In the past, I’ve talked about intersectionality, but not this word that sounds similar, but means something totally different: intersexuality. I mentioned this in my list of genders, but I’d like to delve deeper into that specific identity now.
Intersex is the term used for a variety of medical conditions in which a person is born with chromosomes, genitalia, and/or secondary sexual characteristics that are inconsistent with the typical definition of a male or female body. Individuals are not always aware that they have this condition, but it is an identity that some choose to share.
In recent years, these people have begun to politicize their bodies in opposition to the “medical regulation of bodies that queer heteronormative identities and desires” (Chase).
Intersexuality offers a contrary view of binary genders and a disruption to “heteronormative systems of sex, gender, and sexuality” (Chase). Pubertal sex characteristics are expected to be male or female, assuming the values of unobserved characteristics.
Medicine was available to manage “hermaphroditism” in Western European societies so the general awareness of intersex bodies vanished. In order to be declared a “true” hermaphrodite, “both ovarian and testicular tissue types had to be present” (Chase).
Twentieth-century medicine moved to “fixing” intersex bodies in an effort “to conform with a diagnosed true sex” (Chase). The surgery included “a great variety of procedures” that were developed primarily at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore during the 20s and 30s.
Parents of ambiguously sexed infants were much more open to suggestions on normalizing surgery than an intersex adult. Lawson Wilson is the founder of John Hopkins hospitals through the “United States and abroad” (Chase).
Surgeons and endocrinologists examine an intersex infant, which is considered a “psychosocial emergency” to make the sex assignment. They then inform the parents and use medical technology to make the child’s body conform to that sex.
Medical literature suggests that there is no problem with lying about intersexuality when really it is very emotionally harmful. The impact and detriment “is so devastating that until a few years ago, people whose lives have been touched by intersexuality maintained silent” (Chase).
“While intersexual anatomy occasionally indicates underlying medical problems, the ambiguous genitals are in and of themselves neither painful nor harmful to health” (Chase). Ninety percent of intersexuals are assigned female and only ten percent male because, according to the John Hopkins intersex team, ‘You can make you a hole, but you can’t build a pole’ (Chase)
Children are assigned and subsequently undergo surgery that was labeled “clitorectomy” through the 60s; this is comparable to African practices that remove the clitoris. Now, a reduction or recession of the clitoris is considered a “simple cosmetic procedure” and called a clitoroplasty. The description available uses a dehumanized medical description and leaves intersex people alone and silent, as a result of destructive normalization.
Sometimes doctors reevaluate their sex determination and re-label intersex people. Families may choose to keep this a secret.
Intersexuals may undergo abdominal surgery and have routine hospital visits for doctors to examine their genitals, up until they have their periods, or not. Then, doctors are able to tell if intersexuals are able to have kids.
It may be hard for intersexuals to come to terms and understand their own bodies. This may lead to negative thoughts about oneself, loneliness, and thoughts of suicide. They may feel that their bodies are not fully human and find it hard to accept the bodies that surgeons left them with. These negative thoughts can really affect one’s day-to-day life and productivity.
“Cutting intersex genitals becomes yet another hidden mechanism…containing the potential anarchy of desires and identifications within oppressive heteronormative structures” (Chase). In October 1996, the American Female Genital Mutilation Act passed but specifically exempted medicalized clitorectomies to “correct” intersex bodies (Chase).
Doctors address “gender intersex bodies accordingly and cut them up to make the assigned genders support cultural norms of embodiment” (Chase). Intersexuals call into question the assumed relation between genders and bodies and demonstrate how some bodies do not fit easily into male/female dichotomies” (Chase).
“Politicized intersex activists have deep stakes in allying and participating in the sorts of poststructuralist cultural work that exposes the foundational assumptions about personhood shared by the dominant society, conventional feminism, and many other identity-based oppositional social movements” (Chase). In 1990, “there was little reason to think that physicians or other members of their culture would ever reflect on the meaning [of intersexual surgery]” but “activist intersex opposition changes [that]” (Chase).
This article was made with help from Cheryl Chase’s piece Hermaphrodites with Attitudes (1998).