The power of intersex identity and sense of belonging

Dr Rogena Sterling

April 26, 2021

Late last year I attended an amazing online conference by and about women & gender diverse folks with disabilities. I've learned so much from it and heard from some of the most incredible people in the field, one of whom was Dr Rogena Sterling. Rogena is an intersex, identity & human rights advocate, researcher, lecturer. This interview will open your eyes to the world you might not have thoughts about before. It's probably one of the most vulnerable, powerful and honest we've had! 

Before you get into it, here is a little blurb about what is intersex 🌿

If you look back 10-20 years ago, how different are you now? Thinking back to what your values, identity, goals and missions were - how did that all change from then to now?

20 years ago, things were somewhat easier for me, but did not represent who I truly am. I had been living a life as a ‘sex’ that I had been assigned. I had been brought up in Christian household by a loving family. I had been living an outward life yet knowing there was more to my identity, but could not explain and had no knowledge about being intersex. I spent that time living in secrecy and shame. I had not been told that the medical treatment I had as a child was not necessary and was done for social reasons. This was not life; it was an existence, and one that was not satisfying nor enabling my well-being.

Since 2005, I have had access to a university library and it enabled me to finally understand myself. This changed my life. The jail door was swung open and I felt that I could be myself.

Although I finally felt good and free on the outside, I knew that publicly things would be completely different. It affected my relations with many people and I truly knew who my friends were. While conforming gave so many privileges, I now understood those privileges would now disappear. I now feel free on the inside, though socially and legally things are still complex and not often recognising and accepting me as who I am. 

At that time I was doing my Bachelor’s in Law (LLB). Originally I was intending to practice law. The discovering of myself led me to do my Masters in Law (LLM) and then my PhD to look into the human rights issues of intersex people and what identity means in international human rights law. I understood this was important for advocacy work on intersex and other human rights work. 

Tell us a bit about your current work & current focus in life?

In my ‘day job’, I am now doing research work on Intersex, Māori intellectual property rights and Māori data rights, identity, categorisation and wellbeing. I have also had some contracts teaching on social policy. 

I have been part of intersex advocacy for the last 2 years as part of the Intersex Trust Aotearoa NZ (ITANZ). I am now the co-chair of the trust and support the executive director and communications manager in the advocacy work. 

As part of my advocacy and research interest, I work with government departments to ensure intersex people’s rights and interests are provided for. Currently I am working with Statistics New Zealand on intersex in their data and census. 

Rogena giving a talk at Seed Waikato - credit

You’ve done an incredible amount of work around intersex identity and human rights, what progress and challenges have you seen in the last decade around that topic?

While there has been some progress in human rights for intersex people, recently, it is becoming more difficult to achieve certain goals. One of the biggest reasons is the appropriation of human rights by liberal rights. Another issue is the failure to recognise the origins of gender and how severely it has impacted on the lives of intersex people. 

Another problem is the assumption that all intersex people identify as Rainbow. While some people may identify as such, many do not. Even when policies or funding include the ‘I’ (in LGBTQIA+) for intersex, it generally is in name only and does not enhance the lives of intersex people. 

Though many intersex may not identify as non-binary, some do. However, the discussions of non-binary as gender/’gender identity’ are misleading. Non-binary indicates a person is outside of the heteronormative binary of male and female that includes sex, gender, gender orientation, and cultural elements or perspectives. 

On the positive side, the intersex community has more intersex people working in advocacy than ever in its history in New Zealand! We are slowly gaining more recognition of our needs in government departments and key organisations. We also have a unifying voice of connected organisations around the world. 

There are incremental, yet important wins for intersex people in New Zealand and around the world. In her maiden speech at Parliament, Dr. Elizabeth Kerekere noted that Te Ao Māori recognised intersex people of which she coined ‘mana tipua’ with its whakapapa, while at the same time noting its suppression and pathologisation by colonial society.  

We tend to assume a lot of things when reading and seeing peoples’ lives online. It’s easy to assume that people got it all together and know exactly what we are doing. Would you mind sharing some of your own recent personal or professional challenges?

As an intersex person I feel like an imposter human in society. Both from a sex and gender perspective, there is no space for difference and diversity, as with the disability community. I feel like another species trying to exist in the human species that has been designated as male or female. The non-recognition and awareness of intersex people makes me continually feel like an invisible person in society, that is, I am a physical person, yet not recognised or seen by anyone.

Though in some eyes, I have achieved a lot. I now have a PhD, completed my law degrees and have written academic publications and book chapters, people may assume that my life has been successful. However, as an imposter (or so it feels) in society I am still inadequate and not up to the standard of others and always have self-doubt in existence and this flows into my work. It does not help that I haven't been able to land a full-time job since graduating my PhD despite the literal hundreds of applications. 

To overcome the feeling of being an imposter, I have chosen to stand up and speak out when I have the chance. As part of that I advocate on behalf of intersex people through ITANZ to improve their lives and well-being.  

Dr Sterling giving a TEDxRuakura - credit

What are some of your favourite resources in Aotearoa around education of children and parents about intersex, gender expressions and sexual orientation? 

I know there are a lot of organisation doing good work for Rainbow children and youth such as Rainbow Youth and Outline

However, not all intersex people identity as Rainbow. The Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand (ITANZ) is the only organisation that has the sole focus on and advocates for intersex issues. They are developing some good resources including the parents brochure. I have also done a Question and Answer for the Ensemble Magazine which is helpful for people wanting to know more about intersex people. 

It’s an old age argument that if we expose children to “too much of alternative” identity expression and education, we might confuse them. I would love to hear your thoughts around that and your personal views / experiences with that argument. 

Identity is not something that is either biological or social. Both of these have been tools used to further a particular social and political agenda. The forming of an identity is far more complex and interesting. It is a narrative that is being written of our lives from birth through death.

A person’s identity derives from their relations with their biology (including any changes made to it such as gender normalising surgeries or changes after accidents or diseases), social (such as what today people refer to as gender), cultural and spiritual (including traditional and indigenous understandings of the world), and also sexual orientation. Each one of these will have different relations to a person's identity and may differ over periods of their life, but are part of each person’s identity. 

Research demonstrates that by the age of 5, children have already learned to distinguish what society understands as an identity role as a man or woman (unless a society has other possibilities beyond that of those two). Further the child also knows that about their connectedness with identification is safe to express, or to conceal from their family and the world around them. 

Given this basis, even if exposed to ‘alternatives’, a child knows the difficulties and potential dangers of exploring an ‘identity’ that has not been assigned to them. They are clearly aware that if they move from a particular social role that has been assigned, even at a young age, there are potential consequences. Identity and its exploration is important for the child’s development. The child may not know the science or the rules , but they do know and have a sense of how at comes up in their life.

The exposure to other ‘alternatives’ in education will not lead children who are comfortable with how they were determined and brought up as to question themselves apart from learning that life and society is not as simple as two classes of people - male or female. This provides them with an education that enables them to learn to recognise and accept diversity of all kinds is around them. 

However for children who have always known that they are different in some way or another, the ‘alternative’ education enables them to know that they are not unique and that there are other people in the world that are like them. It enables them to explore their identity that would not be possible without such an education with support mechanisms around them.  

Rogena in a stripy black dress standing at the top of the stairwell, credit to Stuff.co.nz

What similarities or differences do you see in the work done by and for trans advocacy vs intersex advocacy and awareness in this space? 

Though not necessarily named as with modern terms of ‘intersex’ and 'transgender’, these people have both existed since time immemorial. Many traditional and indigenous communities acknowledged the diversity of sex and gender. For those who desired to move to another identification (though they had to respect and fulfil the roles of that sex/gender). Over time, both communities have suffered discrimination as minorities that have not been recognised and their social and legal interests. 

There are some differences. While ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’ has been created to control both communities, the transgender communities has embraced the idea to enable their self-determination and fight for the medical support where necessary, to be the gender identity that matches who they are. However, the concept of gender as a mode of social construction has been a tool that has further entrenched the pathologisation of intersex people: that they should be assigned a sex and, be given medical treatment to align with the assignment and be brought up accordingly in that gender identity. This process still occurs today. Gender and gender identity was not a freeing possibility for intersex people but a process that has led to stigma and shame. This is one of the biggest differences between our communities, though there are overlaps at the same time and there are some people who identify as both intersex and transgender. 

While most people at least are aware of transgender, though they may not know the issues that they face, it is not the same for intersex people. Before I even discuss issues that intersex people face, I first have to explain who intersex people are. That means seldom in discussion do I have time to explain the key issues that intersex people face. 

Another major difference is locating intersex people. Due to how the assignment system functions, the vast majority of intersex people do not know that they are intersex, though some find out during puberty to do with issues of infertility. Conservative statistics available suggest 2.3% of the population, about the city of Dunedin in New Zealand. At most intersex advocates have connected with 40 people in New Zealand. These are not people who self-identify as such, but may choose not to disclose (significant difference from the transgender community). Though they may not want to change how they identify, being able to locate them is vital for support around shame, stigma, physical and other issues they may be facing but not understanding how it may be connected with the past and having one of the many intersex variations of sex characteristics.  

What brings you joy in life?

I feel joy when I enter a group of people in society and they simply just accept people for who they are. I have been in some social and business groups and initially felt very cautious as I thought people would not accept me having lived in a state of shame and secrecy for so many years. It initially came as a shock that people are happy to accept me for who I am are, and though some were inquisitive to know more about being intersex, but ultimately felt supported. 

I am aware of the difficulties in our social environment. Since graduating my PhD as the first open intersex person to achieve such an achievement, I have been struggling to get a job. I know intersex and other minorities face many obstacles, but it brings me joy to know with education and awareness, many people are willing to listen, learn and accept. It takes time and patience but we can create a society where all people are accepted and respected.   

Rogena on the right with two wāhine at a book launch - credit to @sammortimer70

What are some of the things you are passionate about that aren't mentioned too much in the online spaces? 

I enjoy gardening and camping. Growing fruit and vegetables that are healthy and it is a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend free time if I have some. I do enjoy getting away and camping, though have not had a chance in the last few years. I find the tent and the camping site a place to have fresh air and to revitalise myself. 

I am passion about the customary law and the worldview of the Picts and the Gaelic peoples. There is a rich history that does back over 2000 BC, which alike tikanga, gives ideas and thoughts on principles of governance and organisation of the world that are so important these days in the political and environmental climate with all of its issues. 

Who would you like to hear the story of next here at Storyo? 

Georgia Andrews


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