Atlanta’s Intersex Police Officer Seeks Awareness

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By Craig Washington, Special to The Atlanta Progressive News

(APN) ATLANTA — As the Atlanta Police Department’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Liaison, Officer Darlene Harris has served as a symbol assuring fair treatment and greater protection since 2005, when she was appointed to this post.

darlene1When she disclosed she is intersex in July 2008, Harris garnered attention for her bravery and for drawing focus on the subject of intersex identity and experience.

Her story was first featured in Southern Voice magazine on July 4. The Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper also ran a story about Harris on August 31.

She has increased local and national discourse about intersex and other minority gender constructs in a forthright and professional manner.

As a teenage girl, she grew facial and chest hair, and never had a regular menstrual cycle. As an adult, several of her girlfriends would remark that such characteristics were not normal.

“I never saw myself as a girl or as a woman. At 19, I started dating women. They were like, ‘you are not a woman, you don’t act like a woman and there is nothing girly about you,'” Harris told Atlanta Progressive News.

Urged by her current partner who scheduled the appointment with a gynecologist, Harris underwent a series of tests earlier this year.

The tests revealed she carried abnormally high levels of testosterone.darlene2

Prompted by these findings, her doctor recommended Harris consult an endocrinologist who conducted a battery of tests of several months.

“The endocrinologist’s approach was ‘let’s fix you. Let’s get rid of the facial hair, hair on the stomach.’ Every time he thought it was one thing, it was another. I knew deep down it was something else,” Harris said.

Additional tests indicated she had the XY chromosome, which is the male chromosome, even though she had female breasts and genitalia.

Harris noted the discovery confirmed her lifelong awareness that she did not fit the mold defined by most of society.

“Since I was gay, I didn’t fit into the typical role of male female gender. Female was not anything I resemble. My mom would say ‘you don’t give your boyfriend flowers.’ The things I did–going to the bathroom standing up. I knew that something wasn’t right.”

She has since derived an unprecedented sense of freedom and a release from the frustration she carried for years. She sees this experience as a healing process.

“I feel like I could fly. There is no freedom like the freedom from oneself. I felt uncomfortable that people saw me as a woman. I identified more with men and I envied them. I am glad I saw it in my lifetime.”

People who are intersexual are often misunderstood or rendered invisible since they have features that fall outside of the classic binary sex distinctions.

The term intersex is generally applied to persons who are born with reproductive or sexual characteristics that do not fully match the common definitions of female or male.

Some intersex persons are born with genitals that appear to have the combined characteristics of male and female such as a boy born with a split scrotum that resembles a labia or a girl with a noticeably large clitoris that may look like a small penis.

Others may have mosaic genes such as a girl who has some cells with XX chromosomes and some with XY chromosomes.

The existence of intersex individuals challenges the binary of male and female and further suggests that sex itself is a social construction. That is, it is based on a set of arbitrary classification systems constructed by social institutions.

For instance, how does one define sex? As recently reported by Southern Voice, sex can be defined by hormones, by organs, or by genes. The question arises, what is then the exact proportion of hormones by which we divide people into male and female? Does a person need to meet all three sets of criteria to be male or female, or will we accept two out of three?

To be sure, there is not only a third sex, but dozens and dozens of possible, and actual, permutations.

The natural sexual variation includes a majority of individuals with typical features which we commonly distinguish as male or female, as well as a minority of others whose characteristics, both outward and unseen, deviate in different ways from the dominant pattern.

It was at a forum of the 100 Distinguished Studs of Atlanta at Halo this past July where she made her first public announcement.

Although she was sure that she wanted to come out she did not know how others would respond.

“It was intense. This was so personal. It stayed on my mind from the time I decided to do it until the time it happened. Not knowing what people would say beforehand, opening myself up to be devoured. I felt vulnerable when I was presenting. I wanted to be free.”

She quickly discovered the majority of responses were positive. Harris adds that the Atlanta Police Department has been very accepting as well.

“It has been a blessing because people have been very supportive. It’s been overwhelming. Both the personal and the professional feedback have been welcoming and warm.”

Harris sees parallels between homophobia and prejudice against intersex people.

She hopes that as society learns more about intersex, they will begin to accept sex and sexual orientation as variations that occur along spectrum rather than two or three points.

“None of this is black or white. A lot of times it is gray. What I do, and how I perceive myself should be up to me. As long as I’m living according to the regulations and laws, and I’m being respectful.”

She is critical of the intolerance she observes among homosexuals and people of color. “When people persecute others, it is because they are not free,” she noted.

“In every group, there has been another group to oppress. In lgbt community, it’s like ‘we’re oppressed but we’re better than transgendered, or we’re better being gay and White than gay and Black. Somebody has to oppress somebody else.”

“I definitely see myself becoming an advocate,” she said. “As an advocate you are kind of stepping into politics, changing the way people, government, society, thinks and acts.”

While Harris was not initially intending to engage in activism around these issues, she has begun to think differently. The attention she has garnered has given her the opportunity to engage more people to discuss and learn more about intersex identity.

This summer, she spoke to a class of Introduction to Sociology students at Georgia State University.

In October, she was selected as the Southern Voice editor’s choice for the 2008 Best Up and Coming Activist Award.

“I live for helping others in life challenges,” Harris reflected. “I’m given a hand. I believe God gave it to me not only because of his grace to sustain me but because in turn I am able to help so many people. It is vital for me to share.”

About the author:

Craig Washington is a Special Contributor to The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable is craig@craigwerks.com.

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