Friday, February 13, 2009

Intersex – A History of Erasure

by Curtis E. Hinkle

There are no pre-existing male/female categories. Our conceptualizing people as either one or the other is a cultural artifact and the construction of sex/gender/desire within a binary only reinforces the underlying assumptions and hierarchy of power inherent within such a socially constructed system. In the late 19th century, European cultures felt threatened by more and more women speaking out and wanting recognition and also by homosexuals who were becoming more visible. It was a coincidence that medicine had advanced to such a degree that hermaphroditism was beginning to be understood and it was also dawning on physicians that it was not as rare as they had thought. Their reaction to our presence – those of us born with bodies that do not fit into what society views as normal female or male within this arbitrary division of the sexes – was very revealing concerning the desperate attempt of our societies to perpetuate a myth concerning only two sexes. Physicians were being visited by people who had all types of different anatomies – men who menstruated, women who had no wombs, women with beards and penises, men with breasts and wombs, etc.

What was the main preoccupation of these men of science in trying to categorize hermaphrodites within the binary? To them sex/gender/desire were all one and the same thing basically. These categories were not considered three different categories at all as many people do now. To the scientists of that period whom you had sex with was just as much a determinant of your sex as your body. Men were to have sex with women, etc. Hermaphrodites were challenging the heterosexual assumptions that enforced the structure of power and relationships between men and women. The “scientists” were confronted with such disturbing questions as: How do we know if this person is or is not a pervert (besides being a freak)? Hermaphrodites could “trick” innocent people into perverted (same sex) relationships without the person even being aware of it. How do we maintain order, stability and “family” in a society where we admit people who are not male or female? (Doesn’t this sound familiar – “family values”?) WE MAKE THEM DISAPPEAR. And this is what categorizing people as male or female only by their gonads did. No more hermaphrodites, or at lease so few that we could forget about them, and then we are back to our neat little world where there are only two sexes and we can regulate their behavior and their relationships so as to maintain the system with all its inequalities.

The answer that the scientists came up with shows to what degree heteronormative hegemony (compulsory heterosexuality) is fundamental to our culture’s conception of sex, gender and desire. After looking at all different combinations of intersex bodies and debating over which particular aspect of those bodies would determine one’s “true” sex, they finally agreed on just one aspect of the body – gonads (ovaries or testicles). In so doing, the vast majority of people who would have been designated hermaphrodites previously were suddenly not hermaphrodites at all. They had become pseudo-hermaphrodites. This was important because there are supposedly very few people that meet the definition of being a “true” hermaphrodite. Having both an ovary and a testicle is very rare and so is having an ovotestis. This meant that for all intents and purposes, hermaphrodites had been erased as a real sex category and the neat little construct of just two sexes was kept intact. You were a woman if you had ovaries, regardless that you might not have a vagina and no breasts and a beard. You were a man if you had testicles even if you had a vagina, breasts and could not grow a beard.

Today we go even further. We do not just come up with new definitions to eliminate intersex people, we alter their bodies – making them physically invisible. This is one of the most tragic symbols of human oppression and the medico-legal collusion with political agendas to make sure we have no voice – no face – no existence. Only by challenging the foundations of the binary categories can intersex people have a voice, be part of humanity. In so doing, our mission is not to form another identity movement but to work for the improvement of humankind in general. The current system is mutilating us all.

No group or authority or individual should have the right to define, limit or determine who is and who is not intersex. That is up to the individual. We don’t need more police to enforce rigid categories which already divide us. We in the intersex movement are working to be part of humankind, to be persons with full human rights. We are working to end the oppression of gender apartheid and gender mutilation of all humankind and make a place for all of us who identify outside the binary.