by Zamna Avila
Tuesday Nov 24, 2009
Ask if Tia Owen is gay and you are likely to get quip and simple answer.
"My answer is no, but I’m mildly elated," Owen, 61, said. "I don’t consider myself gay or lesbian. To be a lesbian you need to be a woman; to be gay you need to be a man. "
Owen isn’t just being facetious. Owen, who now is the chief operating officer for a publicly-owned nutritional company in Las Vegas, was born with both female and male reproductive organs.
"(If) somebody asked me what is it like to be female or somebody asked me how it’s like to be a male, I don’t think I could describe either," Owen said. "I live life out loud (and) upfront. If you see me outside, whether business or socially, I look like an industrial-sized Mrs. Doubtfire."
Although Owen hasn’t owned or worn male clothing for about 20 years, Owen embraces both male and female identities, and is not overly concerned with pronouns.
"Most people around me tend to use a female pronoun," Owen said. "Different circumstances have engendered different nomenclatures at different stages in my life," and that typically has concerned more people around me than it has concerned me."
Although Owen experienced extreme hormone fluctuations as teenager, undergoing both male and female puberty, and ailments through adult life, it wasn’t until Owen’s prostate cancer diagnoses at 29 that doctors realized the Vegas resident also had female reproductive organs.
"For a lot of my life, I considered that I had some kind of curse," Owen said. "I’ve come to realize that I am a walking miracle ... I was blessed with a great body and I and a great mind; I value both of them."
But being intersex also has been cause for pause with respect to morals and relationships. Owen was reared in a conservative Mormon community in Mesa, Ariz. Owen’s ancestry lineage can followed up to Schaderch Roundy, a body guard to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints founder Joseph Smith.
"And yet, in today’s world the Mormons don’t necessarily have a place in the table for people like me," Owen said. "A lot of people have a difficult time relating to someone they don’t understand, and that’s the foundation for a lot of discrimination."
Owen compares living in the small Mormon community in the 60s to living in the suburbs in the 50s; growing up repressed, not having anyone to talk to and often questioning sexuality due to the dual body changes, even though Owen wasn’t inclined toward male sexual relationships.
In fact, while many intersex people also are sterile, Owen, who’s been married three times, has fathered five children and, at the same time, produced viable ova (or eggs.) Owen also helped rear two stepchildren and a couple of foster children.
But the concurrent functionality of the physiology adversely impacted Owen’s health, surviving cancer four times. In Owen’s 40s testicular cancer made it necessary to surgically remove most of the male reproductive organs. The lack of testosterone production gave way to breast development.
"I chose to go with it," Owen said. "I underwent a name change. I just went with the flow."
And, while reasoning about Owen’s condition is purely physiological and has nothing to do with sexual orientation, some church members suggested a mastectomy.
"There is a tendency to adjudicate against those who are not homogeneous to you," Owen said. "I’ve had people express to me that my circumstance is a choice and I should do whatever is required to become a male."
Owen eventually became the first intersex person to serve as executive director of Affirmation Gay and Lesbian Mormons.
"This discrimination thing, I’m sure I’ve experienced but I haven’t dwelled in it," Owen, who added people who discriminate have more to lose with their actions, said. "Regardless of what table I’m sitting at I have something to contribute and if I’m being a good person ... and can contribute something, what else is there?"
Notwithstanding, Owen recently was shocked to learn there hadn’t been an ex-communication from the church. About 20 years ago, Owen received a letter from the church’s high court to appear at a hearing Owen suspects may have had something to do with the nature of the Vegas’ residents lifestyle and as much to do with Owen’s theological perceptions, which placed Owen in a "loyal opposition" position. Owen’s only response was through a letter that stated: "I hope you don’t think I am interested in you meeting."
"Their opinions do not matter to me," Owen said. "The only opinions that matter are the opinions of people who I respect."
Owen added experiencing "Mormondom" has allowed for a different perspective. Although Owen doesn’t consider having an active role with the Mormon Church for several years, there still is a part of Owen that admires emphasis on family, self-sufficiency and other aspects of the religion.
For now, Owen opines there is a distinct difference between the word "acquiesce" and "support," which many news outlets have used to describe the church’s stance on a Utah bill prohibiting discrimination in housing for LGBT people.
Just as the Mormon church acquiesced in ending polygamy as a stipulation to allow Utah to become a state, and just the civil rights movement ended a long standing practice of not allowing the priesthood of black people, so is this concession a form acquiescence, not support?
"My hope for the coming years is that the Mormon Church also will acquiesce in the notion that families are consists of people who love each other, regardless of their gender," Owen said. "Will it happen in my lifetime? I don’t know but at the same time, I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time spending the precious moments of my life being concerned with what they want to do or not do."
So why is there such opposition to same-sex marriage? Owen believes the answer is simple. It’s about the sheep being led by the herder, the president of the religious organization, who is viewed as a prophet, has the ultimate word.
"By and large, the member of the church will wait to be told what they think," Owen explained. "When the prophet speaks the thinking has been done ... from their perspective, even if they disagree with it, they feel a drive to be subservient."
And yet Owen suggests the best way to foster this change is not by carrying banners or protesting, but through one-on-one interaction with congregates. Several of Owen’s business associates are devout Mormons and Owen has been able engender mutual respect through conversation and humor.
"It’s easy to disarm a lot of things with humor," Owen said. "It’s a great diffuser. If nothing else, someone can walk away with a chuckle, instead of a grumble."
With all the challenges, health issues and changes, Owen has managed to live a full life, help build a company from scratch, create and build upon great relationships. And Owen remains optimistic about the future.
"Life is great if you view everyday as a new adventure," Owen concluded. "It’s all about opportunity of excellence... Everyday life is a choice, even when you’d like to portray that there is no choice... I wouldn’t want to diminish the richness of my life to become average."