“I’ve been waiting for years for you to show up. It’s clear that transsexuals are not going to get our rights until intersexuals do.” (quoted by Suzanne Kessler, 1998)
“Intersex is not one but many sites of contested being, [with] temporally sutured biomedical, political and social imperatives… ‘Intersex’ is a sign constantly under erasure, whose significance always carries the trace of an agenda from somewhere else” (Morgan Holmes, 2009)
Up front, let’s be clear: trans people and intersex people should be allies. So also should we be friends with lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. We all have to deal with homophobia. We’re friends and sometimes lovers; many of us share those identities. Yet the intersex experience is one of appropriation, erasure and infantilization.
Intersex and infantilization
Infantilization takes place through a constant focus only on intersex people as infants and very young children: as children who cannot speak for themselves and whose gender constitutes a medical emergency (Curtis Hinkle). Intersex infants who are identified at birth are surgically modified to erase their differences, but access to appropriate healthcare, with free, fully informed consent remains a lifelong need. It should be needless to say that intersex people are well able to speak for ourselves.
Intersex and DSDs
Erasure takes place through the use of pathologizing medical terminology. A parent with an intersex infant is confronted with a named Disorder of Sexual Development. The debate is framed deliberately in the context of a deformity, with the supposition that this can be surgically corrected and erased. DSD is intersex as a pathology, labelling children as ‘disordered’ males and females rather than acceptably normal, healthy and fully intact. DSD has opened the door to amniocentesis testing and abortion due to CAH and XXY.
Homophobia means that the “medical criteria used for ‘success’ in surgery on children with DSDs are still based on how their genitals will measure up for heterosexual penetration”. (Cornwell, in Holmes, 2009).
Intersex and the LGBTIQ agenda
There is a risk of erasure when intersex is conflated with a broader LGBTIQ human rights agenda. OII takes the position that there is much to be gained by intersex becoming part of the LGBTIQ alliance – where we’re able to speak for ourselves and our distinctive needs are recognized. For this reason, OII Australia is a part of the National LGBTI Health Alliance in Australia and some other organizations.
It’s clear that, not only are a larger proportion of people with some intersex variations likely to identify as lesbian or gay (Holmes in Kessler, 1998), but all intersex people (and all partners aware of their intersex status) are obliged to consider what their status means for their sexual orientation and identity. However, despite a higher prevalence of same designated gender attraction, most intersex people do not identify as queer, as gay or lesbian, or as trans. The “vast majority of people born with intersex conditions live as a woman or a man, and do not view themselves as a member of different gender/sex category” (Emi Koyama, 2003).
This is just as true, of course, for the trans people who no longer identify as trans once their transition is complete, and it’s true of many men who have sex with men. It’s incumbent on all activists to always remember this.
Intersex and Trans
OII was founded by Curtis Hinkle, a man who was previously lesbian coordinator for the National Organization of Women in the US. Unusually for an intersex organization, OII has always been open to the possibility that intersex people can and do change their cardinal gender documents, but we regard our issues as distinctive. Intersex and trans people should be strong allies, but should not speak for each other.
Raven Kaldera, an intersex man who is also trans, wrote, while Intersex Liaison for an American trans organization:
“The newest issue is whether or not transgendered people should be “allowed” to call themselves intersexuals, to claim that both groups are, for all practical purposes, the same, and should be combined into one big gender-transgressive group.
“I disagree with this concept fairly strongly, while sympathizing with the ideas of those who push for it… as IS liaison, I constantly get emails and letters from transgendered people asking, “Can you help me find out if I’m intersexed?” What most of them really mean, of course, is, “I hope I’m intersexed in some way, because then I’ll have a legitimate biological reason for being transgendered that I can throw in the faces of my parents/relatives/boss/friends/spouse/kids/the mullahs/etc.” It’s as if, in some peoples’ minds, being IS is more “real”, and thus more legitimate, than being transsexual or transgendered.
“Intersexuals have been continually assaulted by transgender activists who offer to do work for us only because they feel that it will look good on their activist resume (to have an “in” with the “real” freaks, I suppose), and transsexuals who express envy to those of us who have been mutilated at birth. (“You’re so lucky! You got the sex change that I wanted!”) This latter disastrous bit of public relations probably stems from thoughtless but well-meaning frustration, but it comes across on the IS end with all the charm of an amputee fetishist expressing envy to a former marathon runner who lost both legs in an accident.”
The conflation of intersex and trans has been given new force by the theory, unfortunately recognized by one court judgment in Australia, that transsexuality is a form of ‘brain’ intersex. OII accepts that trans people may have some forms of brain state. OII also believes that analogous brain states are equally likely to be true of lesbians and gay men. Research by neuroscientists Simon LeVay and others has found brain differences analogous to opposite sex heterosexuals in both lesbians and gay men.
In common with other intersex organizations, OII believes in a need to focus on the lived experience and concerns of people with intersex bodies.
Intersex and ISGD
Some groups of Sydney-based activists are now using ‘ISGD’, short for ‘Intersex, Sex and/or Gender Diverse’, as: “a new umbrella term for transgender and sex and/or gender diverse in a more inclusive fashion”. (Wikipedia by contributor ‘LadySappho’).
Sydney group ‘Still Fierce’ held a rally in Canberra, in May 2011. While it looked wonderful, with people from many cities gathering together to promote intersex and trans rights, the primary objective of the rally was for implementation of the AHRC Sex Files report:
“Memorandum of Demands
1/ Implementation of the AHRC Sex Files (2009) recommendations.
2/ Legal protection against enforced medical treatment of ISGD children.”
As OII Australia has already pointed out, implementation of The Sex Files generally has very little to do with intersex people – but where it does, it’s likely to constrain our rights, not enhance them:
“Implementation would even make intersex people submit to ‘gender recognition boards’ and pathologizing protocols if they wish to change cardinal documents – in states where evidence of intersex status is currently sufficient alone”
It’s not clear to us how an organization that claims to speak on behalf of intersex people, and claims to have some intersex members, could take this approach – surely intersex people who have led intersex lives would know this? Sadly we note that, whatever else about their identities or bodies, every single ‘ISGD’ speaker identifies as trans. Unfortunately, the group has not broadened its appeal to intersex people without trans histories.
Trans as intersex
The term ‘ISGD’ originated in mid 2010, when it was introduced by Tracie O’Keefe. O’Keefe is a hypnotherapist/counsellor, author of many books with autobiographical content on trans issues, and the promoter of the Still Fierce rally. Around the same time as the term was introduced, she also wrote an article entitled Trans as intersex: Crossing the line:
“People from intersex, sex and/or gender diverse groups need to declare and emphasise our own identities, rather than letting others bully us into fitting into their version of who or what we are… Many of us who are transexed, transsexual or even transgendered may identify as intersex. To us it is just a fact of our identities. We are not seeking approval from doctors, politicians or political advocates…
“Who knows what my genes say? Do I have the ‘transsexual gene?’ Is there that particular part of my brain that is common to transsexual women indicated within scientific literature? … The truth is I don’t give a damn. I’m not interested in being poked and prodded anymore to satisfy other people’s insecurities…
“People who are trans and claim their intersex status really mess with the system.
“Some governments are currently condescending to keep the original birth records of trans people and issue new identity documents but they insist the original record was authentic… Then there are people who have been using transgender to describe the same experience as some transexed and transsexual people, which adds to the confusion around the debate. Transexed and transexual experiences compared with transgender are in reality different experiences.
“Intersex people who do not want trans people to be recognised as a form of intersex are also doing transphobia, along with those doctors and academics who are profiting from linguistically transgendering all trans people without their permission.”
This is the agenda behind the adoption of ‘ISGD’. On the one hand, the conflation of transexed and transgender experiences is confusing and wrong; ‘transgender’ is too vague to be useful. But on the other, the conflation of trans with intersex is her primary objective. Intersex people “really mess with the system”, so it’s a way of pursuing political objectives that have little to do with the reality of most intersex lives.
O’Keefe’s article redefines intersex as a trans identity, and states that any intersex person who disagrees with that definition is transphobic.
Erasing intersex with ISGD
ISGD, “a new umbrella term for transgender and sex and/or gender diverse in a more inclusive fashion” (Wikipedia, May 22, 2011)
The addition of an ‘I’ to ‘SGD’ has forcibly united intersex people with genderqueer and trans people without significant intersex involvement or acquiescence. It has erased intersex people as a distinct group with distinctive lives and experience. It is an act of infantilizing tokenism, which can be seen in the Still Fierce rally objectives.
The appropriation, and redefinition of intersex as a form of transgender identity is not a way to recognize and validate the lives of most intersex people; it’s a way of expressing trans as intersex.
This is not a way to build community, but a way of destroying it. We ask organizations that currently use ‘ISGD’ terminology to desist. We ask organizations that currently use this terminology to engage in meaningful dialogue with OII Australia and/or other organizations that comprise intersex people and represent our interests.
- OII Australia – Intersex and ISGD: yet another attempt to co-opt intersex? (precedes this article) – an examination of the language used in ‘ISGD’.
- OII Australia – OII Australia and ‘ISGD’ – a response to the debate (follows this article) – a response to further debate.
Update, February 2012
Some groups in Sydney have adopted a new term, ‘TIGD’, ‘Trans, Intersex and Gender Diverse’. We regard this in much the same manner as ‘ISGD’, and we encourage readers to pay close and critical attention to the narratives adopted by such organisations. Do they include intersex stories and narratives in all of their work? Or do they adopt a trans narrative, and pick and choose when to include intersex?
- Curtis Hinkle, undated
- Morgan Holmes, 2009
- Raven Kaldera, undated
- Suzanne Kessler, 1998
- Emi Koyama, 2003
- Simon LeVay, 2008
- Tracie O’Keefe, 2010
- Still Fierce, March 11, 2011
- Wikipedia, 22 May 2011
- We recommend our Intersex for allies leaflet as an introduction to intersex.
- Defining intersex: Australian and international definitions.
- Basic differences between intersex and trans experiences.
- On intersectionalities with lesbian and gay communities.
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