4/08/2021 Peter Durantine

The ‘Secret’ of Genitalia, Gender and Biology

To look at Emily Quinn, a young woman with an infectious smile, she is female. Yet, her body, particularly inside her body, does not necessarily inform that gender definition. To guess she is transgender is incorrect. Quinn is intersex.

As Franklin & Marshall senior P.J. Howard introduced the April 7 virtual Common Hour speaker to the audience, “Emily Quinn has balls, both literally and figuratively.” 

What that means is that Quinn was born with a vagina, but inside she has a pair of testes, not a uterus and ovaries. Her body does not respond to testosterone, but turns the testosterone in her testes to estrogen.

  • Quinn says, “When I found out that I was intersex, and that I really didn’t fit the definition of what a woman meant, it has led me on a very long journey to here.” Quinn says, “When I found out that I was intersex, and that I really didn’t fit the definition of what a woman meant, it has led me on a very long journey to here.” Image Credit: Ted Aufmuth

People who are intersex have different sex characteristics, of which there are several variations, and these can occur in genes, chromosomes, genitalia, body hair or, like Quinn, the reproductive organs. She is unable to reproduce.

“I found out that I was intersex at 10 years old,” Quinn, now 31, said. “I grew up in a very conservative environment that really talked about women as people who had families, had kids and got married to their husbands.”

Such a binary social order raises questions of identity, and left her with few options, she said. 

“When I found out that I was intersex, and that I really didn’t fit the definition of what a woman meant, it has led me on a very long journey to here,” Quinn said. “So I’ve had 21 years of trying to understand bodies and what it means to be a woman or a person in general.”

A former Cartoon Network animator, she came out as intersex on a public service announcement for MTV and became an activist, working as the youth coordinator of interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth. Now a freelance activist and artist, she speaks worldwide about intersex individuals, who are estimated at about 2% of the world’s population.

Quinn learned she was intersex when her mother took her to the gynecologist. (Learn more about Quinn and intersex at her website.) 

“For me, it runs in my family so my mom knew that it might be a possibility, and she didn’t want me to go through puberty wondering or expecting to get a period or have a typical female period,” she said, using air quotes around the word female.

“I’m going to use quotation marks in air quotes a lot today just because trying to talk about something that doesn’t fit our society’s understanding of the way things work makes it really complicated,” Quinn said. “We don’t necessarily have the language yet. It’s hard to fit things into a box that don’t actually fit into a box.”  

She discussed how the human biology we know as binary just scratches the surface of who we are as people.

“We basically characterize our world into male and female and those are our only two options, but our bodies have a lot more diversity and differences between them,” Quinn said. “Male and female, just based on genitalia, doesn’t actually cover it.”

Medical science’s harmful ways of responding to the intersex with the pursuit of unnecessary surgeries in an effort to erase their difference, which has left them in physical as well as mental pain for life, moved Quinn to educate the public about intersex.

“I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I’ve been able to escape the surgeries.”

Until now, Quinn said, people who are intersex were told by family members not to mention their difference for fear of being judged or mistreated. It was a secret, which brought with it an element of shame.  

“I love the idea of a post-gendered world, and I love the idea of gender being unnecessarily a part of everything,” she said. “I see it going that way to a certain degree. With a lot of younger generations, you see how much younger kids are accepting and including nonbinary ideas into how they sort of interact … but I don’t see that happening totally anytime in my future at least.”

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