Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"Officer's sexuality no longer confusing"--Atlanta Journal-Constitution article

Left: Darlene Harris, photo by Marcus Yam of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fascinating article in the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about police officer Darlene Harris, and the discovery (at age 35) that she is an intersexed person:
She now knows why her voice is so deep, why she’s always been attracted to women, why she can grow a full beard.

Harris is intersex — someone whose internal or external sexual anatomy or chromosomes don’t fit the typical definitions of female or male at birth or puberty, according to Sharon Preves, a sociology professor and intersex researcher from St. Paul, Minn.

Genetic testing recently revealed that Harris carries the XY chromosomes of a male while having external sexual anatomy that appears to be a blend of a man’s and woman’s.

“It was like, ‘OK, I’m not crazy,’ ” said Harris, 35, who was identified as a female at birth and has lived her adult life as a lesbian, feeling like a man in a woman’s body.

“It was like a burden had been lifted. All of these things came together full circle at that moment. I now understood the reason why I am the way I am.”

As a result, the five-year Atlanta police veteran has come out of the closet again, this time as intersex, first to her family and friends and then publicly at an intersex workshop in Atlanta in May. She says her openness serves a dual purpose: helping heal wounds caused by a “life of confusion” and helping others who are going through similar experiences.

An estimated 1 in 2,000 people are considered intersex, and numerous medical conditions cause it, said Preves, who wrote the book, “Intersex and Identity: the Contested Self,” in 2003.
Although I am pleased that Harris--the Atlanta Police Department’s liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities--is so open, I was somewhat uncomfortable with the article's assertion that the XY chromosome determines lesbianism or even facial hair. (I come from a rather hairy family, where facial hair on women was natural.)

Then again, it is hard to argue with Harris' experience:
Now that Harris has been identified as intersex, she said she wants to be a public face for those just like her. Of course, she wishes that she’d found out sooner.

“It’s embarrassing, because I’m 35 and I’m just finding out about things that I should have known years ago,” said Harris, who has shoulder-length dreadlocks, dresses like a man and is often mistaken for a man.
Her early life included watching her father and other men beat her mother, she said, and getting batted around between foster and group homes.

“I was really angry,” Harris said. “I was extremely angry on the inside.”

She kept her hair cut short and preferred climbing trees over playing with dolls.

“I always called her ‘Boy,’” recalled one of Harris’ siblings, Tanisha Brew-Adams, who lives in Lithonia with her husband and children. “She looked like a boy, talked like a boy, fought like a boy.”

Harris went through puberty while she was in a group home in New York’s child welfare system. She noticed she had a stronger body odor and more body hair than other girls.

It would be years later — when she became sexually active with women as an adult — before she learned she was anatomically different. Every partner she’s ever had has commented on how she looks different. But Harris never listened, likely as a defense mechanism, she said.

“I used to shrug it off as, ‘That’s just me,’ ” she said.
That visit led Harris to an endocrinologist, who ran a chromosome test in February that offered medical proof to support how she feels: like a man in a woman’s body.

The news made Harris weep.

“It has lifted the burden off me and also released a lot of the anger,” Harris said. “I was angry and I couldn’t understand why.”

Harris said she thought about having a sex change to male, but decided against it.

“For what?” she asked. “God doesn’t make mistakes. I’m just uniquely different.”

She has quickly found peace being somewhere in the middle.

She is, however, changing her name from Darlene to something as ambiguous as her body: Danni Lee.

“Danni is an intersex name,” Harris said. “It can go either way — male or female.”

These days, Harris is not as quick to snap at people, and she’s more in tune with herself and her feelings.

Back to the old argument Second-Wave feminists wrestled with, that sometimes prompted purges and other ideological slugfests (and I was there, so I know): How much of gender is biologically determined?

And is that too politically-incorrect to talk about? What do you think?
[Harris] admits that she still has work to do and wants to stay on the right path, so she’s seeing a psychologist and anger counselor.

“I thought I was free when I came out as gay,” Harris said.

“That’s nothing compared to this. It’s freedom, total freedom. It’s like I can fly.”
And I'm sure we all agree: We want Danni Lee to fly.

Cross-posted at Feministe.


Helen G said...

Daisy, this is a really good post, and so nice to get a generally positive news media piece - and it's great that the Atlanta PD's liaison officer is supportive - our very own Met Police could maybe do with a little bit of a learning exchange...

LarryE said...

In fairness, the article didn't say that the XY chromosome "determined" lesbianism but that Danni had lived her life as a lesbian.

(What is the proper pronoun for an intersexed person, since neither "he" nor "she" is really accurate? I suppose whichever one they choose for themselves, which is why I used "her.")

The article also didn't say the XY chromosome "determined" facial hair, but it did relate it to her being able to grow "a full beard."

Still, I think the coolest fact about the whole situation is a quite different implication: that she feels she can come out (again) without risk to her job. Which says something good about the Atlanta PD.

shiva said...

"Officer's sexuality... no longer confusing"?

For a start, this reads like an Onion headline.

For another thing... they really don't know the difference between sex, gender, sexuality and sexual orientation - with the result that anyone reading this who doesn't know enough to read between the lines will probably end up with a more confused idea of trans and intersex issues than before.

And, really, WTF is anyone with a background of poverty, discrimination and multiple minority membership doing working for an institution like the police? Now that's internalised oppression...

Lisa Harney said...

(What is the proper pronoun for an intersexed person, since neither "he" nor "she" is really accurate? I suppose whichever one they choose for themselves, which is why I used "her.")

ISNA suggests not thirdgendering intersex people ever, unless they prefer to be. Being intersex doesn't preclude being men (he, him, his) or women (she, her, hers). That is to say, there is no particular proper pronoun that is appropriate for all intersex people, nor is the assumption that they're neither men nor women accurate.

Sorry if that seems stern, btw, just trying to explain the facts. :)

Mista Jaycee said...

That was interesting!

polerin said...

shiva: while I agree, keep in mind that some see it as a way to change those institutions and help others. While I have not and would not make those choices myself, I can understand the desire to make a difference.

JoJo said...

I'm glad that Danni has finally found out what she knew all along. And I'm glad that her police dept is so open and accepting. That's what we need.

LarryE said...

Sorry if that seems stern ... just trying to explain the facts

Ummm.... I'm not sure to who you thought you were "explaining the facts." If by chance it was me, since you quoted me in your comment, I should note that I didn't "thirdgender" anyone and answered my own question by saying the correct pronoun was whatever the person chose for themselves.

Which seemed to be the same thing you said.