This Intersex Character Is Leading The Way In YA: BUST Interview

by Alaina Leary

I. W. Gregorio was working full-time as a urologist when the thought came to her: what if there was a young adult novel with a protagonist that wasn’t exclusively male or female, but instead, none of the above?

That was the central driving force behind her YA novel, None of the Above (Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins 2015), which focuses on the identity struggle of main character Kristin Lattimer when she discovers she’s intersex.

Specifically, Kristin has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), which is one of the more than 30 conditions clustered under the umbrella term ‘intersex.’ People born with AIS are genetically male, but they are resistant to the male hormone androgen, so they have external female sex characteristics.

“I feel like the struggle a lot of intersex people faced so well encapsulates the teenage years,” says Gregorio in an interview with BUST.

Gregorio was completing her residency at Stanford when she met the intersex patient who originally inspired her to write None of the Above. The patient was a seventeen-year-old girl who didn’t get her period and discovered she was intersex.

While writing the book, Gregorio says she did a lot of research—late nights reading medical textbooks, poring over firsthand accounts written by intersex women, attending intersex support groups and conferences and speaking to intersex women one-on-one.

It was important to Gregorio that the novel be authentic and medically accurate, because so many people—even medical professionals—still don’t understand what the term ‘intersex’ means.

NoneoftheAbove Cover

At its heart, though, None of the Above is just a story about a high school girl. “The point of the story is that the girl next door could be intersex and you’d never even know it—and it wouldn’t matter,” says Gregorio.

When she was searching for an agent and a publisher, Gregorio received a lot of interest fairly quickly. She found that the market was hungry for diverse literature, which was a relief, because she is also one of the founding members of We Need Diverse Books [], and she served as the VP of Development up until this January, when she stepped down in order to focus on her writing.

Within a month of securing an agent, Gregorio sold None of the Above, and then immediately thought, “Will my book end up on the banned books list?”

Instead, quite the opposite happened: the book was part of the syllabus for an English course at Illinois State University in spring 2015, soon after its release.

Gregorio doesn’t want None of the Above to be an educational resource for readers—well, she does, but she also wants them to enjoy it on a deeper level. She wants readers to love the characters and feel connected with them. “I’d much rather people say they love the character and they couldn’t put it down,” she says.

She’s critical of the way that NOtA has been pigeonholed as an ‘issue book’—essentially, intersex and transgender literature are still in the early stages, much like gay, bisexual and lesbian books were in the 90s and early 2000s. A vast majority of gay, bisexual and lesbian centered books at that time had one plot: the main character coming out and their community’s reaction to it. At this point, books about intersex and transgender characters are going through that development, too, so we can reach a literary landscape where characters can be intersex and transgender and not have that be the most interesting thing about them.

Gregorio calls intersex and transgender characters “earlier on the curve” than gay, bisexual and lesbian protagonists, and says, “There’s more teaching and eye-opening to be done.”

Gregorio’s commitment to diversifying the publishing industry, and her work with We Need Diverse Books, comes out of this criticism. Gregorio wants to see more books on the shelves with an array of diverse characters.

The lack of diversity in publishing is a multi-sectorial problem—more than one area of the industry needs to change in order to make room for innovation in the types of books being produced. “Writers need to be supported by agents and editors,” she says. “Their books need to be supported, and readers need to break out of their comfort zones.”

headshotIWGI.W. Gregorio

Currently, the ways diverse books are marketed is often as a niche book, especially in the case of LGBTQIA and multicultural books. They’re not marketed as books that are widely appealing to a general audience, so readers don’t learn about them in the first place in order to give them a chance. “The only people who want to read it are people who will see it as a mirror, rather than a window,” says Gregorio. She thinks it’s important for readers to be able to personally identify with characters, and that’s a driving factor behind diversifying literature. But it’s equally important that readers see a diverse cast of characters in what they’re reading, so they develop empathy and an understanding toward those who are different from them, especially in Middle Grade and Young Adult publishing.

We Need Diverse Books actually started a hashtag built for this very movement: #WeNeedDiverseBooks. BookExpo America 2014 hosted a children’s literature panel comprised of all white men. When the full list of authors was revealed, there were a more women included, but still no authors of color. “There were more cats than people of color,” says Gregorio, recounting the fact that Grumpy Cat was a part of the panel.

After the hashtag took off, it was clear how much support there was for the movement, so the group started a nonprofit known by the same name. Gregorio has met other writers who are working to diversify the publishing industry, such as Jacqueline Woodson and David Leviathan.

Now, Gregorio is trying to focus on her writing career, and her hope is to publish a YA contemporary novel that focuses on mental health across cultures, and how ethnicity and culture play a part in the stigma toward mental health issues.

Diversity in the publishing industry often begins with a chance—for writers to take the chance to include characters that are rarely seen in fiction, for editors and agents to take the chance to represent and publish these books, and for readers to take the chance and pick them up. Gregorio’s None of the Above proves that a book with an intersex character isn’t just a life lesson or a niche novel—it’s just as captivating and interesting as other books about the tumultuous years of high school.

Alaina Leary is a Boston-area native who is currently a student in the master’s program in Publishing and Writing at her dream school, Emerson College. She’s currently working as an editor and social media coordinator for several brands and publications. She has been published in Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Marie Claire, AfterEllen, CollegeFashionista, Luna Luna Magazine and more. When she’s not busy playing around with words, she spends her time surrounded by cats and at the beach. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books, watching Gilmore Girls, and covering everything in glitter. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys. 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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