How intersex Latter-day Saints struggle to stay in a ‘two gender’ faith

(Courtesy photo by Ariele Baragona) Courtney Skaggs

Courtney Skaggs always felt, well, different from other girls growing up, but she didn’t really know how different until she had the birds-and-the-bees talk with her parents as she inched toward adolescence.

At that time, her parents told Skaggs that she was born with testicles and a vagina but no uterus and that doctors had surgically removed the male parts. They said she would not be able to bear children but that she could adopt.

In high school, she received hormone replacement therapy, but was given the wrong dose, she says, and wound up having 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 a lot of shame and secrecy, even lying to my friends about getting my period. I got really good at hiding and putting up walls.”

Still, she tried to fit into the gendered world of Mormonism, wearing dresses, attending Young Women activities, and, later, serving as a “sister missionary” for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Along the way, Skaggs learned medical terms like “partial androgen insensitivity” and “testicular feminization,” and about her genetics as an “XY,” generally considered male, but her body rejected male hormones, so she developed predominantly as feminine.

But all the rhetoric sounded mechanical, even demeaning, dehumanizing and “pathologizing,” she says in an interview. She had no real language to explain what was happening in her body.

Now she does — the term is “intersex” — and she has become an activist to raise awareness about it.

Skaggs is in Utah this weekend to bring attention to the “i” in LGBTQIA, and to speak about her experience.

After all, roughly 2% of the population is intersex, she says, “similar odds to someone being born with red hair — to put it in perspective.”

She is especially interested in getting Latter-day Saints and their church, which she no longer attends, to recognize and value intersex members.

Skaggs may have had a role, she says, in pushing the Utah-based faith to add a statement about intersex members in its latest General Handbook.

In 2018, she began writing to church leaders, particularly Dallin H. Oaks of the governing First Presidency, posing questions based on her own experience and asking about church policies on intersex members.

And, earlier this year, the church did address the issue, though not to Skaggs' satisfaction.

Of course, any examination of sexuality that challenges the faith’s teachings about essential gender divisions was always going to be tough.

A theological hurdle

In its handbook, which spells out principles and policies for the 16.5 million-member church, is a new section titled, “Individuals Whose Sex at Birth is Not Clear.”

“In extremely rare circumstances, a baby is born with genitals that are not clearly male or female (ambiguous genitalia, sexual ambiguity, or intersex),” it reads. “Parents or others may have to make decisions to determine their child’s sex with the guidance of competent medical professionals.”

Such decisions to proceed “with medical or surgical intervention are often made in the newborn period,” the policy says. “However, they can be delayed unless they are medically necessary.”

The church says “special compassion and wisdom are required when youth or adults who were born with sexual ambiguity experience emotional conflict regarding the gender decisions made in infancy or childhood and the gender with which they identify.”

Any further questions about “membership records, priesthood ordination, and temple ordinances for youth or adults who were born with sexual ambiguity,” the statement says, “should be directed to the Office of the First Presidency.”

The handbook statement is both good and bad, says Taylor Petrey, author of “Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism.

“It acknowledges the existence of intersex identities, and it calls for compassion and wisdom,” he says, “but gives no guidance to church leaders, families or individuals as to how the church should or could accommodate ambiguous gender identities or bodies.”

(Courtesy photo) Taylor Petrey

The lack of precision on this, Petrey says, reveals “the shortcomings of LDS theology, especially the church’s new emphasis on gender as the sex assigned at birth.”

Last year, Oaks told an assembly of high-level church officers that God created humans as male and female, who are defined by “biological sex at birth … Binary creation is essential to the plan of salvation.”

On the one hand, the guidelines acknowledge that intersex members “might change their identities later in life,” Petrey says, “while still insisting that it be one or the other.”

The church is attempting to “impose a binary between female and male as deduced by a set of experts,” says Petrey, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, “rather than letting the ambiguities exist as they are.”

Plus, the church statement focuses exclusively on those, like Skaggs, born with ambiguous genitalia at birth, while the intersex category includes a huge range of body combinations.

Some show up at birth, others at later stages of maturation, and some, he says, may never be known unless individuals take a genetic test.

Intersexuality poses theological challenges to a faith so committed to just two genders, says Petrey, a religion professor at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College. “Biological sex is not binary. It can’t be reduced to either/or.”

Skaggs agrees.

“I will never fit into male and female boxes our society has constructed,” Skaggs says in a video on her website. “My intersex body beautifully blows that up.”

Invisible identity

(Courtesy photo) Sarita Venkatapathy

Sarita Venkatapathy was one of those who didn’t find out about her intersexuality until she was well past puberty.

Turns out, she has only one genetic marker, an X (women typically have two XX chromosomes and males have an X and Y).

She also grew up as a Latter-day Saint, with a white mother who had pioneer roots and an Indian father who converted to the faith.

Attending church was, the 30-year-old South Jordan resident says, a very “gendered experience.”

She always needed to connect to men “in a platonic way,” Venkatapathy says, partly because she had a masculine side and wasn’t sure why.

She had lots of mysterious health problems, including having no periods, but was “medically ignored,” she says. “I became progressively more disabled as my body grew, but when I told doctors about the pains, they dismissed it as depression.”

Eventually, the Utah filmmaker and activist was diagnosed with Turner syndrome, a condition that exclusively affects females and often includes genetic markers like hers.

Venkatapathy, too, is stepping away from the church — with the full support of her mom (her dad died when she was 11) and her brother.

“The emotional experience as a person who doesn’t fit in the gender spectrum isn’t one staunch Latter-day Saints acknowledge,” she says. “I can be public about my identity, but I don’t feel I can be out as intersex to my LDS friends.”

For her part, Skaggs is eager to share what she has learned with anyone — including her church friends — about being intersex.

As a proponent, Skaggs has three main goals for intersex individuals:

• Body autonomy and adequate health care.

• Government recognition and protection.

• Visibility and community education.

(Courtesy photo by Ariele Baragona) Courtney Skaggs

Imagine how it is, she says in her video, “to hide your whole life...to be viewed as a freak.”

She is bringing these messages to the Beehive State for Intersex Awareness Day on Monday, by distributing literature outside the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City. Events also are planned at the Utah Pride Center.

“I have done excruciating work to love myself,” Skaggs says, who now identifies as a lesbian and rarely, if ever, wears skirts.

Being intersex is “not something that happened to me,” she says. “It’s who I am.”