Writer, Speaker, Author, Activist

Who do you think you are: intersex and appropriation

I was recently interviewed by the awesome Vash Boddie of IMRU radio in L.A., the county’s longest running LGBTI radio station (airdate T.B.A.). At one point, he said, “everyone’s a little intersex”, and it got me thinking: who can call themselves intersex? It’s a relevant question because, believe it or not, there’s a fair amount of intersex appropriation going on these days.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of cultural appropriation, which wikipedia defines as “the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group”. There’s tons of ways this happens, and tons of opinions about it. Intersex people are sometimes subjected to something similar but one step beyond: identity appropriation.

Identity appropriation can be defined as, “the adoption of membership into a group by members of a different group”. It doesn’t happen that often, but an example you might be familiar with when white people say they’re Native American to apply for a scholarship because they have one percent native blood.

An example of intersex appropriation is what I experienced at a genderqueer group I attended. Someone asked if it was possible for them to be intersex, even though they weren’t born that way. The reasoning was: if you start transitioning from female to male, but decide you want to stay in the middle, are you now intersex? Can you call yourself that?

I understood their line of thought, but I explained that being intersex, or a hermaphrodite, as we were previously known, has been defined, since time immemorial, as something one is born. I also explained that the fact that we’re born this way is deeply integral to our culture and experiences as a people.

A good analogy is found in the fantastic Native American blog My culture is not a Trend. As the author states: “… folks who are Indigenous, Asian, or African were murdered because they looked and dressed different, because they were “other” than white, and because their cultures were deemed as “uncivilized” (which, was often a claim used to legitimize their colonisation). You have the agency to “try on” those cultures, whereas other groups of people were forced to adopt another culture (while still being discriminated against  because regardless of how they speak or what they wear, they still aren’t the right skin colour).

Intersex people have been forced to adopt the binary sex system – often via intersex genital mutilation as infants. Most of us didn’t experience the privilege of growing up to choose our gender with our sensitive, sexual body parts intact in case we want to use them as adults. So while the idea of being intersex may seem cool to some – and I agree that, ideally, it is — the reality is more similar to the one shared in the aforementioned blog. “Being a Native comes with a history of decidedly un-trendy events, such as… the eradication of entire tribes of people….”

Intersex people have also undergone attempts to eradicate us, and we are still socially marginalized citizens with no legal recognition or protection from discrimination (Australia is the only exception). Because of this lack of equal rights and protections, attempts to surgically eliminate “intersex” people by making us into “normal boys or girls” are still going on — when we’re far too young to fight them off.

But what about intersex people who didn’t get operated on?, you may be asking. I wasn’t, for example, but that just means I had other experiences specific to growing up in a body that’s not typically male or female. My fellow intersex blogger Claudia Astorino’s fabulous essay about what it was like not menstruating when all the other girls were is a great example (athough it’s specific to her form of intersex, FYI, as some of us do menstruate).

The thing that bummed me out about my personal experience with intersex appropriation was that, after I’d explained how it’s harder to fight intersex discrimination if people are confused about who and what we are, someone in the group still said, “I think you can say you’re intersex, go for it!” She didn’t care at all that redefining and appropriating intersex is not what we want.

I was a bit hurt, to be honest, but this dynamic is nothing new, particularly when it comes to extremely marginalized communities. Just like Native Americans, most people can get away with talking about us and appropriating our culture and even our identities without having to deal with one us in the room. I’m glad this time I was in the room, because I know some of the people in the group did hear and care about my concerns.

I had an analogous experience to the person asking the question when, thirteen years ago, I got extension braids and even black people thought I was black. I know it may seem hard to believe, but my suspicions were confirmed when a new friend, who was black and had met me post-braids, saw me after I’d taken them out and shouted, “Oh my god, you’re not black! I’d started talking to you because I thought you were….”

Fascinating as it was seeing where I got more or less love, I never even imagined it’d be okay for me to call myself black. Even if I were to continue being perceived as black for the rest of my life, there’s a whole African American cultural experience that I didn’t experience. And while I began to experience certain aspects during my brief time passing, it’s not the same as having my formative identity shaped by being black in a culture that privileges people with light skin. For this reason, I feel it would be disrespectful to African Americans to suddenly put on and claim their identity.

In the end, I know people are free to say whatever they want, and appropriate whatever they want, but I urge folks to consider the consequences. You might decide that respecting a marginalized community’s needs and wishes is the better way to go. 🙂

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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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