'Androgyny is all around us': Meet XXXora, a hermaphrodite on a crusade

One in every 2,000 babies is born intersex – and it's thought that doctors continue to operate on these newborns to 'assign' gender. Enter XXXora,a hermaphrodite artist with an impassioned campaign and an extraordinary life

XXXora, a 33-year-old artist who lives in south London, has a way with words. The last time I met her, she summed up her story perfectly. Born with ambiguous sexual organs, she was raised a boy. But she always knew she did not fit into society's rigid male or female categories and refused major surgery to mould her body into either. "I wouldn't be me," she told me. "I don't want to morph into a blue or pink box; I want to stay in my silver box."

These words stuck with me, especially because things were not always so simple. XXXora was 25 when she decided she could no longer assimilate into society. Previously, she had spent time at an all-boys school; not the easiest place for someone who describes herself as "super-feminised" from a young age. But she always knew who she was, and had support from her family, including her younger brother.

When she got to the point where she felt like a "pressure cooker that was about to explode", she changed her name and began to dress publicly in more typically feminine clothes. She lost some friends who couldn't deal with her true identity, and still faces discrimination daily. But she refuses to define herself as either man or woman, using the female pronoun purely for convenience. She reclaims the term hermaphrodite. Others might call her a gender pioneer.

"From the very beginning, I realised I wasn't a boy and I wasn't a girl; I realised I was in the middle. I felt great self-hatred at points about the fact that I was in an unknown world. I'd never seen or met anyone like me and didn't even know anyone else existed like this," she tells me. "There are no established archetypes for people like me. Androgyny is considered fashion, but it's not considered a genetic reality. It is, though; it's all around us – in all aspects of nature."

XXXora even stands out among other intersex people, who are born with a reproductive anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male, and who often end up defining as women or men. She now wears her silver mask – first adorned after a failed cornea transplant left her unable to wear make-up on one eye – whenever she goes out, and it has become another emblem of life inside her silver box. Then there's her name – crafted around ideas of chromosomes, derogatory Spanish slang, and an inversion of the hardcore XXX symbol (which she tells me originated in the brewing industry as a sign of premium strength).

"I hate pigeonholes," she says. "I'm not a pigeon. For me, it is about finding archetypes and reclaiming words. People are using 'hermaphrodite' in a derogatory way, and I simply won't have it. The hermaphrodite exists in all species that have separate sexes. It is important to realise that the black-and-white binary that is in people's heads is neither scientific nor accurate. We need to establish that the middle biologically exists and is part of our world. We need to respect people for who they are."

Afrodite (Grace Jones) by XXXora, March 2012 Afrodite (Grace Jones) by XXXora, March 2012
An estimated one in 2,000 babies is born with an intersex (or "unisex", as XXXora prefers) condition or a controversially named "disorder of sex development" (DSD). This can include atypical genitalia, chromosomes or internal sex organs. It became the norm to operate on these children in the 1960s; in the belief that they were helping the child, doctors assigned their gender and operated to reinforce it – sometimes without the parents' informed consent.

Although there are no comprehensive statistics on the number of operations still carried out, it is believed some babies and children will undergo such surgery in Britain this year. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has condemned it, saying non-consensual surgery of this kind can cause "permanent, irreversible infertility and severe mental suffering".

This is why, four months after we first met, the idea of the silver box has not gone away. Xxxora has previously given her support to a campaign led by a group of intersex women. Now, however, she has launched her own Silver Bo(x) Campaign, petitioning the UK Government to recognise those born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male, and to stop such infants undergoing non-consensual and irreversible surgery to "fix" their sex. The comedian Graham Norton, actor Sir Derek Jacobi, sculptor to the Royals Frances Segelman and writer Richard O'Brien are among the first 100 or so people to have signed the petition, she says.

On top of that, XXXora is launching her Silver Box exhibition at the Groucho Club in central London in May. It is believed to be the first series of pieces exploring the role of the hermaphrodite in nature. She will also be holding a regular film exhibition on the same theme at the Cinema Museum in south London from next month and will feature in an exhibition called Art for Youth at the Royal Academy of Arts in October. She is already making waves in the art scene. Rebecca Wilson, chief curator and director of artist development for the Saatchi Art website, on which XXXora is featured, says that her "works are arresting, challenging and have an urgency to them which is very powerful".

"Art is a megaphone and a loudspeaker," says XXXora, explaining how it is critical to her campaigns. "My work is very much influenced by my life and this unresolved issue." She has committed herself to creating a series of all of nature's hermaphrodites for the rest of her life. She knows she is unlikely to finish it. She adds that all of her work, which embodies self- portraiture and optical illusions, is akin to a personal handprint. "I predominantly work with optical illusions, as in many respects I was born an optical illusion."

XXXora: 'I'm not doing it to put people's noses out of joint' (Kalpesh Lathigra) XXXora: 'I'm not doing it to put people's noses out of joint' (Kalpesh Lathigra)
Self-taught, XXXora has always made art. She made it and kept it at home for a long time until she gained the confidence to display it. "Art is my catharsis," she says.

Another love is horses. XXXora breeds them and one picture from a series called "The Crying Alchemists", which focuses on the type of horses she breeds, was recently sold for £15,000.

In the past, XXXora has also worked on a series on androgynous superstars. Some of her biggest influences when she was young were the likes of Prince, Grace Jones, Marilyn Manson and Michael Jackson. While she looked up to men who were "very feminised", she saw early on how society treated them.

"I remember as a child looking at newspapers and seeing Boy George described as 'Mr or Mrs Weird.' I thought, 'Fuck, that's me, I have to assimilate.' I thought no one would want me if they knew who I was. A turning point came when I realised there were men who were attracted to me for who I was. I could find love regardless," she says.

Yet, there is still a huge taboo for those who choose to shun binary gender classifications. When XXXora was younger, she was sometimes mistaken as gay, something she found hurtful. "There is a misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge. If a unisex person goes out on public transport, or just walks out the door, they are potentially at risk of being abused, physically and mentally. People being horrible to you is a daily occurrence. Respect is lacking. It's easier to feel OK about yourself when you know someone else is like you. We all need role models."

The Captured Hermaphrodite (The Clownfish) by XXXora, September 2013 The Captured Hermaphrodite (The Clownfish) by XXXora, September 2013
That's ultimately what her art, and her activism, are about. The Silver Bo(x) campaign calls for the addition of a third box on passports and other documents, enabling people who wish to define as something other than male or female to do so. Other countries, such as Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal and India, have already adjusted various legislation to include these boxes. "I do appreciate that most people have a child and want them to fit in with what they see around them, but we have to stop modifying people's nature. There is no shame in it," she says. "I have seen too many people cut and sliced, on hormones and stitched up male or female. In our society we box people according to their genitalia and not according to their brain. I don't believe in branding people at birth; the aim here is consent."

Does she think the art world is ready for her work? "I think the art world is absolutely ready. But I think whether it is ready or not, it is going to happen. I'm not doing it to put people's noses out of joint; I am doing it because it is not fair that people have been treated with this level of degradation and humiliation. This could be a historic art-led emancipation crusade."

Wow. I ask whether she sees herself as a pioneer. "I'm not seeking to be a pioneer," she says. "I'm seeking the emancipation of people who would belong to the silver box."

For more on XXXora's art, visit xxxora.com. Her petition to stop the genital mutilation of non-consenting unisex infants can be found at http://chn.ge/1iKygcl

Intersex: A definition

An estimated one in 2,000 babies is born with an intersex condition or a 'disorder of sex development', which means that they are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male. This can include atypical genitalia, chromosomes or internal sex organs. One condition, for example, is androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), which means that someone born with XY chromosomes can be partially or completely insensitive to testosterone (those with AIS are infertile).

One in every 2,000 babies is born intersex – and it's thought that doctors continue to operate on these newborns to 'assign' their gender. Enter XXXora,a hermaphrodite artist with an impassioned campaign and an extraordinary life story

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    BI Manager - £50,000

    £49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

    £48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

    VB.Net Developer

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

    SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game