An Intersex Life – Chicago Review of Books


Kimberly M. Zieselman is an intersex woman and outspoken activist. She refuses to be seen as part of the “happy silent majority,” the so-called majority of intersex folks glad they were lied to about the surgeries performed on them. In fact, Zieselman loudly proclaims that the idea of the “happy silent majority” is a fallacy, and she would know. She has spoken at the United Nations as an intersex expert, consulted on the MTV show Faking It, guided Belgian supermodel Hanne through her intersex coming out, and is the executive director of intersex advocacy organization interACT. She discusses all of this in her new memoir, XOXY.

Zieselman has XY chromosomes and was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, internal testes, a vulva, and a vagina. Like too many intersex individuals, she had procedures performed on her as a child without her informed consent. The doctors, she believes, wanted “to erase the intersex parts of us to fit us into strictly binary-looking “male” or “female” bodies.” Zieselman had two inguinal hernia surgeries, both caused by her internal testes, while doctors failed to mention the presence of her testes at all. At fifteen Zieselman had what doctors called a hysterectomy, which was actually a surgery to remove her testes. The procedure would require her to be on hormone therapy for the rest of her life. Imagine learning the truth of all this at age 41. That is when Zieselman learned of her intersex condition, and her memoir follows the journey her life took from there.

XOXY offers readers a little bit of everything: Zieselman’s balance between family, work, and personal history is achieved at some points more successfully than others. She adopted twin daughters and learned to advocate for herself through fighting for their special needs in their schools. Though much of her story is heartwarming, it can muddle the understanding of what Zieselman’s goal was with the memoir. At times, groundbreaking conferences or personal traumas are covered in a few sentences, giving readers only a taste in order to fit everything in. But the memoir also carries the weight of what it means to be a first. As Zieselman writes, “So many of our experiences have been hidden, buried, dismissed by society, the medical community, even by our families and friends. We need each other.” Zieselman is trying through her memoir, though perhaps trying too hard, to show both the complexity and ordinariness of intersex experiences.

Though I often wanted moments of growth, insecurity, understanding, and mental health diagnoses like post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders to take up more space, Zieselman is often able to succinctly represent what it means to live and advocate as an intersex woman. In these places in her story, I believe readers who have felt marginalized will find validation and support. Zieselman’s interactions with ignorant doctors and with outsiders who questioned her objectivity as an intersex advocate felt familiar to me as a transgender individual. It also served as a reminder that even the most isolating experiences are not unique. As she states, “the marginalized have been conditioned to silence and retreat.” Her memoir ventures to do the opposite.

Zieselman explains for readers why promoting the term “intersex,” rather than a Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD), is a reclamation of bodies that have been mistreated and othered. She outlines the ups and downs of pushing for both local and global change—whether through assisting medical research, fighting for legal action, or speaking at events for the intersex community. Though the memoir doesn’t read with the intensity I prefer from a personal narrative, it is an impressive introduction to the powerhouse that is Kimberly M. Zieselman, her journey of understanding, trauma, and recovery, and the important work she does.

XOXY: A Memoir
By Kimberley M. Zieselman
Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Published March 19, 2020


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