Book Review–Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul by Leslie Feinberg

Why is there prejudice against trans and gender nonconforming people? When did it start? Where did it start? How did it start? These are questions Leslie Feinberg sets out to answer in Transgender Warriors: From Joan of Arc to RuPaul in a world that largely takes sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, transphobia, homophobia, and similar forms of institutional subjection for granted.

For the purposes of this analysis Feinberg utilizes the broadest definition of transgender possible in embracing the word as an umbrella term that covers anyone who transgresses gender lines. This includes groups as diverse as, “transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, transgenderists, bidgenders, drag queen, drag kings, cross-dresser, masculine women, feminine men, intersexuals (people referred to in the past as “hermaphrodites”), androgynes, cross-genders, shape-shifters, passing women, passing men, gender-benders, gender-blenders, bearded women, and women bodybuilders who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body.” Some of these words have gone largely out of use, others have been redefined, and entirely new words have been added since Transgender Warriors was written in 1996. Many of the aforementioned terms, including intersex, have even experienced contested belongings under any of kind trans umbrella whatsoever in recent decades. While these rapid language shifts may be confusing at times, these changes are actually a positive sign. The fact our language on gender is changing at all means people are actually talking about these issues and it is having an impact. Plus Feinberg’s technique of using the term transgender in the most inclusive possible can still be useful for emphasizing how the issues gender transgressors from drag queens to intersexuals face on a daily basis are interconnected. After all none of us are free until all of us are free.

Feinberg also makes a significant contribution to anti-imperialist struggles with a compelling examination the connections between the rise of class divided societies, patriarchy, and the rise of European imperialism. Coming from an explicitly anti-racist, Marxist position, Feinberg avoids analyzing cultures they do not belong to and instead focuses on the central role the emergence of class divided societies and European colonialism have had in the development of prejudice against trans people. An example of this can be found in how colonizers forced their binary gender system on native cultures who recognized more than two genders. In fact not only were gender variant people not oppressed, they were revered and played important roles in their communities. There is also evidence this was also the case in Europe at one time in the far distant past. However all of that changed in the transition from matrilineal, egalitarian, communal societies in which resources are shared to patrilineal, class divided societies in which the majority of the wealth is consolidated among small groups of powerful men through means of inheritance from fathers to sons, private land ownership, and exploitative rent collecting practices that serve to direct wealth away from the lower classes. Such a system also necessitated a rigid gender divide and eventually evolved into the forms of patriarchy, racism, classism, imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia that we know today. This new way of viewing history also implications for how live and seek change in the present.

In the interest of praxis Feinberg and connecting theory to lived experience Feinberg also makes connections between the historical research and her own lived experiences as a “anti-racist white, working class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female revolutionary communist.” These insights help to ground all of the historical theories covered in their meanings for the present context and brings the reader into Feinberg’s vision for a future free of oppression, a future in which everyone has access to their own history and is honored in their gender.

In the end I would recommend this well-crafted and well-researched book for anyone interested in trans history and social justice. In particular I would recommend to anyone who is gender transgressive and wrestling with the questions Feinberg poses. There is nothing as powerful as knowing one’s own history. Once any subjugated people realizes their marginalization is not an inevitable, ahistorical fact of life that has existed for all times and in all places, and can actually be changed in the present there is no going back.

Documentary Review–Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric

This past February National Geographic broadcasted a documentary on transgender identities entitled Gender Revolution with Katie Couric acting as a kind of guide. Intended for a wider audience the documentary covers the basics of sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality. Nonbinary and intersex issues also receive some air time, but the main focus remains on binary transgender people, theories on why they exist, and how “this whole transgender thing” is having a moment. While any positive transgender representation on television is certainly welcome, the documentary does oversimplify and essentialize gender. As a result the documentary falls short in its representations of the intersex community.

First the documentary could do a better of making the distinction between intersex and transgender. While there is some overlap between the intersex and transgender communities (of which I am an example), the majority of intersex people do not identity as trans and the majority of trans people are not intersex. Also the two communities face different, albeit interconnected,  issues. For example, transgender people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of access to often necessary hormonal and surgical treatments while intersex people are seeking their rights to bodily autonomy by means of ending nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants and children. It is important these differences be acknowledged when intersex and trans issues are covered together. Gender Revolution does not adequately present these distinctions. This is mainly due to the fact that their main focus is on transgender and not on intersex issues.

Second are the interviews covering intersex narratives. These include interviews with the parents of a toddler who was diagnosed with androgenic hyperplasia at birth and an interview with an intersex trans man on his traumatic experience with early surgeries. For the most part these stories are handled well. The accompanying statistics and discussion of the failed “John/Joan case” help to further enlighten the audience on the issues intersex people face on a wider scale. Yet the coverage takes a problematic turn with the inclusion of a doctor who justifies his recommendation for medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children, saying he would opt for surgery if the child was his and the number of people who have issues after such gender assignments are small anyway. Such statements go completely against the lived experiences of intersex people. Regardless of gender identity most intersex people who undergo nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries in childhood suffer trauma as a result and have to deal with the life long physical consequences often in the forms of decreased sexual function, increased injections, and sterilization. In fact entire civil rights movements have been organized against the practice and are continuing to do so to this day. Seriously including a doctor who justifies nonconsensual surgeries on intersex infants and children in a documentary covering these issues is problematic at best even it can serve as an example of how many medical professionals have continued these contested practices into the present.

Now there are some things Gender Revolution does well. It manages to make the basics of trans issues from generation gaps within trans communities to transgender health care accessible for those who otherwise would never have learned about them. In this way the documentary does well as an educational tool, especially for the cis majority. Even with it’s problems I would still recommend it to those who are in the early stages of learning about what it means to be transgender means as it manages to impart the basics in a gentle and accessible manner through the familiar styles of Katie Couric. However it should be viewed critically and with caution, especially when it comes to the segments on intersexuality.

 

Book Review–The ABCs of LGBT+ by Ash Hardell (Ashley Mardell)

Ever wished there was an accessible, go-to source of information with colorful illustrations you could use to explain your lesser known identity when coming out to family and friends? Ever wished there was a comprehensive source of basic LGBT+ terms you can turn to for learning about the new identities you’re hearing come up more and more frequently? Maybe a friend or family member just came out as an identity you’ve never heard of and you want to learn more about it in an effort to better support them. Well now there’s a source for that: The ABCs of LGBT+ by Ash Hardell (aka Ashley Mardell), a Youtuber who’s channel focuses on LGBT+ issues and education.

With the input of knowledgeable editors from various LGBT+ organizations and LGBT+ bloggers, this helpful guide covers a range of topics from spectrums to gender identities to romantic and sexual identities. This includes an entire introduction to sex/gender with an entire section devoted to intersex complete with direct input from an intersex person and spectrums to help illustrate the sex diversity of humanity beyond male and female. The fact intersex is given its own section entirely separate from the chapter on gender identities helps to address the common confusion between intersex and nonbinary identities. Such confusion is understandable given the common cultural tendency to think of gender exclusively through the lens of biological essentialism. However, the fact of the matter is gender and sex are separate, socially constructed categories and an intersex person’s biology as such does not dictate their gender identity. We can identify as any gender along the spectrum and beyond or even have no gender at all. Many of us identify as men and women in agreement with our birth assigned genders. Some of us contested our assigned genders and identify as transgender men and women or some form of nonbinary. As so many feminists have put it, “Biology is NOT destiny.” In this sense intersex is not a gender identity in the same way nonbinary, transgender, and cisgender are all gender identities. Rather intersex as an identity is based on biological sex in a social world instead of psychosocial gender.

Beyond the information on intersex the text contains a wealth of information on lesser known gender identities such as genderflux, maverique, pangender, and demigender complete with input from individuals who actually identify with these terms. There are very few texts that show case such an expansive, informative, and well researched list of gender identities all in one place and to make it even better the section on romantic and sexual identities is just as expansive and informative. Not only does it include lesser known identities like androsexual, omnisexual, and polysexual, there is also a high level of quality ace/aro representation throughout the chapter. Ace and aro are slang terms for asexual and aromantic, words that refer to those who experience little to no sexual and romantic attraction respectively. Often these identities are lost in the plus of LGBT+ even within gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender spaces. That is why the inclusion of these identities in books like The ABCs of LGBT+ is so important.

Now, to be fair, readers who are familiar with the more radical works of queer theorists like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Dean Spade may find The ABCs of LGBT+ to be too basic and lacking in depth. However, as the title suggests, the text is intended to cover a wide range of basic information for a wide audience. In this way what the text lacks in depth it makes up for in breadth. Plus thanks to the efforts of Hardell and their contributors many readers who otherwise would never have heard of identities like demisexual, homoromantic, androgyne, and neutrois are now familiar with these often ignored identities and maybe have some new terms to help explain their own experiences. I know it has proven helpful in my own gender questioning and achieving my goal of becoming more knowledgeable on gender, sexual, and romantic identities beyond all of the binaries.

In the end as an activist, advocate, educator, and member of the queer community I would recommend this book as a guide to those who are questioning their identity as well as to those who wish to start educating themselves on LGBT+ topics and become better allies in the process. While the text only scratches the surface of LGBT+ identities, let alone queer politics, The ABCs of LGBT+ is effective in achieving its goals when it comes to educating readers on the basics of sex/gender, gender expression, sexuality, romantic attraction, and LGBT+ identities.

My Life on the Edges: A Story of Gender Complexity, Fluidity, and Expression

I am a neurodivergent, queer, bisexual, gender fluid, nonbinary, genderqueer, intersex (demi)woman diagnosed with Turner syndrome. This is the story of my life on the edges so far.

When I was born a doctor declared, “Its a girl!” To everyone present this seemed like a perfectly reasonable assertion. By all accounts my little body appeared to be what is considered typical for a baby girl and there were no other official options. Before I could even say anything for myself the word “female” was plastered permanently on my birth certificate, my parents gave me a culturally feminine name, and brought me home where a green room with all the essentials for a newborn were waiting for me. I was a very small baby, but healthy. Everything was going “normally” for this new Upper-Midwestern, middle-class, straight, suburban family.

As a child I gravitated toward stuffed animals, drawing, looking for doggies in the neighborhood, and assuming myself and my younger brother with elaborate games of pretend. I was the kind of kid who would pick up the Candy Land game and pretend it was a storybook rather than play the game itself. My favorite movies included Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and anything with a dog in it. A complete sense of gender had yet to take form and I didn’t really question my girlhood. At least I don’t remember doing so. I must have been too busy pretending, learning, and pestering Mommy (who is allergic to practically anything with fur) for a dog to be too concerned. Although I do remember being very vocal whenever someone told me I couldn’t do something like go shirtless, wear a suit, pretend to be a boy, or sing “the man song” from Mulan or suggested I had to do something such as like pink or play with dolls because I was a girl. I was going to play how I wanted and that was that as far as I was concerned. Looking back, I remember being a happy child who loved pretending and couldn’t do anything but be unapologetically herself. This continued even as I entered the wider world of school.

Once I started preschool it didn’t take long for the adults in my life to notice I still wasn’t learning how to recite my letters or count. As a five-year-old I was having too much fun playing and enjoying the family’s new, hypoallergenic puppy to be worried about any of this so my parents worried for me. It got to the point where my mother was concerned enough to bring me into the pediatrician’s office. There I chatted up the doctor using a larger vocabulary than expected of a small child, which left the doctor asking my mother why we were there in the first place. She then explained I still didn’t know my letters or numbers and expressed her concern that I might have a learning disability. While the doctor was surprised he assured her that I was still young, it was too early to tell if there was anything “wrong,” and I would learn eventually. This reaction reveals prevalent assumptions concerning what learning disabilities look and sound like that would come to dog me going into my formal education.

Since the general population tends to associate learning disabilities with visibly below average verbal skills and intelligence it took some time for my disability to be formally recognized as my above average verbal skills were problematically taken as signs of intelligence and therefore the absence of a learning disability. At first my teachers, while still expressing concern for my learning difficulties, had the same reaction as the pediatrician, “She’s still young. It’s too early to know if she has a learning disability. She’ll learn.” Fortunately I had parents who were excellent advocates for me and ensured I received the attention and resources I needed throughout elementary school. For a long time it was believed I had dyslexia given my tendency to write letters and numbers backwards, but I was not officially given any kind of diagnosis until much later. In the meantime, with the help of parents, teachers, special ed paras, and individual education plan caseworkers, I learned to read and write and even thrived academically with certain accommodations. By the time I was in fourth grade one of my teachers discovered I had a knack for creative writing. This positive feedback opened up a whole new world of communication for me and I started to write down the stories I had been either pretending or drawing all of my life. I even started to dream of becoming a writer like the authors of the books my mother read to me and my brother every night. The Harry Potter books in particular were abundant sources of inspiration as well as motivation to continue reading.

Along with new academic skills I also gained a fuller understanding of gender in elementary school. I grew my hair out down to my waist, started playing with the doll house my grandmother made for me in addition to my other toys, and would describe myself as a girl without hesitation. Still in terms of my gender expression I wasn’t the sort of child people called a “girly girl,” but I also wasn’t the kind of child people described as a “tomboy” either. I just lived my life as a girl somewhere in between those two labels and for the most part I was fine with doing so. At least I don’t remember my gender assignment causing me any distress or confusion in those days. At school and at home I was treated as a girl and told to expect growth spurts, breast growth, and menstruation in the coming years and had no reason to question what I was being told. It seemed to be just the way things were and I knew of nothing else. With no knowledge of options beyond the sex/gender binary I was fine with being a girl and expected I would develop into a woman in the same way as the other girls. I thought everything would go on like that forever. Then the transition to middle school approached.

Middle school came with a lot of changes in school, teachers, grading methods, routine, and classmates. All the other kids around me were suddenly growing very quickly and some of them were even showing visible signs of starting puberty. I, however, was still very short and relatively the same. At first this fact didn’t concern me or anyone around me much. My parents aren’t tall and everyone including me was under the impression my breasts were beginning to develop. Once again everything seemed to be going “normally.” For better or worse that wouldn’t last.

The signs anything other than average was happening became obvious at my twelve-year doctor’s appointment. The pediatrician’s face fell while examining where I fell on the growth chart compared to the year before. He then said he wanted to measure me again, which only confirmed what he had seen. I was already leveling off on the growth chart. This warranted a referral to a pediatric endocrinologist and a series of blood tests. A few months later a blood test revealed I had Turner syndrome, a genetic condition which in my case manifested in a 45X karyotype, nonfunctional ovaries, and a lack of spontaneous visible puberty. What we thought was breast development turned out to be only baby fat. In response to my body failing to reach expectations I was put on growth hormone injections in the hopes of reaching a height of five feet with plans to start estrogen and progesterone therapy after a few years.

Middle school was a particularly awkward time for me. My peers were changing and I was remaining more or less the same. I was never bullied, but over time I started to feel isolated and betrayed by the fact that everything adults had told me to expect as an adolescent wasn’t happening for me and I would never have the life they told me I would lead. I started to question everything I had been taught about gender and my place within it. I even felt different in some inexplicable way from the Turners girls and women I met at the support group meetings held at the clinic, which made me feel even more alone and confused. I was adrift without any references or language for what I was going through.

Then to make matters even worse my individual education plan was revoked when I was in the eighth grade because I was receiving good grades. As far as the administration was concerned my academic success meant I no longer needed accommodations. I, on the other hand, knew my academic success was an indication the accommodations I was receiving were effective and I still needed them. Even then on some level I knew I was being punished for being on the edge of what society constructs as disabled subjects who are deserving and in need of accommodation and which are not. Fortunately my parents and teachers agreed with me and took steps to ensure I received the help I needed for the rest of my time in middle school and going into high school. My parents were shortly after these events made aware of the option to receive accommodations through a 504 (a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act), which meant I needed an official diagnosis.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long to receive a diagnosis. After a few hours of tests the following summer a neuropsychologist diagnosed me with nonverbal learning disorder, which is common among people with Turner syndrome and usually presents itself in the form of low nonverbal skills, issues with spacial reasoning, social difficulties, slow processing time, and perfectionism as well as compensatory strengths in verbal skills. The diagnosis explained so much. It explained why making friends had always been so difficult, why it took me longer than most to learn new information and complete various tasks, and why I could be such a perfectionist particularly with my schoolwork. It also legitimized my need for accommodations in the eyes of the school’s administration going into high school, which was a relief.

Life improved in high school. I took advantage of opportunities to travel abroad, cut my hair to a more comfortable length, wrote for the school newspaper, gained the confidence to take advanced placement courses in European history and English despite my parents’ initial discouragement because of my learning disability, and still found the time to write my first attempt at a novel. Plus graduating from growth hormone replacement therapy to estrogen/progesterone replacement therapy allowed me to catch up with my peers in terms of physical development, which helped to resolve a lot of the social awkwardness I had been experiencing. At the same time this transition also meant going through a rough adjustment period. After starting a regiment of “birth control” pills to induce menstruation it took time to find the right medication, which meant I had issues with irregular periods. I remember my first period was at the age of sixteen and lasted for a whole month and it wasn’t the last time either. For a while I can recall having a long period like this roughly every three months and would need to go on progesterone for ten days to stop it. This lasted until my doctors and I finally found the right balance of hormones.

Still through all of its difficulties and benefits going on estrogen and progesterone replacement therapy seemed like the next logical step at the time. I had been told all my life I was a girl, would grow breasts, menstruate, and be attracted to boys. Going on this medication was presented as the next step in the treatment of Turner syndrome to ensure all of those steps happened for me. I had no resources to explore other options or seriously question any of the messages I was receiving about my gender and my body from doctors and the larger society. All the literature I read on Turner syndrome upon my diagnosis stated only girls had Turner syndrome, all of the people diagnosed with Turner syndrome I met identified or at least presented as girls and women, and no one ever made any references to anything beyond the binary or how you can still be a woman without breasts and a menstrual cycle. There was certainly no mention of sexuality in these materials let alone people with Turner syndrome who are not heterosexual. The only option at the time was deference to parental and medical authority, which meant adherence to certain cultural beliefs and expectations. This included the cultural belief that to be a woman is to have certain secondary sex characteristics and exclusive attractions to the “opposite sex” as well as the expectation that this category of “woman” is one I must belong to unquestioningly and unambiguously for the whole of my life because a doctor said so after a quick glance at my genitals when I was only seconds old. Given all these factors the decision to go on hormones was not really a decision at all. There was no real discussion about it, no consideration of how my identity might develop, nothing.

All the while I went forward with hormonal treatments and still felt different in a way I couldn’t explain. Most of my peers loved wearing dresses and putting on makeup and never expressed a desire to wear a suit as well as dresses on certain occasions, go without makeup most days, keep their body and facial hair all the time, or even feeling ambivalent about their breasts at times like I did. Even though I knew I could still be a woman and choice not to shave, not wear makeup every day, don a suit, and feel indifferent about my breasts sometimes, in my case there seemed to be something else going on at a deeper level that I could not explain. All I knew was no one seemed to feel the same way about their gender I did and it left me wondering what it all meant. Why am I not like the other girls? What’s going on with me? In short I was still confused, but having no words or role models to turn to all of these questions were buried underneath massive piles of internalized oppressions, fear, and insecurity.

Looking back on what this time was like I have a memory of my teenage self lying awake in a hotel bed with a burning question. I can’t remember exactly how old I was or where I was staying or why I was traveling. All I know is I was probably in my mid-teens and was likely traveling with my family on one of our annual family vacations. Lying there in the dark I began to wonder if I was bisexual. At the time it was difficult for me to say anything on the subject since I didn’t have much experience even in the way of crushes on anyone, male or female. In the end I concluded I was not bisexual. I just couldn’t think about being different in more than one way let alone begin to contemplate the nuances and complexities of being differently gendered specifically. This mentality continued for years.

What finally saved me was the coming out of a family member. Shortly after I turned sixteen one of my grandparents came out to me and my younger brother as a transgender woman and almost immediately we saw the parallels in our journeys. I can still remember the two of us sitting together on my parent’s family room floor and talking about our experiences with hormone replacement therapy the same day she came out to me in person. Finally, I felt understood. Looking back, I was probably identifying with her on an even deeper level as my own identity was developing in a direction more similar to my bisexual, transgender grandmother (who I now call Gran) than the rest of my heterosexual, cisgender family members. Still I needed language to explain it.

The first word I gained was intersex, which refers to those who’s chromosomes, hormones, gonads, and/or genitals are not considered standard for male or female. I was a senior in high school and had agreed to participate in a panel on families and gender transition along with both of my grandmothers and my aunt. In preparation Gran had written our bios for the event. She showed me mine, which described me as a heterosexual, cisgender woman. Gran then asked me if I felt that was accurate and I said, “Yes.” At the time I was very inexperienced sexually, had only just learned of the term cisgender, and had absolutely no concept of the variety of genders besides male and female out there in the world. I just didn’t know there were any other words to describe me. Then Gran surprised me when she said she wondered if I identified as intersex. Next thing I remember I was researching all I could about this new term and was stunned to find how much it fit how I felt about myself, my body, and my experiences as a person diagnosed with Turner Syndrome going through puberty with synthetic hormones. At the same I felt I had been kept in the dark about a significant part of my identity. All of my life there was a word for who I am and a much wider community of others like me and no one told me. No one told me there were entire groups of people like me who’s bodies didn’t quite fit into the narrow categories of male and female. Once I knew of the wider intersex community I couldn’t completely avoid the questions this new terminology and the diagnosis I had received years earlier posed for my identity: Who am I? What am I? What does this mean for my gender, for my womanhood?

Meanwhile I was also starting my first romantic relationship with a boy. Looking back, we weren’t compatible, but at the time it seemed like a good fit and I still don’t regret it. Yet I can now acknowledge I stayed in that relationship for as long as I did partly out of my subconscious fear of rejection on account of my intersex status and deep need for affection as reassurance of my worth as a desirable partner in spite of my sterility. It took leaving home and gaining some independence to get past these fears and see my own worth.

College opened a whole new world. I moved to a small college town in a neighboring state, met new people, and joined groups like Student Senate, PRIDE, and the campus feminist organization. In my academic life I took classes in new subjects including religion, women’s and gender studies, and anthropology with names like Reading the New Testament Through Marginalized Eyes, Gender Activism in a Global Context, and Participating in the Divine. There I found a passion for a social justice and conducted research on hormone replacement therapy among Turners women, investigated masculinity and virginity in the Gospel of Luke, the feminine divine in Christian traditions, and conducted a series of oral history interviews with my grandmothers on their experiences as a trans-cis couple.

In my personal life I gained more confidence and eventually left my significant other after three years of being together. We had been drifting apart since I started college and it was becoming clear the relationship was no longer healthy for either of us. After a period of grief for the loss of my first relationship and the death of my dog from old age, I started to branch out and allow myself to explore the full scope of my sexuality as a newly single person. I started to really internalize the lesson that people with Turner syndrome, like everyone else, come in all sexualities and this part of my identity was worth exploring. Gradually I became comfortable with my attraction to a cisgender woman classmate I was getting to know as well as others who did not identify as men to my knowledge. I even got to the point of coming out to family and friends as bisexual starting with my grandparents and my younger brother. Throughout this process I had fairly positive reactions and overall felt comfortable in my sexual identity, but something still didn’t quite feel right. Something was still missing.

By the time I graduated from college I had some important questions about my gender. Why did people asking for my pronouns tend to leave me somewhat uncomfortable answering only she/her/hers pronouns and wondering if there was more to the story? At the same time why did answering only they/them/theirs pronouns not feel right either? Getting others to alternate between singular they and she/her/hers pronouns seemed like it would be too much of a struggle in most cases. I didn’t know enough about other pronoun options to feel completely comfortable using them for myself. I knew he/him/his wouldn’t feel right. I just couldn’t explain it. Most of the time I felt the term woman described me well, but there were also times when I felt the term didn’t fit me entirely on its own. The same was also true of the term nonbinary by itself. At least I knew the term man didn’t work. It was all really confusing, but I was beginning to develop a new vocabulary complete with words like nonbinary, genderqueer, demigender, and gender fluid to explore and help me in my quest for my authentic gender identity; an identity I like to describe these days as woman, but not strictly so and not entirely fixed either. The truth is my identity is complex and always evolving. It very well may be a month from now I will be using different words to describe my gender identity and expression and that’s okay. Everyone should be allowed to experiment and change their mind. I’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.

For now, I am on a year-long hiatus between college and graduate school. It has given me the time to read, earn some money as a part-time filing clerk for a small insurance agent, and further explore new terminology and forms of expression. The more I learn the more questions I have, which means I am always figuring out my gender and my identity as a whole. Still I proudly live and move along the blurry borders between and beyond male and female, straight and lesbian, cis and trans, binary and nonbinary. It is a wonderful, complex, and beautiful place to live. This space is my birthright no matter what anyone else has to say about it, because at the end of the day I am who I am in all of my complexity and nothing can change that fact.

What about you? Where do you live and move? How do your identities intersect? What words do you use? What are your edges like? What’s your story?

An Introductory Sexual Guide for Intersex People: 8 Things Intersex People Should Know

These days accessing comprehensive sex ed in the United States is no easy task given the prevalence of abstinence-only education, the wildly varying quality of sex ed from state to state and even from school district to school district, and the pitfalls of receiving sex ed exclusively at home. It’s even harder if you’re not conventionally straight. The majority of sex ed is still geared exclusively toward typically cisgender, heterosexual people, which makes it difficult for those of us who do not fit neatly into these dominate categories to obtain the information we need to lead happy, healthy sex lives. In the case of intersex people this absence of information and representation is compounded by the stigma, secrecy, and trauma that often surround our bodies. One way to confront this problem is to have an open, frank conversation about intersex people and sexuality. For this reason I have posted this brief introductory guide listing eight things (in no particular order) every intersex person should know going into their sex lives:

1. Only YOU can define YOUR gender and sexual identities.

This point cannot be stressed enough in the context of a highly sexist, interphobic, transphobic, homophobic, and biphobic society that still operates under the belief that sex, gender, and sexuality are binary, fixed, interdependent, and biologically inevitable traits. There is a lot of social pressure to meet binary gendered expectations of heterosexuality. These pressures come from virtually every institution in society, including our own families of origin, and are often exacerbated for intersex people and others who do not fit neatly into any kind of binary. (Just look at the medical profession’s long history of gender policing their intersex patients in the name of cisheteropatriarchy). Given these constant pressures it is no wonder why so many intersex people have internalized the cissexism and heterosexism that is all around us. I know for a long time I thought I couldn’t be anything other than a cisgender, heterosexual woman for fear of being “doubly” or even “triply marginalized” and for want of diverse representation. Then I started connecting more with the intersex community and discovered intersex people, like everyone else, come in all genders and sexual orientations.

Know, regardless of your intersex trait or assigned gender at birth, you can be whatever gender and sexuality you want. You can be sexually attracted to men, women, non-binary people, gender nonconforming people, people of all genders, or even to no one at all. You can be a man, a woman, both, neither, or not even not have a gender at all. It is up to you. Only you can define your gender and sexual identities, not your doctor, not your family, not your partner(s), or even your own sexual history. So go ahead, explore. Try new ways of expressing your gender. Do some soul searching. Question your sexuality. Have some new experiences. Surround yourself with others who honor all of your identities and never expect anything less from sexual and romantic partners. Remember you deserve to be yourself. Life is too short to live in anybody else’s box.

2. Your intersex body is awesome.

Far too often we as intersex people are bombarded with negative messages of secrecy, shame, and stigma about our bodies. There is a long history of normalizing surgeries and hormonal treatments and even outright lies from doctors concerning our bodies. Then on top of all of this we are frequently mythologized as “hermaphrodites,” fetishized, or dehumanized as freaks throughout the dominate culture if our existence is acknowledged at all. At the same there are hardly any openly intersex people in mainstream media to begin with let alone positive representations. Needless to say all of this can leave us feeling desexualized, unattractive, undesirable, and inadequate as sexual partners, but that simply isn’t true.

The truth is your intersex body is awesome regardless of your size, shape, age, skin color, ability, gender expression, medical history, or readability as intersex. Own it and others will see it too. Always remember you are valid. You are desirable. You are deserving of pleasure and happiness.

3. Sex is much more than cis-hetero penetrative penis and vagina sex.

All too often we speak of sex as if it is only one thing: the penis of one cisgender, heterosexual man penetrating the vagina of one cisgender, heterosexual woman. We speak of all else as mere foreplay at best or deviant at worst. Forms of sexuality that do not fit into this narrow model often go unrecognized. This includes forms of sexuality that involve intersex bodies. Combine this narrow sexist, cisnormative model with normalizing medical practices and many of us are left feeling invisible and abnormal and that we are not capable or worthy of “real sex,” but that isn’t true.

The truth is the narratives we tell ourselves about what counts as “real sex” and what doesn’t are social constructs. In there are all kinds of sex acts besides penal-vaginal intercourse. There’s oral sex, touching, and the use toys and prosthetics just to name a few. Some  sex acts are penetrative and some are non-penetrative, but they are all sex and do not require having a typically male or female body. So no matter your chromosomes, hormones, gonads, or genitals you were may have been born with you can have a happy and fulfilling sex life, whatever that may mean for you. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

4. Your health is a priority.

Intersex people can get STIs just like everybody else. Be sure to educate yourself and take the initiative when it comes to your own protection. Learn how to practice safe sex. A good way to start is to visit trusted websites like the ones listed in the Sources and Further Reading section below where you’ll find information about specific infections, safe sex methods, and how to communicate with partners about safe sex sex practices and STIs. Remember your well being is a priority and you deserve to be in relationships with people who care about your health too.

You also deserve to receive quality medical care. When interacting with a medical professional you should be heard and respected; never discriminated against, shamed, stigmatized, or otherwise abused. Given the medical profession’s problematic history of caring for intersex people quality care can be difficult to find and navigating medical environments can be stressful to say the least, but it is worth finding medical professionals you can trust. A whole host of issues can be avoided with regular preventative care since some S.T.Is can present without symptoms. Plus it is always best to address symptoms quickly when they arise rather than later. Never be afraid or ashamed to come into the clinic for treatment for an S.T.I. It happens to everyone.

5. Birth control is necessary for some intersex people.

According to common wisdom “intersex conditions” or “disorders of sex development” render people sterile. The facts, however, are far more complicated. There considerable amount of biological diversity within the wider intersex community and this also applies to fertility. While it is true many of us are sterile, some of us can become pregnant spontaneously or impregnate someone else. No two intersex people are exactly the same when it comes to reproductive status even if they share the same trait. For example, I am infertile as a part of having Turner syndrome and have known this since my diagnosis at the age of twelve, but there are others with the same trait who can become pregnant spontaneously. Then there is also the way the medical profession still treats intersex people. In fact the common practice of removing the gonads of intersex people tends to render more of us sterile than intersexuality itself, which is one of the many reasons why intersex activists are working to end unnecessary surgical interventions on intersex babies and children.

If you do not know your reproductive status or already know you are fertile, do not wish to become pregnant or impregnate someone else, and plan on having sex that could result in a pregnancy be sure to find a form of birth control that works best for you. There is a range of options from condoms to spermicides to oral contraceptives. Also do not assume your partner(s) will have any other form of birth control. As with protecting yourself against S.T.Is, it is best to take the initiative when it comes to protecting yourself from unwanted pregnancy.

If you do wish to have children be sure to look into all of your options. Even if you cannot become pregnant spontaneously or impregnate someone else options such as in vitro fertilization (I.V.F.), surrogacy, and adoption may be possibilities for you.

Finally, regardless of if wish to become pregnant anytime soon, I would also recommend arming yourself with all the information you can find on your own fertility if you have not already done so or feel there are any gaps in your knowledge. Work with medical professionals you trust, access your medical records, and have conversations with others who share your intersex trait on their experiences with reproduction. Having all this knowledge will enable you to make more informed reproductive health decisions in general.

6. Communication is key.

When it comes to mutually satisfying sex communication is essential. It is important have frank conversations with your partner(s) about boundaries, comfort levels, likes and dislikes, and safety throughout your sex lives. Be prepared to share and listen. Remember in this process you deserve to have your identity and body respected. This includes your pronouns, name, and the terms you use to refer to your anatomy.

Also it is important to note that ongoing communication is even more important if you are polyamorous. If that applies to you or you are considering a polyamorous arrangement be sure to always check in with your partners and establish clear expectations and boundaries.

7. Consent! Consent! Consent!

It is not sexy. It is mandatory. Consent means enthusiastically and freely given, and reversible, and for one time only. Please watch the excellent Planned Parenthood videos listed in the Sources and Further Reading section. They illustrate these principles and what they look like in real life situations perfectly.

8. HAVE FUN!

After all sex is about pleasure so have fun and enjoy yourself. And if your brand of pleasure doesn’t involve sex and/or romantic attachments that’s awesome too! Just be yourself.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/educators/resources/digital-tools
  2. http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/myths-and-facts/
  3. http://safaids.net/files/Intersex%20Booklet.pdf
  4. http://intersexandthecity.blogspot.com/2014/09/f-if-for-fertility.html

Questions Raised in a Queer Studies Panel: Identity, Community, and Coherence

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel for an undergraduate queer studies class at Augsburg College. The panel also included a seventy-one-year-old transgender woman and a transgender man in his late twenties. Over the course of the panel we covered a wide range of topics including gender identity, sexuality, trans and intersex experiences with medical professionals, life after college, and more. The students and the professors alike asked compelling questions, but there was one question in particular that stood out for me.

Toward the end of the panel one of the professors raised a question concerning the use of themes such as wholeness, congruity, and coherence in trans narratives and theology and anti-ableist critiques of such language as problematic for disabled people. The other panelists described the feelings of wholeness and congruity they experienced in their transitions even in the midst of the difficulties of achieving total coherence in more than one marginalized identity, the most vivid example being how trans and bisexual identities intersect. I, however, had very different feelings on the matter that are more in line with the critiques coming from disabled communities. This is because, in the same way disabled people live in a world that constructs being able-bodied and neurotypical as the standard of wholeness, intersex people like me live in a world where being born to anatomy that fits neatly into the sex/gender binary is constructed as the only way to be coherent.

As a queer, genderfluid, intersex person living in a world in which medical authorities see me as having a “disorder of sex development,” prescribe “feminizing treatments,” and deny even the possibility of my gender identity and my sexual identity, I will never feel whole, congruent, and coherent. Even moving between my Turners community and my wider intersex community, two groups one would think would obviously understand each another, there is oftentimes a sense of disconnect. Most of the Turners women I have met are simply unaware of the wider intersex community let alone the wider trans community community and often have difficulty understanding all of my identities. At the same time too many of the few who are aware of intersex and trans identities suffer from high levels of internalized interphobia, transphobia, and biphobia that render them unable to accept me let alone even attempt to understand me. They seem to believe the ways in which I self-identify somehow implicate them. Then there are also the complications my bisexual identity brings on top of everything else. Combine all of this with the negative experiences I’ve had in support groups where there was intrusive medical supervision along with the wider culture’s common obsession with binaries and widespread lack of intersectional thinking and it is no wonder why I have yet to feel whole, congruent, and coherent as a social being.

Thinking on all of this I am left wondering: What does being whole, congruent, and coherent even mean anyway? Do we really need to be all of those things? Maybe we can embrace our multiplicities, our incongruities, our incoherence. Maybe we can learn to question the cultural belief in some magical, whole, congruent, coherent, singular, fixed identity just waiting to be found somewhere “in there” with just enough introspection and self-awareness. Maybe we can actually incorporate our pluralities and inconsistencies into the daily embodiment of our identities and recognize the pluralities in the embodied identities of others. Maybe then we could become who we can be.

What do you think? What identities do you bring to the table? What intersections do you call home? How do you embody your identities? What does wholeness, congruity, and coherence mean to you?