Just a few short years ago, sociology professor Georgiann Davis was building her academic career in the traditional way: publishing papers, working on her first book, and presenting at conferences.
“Sometimes at conferences I felt like I was preaching to the choir,” she recalled. “I wanted more feedback, a pulse on the impact the research was having.”
Now, as the country contends with so-called “transgender bathroom bills” and conventional views of what defines male and female butt up against medical facts, Davis has become something of a celebrity. It began with her dissertation and a personal blog that grew from it. She joined UNLV in 2014 as she finalized her first book. She was invited to give a campus public lecture and wrote “5 Things I Wish You Knew About Intersex People” for the UNLV News Center to promote the event. It quickly became our website’s most-read article and her media coverage has exploded since. This spring she was featured as an expert in “Gender Revolution,” a groundbreaking cover story in National Geographic and its companion documentary from Katie Couric.
Her book Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (2015, NYU Press) explores how intersex — which refers to various conditions in which a person is born with both male and female reproductive or sexual organs — is “treated” in the medical community. As was the case with Davis, parents and doctors often choose an intersex child’s gender and then subject them to surgery to make them appear more distinctly male or female. Davis was told she had ovarian cancer when in fact the doctor removed internal testes.
She hesitated to write about her own experiences as she published in research journals until she realized they were inseparable. It was then that her research began to make an impact beyond academic circles and her public persona took off.
“As I see it, it’s not only desirable, but a moral obligation to discuss our knowledge outside the academy,” Davis said. “It’s what Lee Badgett describes as the public professor. Being able to get my work before a broader audience — and to use it to counter misinformation — why wouldn’t I do that just because I’m an academic first?’”
Being feted alongside John Legend and Melissa McCarthy at the Television Critics Association meeting in Los Angeles was a blast, she said, but her top accolade came from a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief. Contesting Intersex was cited in a transgender bathroom rights case before the court.
“There is some cost to being a public professor,” she said. “I’ve gotten some emails that are cruel and hateful, but for every one of those, there are a dozen other supportive ones. A 9-year-old and his mother sent me a video sharing his experience with doctors and how it’s comforting for him to know there are people like him out there.”
Next up: Davis is studying the factors at play when a doctor chooses his or her specialty. Not surprisingly, there are gender and racial differences in those choices and Davis wants to find out what drives them.
She’s also working on a second book, which again is growing from a blog post, titled “#IntersexyFat.” It explores how the two traits come together amidst a society focused on the pursuit of the perfect body — a topic her NYU Press editor believes will resonate with an even wider audience than Contesting Intersex has.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hate my fat body,” Davis wrote, “not because my fatness directly harms my health (it doesn’t — my last physical and lab workup confirmed I am healthy), but because society repeatedly sends a loud message that fatness is unhealthy (wrong) and universally ugly, as if attractiveness isn’t subjective.
“Ten years ago I wouldn’t dare to publicly identify as intersex, let alone say I’m proud to be intersex. But I got here by owning, personally and professionally, that part of my body.”
Now she wonders if owning her fatness could transform her life in a similar way.