One day Sheena Metal, a Los Angeles entertainment icon, told the whole world she was intersex on live radio. But no one seemed to notice.
Considering she is a popular radio host, actress, journalist and stand-up comic with almost 20,000 Twitter followers, it is amazing there is little or nothing obtainable by Google search that will even mention this element of her life. Until now.
The name Sheena Metal, a professional pseudonym, has been appearing across various forms of entertainment media in LA for well over a decade. So she would appear to be the perfect person to address the question of why, in the world of LGBTQI media coverage, it never seems to be the ‘I’ that’s in the news.
Tell us how you first discovered you are intersex.
I found out when I was 31 in 1998. The terminology with intersex changes all the time, but then I was what they called a ‘pseudo-hermaphrodite’, which meant my birth defect did not require a gender to be assigned to me as a child.
Anatomically, on the outside I looked female, so no one ever said a word about it. I don’t know if anyone even checked up on it, and I’m told this is not uncommon.
I always thought I was kind of an alien – I knew I was a little different on the inside.
So I was 31, I was doing my first show on this kind of raunchy FM talk station. I had this crazy fun partner whose name was Nasty Man and one day he was like ‘Hey Sheena, we’re going to have a hermaphrodite doctor on’ and I’m not sure I even knew any more about this than anyone else did at the time.
So this lovely man came and sat with us and I kept feeling the whole time I had such a connection to him and I kept thinking ‘everything he’s saying is how I feel’.
Nasty Man just kept asking this guy over and over again if he had a penis and a vagina, because he didn’t know what it meant, and the more I listened, the more I learned I didn’t really know what it was either.
Then I remembered, that when I was 16 I had a gigantic vaginal reconstruction because my vaginal canal did not connect what I had on the inside to what I had on the outside. I completely freaked out, I called my mom on the phone at one in the morning, and said ‘I think I know what I am’.
The first thing my mom said was ‘why the hell didn’t those doctors tell me anything?’.
So she knew, my best friend knew, my boyfriend at the time knew but for 12 years, I didn’t tell anybody because I just didn’t think anybody would care.
And how did you eventually end up discussing it on air?
In the back of my mind I kept thinking about the doctor that had been on the show and how connected I felt to him. So then, however many years later , I was on LA Talk Radio, doing an afternoon drive show, and I just decided one day to hunt him down.
He was very gracious and he came and did my show. He was talking all about being an intersex person and I was identifying as bisexual but, in the back of my mind, feeling like a liar.
I said to him ‘is it true that if you have some kind of genital mutation, it’s an intersex condition’ and he said ‘absolutely, without a doubt’. And I said ‘well alright, now I’m going to tell you another story...’
I called my mom 10 minutes after the show was over and said ‘Mom, I think I just told the whole world that I’m an intersex person’ and she said ‘well, that’s a good thing, right?’
Were you surprised your revelation was not really reported on in the media?
Yeah but you’d be surprised how often I bring it up in conversation and people just change the topic. I don’t know if people are really ready to talk about it. In my life, I only know two intersex people and I meet a lot of people.
We are everywhere, but it’s easy for us to never tell anybody and I think it’s something that in a strange way kind of completely freaks the world out.
When you look at transgendered people, you can say in the back of your mind, although I believe we are all as our higher power made us, you can say ‘well there’s a mistake’ – there’s a man that was supposed to be a woman or there’s someone whose insides don’t match their outsides.
But there is no real mistake with us, which is odd because we’re the ones having more corrective surgeries than anybody. There’s really not anything wrong with us though – we’re just different, there is no ‘mistake’.
It’s just something people don’t know about unless they have to. And a lot of people may have an intersex condition and don’t even know it. They maybe just feel different and they don’t know why.
Historically, gender ambiguity has always been celebrated in entertainment – be it female impersonators in ancient Rome or ladyboy beauty pageants in 2013. So what is it that makes mainstream media and entertainment industry shy away from this one specific form of gender ambiguity?
I think gender ambiguity and gender bending, blurring the lines of gender, still implies that somewhere in that mix is the male and the female gender. The thing about being an intersex person is you acknowledge within you the things that are male and the things that are female, but there’s another thing that’s neither male nor female.
Even in our new millennium society, we’re so wrapped around the idea gender is everything, the idea of somebody coming along and saying ‘gender’s not all that important’ is terrifying.
Every time I talk about it on air I think ‘am I out of my mind? Should I stop talking about it?’ because I really don’t know if people want to know about it. But I also think once you’ve come this far with something, it’s too late to be clawing at the closet door, trying to get back in.
It does baffle me nobody talks about it. It does baffle me there aren’t any more than a handful of people in any kind of media that will admit to being an intersex person. A lot of people must know that they are, but it does feel like a taboo.
I’ve talked about it on the air three or four times now and it’s never come up [in the media] – that does seem strange to me. It’s strange to me that none of my listeners ever came to me later and said 'hey, I understand what you were talking about'.
Do you think intersex is just too complex and varied to fit in with today’s media consuming habits?
I think that anything, if you go deep enough, no longer becomes ‘tweetable’, because it becomes complex.
The way we feel about gender is really imbedded in us. It’s only been easy for me because my mom very much raised me to be a person, she didn’t force me into any gender stereotypes.
The problem with the intersex community is – who do you find when nobody will admit to it? It’s like everybody is hiding behind doors and there’s not much of a community.
The statistics are so high [The Intersex Society of Northern America states approximately 1% of births ‘differ from standard male or female’], but you go online and there’s barely any information about it.
Does the lack of coverage create a lack of understanding, or does the lack of interest directly result in lack of coverage?
I think the media avoid it because the general public don’t really want to understand it. The media will go anywhere where they think there’s a story. That’s their job, to lift up all the rocks and dig all the holes and pull out anything they can into the sunshine and exploit it, so I certainly think the media would cover it.
Most people just don’t know what it is, and there are a lot of people like my co-host Nasty Man who still really think an intersex person is somebody who comes out with a fully formed penis and a fully formed vagina and can basically mate with themselves.
There’s still that kind of mythological stereotype. Maybe the whole thing freaks [people] out or they’re scared.
Will there suddenly be a moment when people finally cotton on to just how common it is?
I think it will happen with celebrities. It will take somebody who is famous to come out and say ‘this is what I am’ and then other people will creep out from under the rug and say ‘me too!’ and ‘me too!’.
One of the reasons it hasn’t got more media attention is there’s no celebrity backing for it, there are no celebrities saying ‘yeah, I’m an intersex person’.
Finally, should intersex people really be thinking of themselves as having a ‘disorder’?
It certainly is something that’s different, and obviously people are corrected medically. But it’s really a magic thing.
Maybe there are people that hate it, but I actually kind of love it. So I hope other people that are like me, even if they’re not telling anybody, love it as much as I do. Because it’s kind of a neat thing to be free of gender in a way.
If you want to stop a conversation, like a train, just mention the word intersex because people don’t even know what to say to you then, and it just end the conversation.
I don’t blame people for not being honest, only because I know how hard society can be on anybody who’s different.
You certainly live your life knowing you’re different. But it’s really kind of a beautiful thing. I could’ve lived without having to get all the surgeries, but in the long run I think it’s kind of awesome.
That’s what makes me kind of sad about the fact nobody’s talking about it, because it’s pretty amazing.
Sheena is happy to be contacted by anyone wanting information or advice on any of the issues discussed here. You can email her here.