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Archive for Sunday, October 1, 2000

Hidden gender

Artist’s works reflect androgyny

October 1, 2000

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The English language isn't equipped to deal with Chris Somers.

There is no pronoun for those born intersexed, or having both male and female physical attributes.

Gender is determined by chromosomes: Males have 46XY; females 46XX. Somers, a 53-year-old Australian artist in Lawrence as part of a three-month U.S. residency, was born with an extra: 47XXY.

Medically speaking, Somers is both male and female. But viewed through society's social prism, Somers is neither.

At an early age Somers knew he/she was different from other children but didn't have the cognitive ability to understand androgyny. He/she was afraid to talk to others about it because they most likely would think he/she was crazy.

At age 11, Somers had a desire to become pregnant and began experiencing menstrual cramps. As a teen-age boarding school student in Hampshire, England. Somers began developing breasts though he/she had a penis.

"In the showers, I couldn't hide," Somers said. "I was tormented by the other kids because I had boobs."

At age 16, the breasts were surgically removed so Somers would better fit bi-gendered society.

"At the time, I thought that the world was unable to accept diversity and I had to pay the price," he/she said. "I was beaten up three times because of it."

As he/she matured, Somers testes atrophied and his/her legs were hairless. At age 27, his/her doctor recommended he/she start taking testosterone, without asking Somers which gender he/she preferred.

Three years ago, an ultrasound revealed Somers has ovaries and possibly a uterus.

"I do not aspire to being male or female," Somers said. "I see myself as a totally different sex and gender. I have never felt comfortable or safe. I was suicidal as a young person."

For nearly five decades,

PLEASE SEE Artist, PAGE 7D

Somers was a family secret. Although Somers' father was a physician and knew about his child's condition, he did not talk about it. Somers' mother was in denial, and his/her two brothers and sister didn't know.

"I lived under wraps for 47 years," he/she said.

That changed in 1995 when Somers decided to talk about being an intersexed person on "60 Minutes Australia."

Finding courage

Living "under wraps" didn't keep Somers from art and education.

He/she was trained as a photographer in the United Kingdom and moved to Australia in 1974 to work for an international publishing company. He/she gained a reputation for his/her photo illustrations and fashion photography and began showing his/her works in exhibitions.

In 1990, Somers founded and became director of the International Transantarctica Expedition/Australian Global Education Program. Somers' brother Geoff is a polar explorer.

In 1996, he/she was an adviser for educational programs in conjunction with Polish explorer Marek Kaminski's solo transantarctica expedition. In 1997, he/she began assisting with education programs for an expedition to the North Pole.

"It was my experience (with the Anarctica programs) that gave me the courage to go public," Somers said.

Through the education programs, Somers met and befriended Jeff McMullen, a journalist for "60 Minutes Australia."

When McMullen learned Somers planned climbing to Patriot Hills in the Ellsworth Mountains of Anarctica to plant an International Rainbow flag to publicize need for research, education and support for androgynous people, he approached Somers about being on the television show.

Somers said yes, fully aware of the consequences he/she might face from his/her family and community.

"I left Australia two days after the show and went to Antarctica," Somers said. " The people there were adventurers and explorers, and most of them were floored. Polish National TV and Swiss National TV did shows on me down there."

The best encouragement he/she received came from Erhard Loretan, a famous Swiss mountaineer who was first to climb the highest mountain in Anarctica.

"He said 'Your mountain is bigger than mine' and offered to introduce me to the international press," Somers said.

Finding his place

Since the "60 Minutes" show, Somers is no longer afraid to talk about his/her genetic makeup and has become a strong advocate for androgynous people. He/she is a co-founder of the International Foundation for Androgynous Studies Inc., and has begun a relationship with a woman in Australia.

He/she is in the United States as the Australian liaison for ARTEL International Network, which hopes to exchange exhibits and artist residencies between the two countries. Somers uses his/her artwork computer- or mixed-media-manipulated photographs to describe the feelings and challenges faced along his/her journey.

"My current work is a reflection of myself from the feminine point of view, which I lost as a child," Somers said. "It's a celebration of that which I lost and is reaffirming my place as a human being."

If nothing else, Somers wants people living in bi-gendered cultures to question the assumptions they make regarding sex and gender. After all, he/she said, the Navajo language allows for five genders, while the Inuit language makes room for nine.

"We are incredibly advanced in technology but really backward when it comes to ourselves," Somers said. "People want no differences in the human race because they are scared of it."

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