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

WEBSITES (Intersex Society of North America) (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.