Shortly after the reveal that Lauren (Bailey De Young) was born intersex on the Season 2 premiere of MTV's Faking It, her stepsister Amy (Rita Volk) asks a question that will likely be on many viewers' minds: "What exactly does 'intersex' mean?"
"It means it's none of your fucking business," Lauren snaps, before fleeing the room.
In terms of accepting her identity as a woman with an intersex condition, Lauren has a long way to go. But on a larger scale, Faking It — a show that already features openly queer and questioning characters — is breaking new ground simply by making one of its regulars intersex. Though still in the beginning stages, Lauren's storyline is a major step forward in intersex representation.
Intersex is not a rare condition, but it is largely invisible. According to Kimberly Zieselman, the executive director of Advocates for Informed Choice, about one in 2,000 babies is born with an intersex condition, of which there are more than 30.
And, like Lauren, Zieselman was born with a genetic intersex condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. "Women like myself with complete [AIS] are born with XY chromosomes, or typically male chromosomes, and internal testes, but no uterus — no uterus and no reproductive organs," Zieselman told BuzzFeed News via phone. "We're born kind of male on the inside, but typically, on the outside, look very female. I think that fits Lauren's character well, and speaks to some of the things that the writers wanted to do with her character."
Because Lauren had her testes removed at birth, she needs constant hormone replacement, which explains the pills she's been mysteriously taking since the show's first season.
"The more I learned about it, the more honored I was that I got to be part of telling that story," De Young told BuzzFeed News during a visit to the Faking It set in August. "I was really honored. And then also [I felt] a responsibility to make sure I was doing right by people who have dealt with that."
The decision to make Lauren intersex emerged as the Faking It writers were plotting the series' debut season. Showrunner Carter Covington knew he wanted to give Lauren a secret that would tie her into the show's themes of "passing" and existing outside of a traditional sexuality or gender norm, but he wasn't sure what that would be.
Once Covington settled on giving Lauren an intersex condition, he made a point to get informed. He first approached GLAAD, which steered him to Advocates for Informed Choice, and Zieselman in particular.
"[Kimberly] introduced us to some other young women who were living with the same condition that Lauren has," Covington said. "A lot of the women that we've talked to who live with this, it's who they are, but they're very anxious about sharing it with people because there's a lack of compassion and understanding. People assume that they're transgender, which they're not. They assume it's something about their sexual orientation."
The confusion over what it means to be intersex is part of what made Zieselman interested in collaborating with Covington and the Faking It writers. But, at the same time, she wanted to be sure Lauren's storyline would be grounded in reality. "I'll admit at first I was skeptical," Zieselman said. "The other times in history so far that intersex characters have been portrayed on TV, they have, first of all, never been main characters, but they've been small parts — maybe in one episode — and, for the most part, it has not been tastefully done or respectfully done."
Intersex storylines have indeed been relegated to "case of the week" characters on series like ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Fox's House, and, most recently, Showtime's Masters of Sex. In one of the more notable (and commendable) examples, Freaks and Geeks included a storyline in which Ken (Seth Rogen) dated a girl named Amy (Jessica Campbell) who revealed she had been born intersex.
But a phone conversation with Covington, in which he explained his vision for the character of Lauren, as well as his larger goals for Faking It, convinced Zieselman that he was on the right track. He recognized the significance of granting an intersex identity to a main character whom viewers had spent the first season getting to know. "I understood his vision," Zieselman said. "Talking to the writers, they're very, very interested and very, very respectful and want to do this right. They want to tell a real story."
Lauren's AIS adds depth to her character, but it also helps normalize intersex for those unfamiliar with the condition and reflects the reality of growing up different. Part of the character's arc in Season 2 will be opening up about something she's long kept hidden, while also learning to accept herself as someone who was born intersex. It's not an easy process, which accurately reflects the struggle many intersex individuals face.
"This is something that's been a secret her entire life, and so now that her secret is starting to come out, she's gotten lots of reactions," De Young said. "She maybe gets some surprise acceptance that she doesn't expect from people she doesn't expect that from. But that doesn't mean she all of the sudden accepts it. So she has her own journey of loving herself and being open and comfortable and secure."
For Covington, it was important to establish Lauren's being intersex as a part of her identity, but not as the sole aspect of her character. At the same time, he noted that, as is the case with all the characters on Faking It, the part of herself that Lauren's suppressing ends up informing so much else about her.
"As a gay person, I know that my experience is not just about me being gay," Covington said. "It's the prism of which the experiences I have filter through. And that's the same with being intersex … It's a key part of who you are and how you feel in the world, whether you feel normal or whether you feel different."
Zieselman believes the mere presence of an intersex main character on television is an essential step in the right direction for the movement. As she sees it, they're still at a stage of needing to raise awareness about something many people struggle to comprehend.
Both Zieselman and Covington also hope that Lauren can be a point of identification for young people trying to come to terms with, or to come out about, their intersex conditions. As common as being intersex is, the lack of representation means there's still a serious stigma, something that advocates are doing their best to fight against.
"It's probably decades behind the LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] movement, and years behind the transgender movement," Zieselman said. "It takes a little more explanation, especially when you're dealing with, as you know, a society that gets confused by anything that's non-binary around sex, to say nothing of gender and sexual orientation. It's a complicated issue. It's not an easy, quick explanation. But we're getting there."
Of course, AIS in particular is only one type of intersex, which means that there will be plenty of young people born intersex who can't entirely relate to Lauren's story. Nevertheless, Covington believes that the storyline — like so much of what he's trying to accomplish on Faking It — will be thematically resonant on a larger scale.
"I feel more confident in the show's ability to have people connect with the stories we're trying to tell and what we're trying to say," he said. "We've gone through great care to make sure the emotional issues resonate with people who are intersex … I don't know if anyone will ever, unless they actually make their own TV show about their life, see their own experience reflected. Our goal was to get close enough so that if you were born intersex or you weren't, you can relate to what the character is going through."