IS: An Intersex Story

The following article is about a series which does not yet have a full translation. Certain aspects of the third story are unknown to me at this time, so any and all statements made about them should be taken with a grain of salt.

Finding good media about trans characters is tough, but Intersex stories are even rarer.

Those who are intersex are born with physical characteristics which exclude them from being categorized as distinctly male or female. The not very well understood variation occurs in a small percentage of the population, and those who have it are often either not aware of it, or try to hide the condition. As a result, stories about intersex people are scarce, in any given media. Manga is no exception.

Which is  why I was happy to hear about the manga IS: Otoko Demo Onna Demo Nai Sei by Chiyo Rokuhana. The series deals with the lives of numerous intersex people, split across three different stories. The first two stories are covered in the first volume, while volume 2 onward deals with the life of an intersex person named Haru. I’d like to quickly go over the three stories.

All images in this article have been edited for format and readability.

The first story focuses on an office lady named Hiromi. Hiromi is intersex, possessing one ovary, one testicle, an enlarged clitoris that wasn’t quite a penis, and an underdeveloped vagina. Hiromi’s story focuses on her discomfort with her own body, the general lack of understanding when it comes to intersex people, and her unease about having a relationship with the man she loves.

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A major theme of Hiromi’s story is how unsure she feels about her own body, and how those who learn about it refuse to understand her or what it means to be intersex. Her realization that she’s intersex and that her mother left her in the dark seriously damages their relationship, and leads to Hiromi seeking out information and help from various online intersex communities.

Hiromi’s insecurity about her own body leads to her attempting to seek out sexual reassignment surgery, but she quickly realizes that not only are the doctors inexperienced with intersex patients, but also that surgery will not allow her to have kids with the man she loves. Her attempts to seek out surgery also leads to her being outed at work and facing discrimination from a fellow coworker, who says “it’s not like you’re a woman.”

After descending into depression and shouting at her boyfriend, Hiromi begins to accept her body is when she stumbles upon her mother’s old diary. She learns that her mother actually refused to let doctors “fix” her gender, choosing instead to let Hiromi decide her gender when she was old enough.

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This is a major thing for intersex people, as SOP for doctors is to perform surgery on the child to make them either male or female, and then to use hormones to set them down either path. Real life cases of this have often resulted in the intersex child realizing that they’re intersex on their own, feeling distrust towards their parents for not letting them know this was done to them, and often coming to realize they were sent down the wrong path. Hiromi’s mother refusing to let this happen shows that she felt it was more important for Hiromi to come into her own than to force her to live her life how the mother wanted.

Hiromi’s story is ultimately one of understanding and acceptance, with Hiromi learning to live with her body and her boyfriend learning to accept that she’s intersex.

The second story focuses on Ryoma, a former surfer who was raised as a man. Ryoma’s story focuses on her discovery that she’s intersex, and her struggles transitioning from a man to a woman.

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Ryoma’s identity was shaped to emphasize masculinity from an early age, due to experiences being bullied as a child. Because of this, they initially refused to believe that they could be intersex. They end up feeling conflicted about their gender, ultimately realizing that they wished to be a woman, but had suppressed that desire due to trying to act masculine.

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Ryoma attempts to live as a woman, but faces misunderstandings and discrimination from people who refuse to learn what it means to be intersex. Coworkers call her a pervert, her best friend says “you will never be a woman, just act like a guy,” and she feels uncomfortable enough living with them that she moves out. To make matters worse, her doctor says that a lack of proper hormones in her body will lead to medical problems later in life, and that she needs to take male hormones to live her life.

Ryoma begins to give in to despair when a female coworker orders her to hand out tea, saying “you are a woman, aren’t you?” This acknowledgement causes Ryoma to break down crying tears of joy, happy that someone finally accepted her as a woman. Those who are transgender will understand how important it can be to have people recognize your gender, and what a positive feeling it can bring. Ryoma’s coworker mentions that there’s a meeting she’s attending about educational sex for married women, and asks Ryoma if she wants to talk to them about being intersex. She mentions that with the percentage of Intersex births, there’s a good chance one of them might have an intersex child.

After giving the talk, Ryoma confronts her doctor and says that she would like to be injected with female hormones instead. The doctor initially tries to dissuade her, saying that she’ll have to pay out of pocket and that her insurance won’t cover it. After seeing Ryoma’s resolve, however, the doctor decides to grant her request and sends her to a specialized doctor, saying that he hopes more people are educated about what it means to be intersex and that medical insurance in the future will cover costs associated with it.

Ryoma’s story ultimately ends with her friends and family coming to understand what it means to be intersex, and treating Ryoma as a woman. To make things better, she starts being accepted as “one of the girls” at work. I feel that Ryoma’s story in particular is one that will resonate with a lot of trans people, trans women in particular. I know it did for me.

The third story is a bit different.

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Haru’s story starts before he’s even born, placing focus first on his parents. Haru’s parents initially struggle to accept the fact that Haru is intersex, but then decide to embrace it and raise Haru as intersex, placing as few expectations on him as possible. This is the start of Haru becoming something of a beacon for intersex awareness, and the many ways he changes those he comes in contact with.

As this story is much longer and forms the meat of the series, I shall be condensing the main ideas and avoiding too many fine details to avoid spoilers. Also since the series is still not fully translated, I do not know what pronouns Haru ultimately decides on, so I am defaulting to what they’ve used thus far.

A major theme of Haru’s story is people underestimating him, or trying to shield him from others. Haru’s kindergarten teacher tries to hide him from other kids and suggests his parents not let anyone know that Haru is intersex. But she’s shocked to learn that Haru is not only not afraid of being bullied, but actively stands up for others who are bullied. The teacher realizes that she was doing more harm than good to Haru by trying to hide Haru being intersex from others.

This becomes a recurring theme in this story, with Haru standing up to adversity or going out of his way to raise intersex awareness, largely thanks to others standing by him and giving him support. Another aspect that this brings up, and something I’ve touched on before, is how important support from family and friends can be in situations like these. I mentioned in my article on Lunch at Columbine that support is incredibly important for trans kids, and the same can be applied to intersex children.

Another major theme of Haru’s story is the burden others place on him to choose a gender, and Haru’s growing distaste for their increasingly feminine body. A large section of the story focuses on Haru’s experiences attending high school as a female student, the relationships they form, and the ultimate reveal in front of the entire school that they’re intersex and wish to attend as a male student.

Haru’s story is one of support, awareness, and discrimination, and it goes through far more turns and twists than either Ryoma or Hiromi’s stories.

IS is an interesting series, and I’m always glad to see more media focusing on lesser-known groups like the intersex community. As someone who is not intersex and who only has a basic knowledge of intersex issues, I can’t speak for whether or not this is a good representation of intersex struggles. However, it did get me to think about intersex issues and do a bit of research into it. I can only hope this article will lead to others doing so as well.

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