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Irene Kuzemko

My life really began when I found out I’m intersex at 22


TW // medical violence, self-harm, gender-based discrimination


Me texting with a guy

Me: *sending a link to my coming out as intersex interview*

Guy: *quiet for some time*

Guy: Wow, very interesting!!

Guy: *never speaks to me again*

Recently my grandma admitted to me that my doctors, when talking about me, had told her about me that “we cannot make a boy out of her so we’ll make a girl out of her”. I knew nothing about my body being intersex. It was all kept secret from me while some people were discussing behind my back who to “make” out of me.

When I was 15 they did a bone age test and found out that my bone age was 10-11.

No matter how many years I waited, no matter how much hormones I took, no matter how much I wanted it, my breasts never grew. It felt like there was this magical, secret experience everybody else is lucky enough to experience but me.

When I was 15 we had a distant relative come for a visit. She hasn’t seen me since I was 5-6 years old. When she came into our house and saw me she didn’t say, “hello” or hug me or anything.
She took one look at me and said “and where are our boobs?”
It took all my strength to not punch her at that moment.
I wish I had.

Finding out the truth was the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life. My second birthday: the moment when my life really began. It was a moment beyond all my wildest dreams, it was unbelievable luck.

I remember how when I decided to publicly come out as intersex, and how when I had told my mom, crying on the phone, that I was going to do so, she had told me to “never do it”.

In my early teens I held this misogynistic view that, “if you look very feminine you are stupid”, or that at least you would be seen as stupid. Because of that I despised “feminine” things, clothes and accessories in a typical “not like other girls” fashion. It wasn’t until all the girls in my glass hit puberty except me. I was left being the only one with a completely flat chest and with no period. I felt that I was behind everyone, and I felt the need to overcompensate – I still do. I started dressing and looking more feminine, grew my hair out.

In my late teens and early twenties I still had no explanation for what was happening with my body. Or, actually, for what was not happening with it. I went through months of “warming up” sessions for my ovaries (funny thinking of it now, when I know that I never had ovaries), years of medical appointments and tests, two surgeries and years of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – and there was barely any effect. I started my period when I was 17 and accidentally started taking the wrongly colored pills from my pack of hormones. I still had no breast growth. When I flip through the pages of my diary from those years I am shocked by how violent the self-hatred expressed on those pages is.

When I found out that I’m intersex, I thought “OMG! Finally, I will meet so many people who, just like, me never grew boobs even after years of hormones!” And when I joined the community and started meeting people, this was actually not the case at all. Even in the intersex community I felt almost completely alone in my experience. It took me years to find people who share my experience – for example, the incredible Arisleyda Dilone.

Only in my late twenties, after discovering several incredible online influencers posting about having small breasts (like Clara Dao and others), watching and collecting content with girls with my body type and gaining over 10 kilos during two years of self-isolation due to covid which gave me very-small-but-still breasts, I learned to love my body. God, I am so hot and sexy, my body is stunning and absolutely perfect!

For so many years a thought of any expression of myself in this world – anything I did, any word I said, any thought I had – was painfully embarrassing and shameful. I couldn’t even bear thinking my own thoughts, since they were mine and therefore horrible, shameful and cringe by default. I had a technique of repeating certain phrases in my head over and over just so I wouldn’t hear my own thoughts, at least for a little while, and could catch a quick rest. And any time shame and embarrassment hit me, the only way I could try to stop it and to make the embarrassment at least a tiny bit easier was to imagine experiencing or inflicting on myself some kind of violent trauma. Cutting my wrists with giant bush scissors, piercing my body through the vagina to the top of the head with a giant needle… The more gruesome and painful the better it felt, like I needed to be punished just for existing. Just because I am me, which was already so embarrassing. I wanted to be hurt to apologize for my own existence.

Sometimes people assume being intersex would be a source of shame and shame only. For me discovering I’m intersex was what started my acceptance and love for my body.

If my development in utero would have gone the way it was “supposed to” go, I would have been born a boy. But, thank god, it didn’t happen. And, despite my XY chromosomes, I was born a girl. I was assigned female at birth, and when in my teenage years the doctors discovered that I’m intersex, it was kept a secret from me.

When I was 17, I went for a checkup with my mom. Using the chance of being there, I complained about being self-conscious and “not being girl enough” due to my breasts not growing. The doctors got so scared! They thought I was saying that I don’t identify as a girl, and asked me, “but do you like boys?”, which in their minds equals identifying as a girl.
I refused to answer that ridiculous question but told them I identify as a girl which calmed them down.
They want you to fit into the box chosen for you.
But at the time I didn’t know the truth about myself and was really confused about why they were so worried.

Months after discovering the truth at 22, my father finally admitted to me that he had kept everything secret from me on purpose, following the advice of two child psychologists, and affirming that he did the right thing and won’t apologize for it. I didn’t know how to continue living. I could’ve avoided all this pain. I could’ve avoided all these issues with my self-esteem, I could’ve saved so much money on therapy and antidepressants. But I can’t change what happened. I cannot tell the truth to my teenage self.

I haven’t spoken to my father since, it’s been more than 7 years.

Like a media nerd I watched and read all the intersex-themed content I could find on the internet. I started collecting the biggest (to my knowledge) collection of intersex-related videos on the internet. I learned the names and faces of intersex activists from around the world, incredible badass legends – absolute badass celebrities and role models to me. I learned their stories. And slowly I saw how the secrecy was an ongoing part of so many of those stories. I realized that my story was not unique, that it is actually typical. So many intersex people have the truth about their bodies and interventions performed on them hidden from them for years. It was a clear pattern. I wasn’t alone. And this pattern was a part of intersex human rights violations that the intersex movement was fighting against. I realized that I could put my anger to good use.

Since I started speaking out I’ve had people comment on my appearance, on my “masculine” features such as chin and neck muscles, on my small chest, people requesting my hip bone x-rays out of curiosity… Please don’t comment on the appearance of intersex people.

I don’t want children. Some intersex people can have children, some can’t, some, like me, can have children with medical help like a donor egg and IVF. I love babies, especially intersex babies. When I get to cuddle an intersex baby it’s the best thing ever!

Since the decision to come out it took me an entire year to actually do it because all this time I was looking for a perfect opportunity and the right media.

In the early years of my activism when journalists reached out to us at Intersex Russia/OII Russia, I always made sure to provide them with resources and information as well as talk them through all the human rights-based definitions, terminology and statistics on intersex, making sure the information published would be up-to-date, human rights-based and correct. By doing this we contributed massively to the creation of human rights-based intersex narrative in Russia.

I always saw publicly coming out as intersex as a distant dream, sometime far-far in the future.

The decision to do it at age 24 was made in a “fuck around and find out” fashion. In that moment I thought, for a change, to try to bring this far-far future into my reality right now.

 My biggest inspiration behind coming out was:
·       Wanting to be like all the publicly out intersex people in other countries, especially amazing intersex youth at interACT and interACT Youth

·       Japanese IS – Otoko Demo Onna Demo Nai Sei (IS 男でも女でもない性) intersex manga and TV drama, and especially the coming out storyline of its main character whom I relate to so much

·       Wanting to increase intersex visibility and awareness in my countries, Russia and Ukraine

·       My own worries about age and accomplishing certain things by certain age

I expected so many different outcomes after coming out but what actually happened was the only one that I did not expect – I received an incredible amount of love and support. And still continue receiving it.

I know that as a cis intersex woman who presents quite gender-conforming I am more privileged and am in a much safer position than intersex people who come out in Russia while also being trans, non-binary and/or who have transitioned and are telling their stories. When things are hetero-normative and presented separately from LGBT, the overall reaction in Russia is positive-neutral. But whenever the material is connected to LGBT then there’s a lot more hate. Intersex men are also getting more negative reactions from what I’ve seen because of strong societal norms around what and how a man should be.

I love my intersex variation. I find it is fascinating and beautiful. I’m happy that I was born with XY chromosomes and that in my abdomen instead of ovaries I had a testicle and a streak gonad with bits of ovarian tissue. I would not want to be born with a different body.

It was an easy decision to decide to devote my life to fighting for intersex human rights. I’m so happy to be obsessed with intersex representation in the media. I’m still collecting intersex videos in my huge video collection and filming intersex content myself too (1, 2).

Now I’m 29. I love myself and my body, a place I never thought I would be in. I’ve been in therapy for years, and despite doing a lot better I still am dealing with the derealization I started experiencing in the years when life was too bad to believe that it was real. But I’m working on it and I’m already so much happier than I ever thought I would ever be. And I’m devoting my life to the cause of intersex rights and working towards improving lives of intersex people and working towards preventing them from going through IGM (Intersex Genital Mutilation) and experiencing pain and human rights violations I went through myself.

Irene Kuzemko
February 2023