Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interphobia--Not Cured by Hiding Us Away

This terribly disrespectful cartoon depresses me.

It's from a blog entry entitled "10 reason why Caster Semenya is a man. . . she set to run in June anyway," posted this April by a guy named Anthony. Here's a link, if you really want to see.

When Caster Semenya's name first became an international headline, I wrote a blog post about her situation, and I'm not going to revisit the specifics of her case now. Read the older post here if you wish. What I want to address now is the problem of bias against intersex people, which, following the conventions of the terms homophobia and transphobia, I'm terming interphobia. The cartoon of Caster Semenya standing to urinate from a presumed male phallus is an example of interphobic humor.

Caster Semenya's case has served as a lightening rod for interphobia.

If you wander the world of internet humor, you'll find plenty of other examples like the post by Anthony I discuss here. Internet mockery of Caster Semenya draws its vitriol from a variety of sources--you'll find it laced with sexist insecurities about women with athletic prowess, transphobia from authors who presume that Semenya is an MTF trans person, racism in the form of assertions that if she were a "real woman" she'd have straightened her hair--there's a whole banquet of bias being served up.
But there are specific elements of interphobia that lie front and center. There's a lot of prurient har-har speculation about her intersex genitalia, framing Semenya as someone whose genitals are on freakshow display. And there's castigation of Semenya for identifying with her sex of rearing.

What the cartoon I've shared from Anthony's blog post illustrates is rage at Semenya for identifying as female, iconically represented by which bathroom she uses. Thus Caster Semenya is shown both in a vulnerable position, at the toilet, and as smirking at the viewers as if daring them to do anything about the fact that she knows she is not a "real woman," illustrated by her standing to urinate. The text of Anthony's blog post is a list of body parts that he claims prove Semenya is "really a man," including even the shape of nostrils (!), but focusing most obsessively on the flatness of her breasts. "
NO breast...naada, not even 1% breast, not even fat man breast...," he declares, and, making fun of a photo of Semenya in a dress, he says "they dress up the person into a woman....but they failed to give it a cleavage or breast."


What Anthony concludes is that Caster Semenya is a man and should be running in men's races. He declares her a cheat by virtue of her intersex status, the sex she was assigned at birth wrong, and her gender identity as a woman unacceptable. Basically, Anthony wants to force Semenya to undergo gender transition against her will.

And Caster Semenya followed the rules.

There are rules we live under in our contemporary Western societies that I and many, many other intersex advocates have criticized. The rule that the spectrum of physical sex characteristics we are born with must be forced into dyadic sex assignments, often accompanied by unconsented-to infant genital surgery. The rule that we are supposed to grow up to identify with our sex of assignment. These rules, we are told, are for our own safety.

Doctors tell the families of genitally variant babies that without surgical sex assignment we will be treated as freaks, but surgery will protect us from pariah status. Some of us face traumatic "gender therapy" as children in an attempt to cause us to identify with the sex we were assigned, and again, our families are told this is for the best because it will protect us from ostracism. Our families are told to keep our status a secret. We're told to keep silent, fit in. Our intersex status will thus be erased, and we'll be safe.

Well, Caster Semenya was assigned female at birth, raised as a girl, and identifies as a woman. Her intersex status wasn't known to anyone at all--it wasn't even diagnosed until she was forced to undergo "gender verification testing" when some sore-losing competitors demanded it.

What this proves is that having one's intersex status secret is no protection at all.

We may pass as our assigned sexes--but at any time we may run into a circumstance under which our intersex status is revealed. We get in a car accident. We find ourselves with an ex with a grudge. We're thrust into the limelight, perhaps by winning a race. And we're outed--and thrust into the path of vicious interphobia. We face ER staff who take cell phone photos of our genitalia to send to their friends while we're unconscious, exes telling all of our Facebook circle that we're freaks, and random bloggers mocking us and declaring that we should be forced to gender transition.

The "solution" that doctors pose to the fact that intersex happens--to hide us all in the closet--does nothing to stop interphobia. In fact, it encourages it by making us vulnerable, isolating us from support, keeping us ashamed. The real solution is to fight interphobia directly. We need to come out, accept ourselves, and demand that others do the same.


  1. this reminds me of one time when i was standing in the school cafeteria line and there was this two girls looking at a person who looked very androgynous and they were trying to figure out the persons biological sex. they said something like "is it a guy or a girl? no, it´s an it!" i didn´t say anything but i felt outraged. who gived them the right to call someone "it" like ze was some lifeless object or something!? looking androgynous or being intersexed doesn´t make a person an "it".
    it doesn´t make the person less of a human being.
    something totally unrelated: i really like your new profile picture.

  2. Kiran, people's prejudice against androgynous people never ceases to sadden me. And I know from personal experience that I can get a sense of pride from dressing in a gender-transgressive manner as an act of political resistance to that prejudice--but if people mock me for my bodily form, there's no sense of honor or pride, it's just depressing.

    Glad you like my photo! It's nice to be out on my own blog.

  3. I do wish whoever reported my blog to Google today as "having objectionable content" would comment directly and take responsibility for that. I cannot respond to objections that are never articulated.

  4. Ugh. That other blog post is such hideous drivel. It always boggles me to see someone act as if they have some huge stake in determining someone else's gender, especially a stranger's. They're a man, they're a woman, they're trans, or genderqueer, they're intersex, who cares? I suppose what they really have a stake in in keeping the status quo.

  5. One word, Rose: "insecurity." Someone secure in their own body and gender doesn't need to make a fuss about anyone else's, don't you think?

  6. Whoever had a content warning placed on this blog is certainly a very sad little person!

    You may be interested in this:

    South African Journal of Sports Medicine. ISSN: 1015-5163

    It is, however highly likely the sad little person will not be!

  7. Dr.Costello I just wanted to mention how much I appreciate these posts! I learned I was intersex last year after being raised female, and I'm learning so much by reading your posts, as well as finding a voice to identify with for the first time.

  8. I must say I came across this site after a Nat Geo special on the Hijra in India. How dare the western medical community "assign sex"? How dare they? I apologize that I was not aware of intersex before now. I'm sooo American, female (I guess)from the Pac NW where we seem to accept differences...but not intersex. How can I help? I am just pissed off that this is not talked about openly. How many are altered or born not knowing either gender, just being assigned one...let me know what I can do in support. ~ Tina Besco

    1. Tina its sad that people like you are able to be on line you look for what ever you can find to join and you dont stand for anything but you.