My life history as an intersex person living in Zimbabwe
My name is Yvonne Maiswa. l was born intersex with ambiguous genitalia and 46XX and 46XY chromosomes. They used to call the condition ‘hermaphrodite’ (having sex characteristics of both male and female). I was assigned and raised as a girl but when l was growing up I felt more like a boy. I was different from the societal expectation that a baby is born either a boy or a girl. For me, they couldn’t clearly distinguish whether l was a boy or a girl so they made an assumption. Though they raised me as a girl, l used to do boys’ chores and activities including looking after cattle, repairing fences, making wire cars, playing soccer etc. But it wasn’t easy for me to fit into society because l was expected to behave as a girl but really I felt l was living a life of pretending to be a girl. It was not the reality of me.
I discovered that l was different from my sister and my younger brother by comparing our genitals. This started to raise a lot of questions in my mind but l was still young and l couldn’t ask my parents about it. The challenge came when l started school. Despite that me being intersex was largely kept a secret, it happened that some parents were aware of it and they used to talk about it with their children. As a result, l faced stigma and discrimination. I had some incidents where some classmates used to laugh at me and say, “Look, she has two sexual organs”. This made me feel uncomfortable and l would spend a lot of time alone. I felt I didn’t belong and this affected my interactions with others and also my performance towards school work. At one point, l wanted to drop out of school because of the stigma and discrimination that l was facing.
When l was in high school, l was a soccer player in the school team and I was a very good player compared to the other girls. One day, after l played very well, the coach of the opposing team said to me, “You are not female”, and they wanted to go and check inside my pants. Knowing that my genitalia was different, l knew l had to disappear and leave all the other games that l was supposed to play in. Having this condition made me feel very uncomfortable and every time l tried to figure out who l was, l used to cry and ask God why l was different from others. Sometimes, l feel that l am less than a human being. At that time, I could never see reason to my existence and death seemed like the only way to escape.
When one is born in a way that is not ‘normal’, they consider it as a disability or an error that needs to be corrected. At the age of 15, l was taken to undergo a surgery. They wanted to do a corrective (fixing/normalizing) surgery, but the question is how can you fix or normalize something that you did not create in the first place? They wanted to fix me to be a female but it wasn’t successful. This process was done in an attempt to do good and they did not realize that they were causing a lot of harm, but because of it l have to live with chronic pain. If I was given the opportunity to choose, l would have chosen not to have surgery since being intersex is not even painful. I consider it to be a variation just like race, we have white people, black people and more. This condition, l believe, was not a mistake but God wanting to reveal His Glory (John 9:3).
It happened that l managed to excel in my academics at Ordinary level, but l failed to go to A-level due to circumstances beyond my control. I then undertook tertiary education where l completed a diploma in education as a primary school teacher. I participated in soccer again since it was my passion but I also experienced some of the same challenges l faced in high school. Despite my passion, l had to suppress my gift. l tried to play at the same level with others, but this created tension between me and my coach because he knew my performance from my earlier years. I failed to explain the reason why l was underperforming. The tension continued up until l decided to quit soccer then instead played hockey in my final year at tertiary level. From that moment on, l have hated soccer because of the challenges that l keep encountering and l feel that given the opportunity l would have excelled and made it even to the national team. My passion was killed.
After living a life of pretending to be a woman even though my strength was more masculine, l came to a point where l realized that l just have to be me. I started dressing in a way that feels more comfortable and that is when problems started with my family members and broader society. They are afraid of what the world will say about me and they have started to say some negative comments, for example, they are saying I am now a homosexual, but my understanding of homosexuality is that it has to do with sexual orientation but that intersex has to do with biological sex characteristics.
In society l also face stigma and discrimination. People look at me strangely because of my mixed characteristics and they fail to understand me, instead they just say negative comments. I feel like every day of my life l face stigma and discrimination. Sometimes l feel like it is better to stay indoors but how can l live such a life?
I also face challenges when l try to access public services. I mention that my name is Yvonne, as it appears on my national identity. However, since this is a female name, because of my appearance they say it’s not my document. At one point, l wanted to be assisted with my Econet SIM card which l registered using my name, but they didn’t assist me—they thought l wanted to use someone else’s documents to access their account.
I also face challenges in accessing health care services. Our constitution of Zimbabwe does not say anything about people like us, so the kinds of services publicly offered do not apply to us. For example, they do a process of cervical cancer screening and prostate cancer screening. Simply because of the biological make up of an intersex person those services may not be applicable so the moment they discover your difference they call each other and end up examining you which is not comfortable.
Last but not least, getting a formal job sometimes is very difficult because when they look at me, they judge me. They do not understand me and they label me things that l am not. I do not feel comfortable in spaces with people like that who look down upon me.
My words to the world—to the intersex children, doctors and society at large:
There is nothing wrong when a baby is born intersex. It’s a variation, not a disability. Therefore do not treat us as if we need emergency medical interventions. It’s not painful to be intersex, but it is painful that there are only two binary boxes of male and female. Do not be quick to assign a gender and surgically correct a minor without consent. Refer to my story above. Let it be a choice of the intersex person, not the doctors and parents. Once the surgery is done, it cannot be reversed but leaves permanent scars and chronic pain. Let the intersex child be intersex and allow them to make choices when they are an adult with their own consent.