinking about the pediatric endocrinology wing.
It’s strange, because I feel like I should have strong feelings about both of these places. In both hospitals, I had some traumatic, effed-up stuff done to me for approximately 8 years in total – principally, super-invasive, didn’t-know-I-could-not-consent-to, assumed-it-was-to-track-my-health dilation procedures, where they basically coat some cold, metal medical dildo with cold, burny medical lube and stick it inside of you to see how long your vagina is. So that they can then decide whether your vagina is of “normal length” = assessing whether or not you “need” a vaginoplasty, or a vaginal reconstruction procedure that increases the vaginal canal’s length. That's so you can have "normal sex" with your husband someday. (SPOILER: There's not a "wrong" length for your vagina to be, even if certain lengths may be more comfortable for penetrative sex. Also, I learned that I'm gay. Me getting a husband? Unlikely, at best.) I went to Hershey every 6 months for appointments. I remember having to pee in a lot of plastic cups, and being MRIed and CT scanned at least once each, but there wasn’t any tongue depressors and saying fucking “Ahhhh” (actually thinking, “AGGGGGGGH!, thatssouncomfortabbbbble!”) or listening to my heart beat and asking me how stuff was, really. I just remember having to hop up on the cold fucking metal table and all of the other cold metal and cold burny things and the dread of knowing it was going to hurt really badly, and I was going to scream and cry, and I didn’t want a grown man who could be my grandfather poking around my vagina anyway, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it because he was the doctor and he said I needed it and these checks were going to keep me healthy or make me better if I wasn’t healthy. It makes me really sad to look back and know that this perspective is entirely untrue – that these dilation procedures are not necessary, because they don’t track health, they just track whether or not your vagina is spacious enough to have “normal sex” (= accommodate a male’s penis in penetrative, male-female intercourse). This view then, is messed up because 1) these doctors are doing these procedures without giving individuals the knowledge that they can consent or NOT CONSENT to these procedures by acting like they’re medically necessary, 2) they’re not medically necessary because they tell us nothing about the individual’s health, 3) there’s a lot of different ideas about what “normal” vaginal size (and also “normal” penis size) exactly is, since there’s a lot of variation – who gets to decide?, and 4) it’s heteronormative (= holds up heterosexual standards and discounts the fact that not everyone’s heterosexual), failing to include queer experience – i.e., not everyone that’s female-bodied wants to either have sex with men and/or have penis-vagina intercourse kind of sex…there’s lots of ways to have sex and this obsession with individuals being able to do this act may be entirely not what that individual wants, anyway. Even further, not all individuals are (very) sexual – asexual individuals may not necessarily be having this kind of sex, either. I have a lot of trauma that I want to try to process and work through from these experiences. I’ve effectively healed to various degrees (and re-process and re-heal, of course) regarding many of my lived experiences surrounding intersex, but these dilation procedures are still something that I have not yet successfully had peace about. I’m hoping that I will be ready to deal more effectively with them someday.
I think it’s worth nothing here that over a decade since my last dilation procedure, I have not been able to take any steps toward emotionally healing from this, because these medical visits have been so traumatic. I just can’t think about them, even though I get flashbacks all the time in my daily life. My experience is sadly not uncommon based on testimony given by other intersex individuals who have undergone medical “treatment” that is often physically and/or emotionally damaging for a long, long time afterward. I think this says volumes about what the role of the medical community should be in terms of intersex (= nothing to do with policing and altering our bodies without our consent and doing “medical procedures” that aren’t actually medical in nature = for our health).
The point of discussing this contrast between Hershey and Hopkins, though, is that I am not largely affected being in Hershey and apparently even so much passing the medical center. Even though I had traumatic procedures happen in both of those places. If I was in that patient’s room that I had to visit in Hershey, I’m pretty sure I’d feel a freak-out coming on, but seeing the hospital itself doesn’t do much. Why is it, then, that I’ve had such strong reactions to Baltimore, to the point that I have not been back since my last dilation, up until a few days ago?
The difference is that in Hershey, I was just some kid that – for whatever reason – didn’t have a uterus, and couldn’t have a period. And also maybe had a short vagina or whatever. Short-vagina-no-uterus-no-period thing. It was probably in medical books somewhere. But I wasn’t given a name for it, and it was just something that happened sometimes, and I never wanted to bleed monthly and I expressed interest in little kids or having little kids of my own someday, so I was pretty much thrilled to hear of this multi-syllabic atypicality without a fancy science-y sounding name attached to it. Some of my classmates were just starting to get their periods when I started going to Hershey, and hearing about these experiences sounded uncomfortable at best. I thought everyone should have this magical no-uterus thing – HOORAY!
But at Hopkins, the problems really started in earnest because where it seemed I just had some innocuous-ish medical anomaly (“So I don’t have a uterus – who cares?”), it was clear that my body was more complex than that, and there actually were names after all (“I’m…intersex? Huh? Is that WHY I don’t have a uterus?”) and there were all of these psychological, emotional, and identity-based layers added on top of it – “Who the hell am I? Am I a boy or a girl? What does that even mean now? What really IS a boy or a girl if someone like me can exist? If there’s answers, who decided these things and figured them out – how’d they do it? Do I need to start dressing or acting different? Who can I go on dates with or ask to a dance – am I kind of straight AND gay either way? Am I always presenting in drag whether I wear heavy eyeliner or really big boy’s shorts? Will I be able to have “normal” sex? Am I going to be rejected by every potential love cause I’m just too fucking weird?” The list of questions went on and on.
At Hopkins, I first had to confront my identity in a whole new way, and I was angry and bitter and depressed and self-hating for a long time because I truly thought that something was deeply wrong with me and my body was one of nature’s practical jokes (“Ha, ha, humanity! Look what I can do!”) but now I had to live with that joke of a body and walk around and pretend it was totally legitimate and wasn’t freaky and horrible and was capable of being accepted and even loved maybe someday. With Hopkins, I first talked to psychologists, asking them earnestly (with discomfort) if I REALLY was REALLY a girl, and them saying yes, absolutely, no question, you’re a girl just like every girl, and no matter how many times I asked it never made me feel better because I knew if I was like every other girl, I wouldn’t be here being poked and prodded and pressured into surgery by old white men every year. (Why? My vagina’s just how it has always been – it’s normal already. And who said I’m necessarily having that kind of sex and/or with boys, anyway?) I didn’t want easy answers – I wanted a nuanced discussion. I wanted to know about variation in peoples’ identities. I wanted to know that who I was wasn’t static, that I was whoever I was, that my identities didn’t all have to match up in one of two acceptable ways. Who I later learned myself to be was in some ways actually irrelevant at that point – what I really needed to ask but didn’t know how was, how do I even start going about the process of me figuring this shit out, just wrapping my head around it enough to approach figuring out who I am in this context? Enter another decade plus of thinking and processing like crazy and agonizing a good deal about it throughout until I could really feel comfortable with my identity.
And then there were still all those fucking dilation procedures. Some of the things the clinicians wanted to talk about and ask me also got a lot more invasive (and I felt, inappropriate) than they’d been at Hershey since I was starting to get to that age where people assumed I’d be having sex any day now. I didn’t want surgeons popping in during every visit, reminding me that if I didn’t get let them hand-stitch me a brand-new, shiny vagina (like my body was an arts & crafts project or something that could be sold on Etsy afterward), I could have big problems “trying to have sex.” Despite the fact that I’d told some of them that I wasn’t READY to have sex and this was not an issue on my radar anyway, it didn’t seem to matter – still the upward inflection out of nowhere “surrrrrrgery?”, still the dilations, still my sulking and storm-cloud moods days beforehand and after each appointment clearly noted on our kitchen’s dry-erase board calendar in my mom's perfect handwriting, haunting me for the whole month. Hopkins was the period of time when I went from no-uterus to no-identity, I was a who-knows-what person – which I now know is actually anyone ever, if they are honest and everyone felt free to express themselves and their identities as they are, and that being a who-knows-what person (= I am whoever I am, and I don’t care if that deviates from societal expectations) in any sense is a fabulous, freeing existence since it allows you to be more of yourself at any time than you otherwise can, but I didn’t see the positives of doing the tough work to figure out who you are at the time.
But, yeah, so I went to Baltimore the other day.
I am dating an absolutely wonderful girl, and she is moving to Baltimore pretty soon. I visited with some of her family and one day, we took a trip out to Baltimore together. I was not sure how I would feel, if I would be triggered, if I would feel like a mess and would need to be quiet. I had vowed I never wanted to go to Baltimore ever again for a number of years, and as the years passed, that I would go maybe not never, but very rarely and only for good reasons, like to raise awareness about intersex, or to go to a conference or something.
Now I have an excellent reason to be going there, and I was both excited and nervous to see how I would react being in this place again, but for entirely different reasons. I wasn’t there, after all, to go to the hospital. I was there to just hang around a little, and NOT go to the Harbor for, like, the zillionth time. She was really supportive about the uncertainty of my feelings being in Baltimore, but even with this support, it was still scary to not completely know what would happen. I just kept thinking more or less, “Baltimore. MAN. Oh, gawd. BALTIMORE. Man.” And so on. (Also very articulately.)
Ultimately, being there wasn’t terrible. I actually had FUN, which was kind of shocking to me. I thought maybe just being anywhere, ever in Baltimore would be such a bummer that I wouldn’t be able to relax, have fun, without having an emotional meltdown knowing what this place has meant to me in the past. The historical district was really nice – I’d never been there since we’d pretty much only been to the hospital, and the nearby Bar Harbor-ish areas. As a former violin nerd, it was fun to see the Peabody Institute, and one particular church had gorgeous architecture, with some copper bits turned streaky-green from air exposure over time.
I did see the hospital, twice – once when we got into Baltimore, and once when we left it. I couldn’t not look. My head was a magnet, and I couldn’t help turning in the direction of Hopkins. I knew it was Hopkins even though we didn’t drive directly past it because of the airwalk connecting buildings over the street below. I felt triggered and scared in some ways, but more in a all-my-emotions-are-freezing-up-in-my-chest kind of way, and not in a everything-is-flooding-back-to-me-and-I’m-experiencing-everything-all-over-again kind of way, which was much preferable. I might’ve felt more triggered had I actually faced the hospital, looked at it, thought about taking the elevator all the way to pediatric endocrinology. But even then, I’m not sure it would’ve been much more. And that surprised me a little.
I think the biggest thing for me is what else I felt while I was there. I was assuming that when I hit the city limits entering Baltimore, everything would maybe fall apart, and I’d be this little girl again, terrified on the way to the place where all this trauma and shit went down. That I’d be back there, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. But that wasn’t what happened at all. Although part of me was scared, another part of me, the much more grown-up who-I-am-right-now part was like, Okay, Baltimore. We’ve been through a lot of shit, and you made my life terrible for a long time, but you know what? I’m not the same person I was back then. I know who I am, and anything that was said to me here or done to me here hasn’t prevented me from knowing who I am and not being afraid to be it. Pretty much, you didn’t and will continue not to prevent me from being who I am. I figured it out, anyway, Baltimore, despite all your shit.
It was pretty empowering.
I think some of my reactions will be more strong, maybe, if I’m really faced with the hospital. But even then, this trip was a test – and I think the results mean that I’m gonna be okay. Even if I do get triggered sometimes, I can be in Baltimore, and I still have my sense of self. Baltimore hasn’t defined me, and it hasn’t gotten me beat.
…Also, in other news I got my hand stuck in a car door, because I am very conscientious and aware of my surroundings and would never put important things, like oh, I dunno, my appendages, in unsafe places because I was too busy looking at museum buildings. NOOOOO, I’d certainly never do that. (Ha, FAIL.)