Monday, March 19, 2012

Out of the Grey, Off of the Spectrum

Hi, there, all of you! How is your day going? :)

I have been starting to read and watch more intersex books and films, in order to educate myself about what intersex resources are out there. I've read and watched a little bit, but there's a volume of work that I haven't touched that I want to be better-versed in. It's important to understand what others have said or are saying about intersex.

So I'm learning, exploring, getting immersed. :)

One thing I keep encountering are metaphors that describe sex as being not black or white since intersex people exist, and thus describing human biological sex as "gray." Or describing sex as a spectrum where male and female are at the ends of the spectrum, and intersex is somewhere in the middle.

I really disagree with these metaphors, because they only make sense if you think that male and female bodies are more real or legitimate than intersex bodies. Colloquially, when we say that something is "gray," we mean that it is confusing. Issues that are complex, where there is a lot of detail to sort through and try to understand, issues that are not clear or straightforward or make a whole lot of sense - that are not black and white - are considered gray.

But intersex is not "gray." The fact that intersex bodies exist is not confusing. The existence of intersex bodies does not contradict the fact that "male" bodies and "female" bodies exist. Additionally, I'd argue that biological sex doesn't exist on a spectrum, where male and female are prioritized as being "real," and intersex people are just some manifestation that's more or less like "real" males or females.

This is sort of like saying that, in a world where only chocolate and vanilla ice cream are commonly found, that the existence of strawberry ice cream threatens the existence of chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Or that strawberry ice cream is somewhere "in between" chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Or that chocolate and vanilla ice cream are the only ice creams that REALLY exist, and that strawberry ice cream is somehow actually chocolate or vanilla ice cream in disguise.

But this doesn't make any sense! Strawberry ice cream exists in its own right. It's not chocolate ice cream. It's not vanialla, either. The existence of strawberry ice cream has nothing to do with chocolate and vanilla ice cream existing. They can all exist, and be treated as legitimate variations of ice cream! Strawberry ice cream also isn't a blend between chocolate and vanilla - the only ice creams that are recognized as real. Strawberry ice cream IS real! In short, its existence doesn't have to be defined in terms of chocolate or vanilla ice cream. It's existence should simply be defined by its strawberriness, period.

This ice cream metaphor, while getting the job done, isn't super-accurate quite yet, either. Intersex isn't just a single category. There's not one way to be intersex. There are many intersex variations out there. So, it's not so much that we should recognize that chocolate and vanilla aren't the only two choices out there, and that strawberry exists. Because it's not just strawberry that exists, but also mint chocolate chip. And rocky road. And cookies n cream. And butterscotch. And raspberry swirl. And many other kinds of ice cream, each of which exist in their own right. Just like our strawberry example, it would be absurd to define butterscoth based on whether it's more like chocolate or more like vanilla ice cream ,or to try and guess whether butterscotch is "really" chocolate or vanilla at its essence. It's butterscotch! Done, and done!

I think that talking about how sex is gray, or that biological sex is a spectrum, is a good first concept to start talking about the fact that sex is more than male or female. But if the metaphors end there, we can only understand intersex as something vaguely between male or female, as something that we can't understand or start talking about without referencing male or females. This erases the fact that intersex exists in its own right, and denies the fact that intersex bodies are real.

What do you think about this?

[Photo courtesy of Natalie Dee]


  1. I'm not sure the spectrum analogy MUST imply that the spectrum 'ends' are more or less real than the rest of the spectrum. Maybe a "color wheel" is how I think of it. But I DO think your "gray" rejection is valid for the reasons you wrote about.

  2. I love this post so much, almost as much as I love strawberry ice cream. I may in fact take to answering all those pesky questions about what gender I am with 'strawberry'.

  3. Yay! I'm glad! Strawberry ice cream forever!!

  4. Hi, jisbell! I like the idea of a color wheel. Hmmmm...