Sunday, July 3, 2011

Intersex and Identity: Self- and Perceived

I have been thinking about some interesting things regarding identity. Principally, how interconnected our various identities are. Each of our identities don’t exist in a vacuum, completely independent from all the others; in fact, many of our identities are built upon each other, so that it is not necessarily intuitive to describe yourself in one way while simultaneously claiming another identity that contradicts the first.

Let me explain.

Tricia, intersex activist and blogger of Intersex Unicorn, had a great post describing her sexual orientation after being asked by a reader. Her sexual orientation is, “I like girls.” Tricia explained her multiword identity by reminding us that since she identifies her sex as intersex, the use of standard terms out there wouldn’t be authentic to her. For example, lesbian didn’t feel right since it more strictly refers to a woman-identified person that is attracted to other women – Tricia didn’t feel her intersex identity matched up with this definition. Because of this, Tricia chose to express her sexual orientation as, “I like girls.”

I've also learned from accounts from intersex individuals, or in books about intersex that one’s perception of your identities may change after learning about your intersex. Casually discussing your love of sports (i.e., "They happen to be athletic!") can take on new meaning after learning about one's intersex (i.e., "They must be athletic because they're intersex. It's hormones or whatever!") A few moments before, you were just a person that liked doing something, and the fact that you liked thing thing was taken at face value. Being intersex + liking this thing, doing this thing, being this thing, whatever now just serves to reinforce your intersex. The fact that one likes, does, or is this thing isn't taken at face value - it's now perceived as a function of one's intersex.

When I think about this, I see headlines and articles of things I've read looking for the biological bases for blahblahblah or empirical reasons for being soandso or new evidence revealing why we're whosewhatsit. I think it's important to remember that there may well be biological bases for lots of things that color our self identities and our likes and dislikes. But we aren't out there trying to find the biological bases for lots of things. For example, what's the biological basis of liking blueberry muffins? There are likely biological explanations for why some individuals dislike blueberry muffins that have to do with sensory information and receptors and the genes that give rise to and control them. But at the end of the day, what does knowing where blueberry muffin dislike come from mean? What do we do with this information? Being a scientist myself, I think there is inherent value in understanding how the world works, how we work, how our bodies work. But just because we can find a biological basis for something doesn't mean that WHO WE ARE IN THAT RESPECT IS ANY LESS REAL, OR THAT IT SHOULD BE ANY LESS RESPECTED. Taken to extremes, some individuals are interested in how knowing the biological bases of something might be used to prevent people having traits that are considered undesirable, which can lead into eugenics and related scary stuff. The question then is, why are we cherrypicking what thing to investigate the biological bases for, while ignoring others? Knowing where intersex "comes from" doesn't change the fact that I'm still me, have always been me, will always be me. The point is to respect me, regardless of the minutiae of How and Why I'm Me. Additionally, focusing on biological perspectives alone is seriously limiting. Maybe some blueberry muffin haters don't eat them because they ate far too many once and became violently ill and just can't bear to stomach them again. Why someone is the way they are may be multi-facted and complex, and there isn't going to be a single "magic bullet" gene for everything that will illuminate the complexities of what it means to be a person and a biological being.

Identity is extremely complex, and I don’t feel that an individual’s many identities have to match up in a way that’s seen as intuitive or “normal” according to a culture’s mainstream views and attitudes – one’s identities just need to be authentic to that individual. Nor do I think that these identities need to be static and fixed. That being said, it is worth noting how consideration of one’s intersex shifts how that person’s other identities are constructed, described, and read by others. Many standard terms for identities are based upon the assumption of one’s biological sex as male or female, and for some of us, those assumptions simply can’t be made. How will we go about creating identities for ourselves that fit comfortably and feel authentic by accounting for our intersex? I don’t think that any such identities would need to be standardized since identity is so personal, although it’s interesting to consider that some terms could hypothetically catch on and be used in a (more-or-less) standardized way.

Although finding new ways to describe oneself can be a frustrating venture, in some ways, this could get downright fun. Let me know if you have created any identities accounting for intersex that you particularly like!

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