Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Transphobia and Intersex Experience

I woke up this morning to a set of transphobic comments on my last blog post. Rather than mope (OK, I did mope, but rather than continuing to mope), I thought I'd use this as a teaching moment.

Transphobia 101

Transphobia is the disrespecting of people who are transgendered--considering trans people to be pitiable or disgusting or evil or deluded or just plain weird. It is usually expressed by cis people--those whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. (Note that my definition of cis sex treats an intersex person assigned female at birth in the same sex category as a person with normative-appearing female genitals and gonads.) 

Like all biases born of privilege, transphobia assumes that the marginalized identity needs explaining while the privileged identity does not. For example, homophobia works this way. Homophobic people often ask where queer identity comes from ("How do you know you're gay? Are you sure? What made you gay?") without asking where straight identity comes from ("How do I know I'm straight? Am I sure? What made me heterosexual?") Transphobic people expect trans people to have to explain and prove our gender identities when they cannot do the same for themselves.

Transphobes usually assume that our transtitions are about them: that we are doing this to gain access to their spaces. The favorite bugaboo here is the idea of "a man in a woman's bathroom, horrors!" But the fact is that if some male-assigned creep wants to harass and assault women by peeping at them in bathrooms, he can just walk in and do it for free. To medically transition from male-assignment to female status, a person must invest thousands of dollars over a period of years, endure social stigma, violence, employment discrimination, etc.--and
be vetted by a series of medical professionals, all of whom are constantly ready to slam down the gate and stop the process if they catch any whiff at all of the transition being related to kink rather than identity. That's not a plausible route for peepers.

There is a transphobic double-bind that relates to how well trans people "pass"--that is, whether a trans person looks to observers like hir sex of assignment or hir sex of destination. When transphobes recognize a person as visibly trans, they mock hir: "Look! An ugly chick with mascara on her moustache HAHAHA!" or "OMG--dude in a skirt!" If they encounter a person they cannot assign to binary sex categories, they confront the person and demand a binary identification: "Hey! Are you a guy or a girl? What's wrong with you?" And if they take a trans person as their identified sex after a "successful" transition, and then discover the person is trans, they read this as deception, especially (it all being about them) as some attempt to sneak into their pants.

There are particular feminist-transphobic tropes as well. The second-wave feminist transphobic line is well-encapsulated by my morning commenter: "In case you forgot, the majority of transgender people are males to begin with. They still have their male power, male privilege, male upbringing and male experience. Even though they are trying to claim female, womanhood and female privilege, when in reality, they are still male."
This transphobic vision imagines a cabal of men whose goal in life is to infiltrate the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival by any means necessary. Trans men are the dupes of this cabal, as my commentator states: "[Y]ou have been taken and hijacked by the tranny (male) mentality."

There is a third-wave feminist transphobic alternative reading of trans people. In this vision, gender is not an essentialist dichotomy that cannot be altered, but a repressive socially-constructed binary that must be subverted to liberate people. (The language is very High Theory, I know, I know. . .) Here the "crime" in transitioning is subscribing to gender stereotypes and strengthening the myth of dyadic gender, opposite sexes. If you were female assigned at birth, not believing that you are "really a woman" is great, but believing you are "really a man" is regressive, unenlightened, idiotic. You should subvert gender and be genderqueer but not transition.

Intersex Transphobia

To many people, the fact that intersex people can be transphobes comes as a surprise. If you are born obviously neither male nor female, people reason, any identity you have must make you an ally of trans people. You could identify as intersex, which is a very odd thing to do since it queers dyadic sex, and which puts you (in their minds at least) in the same box with gender transgressors like trans people and genderqueers. Or you could identify with your sex of assignment, which usually involves surgical assignment, and so you should approve of people having surgery to live in the sex with which they identify. Or you could be assigned to one sex and identify with the (binary) other, in which case you are trans gendered by definition.

However, intersex people can be quite transphobic. The dynamic is very similar to that of lesbian, gay and bisexual cis individuals who hate trans people and blame homophobia on the transgendered: "When I came out to my mom, she panicked and thought it meant I was going to start/stop wearing skirts to church and humiliate her--it's all your fault!" Intersex transphobes believe that they are treated as freaks by society because society thinks they are trans people. They see trans people as making a perverse choice while intersex people's misfortune is biological and "not their fault." If they could just purge the world of trans people, society would finally be nice to intersex people. It's a sadly common dynamic in all sorts of marginalized communities: instead of uniting to fight oppression, people direct their anger at some other marginalized group they see as nastier.

Another way in which intersex transphobia emerges is in relation to a myth held by some trans people. That myth is the belief that society must be kind to intersex people (since it's a biological condition), which leads a good number of trans individuals to wish for intersex status. Society is not in fact so kind--take a walk in my shoes, please--and I empathize with interfolks being upset at the denial of our pain implicit when trans people want to claim intersex status. But this doesn't justify transphobia. Consider a parallel dynamic: in the 1980s a lot of (white) gay men and lesbians said "Society is fair to black people because it's biological and not their fault, so we need to find the gay gene so homophobia will disappear like racism has." This totally denies the pervasive continuing racism that African Americans face, and is stupid and wrong--but this fact doesn't justify homophobia.

My commentator of the morning subscribes to this practice, and taught me a new slur. Zie says, "You see intersex as a 'blame free' group. It's fairly obvious that your a trans and your just another one of those transjackers, who want to hijack the intersex community for your own perverted gain." Transjacker, woo. Well, I am trans gendered, but I am also intersexed, and I can't see how one can hijack oneself.

Who's Erasing Whom?

It seems that my morning commentor believes that no intersex person is trans gendered. Maybe zie is asserting that all intersex people identify with the sex they're assigned at birth. Or maybe zie means that whatever sexes intersex people are living in, and whatever medical interventions they employed to arrive there, this does not constitute "transitioning," and hence thay are not trans gendered. I'll quote what zie says:

"I also find that by you claiming that intersex has a link with trans, you are in effect erasing the history, upbringing and experience of those who are born intersex and intersex born intersex people. You are erasing not only my intersex experience, upbringing and history, but you are erasing every other intersex person's experience, history, and upbringing as well. So I hope you like what you did, by erasing mine and every other intersex person's shared experience, upbringing and history because you and every trans out their are doing that to women, lesbian and intersex people out their."

I thiink that my commentator believes that I was not born intersex. Either that or zie's saying that since no intersex people are trans, and since I identify as trans gendered, I am by definition (no longer) intersex. Whichever is the case, my commentator is projecting hir desire to erase onto me. Zie is saying I don't exist. I am not part of the "every intersex person out there" who is being destroyed by my saying that intersex and trans gender experiences have a lot in common.

I'm Not Going to Disappear

Sorry, my lived experience as a female-assigned-at-birth "true hermaphrodite" who is transitioning to somewhere on the male side of the spectrum is not going away.

My commentator says, "Their is no one within the science, medical and academic community who will back your warped logic and claim [that there is a linkage between intersex and trans experience]." Well, I am a professor, I study medical sociology, and I used to work at a genetics lab, and I can assure you that my commentator is incorrect.

The Moral of Today's Post

My conclusions are simple. Intersex people suffer from transphobia. Intersex people can be transphobes. And trans people who think that they'd be safe from bias if they had intersex status are sadly wrong. But none of that is going to stop me from speaking my mind.


  1. Thank you for this great post! As an intersex person myself, I too have been upset and concerned about certain prolific, transphobic, intersex folks in the blog world. I am working on a blog post about ways intersex and transgender folks have similarities and differences and how we can work together in coalition and as allies.

    Thanks again for this post and I look forward to reading more from you in the future!


    1. can you send me a link to your blog' Very interested in Studies like this.

  2. Thank you much, Caitlin, and I'm glad to hear you're working on alliance rather than helping the marginalized kick one another in the teeth. . . Much luck and love to you.

  3. Thanks for this article. I highly recommend it. I admire your perseverance and what you are doing to inform people about intersex issues.

    Kind regards,

  4. Curtis, thank you very much for your supportive words, and thank you for the work that you are doing to destigmatize intersexuality.

  5. Much love and wishing you success on your blog, Lumi

    “It's a sadly common dynamic in all sorts of marginalized communities: instead of uniting to fight oppression, people direct their anger at some other marginalized group they see as nastier.” Sad is right. It nearly brings me to tears.

    When I was a child I was often the most picked upon kid. I appalled myself though, when I joined in with my tormentors in picking on a kid who I saw as somehow “less” than even I was. It is truly one of the things I most deeply regret in my life. But I can also see how easily it happens.

    I have strived ever since then to empathize with all the marginalized in this world. I truly hope I never treat someone the way I was treated. I try not to think of the “scale” of the mistreatment, because emotionally it’s the same. I am not always as successful in my empathy as I’d like to be, but the effort counts for something I think.

    Looking for common goals can be a difficult political process at times. “United we stand, divided we fall” is not just a cliché however, and I hope all of us who “belie the ideology that dimorphic genitals determine gender” can help each other.

  6. Thank you, Jubilant, for your wise comment. I'm proud to stand united with you.

  7. I just saw this and I think you're awesome.

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  9. Thank you so much for this post. I have been suspecting that this was the dynamik that is happening. I'm trans, and some years ago, I got medical information that left me highly disturbed. Opposed to the myth, I didn't feel happy that I might have found a "reason" for being trans, and I don't claim intersex status. It is very traumatising to find out these things, and I'd be happy if it weren't true. But it was equally traumatizing that when trying to get more medical information, I was accused of being a poser, or someone who pretended to be intersex to justify being trans. I could live with the slurs, but the fact that I was denied access to the information is very harmful.