Saturday, March 13, 2010

Should The Snail Be Salted?

So, one thing that's bothered me a little bit is intersex symbolism. You'd think this would be more straight-forward than it is, but it's not for a lot of reasons.

One such reason is that there's not good consensus on what it means to be intersex, both within and outside of the medical community. Individuals with XXY, for example, may be shocked to learn that their condition is described by some as an intersex one, while other Turner's individuals would be wholly unsurprised. Part of all this is compounded by the fact that there's - amazingly - no good medical definition for what constitutes a "male" or female." In the 1950s, John Money started a revolution influencing strict ideas about sex and gender in the medical field. Biological males and females were distinguished from one another on the basis of external genital form. Despite all the information that we know today about genetics, hormones, and biochemistry, and the fact that we are very aware that there are differences in form that we expect of "typical" males and females (i.e., external genital form, internal sex organs, body hair distribution, breast development, nipple form, skeletal and muscule form, chromosome types, hormone types and levels, etc.), it is nothing less than shocking that our basis for assigning babies male and female at birth is still based solely on external genital form. Even in "typical" males and females, there's wide ranges of variation in if/how these different traits are possessed and exhibited, so a re-definition of biological sex might be much more messy even in some of the clearer-cut cases. Throw intersex individuals into the mix...and then what? You've got a bunch of medics scratching their heads. This means that, by logic, you can't discriminate intersex individuals from either "typcial" males, or "typical" females. How can you find a unifying symbol for intersex individuals if you can't even determine who the intersex individuals ARE? Lack of good definitions and medical standards has really confounded our ability to do this.

Nevertheless, there are individuals who possess bodies that are described by themselves or by medics as "intersex." Some individuals that could identify as intersex don't actually identify this way; they may identify their sex as typically male or female...they just happen to have a medical condition. Others might identify as being just generally "intersex." Others might identify with their specific form of intersex. Others may feel that they transcend sex assignment, feeling that it either does not apply to them or simply don't care to play the obsessive-analysis-game trying to. Others yet feel that their sexual identity, like their gender identity, may be more fluid, changing depending on the moment. Although this might sound like a strange concept to some people, there's a big difference between biologial sex and identity...And this is completely reasonable. How you feel about yourself and your likes/dislikes certainly change over time; very few things in our life are static. Your favorite food or color today might be different from what it was 10 years ago, 1 year ago, 1 month ago, 1 minute ago, or 10 seconds ago. How you'd describe your personality will likely differ from one day, one hour, or one minute to the next. How you experience who you are is in a constant state of flux. Why should sex and gender identities be any different?

So, for all these reasons, it's difficult to pinpoint any cohesive symbol for intersex individuals. What do you do about that?

Some have tried. I did a random search of some intersex symbols to see what was lurking out there. Let's check 'em out.

This is a classic intersex symbol, posted by the Organization Intersex International, indicating that intersex indviduals ride the line between biologically "typical" males and females. But this isn't really accurate, since, as we've seen before, many intersex individuals don't describe their identities as encompassing both male or female, or one and not the other, or either, or any at all, or maybe some or all of the above depending on how they're feeling! I could see how some intersex individuals would want to distance themselves from this symbol. There's gotta be something better out there.

A variant of the above from Flickr's intersex Group Pool.

And yet another variant from Matrifocus. Again, let's keep on searching.

This one is from the University of Texas at El Paso. This one makes my stomach churn and chest ache. Although confusing at first, one might notice this is the blend of one traditional male symbol and one traditional female symbol with a twist - they're both halved. As in, intersex individuals are the perfect blend of male and female. We're half-&-halfs! I can understand this image as being pretty offensive, and wouldn't advocate using it. (Also, from the website where it comes: "intersexual" is NOT a preferred term. It's considered pejorative, or derogatory, by many. Grrr.)

Arrgh! Really? See above for my feelings on this Crestock image (minus the "intersexual" bit at the end). Although this symbol does remind me that more gender-neutral bathrooms need to be established, so that sex-and-gender variant individuals can perform basic bodily functions without fear of harassment, physical harm, and death.

Whatever historians have said about Georgia O'Keefe's work, it's pretty hard to misinterpret the blantant "OMG GENITALIA SYMBOLISM" in this symbol for the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group Australia (AISSG). I think this image can be viewed as both inaccurate and semi-exploitative, since the focus of intersex individuals is, once again, on their external genitalia, and some intersex individuals may or may not possess "ambiguous"/"atypical" genitalia. This is even more interesting since not all levels of AIS are characterized by ambiguous genital form; does this symbol best represent AISSG, then?

This is the symbol for the International Society for Hypospadias and DSD (ISHID) - the same organization that hosts annual conferences to learn new procedures in genital mutilation to lop off body parts from infants for the sake of binary sex assignment. (Nice.) My feelings for this organization aside, the babies-in-double-vision symbol is confusing. Are we supposed to be focusing on the legs' possible symgolism as a vagina or a penis? Are we supposed to see how two babies (one male, one female) are "blending" together as an intersex individual? (Not that again!) What are we supposed to be taking away from this?

Found on a fellow intersex blogger's site (Hi!), Intersex and the City. (Clever, no?) This image is intriguing, but still, this is just telling individuals that intersex indviduals are still blends of "typical" biological males and females. What, we can't just exist in our own right? We have to judge every person on the sex binary, which clearly can't be supported BY BIOLOGICAL EVIDENCE? This "blending" imagery really needs to be permanently sacked.

SQUEE! A cute little snail. Now this is something different! At first, I was delighted to chance upon this image from the Pacific Northwest's Intersex Initiative. But this image, too, is problematic as well.

Snails are biologically hermaphrodites. Humans cannot biologically be hermaphrodites, since they do not have both full sets of functioning sex organs, either at the same time or at different points during a human individual's life cycle. We simply don't qualify. While I love the snail itself, I think that this would serve to further confuse individuals that don't understand the differences between hermaphroditic species of living things (like snails, as well as various fish, ambphibians, etc.) and non-hermaphroditic, intersex humans.

I like to think of an imagined conversation beteween a person that doesn't know these differences and someone who does.

Clueless: "Hey, cute snail!"
Clued In: "Oh, yeah thanks. It is pretty cute."
Clueless: "What's it for?"
Clued In: "Oh, it's a symbol for intersex individuals."
Clueless: "Huh. [pause] You mean, like, hermaphrodites?"
Clued In: "Actually, no. Humans can't be hermaphrodites, biologically. [insert explanation here] They're actually intersex."
Clueless: "Oh, okay! So...why the snail?"
Clued In: "Because the snail is hermaphroditic."
Clueless: [long pause] " thought you said that humans couldn't be hermaphrodites."
Clued In: "That's correct, they can't."
Clueless: [longer pause] "So, you have a hermaphroditic animal as the symbol for intersex humans, who aren't hermaphrodites at all, and who a lot of people incorrectly think are hermaphrodites."
Clued In: "Yes, that's also correct."
Clueless: [long, long, long pause] "...I think my brain melted."

I really don't want to have this conversation. Ever.

Currently, there isn't a good symbol for intersex individuals that is both biologically accurate, non-exploitative, and accounts for the diversity in sex identity among intersex individuals. I think that an abstract symbol that isn't a play on traditional male & female symbols, and that doesn't focus on genitalia or hermaphroditic animals, would be best.

I'm thinking about what might be some cool symbols out there. Any ideas, anyone? :)


  1. didn't prince already make that symbol?

  2. Hi, Anon! Prince did make a symbol that wasn't neatly male or female, but the symbol itself and Prince's stated motivations for doing so are very different from what I'm calling for. Prince made the symbol for himself, and not for intersex individuals - hence why we've heard him referred to as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (AFKAP)." Prince is not intersex, as far as I know, but even if he is, that symbol was meant to be personal, and not to represent intersex individuals as a group. The fact that this unpronouncable symbol replaced his name (again, hence the AFKAP stff) is also different from intersex. I don't think it would be productive to replace the term "intersex" with an unpronouncable symbol so that people would start referring to us as The People Formerly Known As Intersex. (This would perhaps be a bit poetic, since even with a pronouncable identifier, manistream society/the medical establishment doesn't quite know how to perceive us. I don't advocate for furthering confusion, though. It's also interesting to note that there is a bit of this going on with individuals trying to probelmatically use the term DSD to replace intersex, as I've detailed in a previous post.) I simply think that if intersex individuals want to have a symbol, it should be something that doesn't advertise us as male-and-female-half-and-halfs or something. It's difficult to come up with a symbol for intersex people if we're trying to create a spin-off from binary symbols. This is because the binary system is inherently flawed since the range of human form isn't binary itself. Instead of creating a symbol that resembles the male and female symbols, it might be more appropriate to make a symbol that's completely unlike either of them, symbolically refusing to conform to a binary sex-and-gender system.