Sunday, March 28, 2010

Am I Still Made of Velveteen?

UPDATE: In this piece, I discuss "passing" a lot in terms of a chapter in The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, by S. Bear Bergman, entitled "The Velveteen Tranny." Well, I should've kept reading before posting in a flurry of super-inspiration. If you read further in Bergman's book, he makes a really excellent distinction between using the word "passing" and "being read by." In passing (usually framed in terms of passing as male or female), the onus is on the sex-and-or-gender-"variant" individual to conform properly, and smacks of the age-old stereotype of transgender = deceptive, since they are "really" just disguising themselves or play-acting to "pass," and therefore penetrate a world to which they really don't belong. They're getting away with something. In being read by others, and not passing as male or female in front of them, however, there is no connotation of deceptivness. The onus is now not on an individual to be sneaky and wily enough to be deceive viewers into thinking they're men or women (or something else). This is simply framed as the gender "impression" made on a looker-on. Any spontaneous gender assignment is made BY ANOTHER PERSON, and not the result of a person to assimilate in a (devious) way that is culturally expected of them.

This distinction isn't a small one, and something worth considering. In the future, I'm not going to frame the above scenarios in terms of "passing." However, I'm going to leave the text below in their unaltered state, simply because I think that people are used to the concept of "passing." It might, then, be easier to read this post as is, without the extra mental burden of, "What this 'being read' stuff? Oh, yeah!" I don't want to write to confuse, after all. After reading, if you'd like to go back to a few sentences and substitie "read" for "pass," then go for it! In future posts, you'll get enough of "read," anyway.

Thanks for reading this technical note! Enjoy! :)

~ Claud

Or am I a REAL intersex-genderqueer-lady-queer yet?

I have kindly been loaned the book The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, by S. Bear Bergman. (Thanks C and E!) This book is fantastic for tons of reasons, but one essay that has already emblazoned itself into my mind is one entitiled, "The Velveteen Tranny."

"Ha," I thought. "Quippy title. Wonder what this'll be about?"

Well, I'm not entirely certain I actually read the entire story of The Velveteen Rabbit, so his fantastic insights were a bit lost on me at first. For those of you who might not've been exposed to this book (or perhaps, like me, just never got around to reading it), here's the synopsis, via Wikipedia. The basic gist, though, is that this stuffed rabbit toy, made of velveteen (hence the moniker) isn't a real rabbit. The only way the toy can become a real rabbit is if his owner loves him. Well, the child gets scarlet fever and pretty much everything the rabbit's owner touched recently needs to be burned, including the poor rabbit. (Ouch!) But, before the rabbit can be burned, the rabbit cries actual tears, and then a Nursery Magic Fairy (...just go with it) tells the rabbit that the owner loves him, so he's actually a real rabbit. The rabbit then hops off into the woods, knowing his owner really loved him, even though he can't be his owner's toy ever again.

What we learn from this, broadly, is that your identity is only as good and "real" as it is to those that encounter you. If they "love" you, and accept your identity as "real," then your identity will be real. If your identity isn't accepted as real, then your identity cannot be what you claim it is.

In short, OTHER PEOPLE DEFINE WHO YOU ARE BY WHETHER OR NOT YOU "PASS" AS YOUR IDENTITY. When we think about this in gender-variant terms, things get really interesting, and this is actually an excellent analogy to use as a framework to think about "passing."

Passing is a subject that is oft-talked about in gender-"variant" communities. Passing is important to talk about, for me, because not all gender-variant individuals choose to pass at all. It's just not a goal. Sure, individuals may alter their bodies, behaviors, voice timbres, clothing, accessories, makeup use, etc., at least in part, in order to "pass" as something - commonly talked about in terms of passing as male or female. But not all individuals want to "pass" as anything. Individuals whose gender identities blur or lie outside the gender binary very, very often make these changes to more closely approximate the person they are, with no goals of passing as anything in particular to others. Sometimes various presentations and performances are assumed for the sake of genderfucking to publicly challenge gender norms (e.g., think an individual with a beard, wearing a skirt, with a biker jacket, a large hair bow, heavy-duty work boots, and bright lipstick), with which a genderfucking individual may or may not identify with as their own gender identity. Or perhaps they do, at least sometimes, while they are presenting and performing in that way. (I say sometimes because often the outfit I was feeling when I woke up is completely ill-fitting to my gender identity that afternoon, later that morning, or 5 minutes after I walk out the door. *Sigh* Should I just start wearing full layers of separate outfits under one another and peel things off and mix-and-match as appropriate? That could get kind of fun, actually!) Individuals may also only want to pass sometimes - whether out in public, in going to a queer event, drag show, etc., so it is just an occasional goal. Others want to pass all the time, either because it is important to their identity, for SAFETY REASONS (not to be taken lightly in any form for gender-variant individuals), to keep their job (even though it's highly illegal to fire someone for this, but it still happens), keep not-understanding friends or lovers, for their childrens' sake, or a host of other reasons that may completely be their choice or they are forced into to prevent certain elements of their lives from changing. Others are not really sure what they want to do - just a valid reason as any. Passing is really complicated in general.

But this essay has made me think about passing with fresh eyes. I have always thought about passing in terms of, "I have passed as female in the presence of all of these people. Yes! Or, ugh." The focus on passing was certainly how others identified me. But that is a very different sentiment than focusing on passing as how others ALLOW YOU TO BE REAL OR NOT. Check out this excerpt, as follows:

The truth is that I might not mind as much if I didn't understand so well what was going on. I might be willing to believe that there was some sort of innocent educational journey at work every single one of those times [being interrogated about one's sex and gender], if I hadn't already answered those questions over and over only to discover that each of my questioners was using the information to decide whether or not I was real. I say that my name is Bear, and when I am asked if I have changed my first name to Bear, I say no, it's my middle name. Not real enough. When people learn that my grandmothers still call me Sharon, it's further proof: not the real deal. These judgments are made about surgeries, about hormones, about sexual orientation, and people who ask them - the same people who moments before claimed the need for my tender educational mercies - are not the gender judge and jury.


It's tempting to make the comparison to the Velveteen Rabbit, and tidy as well - and you know essayists; we love to wrap up a good metaphor with a pithy ending. Here I just say that I know that I'm real, that I believe in it fully, and if I can become real to just one person it's enough to sustain me. But unlike the Velveteen Rabbit, who was redeemed from death through love but never allowed to be near his love again, it takes more than one person believing in my realness. It takes cultural change. And so this essay doesn't really end as much as it stops. I'll let you know if I ever get more real.

This is really interesting, because it means, to an extent, that whether or not we're trying to pass, or not trying to pass, many, many other people are still trying to shoehorn us into one of several categories - often just two, or maybe more if they're slightly more aware/kind. But ultimately others do not believe we have the autonomy of saying, "This is who I am." They do not think that we are the experts on who we are - that they know more about who we are than we do, who we have been living with all our lives, based on a few physical or behavioral features they just happen to notice in-passing. Others should not be allowed to define us. They don't have a right to our identities any more than they have a right to our bodies. But they think that we do. That because we are different, because we are minorities, that this means that, by default, we are for public consumption. That it is justifiable to pick apart our identities and challenge us, and ask us stigmatizing and triggering questions because we are the weird ones, and they can't be expected to POSSIBLY make any sense of our Non-Sensical Crazy, and so we must educate them about it. We must answer their awful questions. We must engage with them in discourse as equals, as though they potentially know as much about our "confused" states as we do, and maybe their unsolicited advice on how to be "normal" is just all we need in order to bounce back to "reality."


This is a really different way of thinking about passing than I have been thinking about it previously, and in context, people's "inquiries" (i.e., harassment) makes much more sense to me within this framework. This framework is obviously applicable to people that are trans-identified, androgynous, or gender-variant in some way. How does this relate to intersex?

Not all forms of intersex come with a suite of external morphological characteristics (i.e., shape and form of the whole body or various body parts) that look anything unlike people's typical constructions of "male" or "female." With my own variation, CAIS, I look very female. I have never been mistaken for a male. Not once. Not even that time I received a hideous bowl-cut from an inept hairdresser that looked utterly like the mushroom cut all my elementary school male peers were wearing. (I only identify as female sometimes, most of the time identifying as gender-neutral or gender-less, and never identify as male. So, even though I "pass" as female because I meet stereotypical preconceptions of what female-bodied individuals look like because of my form of intersex, I often feel a lot of anxiety because I don't always know if how I'm acting or wish to act conforms with behaviors typical of stereotypical female-gendered individuals. I look the part, but I don't always feel like I'm PLAYING it correctly. Can't a new actor be hired to play female Claudia, instead? Also, this would give me less time to work at my job, and more time to engage in activism! Yesssssss!)

Individuals with other types of intersex conditions may possess suites of body parts that, together, don't match other peoples' conceptions about what male or female bodies should look like. Check out the Intersex Society of North America's "Intersex conditions" page. (To start, check out congenital adrenal hypoplasia (CAH), Klinefelter's, and XXY. I'm not going to talk about each one in-depth because I know my own form of intersex far better than other intersex individuals', and I can't speak for all intersex individuals, whether they have my own form of intersex - CAIS, level 7 - or not. People need to be given the forum to describe their own bodies and lived experiences, in ways that I - though, yes, intersex - am still, however, an outsider into their particular lived experiences. Only they can describe the nuances they experience. Also note that not all individiuals with atypical sex anatomy, such as Turner's, Klienfelter's, etc., consider themselves to be intersex, as we've discussed in previous posts. There's nothing simple or clear-cut about identity! Now if only we all accepted that...) These individuals very likely are harassed by outsiders, who have absolutely no business to do so. A lot of people likely think it IS their business, though, because they are threatened if others stray outside the sex-and-gender binaries, or if they are attracted to - *GASP* - "some freak," something else Bergman addresses in his essay. The difference is that intersex individuals may not be gender-variant in any way, nor identify as queer - none of it. So, intersex individuals that are not a part of the queer community may be interrogated and discriminated against by virtue of "looking funny" to others' oh-so-idealized paragons of male and female bodies. {*insert choir of angels here*} This kind of "passing" for intersex individuals outside the queer community shares many of the same elements, trials, inequities, and frustrations of many queer individuals' experiences in "passing." The difference is, I'm very, very unconvinced that intersex individuals think about passing, share tips for passing, etc. in the ways that many queer individuals do. Instead, there may just be isolation and frustration and body-hate and a host of other things. How can we have a greater discourse on passing for intersex individuals whose bodies don't conform to culturally-defined expectations of male or female forms, who may or may not also be part of the queer community where some of these concepts may have been encountered already?

In a lot of ways, we've definitely got tons of queers, not (just?) wearing velveteen but MADE of velveteen, if we are to go along with Bergman's deft analogy. If passing is something that is desired, for queers, queer-identified intersex individuals, and non-queer-identified intersex individuals, what can be done if the power to be real does not lie within our own capacity, according to many others? It is simple to say, "Just ignore it. Go along with your business. YOU TRULY define your OWN identity!" Well, yes, this is the way it should be, but that doesn't meant that's actually how it plays out. Stigmatizing questions do wound one's pride. Constant challenging does sometimes lead to crazy-making. We SHOULD have control over our own identities (for fuck's sake, we should at LEAST have the autonomy to define who we ARE! ARRRGH!), but unless we want to be a constant walking font of education and decide to inform ignorant individuals when we feel like it, or simply ignore them, or get angry and lash out, none of these options may ultimately feel satisfying, depending on the situation. You still want to be taken as REAL, without having to prove yourself. Questions are one thing. Attempted identity homicide via non-acceptance of one's identity is another.

There are, of course, lots of creative ways to raise awareness about gender variance, trans issues, intersex issues (whether with or without overlap with the queer community) when interrogated, but that deserves its own blog post, and I'm starting to fade. (Note to self: Don't try to think about meangingful stuff before eating. Ever. Just don't.) The ultimate rub, though, comes from not being taken at face value, maybe because our faces don't line up with your expectations. My face, my body outline, my muscles, my skeletal structure, my hormone levels, my chromosomes, my external genitals, my internal sex organs, my body hair distribution, my voice timbre, my clothing choices, my behaviors, my likes and dislikes, my work and hobbies - NONE of that gives anyone the right to decide who you ARE based on that. We can try to fight this system of interrogation and verdict of whether one's "real" or not, but the fact is that majority folks have an unearned privelege of choosing to do this, whether or not they exercise this privelege or not. Like Bergman said, what really needs to change is our cultural values regarding this.

Only then can we define who we REAL-ly are, without a fight.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Too Many Letters, or Not Enough?

I've been thinking a lot about how intersex fits within the queer community, often referred to as the "LGBTQ" community.

Labels can be really great things for many people. Labels help many of us to not only get a grasp on who we are, but to identify other people that feel similarly. From this ability to describe who we are allows us to make sense of and peace with ourselves, and to build community with those who identify similarly and/or are open to those that do.

Labels can also cause as many rifts among people as often as they bulid community among them. Labels can cause people to become obsessed about creating community with only those that share the exact same labels as themselves. This could mean only associating with people that identify as "X" regardless of whatever labels this potential friend and community member may have, or could mean only identifying as people who have a certain suite of labels, such as "X", "Y", "Z", "A," "B", and "C," and anyone who claims "D", "E", or anything else additionally would be scrapped. People may also fight about the exact defintion of label "X", who can be included, and what feelings, lived experiences, and/or goals people claiming "X" may share. There's likely to be a lot of variation in individuals that define as "X" anyway; this may, and often does, lead to the creation of new labels under one larger label. (Think "a" and "b" as being flavors of label "X.") This could cause rifts between even between people that both identify as "X." (Perhaps "a" accused "b" of not being TRULY "X.")

Clearly, this can all get very confusing. Does this mean, then, that we should chuck out labels altogether, or create a plethora of new labels?

I don't think the answer is so either-or. (In case you haven't noticed, I'm not into binaries. Ha!)

I don't think there's any need to chuck out labels, but I think that there are ways to identify using labels without becoming like some label-obsessed individuals - like, the equivalents of the clothing label-conscious who will only talk to you if you're wearing THAT shirt and THOSE pants and THESE shoes. In many senses, though, it's a matter of practicality and SAFETY to associate and build community with those that define themselves similarly. After all, it's a fact that sex-and-gender variant individuals suffer incredibly high rates of mortality from people who feel threatened by them. One only needs to Google "trans deaths" to see how many people are willing to kill others because they don't look or act like what they think people - either "males" or "females" as they define it - should look or act like. Additionally, building community with other people who have similar thoughts, attitudes, and LIVED EXPERIENCE is really important; one of the best ways to beat isolation is to talk like-minded people. But, if this exclusion becomes so extreme to exclude other sex-and-gender variant individuals claming different labels, or non sex-and-gender variant allies, this could actually be hurting a community. After all, people grow not only by sharing commonalities, but being exposed to others who can offer different perspectives.

It's also important to consider where people that choose not to use labels fit in. Lots of individuals that might share similar thoughts, attitudes, and lived experiences might be shunned by communities because they don't use labels for themselves, and instead choose to describe themselves to others using language sans labels commonly in use at the time. People that might be really great members of a community could be shunned by prospctive community members if they don't give these people a chance to describe themselves and their experiences.

A final thing to consider is visibility. Some individuals that already have labels are rarely recognized, or included in conversations about sex-and-gender variant individuals. Intersex people are often excluded, although I've noticed that people that are asexual are often excluded even MORE frequently! (Go check out the Asexual Visibility and Education Network if you'd like to learn more!) Other groups of individuals, some of whom that might really like a recognized label to describe a facet of who they are, might not have one. For example, to my knowledge, there is no word to describe the exact nature of "a person who sexually fantasizes about a person of the opposite sex and might kiss them but wouldn't go further, but who is comfortable being sexually active with same sex members."

Which leads us back to "LGBTQ." If we define the "Q" as "questioning," and not as "queer," then this type of person previously described doesn't fit anywhere in "LGBTQ," despite the fact that they don't have a heterosexual orientation. In this way, non-heterosexual individuals marginalize people that should feel included in the queer community, and not excluded from it. (With so many factions and in-fighting, it is a very good question whether one, inclusive queer community truly exists, and if so, who is included.) Choosing the letters L, G, B, T, and Q in general, when "Q" does not denote "queer," by definition marginalizes all queer individuals that are not L, G, B, or T. Some individuals remedy this by making more letters, such as I for intersex and A for asexual, but adding these two won't include everyone. Do we make a label for everyone? Do we repeat letters if need be, or fight to keep a letter? What about the order of the letters? Some individuals state that the arguably more common "GLBTQ" is a pecking order, whereby gay males, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender individuals, and questioning/generally queer without a label G, L, B, or T represents a hierarchy of who has the most visibility and/or power within a community. (This idea has problems, but it is a good segue into examining visibility, power, and queer identity.)

Okay, so, drumoll... WHAT DO WE DO?!

*crickets chirping*

"Well, it's really complicated and there's no one great, one-fits-all answer," I say.

And then I try shielding myself from the onslaught of rotten tomatoes, and whatever other things you might (justifiably?) try hurling at me.

No, but seriously. WHAT DO WE DO?

One direction I think could remedy a lot of these issues is the more predominant use of one label, and then using other, more specific labels or none at all, as defined. The label that is being increasingly more used today to denote non-straight-of-any-variety-and-flavor is "queer." What would happen if we identified ourselves as "queer" first? People within the queer community might be less inclined to start wars among each other if they see each other as fellow queers first, and not "X" or "Y," which may be perceived as incompatible with one another. If we all identified as "queer" first, it might be more possible to create a queer community, and respect those within the community. People that define as "X", "Y", or "Z" all define each other as having common ground, simply with some variations. And that variety doesn't threaten being included within the queer community. This may work better for individuals that don't use labels, either; by not needing to identify as a "letter" or some variant therein, it might be easier to be accepted by other queers, so long as queers give people not using labels the chance to describe themselves. (This also creates a situation where such people may be labeled "label-less" by non-mindful label-loving queers, however, which a person not using labels may not want.) This might also cut down on pecking order aspects of certain types of queers dominating queer spaces, getting the most visibility, and creating more understanding of other flavors of queers.

Basically, if we stop framing the world in terms of binaries, or fitting into a few strictly-defined labels, and instead accept people with thoughts, attitudes, and lived experiences that may be considered "queer" for who they are as they describe themselves - however they identify and whatever labels they use, if any - then we'd be making a lot more progress and building a lot more community than we are now. More generally, outside of queer community, this ideal would hold well, too. After all, isn't that why minorities everywhere are marginalized? Because we don't see each other as "human," or even more broadly, "living things" first?

This still doesn't solve everything. In terms of intersex, a lot of biologically intersex individuals don't have queer sexual orientations, or gender identities, presentations, or performances, and don't identify their sex as "intersex," but as male or female with a medical condition. For a lot of intersex people, then, they don't fit in with the queer community. Some trans individuals may not identify as queer in terms of sexual orientation, whereby they receive flack from other queers for not being "progressive" enough. Some individuals that want to take down sex and gender binaries altogether feel that those that aren't sex-and-gender transgressive are not "queer enough", and that's dangerous as well (something that Julia Serano discusses brilliantly in her book, Whipping Girl, which is brilliant). What we need is a queer community that is open to all people, despite how they may or may not identify, and not to have a hierarchy. Identifying using one inclusive label first (i.e., "queer"), and being accepting of those who don't use labels, might be a great place to start.

So I've published a novella on this right now. What are your perspectives on building fantastic queer community? What about building community for intersex individuals, who may or may not define their sex as male, female, intersex, or something else (depending when you ask, since identities aren't static!), where some individuals with atypical sex characteristics may or may not identify as intersex, where some individuals may or may not be queer and describe their intersex as overlapping with queer issues, etc.?

Defining Athletic "Advantage": Is The IAAF Being Discriminatory Against Intersex Individuals? (A: YES.)

So, I was checking out the blog of Scott Turner Schofield, an award-winning actor (in his play, Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps!) who is transgender, who was recently featured on, an interactive community blog for people who fall outside the lines of binary gender, presentation, and performance (that I LOVE LOVE LOVE). I looked at the tag labels for his posts, and clicked on intersex. (I had to, right?) In that post was a link to a really thoughtful article I wanted to share.

Here's the article I'm referring to, from The Bilerico Project.

This article focuses on what is considered an "advantage" in athletic competition, and how discrimination against Caster Semenya is a completely arbitrary decision by the IAAF. It is not public knowledge what form of intersex Semenya possesses (and it SHOULD NOT it be!), but it IS public knowledge that, depending on what Semenya's form of intersex is, that the IAAF could ban her from competing in future competitions, including the Olympics. (Please note that I refer to Semenya as "her" and "she" because she identifies herself as female and uses these pronouns for hereself in her inteviews post-IAAF's completely inappropriate, globally-announced speculation about her biology and mandate for physical and psychological testing.) In fact, Semenya has already been banned from competing in a recent South African competition by her own country. If Semenya possesses a form of intersex that results in levels of testosterone higher than the typical ranges for biological females, then Semeya would be banned from competition because her heightened testosterone would give her an advantage over her competitors.

This is where it is easy to point out the arbitrary nature of this possible biological advantage, versus others that the IAAF does not screen for and/or discriminate against. Here's an excerpt form the article to illustrate this point:

It's odd to hear all this blather about "unfair advantage" when no political effort on earth will ever eliminate all the variables in athletic competition. That level playing field that everybody mentions is only found in the realm of theory. Sports are going to tolerate the presence of athletes who have all kinds of built-in edge -- better-than-usual eyesight, for example, or an inherited ability to tolerate lactic-acid buildup.

Additionally, the article goes on to cite how testing for the possession of "unfair advantages" (i.e., having certain intersex conditions) is overwhelmingly concentrated on competitors in womens' atheletic events, as follows in this excerpt:

Incidentally, no gender testing was ever done on male athletes. Sports authorities protest that men aren't tested because there is no need -- no issue of "unfair advantage" among male athletes.

But that isn't exactly true. Some men are born as a type of triploid, meaning they have an extra Y chromosome. XYY men tend to be taller. This could be an advantage in some sports. Not in basketball, because basketball teams select for tall to start with. But in tennis, for instance, a tall man has an edge in the serve. Tennis great Bill Tilden was very tall, which was one of the factors that made his "cannonball serve" so devastating. Some studies suggest that XYY men are also more aggressive. This could give them an edge in any sport.

Likewise, some men are born XXYs, meaning that they develop in the opposite direction -- a lighter, less-heavily-muscled frame than most men. Not every male sport is won by the sheer creaking muscular strength that most cultures equate with "masculinity!" The lighter build could give the XXY man an advantage in sports that favor that type of physique, like marathon running. The build that dominates in sprinting, which is an explosive anaerobic muscular exercise, is actually a disadvantage in the 26.2-mile marathon, where your circulatory system has to feed oxygen to as little muscle as possible, in order to maintain you in an aerobic activity for an hour or so.

But hell will freeze over before the secrets of male athletes are ever exposed by gender testing.

I think this is really thought-provoking, and sheds a lot of light on the role of biological testing for athletes. What is your take on this?

Bathroom Symbols

Well, since we last looked at some symbols for intersex in general, I thought it might be fitting to look at some bathroom door symbols.

Ah, the fucking bathroom. Something that many people who are intersex, broadly trans-spectrum, and those that don't conform to sex and gender binaries absolutely loathe.

We all know how problematic those classic Western bathroom symbols are. Here they are below in case you're 1) not familiar with the symbols I'm referring to, or 2) you want to be reminded at how much you like to seethe at these crap images:

Yes, of course, not all people identify as "male" or "female" in terms of sex or gender. And, of course, individuals' presentation can't be parsed out based on whether that person's wearing a skirt or not. I'm biolgically intersex, and happen to be in a minority of intersex individuals that identify their sex as "intersex," and not either male or female. I'm also genderqueer, and sometimes identify as female and sometimes as gender-neutral or genderless. Right now, I mostly dress pretty femmey, but want to play around with presentation and performance, too.

But what I really want to draw attention to is a post a while back by Ann Friedman, from Feministing. This post features lots of different kinds of bathroom symbols, and how they're totally transphobic. (As well as how they might otherwise be interpreted, with Friedman's hilarious commentary.) I think that the conversation around these different kinds of bathroom symbols can be extended, however, to include how they might affect people who are intersex, or generally fall outside the lines of the sex-and-gender binary.

Check it out. What do you think?

P.S. If there were more gender-neutral bathrooms - i.e., those that didn't have these non-inclusive symbols on the door - many people that are trans, intersex, or sex-and-gender "variant" wouldn't have problems just trying to pee or poo. Additionally, we wouldn't have to risk either verbal or physical harrassment (including death) when choosing to use gendered bathrooms, or risk bladder infections and other health problems from holding in our wastes when choosing NOT to use gendered bathrooms. Just sayin'.

Hugs and thanks to Feministing!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

It Happens Sometimes, Ya Know?

Today is one of those days where I just look around at everyone and feel unbearably sad and angry that there's no room for me in the system that has been created and we currently uphold today. It's not always easy being intersex, queer, and genderqueer and not feeling bitter sometimes that your identity is not acceptable, not appropriate, not "natural."

Today is one of those days I just want to take a big mallet, smash the arbitrary system that we currently have, and build a nice, bright, shiny, new one that's inclusive and doesn't shame anyone, or hurt anyone, or make anyone feel like they're not worthy of love and happiness and self-worth and living AS HOW THEY TRULY ARE.

Tomorrow might be one of those days where I don't think about all of this so much so that it doesn't cut so deeply and prevent me from focusing on anything that "needs" to get done during the day. But today is not one of those days.

It's unlikely that one person can single-handedly change a system that is so deeply-rooted in our culture. But I can be satisfied in doing my part to change things so that as much good can impact as many individuals as possible. Smiling and fighting even in the face of imminent defeat. (Very Norse mythology-like, huh?)

Today is one of those days the world tells me that I cannot change anything, that it is not even worth trying. Maybe I didn't change the entire world today, but I haven't let it totally break me down, either. And that means something. If I can still fight, I can still affect change in some way, big or small.

Fuck you, system that doesn't make room for me. I won't let you define who I am and who I can and cannot be, even if there's a NO DEVIANTS sign on your clubhouse door.

I choose me, and all others like me, who feel this way, too. We'll hopefully break down your door someday, even if it's long after I'm alive to see it happen.

And when it does? Well, that day will be one of those days when all of those days like today will have been worth it.

...I'm suddenly feeling a little better. <3

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Should The Snail Be Salted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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