At the tender age of 14, most of us try and maintain a low profile. Not a child, not yet an adult, anything that risks jeopardising the aspired “ordinary” state of being feels threatening and downright unjust. But for Dani Coyle, early teendom was more confusing than for most. Finding out that she was intersex left her confused, and ashamed, and the young adolescent insisted on secrecy, confiding only over time in her closest friends and family members. It wasn’t until publicly coming out in time for last year’s Pride Month, that the now-24-year old fully came into her own, redefining for herself not only what it means to be intersex, but what it means to be a non-binary individual in an allegedly binary world.
Born and raised in the English small-town of Swindon, educated at Kingston University London, the trained graphic designer has since relocated to Berlin, a place she attributes many of her personal and professional endeavours to. Behind the scenes of her collaboration with Calvin Klein’s newly launched CK Everyone-fragrance, the artist and activist also known as @inter_sexy walked us through some of these, all of which played key-parts in her journey from self-discovery to self-hate to self-love.
When did the term “Intersex” first introduce itself into your life? How did you learn what it meant?
Officially, when I was 14, but I think I knew from a younger age that something about me was different. When you’re that young you don’t really give it any deeper thoughts than that, you’re a clueless kid. I remember setting deadlines in my head, as in “when I’m 16 I’ll take a look into it”, just sort of putting it off and off. Then, at 14, I was confronted with all the official terminology. I was never told it was part of a spectrum of sex, but more that it was a disorder. I was told “you’ve been born wrong,” as opposed to “you’ve been born a little bit different.” All of these cis-, white, hetero doctors were trying to explain to me the science behind it. Asking me things like, “so, do you wanna be a boy or a girl, do wanna have this surgery or this surgery? If you do this, you’ll take these hormones, if you do this, you’ll take these hormones, and you’ll have to do this so you can have sex when you’re older” and so on and so forth. It was very coercive and very binary, there were no other options given, no other lifestyles presented.
Was this type of rather inappropriate treatment of the topic something you were aware of back then or something you’ve realised only just now, looking back?
Not at all. This is all stuff I’m realising now, but if I’m honest, if they had done it any differently at the time, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it. It’s so traumatising having someone ask you at that age, a pubescent kid, like “do you wanna be a boy or a girl?” It just made me feel like an absolute freak. Growing up in this very cis, very heteronormative, tiny town in England I’d never experienced anything else, and I wish now I would have seen these other lifestyles growing up—it wouldn’t have been such a horrible thing if I had seen it somewhere else before, you know?
How long did it take for you to come to terms with it?
It took me about ten years to get over it. I found out when I was 14, I came out publicly when I was 24. That’s why I want to do what I can to make it more visible in the media and online, so no one will have to feel the way I and so many others felt. I remember sitting in the back of taxis, it’d be dark and we’d be out clubbing and the driver would say something like “wow, you’re really beautiful for a boy” because he couldn’t see me that well and my voice was deeper than that of “normal” girls’, and then me crying for like two days straight about it afterwards. Now if someone did that, I’d be like, “thanks, that’s so nice of you to say.” Coming to Berlin really helped, too—being able to spend more time with and around queer people from all walks of life. Coming here is when I started looking at it differently, going to queer parties, seeing different types of bodies, identities, sexualities—learning that it IS more part of spectrum, and to look at it like that is more fun.
So, before you were made to believe it was a medical disorder, when in fact, you don’t have to look at it like that.
Right. And that is still a point of discussion—whether or not it should be solely treated as a type of dysfunction, or if in fact it is more so a question of identity politics. In my opinion, things aren’t binary—humans aren’t binary, life isn’t binary. It’s so much easier to understand and explain things that you can categorise that way, but sex and gender don’t have to be related, people slide on scales. That’s not what the medical profession teaches or has been taught, also due probably to the fact that the people in these positions aren’t confronted with these experiences. It’s not part of their reality, and therefore not part of their facts. They’ve written history books, they’ve written the medical books, they’ve written the laws. And some will also blame this on the minority factor, but when in actuality there are as many intersex people as there are red heads or twins, that box doesn’t really do it just. But a lot of people don’t find out about being intersex until later in life, and those people are not necessarily the ones to speak out, often, too because they don’t identify as queer and/or appear cis and don’t really need to—which is totally valid.
A lot of other terms within the pool of LGBTQIA+ terminology eventually require a certain form of coming out, whereas being intersex, as you said, can fly just beneath the radar for both those affected and the people around them. When you learned you were intersex, when and why did you decide it was something you wanted to disclose on a public level?
It’s so tricky. Intersex is a very broad umbrella term that covers a vast amount of different things. Some never find out, some find out in their thirties, some find out when they’re teenagers. But some people are born with ambiguous genitalia, doctors decide then and there that the best chances of them growing up as a “normal child” are to perform cosmetic surgery—sort of like if a baby was born with a big nose, they would say “this kid’s gonna get bullied for their big nose, let’s give them a nose job at 2 weeks old.” Essentially, it’s a type of genital mutilation just so that the child can be brought up as exclusively one gender above the other. For some people that’s fine, if the gender identity ends up matching with what they decide for you. A lot of times though, it doesn’t. The procedures can cause bleeding, pain, scars later on in life, it can prohibit them from having sex or at least enjoying sex. I was somewhat privileged in comparison. But these people exist. If 2 percent of people are intersex, quite a few have struggled with the aforementioned side effects. If that’s not something worth talking about or campaigning for, what is? I couldn’t go back to my day job, I couldn’t sell another pair of fucking trainers, you know? I don’t care. People are suffering, I suffered in silence for 10 years because it felt so shameful. You shouldn’t have to live your life like that. Nobody ever asked me whether I wanted to talk about it or not. The few people that knew were always like, “we don’t have to talk about it.” That upset me in a way, because it was an important part of my life and I hid it and I dealt with it on my own for so long, why are people telling me, like, “we don’t have to talk about this.” It makes you feel like you’re the uncomfortable topic. After that, I was like, “you know what, we should talk about this”.
And what has changed for you since then, since talking about it?
I went from this intense secrecy to this intense vulnerability in such a short time. From being completely in the closet to completely outside of it in public, literally from one extreme to the other—that was tough. But at the same time it was what I was desperate for for so long. Coming out that day was the best thing. I remember coming home and my friends had dressed in yellow and purple. After the piece went live, I turned off my phone for two days. When I turned it back on I had this abundance of messages by younger kids. I remember searching the internet for one person who I could’ve reached out to and ask for help and guidance. Being able to relate to someone is so great, it gives hope, it can do wonders and maybe I’ve been able to be the person I missed back then. I thought for the longest time that if someone found out about me I would die, be unhappy for the rest of my life. And now it’s like I can enter any room at any time and no question you ask me about it could embarrass me. That’s such a powerful thing. Imagine the scariest thing you could do, and then actually doing it. Everything pales in comparison.
What have been some of the proudest experiences tied to “becoming” @inter_sexy?
I’ve had awesome opportunities through it now. I find it cheesy and crappy to call it that, but sometimes it does feel a bit like my superpower now. It gives you a perspective, and I feel like ours has been overlooked for so long. There is so little history on it, all of it is in a medicalised context, other than maybe a few memoirs. But most of it is found in medical books and seen as a freak thing. Intersex is only just now being able to take itself out of that context. How exciting to think – what in 2020 has not happened before? Will there ever be a chance anywhere else to be the firsts at something? It’s so much fun, to be a part of the conversation, a movement that is now finally trying to clarify and de-stigmatise what intersex means.
That being said, where are you headed next?
I’m actually looking into Master’s degrees, going into the more technical, bureaucratic aspects of the topic. I’m thinking of something like gender and law. I come from a creative, social media-y, marketing-y background, which was a fun way to get into it. But I think the change I wanna make will have to come from something further up, some sort of policy making or the like, you know? Real Life action. Awareness needs to rise before policy can change. Being embedded in pop culture is super important, but knowing your shit and being able to back it up with fact and skill is vital. I wanna be like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. “Hey, I’m intersex, I’ve got a bleach blonde bob and I’m at Cambridge, motherfucker!” [laughs].
Photography & Video RITA LINO
Styling RACHAEL RODGERS
Talent DANIELLE COYLE
Photography Assistance ROBERT GRÜNDLER
Styling Assistance CHIARA POZZOLI
Hair & Make Up PATRICIA HECK via NINA KLEIN
Set Design FREDERIK FIALIN
Video Editor DOMINIK BRAZ
Production PIA AHLERT