Wednesday, November 4, 2009

This Makes Me Want to Scream

A conference on intersex will commence from November 12th to 15th.

"Oh, great!" you may think. "She's screaming for joy, since she's remarked in several past posts how intersex visibility is abysmal. How wonderful!"

You would, unfortunately, be incorrect.

It appears that the Third World Congress on Hypospadias and Disorders of Sex Development will be held in Toronto, at the Hospital for Sick Children and at the Marriott Hotel. This conference isn't aimed at awareness and education. There aren't going to be any speeches made by intersex individuals or activists. Scientific facts, nuanced views of sex and gender identity, personal experiences of intersex individuals, and the traumatization induced by medical personnel won't be discussed.

This conference, in reality, seems to be about propaganda. It's pretty telling that the conference is kicked off with a session entitled, "Welcome to the surgeons." (Seriously.) Many of the sessions focus on the genetic aspects of intersex alone, as though this is the only factor at work in every form of intersex out there, which is completely untrue. Some focus on psychosocial aspects of intersex individuals, I suppose wondering if we'll all become savage, basket-cases unless someone "picks our sex" for us. A bogus concept, because a doctor that surgically alters part of an individual's genitals HAS NOT CHANGED THAT PERSON'S SEX; THEY'VE JUST ALTERED THAT PERSON'S APPEARANCE. This would be akin to surgically removing a non-intersex woman's uterus and declaring that this individual is no longer a woman post-op. What?! (Then again, check out the psychologist that's giving some of those talks. AWFUL. The photograph of his steely gaze amid army toys on one side and Barbies and baby carriages on the other tell you everything you need to know.) A large portion of the talks, however, seem to focus on genital surgeries - what the results are, the best ways to do them, and what tissue to use to do them.

We'll have separate posts looking at surgical options, what they're exactly trying to "correct," and how, but here are some bottom-liners on genital surgeries:

* They're unneccessary. Atypical genital morphology is not a health concern, so these surgeries shouldn't be performed. However, health concerns arise AFTER surgeries. (For example, recovery periods are long, multiple surgries take a toll on the body. And what tissue is used for surgeries can make a big difference. For example, in vaginoplasties, skin may be taken from a patient's own body, a cadaverous body, or animal sources, including animals' intestines. Depending on what tissues you use, strange things can happen. Sometimes, skin on which hair growth {e.g., arms, legs} used for vaginoplasties resulted in individuals growing hair INSIDE THEIR VAGINAS post-op. If that's not a health concern, I don't know what is.)
* They don't change an individual's sex OR gender. No matter what they try to lop off and/or reconstruct, the individual's sex is still the same. And their gender is something THEY decide.
* Surgery can result in genitals that look abnormal post-op when they were just fine (though considered atypical in form by non-intersexed individuals) before. This often includes massive scarring. Would it really have been so horrible to keep genitals the way they are (and functional?!) instead of trying to "correct" them by making them look scarred? How is this more "normal" than maintaining their natural, beautiful forms?
* They are performed, in part, due to heteronormative views of sexuality. Why perform a vicious vaginoplasty on an individual if that person isn't going to be having penetrative sex? Doctors assume individuals will want to penetrate vaginas or be penetrated vaginally, and this is not neccessarily true at all.
* Loss of sensory functionality. Surgery often results in reduced genital sensation, or lack thereof entirely. This means that it's either difficult or impossible to orgasm. So, surgeries are performed to "normalize" the genitals in morphology, but then it's normal to be unable to orgasm during sex? Really?
* Loss of other functionality. Depending on the type of tissue used, say, for vaginoplasties, it may not be able to produce lubricant like normal mucosal tissues would, making artifical lube necessary every time an individual has sex. Was it really worth it to lengthen the vaginal canal if it doesn't function in the same way?
* Reinforces that the bullshit sex and gender binary paradigms must be maintained.
* Individuals often cannot consent to such surgeries, especially if they are infants and young children who can't understand/aren't informed of their intersex, and who don't understand all the implications of surgery. Parents who "consent" for them are often lied to or pressured into so that doctors can perform surgeries. Doctors may perform surgeries WITHOUT NOTIFYING parents at all, filing it under a removal of tissue that could be a "health hazard" under numerous persuasions of very vague rationale.

Ugh. And on and on and on.

Worst of all, live genital surgeries will be performed AT THE CONFERENCE. This is absolutely heart-breaking beyond all measure, to rob these infants of their own body parts that cause them no harm. I am so disgusted by this I can't see straight.

The fact that this conference EXISTS (and that it's in its third year) is absolutely unacceptable. The fact that this conference's title makes it seem like an awareness/activist conference is all the more reprehensible.

If you'd like to tell the some representatives how you feel about their conference, feel free to e-mail them at:

And, in response, two recent videos on how harmful genital surgeries are, and why conferences like this one, promoting such barbaric practices, need to STOP!

Via Organization Intersex International.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Dr. Oz Takes On Intersex

Dr. Oz had a segment on intersex, "When the Sexes Collide," on his show, Dr. Oz.. I can't say I'm crazy about the segment's name, as it serves to promote the humans-can-be-hermaphrodites myth, but the segment's heartfelt nature and generally good overview of many issues facing intersex individuals and their families almost justifies the dubious name. :)

Check it out here. I'm sorry it's not embedded in this post; I think the embed code might be buggy, although it could certainly be an error on my part. Still, check it out!

I'm really glad the Dr. Oz stated that intersex individuals USED TO BE CALLED "hermaphrodites." While this technically isn't true due to lack of intersex visibility, resulting in mainstream confusion as to what the &*@#$ it is, this is how it SHOULD BE! Great job on that, Dr. Oz!

Dr. Oz basically takes the audience through human fetal development from the 6-week stage, when the fetus has not developed body parts generally thought of as "male" or "female." Thus, that fetus isn't on a M or F developmental track yet. The word is out as to what its biological sex will be!

Oz specifically cites that intersex is often linked to what the body does with testosterone - either that the body makes more or less testosterone than is typical, or the body makes it but can't use it. While this certainly isn't the case in many forms of intersex, where testosterone doesn't play a (prominent) role, he's still putting some good information out there.

He then asks the guest psychologist and intersex activist, Dr. Tiger Devore, how parents are to raise their children - as male or female? (This question will most definitely be explored in future posts, so we won't get into all the nitty gritty controversies right now.) I LOVE that Dr. Devore stated that intersex children should be given the choice to wait until they are older and have formed a "sexual" identity (probably meaning gender identity, but okay) before any genital surgeries are performed. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT, and will also be discussed extensively in the future.

It is interesting that Dr. Devore states that such individuals my choose to identify as male, female, or "something in-between." Although sometimes my gender identity is "intersex," many intersex individuals don't feel this way. Many intersex individuals don't think that "intersex" can even BE a true gender identity, since these individuals feel that biologically, all individuals are male or female....just with some added biological complexities (e.g., in terms of gene sequences, atypical hormone levels, etc.). I have been thinking a lot about this, and want to post on this sometime soon-ish, especially since I seem to support a minority view among intersex individuals. (I wonder how minor? Hmmm...)

The issue of surgery is also addressed, as it should be. Dr. Oz asks Dr. Devore how surgery affects [external genital] function. Devore states that surgery can render the gentials functional (Me: "Um, not most of the time...") or non-functional (Me: "There ya go!"). He specifically mentions that metal cutting into flesh will leave scar tissue, which "doesn't leave good sensation, and so they may be less functional than if they'd been left alone." Better yet, the following exchange:

Oz: But it is possible for- for someone who's born intersex to have a very functional, full sex life.
Devore: Yes. And to have ambiguous genitalia. (huge smile)
Oz: Despite that.
Devore: (still smiling) Absolutely.

I'm unsure how much network politics played a role in this, but I was hoping he'd be blunt and state that genital surgery may leave individuals unable to orgasm, and that leaving the genitals alone - yes, even ambiguous ones (*GASP*) - may allow intersex individuals to enjoy such sensations.

Of course, intersex individuals' experiences were recounted on the show, as well. I love that one intersex woman, Janet (last name not stated), featured on the show had had two children. A common misconception is that intersex individuals are, by definition, sterile, when this is not neccessarily the case. (This totally dependens on one's form of intersex. Janet is a person with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.)

Janet addresses something very important. Dr. Oz remarks that her upbringing must have been difficult, having perceived that she was different as a "little girl." Janet explains, however, that bodies aren't much talked about in general, and voices that it's often not uncommon for intersex individuals to be unaware that their own bodies deviate from the norm. In other words, that if bodies aren't discussed to establish a baseline for what "normal" is, then intersex individuals have no indication that their own bodies are different from anyone else's until they are informed by a medical doctor. (All too often, this doesn't occur until later in life, and often due to seeking medical help when such individuals encounter fertility problems.)

One thing I didn't like is that Dr. Oz states that Betty, a woman whose child is intersex, is "going through it," before asking Janet to advise Betty on child-rearing an intersex individual. Rasing an intersex individual may pose unique obstacles to parents, due to a lack of dialogue about sex and biological variation, gender identity, the stigma associated with discussing bodies and gentials in general, etc. However, stating that a mother is "going through it" implies that raising an intersex child may be akin in some ways to having birthed a baby dragon - that everything might go up in flames at any moment. It's really important to keep in perspective that male, female, intersex, the child you are raising is a CHILD. A HUMAN CHILD. A HUMAN BEING. You are not raising an individual from another species that you can't relate to, that makes no sense to you, that is foreign to you in every way. You are not raising an intersex child. You are raising a child, a person, than happens to be intersex.

Another thing I didn't like is that Dr. Oz stated that many women, like those in Betty's position, might feel ashamed by their intersex children. I understand that shame is prevalent due to lack of awareness and understanding of intersex; I simply wondered why he singled out mothers. Would not fathers and other guardian types not be interested in these individuals' care?

Betty's thoughts and testimonials are really amazing, on several levels. She identifies these surgeries as unnecessary, and not just the surgeries, but the separation and isolation that goes along with it. She values that her child is physically healthy over the fact that he has atypical sex anatomy. She is proud to keep her child's genitals the way they are, specifically citing that "...he might change his mind in the future, and I'm just glad I haven't screwed anything up for him." I hope all intersex childrens' parents are as committed and loving as Betty's words indicate she is.

Lastly, Dr. Oz asks Betty if she knows any other parents of intersex children. "No, I don't, but I wish I did," she says, her eyes raising to the ceiling. IT IS SO IMPORTANT FOR BOTH INTERSEX INDIVIDUALS, AND THEIR LOVED ONES, TO HAVE A SUPPORT SYSTEM. And this is something that is not NEARLY talked about enough among individuals who are intersexed, or have loved ones who are. This may mean other intersex individuals/parents to talk to, supportive family members or friends, or professionals that are experienced working with intersex issues. (Sadly, professional therapy is not always an option, depending on one's socio-economic status. Free or low-cost therapy may be available in certain areas. These would definitely be worth searching for if working with a professional is the right choice for you and/or your loved ones.) Betty states how she was uncomfortable talking about it, and how many people just don't want to talk about it "because it's a taboo subject." And she's totally right. This isn't a justification, but an accurate appraisal of the situation right now.

Perhaps the best quote of the whole piece is from Janet. "Who that child is, is in his brain." Every person has the right to define who they are, and what that means. If we could all just internalize that one lesson, then I think that we will have breached that first step in resolving innumerable issues, far beyond intersex alone.

The second-best quote? Perhaps also from Janet. "Your child is well-loved, and that is the best you can do for your child." Sex, gender identity, surgery options looming in the future. These are not things parents should have the right to make. The INDIVIDUAL alone should be allowed to make these choices. This is a great reminder that parents who may feel powerless and overwhelmed at the thought of "choosing" a sex, "choosing" a gender identity, choosing whether or not surgery should be performed....that these are not choices of theirs to make. And that NOT making these choices does not render them powerless. These parents are powerful in their love and support for their children, regardless of their sex, gender identities, or wishes to decline/pursue surgeries. Their children don't need them to choose these things. They just need love and support. That IS powerful parenting. Anything else is controlling and inappropriate.

Overall, I enjoyed watching this segment. No, it wasn't perfect. No, it wasn't totally accurate all the time. But I think that if more mainstream coverage of intersex looks like this - and increases in frequency - then some big steps will be made in the right direction, in generating awareness of intersex and activism to safeguard individuals' rights and health.

THIS is more what it should look like. Good job, Dr. Oz. :)

[Off-Topic Side Note: Has anyone else noticed that I have TONS of things I want to talk about in each post, that I reluctantly must defer to other posts in the future? *Sigh* There's just so much complexity to dissect and understand! AND IT'S SO IMPORTANT TO DO SO!]

Appreciation to my mother for alerting me to this segment. Thanks, Mom!

International Olympic Committee to Standardize How Intersex Games Athletes are "Dealt With"

Caster Semenya's shaming, globally sensationalism surrounding her biological sex has led the International Olymic Committee (IOC) to standardize how future competitors of "ambiguous gender" are treated. (Note that if the article has this wrong; this issue was not about gender, which an individual identifies as, and which may differ from one's biological sex. {It also isn't set in stone; my own gender identity often changes from minute-to-minute, a topic that will be the subject of future posts.} This entire issue was about biological sex.)

The brief article is interesting in that it implies a reactionary approach in a situation like Semenya's, in which an athelete is perhaps outed for or suspected of being intersex after having been accepted to the Games, or even after having competed. The article doesn't mention IOC's plans to "test" for intersex. (Meaning, that genetic tests would be performed, which would be quite ineffective for certain forms of intersex because intersex is about a lot more than what genitals and chromosomes you have....especially since external genitals and/or sex chromosomes possessed may be totally typical. See previous posts for more information.) So, if the IOC didn't start performing more genetic tests to catch some of those pesky intersex athletes wanting to compete, then how would one identify intersex individuals? It seems it would be terribly difficult to "deal with" a suspected intersex individual unless it involved whistle-blowing by Semenya's fellow competitors voicing complaints about her angular features and sizeable musculature. If the latter is the case, are future competitors going to be in the same situation as Semenya, caught wondering if their medals and right to compete might be taken away from them after all their hard work and sacrifice? It's unclear if this new plan will be employing any new methods other than witch-hunt-esque techniques. Is this really acceptable? (The answer is a resounding, "NO!")

I was equally alarmed after reading this quote by IOC Medical Commission Chairman, Arne Ljungqvist: “It’s highly unfortunate. These cases should be confidential. They are private matters and should not be displayed openly. The one who suffers is the person, and the person has done nothing wrong. This may be part of our discussion — how to avoid this type of public knowledge." (Emphasis added.)

To many, this boldfaced part might be applauded and championed. After all, who would like to see future athletes subjected to the freak-in-a-fishbowl treatment endured by Semenya? However, this aim is misguided. The ultimate goal shouldn't be to avoid telling the public that an individual is intersex. That should be a GIVEN. It isn't the public's damn business what genitalia, internal sex organs, hormone levels, secondary body hair distribution, chest/breast development, etc. an individual possesses.

The real goals should be to the following:



TO EDUCATE INDIVIDUALS ABOUT WHAT INTERSEX IS. (This humans-can-be-hermaphrodites thing has been soldiered on for way too long.)


It's not going to be easy for the IOC to determine what standards they will employ, but the decisions they do make are going to be really important. Keep your eyes peeled for more in the coming weeks.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lady Gaga Leaves out Intersex, Trans Individuals In National Equality March Speech

So, after the Lady Gaga debacle, turning her accidental skirt-hoist into a viral video incurring massive speculation about her sex and gender identities (predominantly intersex and transgender), one would think that Lady Gaga would be especially attuned to issues affecting intersex and trans individuals. This is apparently not so. I mean if she had time to call out Obama on not coferring equal rights to queer individuals, then surely she had time for a brief shout-out mentioning trans and intersex folk.

Although this last item doesn't have to do with intersex, I think it's important to say. First, the new channel covering the event incorrectly dubbed it the Gay Rights Rally. Second, Gaga herself, who identifies as bisexual, almost exclusively states that GAY individuals need equality, and that GAY peoples' demands won't be ignored any longer, and that she has "the most beautiful GAY fans in the world." Um, is the National Equality March really exclusively about GAYS?

No. The National Equality March is supposed to represent all individuals with sexual orientations falling outside heternormativity (= being straight). This includes lesbians (which can be umbrella-ed under "gay," fine), bisexuals, pansexuals, asexuals, and many individuals whose sexuality doesn't have a nice, flashy little term associated with it (i.e., it's not in the books, but that's worlds different from saying that it doesn't exist!). Since the transgender and intersex identities often overlap with queer ones, it would not have been inappropriate at all to mention that their equal rights should ALSO be met, and furthermore, that awareness of these peoples' existence should be championed. This last one is no trivial issue; I can't articulate how many individuals don't know that transgender or intersex people EXIST, let alone what they mean - non-celebrities and celebrities alike. For an example, check out this awfulness vomited out by Kathy Griffin and Larry King from June 6th of this year:

There are so many things wrong with this interview. Just to put it in context here's a play-by-play of the entire sequence, from 8:05 to 9:23 of the video:

* Moments before, Griffin brags about how ratings are highest on her show, Life on the D List.
* Proceeds to talk in a morbidly fascinated way about Chaz, a transgender celebrity, as King seems unabashedly befuddled. Nice.
* Griffin states that she's a strong supporter of the LGBTQI community. King proceeds to ask her what that is, and Griffin names what the letters denote. (Interesting, she includes the "I," which many do not, and also identifies the "Q" as questioning, when others identify it as "queer" in general.)
* Griffin states that the "I" stands for intersex, where this little gem unfolds (8:51 to 9:01):

Griffin: And then the other one is called intersex.
King: What’s that?
Griffin: I don’t know. I was hoping you would. I think maybe the Jonas Brothers might know.
King: (profoundly puzzled) Intersex.
Griffin: I- I- you know what, I support them, whatever they are. (Emphasis added.)

* Griffin goes back to Chaz, stating she doesn't know what to call him, so "[she's] just treating her like Pat from Saturday Night Live...I'm just calling her Chaz." Griffin has called Chaz "her" for the entire interview. Why is it difficult to call Chaz by the pronouns he prefers outside of this interview? And if she really has a problem doing this, it's curious how easily she jumps this hurdle on national television. Another thing worth considering: how might Chaz feel watching this interview on national television?
* King remarks that having a "neutral" name like Chaz is great "...for this." For this what, Larry King? "This," meaning the fact that Chaz is transgender? Surely this fact isn't so upsetting to you that you can't verbally articulate yourself on air. Right?
* Griffin starts a pissing contest with King as though that whole fucked up conversation never happened, asking how many Emmy's he's won. He says one, and she gleefully counters she's won two. (Oh, joy of joys, readers! They're disricminatory for sure, but at least they're fancy, EMMY-WINNING discriminators!) Ugh.

So, let's review the evidence.

* Griffin is a great LGBTQI supporter and doesn't know what intersex is. Riiiiiiight.
* Griffin incorrectly thought that King would know what this meant, perhaps thinking mainstream awareness of intersex is really common. As you know , it's not.
* Why might the Jonas Brothers know about intersex? Clearly this is a jab in stating that they're not heterosexual, but what isn't clear is why she thinks they might be intersex. We can safely chalk this one up to not having her facts straight. It is also unclear why the Jonas Brothers' sex, gender, or sexual orientation would be any of Kathy Griffin's business, and why these might be news-and-gossip worthy.
* Intersex is apparently something to puzzle over as though it's a great mystery of life, instead of looking it up on Google and educating oneself. (Larry King, I'm looking at you!)
* WHATEVER they are is a much different statement than WHOEVER they are. Kathy's use of "whatever" in this context de-humanizes intersex individuals, and reduces them once again into the realms of the freaky, fetishized, shameful others that they are. ("And thank the gods I'm not one of them!" Right?) That's absolutely unacceptable, Kathy Griffin. Intersex indivuals and their allies aren't on Larry King Live to refute your inane and discriminatory views; in light of that, don't strip them of their human dignity, too. A public apology would not be uncalled for.

So, quite a long aside, but a worthwhile one, I think. Intersex people haven't been featured much in the news or the media at large, although there have been several Oprah episodes devoted to intersex individuals, several documentaries, and intersex individuals' use as a major plot device in single episodes in medical drama like ER and House. (And not flattering or necessarily biologically accurate portrayals, either. Clinicians helping write for medical shows should know better, but this is a subject for future posts.)

In light of the lack of intersex and transgender visibility, it would've been nice to mention these individuals into Lady Gaga's speech at the National Equality March. The real question is, were these individuals simply not on Gaga's mind, or was she purposefully trying to distance herself from them given the recent media onslaught (othering herself from "them," once again)? It's just not clear.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How Was Your 6th Annual Intersex Awareness Day?

Yesterday was Intersex Awareness Day. I'm not going to pretend my quippy title underlies a fierce pride of my own annual celebration of IAD...

...because I didn't know it existed until today. I learned this from Queers United post, which has some history, pamplets-for-print, and intersex articles. Good job, QU!

I think that this fact says VOLUMES about how intersex indivudals are often stigmatized to the point that they don't seek out community, or try to educate themselves about intersex. There are so many things I still have yet to learn about intersex history, health issues, and activism going on today...and a lot of that has to do with the shaming of individuals that don't fit sex and gender binaries. (Fuck that.) On that note, I guess I shouldn't be shocked that IAD wasn't locally or nationally covered, as far as I know, although it should be. How about some positive visibility, Mainstream?

Well, you can bet your butts that I'll be ready for the 7th Annual IAD. Local activist centers, here I come!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Map of Human Fetishiz- I Mean, Sexuality.

So, apparently this has been around for a while, but I just became aware of its existence. Check it out for yourselves:

This creation, by Franklin Veaux, is called "A Map of the Lands of Human Sexuality." While certainly creative and pretty extensive in topic areas covered (although not necessarily within each topic, given in part to space constraints, I'm sure), I couldn't help but notice that "Sex With Hermaphrodites" is specifically included in the "Gender and Orientation Identity" portion of the map. Now, sophisticated and non-discriminatory readers that you are, you understand why the use of "hermaphrodite" is not only biologically incorrect, but is also both highly offensive and way outdated. (He might as well have added, "Nardly!" afterward, for crying out loud.) He's also got "Shemales" listed up there - a term I have a particularly poisonous hatred for, along with "shim" and other such lovelies.

Equally disturbing is his placement of these apparently shocking individuals in his map. ("Oh, no! Not a 'hermaphrodite'! Quick, come before 'it' fertilizes itself!") He partitions the Land's "mainland" into four regions, respectively separated from one another by mountain ranges. These areas are clearly delineated based on Veaux's perceived perversity ascribed to various sexual acts. For example, "Fully Clothed Sex" is separated from "Naughty Nurse Play" by The Lesser Barrier Mountains, which is separated from "Flesh Hooks" by The Greater Barrier Mountains, which is separated from "Necrophilia" by the Impassable Reaches.

Now, "SWH" is located verrrrrrry close to The Impassable Reaches, though not quite crossing. That's right - having sex with a human being that doesn't fall within the popular, narrow view of sexuality is more kinky and perverse than being a "Human Ashtray," engaging in "Anal Fisting," or getting into "Speculums" in a big way. (Well, technically they'd get into - ...never mind.)

The objective of this post isn't to shame anyone's sexual preferences. Whatever you like is fine by me. I just resent the fetishization of intersex individuals, thereby making sex with them something forbidden, to hide and conceal. We're PEOPLE. Even more reprehensibly, Veaux draws transsexual individuals into this game, too. UGH

In sum, this thing gets a big boo all around. Maybe next time, Veaux should make a map to help him pull his head out of his ass instead instead of trying to map humor onto plain ol', played-out discrimination. So uncreative. (Plus side? If he does make that map, he likely knows about lube, which would help him in that endeavor. Fun!)

Caster Semenya Cast Away to Olympic Sex and Gender Police

Just when you think we’ve had enough intersex controversy after the Lady Gaga exploitation… It appears targeting popstars isn’t enough. Now we’re moving on to Olympic athletes.

I understand that this is now “old news”…which is part of the reason I want to talk about it now. I resisted covering this story during the height of the media craze to see how things might’ve played out before posting, but in the last few weeks, it seems to have died and fizzled.

Here’s another reminder that even if the media craze over Semenya is over, this experience is very likely not over for Semenya herself. Monday morning’s morbid curiosity will be played-out and boring by Friday afternoon, but I can’t imagine that Semenya will not think about (and react strongly to) her Games experiences for every Monday, Friday – and every other day of the week – for years and decades and quarter-centuries to come. That’s a pretty weighty thing to behold.

A brief recap for those who may not have followed the news hype: The sex of Caster Semenya from South Africa, the track-and-field Olympian, was called into question after she apparently shaved ample time off her training record within a few short months. After blasting the competition and breaking the former world record, the IAAF (governing body for the Games rules) publicly called her gender into question. Their stated rationale was that a runner could not have improved so quickly in such a short amount of time. They somehow found it most logical that the reason must be that Semenya’s not REALLY a woman. (I was interested that if they suspected something, they didn’t jump to drug testing, much more prevalent in Olympic history than intersexed individuals competing.) Semenya underwent a battery of extensive tests – gynecological, endocrine, psychological, histological (of internal tissue samples, apparently, to determine whether testicular tissue was present) to determine her sex. Early test results indicated heightened testosterone levels; later results showed that Semenya possessed undescended testes. (Although, ignore the title and inaccurate mention of Semenya as a "hermaphrodite" in that last link. Ugh.) It is unclear whether the IAAF will revoke Semenya’s medal, or whether she will be allowed to compete in future Games.

There are many, MANY troubling aspects to this entire ordeal – some which have been openly criticized, others which have not come to much public light. If the IAAF felt it was necessary for Semenya to undergo testing, they should most definitely not have made their sensationalist announcement publicly; this should have been done quietly and privately, and with Semenya’s consent. Instead, they shocked the world by outing her as a potential freak of a human – but who could be more shocked than Semenya, hearing this news fresh along with the rest of the globe? I cannot imagine how stigmatizing and hurtful this must have been for her, and am appalled that IAAF felt that their press release was appropriate. They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. (Although it’s telling that, nearly two months later, they have not apologized to Semenya.)

Speaking of consent, it was also sham-consent that Semenya proffered in the chances of keeping her Olympic gold. Technically, her name was signed to a bunch of medical forms and IAAF statements, I’m sure, but her alternatives were “Undergo invasive testing after a highly public, global scandal” or “Lose the epitome of everything I’ve worked hard for.” Her hands were tied; she couldn’t truly consent. Way to go, IAAF.

Additionally, WHY did IAAF feel it was “necessary” for Semenya to undergo testing in the first place? What could have spurred them to believe that Semenya’s gender identity did not match up with her sex? (Many intersex individuals would beat me senseless at this point for phrasing that last sentence the way I did; I assure you this will be the subject of future posts.) Well, apparently her fellow competitors accused her of "being a man" because of her appearance and prowess on the field. Because the IAAF fell trap to narrow, stereotypic views of what a female should look like and what she can accomplish, they took these accusations seriously and investigated Semenya with no just cause other than some unsportsmanlike belly-aching. Simply, IAAF felt her angular jaw and curtailed finish-time were proof enough that Semenya couldn’t be a woman. A woman couldn’t possibly fall so far outside a Western ideal of beauty. (Never mind that she’s South African. Don’t consider that perhaps global beauty standards aren’t toe-in-line with Western standards. What a silly notion!) A woman couldn’t possibly improve so much without some sort of a “boost.” (It is unclear how a vast improvement might be interpreted if this track-and-field event was a men’s event; would Semenya have endured the same criticism? That a man couldn’t possibly improve so much so quickly? Or, in reverse: Would a man whose performance had decreased rapidly over a few months be accused of not being a man? Would the IAAF have publicly announced that the man wasn’t simply a slacker, a victim of health problems, etc., but was perhaps a woman?) If Semenya had conformed to Western beauty standards, even with her drastic performance increase, I am unsure the IAAF would have placed the question mark (or perhaps, more fittingly, a scarlet “I” in their exploitation of intersex) next to Semenya’s name.

Drawing parallels to the Lady Gaga debacle, there has been huge confusion in this case as Semenya having “come out” as interesex in the end, after all. Semenya has NOT “come out.” Coming out is an intentioned choice, one that should be authentic to your desires and an empowering (though often, simultaneously terrifying) act. Semenya has been publicly EXPLOITED – a far cry from said coming out. Additionally, a subtly different flavor of exploitation has been taken on in Semenya’s case, versus Lady Gaga’s, because it was assumed by the media that Lady Gaga deliberately chose to keep private that she was intersex, transgender, the big marshmallow man at the end of Ghostbusters, or whatever else they tried to ascribe to her on scant “evidence.” That, of course, led to the hunt to find evidence confirming the deep, dark (and apparently, shameful) truth about Lady Gaga’s sex and gender. The difference in Semenya’s case is that Semenya herself, and those closest to her, have maintained before and after the test results came out that Semenya is a woman, and therefore she wasn’t “hiding” anything, taking the exploitation bit to a whole new level. Athletics South African president Leonard Cheune also strongly supported Semenya: “I will continue to defend the girl, I will continue to do anything, even if I am to be kicked out of Berlin, Germany, but I am not going to let that girl be humiliated in the manner that she was humiliated because she has not committed a crime whatsoever. Her crime was to be born the way she is born.” (Emphasis added.) Absolutely heartbreaking quotes include her father, Jacob’s: “She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times.”

Jacob’s use of the word “gender” and not “sex,” I think, perfectly encapsulates another very important aspect of this problem. The IAAF wanted clarification on Semenya’s sex, not her gender. Semenya’s gender was known all along – by Semenya herself. I couldn’t find any IAAF contentions with Semenya’s gender identity, only with her sex. Even though they didn’t question her sex outright before she competed, even though her increased performance was known beforehand? I doubt the IAAF realized the repercussions forcing individuals to submit to tests for sex could potentially have on their gender identities. Having your world rocked by gender dysphoria is not fun, from my own experiences. And really – was it okay for the IAAF to question Semenya’s sex AFTER-THE-FACT, after her medal was won? Especially based on tenuous observations? The whole ordeal is a disgusting mess.

I think it’s fantastic that Semenya, post-testing, is unwilling to let her medical examiners, the IAAF, or anyone else tell her what her gender identity is – something only she can know and assert. “God made me the way I am, and I accept myself. I am who I am and I’m proud of myself.” (Emphasis mine.) On the flip side, it’s not duty to defend her gender to the world. That’s her business, and that shouldn’t be questioned, or need to be defended. It’s a sad commentary on her experience that she was (directly or indirectly) spurred to do this. Again, ugh.

And that isn’t all. The You magazine photo-shoot response after the test results made me see red. I was like, “First Semenya has to defend herself as woman to the IAAF, and now she has to prove it by getting all gussied up in stereotypical Western female attire? Are you fucking kidding me?!” But Semenya isn’t buying into the bull. “I didn’t do this to prove a point, but rather to have fun…I don’t give a damn what people say about me.” Caster Semenya is a total badass.

In closing thoughts, Semenya isn’t the first intersex Olympian to have competed in the Games, nor will she be the last. Depending, IAAF officials don’t have any problems giving individuals with certain forms of intersex the a-okay. Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), for example, is characterized in part by the fact that CAIS individuals don't use the testosterone their bodies make. The little molecular hands that should grab onto the testosterone couldn’t do it, and so I developed hyper-feminine features, although sans uterus, ovaries, etc. (See two blog posts back for more information!) If I actually had the athletic talent (I don’t), I would have been able to compete in the Games without the harassment and sensationalization incurred by Semenya. In fact, several intersex individuals competed in Atlanta. So, while some intersex individuals may compete in future games (WITHOUT having their sex and gender identities aired publicly, and without consent), is it possible that a situation like Semenya’s may be endured by future athletes, whose dreams include only Olympic gold and not a search for their potentially hidden gonads? Will they lose their medals? Will Semenya? More importantly, what other costs might they bear in undergoing such a trial? I’m not sure what to expect for future intersex competitors, but I’m unconvinced the IAAF received enough flack to prevent this from happening again. (Awesomely notable exception: The Irish Times. Flutter.)

We'll just have to wait and see in the aftermath.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Stay Tuned for Post on Caster Semenya!

Hello, all. If you haven't heard, the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation, governing body for the Olympic Games) publicly announced that investigations are under way to determine if Olympic track and field winner, Caster Semenya of South Africa, might be intersex since her performance results in the past few months of training have improved so drastically.

I have been following this issue closely, and have a LOT to say, but I can't devote the time this post deserves until after I take my qualifying exam (required for my Ph.D. program). Although I'm sure you can all hazard a guess as to which thing I would rather be doing, as I'm on Blogger at 3am, right?... ;)

Expect a post sometime on Thursday or Friday evening of this coming week! Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Queers United Blog Comments On Its Controversial Lady Gaga Post

Hello, Queers United! Thank you for commenting on my last post, since it was largely about your portrayal of Lady Gaga. I have decided to comment in a new blog, because I think it’s important that readers see where you were coming from, and also how some members of the intersex community may feel about your motivations.

The following comment you provided is below:

I did say it was uncomfirmed and that the quote was rumor until we could find a source. I put a question mark on the post because until Lady Gaga announces it we are all speculating. It would be great for the intersex community if she were a visible spokesperson. I suspect she isn't intersex because she used twitter to say "suck my hermy dick" which she is probably just capitalizing on the fame on not actually IS. I hope to do more intersex coverage that is positive, this article wasn't a good one, please look to my numerous others. Do you have any suggestions on how I can be a better advocate for intersex?

I understand that your title, “Lady Gaga Comes Out as Intersexed?” has a question mark at the end. However, your first sentence follows up that question mark with the following: “Pop star sensation Lady Gaga surprised her millions of fans by parading on stage without an [sic] underwear showing that she is intersex and has male and female genitalia.” Emphasis mine. Later, you state, “If indeed Lady Gaga is intersexed and this is not a rumor…” (emphasis mine). Huh? I thought you already stated she was intersex. In short, your title and your text contradicts one another, and serves only to confuse the reader. If you want readers to keep an open mind and assume that you haven’t agreed with unconfirmed quotes and statements, that needs to be made clear.

No, it would not be great for the intersex community if Lady Gaga was a spokesperson. The reason for that is because there is no evidence that she “came out.” Coming out is a willful, intentioned choice made by a person when they are ready to do so. Pulling down the skirt that accidentally rode up during a performance, and then suffering an onslaught of media speculation as to Gaga’s sex and gender identity is THE FARTHEST THING FROM COMING OUT POSSIBLE. This incident should be called what it is – not a coming out – but an exploitation and sensationalization of intersex and transgender individuals.

Now, if Lady Gaga were to have decided to TRULY come out – to make a formal statement that she was, in fact, intersex, transgender, etc. – and she was proud of who she was despite historical discrimination against people whose bodies and/or identities fall outside the standard-accepted norm, then I think she would be a great spokesperson. Rock on, Lady Gaga! Great for you! But since she has clearly not done so, it is extremely misguided and dangerous to expect that it is now Lady Gaga’s due to represent the respective group of people to which she may or may not identify. It is unclear why Queers United would assume Lady Gaga would want to be “the face of intersexed” in the first place. With her “quote” rampant over the internet and her video posted just alongside it, I’d say that Lady Gaga’s own wishes and desires are clearly not being taken into account.

I would have to agree that she likely isn’t intersex not because of her apparent Tweet (assuming she, in fact, wrote that as well!) because her supposed quote is completely biologically inaccurate. I refer you back to my original post as to why her stated morphology isn’t humanly possible. If she were truly an intersex person (or even a person who is intersex-aware), she would never have made such a cleary untrue statement.

To further discuss her Tweet, do you really believe that “suck my hermy dick” is a blatant attention-catching phrase screaming, “LOOK AT ME! I’LL SAY ANYTHING FOR SOME ATTENTION, EVEN IF I HAVE TO LIE!”? Have you, perhaps, considered that Lady Gaga is possibly feeling outraged and violated? (And reasonably so.) Lady Gaga is already famous. Does someone already with “millions of fans,” in no danger of losing them at the moment, need to pull a publicity stunt that would sensationalize themselves and implicate the morbidly-fascinated gazes of millions more? This is victim-blaming at its finest. Lady Gaga’s personal life, which NO ONE has the right to comment on or announce, has been made into a circus show without her consent, and somehow this is of her own doing? If she wanted to announce herself as intersex/trans for the sake of attention and not awareness, one would imagine she would simply flaunt her genitals, karyotype and hormone level readouts, body hair, etc. for all to see. Lady Gaga’s skirt rode up. She pulled it down in a seemingly quite quick and discreet manner, and has not referenced that moment throughout the rest of her performance or afterward, perhaps until her Tweet. Those are not actions of an attention-seeker. Stop victim-blaming Lady Gaga.

I, too, would be thrilled if Queers United covered intersex issues in a positive way, that reflected both the biological realities of intersex individuals and respect and concern for intersex individuals’ experiences – both of which your post failed to do. I have several suggestions as to how Queers United can be better intersex advocates:

1) Read some literature to understand what intersex anatomy and physiology is. I included a few links in my previous post, and have many more links prepared for my next two posts, but if you would like some pointers as to where to go, I would be more than happy to do this for you. (There’s far too many essentials to list right here.)

2) Do not confuse intersex individuals with hermaphrodites. While some animals qualify as hermaphrodites, humans do not.

3) Read more literature about intersex experiences, health concerns, etc. There is a lot of shame many intersex people feel from families, physicians, etc. because they do not feel as though they belong. You cannot understand how hurtful media coverage like this is unless you have a glimpse into the deeply-entrenched, long-standing shame and confusion intersex individuals often feel about themselves, how they relate to their world, and what their place is in it. Testimonials are your friend.

4) Read about clinical issues faced by intersex individuals. It’s not a simple “identity crisis” problem – that’s completely reductionist. The fact is that unnecessary genital surgeries (“gender assignment surgeries”) both for “cosmetic reasons” and to ensure “a normal sex life” are being performed often without consent by the intersex individuals or their families and/or with lack of information as to why the surgeries are performed and what purpose they serve. In truth, many of these surgeries seek to “normalize” external genitalia, but the results often don’t closely resemble un-surgeried “normal” genitals anyway. Additionally, such normalization often includes removing the enlarged clitoris/small penis, which also removes nerves necessary for orgasm. How normal can sex be if orgasm is an impossibility? Urging one to undergo surgery on the internal portions of genitalia also assume heterosexual intercourse; intersex individuals that choose not to have penetrative sex have had surgery, then, for naught. There are many issues about genital surgeries that I will discuss in future posts, but it is necessary to understand. (And surgeries aside, there may be problems with bone health as age progresses, as well as other tentative health concerns that have not been well-researched as of yet.)

5) Engage with other intersex individuals, and invite more of them to contribute to Queers United. I suspect that you must not have many, if any, intersex people actively working on blog posts, because I cannot imagine that any intersex individual on Queers United would have allowed that post to be published.

6) Do not blame victims that clearly didn’t bring undue and scandalous media attention on themselves. Do not try to justify it. It is simply not justifiable.

7) Write articles that do not exploit intersex individuals. You assert you’ve written “numerous other” articles that were not discriminatory against intersex individuals, but as activists and advocates, it is unacceptable to write ANY discriminatory article. You may have written the most fair and nuanced awareness pieces to have ever been written about intersex people, but that does not mean that you are above criticism when your posts undo the good work your blog tries to accomplish. You are not entitled to write shitty, unfair articles just because you feel you have some good ones in your crown.

Thank you again for reading, Queers United. I hope that this was helpful, and that we won’t see any more posts of this nature from you in the future. Lady Gaga, your readers, and transgender and intersex individuals everywhere deserve an apology.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Not So Gaga Over Lady Gaga Sensationalism...

Hi, everyone. I am currently in hiding for the next few weeks, preparing for horrid exams I have to take by the summer’s end. (Ah, the joys of graduate school…) I already had topics planned out for the next two posts, but I had to derail my plans for a moment and write a quick blog in consideration of all of the Lady Gaga brouhaha going on. [Ssh! Just don’t tell my advisor! I should be studying… ;) ]

Apparently, a tape of a recent Lady Gaga performance shows her, at 1:10, dismounting from the bright red motorcycle she was sitting on while singing. At about 1:14, Gaga pulls her skirt down, as it’s ridden up too high. (Don’tcha just hate that?) So what, right? While uncomfortable, this isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) news. The brouhaha comes about because Lady Gaga’s genitals are partially exposed for a brief moment since she wasn’t wearing underwear, and some viewers have asserted her genitals appear penile in form. The Queers United blog explains the footage by proclaiming that Lady Gaga is actually intersex, and lists a quote from her, stating that she’s not ashamed to be intersex, having both female and male genitalia.

Um. WHAT?! Does this honestly make any sense to anyone? (Sadly, the answer is yes.)

I call bullshit on the Queers United post for several reasons. First of all, Lady Gaga’s quote can’t possibly be true, because intersex-aware people know that “intersex” does NOT equal “hermaphrodite.” The quote, specifically cites Gaga possessing both female and male external genitalia, and the language leads one to assume this means a penis and a vagina, each of normal form. (“I have both a poon and a peener. Big [fucking] deal.”) However, the penis and clitoris, and the scrotum and the labia, respectively, are derived from the same developmental tissue, so it’s impossible for humans to possess both sets of “male” and “female” external genitals. That being said, there is a highly variable range of external genitalia an intersexed individual may possess, from ambiguous genitals, to a micropenis, an enlarged clitoris, to not having a vagina at all, or even to having genitals we’d immediately register as “normal” male or female varieties. Which leads us to remember that external genital form isn’t the sole diagnostic characteristic of intersex individuals. Intersex individuals may have one or a combination of external genitals, internal sex organs, hormone levels, collection of chromosomes (or karyotype), musculature, bone structure, secondary sexual traits (e.g., breasts, body hair distribution) that are atypical according to “male” and “female” standards. A person is considered intersex when they possess at least one such atypical trait (e.g., an individual has a line down the back of their penis, with no other atypical characteristics) or a suite of traits that, when paired together, are considered atypical (e.g., a person with seemingly large, penis-like clitoris, scrotum-like labia, XX chromosomes, and a deep voice, as might be exhibited in some individuals with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia). For a website that is supposedly an activist blog discussing, in part, “intersexual” issues, the poster(s) seem(s) to be largely unaware of what may or may not constitute an intersex individual.

Second of all, why would one immediately grab their megaphones and yell, “INTERSEX!” when viewing Lady Gaga’s genitals? The brief moment of footage doesn’t allow one to see much. Even if some viewers are comfortable stating Gaga’s genitals appeared penile, how does translate into an intersex classification? Can one supposedly see both full sets of external genitals, as Gaga’s questionable quote claims she possesses? If one takes on a biologically accurate view of intersex, can one see any atypical genital forms discussed above? Can one use their X-ray vision and assess Lady Gaga’s hormone levels or karyotype? Or her muscle and bone structure? Even if we (inaccurately) decide to go just on external genitalia, I don’t think even carrot addicts with 20-20 vision could positively ID Gaga as intersex in that footage.

Finally, if Lady Gaga has decided to announce that she’s intersex in mainstream media, why do we see no other statements in other news and literature sources? As Lisa astutely points out, there isn’t even any mention of her announcing herself as intersex on her official blog – one place you’d surely think she’d address the video and her quote. It’s hard to believe anyone opening with “It’s not something I’m ashamed of…” would remain zip-lipped to anyone but apparently Queers United. I take the stance of Incredible Shrinking Phallus and Lisa from Questioning Transphobia: whether or not Lady Gaga is intersex, transgender, a flying pink elephant, or anything else, it is none of our business unless Gaga chooses to share that with us. And from where we’re sitting right now, it’s highly dubious she’s choosing to do just that. And more importantly, it’s HER RIGHT to do or not do so.

Overall, I’m appalled that Queers United would create posts containing highly questionable quotes and fundamental biologically inaccuracies. But most of all, I’m angry that the post served to sensationalize Lady Gaga herself and intersex individuals by presenting it as a juicy tidbit of gossip, and not addressing her experiences as a person who is intersex, trans, etc. It's absolutely horrid to think that this experience may force Lady Gaga to address such a personal issue that doesn't concern anyone else. How can activist sites generate awareness about issues of interest to effect positive change by spreading misinformation and dramatizing the reality of many individuals’ lives? This entire thing is just a shame.

Thanks to Feministing for first alerting me to this issue!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I've Touched and Seen What I Don't Have.

I am taking a Gross Anatomy course this summer. That’s right, I voluntarily signed up to dissect human bodies instead of enjoying the lovely weather for most of June, July, and August. (Well, semi-voluntarily. It’s required for my Ph.D. program – eep!) Dissection has been going well so far. I’m learning a lot, and am not nearly as emotional as I feared I would be cutting human flesh. (Sounds creepy, I know. But keep reading.) This is because my cadaver, once a human being in life, is no longer a human; it is simply the body that has been left behind. This person donated her body specifically for the purpose of dissection. She wanted to give my class the gift of her body after she, herself, was gone. What remains is a cohesive mass of molecules made up of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, hydrogen, etc., slowly degrading (slower still, due to use of formalin preservatives). Eventually, just like all living things, her body won’t be housed as a single collection of particles anymore, for each particle will become something else, participating fully in the circle of life. It will be water. It will be air. It might be a mighty redwood. It could be a rainbow trout. Her body will be, eventually, part of an innumerous number of organic things, just as her body was, in its past lives, innumerous organic things as well. But until her body fully makes this transition, it is my group’s cadaver. I thought that I would feel guilty that I was performing heinous acts on a person; instead, I simply feel grateful to this body’s former owner, that she gave me the gift to see the locations, inside, where all of our own lives are lived.

That isn’t to say that I haven’t had any problems dissecting, though. Dissecting the hands was very difficult for me. (It is pretty fucked up to see your own hands cutting another set of hands, even though you know those hands cannot feel anymore. I had to leave the room for that one.) The face was also a little bit difficult (although not as much as the hands, inexplicably). And the abdomen – the abdomen – is frighteningly messy, and I felt I was going to be sick a few times. Today, though, I had a new kind of difficulty dissecting that wasn’t steeped, this time, in revulsion or shock value. It was steeped in longing, in wistfulness.

Because I saw the female reproductive system today.

I am a person with androgen insensitivity(AIS). Complete AIS, to be exact. This means that although I have typical-looking external female genitalia, I was born with no uterus, no ovaries, no Fallopian tubes, no female internal sex organs of any kind. I have XY chromosomes, so by the kind of chromosomes alone I possessed, I would typically have developed into a male. In the womb, all fetuses start out female. Female is “default”; if the fetus is destined to be a male, it develops male sex organs. These male sex organs develop due to the influence of androgens, or male sex hormones. (Think testosterone.) Males and females both possess “female” (e.g., estrogen) and “male” (e.g., testosterone) sex hormones – they just produce them in different quantities, with females making more estrogen (along with other female hormones we don’t want to get into right now) and males making more testosterone. Since the fetus is being supplied by the mother’s blood, and the mother’s blood contains low levels of testosterone, fetuses with XY chromosomes start to partially develop testes by pirating mom’s testosterone. (“Thanks, Mom!”) Eventually, the fetus will be able to make its own hormones. When this happens, XY-fetuses’ testosterone will finish the job, fully forming testes, the penis, testes, scrotum – the whole nine yards. (Although hopefully its length doesn’t end up to be nine yards – GAH! *faints*) Therefore, I developed no female internal sex organs, although I had partially developed male testes (= they hadn't descended).

Why partially developed? Well, complete AIS is characterized by a gene on the X chromosome that results in the fetus’s androgen receptors to not respond to androgen. (Appropriately enough, the gene affected is the “AR” gene, or androgen receptor gene.) So, I received testosterone from mom’s blood enough to form testes, and I was eventually able to make my own hormones, including testosterone in typical quantities for a male fetus. All good so far! But in order for hormones to affect the body, the body must have the machinery to be able to use them. The machinery to do this is “receptors.” Receptors are also molecules, just like your hormones themselves. Both your hormones and your receptors have specific shapes. Your hormones are able to do work after they are grabbed onto by a receptor. The receptor, after grabbing the hormone, will send out a signal to the body to do something specific. In this case, my testosterone molecules would typically have been grabbed by my androgen receptors, and my androgen receptors would’ve said, “All right body, we’re all good here. Let’s finish off these testes and start up on a penis and all that other stuff. Over.” And my body would’ve said, “Roger that,” and development would’ve progressed in the garden-variety way. Instead, the gene sequence on my X chromosome meant that my androgens couldn't grab onto the testosterone molecules my fetal body was so diligently making. The testosterone was there, and ready, and my receptors just weren’t able to do their trick. So no signal got sent out to my body to say, “We’ve got a future male, here! Get a move on!” Instead it said, “Well, I know we’ve got partially formed testes and all, but I don’t think this male thing is really happening. I guess we’ll just do the best we can with the hormones that are still working.” And those hormones that were still working were the female ones – the estrogens. Ironically, because estrogens were the only sex hormones that were able to work, my body developed in a “hyper-feminine” way. And actually, the testosterone that my body made was converted into estrogen - a process known as aromatization. There was no testosterone to stop my estrogens from going all-out, and so they indeed went all-out. This is why people with complete AIS generally have curvy bodies, including large breasts, large hips, and delicate bone and muscle structure. And, since testosterones aren’t working, this is also why people with complete AIS rarely get pimples (since testosterone regulates how much oil is released by glands in this skin…too much oil creates a perfect environment for pimples to form). Complete AIS individuals also don't have a lot of body hair at the armpits, legs, and pubic region, which may grow slowly as well. (Let's be honest - it pretty much rocks not to have to shave much, if you even choose to do so!)

So my body is hyper-female. Most places. Externally, my vulva looks completely typical. Inside, however, things are atypical. See, male sex organs and female sexual organs are created from the same developmental tissue. Internally, my body had already started to create testes. When my own body couldn’t start in on making the ductus deferens and all that fun stuff, it just stopped making anything. If my testes hadn’t started developing, it’s possible a uterus, ovaries, Fallopian tubes, etc. would’ve formed. However, humans can’t develop both sets of internal (or external) sex organs...this is why intersex individuals are not referred to as hermaphrodites. (Hermaphrodites either possess both sets of sex organs at the same time, both of which are fully functioning OR they possess one set of sex organs at a time, but can develop one or another at different times in their life cycles. Some animals are true hermaphrodites, but humans are not. In some of the medical literature, though, doctors refer to intersex people as “pseudohermaphrodites.” While that’s better than going with “hermaphrodite,” it’s generally regarded as a highly offensive term. Referring to individuals as “intersex” is acceptable right now, without any additional qualifiers. Leave well-enough alone!) So, since my internal sex organs went on a “male” path but couldn’t keep developing, they just stopped developing. I couldn’t pick up where I left off and continue developing female internal sex organs, nor could I scrap my testes and start over. It was game over at this point. However, since my external sex organs hadn’t developed yet, they could develop as female, typically and uninterrupted.

At least from the outside. The trick is that inside, the vagina usually leads up into the uterus, with the cervix as the junction in-between. I didn’t develop a uterus for those reasons mentioned above (as my partially-formed testes stole the show). That means that on the inside, my vagina doesn’t lead up into…well, anything. It is a “blind-ended” vagina – a vagina that ends in a pouch of soft tissue, to seal it off from the rest of my abdominal cavity. (Which, given the alternatives, I’m really, REALLY grateful for. If you’re unsure what I mean, look up “prolapse” – just DON’T image search! You’ll need brain bleach for sure.) This also means that my vagina is shorter than average length. Normally, the internal vaginal canal ranges from about 6-12 inches long, although there’s certainly human variation there – some shorter, some longer. (If your vagina’s length inside isn’t at a minimum of about 6 in, doctors often suggest vaginoplasties, or surgeries to lengthen your vaginal canal. The purpose of doing this is to ensure that you’ll have “normal sex.” This assumes, though, that the intersex person will be having penetrative sex {which also assumes heteronormativity…not cool}. Additionally, if you’re on the lower end and don’t opt for surgery, your vagina will lengthen once you begin having sex. But we’ll have separate discussions on surgeries and sexual practice later – this post can’t be packed with any more technical info lest it burst at the seams. You don’t want me to break Teh Internets, do you?)

In short, my body is not typical of either males or females, although I am always identified as female based on my external body. And today was the first time I felt like I was really missing out on something.

I’ve always felt that not having a period or having to worry about pregnancy were absolute positives. I’m not a big fan of either bleeding uncontrollably, or spending time with children, so missing out on these things were a-okay with me. But I questioned myself while doing the dissections. Because now I’ve seen and touched the parts of the body that I do not have but have felt (in that past) that I should. I held the uterus in my hands. I marveled at how impossibly tiny it was, and how it somehow managed to hold a several-pound fetus in there. (“It’s pure magic!” one of my TAs exclaimed. I’m with her on that one.) The ovaries, which never large in my mind, were still smaller than I expected as well. Looking safe and protected, nestled in a few layers of tissue. But the oviducts were what really got me. In junior high health class, picturing of an ovum traveling down the oviduct, I could hear foreboding music a la the beginning of Star Wars (the “Mars” movement of The Planets, by Gustav Holst...a seriously good work). “Oh, no, here comes the egg! This is your warning: DON’T GET PREGNANT.” I expected some hardcore, no-nonsense structure – just a thick, firm canal – taking the egg to its resting place to be fertilized or shed (in that lovely ritual called menstruation). But it wasn’t. It was actually beautiful. It was a pretty thick canal, but it wasn’t ridiculously firm, and it didn’t end bluntly in a no-nonsense way. It opened up into a funnel-shape, with all of these little protuberances coming out from the funnel. Sort of like a cornucopia with little arms that go all the way around. When an ovary releases an egg, the oviduct’s funnel sucks up part of the ovary and the little arms hold it in place, to ensure that the egg gets deposited in the duct. (The egg rarely goes other places since this method is so efficient, although it happens sometimes.)

Looking at the female sex organs, I questioned whether I had really missed out on something. Besides the bleeding. Besides the possibility (and sometimes worry) of pregnancy. Since I identify as female much of the time, I still sometimes feel that I’m an “almost-but-not-quite-female” [once again, another topic for another post ;) ] and connecting with the female form reminded me of this again today. That only partially described my feelings, though, and the part it described was relatively smaller. It just didn’t totally ring true for me. I stared at the structures, and tried to identify why else I felt this way, but nothing came. It wasn’t until I looked around at my classmates, amiably moving from table to table, pointing and identifying, that it clicked. Staring at the female form, I felt like I missed out on feeling “whole” – well, not so much “whole” as “wholly typical” – of having an easy, 1-2-3 sexual and gender identity. Which I did. Watching my fellow students in lab, I thought, “These women can look at some of these bodies and see all the structures that they have inside. These men can look at the rest of the bodies and also see all the structures that they have inside. There are no bodies here that, inside, look like me. What do I really look like inside?” I felt wistful. I walked around to all of the other bodies, hoping that one of them might exhibit some atypical form that more closely mirrored my own. Because the one thing – if nothing else – I have learned in taking this Gross Anatomy course is that structures, common structures, you hear about all the time, that you think you know and understand, look and feel nothing like you have envisioned. You are shocked to realize you didn’t know them at all before, really. They blow your expectations right out of the water. I knew I had no uterus. I knew I had no ovaries, no Fallopian tubes, no vaginal canal neatly leading up into the cervix, with a blind pouch instead. But I knew that I wouldn’t know what I looked like inside unless I actually saw it, in physical form, right in front of me. I tried staring at the female body, to mentally subtract away all the structures I didn’t have, but I knew that whatever I pictured would fall painfully short of the reality of my form. And I wanted to know. I wanted to see. I was jealous that these other students could identify with their like-sex bodies (assuming no other students were intersex, or perhaps transgender), could see themselves through the lens of someone else. After today, I still don’t know what I really look like inside, and that frustrates me to no end.

(And additionally, it was interesting I felt this way viewing only the female and not the male bodies. But again, a discussion for another time.)

Most of the time, I don’t emotionally trap myself into feeling bad because I’m not “100% Anatomically & Physiologically Typical Female” or “100% A&P Typical Male” – something I will never be. Conversely, this experience helped me realize that I won’t be able to connect with my body’s less common form simply by studying human bodies that are of typical form. While I’m more comfortable now falling somewhere along the sexual continuum, the desire to identify is still just as important to me as ever – maybe even moreso now that I’ve gained some peace, having mostly traded in self-delusion for self-acceptance. Now I’m hungry for self-knowledge. I realize that in order to do get that, I absolutely need to see bodies of people like me. There are just some exceptions you simply can’t make.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What's Up With This Blog?

Hi, everyone! Whether you sought out this site or unintentionally linked to it (and found yourself saying "Huh? Intersex what?!"), WELCOME! This blog serves a few functions:

1) Education and awareness of intersex (e.g., what forms of intersex there are, how many intersex people exist, etc.)

2) Education and awareness of intersex experiences (e.g., testimonies in addressing intersex with clinicians, family members,friends, lovers; identity and perception {of self, of others, and by self}; emotional landscape of intersex people and/or their loved ones, doctors, etc.)

3) Introduction to intersex organizations and events, support groups, etc.

4) Address how intersex is depicted, explained, and perceived in mainstream media (e.g., in fictional television, in books, on talk-shows, etc.)

Despite the fact that I've known I am intersex since I was 14, I have not explored it nearly as much as I intend to. The general sentiment expressed by my clinicians was that my body was not simply private, but something that should never be discussed - ever. By anyone, to anyone, for any reason outside our family. PRETEND YOU ARE NORMAL AT ALL COSTS. This meant to go so far as to bring tampons to college when I had absolutely no use for them, don super-femme dress and makeup and jewelry for the every day (failed miserably!), and bemoan my menstrual cycle with other female classmates when I actually no idea what having a period was like.

Hearing time and time again that WHAT YOU ARE must never be spoken of made me feel monstrous and shameful of my condition. I was a closeted freak. I would never find romantic love, because how could I tell a future partner? I would never know if I would truly gain acceptance from my whole family, because only my nuclear family knew I was intersex. I wasn't sure how to perceive myself, how to act in public, how to dress, which bathroom to use...but couldn't explain my bizarre actions to anyone. When you are so uncomfortable with your body and sense of self, you just shut down. You tell yourself lies about who and what you are to make yourself feel better. Feel that you have a place in society, have a well-worn path to travel down in which your role has already been pre-planned for you.

Well, the well-worn path is crap. It's not fun, and I hate it. It's less a path and more a crater, swallowing you up and banishing all of your individuality to a dark corner to die. Each person is a collection of traits - some of them contradict each other, and many of them don't conform to our perceived stereotypes. ("THAT'S your favorite hobby?! But a gentleman/lady/elementary school educator/secretary/neurosurgeon/sex worker/florist doesn't do that!") These are some of the most beautiful qualities a person possesses - those that don't necessarily match up to your expectations, that (after the shock settles in) seem to embody that person most. Now I realize that, as an intersex person, it's kind of liberating not having a path to follow. But this liberation is more theoretical than actualized since I look like a female, and am thus expected to generally conform to my perceived gender role.

But more on that later. ;)

The reason I share this information is that due to the shame imposed by secrecy, I never fully explored my condition and the dozens of others under the intersex umbrella. What they mean. What our bodies are like. Why it's seen as a medical condition when our bodies are normal, natural, and beautiful as they are. How we feel about ourselves, others, and our societal perceptions. Now that I've come to accept my intersex, I'm trying to more fully integrate it into my life. And part of that process is accruing knowledge and gaining understanding into the biological mechanisms and emotional lives of intersex individuals, their loved ones, and their clinicians. Through my own process of self- and other- discovery, I hope to accompany you as you start or continue your own process, too. Let's help each other, learn from each other. If there's anything to take away from intersex, it's to challenge your assumptions and explore other viewpoints. Intersex has helped me become more open-minded in this way.

My posts will likely be sporadic and of varying length - some just a few words with a link to an article or website, others long-winded with lots of questions and ideas and opportunity for discourse. I am not promising to update on a particular day, or for a certain number of times per week because I don't want this blog to become a chore, another check off the to-do list. I want each post to come from a desire to write and share. Otherwise, it's gonna be reeeeeeeeeeeally boring for you, too. If I have more time and feel inspired, I might post a lot, and other times might go through a Blogger dry-spell. A little go-with-the-flow will be required.

But isn't that what this blog is all about anyway? ;)