After 55 years, Sara Kelly Keenan received something on Tuesday that most of us have had our entire lives: a new birth certificate.
Keenan was born intersex. She has male genes, female genitalia and mixed internal reproductive organs. She was identified as a boy for three weeks before being issued a birth certificate that was marked “female.” This week, Keenan received the “intersex” birth certificate she has been fighting for her entire life, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S.
"Not all intersex people will choose to identify legally as intersex, and not all parents will choose to have their intersex child identified as intersex on birth documents,” Keenan told A Plus. “But for those who do, the option must exist."
Keenan was born during a time when intersex people were still called “hermaphrodites” and doctors encouraged parents to pick one gender or the other for their child. Her parents kept her anatomical status a secret from her for most of her life. During puberty, Keenan started on female hormone replacement therapy and underwent surgery after which she was declared “intersex.” Her father only revealed to her in 2012 that the doctors had wanted to construct her a penis, she said.
It was through looking through her old medical records about her surgery over 30 years later that Keenan discovered what her parents had kept hidden from her all those years.
“I was shocked,” she said. “There is nothing bad about my life or any intersex life that reality needs to be hidden from the world...Life in all its variations is beautiful and worthwhile.”
With the successes of campaigns for LGBTQ and trans rights, there has been a growing movement of activists working to create a third gender option for those who believe they do not fit into the current binary system. While it is difficult to create an absolute definition for “intersex”, a specialist in sex differentiation is called in about every 1 in 1500 to 2000 births. These specialists assist when a child is born with noticeably atypical genitalia, but many are born with more subtle variations.
This year marks a noticeable increase in the public’s awareness of the existence of “intersex” people. While North Carolina’s Congress was unable to defeat the state’s controversial “Bathroom Bill,” schools in other states have installed gender-neutral bathrooms and a group of moms launched a campaign to create more gender-neutral clothing. Keenan says she is excited to continue advocating for intersex rights.
"At age 55, after a lifetime of lies and deception, and with other people deciding my name and defining my sex and gender, I have a mission,” she said. “For as long as I live, I will fight societal ignorance, genital and reproductive mutilation of intersex babies and children, and deceptions that destroy familial trust and relationships.”