FLEMINGTON, NJ – The way Betsy Driver sees it, her victory in the Borough Council race here yesterday marks a first for a U.S. election.
Driver, a Democrat, won the election along with independent Michael Harris. Both are newcomers who unseated two incumbent candidates. They ran on local issues, each critical of what they saw as a lack of transparency by the existing Borough Council and a failure to come up with a plan to save the aging landmark Union Hotel on Main Street here. Even though it was a crowded race, many in the borough think Driver won more votes than any other Flemington Borough candidate ever.
But Driver notes her election contains a “footnote.” She believes her victory makes her “only the second person in the world who is open about their intersex status to be elected to public office.”
The other is her friend Tony Briffa. Briffa is a former mayor and deputy mayor of Hobsons Bay, a city in Victoria, Australia.
The concept of intersex individuals confuses many. Driver has made it her mission to advocate for intersex persons and to educate the public about them.
“My intersex advocacy is something I am very proud of,” Driver said. “Whenever possible, I enjoy educating people about what it is - a congenital difference in sex characteristics.”
What intersex is not, Driver says, is transgender, hermaphrodite or a gender issue.
Intersex refers to people born with variations of sex characteristics that differ from what medicine considers standard male or female. It may be obvious at birth, or it may not be outwardly apparent.
Driver’s advocacy is rooted in her life story.
“When I was born, the doctors who delivered me were unable to clearly tell my mom and dad whether I was male or female,” she said. “After a couple days, they found a uterus and ovaries.” A test determined her chromosomes were standard female, or XX.
“From that moment forward, my body was medicalized and surgically altered without my consent,” Driver said. It was done to make her “conform to what the doctors felt a female body should look like.” It started when she was just 8 months old.
The interventions continued until her mid- to late teens. The surgeries and hormonal treatments were intended to help her body look and behave more female, “even though I always knew my gender was female,” she said.
She suspects some of the hormone treatments given to her as a teen were partly responsible for the breast and ovarian cancers she would be diagnosed with decades later.
During her childhood, Driver said both of her parents and she were told there were no other children with a body like hers. She knows now that wasn’t true.
In 2001, shortly after discovering the truth about what was done to her body in childhood, Driver co-founded the world’s first online peer support organization for people born with intersex variations.
“Bodies Like Ours was truly ground-breaking,” Driver says. “People throughout the world discovered they were not alone despite a lifetime of being told otherwise.”
A few years later, in 2003, Driver started Intersex Awareness Day “so that people ... could anchor education efforts around a common day.”
Since then, Intersex Awareness Day has been recognized by many governments, including the U.S. State Department. The U.N. has marked it with proclamations and informational publications.
Driver has traveled the world as she works on a book of stories and photos of people with intersex variations. Estimates of how many people are affected by differences in sex characteristics range from .2 percent up to 1.7 percent, according to Driver.
But intersex wasn’t part of Driver’s campaign platform; she ran as a conventional candidate.
“The people have spoken,” Driver said in an interview this week. “I think a mandate regarding the future of downtown Flemington has been issued by the residents.”