Including intersex in the LGBTI acronym makes a lot of sense as we discussed in the last post. Intersex is about bodies, and not about sexual orientation or (necessarily) gender identity. Intersex should be included in LGBT activism because, like other people who have non-normative sex, gender, or orientation identities, we should have the right to be legally protected, and to make autonomous decisions about what we do and don’t do with our bodies and our lives in the most basic respects. We are definitely not there yet – intersex is a term that is still becoming a part of our vocabulary – but people are slowly recognizing that intersex rights are important and necessary, and that ignoring intersex issues is simply unacceptable.
There are a lot of other important intersections among intersex and queer identity, too. The ways that we commonly define and understand queer identities don’t always make room for intersex folks. Intersex people may identify in ways that, as of yet, have not been recognized as legitimate identities, with variation in how intersex people identify within those categories. No matter how intersex people identify, there are often assumptions attached to these identities that are thought to be informed by one’s intersex body. Basically, if you are an intersex person, being a person who is(n’t) or (dis)likes whatever, isn’t directly related to, or even “caused by” being intersex. Finally, intersex identities may be co-opted by individuals who are misinformed about what intersex is, and what the implications of identifying as intersex are in biological, social, and medical contexts.
Oh, man. Talking about identity is my favorite. I’ve chunked up relevant aspects of intersex and its relationship to other queer identities into three convenient sub-topics. Omg, I’m really excited. Let’s do it!
“Sex identity” adds another layer to identity, how identities match up
Queer people are generally super aware that our various sex, gender, and orientation identities don’t need to match up in one of two ways. That if you’re assigned female at birth, that doesn’t mean that you define your gender as female. Ideas about fluid, non-binary identities also seem to be more commonly encountered and understood by non-queer/cis folks.
People seem to think differently, though, about how fluid or non-binary your identities can be if you’re intersex. A lot of sex and gender identity labels that we use assume that you clearly fit into male or female biological sex categories. Like, I’ve had discussions with other intersex people who would otherwise identify as cisgender, but don’t really know what it means to be an intersex person identifying as cisgender. Most intersex people seem to identify their sex as female or male. Some intersex people — like me — identify their sex as intersex. Other intersex people identify their sex as an intersex female, or an intersex male. Strictly speaking, is an intersex person who defines their sex as intersex, but doesn’t identify their gender as “intersex”, cis? What about a person who identifies their sex as an intersex male, but identifies their gender as “male,” but not “intersex male”? What about someone who doesn’t know how the fuck they identify with regards to their biological sex, but does know how they define their gender identity? Like all questions to do with identity, my answer at the end of the day is you get to identify however the fuck you want, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it. But I think it does raise important questions about what cisgender really means, or how much this concept makes sense for some people.
I think when we’re talking about intersex people, we need to talk about “sex identity” – as in, how one identifies their biological sex. There are lots of ways that intersex people experience and understand their relationship to their bodies, and consequently how they define their biological sex. I think we need to start treating “sex identity” as a legitimate and fluid concept that can’t be assumed based on what a person looks like and/or their other known identities, the same way that gender identity and sexual orientation are.
Not all people with bodies that could be labeled as intersex actually identify as intersex; most intersex people seem to identify as male or female in terms of biological sex, and just happen to be intersex. But there are those of us, like me, that identify our sex as intersex, and a subset of such intersex people would like to be legally recognized as intersex. What would it mean if people were allowed to legally identify as intersex, in a practical sense? For example, if I got my identification forms changed, would I get an “I” for intersex — lumping our very different body forms and functions into one umbrella category — or would it say, like, “CAIS” (my form of intersex) or even more specifically “CAIS – Level 7″? (Where the “levels” parse with what your body looks like and how it functions among others with the same form of intersex, based on medical definitions — which intersex isn’t, but those guidelines still exist.) How much, if at all, would peoples’ specific forms of intersex be accounted for? Or, if I was legally intersex, at what age could I retire? Men and women have different statutory retirement ages in different countries. Queer activism has been hyper-focused on marriage equality, but what does “same-sex” marriage look like for me? Would I have to find another “CAIS – Level 7″ person to marry? Would intersex activists have to buck up and launch an intersex marriage equality movement to broaden the definition of marriage from opposite/same-sex to any-sex marriage? If I got married now, and in a few years, the legal standing of intersex individuals changed, would my marriage be nullified? (Intersex marriage is already complicated since some states define the sex not on your legal M or F status, but on your chromosome types. I could get married to a typical lady in Texas today because I have XY chromosomes, so they’d define our marriage as heterosexual.) There’s a lot of vagueness around intersex and the law. There are a lot of questions I have.
It’s also worth considering that while the term “intersex” exists, an opposite term for it does not exist. Trans* individuals created the term cisgender as a way to show that being trans* is just one way of being, where there are other ways of being out there, too. Having the word “trans*” meant that being trans* was something so exceptional and unique that there had to be a word to describe it, whereas everyone else that wasn’t trans just got to be…normal. Creating “cis” as an opposite to trans* denoted that trans as simply one identity among others, and that trans* individuals weren’t weird and deserving of stigmatism and fetishism. Trans* people are just themselves, people who are as normal as it was implied cis people were. Duh.
At this point, being intersex is evidently noteworthy enough to merit a word for it, but there isn’t a word out there for non-intersex people. What do we call non-intersex people? At this point, it’s implied that non-intersex people are simply “normal,” in the same vein that cis people were implicitly “normal,” but that’s bullshit and needs to change. Intersex people talk about this issue sometimes, and suggestions have been made, but none of them so far are without problematic connotations, or seem very fitting. But I strongly feel that we need a term for non-intersex people, even if it’s just “non-intersex.” Some people have proposed using the term “dyadic,” meaning that everyone who’s not intersex fall into binary sex classifications. If intersex people exist, biological sex is inherently NOT binary or dyadic. What would that term even mean? We’d basically be saying, you can be intersex, or you can fall into binary sex categories that don’t actually exist but are still more real than us somehow, so you still get to be more “normal” than us in using the term dyadic. (LANGUAGE IS COMPLICATED, YA’LL) This is something we’ll have to figure out.
With sex identity, I think we also need to extend to it the acceptance of pairing it up with gender and orientation identities in non-binary ways. Like, a bunch of people ask me how I can identify as a lesbian when I identify my sex as intersex, i.e., not as a typical female. And my main feeling is, BECAUSE I JUST DID! A lot people wonder if intersex people can “really” be straight or gay, or claim male or female genders if they don’t identify their sex as typically male/female. My answer to that question is, of course they can! This isn’t any more radical an idea than being a person who defines their biological sex as typically male/female, and also has a gender identity that is not cis, or is fluid or complex, or also a sexual orientation that isn’t straight. Just because intersex is about bodies and being born with those bodies doesn’t mean we have to get all matchy-matchy with our identities while everyone else gets to have fun mixing and matching it up. Right?!
Next: Intersex status doesn’t necessarily inform other queer identities.