Connecticut Voice

Your LGBTQ+ Voice

Liat Feller: Living As Intersex

Meet Liat Feller, 24, of Stamford. You’ll be glad you did; there’s a lot to appreciate, and they own it all proudly. They identify as intersex, one of the most misunderstood cohorts under the LGBTQ+ banner.

Feller is an online influencer and natural comedian, who identifies as “raising queer, intersex, Jewish, disabled, anti-capitalist hell.” They’re an early childhood education student at American Jewish University. They’re an educator, speaking and consulting on intersex and disability issues. And this year they were selected as an interACT Youth Advocate, charged by the advocacy organization with “empowering the next generation of intersex youth leaders.”

Feller is an intersex woman who uses both she and they pronouns, and for purposes of this story chose the latter. They have what’s commonly called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), but what Feller prefers to call Stein-Leventhal Syndrome because it’s more medically accurate (the “cysts” are actually immature eggs). With PCOS, ovaries produce an unusually high level of androgens. Symptoms vary but can include excess body and facial hair, inability to ovulate, insulin resistance and more.

Feller also has Cerebral Palsy and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a condition causing overly flexible joints, heat intolerance and migraines.

Having foot pain as a child, growing facial hair as a 10-year-old girl, weighing more than most… it was all so traumatic that Feller says they’ve blocked out most of it. Doctors were variously stumped or wrong—and gave harmful advice. On the positive side, Feller became a self-taught expert on their own medical conditions. They’ve learned to manage their physical challenges and embrace their multiple identities.

And now, Feller is ready to represent. You’ll find them dancing online, sometimes with crutches or in a wheelchair, answering questions, sharing hard-won information, and getting constructively silly.  Here they are on TikTok, leaning into the camera with a sly grin, saying, “God gives his rootinest battles to his tootinest cowboys. But that doesn’t mean it ain’t the wild, wild west.”

Every intersex person’s experience is unique, but it’s fair to say Feller’s is “more unique.” They talked to CT Voice about their life and experience.

CV: When did you realize you were “different”, and when were you diagnosed with PCOS?

LF: It happened in three parts. First, when I was a child my mom noticed something was different. I was 7 years old, and I was 5 feet tall already. I smelled like a teenage boy, I had breasts, and I had underarm hair. I went through puberty very early, and we now know it was most likely a mixed puberty.

My PCOS diagnosis came when I was 11 years old. I look back and I don’t know how anybody could make this judgment only on my appearance, but I was a clinically overweight, hairy, 11-year-old. They didn’t do any PCOS-relevant bloodwork; it was based solely on observation.

The third part was when I was 16 or 17 and coming into my own as my own medical advocate. I had doctors do the tests.

CV: What treatment did doctors propose?

LF: It was a period of forced feminization. But I would grow a beard with a clinically low testosterone level, and that’s when my brain ticked off, well maybe this is just how I’m supposed to be. And that’s when I switched to a more affirming and forward-thinking endocrinologist who’s based in New York City.

My anti-diet culture identity is inseparable from my intersex story. The primary treatment that most doctors prescribe for PCOS is weight loss [because of its occasional connection with insulin resistance]. When I was 11, they told me I needed to lose weight, even though my blood work was normal. It led to an eating disorder, when in a year I lost 50 pounds. Except for facial hair, I had no clinical symptoms from PCOS. All my treatment was in the name of putting me into this box of looking like the typical female.

I wasn’t bothered by my facial hair. I was more bothered by the expense and the pain of maintaining it. Meanwhile, I had other real problems. I just wanted to know why my feet were hurting.

CV: When did you decide to own your beard, and how did people react?

LF: I worked so hard to get rid of my facial hair. I later learned I was the only 11-year-old getting a chin wax every week.

It was for a project in a feminist psychology class in college that I started growing my beard. Campus was the safest place to be a woman with a beard. People cheered me on whenever they saw me. A week into the process, I went to the mall, and people were doing double-takes. I kind of took it in stride because I was doing research, and it didn’t bother me. Now it bothers me because I’m not doing research. This is my life.

Now I pretty much keep it grown.

CV: Has it helped that, although they aren’t intersex, celebrities like Jonathan Van Ness and Billy Porter present androgynously?

LF: It’s made a huge difference. Over the years there has been so much more representation, and so much more camaraderie and unity between different sections of the queer community.

CV: Do people tell you you’re brave, and is it annoying?

LF: Yes! The pressure does get a little overwhelming. In PCOS groups, people are always asking, “How do I get rid of my hair?” And I pipe in, “I don’t.” People tell me I’m brave, and that they could never do what I do. Well, they could.

CV: What’s it like being a visible representation that gender isn’t binary?

LF: I enjoy being the visible figure in this. I made a conscious choice when I started my TikTok that I would never do anything I didn’t feel enjoyable.

The most difficult part of being visible is that people feel entitled to your story. When someone asks me in the middle of the grocery story why I have a beard, I have to decide what to tell them. I find the same thing when I’m in my wheelchair.

Sometimes I tell people, “This is what my body does, and I like it this way.” Sometimes I say, “I work in intersex advocacy,” because when I tell people I’m intersex, they want to know what’s in my pants. I often find myself in the position of debunking other people’s assumptions. I hear, “Well, I have PCOS, and I’m not a hermaphrodite!” First, we don’t use that word anymore because it’s inaccurate, and it’s a slur. They’re like, “I don’t want a beard!” And I’m like, “That’s fine, you can identify however you want.”

PCOS is a condition; intersex is an identity. For people who identify very much as cis females – and that identity may be valid and true–the fact they’ve been taking treatment to force their hair away forces them to confront this scary idea that nothing is binary. It comes out as a lot of trans and intersex phobia.

CV: When did Cerebral Palsy and Ehers-Danlos present?

LF: When I was in 5th grade, I took a step and felt something very, very wrong. I couldn’t put my foot down. Then I’d have bouts when I couldn’t put my foot down. Doctors couldn’t find anything on an x-ray and said it was probably a fracture, so they put me in a boot.

I used crutches more in high school, and in college I used a Razor scooter to get around. As I got older, I had more and more neurological issues. Migraines, muscle twitching. Doctors just related [these conditions] with needing to lose weight.

From a community of people on Twitter with chronic illness, I learned that what was going on with my knees was actually overextending every time I walked, and that’s a symptom of hypermobility. I learned Ehlers-Danlos symptoms also include migraines, and the very severe heat intolerance I’d been having.

I realized my medical history [including premature birth] was a perfect storm for Cerebral Palsy. I was diagnosed at 22 with the spastic form, meaning tight and contracted. I’ll never walk uphill without help, and I’ll never walk a long distance.

CV: What are your current treatments?

LF: For PCOS, intuitive eating and stress reduction. They have done more to heal my body than any medication and dieting ever have.

I have saline infusion treatments twice a week for Ehlers-Danlos. It helped the heat intolerance and migraines overnight.

I spent about eight weeks in physical therapy, learning to walk without overextending my knee.

CV: What do people get wrong about you?

LF: They assume I’m transgender and that I’ve transitioned from one gender to another. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that was the truth. I explain to them that I’m actually detransitioning; so much of my life was a forced transition into being a strict woman, and my beard is the result of my body letting me be me.

CV: What’s your assessment of medical care in Connecticut for intersex people?

LF: Even in our little blue state, there’s a lot of work to be done. Most doctors have never heard of intersex or have no idea what it means, and they’re learning about it from outdated textbooks when they need to be learning about it from our community.

The most recent WTF moment I’ve had about it is I was in the hospital earlier last summer for a totally unrelated issue, cellulitis. I was on antibiotics and doing fine. And they were testing my testosterone level and prescribing a bariatric diet! I asked, “If I hadn’t walked in here as a short, bearded woman, would you have treated me the same?” The hospitalist went flushed and silent because she didn’t have an answer.

CV: How can people be good and helpful allies?

LF: For teachers and parents: surround kids with people who are intersex, trans, people with disabilities, etc. Early exposure to diversity is how children learn to be accepting.

For doctors and hospitals: learn about our community from us. Be open to new ideas. Invite an intersex doctor or advocate to be on your ethics board and review policies of intersex and gender-affirming care.

For others: listen to our stories, support intersex artists, and vote in support of our rights. The same goes for supporting the disabled community. You don’t have to be an expert in queer history, or politics, or medicine to fight alongside us. You just have to value bodily autonomy, inclusion, and a better, more just future.

Find @LiatFeller on TikTok and Instagram.