Thea Hillman: The Inner Sanctum of Intersex

In recent years, Thea Hillman’s spoken-word career (she was a multiple-time National Poetry Slam competitor, toured with Sister Spit and launched the ForWord Girls authors’ festival) has taken a backseat to her other passion: intersex activism. A board member and … Read More

By / December 11, 2008

In recent years, Thea Hillman’s spoken-word career (she was a multiple-time National Poetry Slam competitor, toured with Sister Spit and launched the ForWord Girls authors’ festival) has taken a backseat to her other passion: intersex activism. A board member and former chair of the Intersex Society of North America, and born intersex herself, Hillman recently released her second book, Intersex: For Lack of a Better Word–part childhood memoir, part adult memoir, and part essay on intersexuality and the world–on San Francisco’s estimable Manic D Press. It’s both a departure (her previous book came out of her work in performance poetry) and not a departure at all: Hillman is no stranger to writing deeply confessional memoir prose, stirring controversy just by existing, and finding connections through simple truths. She spoke with Jewcy about choosing family over art, her issues with Jeffrey Eugenides, and, well, Judaism.

Name: Thea Hillman Birthday: January 17, 1971 Hometown: Oakland, CA Marital status: That’s an odd question because I’m not sure what it tells you about me. I’d prefer to tell you my opinions about marriage than my marital status. Upcoming appearances: I’ve got a bunch of events over the next few weeks and into the new year. I’m still booking dates, so invitations are welcome! Links: (website); (video clips of performances) First section you turn to in the Sunday paper: I love the advice and gossip columns. Favorite song to dance to: Anything by Erasure. Guilty pleasure: US Magazine. Last book read: Mary Mackey’s book of poetry, Breaking the Fever. When I was in 7th grade, I found a book of her poetry in my mom’s books. It was called "One Night Stand" and she used the word "fuck" in a poem. Reading that gave me a sense of artistic permission…because a published poet used the word and because it was my mom’s book!

Your first book was a kind of poetry disguised as memoir. This book is memoir, but the title and the focus gives it the feel of an authoritative treatise on being intersex (which there isn’t actually one, is there?) But the subject matter is unquestionably you. Do you think of this book as a polemic? A mission statement? Or is it more, like, throwing your life out there—and, by the way, it’s the life of an intersex person? There’s not an authoritative treatise on being intersex—that I know of, anyway. There is an anthology of people who share their intersex experiences ("Intersex in the Age of Ethics"). Most published information about intersex deals with it from a safe distance, an ethical, medical, or anthropological perspective. What my book does is deal with most personal aspects of being intersex, from my very singular perspective. I wanted it to answer the questions that people ask me all the time. As I see it, my book is just the first of what will be many books by intersex people about their intersex experiences. When you were writing it, did you feel pressure to be authoritative, or to exclude certain stories because they didn’t feel, like, indicative of intersex, or what intersex should be? Actually, if we can back up farther — at what point did it feel like you were writing a book? The chapters are very short, and they leap around in an almost free-association order, rather than a chronological one. It feels very deliberate — but, at the same time, it feels like brief peaks of emotion, rather than the more conventional narrative idea of taking fifty pages to build up to a moment of exposition, and then kicking that around for another fifty pages. I always knew I was writing a book, but what changed through the years was what kind of book I was writing and what I wanted to say. At first I tried writing a traditional memoir with a very traditional writing style with an initiating incident and climax, but my story didn’t quite fit that model and somehow the way I interpreted that style of writing wasn’t very alive. I do think the book has a chronological drive to it, but it’s just that there are two chronologies, a younger self and an older self. There are also two different writing styles; one is more narrative, the other more prose-poemy (and there are a couple of poemy-poems thrown in at the end of the book for good measure). It was tricky writing about intersex and wondering when to explain things and when to let them stand on their own. I knew book couldn’t stand and shouldn’t stand as authoritative. It’s just one person’s version. I also had to be careful not to tell other intersex people’s stories, even if my intentions were to educate and inspire less informed readers. Six years passed since your first book, Depending on the Light, was released. Were you writing the entire time? Did you go through periods where you were specifically not writing? You know, I wasn’t writing the entire time. Especially not when I had a book contract; that was a time of lots of stress and not so much writing. My strategy is to regularly "give up" writing, telling myself that I’ll still be a worthwhile person if I never write another word. The practice of writing is really hard for me and gets so big and overwhelming that I have large periods of time when I don’t write at all. Giving writing up takes the pressure off. My other strategy is to recognize that I’m a writer whether or not I’m actually engaged in writing; I’m beginning to trust that during those less prolific times I’m replenishing the store of ideas and passion and inspiration. Your subject matter veers into topics that people don’t usually discuss, even in the anything-goes queer communities you perform in the opening story about kinks and sexual trauma, for instance. Do you ever get confronted or avoided because what you write about digs too deep? That question makes me smile because I’ve been thinking recently that if people are offended, etc, by my work, I don’t end up hearing about it. Maybe they’re avoiding me? Or perhaps I’m just blessfully missing what they’re saying. My work is so vulnerable and does dig so deep that it can sometimes be beyond reproach because how do you argue with another person’s experience? My writing could definitely be critiqued more, and sometimes I wish it would be, but the intimate content may get in the way of even that kind of criticism. There’s a certain kind of safety in writing memoir — if people want to say, "I don’t believe the narrator would say that," or even, "That was a dumb thing to do," it’s like — too bad, I frickin’ did it. And then, at the same time, you can be laying your most closely-guarded emotional experiences out for the world to see. Your piece "Starfucking Close to Home" kind of addresses it, but the new book must bring out a whole new level — How does your family feel about your writing? How do your friends feel about you writing about them? I’ve learned a lot between Book One and Book Two about what to write, and not write, about family. Lovers are easy, you just leave out details or names and they can’t be identified. But family is hard. My mom says I can write about her when she’s dead. Thankfully, she’s alive. And I’ve decided that my family relationships are more important than art (this is after a painful, extended battle with a family member after my last book). My family is fine with what I reveal about myself. Sometimes they’ve taken issue with how I represent a situation that they see differently, but they understand it’s my version of things. They’ve been really supportive about the second book, which I appreciate, because for me, letting that book out in the world is the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever done. You take Jeffrey Eugenides to task for, among other things, not making the effort to meet any intersex people before writing his book Middlesex. It’s also pretty annoying that he made his character intersex as a result of double incest, instead of a genetic wild-card. But it’s impossible to deny the book made a huge impact on the public at large—in retrospect, how do you think it’s impacted the community and people’s perceptions of intersex people? Intersex can be a result of many things, including genetics. Despite its inherent problems (thank you for noting the problematic double-incest theme), Middlesex presented a very likeable intersex character that people could identify with. One of the most powerful things Eugenides did was illustrate the dilemma many intersex people face: while they might accept and enjoy their body as it is, people around them want to "fix" their body so it matches some mythical ideal. I think Eugenides’ depiction creates empathy for the intersex character in the reader, and gives credibility to the perspective of the intersex person who doesn’t understand the horror their body may incite in others. Okay, I never would have thought of Middlesex that way — as a kind of fist-pumping intersex icon. That said, do you think it’s put a stopper on the genre? Eileen Myles and Michelle Tea’s books brought out a whole rash of queer-girl memoirs of sexual exploration and San Francisco pilgrimage and adventure, but I can’t think of any sort of huge boost in exposure to intersex or even trans writing, post-Eugenides… Truth is, I see Middlesex as totally outside the worlds of intersex and trans writing. Middlesex was written by a non-intersex man who never interviewed an intersex person before writing his book. He’s an author who used intersex as a metaphor, but he is in no way an advocate for intersex people, nor has his work sparked any activism (except activism targeted at him). Trans writing in particular—essays, memoirs, and fiction by authors such as Ivan Coyote, Charlie Anders, Julia Serano, S. Bear Bergman, Max Wolf Valerio, and James Green–has exploded over the past several years. And intersex writing is right behind it. You discuss being Jewish in several parts of the book, but never in an expected way. I think the most overtly shocking part is when you discuss how the first pictures of naked bodies you’d ever seen were Holocaust photos — how it was such an un-sexual experience, almost to the point of being anti-sexual. And then you follow it up with a story about the San Francisco S/M scene…how do you think the Jewish community impacted your sexual development? Being Jewish has shaped my sexual development in so many ways. Unexpected ways, I think. Seeing naked Jewish bodies repeatedly in Holocaust films from a young age taught me that my body is dangerous, that the core of who I am and who my people are makes us different and makes us vulnerable…to scapegoating, to ostracization, to torture. That’s a heavy load for a kid. I think I transformed it by playing with the difference, enjoying the attention of "standing out," and owning the freakishness. "Owning the freakishness" is something we love almost to the point of idolization, especially in SF — but it’s almost to the exclusion of being a part of a greater community, like how so many SF people shy away from identifying with Judaism. How has your Jewishness played out within the queer community? And are you playing at all with your Jewish identity these days? I love that question, because it’s just so true. About so many things. It’s so challenging to bring every part of one self to every community one is in. And maybe we don’t need to, but often those communities are better off for us bringing our whole selves to the table. The queer and trans communities in San Francisco, at least in the past, fetishized queer Jewish femmes. I mean, the community fetishizes everything, Jewish femmes is one of those things. I got pegged as a Jewish femme (even though I don’t identify as femme) and got to enjoy certain attention because of that. My Jewishness has inspired my performance work (I’ve been in various shows, at least one with you, where Judaism is an organizing concept or theme) and these opportunities have helped shaped my voice as a Jew.


Matthue Roth is a performance poet and the author, most recently, of the Russian Jewish immigrant geek epic novel Losers. He lives in Brooklyn and is associate editor of

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