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.