Born Intersex, Mutilated To Become "Normal"
María Candelaria Schamun's body tells a dramatic, brutal story. The pages of her heartbreaking new book hold the memory of her pain, her scars, of the screams she muffled and finally let rip.
"Within my mutilated body lives another being. An erased being. A disappeared being. My body is a plural one, a shelved ID card, a court file, the loneliness of a hospital room. I inhabit a body that was baptized as Esteban, the name of the first martyr of Catholicism. I am Candelaria. I am Esteban. I am both," writes Schamun in Ese que fui, expediente de una rebelión corporal, or "The one I was, the record of a corporeal rebellion."
At 41, after having worked in visual and TV journalism with great talent and passion, Schamun now lives in a Buenos Aires town with 1,000 inhabitants, surrounded by dogs, horses and chickens.
Her life with her partner, the vegetable garden and a quiet rhythm of routine has perhaps been as healing as the testimony she has finally been able to put into words after almost a lifetime of silences.
Schamun's story begins with her birth, on Oct. 5, 1981, in a La Plata hospital. At half past five in the morning, the delivery was normal. Weight: four kilos, two hundred grams. Sex: male. Schamun was the third child of a happy and prosperous marriage between a Banco Provincia accountant and a psycho-pedagogue turned homemaker.
According to the medical report, the baby was healthy, "without descended testicles." He was named Esteban and baptized 36 days later, with all the pomp and rigor of a family of practising Catholics.
But Esteban spends a lot of time sleeping. He eats, then vomits. He loses weight. His little body sends increasingly worrying warning signs. He undergoes emergency tests and is found to be suffering from salt-wasting congenital adrenal hyperplasia.
Clinical stabilization is urgent. He will need to take medication for the rest of his life to maintain his glandular balance. But there is something else: Esteban is a girl.
What at first glance looks like a penis was in fact an overdeveloped clitoris. There are no testicles, but there is no vagina or vaginal canal either. The doctors consider this an "anomaly," to be corrected with scalpel force and bloody operations so that the girl can have a "normal" future.
"Intersex people are born with sexual characteristics (such as genitalia, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit the male/female binarism. Being intersex is about physical characteristics and not about one's sexual orientation or gender identity later on. I was an intersex child and I was mutilated in the name of some idea of normality," Schamun explains.
A photograph of Schamun's Ese Que No Fui dust jacket.
Silence and surgeries
Esteban was renamed María Candelaria. As a result of a legal request from the parents, his existence within the State bureaucracy was annulled. His National Identity Card disappeared, and another one was created in the girl's name.
There's her story. There's Esteban.
And then the surgeries began: the first, at three months old, to reduce the clitoris, and four more throughout her childhood and adolescence for the "abocamiento" — that is, to "build" a vaginal canal.
Each intervention was a butchery wrapped in euphemisms. This was (almost) not talked about. The reasons are vaguely explained. At school, long postoperative periods are passed off as vacations.
Then, 17-year-old Candelaria sneaks into her parents' room and starts rifling through her father's desk, who died when she was 12 years old. She rummages through old tax files and bookshelves until she finds a green folder with her name written in capital letters: there's her story. There's Esteban.
It was the moment that broke the silence around her life and the beginning of a new one: how to face the future with the truth that lies in her revealed story.
The price of truth
"The silence prior to that discovery was a learned silence," she reflects. "They operated on me and nobody questioned why. My cousins remember that they didn't talk about it. But the second silence was very hard, perhaps worse than the first one. All the time, you think about the things you want to say and can't, mostly because you can't even admit them to yourself. You have that story deep inside and you can't get it out of your head, even when you're just having a coffee with someone."
I realize that their lives were suddenly changed the day I was born.
The inner truth bursts out within her: she suffers from recurrent heartburn every time she wants to express it. Her sexual life seems paralyzed. The psychologist who begins helping her through this process tells her that she suffers from post-traumatic stress typical of an ex-combatant.
"For example, when I go to a clinician, I probably won't tell them that I was mutilated. Two years ago I got permanent hair removal, and when the waxer suggested I take off my underwear to make it look better, I refused. My genital area feels like it's off-limits to me. As if I had a plaster cast covering it. I don't even go there. During sexual encounters, when I feel that they are about to reach that area, I automatically stop or avoid it," says Schamun.
Her relationship with her mother also broke down: "My father died when I was 12, so my mother bore the brunt of my anger. I had a very bad relationship with her at times. I felt like screaming and I couldn't. Finally, before she died, I was able to reconcile. Today, looking back, I realize that their lives were suddenly changed the day I was born. Theirs and my siblings', who took a back seat because there was something more pressing to attend to," she says.
"I am one voice saying that all the surgeries that were performed on my body resulted in physical, psychological, familial damage. There is no going back from the genital mutilation I was subjected to," Schamun reveals.
The book, for her, acts as a relief valve: "It gives me a lot of peace. The only thing I receive is love, is affection. The word I hear the most is courage."
However, her goal goes beyond her personal situation: "The important thing is that pediatric referral hospitals begin to implement protocols for intersex births so that babies are not immediately operated on with surgeries that are totally irreversible and that, in most cases, are only cosmetic," she concludes.
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