Tuesday, March 28, 2006
The fundamental error of conflating intersex with birth defects
by Curtis E. Hinkle
In order to make a very strict separation between intersex and transidentified issues, the North American intersex movement has made a fundamental error and that error is conflating intersex with birth defects, an error they have committed so as to differentiate transidentified issues which are viewed as gender issues and intersex which are viewed as purely a body issue. In this essay we will see that it is not that simple and that this political tactic has limited the action and growth of the intersex movement and objectified intersexuals.
The fundamental problem with viewing intersex as a medical condition only is that unlike other congenital conditions which affect the body, sex is recorded on birth certificates. Intersex can often pose serious challenges in deciding which of the two official sexes to put on the birth certificate which then affects the whole life of the individual who has been placed in one of the two categories, often resulting in treatments deemed necessary to normalize their bodies so they fit the stereotypes of that sex and furthermore can result in assigning a sex which is totally alien to the person in the body which has been normalized. This can cause very serious trauma which affects many intersexuals and the underlying justification for these crimes is the legal need to impose one of only two sex categories on all individuals born. This legal requirement to sex all bodies as male or female is the one, basic justification that the medical community has for mutilating our bodies, putting us in boxes which may be totally unacceptable to us and coming up with a very rich set of pathological terms and labels to pathologize any deviation from standard male or female.
I like the analysis that Judith Butler has made about gender as performative. Many people have misunderstood her terminology and thought that the term performative was related to “performace”. She did later incorporate that idea. However, the original use of this term which comes from the field of linguistics is the more fundamental meaning she gives to the idea of gender as performative. In linguistics, the use of the word performative refers to statements which cannot be categorized as true or false but which “perform” the action they state. For example: “I promise.” “I swear.” “I pronounce you man and wife.” By saying these sentences, you have performed the act stated.
As opposed to people with other congenital conditions, intersexuals face a series of performative discourses which affect identity issues, not just their bodies. First, the statement, “It’s a girl”. The newborn in question is a girl because the person who writes this on the birth certificate has so stated. In other words the person’s discursive power and authority over the infant has placed her in the category simply by stating it and then recording it. This is all about the use of language to make something so, whether it is or not in reality true or false. Such legal discourse is purely performative because by saying it one makes it so and the individual is categorized without consent and for what purpose?
Then we are given a name on the birth certificate, another performative use of language and these names are often “sexed”. Then we might decide we wish to get married and once again we are faced with the use of performative language which often will not “pronounce us as man and wife” with the partner of our choice.
Medical, legal and religious discourse controls our lives in ways that other people with bodies that do not meet norms do not face and this is the serious problem with conflating intersex with just a body issue.
A person who is born without an arm is not faced with legal, medical and religious discourse which separates all people into one-armed and two-armed people and then sets very rigid norms which all the people of each category must adhere to. This is not recorded on the birth certificate. It does not require sorting through different lists of names, one for one-armed people and the other for those that are two-armed and it does not prevent a one-armed person from getting an artificial limb by making them agree to psychological treatments and being categorized as mentally ill for wanting to change their status from one-armed to two-armed people. Furthermore, it does not prevent a two-armed person from marrying another two-armed person.
Conflating intersex with body issues merely objectifies the intersexual and overlooks the complexity of issues and the trauma that many intersexuals face trying to live in a world that has no place for them.
Our society has norms and these norms are not natural. They only appear to be natural because we have often unconsciously internalized them to such a degree that they seem not only “normal” but natural. Sex, gender and orientation are all part of the same basic problem which results from sexing bodies into just two categories. Some of us are granted the privilege of normalcy, while others are not and it all is based on our bodies and who owns those bodies – the state or the individual.
Intersexuality is one of the most challenging threats to this arbitrary division of people into just two categories because intersex is based on what is supposedly the very criteria for placing us in the categories male or female to begin with, the body. In this respect, intersexuality is a body issue and very few people would challenge that and to understand the topic, one has to deal with the body and how many bodies do not fit the norms imposed legally, not naturally, which are then medicalized into conformity.
However, this need to normalize bodies and to categorize people into just two categories also involves gender norms and sexual orientation norms which affect intersexuals to a much higher degree we have found out than the population in general. To minimize the issues of gender norms and sexual orientation norms which are all based on the body we have been “normalized” into or legally defined by is a very serious disregard for the intersexual who has been placed in a legal category and normalized without their consent.
Until sex is no longer a legal category imposed on people, it is a very serious mistake to conflate intersex as just a body issue. It is about forced normalization, about people assigned genders they do not agree with. It is about people who love others that society sees as the inappropriate sex. It is about all of this. About mutilated bodies, mutilated genders and identities and often being deprived of legally marrying the partner of our choice.