Let’s Talk About Intersex

by Rebecca Long

It is 2016. Young women like Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard are using their public platforms to start complex conversations about gender equality. Activists like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox are helping to increase transgender visibility in the media and by extension, in society. Matt McGorry is publicly (and hilariously) exploring how to “do feminism” as a man. Jaden Smith is the face of Louis Vuitton’s new womenswear campaign, challenging the idea of gendered clothing and rocking the heck out of some outrageously expensive skirts.

In part because of outspoken public figures like these, the omnipresence of social media, and increased access to information, we are having larger, more open dialogues about social justice and the intersections of identity. That is progress. But despite the prevalence and breadth of these discussions, there is one topic that has been almost completely absent from the conversation: intersex.

The Intersex Society of North America defines intersex, or Differences of Sex Development (DSD), as “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy” that doesn’t fit within the male/female binary system. Intersex is not uncommon. In fact, 1 in 1,500 babies are born with genitalia that cannot easily be classified as male or female (To put this into perspective, only about 1 in 18,000 people in the U.S. are born with albinism). If DSD is so prevalent, why don’t we question the faulty sex dichotomy? It is because as a society, we do everything in our power to hide the binary’s fallibility.

Intersex Flag, created by Organisation Intersex International Australia, Intersex Flag, created by Organisation Intersex International Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

As explored by Elizabeth Reis in Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, throughout history, individuals born with ambiguous genitals have been treated as test subjects and medical anomalies, characterized as monsters, and associated with moral depravity (Remember the recent internet craze surrounding Hilter’s speculated micropenis?). In most cases, intersex people are forced to adhere to the pre-existing binary system and become either male or female — physically and socially. Dismissed as mutations, nonconforming internal and external genitals have been and still are surgically “corrected” to resemble either a penis/testes or a vagina/ovaries.

The medical practice of physically modifying healthy, although “abnormal,” bodies in the name of patients’ future happiness, socialization, and reproductive ability illustrates the serious anxieties surrounding sex, gender, sexuality, and power present in our culture. When a baby is born and the doctor cannot immediately announce either “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” based on the appearance of the child’s genitals, panic sets in. The American Psychological Association notes that “because we expect everyone to be identifiably male or female, the parents…of babies born with ambiguous genitals are usually eager to learn what [specific medical] condition the child has, so that sex assignment can occur without delay” even though most cases do not require immediate surgery.

In this way, the existence and prevalence of DSD has been and continues to be erased. Sex is a biologically determined trait, yes, but does it always manifest as either male or female? No. We at times arbitrarily create and preserve that binary, reinforcing the constructed dichotomies of gender and sexuality, as well. The two-sex system may be normal, but it is hardly natural.

Faking It Shane and LaurenShane (left) and Lauren on Faking It. Lauren’s character was revealed to be intersex.

In the media, intersex identities are similarly erased, stigmatized, or ridiculed — remember the public fascination with Lady Gaga’s “parts” (and Ciara’s)? The topic of intersex is almost never explored in movies or television, and when it is brought to the fore, it is usually a point of insult. In the first season of Pretty Little Liars, for instance, Lucas is repeatedly teased and called “Hermie the Hermaphrodite” (Who wouldn’t join the A team after that abuse?). Although there have been important strides made toward representation, as on MTV’s Faking It and in one thoughtful episode of Freaks and Geeks, we are slow to truly discuss intersex. This silence has been particularly noticeable during the recent onslaught of anti-LGBT legislation. Despite public outrage over multiple state bills, there has been almost no media attention on how they impact intersex communities.

Let’s take a look at North Carolina’s HB2. It mandates that all government-run multiple-occupancy bathrooms must be assigned a single biological sex and that anyone who doesn’t match that sex must be prevented from entering. While this bill is clearly transphobia in action masquerading as a measure to keep cis women and cis children safe, it also begs a question that no one is asking: What if your biological sex matches neither bathroom, or matches both? This bill ignores the fact that there are more than two sexes, exposing its already obviously faulty logic, and declares loudly and clearly to all non-binary individuals: “Government is not here to protect people like you.”

Another major bill signed into law last week is Mississippi’s HB23. This law protects “seriously held religious beliefs or moral convictions,” including the belief that “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” Not only does this statement conflate sex and gender, but it also claims that the two sex binary is “objectively,” and scientifically indisputable. No matter how “seriously held” this conviction is, it is “objectively” wrong. This law hierarchizes a denial of reality over the entire existence of intersex people.

The dichotomous categorizations of male or female (sex) and man or woman (gender) are so conflated and ingrained within American thought and culture that they have become taboo. Someone who is male is expected to be a man who is sexually attracted to women and someone who is female is assumed to be a woman who is sexually attracted to men. But there are many people, like intersex individuals, existing in the spaces between these rigid groups who deserve to be heard, considered, and represented. Let’s do better, and let’s talk about it.

Featured image of character Amy Andrews from Freaks and Geeks.

This post was originally published April 26, 2016

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