Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Intersected, Transsected: The Intersex / Trans Nexus
A troubled alliance
Intersex and trans people share some deep common experiences. Yet we often find ourselves prickling at comments made by people in the "other camp." As an intersex person assigned female at birth and transitioning to legal male status, I consider myself both intersex and trans, and I'd like to speak to what both groups share, and what divides them. Divides us.
The most fundamental thing intersex and trans folk share is that we suffer because we belie the ideology that dimorphic genitals determine gender. This is the belief that people are born with one of two possible genital configurations, and that gender identity is inevitably bound to this genital configuration. Penis = "it's a boy!"; vulva = "it's a girl!" This is an ideology so basic that most people in our Western society rarely if ever question it. Then we intersex and trans people come along and call a fundamental belief into question. Genitals come in a spectrum of possible flavors. Gender identities are not determined by genitals. We are girls born with penises, or androgynes born with vulvae, or boys born with both testes and a vagina. And we make people nervous.
Freaking people out when it comes to sex and gender turns out to have serious consequences. We evoke shock and horror, distate and tittering, fetishistic dehumanizing desires. People fail to treat us as. . . people. Doctors poke and prod us, employers find excuses not to hire us, and idiots bash us. So: we share a common enemy. We suffer from the enforcement of the ideology that dyadic genitals determine gender.
Another thing intersex and trans people share is that we have a difficult relationship with doctors who have power over our lives. For people with intersex conditions, this often starts at birth, when doctors label us as defective and in need of surgical "correction." We are subjected to sex assignment and "corrective" surgeries without our consent. Then many of us grow up not identifying with our sexes of assignment, and join with our trans siblings in facing gatekeeping from the other side. People who identify with a gender that does not match our sex of assigmnent often want to alter our bodies, to reduce feelings of tension, and to get other people to recognize our deep internal sense of self. And we face a lot of hurdles. Medical insurance generally doesn't cover sex transition services--and they are expensive. Worse, to get access to them we have to run a gauntlet of medical gatekeepers. We need psychologists and doctors to grant us access to the hormones and surgery we want, and they make it hard for us, very hard. At every step we may find ourselves confronting, if not outright bigotry, a strange assumption that to want to do what we want to do, we must be mad. We have Gender Identity Disorder, considered a mental illness. Gatekeepers act as if we might well be utter psychos, and need to be tested, cautioned, challenged, as if anyone decides to face discrimination and violence on a whim.
Another thing trans and intersex people share is the way in which we are sexualized in a society with both Puritan and Dionysian strains. This is complex enough to rate its own post, so I'll set it aside for now.
Tensions: Intersex Complaints
Something that makes a lot of intersex people grouchy is encountering trans folk who think we have it easy. There's a belief some trans people hold that doctors and people on the street are understanding of intersex people's needs. More particularly, these trans people think that if they had an intersex diagnosis, they'd get easy access to medical transition services, and have their transition honored by employers, schools, the DMV, and other institutions.
But this is not the case. Doctors and families make decisions on behalf of infants with visible sex variance, and having subjected us to surgery without consent, they don't want to hear that we're ungrateful. As for schools and employers and DMVs, we have the same relationship to them if we want to undo a sex assignment that trans folk do when they seek sex reassignment. Intersex people are not "fast-tracked" in medical or legal gender transitions. Our transitions are not paid for by insurance--only those medical procedures that would make our bodies conform to our assigned sexes are covered. In fact, intersex people can face higher hurdles in dealing with diagnostic gatekeeping, as the GID diagnosis used by psychologists to green-light a transition is understood by some as excluding intersex people.
Nobody wants to hear their suffering dismissed. Intersex people feel hurt when trans people treat living with intersex status as a walk in the park. It is true that *some* doctors and families and coworkers are more comfortable treating intersex people as tragic victims than they are when they look at trans people and see them as having "chosen" to be freaks. But it's not true of others. And it doesn't make accessing transition services any easier. Furthermore, treating intersex people as "lucky" glosses over all that intersex kids often suffer in childhood, with multiple surgeries, humiliation, and familial silence.
Another thing that bugs intersex people is when trans people try to latch onto intersexuality as a way to explain their identities. This is especially common among people just coming out of the closet. Trans folk who've been living in denial and are reaching the point where they can't bear it any longer often search the internet, find one of the few intersex support sites, and start posting about how they must be intersex: "I must have some intersex hormone imbalance--I hate sports and cry easily." "People have told me my clitoris looks kind of big and I want to have sex with girls, so I must be intersexed." It makes it hard for intersex people to use the boards at times. Interfolk get tired of explaining the difference between intersex conditions, sexual orientation, and gender dysphoria to nonintersex people who are looking for an explanation for trans identities..
Tensions: Trans Complaints
Trans people are less likely to feel irritated by intersex people's actions, because they usually aren't aware of meeting any. Intesexed people are instructed from youth to go stealth, and we're often invisible. But there are legitimate gripes that trans people can have with intersex folks.
Intersex people can be transphobic. Intersex adults who identify with their sex of rearing and don't want anyone to question its legitimacy can reject people of any bodily configuration who are interested in transitioning. Intersex people who want to transition can consider their need more justifiable than the need of trans people born with more normative genitalia. This is wrongheaded, wronghearted.
Just as genderqueer intersex folks get irritated by trans people who hold to highly dyadic, sex-sterotyped gender ideologies, genderqueer trans folk can find stereotypical dyadic gender presentations from intersex people very disappointing. They feel that if anyone should be enlightened about the force of gender-regressive ideology, it should be intersex people. And I can certainly understand why genderqueer trans people, suffering the slings and arrows of social bias against androgyny, would want intersex people to identify outside the gender dyad. But genderqueer trans people should have empathy for the fact that the majority of intersex people do identify with a binary gender category. Given the extraordinary pressure intersex people are under to genderconform--from the medical profession, their families, even intersex advocates, above and beyond the social pressure everyone faces--genderconforming presentations are unsurprising. And everybody's gender identity deserves respect, whether it aligns with sex of rearing, against it, or ourside the binary.
As an intersex person who is transitioning, I see clear common cause between inter- and trans folk. Many intersex people deal with transition, and live as a bridge between the inter-cis and the nonintersex trans community. Those I've just termed the inter-cis--people with intersex conditions who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth--could gain support and community if they'd come out of the closet and identify as siblings of people who sex transition. Intersex advocates could gain the support of a large pool of trans people and work together on a general campaign for the individual right to choose to use or avoid medical intervention in sex characteristics ("My body, my sex, my right!"). Trans people could gain allies whose very existence undermines the genitals-determine-gender ideology that binds people.
There are issues to address. Intersex transphobia and trans jealousy of mythic intersex advantages in transition are both highly problematic. But our commonalities far outweigh our differences, and we should be allies.