we keep hesitating at the notion that sex does not obey strict binaries
January 4, 2014 7:22 AM   Subscribe

(Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, because it is difficult to measure degrees of physical and hormonal difference, and because many, like Ambrose, may not know they were diagnosed as such.)

This makes me so sad and so angry on so many levels. We don't know what we don't know, but we'll impose a decision on someone who can't consent anyway, and then lie to them for years.

But the news about the New Jersey bill surprised me and gives me hope. Go, New Jersey!
posted by rtha at 8:35 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I knew someone who had always been really uncomfortable in her skin who discovered, well into her 20s, that her genitals had been altered as a baby. It took her the better part of a decade to find a way to be secure and comfortable with her self (and with being "her," mostly). She acknowledged that her parents had done this out of live and concern, but it had really messed her up for a long time, and I am not sure their relationship ever recovered from the decision, secrecy, and inevitable revelation.

So, parents, really, don't. The children you save may be your own.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:03 AM on January 4, 2014

That post has sort of a bizarrely transphobic tinge to it, as if intersex people's problems would be solved if only the icky trans people didn't demand recognition, instead of actually exploring where there's common interest and where there's tension.

(Also, some more detail with respect to Germany would be nice. The German constitution grants a specific right to bodily integrity, which seems like it ought to be the death knell for 'corrective' surgery on infants, given that it's increasingly ceased to be viewed as medically necessary, though that hasn't necessarily trickled down to the doctors presenting options to parents.)
posted by hoyland at 9:08 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

That post has sort of a bizarrely transphobic tinge to it, as if intersex people's problems would be solved if only the icky trans people didn't demand recognition

Are we reading the same article?
posted by crayz at 10:28 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

If anyone is interested in reading some first-person accounts from intersex youth (including some that can be very difficult to read; many of them have survived traumatic violations from members of the medical establishment) Inter/Act is "a place for young people with intersex conditions or DSDs to come together, express themselves, and unite their individual stories to develop a voice for a new generation."

If anyone is not familiar with the term DSD, it stands for "Differences of Sex Development."
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I didn't read that in the article either, rather than that it correctly pointed out that though we tend to link all this under LGBT or QUILTBAG, the needs and rights for trans and intersex people may not actually be quite the same, nor progress in the same manner.

One could argue, for example, that a badly drawn up law that would recognise a third gender or non-gendered identity could also make things worse for trans people, if it meant that they would automatically fall under this gender.

Or that any law that would make it more difficult to perform 'corrective' surgery on intersexed children could also make it harder for trans children to transition.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:39 AM on January 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Of course, it's telling that while the medicial establishment on the whole has been very reluctant to even let trans adults choose physical transition "because you may change your mind later" has had no qualms in altering just born infants for life just because they don't neatly fit the increasingly arbitrary looking binary gender system...
posted by MartinWisse at 10:43 AM on January 4, 2014 [19 favorites]

It read a little ignorant of trans people and trans rights to me, as well, but I'm writing it off as "means well, does not understand complexities of overlapping situations, nor how bad some of them really are." It's an overview piece, and it's trying to focus on people even more marginalized than garden variety transsexual people, so it's understandingly going to be a little rough and a little over-optimistic in places and a little dismissive in places, but the underlying message of, "Hey! As long as we're talking about LGB and T people, here is another group whose struggles and sufferings we've largely tended to ignore and contribute to, as a society" is a good one. That awareness is important, especially because, while there are some overlaps, a lot of the issues intersex people face really are on different planes than what trans folks have to deal with and we should pay attention to that and listen to them.
posted by byanyothername at 10:45 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

QIULTBAG is one I've never heard before, but infinitely easier than all the other unpronounceable gobbledygook acronyms. That one seems to settle it.
posted by nevercalm at 10:47 AM on January 4, 2014

I'm glad the "trans vs intersex" imaginary fued that seems to take place online has not seemed to present itself in my (admittedly finite and limited) queer community. One of the highlights of my summer was the TGIF Pride Picnic in Chicago's Union Park. TGIF stands for Trans*, Gender Non-Conforming, Intersex Freedom. I saw representatives of every group speak, perform, dance together, and support each other.

Our freedoms do not have to come at the expense of anyone else's. If we all work together to make the world a safer place for all forms of gender expression, the world will be a better place for everyone.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:48 AM on January 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

Thanks for the link to that Tumblr, Juliet Banana. That could be its own FPP.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 10:56 AM on January 4, 2014

Actually, looking over it again, I think the piece is really good and most of the things that rub me the wrong way are in quotes not by the author.
posted by byanyothername at 10:59 AM on January 4, 2014

One could argue, for example, that a badly drawn up law that would recognise a third gender or non-gendered identity could also make things worse for trans people, if it meant that they would automatically fall under this gender.

For binary-identified trans people, yeah. For genderqueer trans people, it'd be a step forward (though yes, admittedly at quite a cost for others). Naturally, it'd make more sense to make provisions for trans (and intersex!) people to be able to choose whether to be recognised as within the binary or not, and on which side if so.
posted by Dysk at 11:05 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suppose I'm primarily bothered by this bit:
While certain religious groups argue that sexuality is a choice (and certain sexual lifestyles are therefore sinful), no one makes that argument about biology, which might suggest a certain logic to granting rights to genetic difference before sexual preference.
Where exactly does that leave trans people other than that at the very back of the line? But if you look at the quoted bit of the New Jersey statute, it does its best to kill two bird with one stone*, without having to some forms of human variation over others. (Because, oh yes, being trans is a 'sexual preference'. WTF New Yorker?)

*Albeit not perfectly, but we can't have everything.
posted by hoyland at 11:25 AM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeuuugh. I'm glad to see such a piece done. While I can understand on some levels the problems of dysmorphia, not feeling at home in your skin, problems with transition, social effects etc. There's plenty of folks out there getting the word around. Folks that deal with those things personally have started to show up as prominent figures here and there in the circles I follow. There;s also good bits of art that express it fairly well too.

Regarding intersex, that hasn't necessarily been the case. I had given some light thought to what that would be like but wasn't willing to leap over the body horror hurdle. Then I read...

“I learned to lie. I couldn’t tell other kids I went to the hospital and had my genitals chopped up again.”

Kind of puts all the shame, anger and horror into one nice little sentence.
posted by ThrowbackDave at 1:54 PM on January 4, 2014

Today, we pride ourselves on letting children defy antiquated gender stereotypes. Boys can now have dolls, and girls Erector sets; we agree that the salient differences between genders are social constructs, and give little leeway to those who insinuate that, say, women have less aptitude for science and engineering.

That "we" strikes me as optimistic, even if the "we" is only intended to include the New Yorker's readers. I don't think these attitudes are universal at all, more's the pity. Read the comments of virtually any mainstream news article about transgender people, for instance, and you will often find a whole lot of trogs who basically want to beat us back into the closet.

I've heard many stories about intersex people who were raised as girls and came to really resent it, but I've never heard a story about an intersex person who was raised male and later had major problems with it. Presumably such people are out there, but I've never heard of a story like that. As the article notes, external genitals are much easier to remove than to replace. I'm guessing that the seeming scarcity of such stories has something to do with that. But that's pure speculation on my part, and if anybody knows of stories like that, I'd be glad to be educated on the subject.

In any case, doctors have a lot to be ashamed of regarding their treatment of intersex children. (I recall reading an article just a few years ago about doctors assigning a gender to a newborn and proceeding with surgery, without telling the child's parents that they were doing it.) If things really are improving, it's about damn time.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:46 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am one of those people, Ursula. Memail me if you wish.
posted by Betafae at 5:45 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

One way to measure the stigma faced by a marginalized group is by the percentage of people who avoid identifying themselves as a member of the group, and try to "pass" as a member of the majority if it is possible for them to do so. For LGBTI+ people, this manifests as staying in the closet--never publicly finding a same-sex partner, never gender transitioning, or never telling anyone about one's intersex birth status. Speaking as a queer intersex person who gender transitioned in adulthood, I can say that the percentage of intersex people who are in the closet is even higher than the percentage of trans people who never come out and claim their identified gender, which is in turn much higher than the percentage of LGB people who hide their sexual orientations.

I believe this is because of how our society stigmatizes sex and gender variance generally, and specifically how it frames intersexuality: as a "disorder" that is shameful but that can be eliminated medically. Doctors continue to assume "normalizing" our bodies so that our birth status can hopefully be hidden is essential. Parents continue to absorb this message and to raise intersex children not to talk about our differences.

It's good to see more people talking about intersexuality, and to hear more voices critiquing this forced closeting, accomplished via what amount to unconsented-to sex change procedures performed upon infants. But we have a very, very long way to go.

Regarding Ursula's point about intersex people assigned male at birth and resenting it, I know a good number of such people (including my wife, Betafae). I believe there are several things that silence the voices of intersex people unhappily assigned male. First, because of the way male privilege works, it's easier to reject a female assignment than a male one (something true for people who aren't intersex as well). A person transitioning to male, as I did, gains social status, while a person transitioning to female loses it, and the social stigma and violence faced by trans women, intersex or not, is much higher than that faced by trans men, whatever our birth status.

Secondly, this transmisogyny permeates all sorts of social groups, including (cis gender) feminist ones. I know that before I was out of the closet as either intersex or as male-identified, I heard in a variety of feminist contexts that "almost all real intersex people are assigned female at birth, and if someone says they were born intersex, and assigned male, but identify as female, they're just pathetic transsexual women who can't own up to what they are and are falsely claiming intersex status."

And finally, masculinity is fragile in our society--men are always having to prove that they are "real men," and not being able to do so is seen as a great failure. Knowing this, doctors are reluctant to assign a child male while giving them an intersex diagnosis that would somehow damage their masculine honor. To avoid this, they have devised medical classificatory schemes that name the most common intersex condition of all, hypospadias, as a "penile malformation" rather than what it is: intersexuality in children born with external testes and an intermediate phalloclitoris. (If you're interested in reading about hypospadias, which occurs today in 1 in 125 children assigned male at birth in the U.S., and how its intersex nature is concealed by medical terminology and illustrations, I have written a blog post about it, which you can read here.)
posted by DrMew at 6:59 PM on January 5, 2014 [13 favorites]

That post is completely fascinating, DrMew. Thank you.
posted by rtha at 7:26 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

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