Thursday, November 13, 2014

H is for Homosexuality

Today H is for homosexuality.  I have written about the relationship between homosexuality and intersex before, but it is complicated, so a refresher is in order.  If you believe sexual orientation is dependent on biological sex (it’s not) then by definition you would have to believe all intersex people are bisexual (they aren’t).

Society lumps intersex together with the LGBT community all the time.  This is sometimes done by straight cisgender people (the few who know about intersex) who don’t recognize the differences and nuanced varieties of sex and gender.  Other times this lumping is done by LGBT activists who see us as having a common interest in fighting for sex and gender variance.  This automatic lumping, though usually well intended, is somewhat ignorant.  Many intersex people consider themselves to be straight, and live in seemingly heterosexual relationships.  They often do not want to be associated with the LGBT movement or sexual politics.
   
That being said, gays and intersex people have a lot in common.  We both face discrimination based on sexual and gender norms.  Homosexuals, transgender people, intersex people, genderqueer or any gender nonconforming people, would do well to band together.  Even if they do not identify as gay, intersex people are still discriminated against and mutilated.  Their issues and concerns overlap with gay and transgender issues to the point they make natural allies.


Sexual orientation and biological sex are separate issues.  Homosexuality depends, by definition, on biological sex categories.  Gay and straight relationships, by definition, require people to identify as men and women, you can’t have a same sex relationship if there are no socially recognized sexes.  The same is true of intersex.  Intersex wouldn’t exist as a social group that deviates from male and female if those groups didn’t exist.  Our social catagories were just made to define us as separate from the mainstream.  Can an intersex person be gay (or straight)?  That depends on their gender identity and sexual orientation, I think they can, but some might disagree with me, it’s all a matter of identity and definition.      

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

H is for Herculine Barbin

I have been wanting to cover more historical people who are intersex, so today H is for Herculine Barbin.  Most of what we know about Barbin’s tragic life comes from her memoirs.

Herculine Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d’Angley France in 1838.  She (pronouns will change throughout this story) was raised female.  Her family was poor but sent her to study at a convent school on a charity scholarship.  She had a crush on a girl there are and was punished for going into her room.  In puberty she never menstruated and remained flat chested.  In 1857 at the age of 17 she graduated and went to Le Chateau to become a teacher.  A year later she got a job as a assistant teacher at a girls school.  She fell in love with one of the teachers there, Sara, and the two had an affair.
 
Barbin was often ill and suffered excrutiating pain.  She had talked about her condition in confession.  She asked the Bishop of La Rochelle, Jean-Francios-Ann Landriot for permission to break the silence of the confessional to see a doctor.  Doctor Chesnet examined her in 1860 was shocked to discover she had a small vagina, small penis and internal testicles.

A judge made a legal decision to declare Barbin officially male, with the name Abel Barbin.  This made the news in some of the French papers.  He (told you the pronouns would change, this is how it is in the memoirs) left Sara and the girls school and moved to Paris and lived there in poverty.  There he wrote these memoirs, reputedly as a part of therapy.  Obviously very depressed the memoirs say he felt punished, disinherited and subject to a “ridiculous inquisition”.

In 1868, at the age of 30, Barbin was found dead.  He had committed suicide by inhaling gas from his coal gas stove.  The memoirs were found beside his bed.


Herculine Barbin is a very important figure in the intersex movement.  The memoirs were rediscoverd by sociologist and gender theorist Michael Foucault who published them is 1980.  The French film The Mystery of Alexina and the play Herculine are based on her life.  She also is a character in the plays A Mouthful of Birds by Caryl Churchill and David Lan and Hidden: a Gender by Kate Bornstein.  The books Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides and Orlando by Virginia Woolf were inspired by the memoirs.  Her birthday, November 8, is the international Intersex Day of Rememberance.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

H is for Hermaphrodite

Our first word is hermaphrodite (no surprise there, right?).  A hermaphrodite is an organism with male and female reproductive organs.  Many animals are hermaphroditic species like earthworms, snails, starfish etc.  Most flowering plants are also hermaphroditic. 

Historically intersex conditions were classified as either true hermaphrodites (with a mix of ovarian and testicular tissue, or an ovary and a testicle) or pseudohermaphrodites (all other intersex conditions).  This has obviously fallen out of favor for the term intersex.  This is a good nomenclature switch since humans are not a hermaphroditic species.  There are no intersex conditions that result in a body that is reproductively functional as a male and female.  As I mentioned in my ambiguous genitalia post, more masculine genitals mean less feminine and vice versa, you don’t get both in humans.
 

I have to admit, I sometimes use the word hermaphrodite to describe myself to others.  I realize this is controversial.  Many intersex people consider the word hermaphrodite offensive, or at least not PC. Others use it as a term of empowerment.  I find it makes a good shorthand for people who have never heard of intersex.  They already have some idea what hermaphrodite means, thus shortening what would be a lengthy explanation.  Am I right to do this?  Am I being offensive or is it ok to shorten explanations in a way people will better understand?  Do you call yourself a hermaphrodite?  I would love to hear your opinions.    

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Feminism and Intersex

Today is an election.  As such I have decided to write a political buffer between G and H on feminism.  I forgot to cover it in the F’s.  Feminism and intersex have an odd and complicated relationship.  I will cover as many of the facets of it as I can.

The kind of feminist that must be reviewed is the TERF, that’s trans exclusionary radicle feminist.  TERFs don’t believe in including trans people in feminist organizations, women’s spaces or discussions on sexism.  They actively exclude transwomen from many of their organizations, most famously the Michigan Womyns Music Festival.  They are cis women but call themselves “women born women” and consider “TERF” and “cis” to be slurs.  They believe sex cannot be changed.  Thus transwomen are men who are trying to infiltrate their spaces and transmen are women who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome from the patriarchy.  TERFs also strongly believe in socialization.  Boys are raised to dominate women and girls are raised to accept this and call it femininity.  They transwomen are still trying to dominate women by forcing TERFs to accept their gender identity, use women’s bathrooms etc.  Also if they still have their penis that makes them dangerous since penises are rape weapons.  Most importantly TERFs believe that anyone born and socialized as a male is privledged and has not experienced sexism and cannot fully understand feminism.  Like most transphobic people, TERFS claim intersex is just a medical condition and too small a minority to factor in the debate.  There are transfeminists and gender critical feminists who counter this by saying intersex proves sex is a spectrum.  They also point out that socialization varies considerably.  Most importantly they point out transgender people are discriminated against far more than ciswomen.  They even go so far as to say this discrimination against transwomen comes from a hatred and fear of femininity so in a roundabout way they do experience sexism.   This is controversial.  TERFs claim the term “cis” implies having a female body is a privilege over trans people.  This is obviously not true.  A female body is not an advantage in society.  But recognizing trans and intersex people are also discriminated against does not mean cis women are not.  The only intersex supportive thing the TERFs offer is that they are opposed to surgeries on intersex infants because it is mutilation and you cannot change the babies sex anyways.


I am glad there are those who are speaking out and saying transgender people and intersex peopleare not antifeminist.  In fact there are many great transfeminist writers out there.  For more I would recommend “Whipping Girl” by Julia Serano or this excellent article at the Intersex Roadshow blog found at:  http://intersexroadshow.blogspot.com/2014/09/trans-exclusionary-radical-feminists.html

Thursday, October 23, 2014

G is for Gender Roles

Today G is for gender roles.  This is a very broad topic so this is a very brief overview.  Gender roles are the social and behavioral norms that women and men are expected to follow.  Some cultures have three or more gender roles.  Gender roles influence most small day to day behaviors (what clothes to wear, how to talk, etc.) as well as major life decisions (what kind of career, if any, to have, what house chores to do etc.).  These roles are reinforced in nearly every aspect of society and serious deviation from them is severely discriminated against.  Gender roles often devolve into stereotypes, especially in entertainment.  Gender roles are so ingrained that in same sex couples it is still assumed that one has a more masculine role and the other a more feminine role.  A couple without gender roles is something mainstream society just can’t fathom.     

Whether these roles are inherent or socially constructed is a matter of great debate.  It is very difficult to separate biology/psychology and culture in this case because boys and girls are socialized very differently from birth on.  A popular theory is that social norms and expectations are created by biology (women give birth so it makes sense for them to care for the children, for example).  The problem with this is gender norms are changing fast, especially in the last sixty years, biology has not.  Feminists consider masculinity and femininity to be social constructs that reinforce patriarchy by keeping women in a subservient position.
       

What do gender roles have to do with intersex?  That depends on who you ask.  Personally, I think this is the only real social benefit to being intersex.  We (or at least I) don’t feel constrained by gender roles.  It is easy to say those norms don’t really apply to me, why should I try to fit a mold that will never fit me very well?  Of course some intersex people will disagree with my interpretation on gender roles, and that’s ok.  What do you think?  To what extent should intersex people try to live a traditionally masculine or feminine gender role? 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

G is for Genderism

Our G word for today is genderism.  Genderism, like all –isms, is a biased, discriminatory worldview.  Genderism is the view that there are, or should be, only two genders and they are inherently linked to biology.  This obviously reinforces discrimination, biases, and negative attitudes towards all gender binary nonconforming people.  It is the overarching ideology used to justify transphobia and trans-bashing.    


Obviously intersex people’s very existence challenges genderism.  This is a two edged sword.  Because of genderism we are discriminated against (genderist people think we are disordered and too small a minority to be relevant to the debate), but because it is a scientific, biological challenge, we are in a unique position to challenge genderist views.  Genderist people like to argue that transgender and binary nonconforming people are clearly insane, denying basic anatomical facts.  Thus intersex people are especially devastating to their views.  Personally I don’t like it when intersex people are used in identity politics debates, it disregards our identity and experiences, reducing us to a fact for a debate.  That being said I can understand why people do this.  What do you think?  Leave a comment.     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

G is for Gender Bending

Today G is for gender bending, also known as genderfuck (I hope my readers will forgive the obscenity, I don’t name these things).  A gender bender is a person on who rebels against gender norms and expectations, usually as a form of activism against restrictive gender roles.  This is usually done by exaggerating masculine and feminine traits to the level of parody.  It is gender performativity at its most blatant.
 
The common image of gender bending is of a burly, heavy set man with a full beard, wearing a dress, makeup and heels.  Because clothing is still such a part of gender presentation, it is usually the key part of a gender bending performance.  Unlike a cross dresser or drag artist, the goal is to confuse gender markers, not appear as the sex other than the one you were born as.  Androgynous people may be seen as a more subtle form of gender bending, but is usually not a form of activism.  There is also a growing trend among liberal parents to intentionally give their children toys and clothing that are gender neutral, or toys for both genders.  They are trying to prevent their children from forming sexist preconceived notions of gender and are essentially practicing gender bending.


I think in some ways intersex is kind of a biological form of gender bending.  Intersex is not necessarily political, but it can be, and we are often used in gender identity politics debates.  Like the gender benders, mainstream society also finds us disturbing because we transgress gender expectations.  No matter our politics or identity, we force the mainstream to rethink gender norms which is the goal of the gender bender.  A world with fewer gender expectations would certainly be good for intersex people.  Should we embrace gender bending?  Leave comments and let me know what you think.