Friday, May 14, 2010

AIS Intersex Visibility, Understanding, and Support: a Conversation about Gender, Sex, Normalcy, and Identity

This is one person's story and it shouldn't be assumed to be just like anyone else's story. And not completely different either. I want to include this link, to a blog that deals with intersexuality in various languages:

Next, please meet Maya Posch:

I once knew someone with no gender and no sex. To look at this person, you wouldn't likely be able to say with any degree of certainty, "this person is male" or "this person is female". (I'll use the pronoun "they" in the singular form.) You wouldn't be able to tell if they were "a woman" or "a man". This person looked like themself. They didn't look "odd", they looked like another human being on the Earth. They didn't identify as transgender either, as this person didn't see that there was any reason to have to choose any gender or any place along the dominant spectrum of what is called "gender". They didn't experience themselves as transitioning. No surgery was performed on this person when they were born, and they have never had genetic testing to find out "what they are". This person was asked on a talk show, "But don't you want to know?!!" And they said, I know what I am. I am Toby. They felt very comfortable being who they were--someone without a sex and without a gender. I say "no sex" because this person had no genitals at all, but could urinate just fine. One problem with discussing intersexuality is the pre-occupation with what someone's genitals look like. (This is also often true when trans people are in the media.) This robs people of a kind of privacy non-intersexed and non-trans men can have if they want to. I would argue that all girls and women are  not allowed this sort of privacy, because clothes are usually and often designed to be tight and/or revealing of their bodies, and the shape of them.

It's important to note that among "males" and among "females" there is enormous physical variation, in so many ways, from weight and height, to shape and size, to strength and fragility, to the degrees to which primary and secondary sexual characteristics are present. There are relatively hairless men, for example, and women who are quite hairy. Tragically, to me anyway, the men who don't have much hair are generally socially acceptable, but women with any thick hair on their faces or other areas of their bodies like backs, arms, legs, buttocks, etc., are made to feel like they have to have it removed somehow, or dyed a color that does't make it show up so much. Why can't women be just as hairy as some men are? This is completely "natural" after all?

For all of us, there are concerns about appearance and identity, and depending on what societies we live in, those concerns can be minor or major or completely pre-occupying. As Audre Lorde wrote so often, we need not be like each other to honor each other's being.

I have always felt a particular kinship with asexual and "intersex" people. I was very glad that someone with the screen name justme wrote to this blog, and I got permission from justme to make these comments into a separate post. What follows is our exchange thus far.

justme said...

Thanks for this post and for the blog, which I only just discovered.

As for me, I am a young (graduating college), white, upper-middle-class, Jewish, "intersex" (PAIS) female who is currently trying to deal with her identity with respect to sex (action, not gender). In particular, I was/am one of the "victims" of those surgical "fascistic enemies." While I don't necessarily agree with such a dichotomous characterization of what happened to me (or to others like me), I will say that I have been profoundly affected by the decision that was made about my body just minutes after I was born. Of course, thinking about what I’d be like if I hadn’t had it is scary too, since I only know myself the way I am now.

Mostly, the physical part of the whole sex thing has always been quite problematic. Growing up, I was always pretty girly (not tomboyish at all). Clearly the surgery had an effect on the level of arousal I feel and whatnot, but I grew up having crushes on boys and thinking, perhaps like most other good heteronormatively raised female children that I would get married in a white dress and have children and be just like everyone else.

That is, until my parents told me a partial explanation of my diagnosis when I was 10. So then I knew that I wouldn't menstruate or be able to bear children, and something about not having certain organs. I was told via my parents (who had clearly been given this information by the medical professionals) that I would have a "perfectly normal" sex life.

I eventually knew something else was up, but was too private to ask. I, devastatingly, found out on my own that I had AIS from seeing an old newsletter from the support group (which my mom had told me about before just by saying that it was for "girls like me") and googling it. I was 16, a full year before my mother finally was going to tell me.

Basically, since doing some discovery “work,” I've finally admitted to myself that I'm attracted to women.

It's really hard, because so much of my life has been about pretending that I'm a "normal" girl, and I always wanted to be normal despite the condition/not have it define my life. And it seems like for most queer people, its the "sex" part that is powerful enough to overcome all of the societal pressure (whereas I've never been very sexual - at all).

Also, in terms of "coming out," I feel like it's supposed to be about being you really are, but who I am is so complicated and fucked up, particularly for someone who I may have only met recently. And for other people, when they know, its all about the sex part. But I suppose that's getting ahead of things.

At this point, I would love to try being with a woman, but all the fears I have had about "down there" with respect to being with a guy (which I've never really done) are just amplified, as well as just the continuous thought that no lesbian woman would want "damaged goods" like me, let alone someone so inexperienced.

I've told some close girlfriends about the condition, but this step is obviously the hardest. I also wish I had more "queer" friends. I have a lot of gay guy friends, but theyre either somewhat self-hating or just not really activist about it. I have a pretty good friend who's a lesbian (and has a girlfriend), but again, not really a big deal in her life overall. The one girl I've met that is in a similar situation as I am (close in age, same condition, similar experiences) is really open about it after getting involved with her schools queer community and then being with a girl. Also, fyi, she identifies as queer as an umbrella term that avoids labeling anyone as anything. I like that way of looking at it.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, 2010 6:25:00 AM EDT

justme said...

Sorry for ranting all about me, its just hard to talk about this with anyone. As for the "I", I think it would be nice it terms of the awareness aspect, even though I don't really like actually identifying as intersex (the word itself). I presume most people have no idea about intersex, or if they do, its way more sensationalized or dealing with gender than what I have, but it's hard to be open about something so hidden.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, 2010 6:26:00 AM EDT

Julian Real said...

Welcome, welcome, and more welcomes, justme!

No worries and no apologies please, about speaking about yourself and the struggles you face.

I am so grateful you feel safe here to speak. And I hear in your words the deep and complex layers of parental and larger social mystification and confusion, and how much you've been struggling to even know what others know "about you", let alone how you want to be in the world.

I support you doing speaking here, as much as you'd like, as much as you need.

You are also, in addition to posting more comments here, more than welcome to email me at the address in the top right corner, and I'll offer whatever support I can, a listening ear, whatever, in more private email. Please regard me as a solid ally and potential friend.

I have to think that your voice here will be found by other people who share aspects of your own story and struggles, and will feel less alone because you took the risk to speak out somewhere.

In some ways I'd like, only with your permission and genuine wishes, to make your comments thus far into a separate post, as well as leaving them right here. (But read through this whole reply to you, because I, personally, have reservations about this as well.)

I see so little understanding for people with AIS and other conditions that allow the current medical world to term you "intersex". I'm so glad you raise the issue of the term not being one you like. To me, it's a very "destabilising" term. It's a term that locates someone's being as not being where they "should be", if that makes any sense at all!! It's sort of like calling someone "disabled". It assumes there are "able" people who are just fine, who don't struggle with body, mind, and general being in the world. Who is it that we're all being measured against to determine the degrees to which we fit or don't?

I've recently discovered from some writings by Sarah Deer, how really problematic the term Two Spirit is, if used by non-Indigenous individuals an umbrella term for Indigenous people in North America (or beyond) who are not "traditionally" gendered and sexed in ways recognised by WHM society. By whose traditions, first of all. Why is there even an assumption that dominant society has it even close to right?!

WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, 2010 12:28:00 PM EDT

Julian Real said...

This whole matter is so perplexing, of what to call ourselves--to even find names that aren't labels, as my feminist mentor used to say. (Naming being something we do to empower ourselves; labeling being something done to us by oppressors.)

There's this whole matter of finding words that make sense of who we are, rather than force us into some medical diagnosis created for surgeons and pharmacies to more "appropriately" be able to invade our bodies.

I struggled for years about whether or not to identify as gay--partly due to the sheer force and depressing weight of heterosexist and homophobic society. But also because I'm so at odds with so much of what I see as "gayness" in places where I've lived--meaning, primarily, the degrees to which it is heteronormative and patriarchal, either in ways that dominant society accepts and welcomes, or in ways it despises.

I totally understand anyone wanting to fit it, to not be the queer among the queers.

I'll stop for now, but please let me know, either by commenting again here, or by email, if you would TRULY welcome me to post your comments as a separate post, in part to make the parts of your story you've shared easier for other folks who struggle similarly to find you and know they are not alone. (I wouldn't want to do so if putting your voice in a separate post would feel in any way exploitive or exposing in ways that leave you feeling less safe, less comfortable, etc.)

In other words, I don't believe you ought to have to "be out here" for anyone but yourself. If it is preferable, for whatever reasons, to have your voice be as it is here, some comments among many others others on a post that already exists about queer politics and terminology, and not more "center-stage" than that, I support that fully remaining the case.

In what you say, I feel and see this whole matter of our lives being both incomprehensible (and therefore grossly misunderstood and stereotyped and feared) to and by mainstream/dominant culture and its people, and ALSO over-exposed (and therefore exploitive, robbing individuals of forms of privacy needed to sort out ones own feelings without also shielding oneself from very harsh and glaring (and dehumanising and often degrading) spotlights: for me this is such a dilemma: what level of social contact and public presence to have?!

Find yourself a comfy seat or couch here, justme. And let me know what else I can do to make your visits here more comfortable, okay? :)

WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, 2010 12:28:00 PM EDT

justme said...

Thanks for the response, and the concern.

Trust me, of all places to be uncomfortable, this is not it. Post away.

When I said that it's hard being open, I meant in the regular world, where explaining all of this is necessarily connected to myself as a non-anonymous person existing in the world - a person that people have known for a long time without any inkling about this (or just inklings about being asexual/gay/superprivate). In other words, rather than dealing with my sexual identity, I've kind of just pretended it doesn't exist (which isn't that untrue).

All of the friends I've told about this (4 pretty straight girls, and 1 straight guy friend) have been really open and accepting. But these are people I know love me for me regardless of anything else.

I definitely agree with a lot of what you say on this site, but I know a lot of people in the world that would view it as hyperbole, or at the very least "not that big of a deal" - as in, straight people who are not homophobic or gay people (read: men) who don't see themselves that far outside the mainstream gender binary, and thus are less willing to be open about those who are.

Mostly, its the fact that the most important thing for most people when they hear about these sorts of things (intersex) is gender - and associate it with trans/genderqueer (which i feel VERY little connection to, besides empathy i suppose). I know that some intersex people do deal with those issues, but again, that is just not a concern for me.

So, again, this is not where I feel uncomfortable. I've always been very open about these sorts of things - in a general sense, but its hard to debate (I'm mostly thinking of one gay guy friend) people who make ridiculous comments about lesbians and "trannies," without opening up about how I fit in to all of that.

In any case, I'm sure many people would be more understanding if this issue wasn't, like you said, both incomprehensible and over-exposed (only in the most sensationalist way possible, of course). Thanks for doing you part to change that.

THURSDAY, MAY 13, 2010 2:29:00 AM EDT

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