Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"I'm Sorry...WHAT Did You Just Ask Me?!"

Hi, there! Intersex, as we know, isn't a household word, and isn't a concept most people have heard of before. Subsequently, people may want to know things about intersex, but may go about asking intersex individuals about it in a way that feels yucky to the askee. People asking questions really do want to understand intersex, and so they ask what is on their mind. This sometimes results in inappropriate questions being asked, or questions being asked in inappropriate contexts, that end up being stigmatizing and offensive when they likely didn't mean to be.

So, how do you tell people that what they are asking, or the ways they are asking about intersex, is inappropriate? This can be especially difficult when these are loved ones who support and love you, but have made you wince upon hearing a question you really didn't want to address.

I have some ideas about this! (As usual. Ha!)

Here we go!

1) Let them know your boundaries. As stated, I think the vast majority of the time, people ask questions that can be hurtful because they don't know that they're hurtful. But this doesn't mean that intersex individuals have to respond to questions that make us uncomfortable. For example, let's say someone asks, "Oh, you're intersex? Um, what does know...look like?" (I'm using this as an example because, in my experience, this question and subtle variants on it is probably the most common of inappropriate questions about inersex.) Some responses might include, "I'm actually not comfortable answering that question. I'd be happy to talk about intersex in general, but don't really wanna talk about my *own* body. That's private." "What my own genitals look like really won't give you good insight into the variety of ways that intersex bodies may look or function. It's not really relevant. Intersex bodies, in general, [explainexplainexplain]." These responses help make the distinction between talking about intersex in general and talking about the-intersex-person-right-in-front-of-me. This is important because many questions, if asking about intersex in general, may make an intersex individual totally comfortable answering. But when the question is focused directly on THEM PERSONALLY, it can feel invasive.

These next few responses are appropriate for individuals who aren't necessarily trying to be respectful about intersex. Unfortunately, sometimes people aren't interseted in intersex in general, and are kind of just morbidly fascinated by it (OMG IT'S SO WEIRD THAT WE'RE HUMANS, JUST WALKING AROUND AND DOING STUFF LIKE EVERYONE ELSE LAWL WHAT FREAKS, RITE?!). For these individuals, other approaches to answering their questions may be more appropriate.

REMEMBER: How you answer a question is important, and it may affect your physical safety! Be calm and respectful when answering any questions. The reason you may be upset in the first place is because the person asked something inappropriate...being inappropriate in return won't necessarily remedy the situation. It's worth considering that fighting fire with fire doesn't put the fire out - it just potentially creates a bigger fire.

2) Direct a question back to its asker. If a variant of the question, "What do your genitals look like?" is asked, a response might include, "I dunno. What do *your* genitals look like? Can you describe them in detail for me?" Look at them, and wait for a response. This tactic gets across the point that it's not any more appropriate to ask such a question to someone who's perceived as "different" than to someone that's perceived as "normal." People would likely NEVER ask such a question to someone perceived to be a typical "male" or "female." It's just as not-okay to ask these questions to those who may not fit into or identify as one of two categories.

3) Respond to an absurd question with an absurd answer. Let's say we're dealing with the same question - "What do your genitals look like?" A response might include, "Actually, I have a tiny pink unicorn where most peoples' genitals are located. I also have tiny pots of gold instead of nipples, which somes in handy when the rent's due. cha-CHINNNG!" This answer is obviously absolutely ridiculous, which serves to highlight the ridiculousness of someone asking what their genitals look like. If desired, this can totally be delivered in such a way to make the other person laugh and feel sheepish about asking an absurd question, instead of pissing them off.

Also, it's totally okay if you don't feel like having a conversation about intersex! Ultimately, it's the job of everyone to educate THEMSELVES; it's not the job of those who are perceived as "different" to educate members of the majority about whatever they ask/whenever they ask it. If you are not interested in having a conversation at that time, it's your right to not consent to it! Instead, offer some resources that they could check out regarding intersex, like Organization Intersex International (the USA chapter and Australian chapter are good places to start!), various blogs like this one, Intersex Unicorn, Fuck Yeah, Intersex!, Queer Intersects, or The Intersex Roadshow, or books such as Fixing Sex, by Katrina Karkazis.

It's all about better, respectful, non-stigmatizing communication! Let's talk it out, and keep it up!

Any of you all have ideas for how to respond to questions that might be (accidentally) inappropriate or offensive, or other intersex resources you'd recommend?


  1. I have to say this, You failed to mention Advocates for Informed choices, which is a Legal rights group for Intersex people in America. They are way better than OII and OII is nothing compared to AIC.

    As far as responding to people asking me about intersex, I learn after a while no question is too strange or weird. I just answer back as best as I can and as calm as I can.

  2. Hi, Nicky! Thanks for reading. I had considered including Advocates for Informed Choice in the list, and decided not to since they describe intersex bodies as "intersex or DSDs." The term DSD (disorders of sexual development) is really problematic (i.e., intersex people aren't disordered for being intersex, duh!). For individuals who are just learning about intersex, I don't want to steer them to sources that don't examine the use of the term DSD critically.

    I think that investigating legal ramifications of intersex is important, and are glad that others are doing this work! That being said, I think that while some goals may be similar, AIC and OII are doing different things. I don't think that either organization is inherently better, but that all individuals/organizations do their own part in trying to raise awareness and fight for equality, in their own ways. I don't think it's as simple as a qualitative this-is-better-than-this, done.

    I think it's awesome that you respond to questions calmly and as best you can! I find that that is the best approach, as long as you are comfortable answering what's being asked. :)

  3. See for AIC, they have done alot compared to OII. They gave intersex people in America legal protection under the ADA law. They even advocated for Intersex people and provided legal assistance to Intersex people in America. They even represented intersex people in legal matters.

    Something that OII has never done or even attempted to do. I have not seen OII do what AIC has done or even accomplished. OII to me is behind the curve within the Intersex community and AIC is doing things that OII wished and dreamed of doing.

    Yes, some people may not like the DSD, but the DSD has helped get intersex recognize as a medical condition and more respect within the medical, scientific and academic community. DSD has even helped advocated legal protection for intersex people in America.

    See for AIC, they have done alot compared to OII. They gave intersex people in America legal protection under the ADA law. They even advocated for Intersex people and provided legal assistance to Intersex people in America. They even represented intersex people in legal matters.

    Something that OII has never done or even attempted to do.

    Yes, some people may not like the DSD, but the DSD has helped get intersex recognize as a medical condition and more respect within the medical, scientific and academic community. It's even raised the awareness of intersex people who have DSD as well.

    Anne Tamar-Mattis who runs AIC has done more than what OII will ever do in their lifetime. What separates OII from AIC, is that AIC is run by a lawyer who knows what legal rights intersex people need. Who advocates for legal protection of intersex people and is willing to go to court to fight for legal rights of intersex people.

    So may want to think about why AIC is doing things that OII can only dream of.

    Here's why AIC is starting to be well known than OII

    Marriage Debate, Meet the Science of Bodies Like Ours

    Info on AIC

  4. Also, I want to say that no question is to weird for me because I have seen it all and heard it all from people. Some think it's transgender related and some ask ignorantly stupid questions. Though I always re frame the question about theirs.

    I'm always comfortable in talking what it means to be born intersex. The more people are aware of intersex people. The more people will understand that intersex people exist.

  5. Hi again, Nicky! I stand by my statement in saying that I don't think that AIC, OII, or any other organization is necessarily inherently better or worse. They're doing different things, and different organizations & individuals working toward similar goals COMPLEMENT one another's activism, and provide critical pieces of what needs to be done. No one organization or individual can do it all...we need a lot of o's/i's doing their own work so that the COLLECTIVE effort serves to accomplish the many goals we strive for. Yay for working together, and not across one another! :)

    I noted that you have said that the use of the term DSD is important in that it has gotten a lot of people to recognize intersex as a medical condition. This is precisely why I DON'T WANT people to read lots of DSD-heavy literature right off the bat when learning about intersex. INTERSEX BODIES AREN'T MEDICAL CONDITIONS. We're not sick, we're not unhealthy, and we're not "disordered." This is why I think the term DSD is problematic, because it uses science-y rhetoric to justify the misconception that we're actually walking medical conditions. But really? We just have healthy, natural bodies that don't need medical treatment. I strongly feel that this is all the more reason to not use the term DSD or promote its use.

    I also once again think that it's awesome that you answer questions respectfully and responsibly - that's what the aim is!, as long as individuals are comfortable enough to answer a given question in the first place. It's not that wanting to know something is inherently weird or's about knowing that certain things you want to ask, or ways you may ask them, could be stigmatizing to the intersex askee, and learning how not to do that.

  6. The way I see DSD, is that it lessens the blow in saying Intersex and that it can equate to being born intersex. For me, I can distinguish the two being that DSD is more geared towards the medical community whereas intersex is geared towards the social side.

    As far as AIC vs OII, I think AIC has done things that OII can only dream of. Such as getting intersex/DSD recognized as a disability under the ADA laws. Even helping immigrants who are born intersex get into America.

  7. Hi Claudia,

    One question that I often get asked, after a few minutes of talking about intersex in general is "so have you had any surgery done down there?". I find I get this one sometimes from smart alec type people, and sometimes from the innocently curious who wholeheartedly believe they are asking an appropriate question in an attempt to educate themselves on issues of intersex. As for how I would personally respond, depends on my mood I guess, but generally it's "my genitals = my business".

    As for resources, I quite enjoy the Intersex Roadshow and OII.


  8. Hi, Nicky! You've made your position clear! I stand by my statement that both AIC and OII both do important work, as they are both doing different kinds of work that are both necessary. Thanks!

  9. Hi, Kris! I have been more or less blatantly asked what my genitals looked like, but not really if I've had surgery. I totally agree with my genitals = my business policy, yaaaaay!

    I, too, enjoy Intersex Roadshow and OII. Thanks for reading!