Correction: The author misquoted Ms. Viloria's views on how parents should raise intersex children. To read Viloria's clarification, read her letter to the editor. http://www.sfweekly.com/2007-10-10/news/hida-viloria-tells-us-what-she-really-thinks/
Oh, that Oprah. Is there anything she can't do?
Well, maybe her clit can't get an erection. But when you're Oprah, you can have a guest on your TV show who can, like San Francisco's Hida Viloria. The 39-year-old Viloria appeared on the talk show as part of a special program discussing intersex people who are born with male as well as female sexual traits, although those dual traits don't always appear outwardly. For most of America, it was probably the first time they'd ever heard the word "intersex" (Oprah told the audience that the more familiar word, hermaphrodite, is not politically correct). But for us here in San Francisco, the issue of gender ambiguity is kinda old news.
In fact — cue self-promotional plug — this paper ran a cover story 12 years ago on intersex people ["Both and Neither," Feb. 1, 1995]. Viloria says before she saw the article she knew she was different, but she didn't know there was a word for what she was. Viloria was born with extra testosterone and an enlarged clitoris that, she says, looks like a small penis and can get hard.
After reading the article, Viloria went on to become active in the intersex rights movement, and therein lies an interesting story — one not told on Oprah. The movement has been around long enough that there are divisions within it, and Viloria is at the center of one of those rifts between what she calls assimilationists and nonassimilationists. "It's incredibly ironic, but it's happened in a lot of movements," she says.
Viloria used to be tight with the best-known intersex advocacy group, the Intersex Society of North America, which is run by Cheryl Chase of Rohnert Park, who was featured in the 1995 Weekly story. But Viloria says the group is too conservative for her tastes. Viloria and ISNA are actually on the same page about their belief that doctors should not perform medically unnecessary genital surgeries on intersex babies to make them male or female. From there, though, the activists' views diverge.
ISNA (www.isna.org) tells parents not to get the surgeries, but the group advises assigning the child a gender identity, boy or girl. But Viloria, who was never operated on, thinks it's a gift to be born intersex and parents should embrace the ambiguity. "Basically," Viloria says of ISNA's position, "they're pandering to conservative homophobic parents."
Chase didn't return a phone call, but ISNA's Web site says it's important to choose a gender identity "because assigning an 'intersex' gender would unnecessarily traumatize the child."
Expect Viloria (www.hidaviloria.com) to elaborate on her position in her yet-to-be-finished memoir, Tales of a Well-Hung Woman.