Writer, Speaker, Author, Activist

Calling a Spade a Spade: Intersex is Just Intersex

A few days ago, I received an excerpt from an article-in-progress by a law professor that stated that intersex is increasingly included as a subcategory of transgender.  I’m grateful that she contacted me for feedback, and confident that she’ll edit this out, but I’m shocked at how much people continue to obfuscate intersex.  Why oh why would you want to muddy the definition of a marginalized minority that most people still don’t even know exists?

Transgender is a type of gender identity but intersex isn’t, for the same reason that “male” and “female” aren’t: it’s about biological sex.  It’s not about our “internal sense of ourselves,” or how we “feel”, or what we “identify as.” It has nothing to do with what’s going on in someone’s brain: it’s about the fact that we’re born with bodies that don’t fit the typical definitions of “male” and “female.” We have a mix of anatomical sex traits (gonads, chromosomes, and/or genitals) that are typically considered both male and female, or atypical for either.

My critique isn’t just about wanting to be defined correctly though: it’s about the fact that it’s dangerous to confuse people about what intersex is when there’s still an ongoing effort to eliminate us. Yes, intersex is so stigmatized that we’re legally subjected to abuses awful enough to be called “mutilation” (Female Genital Mutilation, to be exact) and outlawed in the U.S. when they’re done to non-intersex people. I’m talking about infant genital cutting, and if you’ve heard from intersex people who had it done to them, you know it’s even more horrible than it sounds.

People are usually shocked when they first hear about it, and say things like, “I don’t understand how that’s even allowed,” but it’s easy for abuse to exist when no one knows it’s going on. It’s the reason why shady “back-door deals” exist; why cheaters cheat.  It’s why the “Silence = Death” slogan was so popular during the early AIDS crisis.

Incidentally, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recently issued a report that “calls upon all States to repeal any law allowing intrusive and irreversible treatments, including forced genital-normalizing surgery… when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned.”

http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A.HRC.22.53_English.pdf

It’s a joyous development, but each country has the power to make its own laws on the topic. In the U.S., for example, decisions about what to do to children’s bodies lay legally in the hands of their parents, unless grave harms can be proven to result from those decisions. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat of an arduous process to prove harms.

Thus intersex people must break through people’s cultural resistance to accepting us in order for “normalizing” surgeries to stop, and the last thing we need is confusion about who we are and what we deal with.  Calling us a gender identity incorrectly implies that our issues are about what we “identify as,” rather than about being born with atypical bodies and not having the right to decide what happens to them.

We usually don’t have the luxury of growing up intact and choosing whether we wish to change our bodies.  These choices are made for us by doctors and parents trying to make us “normal” males or females via surgery and hormones. They do it because mainstream society hasn’t openly recognized and accepted intersex, and they’re trying to shield us from potential discrimination.  But treating intersex people like we’re so flawed that we need to be “fixed” furthers the stigma.  And getting rid of intersex traits just leaves less of us capable of showing society that these traits are okay. It’s like trying to deal with racism, and protect kids from it, by making their skin white.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, some people also erase intersex through language. Even though they know what intersex is, scientifically speaking, they ignore or hide the facts when portraying us. For example, I once had a medical doctor ask me, several times, “but which one do you feel more like, a man or a woman?” when I saw her to find out more about my intersex variation.

I kept telling her that I didn’t care about that, that I knew I was intersex and was fine with it, but apparently she wasn’t, because she couldn’t just to talk to me about my being intersex. After checking my ovaries she said, “You’re a perfectly normal woman.”  She was trying to comfort me, but she was actually insulting what I am because I know I’m not a “normal” woman — in the sense of being a physically average woman — and I don’t need to deny that as if it’s a negative thing. It’s not.  Like I told her, I wasn’t confused about my gender and I didn’t need counseling; I just wanted medical information.

Then there’s the radio interview I listened to that was advertised as being about someone “who visited a hospital for a kidney stone and discovered he was intersex.” The host was a medical doctor, and she explained how the guest, who had grown up legally male and lived as a man, had learned late in life that they had some internal female anatomy.  http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wellnessfortherealworld/2012/10/10/living-transgender

Even though the whole reason the guest was getting media attention was because they were intersex, the word “intersex” wasn’t used once in the whole 80 minutes.  Not even to just define what it is. What’s worse, when one of the panelists described the situation he said, “So he went into the hospital as a man, and discovered that he was… a woman.” Granted, the discovery of being intersex had given “him” the courage to transition to living as “her,” which is similar to many trans* experiences (and accounted for the segment being called, “Living Transgender”).  But why not just say she’s transgender and intersex?  Why omit intersex altogether?

I saw the same thing recently in an article about a lioness that has a mane, like male lions do. Even though the article explained that she was born that way due to atypical developments in utero, the headline read, “’Transsexual’ lioness growing a mane.” Apparently they preferred to portray it as a case of a lioness injecting herself with hormones to grow a mane instead of just biological sex variation. Is it really that hard to just say “intersex”? Really?  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2221401/Okavango-Delta-Meet-transexual-lioness-thats-growing-mane.html

Clearly, some people want to remain in denial that intersex exists. It’s like their brain hears what we are and then goes, “la, la, la, la, la, can’t hear you,” and immediately morphs us into something else.  Or erases us altogether.

Given this, I want to repeat, for the record, that there’s male, there’s female, and there’s intersex.  We’re not a myth or a theory — we exist. In fact, at 1.9% of the population, we’re about as common as people with red hair. The only reason you may not know that you’ve met an intersex person is because the world hasn’t been safe enough for us to come out of hiding.  So to those of you who write about intersex, if you’re going to use our existence to support your work and/or theories, please don’t turn a blind eye to the injustices against us. Please take the opportunity to expose them, and help thousands by doing so.

Thanks everyone! 🙂

13 Responses to Calling a Spade a Spade: Intersex is Just Intersex

  1. Great post Vida thanks much. I agree with most of what you wrote concerning people who lump Intersex in the transgender umbrella. I however question it’s inclusion on the grounds of causing medical neglect, medical malpractice and discrimination because of phobic mindsets by medical practitioners. Their exists a Intersex great deal of medical interference already due to redacted medical records which many of us have experienced while trying to get answers concerning our conditions and how they affect our own health. I am very accepting of people and support all equality activism, but would like to point out that it’s kind of rude when others share information about Intersex people as belonging to the TG community as being kind of rude. I am advocating for that “I” to be respected and welcomed in society and especially gender diverse communities. We exist please learn to respect Intersex.

  2. Great post. I was wondering as I was reading if you’ve seen this scenario played out for a long time in the media or if it’s been in recent years. I have been feeling like transgender is the new buzz word right now and as media coverage around trans folks increases more people are starting to understand/comprehend what it means to be trans whereas even 5 years ago there was minimal media around trans stuff. Just wondering if you’ve felt like the instances of intersex folks being lumped in as trans has increased along with this media coverage increase? I think the bigger reality is that people don’t even understand that gender identity is different than biology and those are both different than sexual orientation. I can’t get how people lump everything together. Thanks for posting and keep it up!

    • Hi Ains: I’m glad you liked the post & tx for this great comment. I think you’re right on both counts: that most people aren’t too savvy about issues of sex & gender to begin with, & also that b/c trans* issues are getting a lot of attention it makes it easier to lump intersex people in there. I see us as cousins anyway & don’t mind the association, but for the reasons I discussed in the post I think it’s crucial to recognize our distinctions. 🙂

  3. “Yes, intersex is so stigmatized that we’re legally subjected to abuses awful enough to be called “mutilation” (Female Genital Mutilation, to be exact) and outlawed in the U.S. when they’re done to non-intersex people. I’m talking about infant genital cutting, and if you’ve heard from intersex people who had it done to them, you know it’s even more horrible than it sounds.”

    I’m surprised at Hida suddenly reverting to the binary, just to get intersex genital cutting recognised as a human rights abuse. Infant genital cutting is outlawed in the USA only when it’s done to females, but NOT when it’s done to males. Then it’s called “circumcision” and is done for reasons of fear, shame and conformity just as unworthy as when it’s done to intersexed babies. (The medical “benefits” are exaggerated when they are not completely bogus – debatable, slight reductions in rare diseases of late onset, that can be better prevented by other means, or treated when they occur. Sound familiar?)

    It is certainly a categorical error to confuse transgender and intersex, especially since transgender people actively seek corrective surgery, quite unlike most intersexed people. Intersexed babies have much more in common with baby boys in the USA, subjected to unnecessary surgery at birth to make them conform to a social norm.

    The Intactivist movement (see my link) is opposed to ALL unnecessary infant genital cutting, male, female and intersex, as a human rights violation.

    • Hi Hugh,
      Thanks for reading & for bringing this up. I don’t support male circumcision, for the record, & I support groups like Bay Area Intactivists that I think you work with. However, I didn’t get into that subject in this blog post for several reasons, that I’ll explain to address your “surprise”. First & foremost, there’s the issue of topic: I had a specific topic that was my focus in this post, & when you try to address too many issues it weakens the blog/piece. Second was brevity — this post was already well over the recommended 500 words. Third, is simply this: the horrific impact of the type of infant genital cutting that intersex people are subjected to. I have known countless males in my life, the vast majority of whom were subjected to the genital cutting known as circumcision, & their experience is NOTHING like that of the many intersex adults I have met who were subjected to infant genital cutting.

      I realize that some of the reasons circumcision is performed are similar to the reasons why IGM (Intersex Genital Mutilation) is performed, and I strongly object to it. I also believe that circumcision is A LOT more harmful than most people are aware of or want to think about, & would discourage any parent from doing it to their child. I thank you also for standing against IGM. 🙂

      Right now, I still find it very necessary to SPECIFICALLY address the enormous harms caused by IGM b/c they are different than circumcision. For example, the countless males I have known who were circumcized (the majority of males I’ve known, in short) are still able to orgasm, & do so frequently, unlike the intersex people who had their clitorises or penises cut off. Also, I have not heard the majority of males say they feel like damaged goods & are afraid to pursue sex &/or relationships b/c of being circumcized, whereas this is true for almost every intersex adult I’ve met who went through IGM. The many males I’ve known do not experience pain during sex b/c of circumcision, & they did not grow up with a lifetime of doctors visits & procedures that made them feel that something was drastically wrong with them & the most private parts of their body. They were also not lied to for their whole lives about these painful procedures, as many intersex people were & still are. They also do not feel that something was taken away from them that limits their ability to live as the sex/gender that they are — like intersex men who had their phalluses cut off as babies & now have to try to rebuild ones that will never operate as well as their original ones. Etceteras, etceteras….

      I realize you may know some exceptions to the issues above (like perhaps some men do experience pain as a result of circumcision), but I’m sure you understand what i’m saying & can see that these are HUGE differences. In addition, because intersex people only make up an estimated 1.9% of the population, AND so few of us are even out b/c of the tremendous stigma associated w/being intersex (which is not associated with being male), there are much fewer of us to address these often debilitating abuses against us. Thus, I feel the need to focus all my attention on it. I think you’ll understand that, but I apologize nevertheless that my blog didn’t include the issue of circumcision (maybe a future one). I commend you for being brave enough to stand against the grain that doesn’t even question it & taking it on for all the baby boys out there! 🙂

      • Dear Hida

        Thank you for your reply, and I’m very glad to hear of your support. (It is a continuing sadness to the Intactivist movement that high profile anti-FGC campaigner Waris Diri drank the Kool-Aid over MGC.)

        I should not have said “just” to get intersex genital cutting recognised as a human rights abuse. That is a huge hurdle, I do understand. Of course FGC is the abuse that most westerners can most easily recognise as such.

        While Intersexed people feel compelled to hide their very existence, men who have problems from being circumcised have until recently felt compelled to conceal that in much the same way, just because it flies in the face of a cultural norm. Thanks to the Internet, more and more of them are coming out that they resent what was done to them. Here are 200 http://www.circumstitions.com/Resent.html

        Bay Area Intactivists are only a small (but most visible) part of the world-wide Intactivist movement, all of whom are potential or actual (https://fbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/532815_418121444950549_1244816594_n.jpg) allies of intersexed people in this struggle. On Facebook, The Whole Network now has pages for many cities and countries.

  4. It’s been quite some time that i have been trying to sort this out and finally it makes sense! i’m ‘well hung’ has got nothing to do with me identifying to the woman gender. The docs see the levels of testosterone they bloody freak out! I want medical information which usually turns into counselling sessions and if they pat my back on more time I’ll scream. we exist! why can’t they just get over it and deal with it already. Thanks for this wonderful article…

    • HI B: I’m so glad you enjoyed my blog & tx for connecting. One day we won’t have to go through things like the experiences you share b/c the world will know & have accepted that there’s a whole continuum of sex, not just male & female, and I can’t wait! 🙂

    • Hi Ronnie: well, I know what you mean about the endangered species thing, & have thought it myself, BUT, I like to focus on the positive, so here’s to being PROUD intersex people! hurray! & tx for reaching out 🙂

  5. Hida,
    Firstly, thank you for this well-written piece that is both passionate and respectful. I admire your authorship and have appreciated your leadership in the Intersex communities for a while.
    Secondly, I think that you are spot-on about the differences between trans* and intersex issues. When I present gender and sex diversity materials for community education, a good half of my presentation is pulling gender apart from sex because there are very different things. However, I would like to clarify that being trans* is not about choosing to identify a certain way or electing for certain medical interventions. Having body dysphoria is a medical condition and it has been internationally established that the only effective treatment for it is surgery and/or hormones. Trans* is often misunderstood as being a political stance or a social role choice. This is not the case. Gender expression is the only part of gender that is a choice. Gender identity and gender orientation affect the way people move through the world socially and politically but there is a biological component not yet fully understood. It isn’t as simple as “sex is biology, gender is social construction” because there are social constructions for sex (how ridiculous is it that was have only “male” “female” and “intersex” with all of the sex diversity of gene expression in humankind?) and there is a biological component to gender (hence we have GNC children whose identities are robust and in opposition to what was assigned at birth).
    Intersex and Trans* are indeed very different things (and some of us are both) yet furthering misinformation about gender is not helpful. We need better public education about both.
    warmly,
    Beit

    • Hi Beit,
      Thank you for your kind words and for sharing this information. As you know, this stuff is all very nuanced & people have different perspectives on it. For example, some trans* people I know have different views on trans* than the ones you share, but I appreciate looking at all the perspectives, so thanks again!
      Warmly back,
      Hida

  6. the results of these mutations never turn out good at all. we are brutally mutulated then forced to live with it. I was hours after I was born. I’m both sexes. my penis was castrated from my body.

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Interesting fact: At approx. 1.7% of the population, Intersex people are as common as red-heads. “Everyone’s met an intersex person, you just may not know you have.”

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