First US person to have ‘intersex’ on birth certificate: ‘There’s power in knowing who you are’
Sara Kelly Keenan’s victory could help pave the way for public officials, doctors and parents to better recognize and respect a marginalized group
By Sam Levin
Jan 11 2017
Sara Kelly Keenan didn’t think a Google search would change her life. But in 2009, at age 48, a few clicks revealed the truth that her parents and doctors had hidden for decades: Keenan is intersex – biologically a mix between male and female.
After meeting someone with a similar condition, Keenan’s online research and a later appointment with an endocrinologist confirmed that she was born genetically male with female genitalia and a mixed reproductive anatomy.
“It never occurred to me that I was going to uncover a 30-year lie,” she said. “It was really shocking to learn that I had been duped about my own body.”
Keenan, 55, has soared to international fame in recent weeks after she became the first person in the US to obtain a birth certificate with “intersex” on it. Activists said it’s a groundbreaking moment in the fight for intersex rights that could help pave the way for public officials, doctors and parents to better recognize and respect a marginalized group.
In a recent interview with her husband at her home in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, Keenan said she decided to go public with her story in part because she recognizes that misconceptions about intersex people can have life-altering and sometimes fatal consequences.
Intersex – the often ignored “i” in the LGBTQIA acronym – is a general term for a range of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit typical definitions of male or female. Campaigns for the rights of transgender people – whose gender identities don’t match the ones assigned to them at birth – have gained significant momentum in recent years. But intersex issues remain widely misunderstood, even in queer and progressive communities.
Growing up, Keenan recalled, her physicians and parents insisted she was “100% girl”, even after she failed to hit puberty and grew much taller than average girls. At age 16, she was advised to start hormone replacement therapy and undergo surgery to remove what doctors told her were ovaries that could become cancerous.
Later in life, she found out that doctors had actually removed what was essentially testicular tissue that could never develop. After her 2009 discovery, Keenan’s father revealed that doctors had told him Keenan had the option of “masculinizing” with hormones and a constructed penis.
When Keenan learned the truth, her longstanding confusions about her identity made sense.
“It was a ‘duh’ moment for me. I’ve always felt as masculine as I do feminine. I can’t really choose a gender,” she said. “The world doesn’t know what gender I am.”