Monday, March 13, 2006

Questioning Organizations' Movement-Labeling

There have been some posts to the Trans-academics list, also published at Intersex Pride regarding the variety of ways that people identify/don't identify as intersex, along with frustration regarding the uniformity of some of the organizations' choices and explanations.

One of the issues raised is a concept that I've been working with for a few years, but doesn't seem to have caught on broadly- not erasing the identities of people who identify differently. That means, not saying that there is only one way to identify as X or only one meaning for the identity of X, or alternatively, that to identify as X is different from Y (OK so far) because X is just [insert insulting stereotypes here]. (Some day, I'll look up the references to "not erasing" and list them here). To me*, it seems that intersex communities have a dilemma when it comes to not erasing: how to have the identity mean something different from trans about specific bodily/medical-related experiences, while not erasing anyone within the intersex community who uses the term as an identity marker. In my expereince, this is at least partly in response to some transgender people who feel that their own gender variance is biologically-based and want to idetify as intersex as a means of legitimizing this. While self-labelling and not erasing seem to be in harmony, in this case they may be in conflict, given that someone without the experiences of bodily sex difference and/or medicalization of that difference does not share the experiences of intersex realities, and thus the choice to self-label as intersex by a person without such experiences erases those experiences in using the label.

*The intersex discussion is outside of my own experience. However, the whole discussion seems to closely parallel the ways in which communities of autistic spectrum people have chosen to identify as autistic versus using the person-first construction common in much disability-rights rhetoric. The link above also has articles on responses to organizations that deny autism as an identity, of varying degrees (uncanningly parallel to how there is disagreement within the intersex community not only regarding medicalization/"cure" of intersex, but also disagreement regarding some org.s of people with intersex that limit how intersex is used as an identity).

It's complicated, because the idea of not being a thing that you have not freely chosen, such as medically intersex or neurologically autistic should be a freedom of self-definition (you can choose whether to use a diagnosis as part of your identity or as an external imposition). Yet, the danger in overemphasized this freedom is to disallow people who do claim what has been pathologized as a positive piece of personal identity. So, while I'm generally in favor of referring to others in groups or individually as "people with autism" or "people with intersex conditions," it is equally respectful to use "autistics" or "aspies" if someone/a group asks to be referred to as such, or to use "intersex people" if someone publicly identifies as such.

Part of this whole discussion also rests on the Social Model of Disability discussion. *BIG Caveat- I am not referring to intersex physical/medical realities as disabilities. Some intersex realities are intertwined with other disabled realities, which is also not my point here. Rather, the medicalization and pathologization of intersex bodies seems to closely resemble the ways in which physical/cognitive/emotional variations in humans have become a means of social marginalization. More information on the Social Model of Disability:
ILRU Disability Timeline Analysis
Disability, Identity, Difference
ILRU Youth Training Manual- see pages 13-14

The conflict should not be that there are differences in self-understanding and experiences of similar characteristics, but that there are universal statements made in this. This reminds me of a dialogue at a place where I worked with co-workers of many disability experiences/identities. Some of the workers/people requesting services referred to themselves as "quads" or other such terms, including "crips." Others were offended by this, and asked the people not to use such terms for themselves. Having grown up stating repeatedly that I was not "a diabetic" but a "person with diabetes" (which is how I continue to identify this part of myself), I understood the disability rights implications of humanizing people with disabilities versus pathologized identities. Yet, the piece of deciding for oneself which terms someone wished to use made sense to me too.

As an adult, I've been comfortable identifying as autistic or an aspie since I figured out that piece of my identity/experiences. But I still don't identify as diabetic, even though experiencing diabetes has been a large part of my worldview. I identify as a transguy and to simplify at times, an FTM, but those are about the only words I'll use as nouns for myself. Queer and transgender, genderqueer and "bisexual" when necessary, I do not use for myself as nouns. They are parts of my identity, but adjectively so. I don't feel a need to use "person who is genderqueer," but "a gender queer person" is sufficient.
I think this question is bigger than it seems.
  • How do we integrate parts of ourselves which have been pathologized into our identities? Must we?
  • What difference does it make how our experiences are dealt with, and what exactly those experiences are?
  • What is the difference between describing an experience/identity piece with an adjective versus objectifying it as a noun?
  • When and how is it important to stress the humanity of people who have been dehumanized, versus when is it important to reclaim as positive identities the dehumanizing oppressive slurs?
  • How can we build communities that allow for self-labeling, while claiming some common identity or experiences? (Perhaps the One Community Pledge is an example of attempting this)

  • What difference does it make to frame something as an experience versus identity-marker?

    I've thought about this a lot regarding so-called invisible disabilities versus more typically apparent disabilities, and it seems to me that there is frequently a social need to downplay apparent disabilities and alternatively to assert less-apparent disabilities. This seems to me to be related to how people with disabilities choose to self-identify. Yet, in my experience, this is only a partial factor.

    Any thoughts? Especially from people who identify as intersex?


Curtis E. Hinkle said...

I do agree in many ways with this. You have analyzed the dilemma quite well. I would point out however that if a person who is intersex can identify as woman or a man (which ISNA prefers), why is it that a person who is male or female cannot identify as intersex. I personally have no interest in policing a sex category which is not a discreet one. Since none of the sex categories can be defined in such a way that we can include all the members in that category, I feel we should admit the fact and leave it to the individual. Having people who feel that intersex is a pathology speaking for all the people who feel it isn't is very insulting, especially when most of those people are not intersex themselves and do not identify as intersex.

Alice Dreger speaks about us but has not listened to many of us who have tried to tell her about how gender issues are indeed central to the trauma in our lives. I will never forget in an interview on CBC with her. After discussing the difficulty of not feeling comfortable with my assigned sex, she simply dismissed my whole experience by stating that it is easy for intersex people to transition. This is not so. We have a whole thicket of medical, psychiatric and legal issues which make it extremely difficult.

I do not see how one can talk about intersex and not include gender issues or to dismiss them. I do not see how one can talk about intersex and not talk about the ambiguity of sex categories themselves and how the very system is flawed and harms many people, not just the intersex.

I have real issues with people who are not intersex, such as Alice Dreger and April Herndon who speak for us and are not listening.

How would a women feel when the self-proclaimed experts were men and they did not include many of women's issues in their analysis?

I do not agree with these two women who have co-opted my experience as intersex and in so doing erased my intergender identity as insignificant, which is what they have done. I do not need women or men to speak for me. I can do that myself.

Thanks for your insightful analysis.

In solidarity,

Jay said...

Thanks for your comments.

I wonder too about why intersex is a protected category of identity. I have taught it as such, from a variety of sources of intersex people. In the interest of not erasing, I've been taught it best to state as broad a definition of intersex as possible, and to let people self-define based on that. But there is an element of erasing others in that, and I'm not sure how to be both open to self-definition of intersex by people with intersex experiences yet not erase people who don't fit that experience set yet wish to identify as intersex. Any ideas?

The pathology question is also helpful- why police the identity at all?

I've seen some disability communities get around this by using identity as a political category- for example, it might be something like "all who are concerned with intersex equality" rather than specifying identities to be included. Or, in some autistic communities, I've seen statements that say "professional-diagnosed or self-identified" to broaden from a pathology-based identity. In transgender communities I've been a part of, I've also seen statements like, "all who identify as part of the transgender spectrum. We don't police identities here." Yet, I've also talked with people who have felt unsure if the community really meant to include their experiences, even when the experiences clearly fall within the self-identity guidelines.

Thanks for being willing to explain this and to share your thoughts.

Curtis E. Hinkle said...

Hi Jay,

I am interested in your profession. Do you mind mentioning that? You are very knowledgeable in this area.

As far as the dilemma of including people who are "not" intersex, in OII, they are intergender. We have a spokesperson both for English speakers and French speakers for intergender issues, one of which is intersex and the other not. We use intgender as the identity and intersex as the biological sex. However, I really don't think we know enough about sex/gender/orientation to really differentiate all these. As a matter of fact I think that the need to separate sex from gender and from sexual orientation is a result of the false premise that there are just two sexes. There are not just two sexes. If we dealt with reality, many of these artificial distinctions would become obsolete in my opinion.

As a matter of fact, I have met more intergender and transgender intersex persons over the years than those who simply identify as male or female. However, the heteronormative standardization within our culture is so subconsciously accepted, even by intersex people, that many want to erase any identity associated with intersex. The facts are the facts. Many intersex people definitely feel intergender.

To have someone who is a specialist in obesity issues, such as April Herndon, and Alice Dreger dismiss this fact is unacceptable. They have no right to speak for us.

In solidarity,

Jay said...

Thanks for your thoughtful responses.

You asked about my profession- My professional training is as a Master of Divinty and Master of Social Work. I have worked in both, and am currently seeking my first job after completing all the school. My social work experiences/research/practice interests have included all lot of work in the Disability Rights movement, work within GLBTTQQI+ communities, work in developing healthy spiritualities, and with children with attachment/behavioral issues. Right now, as looking for full-time work, I'm doing a lot of trainings within GL(bt) communities to be more inclusive of trans experiences, religious communities to be more GLBTTQQI+ inclusive, and anti-ablesim training within both. I also facilitate a local group of transgender/genderqueer/intersex people with disabilities working on social/political change.

As frustrating as it can be at times, I think it's kind of exciting to be at the time when people are creating new words to express experiences/identities that are emerging out of not fitting in old categories. Intergender is a great word for someone between genders, and other words I've heard used with their own nuances include: androgynous, genderf@ck, cisgendered , and gender-free. I'm sure there are others also. Around here (MN), in FTM communities especially, genderqueer is the most common, although it has more of a postmodern and political radicality that intergender might not.

It is upsetting to me that the intersex community leaders (especially as leaders coming from outside the experiences) are not listening to their constituents. I'm sorry that is happening to you. If there are ways that I or others can help, please let me know.

Having worked for years with a FTM and disabilty communities that have struggled against identity policing, I know that it's hard, but can work and can enrich the community.

Thank you for your hard work,

Curtis E. Hinkle said...

You can help by spreading the word about women such as Alice Dreger who, in my opinion, has co-opted intersex issues for her own agenda, not ours.

It is very humiliating that people who are not intersex and who do not listen to most of us speak about us while erasing our identity.

Many of us have tried to get Alice Dreger to understand how important gender issues are and she consistently dismisses us and treats us in a very humiliating and patronizing manner. It is unacceptable that a woman who is not intersex co-opt our experience while erasing our very existence.

The following quote is from her ISNA blog:
"Second, and much more importantly, we are trying to make the world a safe place for intersex kids, and we don't think labeling them with a gender category that in essence doesn't exist would help them. (Duh, huh?)"

How patronizing. Alice Dreger, who is not intersex, who speaks for us but will not listen to us, is telling us that our gender in essence does not exist and then ends the statement with a resounding "Duh". Well, I would like for her to give me a definition of any gender or sex that "in essence" would be true and apply for all members of that gender category. Why not let us decide what is "essential" to us?

She is free to be a "women" but let us be who we are too. Intersex people of all genders, including those who firmly identify within the binary as male or female, should be heard and included.

April Herndon of ISNA who has been involved in issues involving body size and who is not intersex also claims to speak for us. Please, let us have a conversation about ourselves without shouting over us.

In Alice Dreger's rhetoric, we are reduced to objects, mere biological specimens without agency and then she runs around shouting over us, because in her police actions of language and definitions, we have become once again bodies without souls.

Such reductionism is dangerous and will be the end of intersex visibility alltogether. I have real issues with all the people who are not intersex who speak for us and do not listen to us. It is important that we not be silenced, that we take back power of our lives and who we are and resist the co-opting of our cause by those who will not listen.

I have spent seven years of my life listening to intersex people from around the world and have used my linguistic ability to get insight into many different communities not being heard in the United States. Being intersex myself, I have been able to get others to open up to me, to speak honestly about themselves. The constant repititon by Alice Dreger that transgender and gender issues are not primary to our lives has damaged us greatly and rendered a large segment of us voiceless. This is not acceptable.

In solidarity,

wiboi said...

i can't say that I identify as intersex- although based on medical tests etc. I certainly could easily make the claim.

AS far as invisible disabilities I think the challenge often comes from as much within the disability community as outside of it. I have NLD (for more info check out:,,
ADHD and hearing loss in at least one of my ears (my doctor's appt. on Mondy will tell me if it's in fact both of them.)

I have over time developed excellent compensation skills and can function well enough in "normal" situations that generally people do not read me as having a disability. In mainstream society this has not been a huge issue except in employment and academic settings. The former are often reluctant to provided acomodation while the latter have proven little problem.

The challenge comes when trying to enter the disability community. Because I can function well and have little visual or obvious sign of a disability I often find myself having to explain repeatedly why I fit under the category of a person with a disability and why my disabilities are in fact "real". This process of constant self-ID becomes exhausting at times.

I wonder if the visible vs. invisible disability question is similar to the FtM communities male ID'd vs. gendeerqueer divide?

(Sorry if this is a bit incoherent I don't have anyone to proofread at the moment so you get to see the full force of my wonderful written skills;) )