Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Who is Intersexed? new thoughts for the new year

Yesterday, I finished the book "Intersex, for Lack of a Better Word" by Thea Hillman. I found it very thought provoking. Hillman was born with a case of Congenital Adrenal Hypreplasia (CAH) so mild it was considered borderline. As such she had "normal" female genitals and did not undergo any surgeries as an infant. She repeatedly mentioned in the book that she often was unsure whether she really was intersexed, and sometimes felt she shouldn't use the label. This presents an interesting point. Intersex in really an umbrella term used to cover a wide variety of medical conditions that have very little in common except that they all result in a body that is biologically neither male or female. While the most visible intersexuals are those, like me, who were born with ambiguous genitals and had them surgically mutilated as an infant, but this does not mean that those with more hidden conditions are any less intersexed (there are many people out there who are intersexed and don't even know it). Some women with Turner's Syndrome (just one X) do not see themselves as intersexed, yes they have unusual sex chromosomes, but they are not hermaphroditic. I have even heard of a provocative button that asks if xxy (Klienfelter's Syndrom) is intersexed since depending on how you look at the chromosomes, they could be totally both male and female, not necessarily a hermaphrodite (the same could also be said of chimeras and some mosaics). As a mosaic with a complete x chromosome and my second sex chromosome made of segments of both x and y, perhaps I also fall into this category. In short, biology does not determine who is intersexed, people (usually doctors) do. It is doctors who decide which bodies are so ambiguous that merit medical intervention. It is often this shared pathologized experience, with repeated examinations and often losing all sexual sensation due to surgeries, that brings intersexuals together to find support and form an intersex community and movement. However this is not always the case. Some intersexuals (like those with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) appear normal at birth and are not mutilated, so how do they fit into this paradigm of community through shared experience? Hillman points out that we all have different experiences, resulting in different emotional issues that affect our identity. Some intersexuals have more in common with the fat acceptance movement (both are told they are not attractive and encourage to change themselves, but feel fine the way they are). Others are emotionally more similar to those with disabilities (both are in world built around assumptions and expectations that they physically cannot meet (heterosexual intercourse, in this case). Also, many intersexuals are psychologically very similar to sex abuse victims (both had others preform invasive acts on their genitals without their consent). So, what is intersex and who is an intersexual? Like all questions involving identity politics, you will get many different answers. I think the best answer is an intersexual is someone born with a condition that makes them not fit into societies catagories of male or female and who chose to take on the label of intersex as a part of their identity and want the community and support that goes with it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Wishes

When I started this blog 4 months ago, I was unsure what sorts of reactions I could expect from people. In spite of this uncertainty, I wrote and invited family and friends to read it, and slowly more people started following. I was amazed and overwhelmed by the acceptance and supportive feedback, I felt so loved. I just wanted to say thank you to all intersex allies out there, your support is more appreciated then you will ever know. in short, I hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

legality of intersex surgery

Non consensual genital mutilation is ethically abhorrent, this begs the question, is there any grounds to render it illegal?

To drag their misguided surgeon to court for restitution, and perhaps set a legal precedent against genital mutilation is a pipe dream for many intersex activists. The trouble is that it is very much an uphill legal battle. Since intersex surgery is accepted medical procedure, it is not considered malpractice. Also, since the surgery is done on infants, by the time they are mature enough to realize what has happened and speak out, the statute of limitations has long passed. Because of all of these difficulties, it would be hard to find a lawyer to take such a case. It would also be almost impossible to find expert testimony, doctors know the cost, both financially and professionally, of a lawsuit, and will circle the wagons to protect their own. They have been doing this to the intersex community for decades, in spite of a warning by the Yale Law and Policy Review that the conditions for consent are arguably not given.

A favorable legal trend for intersexuals might be starting. In Germany Christiare Volling successfully sued the surgeon who removed her uterus and ovaries without her consent.

With a favorable lawsuit seeming highly improbable, there has been some movement to create legislation to change this. An example was an attempt to add intersex to the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act. So far congress has not taken notice of the issue.

Right now there is only one country in the world that has made intersex surgery illegal, Columbia. They declared that intersexed people are a minority that need special protection against discrimination and harm from their differences. The Colombian Constitutional Court claims that parental consent depends on the urgency of the situation, the invasiveness of the procedure, and the age and autonomy of the child in question. The Colombian model allows parents to consent only if all the risk, and alternatives are made known, and even they they have to give consent in writing several times over a period of time (not panicky decisions), and they cannot consent after the child turns 5. We can only hope that the US will see the wisdom of the Columbia law.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Rant About Surgeries

Surgeons are constantly trying to "improve" intersex surgeries. They see intersex complaints as a challenge to improve their technique, blind to the pain and suffering they are causing.

Granted Intersex surgery has come a long way from its origins in the 50s which consisted of amputating the clitoris/penis (whatever, it's really the same organ). However the outcome is still just as terrible. No doctor can dispute that when you cut someone, your body patches it with inflexible, unfeeling scar tissue, and in an area with such high nerve concentration, some nerves inevitably get severed as well. As a result most people who have undergone this surgery are rendered completely inorgasmic, the victims of social fears and medical hubris.

This is not to say that I am totally opposed to surgery. Once an intersexual is old enough to make an informed decision, and want to bring their genitals more in line with their gender identity, they should have every right to do so, and I wish them luck with that. However it must absolutely be their choice, and not their panicky parents. However most intersexuals (at least the outspoken ones, myself included) have a somewhat ambiguous gender identity and are very hurt and angry about what was done to them, feeling that their ambiguous genitalia was better suited for their gender identity, but had them irreversibly taken away.

Even if the surgery was perfect (they often don't work very well anyways and usually require follow up surgeries) with no loss of sensation, and identical appearance and functioning compared to "normal" genitals, I would still say it is unethical to operate. Informed consent must be given by the individual. Genital "correction" is not like fixing an infants club foot or cleft pallet, it has lifelong consequences for the individuals sexual enjoyment and determines how society will perceive them. As such, parental consent should not be enough to authorize such a procedure.

Not only in there a problem of consent, there is also a problem of gender. Infants cannot express a preference for one gender or the other. If the doctors and parents make a mistake in their gender assignment it is far worse if they have surgically removed the parts that were desirable and would have made the transition much easier thus increasing anguish in an already emotional situation.

I also question why such surgeries are needed. Granted some situations, like mixed tissue gonads which go cancerous 98% of the time need to be removed. However, infants are not experiencing any confusion or emotional pain over their genitals. It's everyone elses comfort level that is being considered and not the one person who will be most affected. It is the heteronormative expectations of society that ultimately win.

My intention here is not to demonize anyone. Both the doctors and parents have totally charitable intentions. Parents are concerned that their child will be bullied and harassed and consider themselves a freak, not to mention the old panicky parent concern with locker rooms. These are all valid concerns. I think the Intersex Society of North America offers the best solution. Without operating, raise the child with one gender so they can function in society and hopefully avoid social ostracising. However they should also be open to the possibility they may change, and when they are old enough, let them make a decision about what they want. Suicide is also a major concern, the rate is very high for intersexuals. Doctors and parents think that having unambiguous genitals reduce psychosexual confusion and depression and reduce the rate of suicide. This argument does not hold water. The few case studies and follow ups out there suggest that unwanted surgery actually increases the chances of suicide by increasing the sense that you were so freakish, ugly, and unacceptably abnormal, that you had to be changed.

In short no one should be subjected to nonconsentual, purely cosmetic surgery, which, I would argue, is a breech of the Hippocratic Oath. I urge all my readers to inform themselves on this issue and to speak out about it. On behalf of the intersex community, I thank you for listening to this rant (that is already more then most of the medical establishment has done, most of them are too embarrassed, I think, to address our complaints head on).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things I am Thankful For

Thanksgiving is next week. Contrary to popular image, there is more to this holiday then stuffing your face and watching football. In honor of Thanksgiving, I have decided to list some of the many things I am thankful for in hopes that, in these hard times, my readers will remember that we all have much to be truly thankful for.

1. My family (both nuclear and extended) and friends (I know sometimes I don't express it very well, but I do love all of you, more then you'll ever know)

2. Chocolate

3. Being intersexed (this may sound odd, since it has also been a great source of emotional pain for me, but it is also a great gift, allowing me to question myself and society and see beyond some of the most pervasive artificial social constructs we have)

4. Rock 'n Roll

5. A roof over my head, and food in my stomach (that's more then a lot of people have, never forget that)

6. A hot cup of tea on a cold day

7. today, because it is another opportunity to make a positive change

8. dogs (truly the greatest, most loyal friend you can have)

9. Freedom of speech (the single best defense against tyranny, and essential to right sociopolitical wrongs)

10. beautiful violin solos

11. graduating from college debt free, what a great gift

12. an exhilarating fencing duel

13. The variety of humanity (it would be so boring if we were all the same)

14. jazz (hot or cool, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing)

15. being able to laugh at myself, its important for good mental health

16. fine wine

17. volunteering, its very important, we should all be thankful for the opportunity to give back, and be thankful for others who volunteer

18. The change of seasons, each one has special qualities to it that keep things interesting, I wouldn't want to live somewhere with more constant weather.

19. birds, their singing and flying free always makes me happy

20. Camping, a great way to relax and reconnect with nature

What are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

more on queer inclusion

In September I made a post about the connection between intersex and the LGBT movement. In retrospect I realized that I painted an overly rosey picture about that relationship. There are complaints by some on both sides about sharing an identification.

Some of these complaints have some justification. Intersexuals realize homophobia and transphobia are largely the motivations behind surgical mutilations. Their parents and doctors (especially if they are more traditional in regards to gender roles) are terrified their intersexed baby will end up gay or will transition away from their assigned gender. Books with intersex narritives are full of stories about parents who are very strict about their kids gendered behavior. They fear that streanghening this relationship between the LGBT and intersex in the public mind will weaken their anti-surgery message. It is also true that many intersexuals consider themselves straight and do not want to be associated with LGBT's. They certainly have the right to identify any way they want. These are both valid arguments, however, they should be aware that intersexuals, homosexuals, transexuals, and all queers, are really fighting the same fight, but I will get to that later.

Many gays are not afraid so much as they are confused. They realize they have different agendas then intersexuals and even transexuals (who have been associated with them for a lot longer) and don't see why they are lumped togeather. This is especially true of some lesbians, many of whom are very knoweldegable about radicle feminist theory, some of whom exclude transexuals, feeling that transmen (most of whom were butch lesbians) are traitors who have internalized sexism issues, and transwomen are wannabes who will never be "real" women. Like some intersexuals, these gays do not realize that all queers are fighting the same adversary.

This common fight is against heteronormativity. All of these groups do have specific issues that pertain to them on a more personal level, but the fight is the same. They all cannot be themselves within societies gender expectations. Members of all of these have been ostracized, mutilated, arrested, raped, and killed out of fear and social disaproval. More groups are realizing this common fight and becoming more inclusive. This is wonderful. Queers are such a small percent of the over all population, the more people we have on board, the more effective we will be in our struggle to live and function in society the way we want, as equals without being hurt out of fear and misunderstanding from society at large.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Intersex List of Demands

This list was written in 2004 by some intersex activists in Atlanta. It is a good list, and gives great advise for anyone who wants to be understanding and not accidentally offend intersexuals, so I decided to post it.


  • Don’t assume you know someone’s sex based on how you perceive them or their gender.
  • Don’t assume all women have a vagina, uterus, etc.
  • Don’t assume all men have a penis, testes, etc.
  • Don’t fetishize our bodies.
  • Don’t use the word hermaphrodite to describe us unless we identify that way and give permission.
  • Don’t feel sorry for us.
  • Respect our sex identification.
  • Don’t exploit our existence to discredit biological determinism or other academic ideologies.
  • Know the difference between sex and gender.
  • Know the difference between intersexed and transgendered.
  • Don’t ask us or try to picture what our genitals look like.
  • Don’t ask us if we have sexual sensations.
  • Don’t assume you have the right to know intimate details of our bodies. We have the right to privacy and safety like all other people.
  • Realize we have historically been mutilated, fetishized, and made into freak shows. Understand how this affects us and our safety.
  • Don’t say “cool” or “weird” or treat us differently when we tell you we are intersexed.
  • Educate yourself!!! Read books on intersex.
  • Girl, woman, female; boy, man, male are not always interchangeable.
  • Don’t assume all intersex people are queer.
  • Realize that not all people with intersex condition are out.
  • Realize that not all people with intersex conditions even know that they are intersexed.
  • Remember that we are 1 in 100, and that is not rare at all!!!
  • Don’t call our conditions “disorders,” “retardations,” “abnormalities,” etc.
  • Realize that bodies come in all different shapes, sizes and with different parts.
  • Realize how fucking strong we are to speak up about the medical abuse and victimization we have been through and that we deserve mad props.
  • Don’t write us off as rare and unimportant. Don’t put off educating yourself for other “more important” issues.
  • In situations such as gender caucuses, keep in mind that not all the people who identify as women have similar genitalia, etc. Understand that we have been taught that our bodies are “wrong” and “ugly” and that it reinforces this when people say they love being women because of their vagina, uterus, etc., this reinforces those feelings. Woman does not necessarily = female. Man does not necessarily = male.

Friday, November 6, 2009

religion and intersex

Today I am going to tread into the dangerous, controversial waters of religion and queer identities, and more specifically intersexuality.

In the Abrahamic religions the trouble starts out in Genesis with the creation of Adam, and then Eve as his companion. This story has been used to justify the subjugation of women and the exclusion of gays (remember the old homophobic chant "Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve?"). This also affects intersexuals because it denies that we exist. If God only made men and women, then hermaphrodites must really be one or the other, and the victim of a deformity. Some Jewish sect believe this is inaccurate, claiming that Adam was a hermaphrodite, poiniting out how the pronouns used for him switch from masculine to feminine.

In Matthew 19:12, Jesus specifically refers to intersexuals, calling them eunuchs born of their mothers womb, as opposed to being castrated. In ancient times enunchs were given important religious, and royal administrative jobs, as well as guarding harams (somewhat simular to two spirit people in Native American cultures, both were also considered to be a third gender, neither male nor female). However Jesus also says eunuchs should not get married, and urges them twoard celibacy.

In Islam, Quranic law provides for the existance of intersexuals, a third gender called khuntsa. They are allowed to live as men or women and could marry men or women. They prayed between the men and women in the Mosque and were required to wear some male and some female clothing. They had all of the rights and most of the obligations of both a Musilm man and Muslim women within their society.

The very existance of intersexuals threatens fundamentalists of most religions since one of their primary goals is ordering and controling sex. Many fundamentalists thus claim intersex is unnatural and contrary to God's will (Ironic since intersexuality is the most physiologically obvious form of queer, there can be absolutly no question as too whether its a choice). They generally support surgery as a way to continue the social construct of dichotomic sex, which they see as a prerequisite for personhood.

In other words religious societies have created spaces and roles for intersexuals, however these positions have been disappeared, and are unlikely to reappear until intersexuals are no longer hidden. Perhaps its time to take a lesson from our past and recognize that intersexuals are also created by God in his image.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Here Comes the (sort of) Bride

Very soon, the courts of this country will discover the problem the International Olympic Committee has had for years, man and woman are not easy to define. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) refers to marriage between 1 man and 1 woman as if they are obvious, self evident catagories. If this horrible law, and other state laws persist, not only will it continue to hurt gays, but it also puts intersexuals in an ackward spot in regards to the legal validitiy of their relationships. What happens to the intersexuals who are in straight marriages? Under a strict interpretation of DOMA their marriages could be declaired nonvalid in some states. What about intersexuals who consider themselves gay and want to enter a same gender marriage? By definition, can an intersexual be gay or staight? Technically they would have to marry another intersexual with the same condition for it to be a same sex marriage, and that could look gay or straight to the outside world, depending on how the participants choose to live. For those who transition later in life, it gets even more complicated. Some states uphold the gender transsexuals transitioned into as their legal sex, while others do not. For example Texas and Kansas courts have said chromosomes are the determiner of sex, allowing transsexuals in same gender relationships with a cisgendered (gender "normal") person to get married, but ironically transsexuals in a different gendered (straight) relaitionship with a cisgendered person cannot. For intersexuals this gets even more confusing since some of us, like me, have ambiguous chromosomes. I wonder, in Texas and Kansas, could I legally marry anyone, or no one. It is true what they say, sunlight is the best antisceptic. These homophobic laws are meaningless when faced with the reality that their catagories are arbitraty and all but impossible to define. Any two consenting adults who want to get married should be able to without regards to sex or gender. To do otherwise is a blatently discriminatory and mean spirited. It is unjust, and for transexuals and intersexuals, needlessly complicated. Support love, not fear and hate.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

halloween, magical hermaphrodites and queer horror

In honor of Halloween, I would like to address the main cause for intersex surgeries, fear. Doctors are afraid the children will not be normal (within a patriarchal, heteronormative context). They may subconsciously fear the children's condition as something monstrous and abnormal that need to be immediately corrected. The parents, on the other hand, consciously fear that their children will be mistreated and ostracized by society, and seek to prevent that. Their intentions are entirely charitable, but they are still letting fear cloud their judgement and leads to some very bad decisions.

This fear is pervasive. Dreger was absolutely right when she said "In terms of sex, me have much in common with the Victorians. We still worry a great deal about sex and order, and about ordering sex. We still insist that there are no hermaphrodites, lest they grow and multiply." This fear of the intersexed as something strange and out of legend dates back to antiquity with Hermaphroditus in Greek mythology, and Ardhanarisvara in Hinduism. This has lead to the notion that the intersexed have magical, spiritual, or psychic abilities. For example many Native American cultures hold a special, sacred positions for two spirited people (can include transgendered, intersexed, or homosexual people, depending on the specific tribe). They are considered especially powerful shamans. To this day in India people show great respect for hijras (a third sex made up of castrated men, considered to be neither male nor female) out of fear of their power to hex. This is also true in Wicca were the balance of masculine and feminine energy is considered essential for spells to work. Many transgendered people like this idea of a mystical history they are transitioning to be a part of, however I find this view to be detrimental. No offense to those who hold these belief systems, but queer people are no more magical or psychic then anyone else (how cool would it be if we were though?). In mainstream western culture, which does not have any place for the intersexed, the thought of hermaphrodites being powerful increases the view that they are monstrous and unnatural.

This perception of queer as something monstrous has been perpetuated through recurring characters in horror movies. The most obvious queer monster is the lesbian vampire (Dracula's Daughter, The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil, The Hunger ect.). These movies are fairly common, based on straight men's fantasy, but they still harm queers with their assumptions. Another obviously queer horror character is the transgender psycho (Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs ect.). These movies are very harmful to the entire LGBT community in general, and to transsexuals in particular by portraying them as murderus maniacs. In any case, the message is the same, that any sort of gender nonconformity is dangerous and threatening, and not he natural order of things. This is not the case. Intersexed people are no greater threat then "normal people" (except maybe to themselves, the suicide rate is very high for intersexuals, that is the real horror story). This message of queers as being somehow subhuman, or psychotic and violent gets absorbed by society and perpetuates abuse and mistreatment of queer people, including the intersexed.

In short, I hope everyone has a happy Halloween, just be aware of the stereotypes scary stories play into and don't let those lies to translate into the harm of real people.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

feminism and intersex

As I have stated in a previous post, I consider myself a feminist. I have studied gender for years and have a bachelors degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Like most feminists I realize there many areas of inequality between men and women, and these are largely based on false assumptions and gender roles. As an intersexual, I realize that until these harmful gender roles and assumptions about men and women, what they want, how they look, and behave ect, are changed, there will be no hope for equality for us gender variants.

Unfortunatly, many feminists do not return this support for the intersexed. Most academic feminists ignore our plight entirely. They will speak out against female genital mutilations in Africa, but don't care about the intersex genital mutilations that are being done in there home country (a racist additude at best, they are preserving their privledged cultural status by claiming Africans have barbaric practices, while ignoring simular practices their culture has). The 1996 Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act was written by former congresswomen Patricia Schroeder, who recieved, and ignored several letters asking intersexuals to be included in the bill, making this practice of feminist ignoring into law.

More evidence is the notoroious annual Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The festival's famous policy of Womyn born Womyn bars enterance to any transexuals and intersexuals who identify as women. They claim this is to celibrate the experience of being born female. Those women feel liberation, being completely free from the objectifying gazes and threat of rape that comes with a male presence at the music festival. This is very conroversial, with many feminists realizing that this contradicts what they have been fighting for. This has lead to "Camp Trans" forming and protesting outside the festival, and 'real' 'womyn' inside who protest the policy by wearing yellow armbands inside the festival.

The question that keeps coming to mind is why is the feminist movement so supportive of gays, but silent about other queer identities, especially intersex. I believe this is because many feminists agree with the work of Dr. John Money, who lead to the current treatment of intersexuals. His theory was that infants can be molded to have either a male or female gender identity. This thought that there is no ingrained psychological difference between men and women is very appealing to feminists. Dr. Money's theory, however, has been proven wrong by many subsequent studies, even his main research subject, David Reimer, rejected his theory (Reimer's penis was destroyed in a botch circumscision when he was an infant, so Money told his parents to raise him as a girl, but Reimer turned out a total tomboy, and eventually started living as a man).

As intersex issues become more mainstream, more feminists have started to support our cause, including writting those letters to add intersex to the bill, and protesting at the Michigan festival, however we still have a long way to go.

Friday, October 16, 2009


For this blog post I want to discuss a rare sort of person who occasionally posts on online intersex discussion forums. These are people who wish they were intersexuals. At first this revelation shocked me, there is certainly no social advantage to being intersexual, but on closer examination, I realized there are 2 different kinds of wannabes, and they each have their own reasons.

The first variety is a transgendered man who is living in denial. Such wannabes will post about how they have their doctors run a battery of tests to look for some indication of intersexuality. Of course the doctors don't find anything, intersex conditions are not something that stays hidden. If you appeared physically normal at birth, and went through a normal puberty, you are almost definitely not intersexed. In essence they are looking for some medical justification for why they feel that they are a woman. They have my deepest sympathy, our patriarchal society has so ingrained the ideal that men are superior, and to want to be a woman is such a step down, that they feel there must be something biologically different about them. However, real intersexuals, myself included, also find them to be detrimental to the intersex movement. As I have mentioned in a previous post, most intersexuals do not change gender from the one their parent assigned them, and transphobia, and fear of gender nonconformity in general, are one of the major causes behind intersex surgery. To further this connection in the public mind between transsexuals and intersexuals will only lead to more destructive genital surgeries. These poor people need to learn to accept their sense of gender and not project their feelings on the intersex community.

Another, rarer, and harder to explain group genuinely are wannabes. They are people, usually women, who genuinely want to be intersexed, even to the point of using hormones to alter their appearance, often to make a statement about gender. The most famous example of this is the performance artist Del LaGrace Volcano, who uses hormones and title of "intersex by design, not diagnosis" as a way to subvert our current gender paradigm, and show what a wide variety of gender presentation and variation there is. I am all for the genderqueer (those who choose to live as neither male nor female), and defiantly support a breakdown of gender roles (most of them are based on a patriarchal power imbalance, but then I'm not just a hermaphrodite, but also a feminist). However I also think this rare breed of wannabes need to be very careful. They need to realize they had the good fortune to be born into a socially condoned body, and as such were not mutilated in a misguided attempt at 'normalizing' their genitals. If they want to use the label they had better be very understanding and use it to further the cause of real intersexuals (and sorry, no, technically you can't be an "intersexual by design," by definition, it is a medical condition you are born with).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

information is power

The purpose of this blog is to increase awareness of intersex issues. In that spirit, I dedicate this weeks entry to list other sources you can go if you want to learn more information, and (gasp!) other people's opinions.

"Intersex and Identity" by Sharon Preves
"Insersex" by Catherine Harper
"Intersex (For Lack Of A Better Word)" by Thea Hillman
"Intersex: A Challenge for Human Rights and Citizenship Rights" by Annette Bromdal
"Bodies in Doubt" by Elizabeth Reis
"Are You a Boy or Girl?" by Stephen Kerry
"Intersex: A Perilous Difference" by Morgan Holmes
"Fixing Sex" by Katrina Karkazis
"Lessons from the Intersexed" by Suzanne Kessler
"Sugar and Spice and Puppy Dog Tails" by Katherine Connella
"Intersex in the Age of Ethics" by Alice Dreger

The Intersex Roadshow
Intersex News
Intersex Pride
Intersex USA

www.isna.org (Intersex Society of North America)
www.intersexualite.org (Organization Intersex International)
www.bodieslikeours (a disscussion forum)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

gender roles, passing, and social acceptance

Judith Lorber hit the nail on the head when she wrote "talking about gender, for most people, is the equivalent of a fish talking about water." Absolutely everything we choose to do with our lives, from hobbies and interests, to careers, to life goals, has a gendered component that is so ingrained in us we do not even realize it. From the moment a baby is born the first question people ask is whether it is a boy or a girl, and based on the answer people make thousands of assumptions about the baby, what clothes it will wear, what its personality will be like, what it will want out of life, how it will interact with people, who it will want to spend its life with, the list goes on and on. This is why contemporary society has such trouble dealing with intersex, they have to undo a lifetime of conditioned assumptions and get to know the person as a unique individual, not a category with specific expectations for behavior (wouldn't it be wonderful if we approached everyone with such an open mind?). This is also why society is so dedicated to preserving the lie that everyone is born male or female, they would have no idea what to make of a genderless person, or how to interact with such a person, thus they force us to pass as one of their categories. Awareness of intersex issues has slowly increased as the feminist movement challenges some of the more blatant gender roles society holds. This is means more and more intersexuals are able to live at least partly open lives. Granted, society still makes us check one box on formal documents, but nobody raises an eyebrow if we do not adhere to strict gender roles and social expectations; and if people are informed about intersex issues, most are sympathetic and understanding. I recently 'came out' to some close friends and they were very understanding, in fact they always knew I was different in a very gendered way (my disgust with dresses, skirts, and makeup were kind of a giveaway). I pass perfectly in society, no one has ever questioned me, however those who know intersexuals know we are different in our approach towards life, especially the very gendered parts of life. Intersexuals, at least those comfortable enough to write about themselves, generally feel somewhat different then their peers, and don't pass as well to those who know them well. In short, society needs to learn that gender is not two diametrically opposite categories (there is actually more variation in behavior within each sex then there is between them). In reality, there are three spectrum's, physical sex (intersex aside, "real" men and women still have much physical variation, some guys would kill to be able to grow a beard as nice as the bearded lady in the circus), gender roles/identity, and sexual orientation (according to Kinsey, almost no one is exclusively gay or straight, they just present as one or the other because, like intersexuals, it is easier to pick a category). In short, no one lives up to the gender ideal, no one is John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe. All this variation keeps life interesting and should be celebrated. Ideally no one should have to pass, they should be able to live comfortably with who they are without social pressure to conform.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Identity v. Disorder

Today, I want to talk about a disappointing new phrase that is being spread around, and has even been endorsed by the usually enlightened Intersex Society of North America. This new expression is Disorders of Sexual Development or Disorders of Sexual Differentiation, commonly referred to as DSD. DSD is supposed to replace intersex, hermaphroditism, and pseudohermaphroditism in clinical nomenclature.

I find calling intersex a disorder to be highly offensive. Most intersex conditions are not life threatening, or debilitating. The birth of an intersex baby, however, is regarded as a "social emergency." The only real disorder intersex creates is a social disorder. Society has no category to put us in or roles to give us, so we are forced into one of their two boxes (usually female because, to quote one surgeon, "Its easier to poke a hole then to build a pole"). Intersex conditions are not like Down Syndrome or Spina Bifida where they will need special medical treatment and may not have all of the abilities of their 'normal' peers. Instead, intersexuality is a problem with identity.

Many pathologized conditions have unintentionally create a sense of unity and proud identity for those diagnosed, for example deaf culture which does not view deafness as a disability, just that different experience then most. The similar medical treatment and social experiences give them an identity and a strong sense of unity. Intersexuality is no different, already the intersex movement has banned together and has put increased pressure on the medical establishment to change their policies. Granted, some intersexuals do consider themselves to have a disorder or birth defect, however I think this is sad. They are buying into the belief that they are wrong, and cutting themselves off from a potential source of support, all because society has a problem categorizing them.

There is also a very real concern amongst some intersexuals that labeling them as disordered is a form of eugenics that could potentially result in an intersex genocide of sorts. Studies have shown that 96% of parents who are told their fetus has some form of genetic disorder will choose to terminate the pregnancy. I think this concern is a long ways off from actually happening, however it is not inconceivable. Current medical practices towards intersexuals already are not aimed at improving the child's quality of life, but rather at relieving the homophobic and transphobic anxieties of parents.

Intersexuals are already pathologized enough, what we need is less medical intervention, and more open, compassionate minds.

Monday, September 21, 2009

homosexuality and intersex

Intersexuality has a long and unusual relationship with homosexuality. As intersex awareness increases more LGBT organizations recognize that intersex is another form of queer (any variation in sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression that deviates from the "norm"). This queer inclusiveness has lead to organizations adding some of the various letters including I (intersex), Q (queer), Q or ? (questioning), U (unsure), TS or 2 (two-spirit), A or SA (straight ally), A (asexual), P (pansexual or polyamorous), and O (omnisexual). Obviously some intersexuals, especially those who identify as straight and live in different gender relationships, are opposed to being lumped together with other sexual minorities, and see themselves as having a birth defect, not queer. I think this is silly, seeing as intersexuals, by nature, are unique, and that difference should be celebrated, and as I mentioned earlier, the very existence of homosexuality has shaped the treatment of intersexuals.

Homophobia has been a driving force in the "correction" of intersexuals. For example, when feminizing surgery was first done on girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, two reasons cited for preforming the surgery was to prevent excessive masturbation and to keep them from becoming lesbians (jokes on the surgeons though, CAH girls end up gay in much higher percentages then "normal" women). The current medical policy of genital surgery is heteronormative in that it presumes genitals incapable of heterosexual intercourse are not normal and no one could develop into 'normal' or even happy person without such things. It also presumes that heterosexual sex is something everyone wants, which is simply not the case.

Whether because of intersex psychobiology, or because gays are more accepting of gender variation, a disproportionate number of intersexuals live in same gender relationships. This is also why the relationship between intersexuals and the gay rights movement are so strong, many intersexuals identify as gays. I realize many intersexuals see themselves as straight, and many also live celibate, often due to the surgery (the outcome is never good), however we should embrace this affiliation with homosexuals, since many of us identify as such, and until the largest category of sexual minorities gain their full human rights, there will be no hope for the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

intersex and sports

Caster Semenya's gender testing to defend her gold medal in the 800 meter in the World Championship in Athletics has generated new interest in the problems intersexuality causes in the highest echelons of sports. Gratefully, the South African leadership has been very supportive of her, but that does not take away the invasion of her privacy and human rights created by this investigation.

Semenya is not the first intersexual to have these issues. Erik Schinegger, an Austrian world champion women's downhill skier (he transitioned later in life), was disqualified from the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble (ironically, this was the first modern Olympic to introduce sex testing after an inaccurate complaint that many of the Soviet top women athletes were actually men). Edinanci Silva, a Brazilian Judo fighter, has been allowed to participate in Summer Olympics at Atlanta (1996) Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004) but only after undergoing surgery and hormone therapy. This would lead some to believe that sports organizations are becoming somewhat more sensitive to intersex athletes, however in 2006 Santhi Soundarajan won the silver medal in the 800 meter race at the Asian Games, but had it taken away when she failed a sex test.

The reasoning behind sex testing is quite obvious, they don't want men to sneak into women's events where they are perceived to have a natural advantage. As an intersexual, I find it frustrating that this is the reason to take away intersexuals medals. The most common intersex condition, and the one most of the afore mentioned athletes get caught with is androgen insensitivity syndrome. In this case, their bodies don't respond to testosterone (unlike "real" women who still do make and use some of the hormone). If anything, they are at a disadvantage competing in women's events, even for those with conditions where their bodies do respond to testosterone, and they are living successfully as a women, their levels of testosterone are usually not too far out of the range for a normal female.

Gender in general is becoming less and less of an issue as the athletic achievement gap between men and and women closes, and in some cases overlaps. My favorite example of this is Hermann (Dora) Ratjen who was forced by the Nazi's to participate in the women's high jump in the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. The Nazi high command believe he would easily beat all of the women, but instead he came in fourth, three 'real' women were better then him. Another case of this is the marathon finishing times between men and women, which are shrinking every year. In short the practice of gender testing causes many problems, and the reasoning behind it is becoming more of a moot point.

This is not to say I think men and women should compete against each other in the same event, that would create more problems then it would solve. I do think, however, that sex testing should be eliminated, it is degrading and humiliating to all athletes (just ask Princess Anne, who got out of testing in the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal, claiming it was "unseemly"). It is even worse for an intersexed athlete who might not even know about their condition. They would be humiliated, and possibly ostracized if their ethnicity has strict rules about gender roles. It is also a terrible invasion of their privacy, if they don't want the world to know about their condition, they should have that right. The worst part of gender testing is that it is terribly unfair towards intersexed athletes, if they qualify, they should have every right to compete without having their medals taken away if they win. Even if gender testing is not eliminated, some sort of provision should be made to allow intersexuals the right to compete. To do otherwise adds to the practice of keeping intersexuals a hidden group of second class citizens. In some ways this is our bus, and like Rosa Parks, we have to say we have as much right to be here as you.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

the problem with Middlesex

For my first post after introducing myself I wanted to talk about the book that helped make intersexuality more well known. That book is Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides. I want to preface this by saying that I very much enjoyed reading Middlesex, it is very intelligent and well written, and I am glad that it has helped bring intersex issues into the public eye. That being said, the problem is there are some inaccuracies in Middlesex that need to be addressed because they could cause intersexuals and their families to be misunderstood. This should set the record straight and help you to avoid any major faux pas in dealing with intersexuals.

INCEST - In Middlesex Cal's grandparents are siblings and his parents are second cousins. This incest lead to Cal's birth with 5 Alpha Reductase, an intersex condition. The truth is the chances of having a child with an intersex condition, including 5 Alpha Reductase, are not increased greatly by incest. The birth of an intersexed child in no way means that the family is incestuous.

SEX CHANGES - Cal was raised female, but chose later to live as male. While some intersexuals choose to change genders from the one their parents assigned them at birth, statistically most do not do this (same as people who were born entirely male or female). If you are lucky enough to meet an intesexual, you should not assume they transitioned, because most likely they did not. Odds are they have lived that way their entire life.

SURGERY - It is a very sad fact but in America almost all intersexed babies, including me, are forced to undergo genital "normalization" surgery and are made to look more female, usually with terrible outcome in terms of sensation and functioning. Even worse, they are lied to by doctors and parents to promote "normal" gender identity formation. In Middlesex, Cal is lucky enough to have his condition undetected by an incompetent doctor. He later finds out about his condition by his own research and runs away before they can operate. This is how his experience differs from pretty much every other intersexual. Never assume that an intersexual has different, special, in-between parts, most of us wish we still did. Also, never ask us about this, it is an incredibly painful topic.

in the begining...my virgin post

Hello, and welcome to the first ever post of Intersex and the City. I have created this blog to create awareness and generate discussion about an issue that is very near and dear to my heart, intersexuality. If you have never heard the term intersex before, I am not surprised. We are systematically hid from society. For those who do not know, intersex people are people who were born with physically ambiguous sexual traits. They can have male and female aspects to their chromosomes, gonads or genitals (I was born with ambiguity in all three). It is the new PC term for hermaphrodite (I am very sorry if I offend any of my fellow intersexuals, but I sometimes use that term because it gets people's attention and they immediately have some idea of what I'm talking about).

So you know where I am coming from in future posts, I will tell you some of my history. I was born with very atypical mosaic chromosomes. Like most intersexuals with ambiguous genitals, I underwent surgery as an infant, and hormones as an adolescent to appear female.

I will try to post every week, so I hope you will follow it. I also encourage you to comment, especially if you disagree with me, the more ideas and discussion we can generate, the better. I will do my best to respond to any comments and questions you might have. I hope you enjoy my blog.