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 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.