When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She’s a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she’s madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she’s decided that she’s ready to take things to the next level with him.
But Kristin’s first time isn’t the perfect moment she’s planned–something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy “parts.”
Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin’s entire identity is thrown into question. As her world unravels, can she come to terms with her new self?
“It just sucks always having to wonder what other people see when the look at me. Don’t you ever just want to be normal?”
Brilliantly and sensitively written.
I think the ‘Middlesex meets Mean Girls’ tagline is a bit flippant – yes, None of the Above deals with an intersex character much like Middlesex, but Mean Girls? Urg. Find me a YA novel where we don’t have some kind of teenage bitchiness.
BUT I DIGRESS.
I remember when the Caster Semenya saga developed – a female South African athlete who it emerged was intersex -she was forced to undergo gender testing in order to be allowed to compete again. Born without a womb or ovaries, she had undescended testes, and people thought she was unfairly benefiting from extra testosterone. I just remember how utterly foul the coverage was – calling her “hermaphrodite”, “he/she?”, and and possibly worst of all “it”. Like Caster was some strange alien creature emerging from the deep.
Being South African myself, the coverage here was mostly supportive – but more out of a denial that this was just some Western myth created to discredit an African athlete. Which didn’t exactly help or contribute to anyone’s understanding of what intersex means.
So here’s a definition from the Intersex Society of North America:
“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types.
Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
What does this mean? Intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation. To better explain this, we can liken the sex spectrum to the color spectrum. There’s no question that in nature there are different wavelengths that translate into colors most of us see as red, blue, orange, yellow. But the decision to distinguish, say, between orange and red-orange is made only when we need it—like when we’re asking for a particular paint color. Sometimes social necessity leads us to make color distinctions that otherwise would seem incorrect or irrational, as, for instance, when we call certain people “black” or “white” when they’re not especially black or white as we would otherwise use the terms.
In None of the Above, seemingly “normal” girl Kristen – athlete, girlfriend, homecoming queen – finds out that she is intersex, and is understandable hurt, confused, upset, angry. Let’s be honest – teenagerhood is bad enough without having to deal with an existential question such as “Am I still a woman? What the hell does this mean? My life is over!”
She lives in fear that everyone will find out, but at the same time, the knowledge is a weight pressing down on her. Ultimately, after confiding to her best friends, the whole school finds out – and things go rapidly downhill from there.
People are mean. Moreso when it comes to things they just don’t understand. Especially when they don’t want the taint of association.
Human nature truly sucks sometimes. When we encounter something out of our range of what is expected, out of what we consider to be normal, we poke at it and stare at it and generally react badly.
And for our MC Kristen? This is hell. And the age of social media makes it ten times worse. Horrible comments, crudely photoshopped pictures, messages scrawled on her locker, people calling her a man, her boyfriend dropping her like a hot potato.. It’s all too much, and she embarks on home study to take a break. And, of course, her athletic career, upon which she is relying for a college scholarship, is called into question.
“What was I supposed to tell her? Not just my mom – everyone? My sister? My dad?” His voice broke, and I understood. Mr Wilmington’s favourite nickname for Sam was ‘stud’.
“I don’t know…That it’s a medical condition.” A wave of grief and anger overwhelmed me. “God damn it Sam. It’s not like I am what I am out of spite.”
None of the Above is a great portrayal of a girl struggling with questions of her identity, and what it means to be a woman. It takes a long, hard look at gender constructs. But above all, it’s not only an “issue” book. It also tackles friendships, support systems, growing up and finding your inner strength to keep on keeping on. It looks at the problematic systems of labeling sexuality, and people in general.
“What concerns you the most about your intersex diagnosis?”
“It’s hard to pick just one thing. But…I hate it that people don’t understand what intersex is. They think that I’m some kind of transsexual,” I blurted. Even as I said it out loud, I realised how petulant and closed-minded I must sound. “I mean, its not like there’s anything wrong with being a transsexual…,” I backpedaled, then sighed. Who was I kidding? “I know that getting upset about their calling me a tranny makes me just as judgemental as the people making fun of me. But it hurts anyway. It’s so ignorant.”
But it’s not all heavy. There are some light hearted moments as well, and heartwarming instances of people just being great and supportive.
“But I was a jerk. Do you know how much it sucks to be the jerk?”
“That’s kind of personal, isn’t it?”
I hope this book is read far and wide. I hope it helps those who are struggling with any kind of gender issues. There aren’t a lot of books about intersex, transexual and other people who don’t fit into the gender binary out there, although this is slowly changing. And I hope it helps us to be more understanding and empathetic towards people who are defining a new normal.
I passed huddles of giggling girls, a trio of guys smoking and telling jokes outside a club. Everyone seemed to understand that strength came in numbers and identity came as part of a group.
I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
ARC received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are taken from the uncorrected proof, and may differ from the final publication