Intersex Writer and Activist

The Gender that Dare Not Speak its Name

One of the icons of the queer community once said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” I’m talking about the Western world’s first openly gay diva, the one and only, Oscar Wilde, whose wise words make me feel much better about missing last week’s blog post (as well as the “Wednesday” target this week, etc., etc…).

For those of you who (shockingly), may be unfamiliar with Wilde, he was a witty socialite and successful, respected writer back in the late 1800’s, who was basically tried and convicted of being gay (the official charges were “sodomy” and  “gross indecency”), and sentenced to two years hard labor. The trial left him bankrupt, and life in prison was so hard on him, that he died penniless, just three years after his release, at the age of only 46.

That Wilde, a renowned devotee of aesthetics (the study of art and beauty), ended his days in such a way – by mainly his own doing — is a striking example of the paradoxical nature of life. Before the trial, he was at the height of his career, having become one of England’s most successful playwrights, and he could have continued enjoying his success, and his lovers. But he decided to fight instead (and please forgive me if you know all about what I’m about to explain).

You see Wilde was not the one originally brought to trial for being gay. To the contrary, it was he who sued the father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, for libel, because the father had called him a “sodomite”. (FYI, “sodomite” was derogatory, 1800’s speak for “gay”, and when I say Wilde’s love was “young”, I don’t mean underage: Douglas was sixteen years younger than Wilde, but a student at Oxford when they met.)

In order to avoid a two-year sentence, the accused had to prove that his description of Wilde was accurate, which he did during the notorious trial. It’s fascinating to think about why Wilde didn’t let the accusation slide –- given that it was true — but in any case, the fact that he went on the offensive instead is why I called him a diva.

And here’s where the paradox really thickens: had Wilde not been such a diva, he would’ve personally avoided prison, destitution and an early death, but the world would have been worse off for it. For it was his highly publicized trial that brought homosexuality under the global spotlight, for all to see. When asked by the judge what the line, “the love that dare not speak its name” meant (from a poem by Douglas, his lover), Wilde answered:

“The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare…. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it…. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

After a lifetime of enjoying luxury, pleasure, and success, Wilde placed the nail in his own coffin by defending homosexuality. Instead of denouncing, or at least denying, his behavior to save his ass, as one might expect from someone whose self-professed values had nothing to do with political self-sacrifice, he stood behind who and what he was, despite intense disapproval, and ended up doing time for it. That, my friends, is a badass.

But speaking of “the love that dare not speak its name”, today, intersex people are in the same position. We are “the gender that dare not speak its name”.  (And just to be clear, when I say “gender”, I mean it in the way that gender is used to refer to people, and is used synonymously with “sex” in many contexts, like in U.S. law, where “gender” is what goes on identification documents.)

Like Wilde being tried for being something that didn’t really have a name yet (“gay” didn’t exist yet, there were just slurs and terms for the sexual “acts”), intersex people have been f***ed with (excuse my French) because we are not male or female — yet there’s no easy way to refer to someone that’s not male or female. People don’t know how to “speak our name”, literally.

You can say, “he’s nice man” or “she’s a nice woman”, but what do you say for an intersex person? You can say just that, I guess — “they’re a nice intersex person”– but it doesn’t have the same ring you know? That’s because the words “man” and “woman” are nouns but “intersex” isn’t.

We can, and very often do, use “intersex women” or “intersex men” to describe ourselves, and it works great, just like “gay men” does.  In fact, many intersex people prefer that, because it keeps intersex people positioned within the masculine/feminine binary, which they identify with. It doesn’t frame us some kind of third sex or third gender or something.

The problem is we kind of are a third gender. I mean that’s kind of the crux of the whole issue right? We are something other than male or female, the two current genders, and that’s the reason we get f***ed with (excuse my French). And yeah, I know better than most that we’re not a third sex – biological sex is a continuum and if we wanted to accurately label it there would be tons of different sexes.

But gender is a social construct (I could argue biological sex is too, but it’s complicated and too long to do here), and all things being equal, if we created “men” for males, and “women” for females, we should have also created a word for those who are not male or female. Oh wait! we did: hermaphrodite.  But a prominent psychologist thought it would be better to stick with men and women and eliminate that gender category altogether, and he convinced the medical establishment to try and do that by surgically eliminating intersex bodies. And for a brief period we were coming out and proclaiming that’s what we are, but then some outspoken intersex folks declared “hermaphrodite” un-pc, so we ourselves (many of us) stopped using it.

And there it is, the major paradox. We need recognition in order to say, “This is what we are and we deserve equal treatment”, but the “this” that we are is still so disdained that we’re afraid to put ourselves under the spotlight by claiming it (just look at what happened to Wilde, after all). Most of us position ourselves within the accepted binary construct of “men” and “women”, but the world sees us as otherwise anyway, and tries to “fix us” into normal men or women. And while we’ve been saying “don’t fix us” for over two decades, if we don’t proclaim that we are something other than the two current options, and that we should be accepted as that – like Wilde did around sexual orientation– then why would the powers that be think they should leave us in our non-binary state? (See what I mean?)

The bottom line is that while many intersex people end up looking and feeling like typical males or females/men or women, some of us don’t. Also, some of us don’t need medical tests to diagnose our otherwise undetectable differences because our bodies are visibly and obviously a blend of male and female, just like the old classic label suggests. What should we call ourselves? Shouldn’t we have a name? Isn’t invisibility a huge part of the problem, allowing our harms to go unaddressed, and our erasure to continue?

In the past, if we had “hermaphrodites”, and I personally wish the label hadn’t been put on the sh** list because, just like “men” and “women”, it’s a noun, and it’s the label most people are already familiar with. In fact, on a personal basis, I still often use it if I tell someone I’m intersex and they don’t know what that means, because it’s the fastest way to give them an accurate sense of what I’m talking about.

Since a lot of people apparently found the word insulting though, and the greater community doesn’t use it, some of us sometimes use “herm” as a reclaimed, shorter version. I wrote another blog about this, about wanting to use “herm”, but since then I’ve had all these women – specifically women that I’ve been romantically involved with – tell me they hate “herm”.  And when I ask myself if I want to adopt a label that my lovers hate, the answer, perhaps sadly (not badass enough?), is no. So back to the drawing board I go.

In his 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” I’m with Wilde when it comes to marginalized people. I don’t have the answers (well, I do have one potential solution I’ve been toying with, but that’s for another blog J ), all I’m saying is, it’s a problem. And its nature is paradoxical. We need visibility but we dare not speak our name.  Not like other folks can and do. Hmmm….

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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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