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?!
Intersex status doesn’t necessarily inform other queer identities
There’s other pervasive ideas about the relationship between intersex bodies and intersex peoples’ identities, preferences, and behaviors. People aren’t super-used to the idea that intersex exists, so when a person learns that someone is intersex, sometimes that person’s intersex status may predominate the other person’s perception of who they are. Intersex status may become so central to that person’s perceived identity that others start wondering if there’s a causal relationship between intersex and other stuff about them. These ideas typically play off of stereotypes we have about intersex people – i.e., that we have both a penis and a vagina, that we’re somehow “blends” of men and women, that we (should) look androgynous in terms of our bodies or presentation and that we must exhibit perfect mix of masculine and feminine interests, personality traits, or gender roles.
For example, I like to dress pretty stereotypically feminine a lot of the time. People sometimes think it’s interesting that I dress pretty girly since I’m intersex; after all, shouldn’t an Alternative Lifestyle Cut and some nice, androgynous Converse sneakers, instead of heels and lipstick, better represent my intersex status? Other times, people think that my feminine look is a way to overcompensate and assert the feminine parts of my identity/ies — you know, that I have to try harder to be a girl to eclipse all my intersex stuff.
Those assumptions instantly make me feel like this.
And also this.
My main feeling is, what does being someone who’s intersex have anything to do with also being someone who likes to wear cute dresses? My intersex status and the way I like to dress don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another. To me, this makes as much sense as assuming that my love of blueberry muffins is directly due to my love of the color blue. Blueberries are admittedly blue (kinda?), but does the color blue actually have anything to do with blueberry muffin preference? Probably not. But even if it did, should it matter? Does the fact that I love blueberry muffins mean something different if SCIENCE! finds out it’s directly caused by a person’s like of the color blue? That suddenly, I love them less, or my love of those muffins is somehow less real now that we’ve found that those likes are linked up? No, not at all.
There are a lot of assumptions about how intersex status matches up with other identities. If you happen to be an athletic lady, fine. If you happen to be an INTERSEX person who’s an athletic lady, maybe the “reason” you’re athletic is BECAUSE you’re intersex. If you happen to be queer or genderqueer, fine. If you happen to be an INTERSEX person that is queer or genderqueer, maybe the “reason” you’re not-straight or non-gender-conforming is BECAUSE you’re intersex. People who are not intersex (like other non-marginalized groups) get to just like or do stuff, and have those preferences and identities taken at face value. People who are intersex (like other marginalized groups) have their preferences and identities analyzed and picked apart, with others wondering internally or aloud if they’re a certain way because of one aspect of who they are.
I think what people are really asking when they ask those questions or make those assumptions is, “My head is still kind of bending that you and people like you exist in this world. How does this work? I want to understand more.” Those questions, and the answers to them, require a different conversation than the one focused on if the reason I like Peppermint Patty from Peanuts is somehow because I’m intersex.
Intersex status doesn’t make queer identities more “real”
Some people (incorrectly) think there is a causal relationship between being intersex, and being non-normative – i.e., too masculine, too feminine, too androgynous, queer, non-conforming, etc. Conversely, intersex status is sometimes perceived as something wanted and desirable by people who are “too” masculine, feminine, androgynous, etc. There are a lot of people that are “too” different in one or more of these ways, and wonder if maybe they’re actually intersex. Because they were assigned female at birth, but have always been tomboys that never quite felt like “female” fit them. Because they’re rather feminine for a boy, and felt like they were different from everyone else because of it. Because they’re gay, bisexual, queer, not-straight. Because they have a gender identity that is complex or fluid or deviates from others’ expectations of what their gender identities “should” be.
Sometimes, people seek out information to find out if maybe they’re intersex, because having a biological basis for being different in terms of sex will validate their identities by giving them a physical reason why they are the way they are.
I feel like this is a difficult conversation to have, for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons deals with the implications of what it means to identify as intersex when you are not intersex. Intersex activists are trying to raise awareness that intersex exists, that it’s not a medical condition that needs to be fixed, and that non-consensual, cosmetic procedures being forced on intersex kids needs to end. When non-intersex people identify as intersex, that changes how intersex is perceived and defined. It erases our identity as intersex people, our history of oppression, and our specific needs that intersex activism seeks to address. It is difficult to be a thing that is rarely discussed, and people don’t really know about, and when it is mentioned, you realize they’re not actually talking about you and others like you – they’re talking about something else that has nothing to do with you and who you are. And that’s disheartening, and rage-inducing. It’s reasonable to want to be understood and accurately represented, and to feel not-good about situations where that’s not happening.
But this story isn’t so simple. Non-intersex individuals who claim intersex have traditionally done so because they are trying to circumvent their own not-okay, fucked up experiences. There has been a lot of conflict between intersex and trans* individuals in the past, because while there is some overlap in issues faced by intersex and trans* individuals (e.g., autonomy in receiving medical care), the specific problems faced, individuals’ specific needs, and the perceived solutions in fixing these problems are different.
Intersex individuals are routinely subjected to unnecessary medical treatments without their consent, to “fix” the bodies they are born with so they can be “normal”; trans* individuals are routinely denied or impeded in receiving (for some) necessary medical treatments so they can remain “normal” with the bodies they were born with. Both situations deny individuals the right to making choices about their own medical care, and both situations are totally unacceptable.
You would think, then, that intersex and trans* communities would have been strong allies for one another from the very beginning, but this was unfortunately not the case. Intersex individuals were critical of some trans* individuals’ claiming intersex as a way to more easily navigate the medical and mental health systems to access care. Some trans* individuals thought that doctors would be more willing to give them access to medical care, with fewer problems, if they were perceived to “need” treatment to be “normal.” Some trans* individuals also thought that doctors, and people at large, would be more sympathetic to their desire to alter their bodies if they claimed intersex. After all, intersex bodies are considered freakish – obtaining treatment would simply serve to “correct” whatever weird traits they were born with.
Claiming intersex when you’re aren’t is absolutely not okay, but intersex people have also failed to empathize with the roadblocks trans* individuals face, and understand why claiming intersex in such circumstances seemed like an attractive option. Instead of recognizing that the medical system harmed both intersex and trans* people, intersex people sometimes responded in transphobic ways, further damaging the relationship among communities. Furthermore, trans* individuals discovered that accessing medical care is not, in fact, easy for intersex people in many circumstances, especially if you identify your sex as something other than what doctors think your biological sex “really” is or “should” be. Intersex babies and kids routinely undergo non-consensual medical care, but it is often just as difficult for teen and adult intersex people to access medical care they DO consent to because of intersexphobic attitudes.
The oppression both communities face, in some ways, is actually not as different as we thought.
Relationships between intersex and trans* communities has been much more positive and understanding of late. It is understood that claiming intersex when you aren’t is not okay. It is understood that retaliating with hateful, transphobic words is equally not okay. It is understood that intersex and trans* individuals have to work harder to understand each others’ range of identities, perspectives, and both personal and activist goals. Because of these misunderstandings, there are still intersex people out there that are transphobic, and distrustful of other intersex people as a result of their transphobia, openly questioning whether a self-identified intersex individual is “really” intersex, or asking them to “prove” their intersex status to ensure that they’re not a trans* individual claiming intersex. Intersex and trans*-identified activist Cary Gabriel Costello intelligently lays out these issues on his blog, The Intersex Roadshow, a great resource for learning more about intersex, the relationships between intersex and trans* issues, and intersex transphobia.
The second reason it’s difficult to talk about intersex in in/validating sex, gender, and orientation identities is this: there is a pervasive concept that individuals who have a clear, biological basis for their difference, are more acceptable (and should therefore be more accepted) than people that are different for “no reason.” It’s difficult, in general, to realize that you’re different in a way that feels so fundamental to how others will perceive you and treat you in daily life, that will make you the target of discrimination when you haven’t done anything wrong and that makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you simply for being outside the norm. It’s easier to deal with all this unwanted bullshit if you feel like you have a clear-cut reason as to why this is happening in the first place, something you can point to and say, “This is why I’m different, I get it.” In this context, I understand why some would want to claim intersex.
However, I strongly argue that being intersex doesn’t make one’s sex, gender, and sexual orientation identities more “real” or valid. It just means that on top of those things, you’re also an intersex person. Just like how liking the color blue and liking blueberry muffins don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another, a person’s like of blueberry muffins isn’t somehow more real if they also like the color blue. No one is going to say, “Well, it makes sense that I like blueberry muffins so much, because I also like blue. Thank GOD I know I like the color blue, because if I didn’t, I’d have no CLUE why I like blueberry muffins! Whew!”
But this analogy is kind of flawed. It’s deeper than that. Making causal links between being intersex and having non-normative identities is more like what people think when wondering if there’s a “gay gene” out there that causes people to be queer. If there’s a “gay gene,” then we have a biological REASON that makes it somehow acceptable to be gay, because it’s hardwired in us which means we should be more accepting of gay people because of said gay gene’s existence. From a biological standpoint, it’s highly unlikely there’s a single “gay gene” out there. There is likely a biological basis for sexual orientation – at least for some people – but there’s likely not one little snip of DNA that all gay people have, that universally fates people to be gay. There might be a bunch of genetic regions involved. Hormone types and levels could play key roles. The big-ness or smallness of certain brain structures has been implicated. There are a lot of traits that may or may not have something to do with being gay. Maybe most importantly, being “gay” is just one of many, many non-heterosexual orientations out there, so talking about a “gay” gene doesn’t necessarily make a ton of sense anyway.
But for convenience’s sake, let’s stay simple. Let’s just say that the fabled unicorn of a “gay gene” actually exists for a minute. If we were to get a bunch of people who self-identify as gay, and ask them to get a DNA test to see if they have the gay sequence, what would happen if some of those individuals got their test results back, and they didn’t have the sequence?
Would these people not be able to identify as gay anymore? Would they have to undergo an identity crisis, and accept the fact that they must be straight now, and go on awkward dates with members of the opposite sex, and try to convince themselves that straight sex isn’t really THAT, that bad?
Some people might. But I think that perspective is seriously misguided. I strongly argue that if you identify as gay, you’re gay. Whether or not you have a couple of A, T, G, and C’s doesn’t somehow negate the fact that you feel faint and slightly dizzy every time you see that cute girl in the coffee shop. Not having that genetic sequence doesn’t make those experiences more or less real, or mean you hallucinated them. It simply means that, despite the fact that you don’t have that sequence, you’re gay. Like, just plain ol’ gay.
Biological intersex doesn’t provide a reason why someone is not straight, or has a non-normative gender identity, or has preferences and attitudes that fall outside stereotypical gender expectations. If intersex has anything to do with these other identities and preferences at all, then they definitely don’t have a direct, causal relationship. There are a lot of people with intersex biology out there who are not queer, who do closely conform to sex and gender roles, and/or who don’t present themselves in non-normative ways. Just like how there are also a bunch of people who are queer, that fall outside traditional sex and gender expectations, that are not biologically intersex. These things don’t all match up in one or two obvious, consistent ways.
Finally, it’s worth considering that knowing that your difference is rooted in your biology doesn’t actually mean that you feel like you have any more of a “reason” for your difference than anyone else. I spent many nights lying half-awake, and many hours in my college’s computer lab covertly researching intersex, trying to understand why I was so different. I knew that I had a form of a gene that resulted in my being intersex. I could get blood and DNA tests, physically see how my chromosome types were different, and check out my atypical hormone levels on black-and-white forms from some commercial laboratory. I could see and examine the parts of my body that were different, look at the X-rays and MRIs in my medical charts amid the illegibly scrawled diagnoses and recommendations of multiple doctors over the years.
But this didn’t give me any more answers than anyone else who had questions. I still ultimately wanted to know, why it’s ME who is an intersex person. Why my mom, who has three other siblings, was the one who passed on the genetic sequence that, in part, makes me, ME. Why those few changes in a few itty bitty molecules has such a huge impact on how society sees you, how you perceive who you are, what you feel you have to hide from everyone else. Having biologically-based differences didn’t answer my questions of, “Why am I this way?” any more than those parts of me I couldn’t point to on my body, or find out from a karyotpying test. What I do know is that — for whatever reasons I exist, whatever makes me who I am — I am this person, and that person is okay, and that’s what’s important.
To conclude, intersex and queer identities sometimes match up in ways that we’re familiar with, and that conform to our understanding of how these identities are commonly defined. Other times they don’t. Whether we personally feel strongly about identity politics or not, I think it’s really important to understand how intersex fits in with and relates to queer identities, to make room for understanding how we identify when we use queer identity labels – and how the definitions of such labels might change when we use them. The range of how a person may specifically identify when using a particular identity label has to change as we incorporate new information, and new groups of people into the LGBTI community. With time, the nuances of identifying as x, y, or z as an intersex person need to be understood, and incorporated into the collective queer consciousness so intersex people can be better understood, and so our identities can be validated in their own right.
I love being the intersex person I am, and love being a queer of various stripes. I want to be seen as a whole person, with all my identities – whether interconnected or not – being appreciated and taken at face value by others, being thought about if they seem non-intuitive contradictory at first, being truly understood, even if it takes more than a few questions to get there. I want others to be interested in how queer intersex people identify, to know that it’s really important to us. I want others to want to know, to do the work to learn about the stuff that affects our lives and colors our perspectives.
I want to be seen. It’s not too much to want.