In her newly-published memoir, XOXY, interACT’s Executive Director Kimberly Zieselman shares her story of growing up intersex, finding community, and becoming the advocate she is today. We caught up with Kimberly to discuss her story, her work, and what’s next for her.
What were your motivations to write the book? Why did you feel it was important to share your story?
I never planned to write a book, but the opportunity fell into my lap and I took a leap of faith. I’m driven by the mission to stop the harms caused by medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children and the need to raise awareness – and outrage – using any medium possible. There is an enormous need for more intersex stories. There are very few intersex narratives currently in literature, film, television or other media. How different my life (and the lives of thousands of others) may have been had I been able to read about, or watch on screen, an intersex person’s struggles and joys in the world. And not felt instead like an isolated freak.
What was the impact you hoped writing and publishing XOXY would have, especially for intersex people? How has that compared to the actual responses you’ve received?
My hope is that readers will become enlightened by reading my intersex story and develop a sense of empathy for the intersex community and the families who love them. Helping to change hearts and minds, one at a time. I hope readers will takeaway an understanding of what intersex means, and that it is not something to be afraid of, but instead something to be embraced as beautiful variances in human bodies and experiences. Specifically, for parents and family members of intersex children, I hope they will better understand the realities of invisible harm that may be done to a child, despite their best intentions, and that they will see that having an intersex child is not an emergency or something that needs fixing, but perhaps just a complexity that requires love, support and space for making decisions about their own body and identity.
After nearly two years in the works, XOXY was finally released… during an international pandemic. With bookstores shuttered and media attention singularly focused on Covid-19, the book launch felt more like a misfire. Having said that, I do think more people are finding the time to read and I have received a number of positive supportive responses and I greatly appreciate each and every one. My fingers are crossed for rescheduled book events later this year.
Photo Credit: Kimberly Zieselman
“Intersex” and “transgender” are often unfortunately conflated in news and media, such as the coverage of Caster Semenya. How would you describe the differences between these two marginalized communities?
First, I think it is helpful to recognize why intersex belongs under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Intersex refers to someone born with physical sex characteristics (such as genitals, internal reproductive organs, or chromosomes) that don’t line up with what is typically expected for either a male or female body. It is not a sexual orientation, nor a gender identity. Intersex people as young as newborns experience discrimination, oppression and harm simply based on being perceived as “different.” In our case, bodily difference. That experience of discrimination based on other people’s fear of difference is a strong common experience that people born with intersex traits share with folks in the broader LGBTQ community. Furthermore, it’s important to respect everyone’s choices, and not all people born with variations of sex characteristics choose to identify as intersex, including Caster Semenya. In fact, many will also not identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Why is it important to talk about how prevailing attitudes as well as laws like Idaho’s HB 500 impact the intersex community, particularly intersex youth?
Intersex people are increasingly subject to the growing trend of anti-trans legislation being filed across the county. First it was the hateful “bathroom” bills that attempted to regulate use of public restrooms based on binary concepts of male and female bodies. While aimed at transgender folks, intersex folks are getting swept up into these efforts based on outdated and unscientific notions of sex and gender. Most recently, the passage of Idaho’s HB 500 makes it legal to discriminate against young intersex and transgender athletes who identify as female and play high school or college sports. The new law permits invasive, harmful physical exams, testing and the disqualification from sport based on bodily differences. Had this law been in effect when I was younger, because of my XY chromosomes and internal reproductive organs, I could have been banned from playing girls lacrosse in high school and college.
How has the writing process for the book helped you grow as a person, a lawyer, a mother, and/or an advocate?
Writing the book was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding. It allowed me an opportunity to intentionally put the many pieces of my journey together and try to make sense of it. It forced me to open myself up to being vulnerable in a way most never will experience. And I think with that ultimately comes greater self-acceptance and confidence, and ultimately peace. I hope that will only help make me a better person, mother and advocate.
What’s next for Kimberly Zieselman?
After seven years of intersex advocacy and leadership at interACT I am taking a sabbatical this summer. Planning to turn off social media and all things intersex and take a much-needed break. Then come back well rested and continue to advocate along with my amazing team for intersex representation, bodily autonomy and empowerment. There is still much work to do.
Photo Credit: Kimberly Zieselman
The intersex community is often discriminated against from birth and kept silent due to misinformation and shame. As advocates like Kimberly stand up for the visibility, respect, and bodily autonomy of her community, it is up to non-intersex individuals to listen to their stories and join their struggle. For those who want to learn more about Kimberly Zieselman and better understand her experiences as an intersex individual, please visit the XOXY website here.
Kimberly Zieselman is an alumni of the GLAAD Media Institute, which is offering virtual courses and workshops to activists and advocates around the country, and world, in the weeks to come, including a workshop on May 22nd. Click here to learn more about how to join a course or workshop and use your voice as a GLAAD Media Institute alum.