Sunday, July 4, 2010

An Intersex Individual By Any Other Name Would Smell Like A Human.

Or something. Right? I'm pretty sure Billy Shakes said something darn close to that. (Controversy surrounding who wrote what Shakespeare works aside, of course, since that's something that's miiiiiiiiiighty lateral to what I want to REALLY talk about!)

I've noticed that the Accord Alliance - started up by the former founder of the now-defunct Intersex Society of North America, Cheryl Chase - advocates the use of the term "disorders of sexual devleopment" (or "DSD") in place of the term "intersex." The earliest use of this term is in the Journal of Pediatric Urology by Hughes et al., 2006, in an article entitled "Consensus statement on management of intersex disorders." I don't have access to the entire article, but I can get you the abstract. Basically, the authors of this article feel that "disorders of sexual development" is a better phrase than "intersex" because it "...integrate[s] progress in molecular genetic aspects of sex development..." Okay, okay. I get it. Because we know that various genetic, anatomical, and physiological sutes possessed by intersex individuals are caused by molecular processes intiated in fetal development, using DSD might be a better choice. And it's important for all professionals to switch to DSD because standardizing language is essential to communicate effectively, and blah blah blah. Let's dissect this argument a little bit, shall we?

"Intersex" is definitely a term with many problems. "Inter" and "sex," when paired together, create an image in my mind of taking a female form, and taking a male form, and then violently mashing them together, until you end up with an individual that's BOTH! They're INTER - SEX! Get it? This is obviously not how it works, so discussions regarding the creation of a new term to replace "intersex" are great and really important.

I don't think "disorders of sexual development" is it, though, for two reasons. My first objection is rooted in identity. DSD focuses on the science-y things, yes, but it is problematic for those that identify their sex as intersex. If I were to say to someone, "I'm intersex," yes, I wouldn't necessarily expect them to have heard this term and what it means and maybe confuse it with a lot of other words regarding sex and gender identity, performance, presentation, etc. If DSD is universally accepted and replaces "intersex" entirely, then what would I say to someone? I think it would go something like this:

Me: "I have a disorder of sexual development, or a DSD. [lengthy explanation]"
Individual A: "Oh, well, what do you call yourself?"
Me: "What do you mean?"
Individual A: "Well, you used to identify as 'intersex,' and not as biologically male or female. If you accept the use of DSD, how would you identify?'
Me: "Oh, um...I'm...disordered?"

This is not how I choose to identify. There is a big difference between recongnizing that my development was atypical, and that it was "disordered." One can wave their hands and quickly reassure me in soothing tones that disordered is just in terms of the science, and that of coure I MYSELF would NEVER be considered disorded (to which I'd ask in less soothing tones "So, why was it that those doctors forced all of those vaginal dilations on me again?"). But "disordered" absolutely has a negative connotation in the majority dialects of Western speech. (I'll allow that this might not be the case across the board.) If there's anything we don't need, it's more stigmatization of intersex people. Haven't we had enough of being subtly or blatantly regarded as grotesque, malformed, monstrous spectacles?

Many intersex individuals do choose to identify as biological males, or biological females. That's perfectly fine, and I think it's great if that is how they identify! However, I think this new terminology is problematic for those of us that don't identify as biologcial males or females.

My second contention is that this terminology does not - and cannot - reflect all of the varied ways an individual may choose to identify. This term was embraced by and, in part, created with the help of the Accord Alliance, which included Intersex Society of North America founder Cheryl Chase (who probably does not identify as "disordered"), yes. But can Chase and other intersex individuals consulted speak for each INDIVIDUAL that has a "DSD"? Should we allow for a term that is not inclusive, and forces some individuals to identify in a way that is not authentic to them?

Should we condone DSD, formerly known as intersex?

What do you think?


  1. Well DSD, is being used because the term intersex from what some have told me is that it is being hijacked by the trans community and that the trans community have overly used and abused the intersex name so much that it has lost all meaning on what it means to be an Intersex person.

  2. Yes, I have learned that individuals that aren't biologically intersex will sometimes identify as intersex (not necessarily solely or even mostly transgender indivdiuals). This is definitely problematic. Former post Nick suggested that I write a post on a piece discussing intersex and trans individuals' identities and lived experiences, and I intend to.

  3. Forgot to add this...

    I think that a new term would be great, but if one is going to be used, DSD isn't it. And I think that this term should be a more inclusive one, with its origins by intersex individuals themselves, and not the medical community. They don't get to decide how we identify...we do!

  4. I'm not intersex so my opinion doesn't matter but I will say this:

    Once, I was talking to an interphobic transphobe. I was getting somewhere on convincing him that intersex people existed and were valid until he found a site that called it "DSD". He latched onto the "disorders", which, of course, means broken/bad/in need of fixing and that was the end of that.
    As long as "disorder" has such a negative stigma attached- it shouldn't be applied to anything that we want to be accepted. Considering that a big freaking problem for intersex people is doctors and parents thinking they need to "fix" intersex people, it also seems like it would be a VERY big step backwards.

    It would be awesome if the intersex community came up with its own word. And one for people who aren't intersex, too! That's definitely important.

    I also haven't heard intersex come up very often in the trans community beyond out of ignorance (ex. insisting intersex people can't be cis), when an intersex person thinks they might be trans, or in pointing out the variations in sex to help assert our rights to label our bodies (I don't know if this is any better).
    I know that there ARE trans people who try to claim to be intersex, but I don't think they're as common as those who don't- it seems more like the media loves a double-freak with controversy on top so the ones who do make the newspapers. Somehow I doubt that "Trans woman doesn't identify as intersex because she isn't intersex and doesn't want to appropriate another group's identity" will ever be a hot story.

  5. Hi, Drek! Welcome to the blog! The fact that you're not intersex doesn't mean that your opinions are irrelevant...we need awesome intersex allies, so rock on! :)

    I agree with everything you said about DSD being a problematic term, and that if something other than intersex is used, it has to come from intersex individuals themselves. I'm totally cool with having multiple terms, as well, as long as they're not stigmatizing, fetishizing...any sort of negative -izing. I'm not entirely sure that we would absolutely need a term to describe non-intersex people (like, cis-gender versus non-cis-gender, for instance). I'm all for describing who we are in a way that feels authentic to us, but sometimes finding counter terms creates an Us vs. Them mentality. Everyone else isn't some big mass of "others," but unique individuals who have their own ways of describing themselves, too. Additionally, by proffering a counter term on non-intersex individuals, we're foisting a term on a group of people that ALSO weren't consulted. It's tricky, for sure.

  6. Yeah, there are definitely similarities in experiences between intersex and trangender individuals, as well as differences, which I think that Dr. Costello, of the Intersex Roadshow blog, does a great job of laying out in the post "Transphobia and Intersex Experience" ( Intersex is often not thought of as biological - a way that bodies are - but as a gender identity that can be claimed, such as bigender, trigender, two-spirit, etc. Some individuals, including some transgender individuals, may claim intersex since they feel that being intersex legitimizes their identities, they will have easier access to treatment (including hormone replacement therapy and surgeries), and that society perceives them with some sympathy because they were "born that way" while many people still think of transgender individuals as perverse and just won't conform to how they were born. (Ugh.) Intersex individuals may, in turn, become transphobic because they don't want their identities claimed as something that isn't intersex and thus rail against a similarly marginalized group instead of supporting each other. Transphobic intersex individuals may also be aghast that transgender individuals think they "have it easy" by rreceiveing treatment transgender individuals have to fight so hard for, saying that it's never okay to receive treatment without consent, even if non-intersex individuals may want treatment for different reasons. They may also disagree that the world treats them more sympathetically for being intersex rather than transgender...many people don't know the difference between the two.

    I think this last statement also informs why there's lots of fetishizing going on in the media, since intersex and transgender are not accurately understood, and are thus portrayed as freak shows. The media would probably never run a story on your proposed story line, sadly, because in order to run that story, you have to understand that they're different, and why.

    There's a lot to be done with awareness, but we've got to start somewhere, right? Just getting into conversations about intersex and making it known is a good starting point.