Jul 22, 2018

Gonads: Dana

When Dana Zzyym applied for their first passport back in 2014, they were handed a pretty straightforward application. Name, place of birth, photo ID -- the usual. But one question on the application stopped Dana in their tracks: male or female? Dana, technically, wasn’t either.

In this episode, we follow the story of Dana Zzyym, Navy veteran and activist, which starts long before they scribble the word "intersex” on their passport application. Along the way, we see what happens when our inner biological realities bump into the outside world, and the power of words to shape us.

This episode is a companion piece to Gonads, Episode 4, Dutee.

"Dana" was reported by Molly Webster, and co-produced with Jad Abumrad. It had production help from Rachael Cusick, and editing by Pat Walters. Wordplay categories were written, performed, and produced by Majel Connery and Alex Overington. 

Special thanks to Paula Stone Williams, Gerry Callahan, Lambda Legal, Kathy Tu, Matt Collette, Arianne Wack, Carter Hodge, and Liza Yeager.

Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate. 

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MOLLY WEBSTER: Before we get started, this episode has a lot of strong language including repetitive f-bombs strung together to a beat.




MOLLY: I'm Molly Webster. This is Gonads, episode 5. This week we're bringing you a pair of episodes. This is the second one in the pair. They grew out of our reporting on Xs and Ys and all the different biological realities that live inside of us. In this episode ...


ENGINEER: There you go. They're calling him.


MOLLY: Dana Zzyym.




MOLLY: Hello, hello.


DANA ZZYYM: Hi, I can hear you.


MOLLY: Hi, this is Molly Webster. I can hear you.


DANA ZZYYM: I got one ear working, the other one's pretty low. But ...


ENGINEER: Do you want to just turn the headphones around? Or is that working for you?


MOLLY: Dana is doing something kind of historic, I guess you could say.


DANA ZZYYM: It's a little soft.


MOLLY: And just to start us off, Dana uses the pronoun 'they.' Not 'him' or 'her,' but 'they.' And a few years ago ...


DANA ZZYYM: 2015 or '14, I can't remember which. I have memory issues.


MOLLY: It's around 2014, Dana is filling out a passport application. And there are two boxes to check: male or female. And Dana's like, "Well, I'm not either one of those." And so they wrote in a third option: intersex.


DANA ZZYYM: I basically applied for my passport, got talked to by the manager of the office. He took me aside and said, "You know, you cannot get this passport." And they turned me down. And I appealed and ...


MOLLY: You can appeal a passport application?




MOLLY: To who? Do you go back to the passport office?


DANA ZZYYM: Just to the passport office.


MOLLY: I appeal!


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, I took everything back to the passport office and, you know, and I appealed.


MOLLY: But the passport office rejected the appeal basically saying, male or female, that's all we got.


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, and from there I found legal counsel.


MOLLY: So Dana ends up suing the State Department for a third non female, non-male option. So we brought Dana into the studio to talk about the State Department case. And while we were having our conversation, what began to unfold, like, in their personal life story was this tale of words. How words have the power to shape the world.


[CHOIR: Boy. Boy.]


DANA ZZYYM: I was an Air Force brat, so we moved all over the place.


MOLLY: Dana was born in 1958, Michigan.


MOLLY: Who was in the military, your dad or your mom?


DANA ZZYYM: My dad. He was a career air force pilot. So I was in Alabama for a while, Texas for a while, Montana for a while, England for a while.


MOLLY: As a kid!


DANA ZZYYM: As a kid.


MOLLY: Grew up with a bunch of brothers.


DANA ZZYYM: Two older brothers and one younger.


MOLLY: Like, a whole pack of boys.


DANA ZZYYM: Approximately 18 months apart.


MOLLY: But Dana never really felt like one of them.


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah. I got teased a lot. When I started showering with other boys in probably like the fifth grade, started getting teased about my size and looking physically different down there, because my testicles didn't look like the other boys. What it looked like? A stuffed sausage. It was little. Didn't look right.


MOLLY: And Dana said it never felt right either.


DANA ZZYYM: Well, I was always having pain peeing.


MOLLY: Oof. From when you were little?


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, you know, going to the bathroom and those kind of things. Everything hurt. Not only that, but I was klutz.


MOLLY: Smaller.


DANA ZZYYM: You know, I threw a ball like a girl, and ...


MOLLY: The brothers tried to help.


DANA ZZYYM: Older brother was always trying to teach me how to do things better. He was my hero for trying to stick up for me. But to me, the world was a scary place. My dad was always gone flying, and he was kind of a scary figure. My mother, she had a backhand that wouldn't quit and she never played tennis.


MOLLY: And Dana says for some reason their parents always kept a close watch on them.


DANA ZZYYM: I remember once in childhood, we were living in Arkansas. The girl next door had those cut-out Barbie doll clothes and, you know, where you had cardboard Barbies. She had those and we were playing with those, she and I. And my dad caught us.




DANA ZZYYM: I got my butt spanked, and boys don't play with dolls.




DANA ZZYYM: My brothers were able to do things similar to that, but I wasn't allowed to.


MOLLY: Oh, so you think, like, if your brother was playing the paper dolls with the neighbor it would have been a different response?


DANA ZZYYM: I do believe that.


MOLLY: Did you have any idea, like, why?


DANA ZZYYM: Nope. I knew something was different. I just had no words. My world was very small.


MOLLY: And I think you could say it was partially because of that smallness, in an effort to make the world, like, a little bit bigger, in 1978 at 20.


DANA ZZYYM: I joined the Navy.


MOLLY: You did!




MOLLY: That's so interesting, because I would think that you would run away from the military after your dad.


DANA ZZYYM: My dad was in the Air Force. One of the decisions was, well I ...


MOLLY: Oh, you went opposite!


DANA ZZYYM: [laughs] Yeah! Went to ...


[NEWS CLIP: Some 60 Americans are now beginning their sixth day of captivity in Tehran.]


DANA ZZYYM: The Persian Gulf. And then ...


[NEWS CLIP: Small group of islands of the edge of the Antarctic.]


DANA ZZYYM: The Falkland Islands. And then I did three tours in Beirut.


MOLLY: How did it feel to be -- to be part of the military, or at least away from home and away from your siblings and your parents?


DANA ZZYYM: It felt fairly good. I felt a little free. Free -- free of the confines. But a couple things happened when I was in the Navy. About five years in. First, people started thinking I was gay. Not that I did anything to encourage that. I didn't date anybody, I didn't do anything.


MOLLY: Or do you remember how that started or why?


DANA ZZYYM: Well, because I was so small. I didn't go out drinking and trying to pick up women with the guys. Yeah, and there was somebody on board my first ship who I guess was putting books and magazines on my rack, very gay content.


MOLLY: Gay porn or something.


DANA ZZYYM: Explicit gay porn and some books.


MOLLY: You could think that leaving gay porn on someone's bed or bookshelf is not that big of a deal, or it's some sort of like initiation thing or something. But this was at a time ...


DANA ZZYYM: Before Don't Ask Don't Tell.


MOLLY: Where if you were gay, you were kicked out.


DANA ZZYYM: And so I got caught up in witch hunts. You know, at one point the NIS, which is a precursor to the NCIS ...


MOLLY: The National Institute of Security?


DANA ZZYYM: Navy Intelligence Service.


MOLLY: Oh, okay. Close. Give me another acronym, I'll nail it. [laughs]


DANA ZZYYM: Anyway, so they interrogated me about, you know, who I was dating, who I had sex with.


MOLLY: Really?


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah. You know, those kind of things.


MOLLY: And then while all that was happening ...


DANA ZZYYM: When I was in Beirut on my second tour, late fall 1982.


MOLLY: Dana was working below deck doing some paperwork in a noisy fan room. And an announcement went out on the ship that said that they're gonna do a test launch of one of the gigantic missiles on board. But Dana didn't hear the announcement because they were in this super loud room.


DANA ZZYYM: And I get done my paperwork. I open the hatch to go back into the ship. I step out, the gun goes off.


MOLLY: Firing a 70-pound projectile.


DANA ZZYYM: Maybe 20-30 feet away from my head.


MOLLY: Holy crap!


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, and the corpsman basically wiped blood out of my ears, gave me some aspirin and he said "Well, you'll get your balance back and go back to work." Basically, back in those days they didn't know about, or they weren't too concerned about brain injuries or anything like that. They just say, "Hey, you just go back to work. You're fine." You know, they didn't really realize how much screwed up you can be from them.


MOLLY: Dana says that ever since that time ...


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah. I can't -- I have a hard time looking backwards and telling time.


MOLLY: Needless to say, after the witch hunts and the brain injury ...


DANA ZZYYM: They asked me to re-up, and I'm like, "No." You know, when I got out, you know, four years after I got out I think it was or a little bit longer, I started going to Colorado State University. And I was about 30 years old when I started college.


MOLLY: During their first semester, Dana was in a poetry class and Dana says something in the words of those poets and in the class discussion, pushed them to go see the college therapist.


DANA ZZYYM: I walked in and said, "Well, you know, I think I'm depressed and I'm think I'm gay.


[CHOIR: Gay. Gay male.]


MOLLY: Tell me more about the why you thought you were gay.


DANA ZZYYM: Well, two things. All that confusion going on in my mind, you know, am I a boy or girl kind of thing is, I don't really know what the hell is going on with me anyway.


MOLLY: Dana says that he didn't really feel like a boy, like the way other boys do. They kind of felt like an off-kilter kind of boy, and what do you call that?


DANA ZZYYM: And then all these witch hunts in the Navy got me really started thinking about whether I was or not.


MOLLY: Like, maybe those guys were seeing something that Dana couldn't see yet that was true.


DANA ZZYYM: I thought well, I must be a gay man because I didn't know anything else. I didn't know of any other term. We had gay, lesbian, bisexual, and we had cross-dressers.


MOLLY: Oh, yeah.


DANA ZZYYM: That's what we have.


MOLLY: So you're like okay, out of those options, which one feels the most like me?


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, that was the one I thought was the best option that I was. So I went to gay male and you know, I didn't date anybody, but ...


MOLLY: The therapist that Dana saw ended up recommending that they go join this group on campus.


DANA ZZYYM: It was the gay and lesbian alliance, which later became the gay and lesbian and bisexual alliance, you know, because that's how long ago it was.


MOLLY: This would have been 1989-ish?




MOLLY: Like, walking into that group. What did that -- here I am. What did it feel like to here you are?


DANA ZZYYM: My heart was pounding like mad. You know, I didn't know what to expect. And they just said, "Oh, welcome. Have a seat." They didn't ask who are you dating, who you fuck or anything like that.


MOLLY: Those would be some hard first questions. I think I'd run if someone started a conversation with that.


DANA ZZYYM: [laughs] Oh, you know, those were the thoughts that went through my mind. It's like, you know?


MOLLY: And you thought there was, like, an entry visa where you had to, like, sign off on certain things? Yeah.


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, but they were very welcoming. And I thought well, you know, at least there's a place that I can hang out where people accept me for being different.


MOLLY: Within a short while, Dana is not just going to meetings but is protesting with the group. Because around that time, something called Amendment 2 was proposed in Colorado.


[NEWS CLIP: The amendment bans or repeals any state or local law that protects homosexuals from discrimination.]


DANA ZZYYM: Amendment 2, because I was up in Colorado. So we got ourselves pretty organized. I went to the Larimer County Republican convention thing.


MOLLY: Oh, my God. Really?




MOLLY: Oh, so you -- so you became something of an activist.


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, I was a spokesman for the student alliance.


MOLLY: Oh, so you really found a home there!


DANA ZZYYM: It felt pretty good. That's when I started waking up or being woke or whatever the term is.


MOLLY: You were -- I love it!


DANA ZZYYM: Starting to. I'm a lot more woke now than I was then. It was like I got my first sip of coffee and the caffeine started to like, okay ...


MOLLY: Activate your brain? You're like, "Oh, the world looks so different, and so many colors!"




MOLLY: There was one problem, though.


DANA ZZYYM: Living as a gay man, as I was at that time.


MOLLY: Dana was not gay.




MOLLY: They felt at home as a gay man, but they were mostly attracted to women. And towards the end of college in their late 30s ...


DANA ZZYYM: Well, I was in art school working in the fibers department, doing my studio classes, and this woman Winnie kept coming in and watching me work. She got to know me, I got to know her and we started dating.




DANA ZZYYM: We got married.


MOLLY: Really?




MOLLY: Wow! You went all the way to marriage?




MOLLY: And this is in -- this is early aughts or, like, late-90s?




MOLLY: Okay.


DANA ZZYYM: 2007 we got divorced. Five years.


MOLLY: Yeah.


DANA ZZYYM: Didn't work out. We both had issues we weren't dealing with.


MOLLY: Dana says this period of their life up through the marriage and through the end of it, it was very confusing. They were just trying to figure out where they stood, and they were trying out all these terms like ...


[CHOIR: Bisexual!]


MOLLY: Also ...


[CHOIR: trans woman.]


MOLLY: How did that idea get into the room?


DANA ZZYYM: Well, because I mean I was hearing more and more about trans people, and ...


MOLLY: Okay.


DANA ZZYYM: Starting to read a little bit about it, and so I'm like, "Well, maybe -- maybe ..."


MOLLY: And why did that feel more true than gay male or straight male?


DANA ZZYYM: Well, because I knew this -- there was a feminine quality about myself that I had to recognize, okay? So I thought, "Well, if I'm not a man, I must be a woman." And the only kind of woman I thought I could be was going to be a trans woman.


MOLLY: Meaning to Dana, a person who was born male but identified as a woman.




MOLLY: So you're like, "Holy crap!" So you're like -- hmm, that's so interesting that, like ...


DANA ZZYYM: Well, that's where I went to. I can't explain how. That's the only -- yeah.


MOLLY: It's like, in a world where there's limited words, you're just -- you're just, like, trying to figure out the word that fits you.




MOLLY: It's like these small steps towards a truth.


DANA ZZYYM: Mm-hmm. So yeah, after the divorce I'm looking at myself and saying, "Okay, what's going on here with me? This isn't working.


MOLLY: What Dana discovers, after the break.


DANA ZZYYM: It was so cool.


[ANNETTE: Hi. This is Annette calling from Newcastle, California. Radiolab Presents: Gonads is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone in the process of science. Additional support for Radiolab is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]


[PAT WALTERS: Hey, everybody. Pat Walters here. I'm a producer at Radiolab, and I'm here because I need your help. This summer, I'm hosting a series of stories on the show and I have a request for those of you who spend a lot of time with kids: parents, aunts and uncles, teachers. We're looking for stories about what we're calling tiny moments of childhood brilliance.


PAT: Basically, I want to hear about those times when a kid you know did something that just made you lean back and say, "Whoa, how did they do that?" Maybe it was the moment that a kid you'd been reading to for months started reading back to you. Or maybe the kid was at piano lessons and you suddenly noticed they were doing advanced math on the margin of their musical score. Or maybe the kid was in math class and you noticed they were writing music in the margin of their geometry homework. We're interested in those small, specific moments where a kid does something super-smart, but it doesn't have anything to do with a test. If you have a story, please share it with us and go to Radiolab.org/brilliance and record a short audio message for us. Again, that's Radiolab.org/brilliance. Thank you so much.]




MOLLY: We're back. Episode five, the story of Dana Zzyym. At this point Dana is divorced and feeling really unsure about who they are. They tried boy, girl, trans, bi, gay male and marriage. And none of it seemed right.


DANA ZZYYM: I was really disheveled. I was really -- I was crying. I was like -- I wasn't taking care of myself.


MOLLY: Dana says at this point, they started to really wonder where is all this confusion coming from?


DANA ZZYYM: So I started digging deeper. Okay, a lot of stuff is going on with what happened to me as a child.


MOLLY: Dana had always had these, like, memories, some of them hazy, of having surgery as a kid. Being like three, four, five, six, and being in the hospital.


DANA ZZYYM: So I was pretty much there alone most of the time. My grandparents visited me once. My dad was there once.


MOLLY: How many surgeries do you think there were?


DANA ZZYYM: I don't know.


MOLLY: Wow. But more than one.


DANA ZZYYM: Definitely more than one. Between three and six years old, I had multiple. I just don't know how many.


MOLLY: Dana only had, like, tiny fragments of these memories. I mean, it's hard to remember anything when you're three anyways, but now in their 50s, Dana started to look back and wonder what were those surgeries? Also does that explain why I feel so different down there and, like, why I'm in pain?


DANA ZZYYM: At that point, I was in such pain that I was walking bowlegged, trying to keep anything from touching it.




DANA ZZYYM: So I started looking up penis surgeries and trying to figure out what happened there.


MOLLY: Oh, so you're like, "Okay. I don't know what happened to me as a kid, but I know I had this pain, and I know I had these surgeries, so maybe they're connected.


DANA ZZYYM: Right. So I started looking up that. Looking up a lot of different diagrams on penis surgeries, all these different types. And there's thousands of different penis surgeries and I'm like, "Shit, I didn't know there was that many erectile dysfunction surgeries, penis pumps." And I keep looking and I'm like, I'm just trying to match up scar tissues. You know, to ...


MOLLY: That was your approach.


DANA ZZYYM: That was my approach.


MOLLY: Whew, you must have seen some gnarly photos.




MOLLY: And while searching all these photos on the internet, Dana did start to see images where the scar tissue, like the patterns of the scars looked familiar.


DANA ZZYYM: That's when I found this term.


[CHOIR: Intersex.]


DANA ZZYYM: Intersex. And I'm like ...


MOLLY: It just popped up on the screen?


DANA ZZYYM: It popped up one of these surgery things. Intersex. And I'm like, "What the hell is that?" So I typed in intersex. And lo and behold, the internet was full of information on intersex. Yeah, and bells are really starting to go off, ringing in my head, going, "Oh, maybe. Maybe."


MOLLY: Yeah.


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, and I was just starting therapy at the VA Hospital up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She convinced me to go see a urologist at the VA, and he confirmed yes indeed, I was intersex.


[CHOIR: Intersex.]


MOLLY: What does intersex actually even mean in your case? Because it can mean a lot of things. Like, what did -- what did the doctors say?


DANA ZZYYM: My doctor told me I was born with ambiguous genitalia, and that they constructed basically my genitalia to look male.


MOLLY: In other words, like, Dana wasn't born with what the doctors would consider male or female genitalia. It was like they had something that seemed to be either an enlarged clitoris or maybe a small penis. It was unclear. And maybe there's a little bit of a vaginal opening. In Dana's case, and as is often the case with babies that are born this way, parents don't really know what to do and the doctor will basically say, "Well, you got to pick one." And they picked male.


DANA ZZYYM: I don't know exactly who made that decision. I think it was my father who said, "You're not gonna cut that off. Looks like a penis to me." That sounds like my father. But anyway, the doctors they constructed a penis. It should have been large clitoris probably, and that was it.


MOLLY: How old were you at this point, when you figured all this out?




MOLLY: You were 50?


DANA ZZYYM: And I'm 60 now. 10 years ago.


MOLLY: Whoa! You were five-zero when you finally found out that you were intersex.




MOLLY: Dana says when they figured all this out, they had two, like, simultaneous feelings. One ...


DANA ZZYYM: I was -- I was livid. Why didn't my parents tell me this? Why just basically lying to me my whole life?


MOLLY: Did you call them?




MOLLY: What did your mom say?


DANA ZZYYM: Not much. She basically was angry back at me. She said you're a boy. You'll always be a boy.


MOLLY: Was your father still alive when you found out about the intersex?


DANA ZZYYM: Oh, yeah. I called him, too.


MOLLY: What did he say?


DANA ZZYYM: He hemmed and hawed a lot, and kind of said he was sorry, which is where we start reconciling.


MOLLY: Did he explain where he was coming from at all when -- from when you little?


DANA ZZYYM: No, not really. But you know, I had to learn how to forgive myself for all my anger with my parents and forgive them as well.


MOLLY: But Dana says that, like, amidst processing that rage ...


DANA ZZYYM: I was actually euphoric for almost a year.


MOLLY: Tell me about the euphoria. Why?


DANA ZZYYM: Because I finally had an answer. I mean, it was a question I had asked and wondered about my entire life up to that point.


MOLLY: The question being ...


DANA ZZYYM: Am I a boy or a girl? And the answer was yes.


MOLLY: Both.


DANA ZZYYM: Yes. That was euphoric.


MOLLY: What does euphoria feel like to you?


DANA ZZYYM: Walking on air. Oh yeah, I know what I am. I know what I am. I had to break the binary for myself. That was ...


MOLLY: Break the binary.


DANA ZZYYM: Yeah, like okay, if I'm not a man, and I'm not a woman, I must be intersex or hermaphrodite. And that works. But it's not the question I should have been asking, it was like, "Who am I?" And those kind of things, but ...


MOLLY: You're saying the question you should have been asking is, "Who am I?" Not, "Am I a boy or girl?"


DANA ZZYYM: And why -- and why am I here, and those kind of things. Those are questions, the kind of questions most people ask.


MOLLY: What Dana means is that those are the kinds of questions most people get to ask, but they were so forced into, like, wondering if they were a boy or a girl that they never got to get to, like, the big existential life questions that most of us, you know, wrestle with. They were just way back at ground zero.


DANA ZZYYM: I was stuck there, but I got unstuck.


MOLLY: What does it, like, mean to, like, find a word that explains you?


DANA ZZYYM: It was so cool. Yeah, I think it was probably the happiest times in my life.


MOLLY: You now identify as a herm, intersex, non-binary, queer.




MOLLY: Is there anything in that that -- do you feel, like, fully free and found and sort of euphoric and you now? Or is there anything that still feels confining?


DANA ZZYYM: That's pretty much it. I just had a t-shirt made up that says that, but it says, you know, AF at the bottom of it.


[CHOIR: Herm, intersex, non-binary, queer as fuck.]


MOLLY: As fuck.


DANA ZZYYM: Or "And funny." I don't know.


[CHOIR: Herm, intersex, non-binary, queer as fuck.]


MOLLY: You're like, "That's pretty much it. I gotta put it on a t-shirt. Hope nothing else changes."


[CHOIR: Herm, intersex, non-binary, queer as fuck.]


DANA ZZYYM: Well, how are you gonna put that?


[CHOIR: Herm, intersex, non-binary, queer as fuck.]


MOLLY: Since discovering intersex 10 years ago, Dana's become involved in the community repping and traveling to conferences. That's actually what kicked this whole passport thing off. And in May of 2018, Dana and the State Department were back in front of a judge arguing the case on its constitutional merits. In September, a judge ruled in favor of Dana, saying that the federal government cannot refuse a passport based on basic identity. But two months later, the State Department appealed. Another round of oral arguments is expected this coming spring. Since Dana's case began, seven states and three cities including Washington, DC, have non-gendered identification documents.


MOLLY: Special thanks for this episode go to Paula Stone Williams, Kathy Tu, Matt Collette, Lambda Legal and Gerry Callaghan. This episode was reported by me, Molly Webster, and co-produced by Jad Abumrad, with production help from Rachael Cusick and editing by Pat Walters.


MOLLY: Our wordplay music was written, performed and produced by Majel Connery and Alex Overington. And before you go, we'd love you to sign up for our newsletter. You can do that by going to Radiolab.org/newsletter or text gonads to 701-01. That's gonads to 701-01. See ya!


[Hi, this is James Muir from Denver, Colorado. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Maria Matasar-Padilla is our Managing Director. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Maggie Bartolomeo, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, Carter Hodge and Liza Yeager. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]