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."
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."
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."
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."
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