I've had conversations with some intersex acquaintances recently about painful situations in which (nonintersex) people have accused my friends of not "really" being intersex. Besides revealing how rude people in our society can be about policing sex and gender, what these conversations have illustrated are some central myths about intersex status that come up over and over again. It's these that I will address in this blog post.
Myth 1: Intersex people all have intermediate genitalia
Imagine this: you're an intersex person, nervous about dating and finding a partner. You work up your courage to disclose your status to people you're interested in, and after a series of them seeming polite but disinterested in dating, you finally meet a guy who expresses interest. You date for a while, and get to the point where the clothes come off. Your boyfriend gets a good look at you naked, accuses you of "making up that story of being intersex" because your body looks female to him, and breaks off the relationship, leaving you feeling misunderstood and ill-used.
Many people are intersexed in ways that are not visible to their partners. For example, an individual with AIS (androgen insensitivity syndrome) is born with internal testes but genitalia that look typically female. Intersex people born with visibly intermediate genitals are often subject to infant sex assignment surgery, another reason why our bodies may not appear visibly intersex to others.
What disturbs me about incidents in which a partner seems interested in dating an intersex person until the clothes come off is that it generally reveals that the partner was fetishizing the intersex person--only interested in them for their "exotic" body. In the situation described here, the boyfriend wanted to have sex with someone who looked genitally intermediate generally. I've also heard stories from intersex people whose genitals are visibly atypical about how a partner lost interest in them when the clothes came off because they didn't see the kind of "hermaphrodite" genitals they'd dreamt of, with a big penis and a vagina (a configuration almost unheard of in real life, but popular in pornographic fantasy). It's depressing to find out your date wasn't really interested in you, but in playing with some fantasy set of genitalia.
Myth 2: Intersex conditions are always diagnosed in infancy
Here's another unfortunate scenario: a person is having infertility problems, so they visit some doctors. They receive a diagnosis and turn in shock to an online gender forum to post "I was just diagnosed as intersex." Somebody responds, "Stop trolling this blog. You're not really intersex--intersex people all know what they are from childhood. You probably have sick fantasies or think saying you're intersex will give you an excuse to gender transition without controversy." The non-intersex person is accusing the intersex individual of being a non-intersex person exploiting intersex individuals, which is pretty ironic.
As noted above, many intersex conditions aren't obviously visible in external genitalia. That means that people may not find out about their intersex status until quite late in life. While the experiences of late-recognized intersex people are different from those of intersex folks diagnosed in infancy, they are not "less" intersex, and have to deal with physical and psychological ramifications for which they need support.
Myth 3: All infant sex-assignment surgery is aimed at creating "female" genitalia
Imagine this situation: you were born with intermediate genitalia but surgically assigned male at birth. However, you grew up hating your male sex assignment, and so you transitioned to female. Your experience has given you a lot of empathy for people viewed as gendertransgressive, so when you notice that a friend of a Facebook friend identifies as genderqueer, you write her a nice message and offer her friendship. She refuses your offer and writes you a nasty note back about how she knows you are lying about being intersex, since "all intersex children are made into girls." She accuses you of being a stalking, posing, creepy man-in-a-dress. Ironic and sad, isn't it--that a woman who identifies as breaking down the boundaries of sex and gender is policing those boundaries so rabidly and wrongheadedly?
It is true that intersex infants are disproportionately surgically assigned female, based on the appalling medical aphorism, "it's easier to make a hole than a pole." But some intersex infants are surgically assigned male--usually when they have at least one external testis, but sometimes under other conditions. The myth that this "never happens" leaves intersex people assigned male at birth open to constant suspicion and exclusion, increasing the difficulties they have to face.
Myth 4: Intersex people should be genderqueer
This myth comes up again and again in academic, activist and feminist circles: that intersex people, being neither male nor female in physical sex, must be genderqueer and androgynous. We're supposed to be standard-bearers for the fight to subvert artificial dyadic gender categories. Encountering an intersex person with an ordinary and "boring" masculine or feminine gender identity who doesn't look at all androgynous, these activists express puzzlement and disappointment--and in private, speculate that the person must have some minor, mild intersex condition, so they are not "intersex enough" to be insightful.
Intersex people face pressure from doctors and families and society at large to genderconform. Facing the opposite pressure to gendertransgress--subversivism-- is just as unfair. Yes, most intersex people open enough to disclose our sex status agree that it is damaging for our society to insist that everyone must identify as male or female. But we live in a society that understands gender dyadically, and like non-intersex people, we commonly identify as masculine or feminine.
Myth 5: "Real" intersex people are not genderqueer
Frustrated and upset by pressure from gender activists to gendertransgress, as descibed in Myth 4, some intersex people have created a reactionary opposite myth: that "real" intersex people have no interest in subverting dyadic gender understandings of male and female. These genderconservative individuals often don't actually identify as "intersex" but as "people with DSDs (Disorders of Sex Development)." And they go around arguing to institutions that "real" intersex people don't identify as genderqueer--that people who say they are intersex and argue for third gender categories and the like are posers, probably crazed feminist zealots or deceptive trans people.
What makes the myth that intersex people are never genderqueer particularly painful to me is that it is spread by members of our community. To undermine your own intersex siblings and deny their identities is counterproductive, pathetic, and cruel. Many intersex people identify as typically masculine or feminine people, but there are plenty who do not do so, and like all genderqueer people, they face a lot of social bias. We have no duty as intersex people to be genderqueer, but I see a strong moral imperative for us to support people who do have genderqueer identities and manners of selfexpression. There are enough hurtful myths circulating about intersex people already. We don't need to add one of our own to the mix.