Sassify Zine - June 2020
Illustration - Tales of Black Eyed Jack
We are more than our trauma. I think it would also be rad for people to see the beauty and the complexity of who we are as a community…’’
Intersex activist, collage artist and public health researcher based in Atlanta, GA. We talk to Sean Saifa Wall ( He/Him) about intersex awareness his queer journey so far.
Could you tell me a little bit about your queer journey so far?
It is hard to talk about my queer journey in a few paragraphs, but it is an interesting story with exciting plot twists! Overall, I am thankful that I am queer because it gave me a platform to share my story as an intersex activist. Not to say that queerness is perfect, but the reason why queerness resonated with me as a young person is that it was in opposition to compulsive heterosexuality at the time. I always think about how my blackness informs my queerness and vice versa. They are symbiotic and shape how this world sees me and how I see myself in the world.
For someone who has never heard of intersex before, what does it mean to be intersex?
I think about intersex as sex characteristics (gonadal, chromosomal, hormonal) that are atypical for males and females. I didn’t identify as intersex until I was an adult because the language has evolved in some spaces. I feel that a lot of people still associate intersex variations with hermaphroditism. My mother told me from a young age that I had Testicular Feminization Syndrome (which is now referred to as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) but I didn’t know what that meant. When I was castrated at age 13, I didn’t fully know what was happening to my body and how my life would change. I have other people in my family born with the same trait, but no one talks about it because of the shame and stigma that still impacts people to this day.
Would it have helped to have queer hero growing up?
I had several queer heroes growing up! The first being my older cousin who was also born intersex. She is about 15 years older than I am and when I was a little kid, her fashion was amazing. She embraced androgyny and would wear boots, with one earring (which was a cross), and eyeliner. She was my hero. Other childhood heroes were Michael Jackson (even though that admiration has always felt complicated) and Prince.
My queer heroes now are my friends. I have a group of friends that are mostly people of colour, trans and gender-nonconforming and just badass.
What obstacles have you had to face with being intersex/ alternatively what have been the best?
I realise in my day to day that people, especially cis men, have issues with androgyny and femininity. Because my body is partially sensitive to male hormones, I do not have the same secondary sex characteristics (deep voice, male pattern baldness (ack!), facial hair) like cismen and transmen. People either read me as a gay man, stud or young man. For years, I was despondent and wished that this was not my life. Another issue that I am challenged by is the fact that I am dependent on external hormones for the rest of my life. When I was castrated, my body was deprived of testosterone that was produced by my body and that was beneficial for my body. As a result, I am living with osteopenia (which is a slowing of the body’s ability to make new bone). However, being intersex has exposed me to other survivors of these surgeries and we share our stories, which in turn makes us stronger knowing that we are not alone. Over time, I have learned to accept my body and feel very comfortable in my skin. I have had the great fortune to meet some amazing lovers who have loved and respected my body even before I was able to.
Is there a correlation with navigating queerness with being black and intersex?
My blackness, queerness, and intersex body are all happening at the same time, which is why I can’t talk about one without talking about the other.
How important is it to speak out on intersex issues?
Along with Pidgeon Pagonis and Lynnell Stephani Long, we cofounded the Intersex Justice Project because we believed that intersex people of colour needed to be represented and respected as leaders in the intersex movement. Based on my experience, I feel that it is so easy to overlook and take for granted the contributions of people of colour, women, and femmes, disabled folks, sex workers, and other marginalised identities whose labour strengthens the social justice movement. IJP’s history is grounded in protest because we believe that through direct action, we can push the medical establishment to stop medically unnecessary genital surgeries on intersex infants and children.
My personal project is Letters to an Unborn Son, which is a documentary that I am working on about my father’s incarceration and how that impacted me as a child. As an activist, I feel that direct action organising and harnessing the power of media are useful tools to raise awareness about intersex issues.
From things I have read online there seems to be a lot of controversy surrounding elective surgery pushed on intersex infants by the medical industry. What can we do to tackle this?
Intersex activists can only do so much. We are out-funded by the medical establishment and there isn’t enough societal pressure to stop these surgeries from taking place. Intersex people want to be able to consent to surgeries for their bodies that are decided by themselves. I feel that challenging the medical establishment on this issue is a multi-pronged approach:
1. The medical establishment has to recognize us as human and intersex bodies that are normal variations of human anatomy.
2. Insurance companies need to divest from these surgeries and be willing to take a stand and not fund these surgeries. Likewise, insurance companies should fund surgeries for intersex youth and adults who elect to have these surgeries.
3. The state needs to recognize intersex people as a protected class and be willing to establish laws to protect them.
Does being intersex impact your personal and professional relationships with people?
Nope. I feel that my being open about being intersex allows me to have very robust relationships both professional and personal.
What would you like to change about the representation of intersex people in the media?
I want intersex people to drive the narratives about our own lives and experiences. In the media, we are still regarded as exotic and whenever there are movies or television shows that involve intersex characters, very few of those narratives and character development are informed by actual intersex people. We are more than our trauma. I think it would also be rad for people to see the beauty and the complexity of who we are as a community.
Sean Saifa Wall is available for: