Friday, May 14, 2010

InterSex Education: Videos That Explain Some Experiences of Being Intersexed

Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old from South Africa, 
after the women’s 800 meters at the world track and field championships in Berlin.
[photo is from here]
Caster Semenya was over-exposed in the media last year due to having her gender and sex interrogated in invasive ways. It was a despicable example of how dehumanising the media can be. Not that there's any shortage of stories of that proclivity in media!

Before going on with this post, I want to point out this website which is an education and support site for intersex people and people who have been labeled intersex. And it is where I found the image above.

What is so refreshing to me about this website is that it is multi-racial and multi-ethnic. I've just spent an hour pouring over all-white videos, to find some to post here. I found three that I think might be helpful. But they're all white and Western. So here's the website for all of humanity to learn about being intersexed. (I also link to it from my blog, on the right side.)

One child in every 2000 is born, naturally, with a sex that isn't male or female. Why, then, do we pretend there are only two sexes and two genders (and that one set--males, boys, and men--are superior to and  naturally dominant over the other set--females, girls, and women)?

I offer here three videos, each one quite different in style and subject matter. All have to do with what is termed being "intersex". These are the best I could find on YouTube, which I guess has just turned five years old. So Happy Birthday to YouTube. And while I'm offering up my critiques before each one, I find enough in each one to value and appreciate them. I mean, So You Think You Can Dance is Outrageously heterosexist, profoundly oppressively anti-gay and anti-lesbian in this regard, but, well, I LOVE that show. Such is life: finding what's special amidst all the oppressive CRAP. So I'll go into some critiques sort of to get them out of the way. I can't show stuff on this blog that, to me, is racist, for example, without mentioning how I find it to be so. Bear with me, please. I'm just not a "single-issue" kind of guy.

Each of the following videos centralise whiteness and Western white cultures, all normalise and naturalise heterosexuality, and none of them deal with race, sexual orientation, the politics of gender, or class. I didn't expect anything else, to be honest. But I wished for more.

This first video is one of the only ones that takes a positive view of being neither male or female. It does, however, assume everyone is white and in case they haven't noticed, people of every color and most ethnicities live in North America, the UK and Northern and Western Europe, when combined.

In the West, all the medical and most of the societally "unusual" stories are going to assume that whiteness is normal, and that telling the stories of white people with whatever conditions of birth or culture, is sufficient. I strongly disagree, and wish any story about white people described how their being white impacts their lives, how white supremacy and white privileges effect how they understand themselves and their particular form of humanity. How does institutional power shape the ways they view the world and the choices they make? How are white children and adults treated differently by the dominant Western medical establishment in the white het male supremacist West than children and adults of color? WHM-owned and controlled media, including television isn't likely to give us that answer.

This video is typically oblivious of its whiteness, of class, of sexual orientation, and this video is troubling to me on a lot of levels. For one, the medical intervention described is cruel, unconscionable, and done with no consent from the parents. This video is graphic about what this one intersex child physically looked like as an infant. I'm troubled by that too. I remember kids growing up and watching their parents show pictures to the grown child's friends, including the "nudie" tub pics or "naked baby on the rug" shots. No one I know welcomed this to happen. So how is a child to feel knowing their bodies were invaded not only surgically, but also photographically, and that this was posted on the Internet?

The other thing that most troubles me about this video is the way there seems to be a valuing of "boyhood" over girlhood", and the insistence by parents that, due to gender stereotyping--a child's interests and activities--they must be "a boy". There are plenty of people who were not boys who were more athletic and more active than Patrick. Girls and "non-boys" are not as socially valued and respected or statused and privileged as boys and men are. This, to me, plays out in what you are about to see. The video narrator ominously tells us that this child will have to take testosterone through injection all his life. Why? Why does he need more intervention? Why can't this child grow up without taking testosterone? There is an assumption that "playing like my son and not like my daughter means my child is a boy", and "because my child is a boy my child must be injected with testosterone for the rest of his life, due to a medical nightmare". I'm glad they are suing the doctor--who is just a butchering criminal who should have his license taken away, but I'm not happy that this child is not allowed to be a unique child (as every child is), but instead is being shaped into being a certain kind of child, with regard to gender.

The ways I was gendered were brutal at times, but far less traumatic than for some boys. I have written some about this, and you can read that *here*, in an essay called "The Trauma of the Gendered Child". I oppose the system of gendering that is fused to male supremacy and  to a gender binary of male over and against female. I support the radical transformation of all institutions and systems in society to eliminate all manifestations of male supremacy, and just "trying to make more genders within a male supremacist society" is not workable, in my view, or liberating for women and girls, or for anyone else who is deemed to be not boyish enough if a male-designated child, and not manlike enough if male-designated, boy-raised adult.

Having said all that, what I most respect about this white seemingly working to middle class heterosexual mother, is her insistence that her child should NOT have to be surgically altered.

I find these stories, narrated by Juju Chang, compelling and honest. In the case of the younger person especially, we are introduced to a very positive role model for how to value being "different". (I love the self-loving spirit of that child!!) This film goes way too far in offering up views of the flesh of one of the people profiled. And the gender stereotyping is heterosexistly oppressive, to me, in some parts. It promotes the "thin, Western European female human form", which dominant media never seems to tire of reproducing. This whole "No, really, she's a WOMAN! Here, I'll kind of show you her breasts!" to me is typically, unnecessarily sexist exploitation. But I find both Eden and Kylie in this video, from a U.S. ABC-TV program, wonderful people.

So what do you think folks? Is this helpful to you? Does it anger you or upset you? Does it affirm you?


justme said...

Hey there, it's justme again - I don't remember if I created a blogger account and there seems to be a problem with OpenID (clearly I don't want to use my google account). I hadn't seen this posting until now. I had, however, seen two of these three videos before on my own (the last two), but not the first, animated one, which I found rather cute.

I understand your issues with the videos being white- and hetero-centric, and I agree that they are, but (as I'm sure you understand), it's so hard to tackle all of that in addition to simply raising awareness about a medical phenomenon that has existed forever, and yet is perhaps the most taboo one in our society.

In general, I don't really have a problem with the videos, it's just a shame that no matter what "medical mystery" program or piece addresses the topic, it is always presented as this novel concept (like "everyone asks, is it a boy or a girl, but what if it's NEITHER??".. dun dun duuuun), rather than something EVERYONE should be aware of in its reality, not as a punchline of a joke. That "House" episode in particular was probably the most horrific presentation of AIS/intersex that I had ever seen and made me immediately stop watching the show. But even Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, both of which handled the issue much more tactfully, had WAY too much focus on possible "switching" of genders, rather than just allowing for the child to be who s/he was.

It's interesting to me that no one seems to comment on your intersex-related posts. Perhaps its because the people that read this blog tend to agree with what you say on the issue, but have no personal experience or knowledge with which to address the topic. Like, "yeah, that really sucks.." but that's pretty much it. I feel like I have a similar problem with my friends to whom I've disclosed my condition. They've all been really understanding and supportive, but there isn't really much anyone can say, simply because they cannot relate AT ALL.

Going back to the heterosexism issue, I do feel that this ingrained structure of Western culture is the root of the shroud of confusion and secrecy around DSD's ("Disorders of Sexual Development" aka intersex conditions). And in this respect, AIS (CAIS in particular) is probably much more digestible for the public since the girls are usually so "girly" (case in point: girl getting a pedicure with her mom and talking about being a mermaid/fairy). It's easier for people to handle stories of those whose sex is not clear, but whose gender is, or at least whose gender fits into existing stereotypes/gender roles. Those who don't fit so nicely into the preset boxes are another story altogether.

In any case, all of the heterocentrism makes any sort of intersex condition a medical catastrophe, when in fact, it usually isn't a medical threat to the patient at all. It's the rest of society that can't handle it, or at least, doesn't know what to say.

So readers out there: say something. Anything. And not just on here, but to anyone. Your friends. Your coworkers. Your family. Because if its intersex people who are charged with spreading the so-called news about this medical reality, it will simply never get done. There aren't enough of us, and even if there were, because it hits so close to home, most of us simply aren't brave enough to try to be the beacons of awareness (like so many in the gay rights movement have been) that are necessary to normalize this issue. Instead, almost all of us are forced to quietly live our lives "in the closet," pretending and trying desperately to fit in the boxes society has laid out for us. So let's not let Radical Profeminist be the only one.

The ball's in your court.

Julian Real said...

Hi again, justme!

I'm so glad you are visiting me again, and agree it's a problem that only intersex-identified and non-normatively physically/biologically sexed people are left to let people know about this whole matter which, as you note, is intimately and socially related to so many other issues: heterosexism being central to them.

And, intersexedness, intersexuality (and whatever other terms we have for people who don't "fit" neatly into a biased biological understanding of "two sexes only") is perfectly normal, just as being left-handed is perfectly normal. Something doesn't have to occur a lot to be normal. If it occurs at all regularly, routinely, in a percent of the population, it's normal for it to occur. Normal doesn't mean what happens to the majority of people, after all. If that were so, we'd consider being of color more "normal" than being white, and being a girl-identified person without male privileges more normal than being a boy-identified person with those privileges, and being poor more normal than being rich.

Yes, in a non-heterosexist society would we panic if someone didn't have that "right combo" of genes, hormones, physique, and sense of self that makes some people into "fuckable things" for men, and others into men who are supposed to view "the other sex" as fuckable things?

I personally, and I know this may seem an odd thing to say... but hey, it won't be the first odd thing I've said on my blog!... that I'm an intersex person but it didn't manifest physically.

I could go more into detail on this, but would rather do that with you offline.

Anyway, there are specific reasons why being intersex and intersexuality is a core concern to me, and it probably will be up to those of us who have some identification with the reality who are left not only to speak up about it, but, as you note, will be the only ones who have anything substantive to say in response and in support.


On race: I refuse for this blog to be a place that puts a white face to all and any matters of queerness because I live in a community and a dominant culture that seeks to do just that, passing "white" off as "just human". Whiteness is many things, but "just human" isn't one of them. It's an identity and practice, structurally if not interpersonally, institutionally if not intimately, of being an oppressor to the majority of people in the world.

Most people who are [anything at all in the world--except, in the West, possibly rich and the CEOs of ecocidal, genocidal corporations] are not white, and shouldn't have to see themselves invisibilised in so many ways, including intersex people who are mostly of color. That's just a value and commitment of this blog, but I agree that any white intersex person isn't going to be any more or less likely to challenge their own white and/or male supremacist privileges any more than any other white person.

I also understand why Western people of color are, generally, going to be less likely to speak out on this that whites. Patricia Hill Collins' work addresses this in greater detail. We whites can speak about our "differences" because our race, at least, isn't seen as one. We're not "already marginalised too much" by race. This is also why Angela Davis couldn't come out as lesbian early on in her political career, when white women could, more easily, who were affiliated with the Left. Whiteness secures a thoroughly corrupt understanding of "human credibility", as does "manhood".

And, I'm glad you're visiting!!! And commenting. It beats hearing crickets chirping here in these posts' comments sections. And I welcome hearing what you have to say. Always.

Please keep stopping by!! :)

justme said...

Geez, there I go again with my unbridled self-centeredness and ethnocentrism.

I'm really sorry if my comment came off as trying to detract from your overall project, which is absolutely amazing and, in my opinion, essential.

Basically, I guess I just meant (by my comment re: race) that it's so difficult to do what it is you do. That is, take all of these issues that have seemingly been separated into distinct factions of protest and combine them into the holistic effort that they rightly should be. I completely applaud your effort and wish I could be as knowledgeable and gutsy as you. So bravo.

With that said, I do feel somehow that if the idea is to make real change, perhaps you should touch more on the issue of intent. In other words, most white people (WHMs in particular) seem to be so averse to the notion of continuing racism, sexism, etc. because they don't feel as though they are "Racist" or "Sexist." Of course, anyone with an understanding of the sociocultural reality knows that they are, as we probably all are in some ways, but because of this disconnect, it seems that the rest of society can simply brush us off as fringe "crazies" who don't know what we're talking about.

As for the videos, I completely agree with you about the racial undertones. While I agree that being white is not being "just human," I do think that it's okay for individuals (who happen to be white) to come forward with their personal stories. As you mention, it probably is harder for people of color to come forward, and that is a shame (on a side note, Lynnell Stephani Long is the only person of color I have met/seen speaking out about intersex). But if these people don't come forward, what should someone (in an idealist world of course) who does believe that only presenting white stories is insufficient do? Make someone up?

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that your entire blog needs to coddle WHM-society or excuse it, but maybe you could acknowledge that just because there are huge problems with pretty much everything that is presented in White, Heterosexist society, doesn't mean that the individuals who present it necessarily have (consciously) malicious intentions.

While this doesn't change the facts which you present, perhaps it would make the admittedly radical (albeit correct) concepts more digestible for society.

Or maybe that's just my white, heterosexist upbringing talking. ;)

In any case, I will certainly continue to stop by!

Julian Real said...

Hi justme,

I think your questions are terribly important, and I'll try and do justice in answering them.

I'm not disturbed by someone coming here and presenting a need to address something in greater depth, such as being intersex, intersexuality, and the problem of a hierarchically dual gender society that manufactures men to destroy women in various ways. I'm simply going to note, however, when someone white comes here and doesn't own the meaning and presence of their whiteness. I surely don't assume most whites and most men have much of a clue about what their whiteness and manhood actually means, but what I am refusing to do is to be "racism 101" and "sexism 101" perpetually. In part that's because there are other blogs that exist precisely to educate people about what being white and being a man means. I link to them. One is "stuff white people do" and the other is "Finally, a feminism 101 blog".

I don't think either adequately deal with women of color's experience and existence, practices and politics, and I am not surprised, but am deeply disappointed.

There's perhaps too fine a line between being forthright and harsh. I seek to be forthright, but not necessarily harsh. Unless I'm dealing with some silly prick. In which case all bets are off. ;)

But you are an ally, a new friend, and there's no wish or need on my part to be harsh to you.

And thank you for your very kind words about this blog. It and I appreciate them. :)

The rest of my reply to you appears here as a separate post.

I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation. :)