[Note: In honor of LGBTQI Pride month, this post’s title is a riff on the old Queer Nation slogan, “We’re Here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_Nation.]
There’s a line in Golden Boy, the excellent, recently released novel featuring a 16 year-old intersex protagonist, where he says that you have to choose one or the other, boy or girl. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15803173-golden-boy. When I read it I thought about how some might disagree, given all the discussions about “breaking out of the binary” in certain scenes and gender studies circles. Then I thought about the fact that we don’t even have an accepted noun to call those born outside the binary.
People who are born male or female, biologically speaking, are socially labeled boys or girls, even though they might reject these labels later. But what about people who aren’t born male or female, but intersex? The fact that there’s no social label to correspond to our bodies displays just how deeply in denial society is.
Wait, actually, there is a label. As Plato wrote, way back in 385 B.C., “The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature….” http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html. I know a few older intersex folks who had this “name” written on their birth certificates, and it even had a brief heyday in the ‘90’s, before being labeled un-pc. The word I’m talking about is “hermaphrodite”.
When I first found out I was intersex back in ’96, and joined the organization ISNA (defunct since ’08, fyi), I was thrilled to see that their newsletter was titled, Hermaphrodites with Attitude . I got a “Hermaphrodites with Attitude” t-shirt and appeared in the first intersex documentary, Hermaphrodites Speak. But shortly after I left the organization in ’98, ISNA started saying that we shouldn’t use “hermaphrodite” because it was inaccurate and some people found it stigmatizing. I wish I’d asked “What people?” because everyone I knew had been happy with it, but I just went along with the request, wanting to be respectful.
Today, even though I still always point out that “intersex” is our preferred label, I have to admit I kind of miss “hermaphrodite”. Intersex is a clinical term — like “male”, “female” or “homosexual” — and clinical labels aren’t usually used socially. Instead we use “men” and “women” or “gay” and “lesbian”. Some have improvised by calling us “intersexuals”, but that sounds just as clinical as “homosexual”, and I have yet to meet an intersex person that likes it.
“Hermaphrodite”, however, has a lot going for it:
1. It’s the label that most people are already familiar with.
2. Because it’s not medical/scientific in origin, it doesn’t sound medical/scientific.
3. It means that I can say what I am without trying to decide if I feel more like an “intersex man” or an “intersex woman”. (A decision, btw, that tortured me for years, because I felt alternately like both and/or neither.)
4. Being named after the child of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and Hermes, god of transitions — how cool is that?
On the flip side though, I know some intersex people – maybe a lot of intersex people — dislike the label, usually for the following reasons:
1. Hermaphrodite is inaccurate: humans don’t have both fully functioning sets of male and female organs, like Hermaphroditus in the Greek myth we were named after. My rebuttal: Tons of labels are inaccurate. White people are not the color white, gays are not all “cheerful”, and most lesbians are not residents of the Greek island of Lesbos.
2. Most intersex people identify as men or women, so another noun isn’t necessary. Rebuttal: Don’t the rest of us count? Why deny us a label that fits? Also, while it seems currently true that most of us identify as men or women, or intersex men or women, what choice do we have when there’s not an alternative label available? It’s kind of like saying — before the terms “gay” and “lesbian” came into use –that most homosexuals didn’t identify as gay or lesbian.
3. Hermaphrodite sounds like some weird third sex creature, and it’ll scare parents into having their intersex kids operated on. Rebuttal: Operations have continued, some say even increased, during the time we’ve played nice and non-confrontational by not using the words “hermaphrodite” and even “intersex” (some saying they are just normal men or women with medical conditions). Trying to stop “normalizing” surgeries by claiming that we’re all gender normative hasn’t worked. As with all people, it’s just not true, and the approach also caters to homophobia and transphobia rather than denouncing them. Not cool.
4. Hermaphrodite is just so long. Rebuttal: That’s why I use “herm”.
All that said, I’m not saying that people should use the words hermaphrodite or “herm” to describe us: they shouldn’t. That’s our turf, our decision. I don’t even call myself a herm at all times, because the feminist in me still sometimes loves representing for the “F”.
What I am saying though, is that I’m sick of having to always linguistically lump myself into a binary that doesn’t exactly fit, because of current cultures’ discomfort with openly acknowledging that intersex people exist. We do and always have, as the slogan goes…. 🙂