Courtney Skaggs always felt different from other girls who grew up, but she didn't really know how different she was until she let the birds and bees talk to her parents as she neared puberty.
At the time, her parents told Skaggs that she was born with testicles and a vagina but no uterus, and that doctors surgically removed the male parts. They said she couldn't have children but she could adopt.
In high school, she was given hormone replacement therapy but received the wrong dose and went through menopause without ever having a menstrual cycle.
"I spent a lot of time wondering if my body was normal," says Skaggs, a 29-year-old who lives in Southern California. “I felt very embarrassed and secretive, and even lied to my friends about my period. I was really good at hiding and putting up walls. "
Still, she attempted to blend in with the gendered world of Mormonism, wearing clothes, participating in activities for young women, and later serving as a “sister missionary” for Latter-day Saints' Church of Jesus Christ.
Along the way, Skaggs learned medical terms such as "partial androgen insensitivity" and "testicular feminization" as well as her genetics as "XY", which is generally considered male, but her body rejected male hormones so she evolved predominantly as female.
But the whole rhetoric sounded mechanical, even degrading, dehumanizing and "pathologizing," she says in an interview. She had no real language to explain what was going on in her body.
w she is – the term is "intersex" – and she has become an activist to raise awareness about it.
Skaggs is in Utah this weekend to promote the "i" in LGBTQIA and share their experience.
After all, about 2% of the population is intersex, she says, "similar chances as someone born with red hair – to put it in perspective."
She is particularly interested in bringing Latter-day Saints and their Churches, in which she no longer attends, to recognize and value intersex members.
Skaggs may have played a role in urging the Utah-based faith to include a statement about intersex members in its most recent general manual.
In 2018 she began writing to Church leaders, particularly Dallin H. Oaks, of the ruling First Presidency. She asked questions based on her own experiences and asked about church guidelines for intersex members.
And earlier this year the Church looked into the matter, but not to Skagg's satisfaction.
Of course, any study of sexuality that questions the doctrines of the belief on major gender differences has always been difficult.
"In extremely rare cases, a baby is born with genitals that are not clearly male or female (ambiguous genitals, sexual ambiguity, or intersexuality)," it says. "Parents or others may have to make decisions to determine the gender of their child under the guidance of competent healthcare professionals."
Such decisions “to proceed with medical or surgical procedures are often made in the neonatal period,” the directive says. "However, they can be delayed unless medically necessary."
The Church says: "Special compassion and wisdom are required when adolescents or adults born with sexual ambiguity are exposed to emotional conflict about childhood or infancy gender choices and the sex with which they identify."
Any additional questions regarding "membership records, priesthood ordinations, and temple ordinances for youth or adults born with sexual ambiguity," the statement said, "should be directed to the Office of the First Presidency."
"It recognizes the existence of intersex identities and encourages compassion and wisdom," he says, "but does not provide guidance to church leaders, families, or individuals on how the church should or could accept ambiguous gender identities or bodies."
(Courtesy photo) Taylor Petrey
The lack of precision in this area, Petrey says, shows "the shortcomings of LDS theology, particularly the Church's new emphasis on gender as the sex assigned at birth."
On one hand, the guidelines recognize that intersex members "could change their identities later in life," says Petrey, "while still insisting that it be one way or the other."
The Church is trying to "impose a binary number between women and men, as derived by a number of experts," says Petrey, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, "rather than allowing the ambiguities as they are."
Also, the Church's statement focuses solely on those like Skaggs, who were born with ambiguous genitals at birth, while the intersex category encompasses a variety of body combinations.
Some show up at birth, others in later stages of maturation, and some, he says, may never be known unless individuals do a genetic test.
Intersex presents theological challenges to a belief that is bound only to two sexes, says Petrey, professor of religion at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. “Biological sex is not binary. It cannot be reduced to either / or. "
"I will never fit into male and female boxes that our society has constructed," Skaggs says in a video on her website. "My intersex body blows up beautifully."
(Courtesy photo) Sarita Venkatapathy
Sarita Venkatapathy was one of those who found out about their intersexuality well beyond puberty.
She also grew up as a Latter-day Saint, with a white mother who had pioneering roots and an Indian converting father.
Attending church was a very "gender-sensitive experience," according to the 30-year-old South Jordan resident.
She always had to bond with men "in a platonic way," says Venkatapathy, partly because she had a masculine side and wasn't sure why.
She has had many mysterious health problems, including no periods, but has been "medically ignored," she says. "I became increasingly disabled as my body grew, but when I told the doctors about the pain it was dismissed as depression."
Ultimately, the Utah filmmaker and activist was diagnosed with Turner Syndrome, a condition that affects women only and often contains genetic markers like hers.
Venkatapathy is also stepping down from the Church – with the full support of her mother (her father died when she was 11 years old) and her brother.
"The emotional experience of an out-of-gender person is not a solid Latter-day Saint recognition," she says. "I can be public about my identity, but I don't feel like I can approach my LDS friends as intersex."
For her part, Skaggs strives to share what she has learned about intersex with everyone, including her church friends.
As an advocate, Skaggs has three main goals for intersex people:
• Body autonomy and adequate health care.
• Government recognition and protection.
• Visibility and community building.
(Courtesy photo by Ariele Baragona) Courtney Skaggs
Imagine what it is like, she says in her video, to "hide your whole life … to be viewed as a freak."
She brings these messages to Beehive State on Monday for Intersex Awareness Day by distributing literature in front of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City. Events are also scheduled at the Utah Pride Center.
"I did an excruciating job loving myself," says Skaggs, who now identifies as a lesbian and rarely, if ever, wears skirts.
Being intersex is “nothing that happened to me,” she says. "It's me."