Hello there, lovely Autostraddlers! I’d like to continue the conversation on intersex issues, and hope you’re down to discuss and share. My first post served to define intersex and talk broadly about what intersex is, why intersex bodies are controversial in so many societies, why non-medically necessary treatments (e.g., surgeries, dilation procedures) are routinely performed on young intersex kids without their consent, and why these procedures – which are nothing short of human rights violations – need to end.
I was completely overwhelmed, in the best possible way, that so many of you responded so positively to talking and learning about intersex issues. (Thank you, thank you, thank you all, for being so awesome. My heart exploded a little bit the day that post went up. <3)
I think the next logical thing to address, after talking intersex basics, is this: What does intersex have to do with LGBT stuff?
I’m a little bit biased in wanting to talk about intersex issues on AS, because I’m a queer lady and I love this site and want to see intersex folks — like me — represented in spaces I identify with and care about (duh). But it’s more than I’m intersex and I like AS a lot; I think that intersex issues are becoming increasingly relevant to talk about in LGBT contexts, so much so that people are slowly, gradually starting to add the “I” to make this acronym: LGBTI.
So, why are intersex issues being linked up with LGBT activism, and does this make sense? I’m here to argue, strongly, that yes – including intersex with LGBT and queer issues makes perfect sense. Let’s explore why, shall we?
The goals of intersex activism broadly fit in with the goals of LGBT activism. Intersex activism is really young — about two decades old in the UK, and a couple of years less than that in the U.S. Intersex people began to break through the shame and stigma of their secret medical histories and share their stories and experiences with one another. They realized that bodies like theirs, and the procedures those bodies were forced to undergo, were actually a lot more common than they had thought. There were a lot of intersex people who had physical and emotional scars from the medical “treatments” that didn’t track their health, and couldn’t be reversed. They started to organize and speak out, telling physicians and the media that these procedures weren’t necessary, that they never consented to them, and that the after-effects of “treatment” caused more problems and confusion than their natural bodies could ever do.
These people were so brave for thinking of these first conversations. The moments that intersex people began to realize their experiences weren’t total anomalies — that there were others who hurt, felt, hid and wondered for so long like them — is so powerful that I feel kind of nauseous. It’s hard to accept that these conversations had to happen, that this stuff was going on, and is still routinely going on even now. Intersex activism is relevant, and needed.
There are a lot of goals that intersex activists have that are specific to intersex people, and not to LGBT people broadly: raising awareness that intersex exists, accurately defining intersex, explaining that intersex bodies aren’t abnormal, that biological sex doesn’t come in just one of two flavors and advocating for intersex people to choose what is done to their bodies by ending non-consensual cosmetic procedures. These are not necessarily common goals all L, G, B, and/or T people are invested in fighting to change, or are affected by in their daily lives.
But LGBT people and other just-as-important groups that don’t (commonly) have their own letter, often have their own aims in what they want people to know, understand and accept. Broadly, I think that LGBT activism — despite our various bodies, sex and gender identities and orientations — accepts that we have the right to live our own lives as we want to and make our own choices. It recognizes that we are just people that deserve the same freedoms as everyone else and not labeled as “different” for arbitrary, illogical reasons.
And I think that intersex activism very clearly falls in line with those aims.
People question whether the “I” should be added to the LGBT acronym, whether intersex really belongs: It’s not really a sexual orientation, is it? It’s more about bodies and identity, right? Is it not okay to link up intersex people with queer communities in case a majority of intersex people happened to identify as straight? A lot of the same points and counterpoints people are making to support/discourage intersex inclusion are the same ones people were making a few years ago regarding trans* inclusion. Trans* is not a sexual orientation like L, G, or B is, either. From outsiders’ views, trans* seemed more related to bodies, and identities outside of L, G, and B. Trans* people are rightly included in the acronym today because they are perceived as outside of mainstream sex and gender norms, and their rights and identities need to be advocated for. This also means it isn’t necessary for a majority of intersex people to identify as queer in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity to join the club. I would encourage intersex individuals who are really, super-duper opposed to intersex inclusion to examine if, whether consciously or not, it’s because they’re holding some queerphobic views that makes them want to distance themselves from Gay Stuff. Because that is simply not cool.
Intersex inclusion makes sense. We need our rights and identities to be advocated for, like other LGBT groups are trying to do. Not being allowed the agency to make basic decisions about what is done to our bodies (i.e., being able to keep all our body parts intact) is simply not acceptable. Trying to erase our intersex by changing our bodies into those of “real” boys and girls doesn’t turn us into real boys and girls; it just changes our external appearance and very likely fucks us up in the process. For the first time, legislation is being drafted – and even passed! – identifying intersex people as a minority group with specific needs, that require legal protections against discrimination against us. Our legal protection is also being fought for in court, one important example being the the M.C. Crawford case, where Crawford’s non-consensual, cosmetic genital surgery was just declared unconstitutional for federal court. This is a huge step forward for intersex rights.
People still largely don’t know what intersex is, but more people I meet today have heard the word than I did four years ago, when I became involved in intersex activism. People sometimes look surprised or furrow their brows when I use the word “intersexphobia,” but I think this word will be known and used someday. People aren’t always aware that intersex medical procedures are so routine today, but I’m encouraged by how often people respond with shock and outrage and ask how this stuff isn’t illegal already.
It’s possible that I’m being all glass-is-full-and-overflowing with regards to intersex activism, and I’m in for a heaping plate of disillusionment sometime in the future. But I really don’t think so. More intersex activists are speaking out than ever before, and I think that even if intersex medical “treatments” don’t end within my lifetime, the knowledge that intersex people exist and should be protected will be.
Another reason intersex should be included in queer activist efforts is that homophobia partly drives intersex “treatment” decisions. It is sobering and deeply disturbing to understand how much intersexphobia is related to parents’, doctors’ and societies’ fear that intersex = gay. People think that if our bodies are cosmetically – even surgically – altered into a body that better conforms to subjective male/female beauty standards, this will somehow prevent intersex kids from growing up liking people of the same sex they were assigned by their parents/doctors. I truly don’t understand this thought process at all. If I have an adorable mouse, but I really wanted a hamster, cutting off the mouse’s tail isn’t going to make it a hamster. All I have now is a mouse that’s tailless.
Nobody knows who their kids are going to be when they grow up. Nobody. Parents may have ideals about what they’d like their kids to prefer, do and act like. Society has ideals about what citizens should be and act like. Guess what, though? Everybody is their own person. Not only don’t they have to conform to other peoples’ expectations/desires for them, but they AREN’T going to meet all those expectations/desires for them, because that’s not how being your own person works. I am fairly positive my parents would have preferred to have an easier time not worrying about what it meant to have a baby that is not typically male or female, and what do you do about that? But that’s not what happened. They had me, and that’s part of who I am. You love your child and accept that they’re going to be who they are, and do your best to support them in who they are, and that’s it. That’s how it should work. It doesn’t always work that way in practice, but it should.
Parents often don’t want their kids to be intersex. They don’t want to deal with not knowing how their child fits into society in one of the most basic ways we use to categorize people. They are afraid of what it means for their kid to not be strictly male or female – something explored in-depth by Katrina Karkazis in her book, Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience. Will it be possible for them to be raised as a boy or a girl? If their child has genitals that don’t conform to strict standards of what typical boy and girl genitals “should” look like, will other kids somehow see and tease them? What would the babysitter say – can they leave their weird kid in the company of others who won’t understand? They don’t want to think that their child is “that” different, that children like theirs might grow up to be adults that are “that” different, walking around in the world outside, doing god knows what defying all the social norms that exist. It’s too much. Lots of parents can’t sign on for that. It’s easier to believe that changing their kids bodies’ will somehow magically translate into their kids being the “normal” kids they were supposed to be in the first place, and now everything will be just fine. When in actually, we were already normal and just fine to begin with.
One thing that many parents unfortunately do not want their children to be, is gay. By “gay,” I really mean not-straight; whether parents conceptualize sexual orientation as binary or for the diverse cornucopia it is, what they have in common is that they want their kids to be straight. A lot of parents still see being not-straight as something that can or should be changed. (And if it can’t, they should at least be able to prevent their kids from “acting on” their homobigayqueerness, ugh.) Things are complicated by the fact that in our society, we typically conflate biological sex with gender identity, and gender identity with gender roles, presentation, performance, sexual orientation, AND sexual behavior. So, pretty quickly, intersex bodies cause a lot of social panic – another topic well-explored by Karkazis in Fixing Sex . Not only are intersex bodies themselves perceived as threatening in that they blow up the concept of biological sex as binary, but they evidently suggest that that someone with atypical sex characteristics might also have non-standard (i.e., unacceptable) gender identities, roles, etc…including sexual orientations. There are no indications that being intersex and being queer are causal, or even directly related at all, but the way our society links up these identities, it’s a pretty short jump from, “My kid is intersex,” to “Shit, my kid might be gay, too.”
We’re seeing the results of this kind of thinking with regards to prenatal testing. Pregnant parents-to-be can actually screen their kids for certain kinds of intersex, with the idea that if the growing fetus has an intersex “medical condition,” they can know about it in advance/use that information to make decisions about whether or not they want to bring the fetus to term. Expectant parents whose fetus tests “positive” for certain forms of intersex sometimes ask if their child is likely to be gay due to having this “medical condition,” and sometimes terminate pregnancies because they would rather have a kid who won’t maybe be gay someday. As I stated in my last post, I support any pregnant persons’ right to make decisions about their own reproductive health, including whether or not to end a pregnancy. I think it is seriously misguided, however, to abort a fetus simply because they might be gay, or will have intersex bodies. At best, this is ignorant. At worst, this is getting into the eugenics category – trying to prevent gay and/or intersex people from existing because we’re perceived to be undesirable or bad or somehow less-than. The link between intersex and homophobia is real and fucked up.
Homophobia also informs what “treatments” clinicians recommend to parents and perform on intersex kids. Female-assigned intersex kids’ external genitalia are surgically altered if the clitoris is deemed “too big”; developmentally, the clitoris and the penis derive from the same tissue (i.e., the phalloclitoris), and there are no absolute rules regarding at what length that tissue stops being a clitoris and when it becomes a penis. (Though multiple guidelines have been created by doctors for just this purpose, with – surprise! – different size ranges for clitorises/penises.) For female-assigned intersex kids, this tissue is reduced to a size considered typical or acceptable for females to have, even though research and intersex peoples’ accounts indicate that such surgeries leave lasting scar tissue and may result in lack of (sexual) sensation or even painful sensation. Basically, it’s more important that your junk looks a certain way so as not to freak out your opposite-sex sex partner, instead of prioritizing your capacity to enjoy sex as an adult and your rights to basic autonomy about what is and isn’t done to your body.
There’s also some really huge assumptions being made here about what kind of sex you want to have, and with who. Like, not everyone likes penetrative sex. What is the point of performing dilation procedures and/or reconstruct vaginal canals if the individuals don’t want to have that kind of sex? Why alter someone’s phalloclitoris size if they would’ve been happy with their body the way it was? You know? Surgery clearly limits the kinds of sexual pleasure intersex people can enjoy in their adult lives, in part by making big assumptions about who they’re going to share this pleasure with.
Clitorises have erectile capacity just like penises do, although when erect, they’re not as big as penises typically are. I think some doctors and parents are freaked out by the idea of a woman with a clitoris whose form and function remind them of penises. This woman is likely seen as “too masculine” to have sex with a man without calling forth images of gay sex, and sex with another woman would be, in fact, “gay sex” (although the individuals actually having sex might not identify it that way, blahblah but you know what I mean, right?). That would make that kind of sex unacceptable from the get-go, while also suggesting the disturbing possibility that such a female might be capable of penetration, or having sex “like a man.” (Some female-identified intersex folks – awesomely – can do this. I’ve never heard any complaints reported by themselves or their partners.) While you’d think this latter hypothetical might actually make the queerophobes feel better – since, to them, it might look something like the heterosexual penis-in-vagina kind of intercourse deemed the Most Acceptable Kind of Sex – it doesn’t. It freaks them out just the same, if not more so.
Female-assigned intersex kids’ vaginal canal size is also assessed by doctors, to ensure that it’s long enough to fit a penis inside of it. Doctors might surgically construct or re-construct vaginas, which can result in a host of health problems and necessitate multiple, multiple surgeries. This is especially the case since most intersex kids have these surgeries very young, and when their bodies grow into their adult forms, more surgeries are necessary to keep their vagina size in proportion. Non-surgical methods are also used to increase or maintain vaginal length by regularly using medical dildos to stretch the vagina over months and years. (It’s kind of like braces for your vagina, but much, much worse.) Just like there are no standards for how long a clitoris “can” be before it’s classified as a penis, there aren’t absolute standards as to how long a vagina is for it to be of “normal” length.
I had a dilation procedure performed for almost every exam I had with intersex doctors from the time I was 8 until I was 16, so that they could check how long my vagina was as I grew. I absolutely hated these procedures. I mean, imagine a man as old as your father or your grandfather, who you don’t know, inserting a medical dildo into you each time you saw him, knowing that you can’t question the doctor’s orders and just accept that you have to undergo these uncomfortable procedures for your health. Imagine a decade or so later, realizing that these procedures did nothing to track your health, and had everything to do with grown men feeling good about the fact that you could fuck some dude someday like a “normal girl”. That all those traumatizing procedures weren’t actually medically relevant at all, and it actually was within my right to refuse those examinations.
I didn’t know any of that at the time.
I also had no idea that I wouldn’t want to ultimately have the kind of sex they assumed I’d be having, adding yet another layer of this-was-totally-unnecessary/messed-up to my history.
Other kids shouldn’t have to go through this. Other adults shouldn’t have revelations some day far into the future that what was happening to them WASN’T okay, and their traumatic feelings ARE valid, and the whole system of how intersex people are conceptualized and “treated” IS entirely fucked.
And it’s gotta change. We’ve gotta change it.
There are so many reasons why adding the “I” to LGBT activism makes sense. The “I” isn’t being included too much at present, since people are mostly still figuring out that the “I” exists at all, and what the “I” means, exactly. And that’s okay. Change is slow. It takes a while to incorporate new stuff into our vocabularies, and eventually, our consciousness and world-views. But already, some activist centers are and college groups are dubbing themselves “LGBTI.” People I don’t know occasionally post things about intersex on Facebook, saying, “Wow – I can’t believe this stuff is (still) going on.” It’s encouraging.
Intersex isn’t well-understood now, but in a few years people are going to be much more aware and informed about intersex issues. Intersex is something we have to know about and think about – that it’s inexcusable not to – and understand what is at stake if we decide to remain ignorant about the medical system that is altering young lives every day for the worse.
Adding one letter to the LGBT acronym –of the many other letters that could and should be added, knowing that it is difficult if not just plain impossible to be all-inclusive, qualifying and challenging every problematic aspect of the acronym and all the activism around it to death – might not seem like a lot. But in doing so, that’s sending a powerful message to all who see it: this is important enough to be included.
“we’re perceived to be undesirable or bad or somehow less-than”
In the immortal words of DeAnne Smith I less-than three you.
That is the only way you should be less-than, <3.
Just in love.
A couple of things:
1) While I fully support intersex persons inclusion in the LGBT/queer community, they’re inclusion is not the same as trans* inclusion. Trans* people have been members and leaders of the queer rights movement since the very beginning. Trans* people weren’t so much brought into the LGBT community as much as cisLGB people stopped forcing them out. (This process is by no means over and many “LGBT” organizations still ignore or are hostile to trans* people.)
2) I find it strange that your article trying so hard to prove that cis/straight people equate being intersex with being gay, and apart from one paragraph, the connection between trans* and intersex people isn’t touched on at all.
Trans-identified people are much more likely to be intersex, and vice versa. Many trans* people never know they’re intersex until they start transitioning and later find out that they have intersex chromosomes or internal plumbing. Similarly, intersex people are much more likely to identify outside the gender binary or seek surgery to address gender dysphoria (possibly but not always in reaction to forced surgery they received early in life). Like (other) trans* people, intersex people seeking gender-confirming medical treatment are often denied insurance coverage.
From what I’ve noticed the intersex community doesn’t just have a problem with queerphobia in general, but specifically with transphobia. I have read many comments from intersex people criticizing trans* people who also identify as intersex and accusing them of lying in order to infiltrate the intersex movement. (Notice the similarity to the transphobia expressed by cisLGB people and TERFs.)
Some intersex people are also extremely hostile to non-binary identities. On the website of the now-defunct Intersex Society of North America, dismisses non-binary genders thusly: “we are trying to make the world a safe place for intersex kids, and we don’t think labeling them with a gender category that in essence doesn’t exist would help them. (Duh, huh?)” http://www.isna.org/faq/third-gender
For the record, “Duh, huh?” was not added by me.
If we really want a fully inclusive LGBT/queer/QUILTBAG movement, we need to stop shouting “we’re just like you” to you to our cis/straight oppressors, and we need marginalized groups within the queer community to stop shouting “we’re just like you” to our cis-gay hegemons.
Not to get off topic, but TRAF is a bit of an odd one. It seems most of their focus is on trans*women(haven’t seen a quote from them about trans*men). They also believe that the T in LGBTQ has set back the movement.
Well, I believe that you’re assimilationist scum. I suppose we’re all entitled to our opinions.
Oops, I misread your post as “I also believe”. I have no idea if you are personally assimilationist scum, but anyone who believes the goals of the LGBTQ movement are served through infighting, backstabbing and internal bigotry certainly is.
Not what you mean by scum. Like in dirt? No, I agree with you we should be backstabbing, infringing, or doing any sort of hate.
That escalated quickly…
^ Right? I don’t know how to feel about that.
Nor do I have any idea whatsoever what TRAF means. Did Al mean TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist)? And if so, what on earth did it have to do with thread?
“I have read many comments from intersex people criticizing trans* people who also identify as intersex and accusing them of lying in order to infiltrate the intersex movement.”
Many comments, yes. Nearly all from “Nicki Chaleunphone” using a variety of sockpuppets (over 200 have been recorded).
When he’s not taking his anti-psychotic meds, he has a paranoid belief that all other people on the net who are Intersex are actually “trans infiltrators”. Pretty much every Intersex activist has been cyberstalked by him at one time or another, it’s almost a rite of passage by now.
Hi, there, Lix. I’m not entirely sure what you mean when you say intersex inclusion isn’t the same as trans* inclusion. Yes, trans* individuals were around at the start when LGBT activism was getting started, and it’s totally fucked up that trans* folks were initially cast aside so that queers could gain more widespread acceptance by distancing themselves from trans* people. But I your words sound a like, “You weren’t around for the start of it!” and my feeling is basically, “No we weren’t, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be included, or that our broad goals aren’t in line with LGBT activist efforts.”
I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to “prove” that there’s a link between cis-people-homophobia and how that informs how people perceive/treat intersex people, when there’s little evidence…I’m actually citing research that has been done by sociologists, interviewing intersex people, parents of intersex people, doctors that “treat” intersex people, and these are the results of that research. These aren’t my own unfounded opinions I’m trying to convince others of – I am trying to report what we already know through research.
I completely agree that, in this article, there is little content discussing the relationships between trans* and intersex folks. This article was actually part of an originally much-larger article that I ultimately decided to chunk up into two, more manageable posts – this one concerning why intersex fits into LGBTI activism, and a forthcoming post discussing the relationship between intersex identity and queer identities. There is a lot of exploration of intersex and trans* overlap in the next post, so stay tuned! (This includes issues of intersex trans*phobia which, while less prevalent now than a few years ago, is still definitely present, and unacceptable.)
I’m really uncomfortable with your statements that intersex people are “much more likely” to be trans*, or to be queer, or to be gender non-conforming in some way. This is an intersex stereotype, that there are these super-common – if not causal – links between intersex bodies and queer identities. There is very little research out there on intersex peoples’ identities in general (yo, sociologists & anthropologists, what’s up), and the little research that’s been done doesn’t necessarily suggest close relationships – and certainly not causal ones – among those things. These are all issues I talk about in the next post.
A lot of people have contentions with ideals upheld by ISNA – especially as they became less progressive and more assimilationist into what doctors wanted re: being okay with nonconsensual surgeries – and which has been defunct since 2008. This statement put out by ISNA is not representative of what many intersex people think. There are intersex people (or their family members) who are adamantly steeped in the bio-sex binary, but one also has to remember that this comes from a place of internalized intersexphobia, which is not always easy to work thorough. I am not defending this position by any means, but it’s not as simple as intersex-people-</3-nonintersex-people.
I am also disturbed by your sentiments regarding "assimilationsist scum," which I find generally confusing and unnecessary. I want to write for AS to help educate about intersex, and to promote discussion about intersex. Comments like these don't add to the discussion. Thanks!
Thank you. By far the largest percentage of folks who might be classed as Intersex are people with either Kleinfelter’s Syndrome (XXY) and those with the ‘milder’ form of CAH. From what I’ve understood, the majority of those people don’t consider themselves queer or trans or third gender or gender variant. Some do. The women with CAIS I’ve ever heard or communicated with (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome — sorry to reference it by pathologizing terms) consider themselves to be women. Yes, Intersex people face a lot of ugly pathologizing and some do consider themselves to be Intersex first, or genderqueer or neither binary men nor women… and those should be part of LGBTIQ if they wish and Intersex bodies need protection from medical meddling and brutalization. But to start classifying what is likely the majority of Intersex people as “they are this or they are that” is just seems unfair. Intersex people have already had to deal with non-Intersex ‘experts’ like Alice Dreger telling them how they should identify and that they have “disorders” so I wonder do they really need Gay Inc. bossing them around (as they have with the trans community) or non-Intersex people explaining them (as trans people often deal with CIS people explaining them). I’d love to hear from a lot wider cross-section of the Intersex community about this issue and their feelings about it.
For the record, I wasn’t calling you assimilationist scum. I was referring to a comment saying that including trans* people in LGBTQ movement has set the movement back.
And as I said above, I fully support intersex inclusion in the queer rights movement, but I stand by the statement that the path to that inclusion is and has been very different. Not less legitimate, but different.
I will concede that I have no scientific evidence that intersex people are more likely than non-intersex people to identify as queer, trans*, etc., but from personal experience that’s what I’ve noticed. However, I’ll admit my experience could be biased.
I also probably could have worded my comments more politically overall, particularly in response to the “AI” comment. When I see people defending radfem transphobia as a legitimate opinion, I see red.
(On a personal note, I am a trans* identified person who has been told by doctors that I may also be intersex. However, I cannot afford the testing that would confirm or disprove this. Particularly considering I don’t have concrete proof one way or the other, I have been met with a lot of hostility on the times I have tried to interact with the intersex community and I have heard similar stories from others, even if they do have concrete medical proof. It is very difficult for me to openly discuss the possibility that I may be intersex out of fear of the backlash it may generate.
If I had know this was the first of a two-part article, I would not have posted so rashly, but the idea of the relationship between the intersex and trans* communities being glossed over sat very wrong with me, given my personal experience.)
And as I have embarrassed myself enough for one lifetime, I going to go hide under a rock.
Hey, Lix! Thanks for clarifying. As the article stands alone, not mentioning anything about the relationship between intersex and trans would be a huge omission, and it’s totally understandable that someone being trans*-exclusionary makes you furious. The point of my responding to your comments wasn’t to make you feel embarassed, but to clarify some points and share views. :)
Thanks for responding back.
Super fascinating article; I just once again realized that there’s so much I don’t know. I’m definitely going to make a concerted effort to better educate myself about intersex politics and issues. Thanks Claudia (and AS for always making me better informed and smarter.)
just wanted to echo GoS! Thanks for writing this Claudia. (also, I, too, feel that AS makes me better informed and smarter. I’m glad the brave and eloquent writers on this site choose to share their knowledge and smarts.)
I totally agree with you one hundred percent.
Here’s what makes me sad. I know that the inclusion of the I in the LGBT acronym would make people in my family doubt the legitimacy of the Intersex movement.
I imagine my siblings having a child that they learn is intersex. If they hear just about the common problems that intersex people face, I imagine they would consider delaying or avoiding an unnecessary surgery and unnecessary procedures, because after all, god gave them this child, and god doesn’t make mistakes, etc.
But if they hear about the intersex movement in conjunction with LGBT issues, they are going to assume that the only sane option is surgery. Because god disapproves of anything aligned with homosexuality.
Obviously a movement cannot and should not pander to religious extremists, but I honestly worry about my future nieces and nephews. (My siblings are very fertile. They procreate a lot.)
No one should have to deal with unnecessary medical interventions and ugly stigmas. But sadly, there are plenty of people like my family in the world. And they will shut off their minds to rational arguments as soon as their pet issue of homosexuality is mixed in with it. They will not listen to reason, and they will be the families with the kids that have secret medical histories.
I think that the LGBT community should embrace the intersex community. But I get why people in the intersex community would be legitimately hesitant to embrace the LGBT. It sucks really bad, but it’s the unfortunate reality.
Heather, thank you so much for saying this. This is something I have never thought of, and it rings so true.
Intersex should be included in the LGBTI movement, but it’s true – as much as including intersex will help some people realize, “Oh, we can’t be shitty to them, just like we shouldn’t be shitty to L, G, B, and T people,” including the I means that there will be others who say, “Wait, intersex is like all that other stuff?! Let’s get them all surgery right now!” And that is totally depressing.
I suppose that you can’t totally win when you’re aligning yourself with an activist movement, for reasons like this. Ultimately, I think being a part of LGBTI will help us much more in the long run in terms of gaining protections and helping people understand why it’s not okay to discriminate us, but you’re right – in individual cases, this will put intersex on people’s radars in a negative way, in ways they hadn’t thought of before.
*sigh* Thank you for bringing this point up. I’m going to have to share this with other intersex activist folks, and see if they’ve thought of this/encountered this idea elsewhere.
Fixing Sex is so so informative! I’m glad you recommended it :) It is very interesting to me that many of the reasons for these surgeries are to improve the appearance of having “normal” cis-het penetrative sex, as opposed to looking at fertility. I would thing baby-making might rank even higher than sex for traditionalists, ya know?
Also – very telling that you can never have too big a penis or too small a clit, right? *eyeroll*
This is such a great post! I think there is definitely a lack of knowledge of intersex issues out there and I’m glad you’re addressing them. I wish I had something more productive to add to the conversation!
tbh about inclusive queer community – i don’t believe in it because not only every group is on its own, but it will unhesitatingly sell others down the river for a minor gain. even lesbians and gay guys.
minorities within it have a history of achieving anything only as an unwanted sideeffect or on their own. which is exactly what intersex people are doing so far. Talking to mainstream is more productive as it shortens the hierarchy chain and cuts the middleman.
thank you for writing these posts! i’m looking forward to reading more.
Definitely a lack of intersex information out there, and also a lack of talking-about-it. I guess I was aware of intersex (before this and the previous article), but I never really thought about it. Even when I said “LGBTQIA,” I could tell you what the “I” was but just out of habit – I never THOUGHT about it. Of course now that I have, I don’t see what people’s problem with it is. So someone’s genitals don’t look just like you expected… and? Who cares? But obviously people do, or these awful non-consentual surgeries and the shaming wouldn’t be taking place.
I’m definitely going to look up the “Fixing Sex” book; thanks for telling us about it! The more you know, the better!
This was such a great post (and I had it open in a tab when my net went out so I felt lucky to have something informative to read)
I teach primary/elementary school so I think it’s really important to be able to talk about non-binary sexes and genders with kids. At my LGBT teachers group meeting this weekend we had a spokesperson from the Irish transgender support network in to talk to us as it’s only in the last year we’ve added the ‘T’ and some of the group members wanted to inform themselves better about transgender issues. The spokesperson said their organisation includes intersex under the trans umbrella, I wondered how people who are intersex feel about that?
Personally I feel that everyone who isn’t cishet needs to support each other and that it’s more important to make people feel welcome and visible than it is to worry about how many letters we’re adding on.
I had read this article yesterday and was really intrigued by it. Then today I was in a sort of workshop/discussion about power,privilege, and oppression. We were brainstorming characteristics that would place a person either in a power position or non-power position. There were many different examples given, a broad range. Having just read this article it was on my mind, and people were saying things relating to LGBT, but not intersex. So I did and I think even the leaders didn’t really have an understanding of it that they could then share with us to raise awareness. It really gave me a personal perspective to some of the things you said about how in LGBT activism I issues are ignored.
Thanks for this awesome piece Claudia, & especially for being open & strong enough to share your own difficult experiences with medically unnecessary “medical treatment”!!!! :)
Hida! Awwwwwwww, thank you so much! :)
I am not sure where intersex folks fit in all this other then they are part of the sexuality/gender societal non-normative minority as the culteral majority sees us. I do not want to get into a battle of whats “normal” here. I do however as a postop transwoman feel that it is very important to not do surgical or medical interventions on a child until they are old enough to identify in their won words who they are. Society has played God for to long on making decisions for parents that want one or the other. These decisions often were wrong creating a trouble life for the child. Whether these children belong in the LGBTQI group is up for them to decide. Our place is to nurish them until they can do so for themselves.
Thanks for the great post, Claudia! I am really enjoying this series. Also, you are adorable and happen to look much like my current crush — but with bonus dimple action! I hope one day we all get to eat your cake with you is what I’m saying.
Thank you for writing this post and doing advocacy. I’m so sorry about what was done to you, it’s horrible.
“Clitorises have erectile capacity just like penises do, although when erect, they’re not as big as penises typically are. I think some doctors and parents are freaked out by the idea of a woman with a clitoris whose form and function remind them of penises. This woman is likely seen as “too masculine” to have sex with a man without calling forth images of gay sex, and sex with another woman would be, in fact, “gay sex” (although the individuals actually having sex might not identify it that way, blahblah but you know what I mean, right?). That would make that kind of sex unacceptable from the get-go, while also suggesting the disturbing possibility that such a female might be capable of penetration, or having sex “like a man.” (Some female-identified intersex folks – awesomely – can do this. I’ve never heard any complaints reported by themselves or their partners.) While you’d think this latter hypothetical might actually make the queerophobes feel better – since, to them, it might look something like the heterosexual penis-in-vagina kind of intercourse deemed the Most Acceptable Kind of Sex – it doesn’t. It freaks them out just the same, if not more so.”
. . .
Okay I’m just. Really fucking uncomfortable with the way you wrote this as though trans women don’t exist or transmisogyny isn’t a thing. Like no actually, I would NOT expect queer-bashers to be ‘more comfortable’ with two women having sex if one of those women had long bits. I’m in fact intimately personally familiar with the knowledge that queer-bashers who had assumed by default that a given woman is cis and dyadic, and then learn that she isn’t, they don’t react positively, but with horror and disgust and violence whenever possible.
Really it reads like you’re saying “you’d think that having a penis or similar parts would ALWAYS get someone treated better!” which would be laughable if it weren’t a common TERF refrain erasing transmisogyny, and claiming people hit by transmisogyny are actually experiencing male privilege.
No one ever, EVER treats you better if they’d been assuming by default that you were a cis dyadic woman and “find out” (ugh) you have a cock or similar. Never. And the assumption that we would be treated better, when contrasted with actual experiences of transmisogyny, is really dismissive and insulting.
Hi, impish. I am sorry that you were offended and upset by this paragraph. I want to make it clear that I am NOT expressing my views on how I feel about intersex and trans* bodies; I was trying to capture the general bullshit perspectives of others who DO think fucked-up stuff about intersex bodies. My stating that queerophobes would “feel better” at the thought of an intersex woman with a small clitoris having sex with another woman is meant to show that this perspective, being intersexphobic and trans*phobic, IS total bullshit. In writing this paragraph, I was trying to show how totally wrong these ideas are.
I am sorry that you thought that I was somehow being trans*phobic, or being dismissive of trans* bodies. This was absolutely not my intent.
I have been thinking more about what you said, and wanted to provide additional context. For intersex people, a lot of “treatment” decisions made about our bodies are based on in what way we can be sure to have “normal” sex, i.e., penis-in-vagina intercourse. I was trying to say that because there is not a clear line between what is a clitoris and what is a penis that some people may, intersexphobically, be more comfortable with an intersex person with a longer phalloclitoris with a female than a male, because (based on intersexphobic perspectives) this would more closely mirror what they perceive to be as “normal sex” than something that looks like “gay sex” to them.
My example and wording in that paragraph is intersex-specific. I in no way meant to generalize that this attitude is applicable when talking about trans* issues, or to uphold views that (when applied to trans* issues) are trans*misogynistic. I was talking specifically about how intersex people are perceived, and was not making a general comment on anything else, including generalized views re: how trans* bodies are perceived, and how trans*misogyny is, unacceptably, so common.
I hope this helps to clear up the intentions of that paragraph better. Thanks!
Thank you for having the courage and taking the time to sharing this series, Claudia! I look forward to reading more.
Hi Claudia, loved your article! As a “trans” person I didn’t find your article trans exclusionary etc, just relevant to what you were talking about, which was primarily intersex inclusion.
I also fall loosely under the “intersex” category too. I go to a trans support group that also includes intersex people (who happen to be trans but there are very very few) and in my opinion about 10% of trans folks would be intersex too, (there are no other intersex support groups that I know of except online).
Personally when I’ve spoken about intersex stuff to the trans group, I had stuff like “oh I wish I was intersex” to “all trans people are intersex” to just being ignored, as they just don’t understand, it’s frustrating.
However there are just too few intersex folk that I know of and of course its best to be part of the LGBTI spectrum I suppose, but does “Intersex” belong there? No I don’t think so, and I don’t think trans does either.
This is why I switched to GSM(gender and sexual minorities) as an acronym. I try to be as inclusive as possible.
I also think somewhere in there disability activists may recognise some of the things intersex people go through and we should make more of an effort to remember our intersex cousins exist and have a stake in this fight.
I see this sort of thing and it reminds me hideously of the medical experiments associated with a certain fascist group from our not-so-distant history. That parents allow this to happen to their children is shocking; that doctors do these things is, sadly, not a surprise to me. They’re so caught up in their own godhood that the chances of them stopping to consider the repercussions – physical, social and emotional – on the patients in question are so very highly unlikely.
Anyway. Your article got me daydreaming – what if I had an intersex kid? Given that my friends have enough difficulty coming to terms with the concept of me identifying outside the gender binary, I can only imagine the ‘scandal’ surrounding the idea of neither a) forcibly assigning an intersex child a biological sex nor b) assigning them a gender based on said genitalia.
We’re such a weird species… We pick up on the slightest of differences and treat them as weaknesses, as something to be ashamed of. It’s no wonder so many atrocities based on gender, sexuality, race and creed have been committed throughout the ages. Sigh.
I agree, it’s sad that our race has to single out tiny differences and treat them as bad, but (and not to be overly unfeeling or anything, but it’s the truth) this trait is part of our psyche- it traces back to survival of the fittest instincts, and the idea that those with weaknesses or differences that could potentially be weaknesses were less likely to survive and must be left behind for a greater chance of your own survival. However, because we are advanced enough to improve our situations and bypass natural instinct, we need to get over ourselves and stop seeing people just for what they aren’t.
While I agree that Intersex rights needs to be addressed, I find that the medical issues resulting from my intersex condition place me more in the “Disability Rights” area than making them a sexuality issue. I don’t know many other intersex people (only one that I have had any major contact with in real life, he lives several states away, and I was interviewed by him for a book on trans/BDSM stuff) – so I can only talk for myself. You make good points, but these aren’t things that cannot be handled within a disability rights perspective, and it just feels (even though I am a queer/lesbian transwoman who happens to be intersex) like it doesn’t fit as much in with the Alphabet Soup.
As a result of me being intersex, I have major autoimmune issues and neurological issues, including autism. It just makes more sense for me to work within the disability rights movement than the Alphabet Soup one… (and I say Alphabet Soup lovingly, being part of it and all)….
Thanks for the article though – its nice to see it being discussed.
Hi, Siobhan! Thanks for adding to this discussion. Also, HELLO ANOTHER INTERSEX PERSON! It’s always exciting to meet new IS folks, even remotely! <3
I have been thinking a lot about your comment. I have different perspectives, and also understand where you are coming from. I think that what most informs my perspective that intersex is not, in and of itself, a medical condition stems from two things: how I define intersex, and the importance of a phrase you used – "resulting from."
The organization I'm an affiliate of, Organization Intersex International (OII), defines intersex as people who are born with a mix of anatomical sex traits – including chromosomes, genitals, and/or reproductive organs – that are traditionally considered to be "male" and "female," or atypical for either. In defining intersex this way, we are saying that having a mix of "male" traits, "female" traits, and/or traits not typically male or female is not a medical condition.
This is really important, since you are correct: there are legitimate health concerns that are associated with some forms of intersex. People with certain intersex variations are more likely to have certain health problems. Disability models do make sense for these health problems *associated* with forms of intersex, but that is a really different thing from saying that intersex *causes* these health problems directly, or that intersex *itself is* a disability.
Certain forms of cancer, like ovarian cancer, are associated with females. Not all females get ovarian cancer (in part, because not all females have ovaries), but some do. Ovarian cancer is clearly a health problem that we associate with women. But people would not say that because some women develop ovarian cancer, being a woman is a medical condition or a disability. In the same way, some physicians argue that some intersex peoples' gonads are more likely to become cancerous. If this is correct (and there are a host of reasons that, at best, this argument requires much more research before we can state this is factual), it means that, in the same vein, intersex is not a health condition just because the incidence of having a certain health condition is higher in people with a form of intersex.
To use another example, hemophilia is much more common in men than women because the gene for whether you don't/have hemophilia is on the X chromosome. Having hemophilia is not directly caused by one's sex: being a man doesn't give you hemophilila. But more men have it because (usually) they only have one X chromosome – if they've got the respective gene sequence, they've got hemophilia. Women, on the other hand, (usually) have two X chromosomes and it's more uncommon to have that sequence on both X chromosomes, so they won't express hemophilia in that case. That men are more likely to have hemophilia does not mean that having only one X chromosome causes hemophilia, nor does being a man cause hemophilia; nor does it mean, by extension, that having one X chromosome or being a man is a medical condition because hemophilia is observed at higher rates in XY men than XX women. Additionally, not all men have hemophilia, so man doesn't = hemophilia; although there's a relationship there, that relationship isn't causal.
Things like autoimmune conditions, neurological issues, etc. are complex and can have many origins and ways of manifesting. That people with some forms of intersex are more likely to have certain health problems or disabilities does not mean that being intersex caused them directly. It also doesn't mean that being intersex in and of itself – that having a body with a mix of "male," "female," or otherwise atypical traits – is a health problem or a disability. The fact that I was born with XY chromosomes and testes as well as have a vagina and a high waist:shoulder ratio – those aren't things that have affected my abilities in any way.
Another facet of this is that there may be cases where the biological bases of having intersex traits are the same basis for legit health concerns that can be seen as disabilities, but that doesn't mean that being intersex itself is also a medical problem by extension. For example, with my form of intersex, complete androgen insensitivity, my body doesn't use testosterone because of the particular sequence I have on my androgen receptor (AR) gene. Lack of using testosterone might be considered a legit health problem since it might lead to bone problems, mobility issues, etc. over time, so my body's non-use of testosterone seems to fit within a disability model. Additionally, the sequence of this androgen receptor (AR) gene has resulted in my having intersex traits – like, having a body with a vagina in addition to my XY chromosomes – but my having developed a vagina has not affected my level of ability in any way. So, I see the functionality of this gene differently: with respect to bone problems, my gene might result in a medical issue or disability, but with respect to having a vagina, it totally doesn't. Considering that many genes serve multiple functions in the body that have nothing to do with one another – or that the affects of gene products (not) doing something can have multiple, unrelated effects on the body – this isn't strange to me from a biological perspective. It makes sense to take all of the different functions of a genetic region, protein, etc. on a case-by-case basis.
I completely understand and respect that you view your autoimmune condition and neurological issues within a disability model. But I think that even though it may be associated with your form of intersex, it's not the same as intersex causing these things, ergo intersex is also a disability. I absolutely do not get to weigh in on how you (or how anyone else may) choose to identify, and I hope that my comments thus far have not been ableist is any way, since this was not my intent. If I have been ableist without realizing this, I apologize. I do think that the distinction between being more *likely* to have a health condition or disability because you're xyz is different than saying that xyz is a health condition or disability. Because of this, I advocate that defining intersex as a disability isn't accurate.
I lovingly refer to the LGBTQIA acronym (or however ya wanna re-arrange those letters) as alphabet soup, too. (: I really strongly feel that the "I" does need to be included because some intersex people, like myself, really strongly identify as an intersex person. I identify my biological sex as intersex, although there are definitely a lot of intersex folks that don't. Being intersex is not just about what body parts I have, but is a huge part of my personal and social identity. Assuming that I should fit into a world where there's only two biological sexes out there – M and F – is invalidating of my identity, and who I know myself to be. Not all intersex people may identify strongly with their intersex or feel a particular affinity to the LGBTQIA acronym, but for those of us who do, we want our identities to be recognized. You are correct – we can fight for basic human rights for many things within a disability model. But accepting and celebrating not just intersex bodies, but intersex *identities* fits in broadly with the goals of LGBT activism. As a final point: you state that intersex is not about "sexuality," and therefore maybe shouldn't be included in the acronym. You're correct, it's not a sexual orientation; this argument was similarly made about including the "T" as I am sure you well know. If the acronym currently is used to advocate for people of non-normative sexual orientation and gender identities, why not biological sex identities, too?
Thank you again for adding to this discussion – it's great to address some of these things that weren't discussed in the article itself.
I did notice similarities between issues raised in the article and disability issues, like giving non-consensual, cosmetic surgery to children – it reminded me of ‘applied behavioural analysis’ therapy given to Autistic children, where they are trained to appear less Autistic, which can be traumatising and lead to mental health problems, and is something Autistic adults have campaigned against. It also reminded me of the controversy about cochlear implants, which are given to young deaf children and which many Deaf adults see as trying to fix something that isn’t broken and that could prevent children becoming part of Deaf culture.
I’d also like to clarify that disability activism isn’t only about human rights for people with medical conditions, but also about accepting and celebrating disabled bodies, brains and identities.
(I’m Autistic, hearing and non-intersex so I could well have screwed up somewhere with this comment, apologies if I have.)
Hi, I just wanted to say I love your articles, they are super well written and friendly. Even though I am not intersex (I have PCOS – polycystic ovary syndrome) your articles speak to me a lot, and address a lot of binarist, heterosexist presumptions which sadly underlie many queer-feminist movements.
Thank you for having the courage to speak about your experience and the generosity to share it.
The inclusion of the “I” in LGBTQIA+ was long overdue.
I probably have PCOS, and I consider it an intersex condition. It affects our hormones and secondary sex characteristics, and people with PCOS are discriminated against because our bodies, due to a hormone condition, don’t fit heteronormative, cissexist, patriarchal standards. We’re pathologized and alienated because of it and taught to feel ashamed of the affects of that condition on our bodies – infertility, heavy or irregular periods, hirsutism, extra fat around our waists, pattern baldness, skin tags, oily or acne-ridden skin – and what is that but intersexism or intersexphobia, and heteronormativity?
We have more testosterone than a dyadic cis woman, and coupled with our androgynous secondary sex characteristics our bodies clearly don’t completely fit heteropatriarchal definitions of womanhood. Therefore, we’re intersex.
There are some Intersex situations commonly mistaken for Trans, and which can cause or cure Gender Dysphoria.
People in such situations face the same legal challenges regarding documentation and so on as do those making a more conventional transition.
The legal system is barely able to cope with trans people – often requiring evidence of surgery to affect change. Natural changes aren’t supposed to happen. They do though.
The reason I came to this website was because I recently learned that many people have added intersex to LGBT, which confuses me. As a queer myself, I have no homophobic or intersex- shaming beliefs, however, the idea of adding intersex to LGBT confused me. LGBT is about identity- sexual and gender identity, whereas intersex is more of a condition, the same way that being physically male or female is a quasi- permanent state of being.
However, your article opened my eyes. I had no previous reason to wish that intersex would not be included in LGBT, but it just didn’t make sense to me. I now realize that even if intersex represents is a slightly different aspect of the way people are, it deserves to be recognized and accepted. Which is the same goal of the LGBT community. Your article has helped me to realize that it is not so much who we start with, but what our common goal is, that will guarantee out success in the end.