Intersex Invisibility

This week’s Glee episode, “Night of Neglect”, perpetuated two bigoted myths regarding sexual minorities.

The “predatory gay” remark was here before, so I’ll only touch on tangentially.

The other was the use of the “Hermaphrodite” not one, but twice in the episode.

It’s safe to say that the atmosphere on “Glee” is toxic when it comes to trans identities, beyond the use of the word “Tranny” and “Shemale” which are always derogatory words in the context of “Glee” (and the world at large), the use of words like that not only show utter disrespect and dehumanisation towards trans people, it also perpetuates the myth of who trans people are. Hint, they are people persecuted for being who they are and are a community at risk far more than cis (that is non-trans) people in a variety of ways including access to health, jobs and most tragically, family acceptance.

With regards to the use of word “Hermaphrodite”, this is a loaded word when it comes transphobia and the lack of awareness when it comes to intersex people.

At this point I would like to state that my knowledge of trans and intersex people and issues is second hand, I am a cis queer woman and these are issues I care about. Because my knowledge is second hand and comes from a number of sources which include personal accounts (friend, acquiescences and people I’ve heard at LGBT events), academic classes and papers, and internet based content found at websites like Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) and Organisation Intersex International (OII) (all of the 101 stuff of what intersex is, what intersex conditions are, etc. can be found on those two sites), I know I speak from a place of both cis and normative body privilege, it is my hope that I don’t fuck up too much in trying to spread some light regarding trans and intersex people.

So, that word, “Hermaphrodite”. To say that it is dated to the point of obsolescences when it comes discussing people who present genitalia that has female and male characteristics. Usually this is referred as “ambiguous genitalia”.

As you can see, just trying to discuss intersex issues, leads to a kind of pathology speak, because while there are intersex conditions that can create severe health problems, usually those to do with hormone regulation, the “condition” which causes panic in doctors (an in turn, in parents) is not being able to tell by sight whether a baby is a boy or a girl.

The unnecessary surgery performed on intersex babies is heinous, because they more often than not, cosmetic and to do with the aesthetics of gender, rather than sexual function, which when left alone, will work fine, only differently from the so-called “standard” genitalia.

What creates this panic is the ideology of dichotomy and binary. We are two separate and exclusive genders and sex, never can the twain meet, but in the act of sex, right?

Not so much.

I recommend this fantastic article by Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, an intersex activist, which dispels the myth of biological dimorphism (i.e. the differences between human males and females) and the real “differences” between male and female genitalia.
To quote:
…Variation in the shape of genitalia is a fact of nature. Some genital variations are labeled intersex conditions by doctors, and considered unacceptable malformations that must be “corrected.” Other variations doctors insist with equal vehemence not to “really” be intersex. There is little logic to this if you look at it from the perspective of physical health or function. Instead what seems to matter are ideologies: first, an insistence that all people must be “really” male or female; and second, an anxious commitment to associating men with big penises…

In “Glee” this is obviously part of a larger symptom of transphobia, as “Hermaphrodite” was/is used in the same manner as “Tranny” and “Shemale”, as a way of policing a woman’s looks, and of proving that a trans woman isn’t a “real” woman, because of the sex she was assigned at birth, because trans women can’t “pass” for real women and cis women who aren’t up to par when it comes to being feminine (big hands, for example) will be accused of not being “real” women.

Intersex people and issues are usually erased by being either co-opted as general lesbian and gay issues, or as specific trans issues, because they can conflate. But Intersex people and issues should be known and spoken about in their own right.

“Glee” doesn’t allow for that kind of discussion, because the toxicity is about the demonisation of trans identities and policing gender normative looks. I can only hope this post sheds some light on how the transphobia affects the visibility of intersex issues and intersex awareness.

ETA: The term cis, like trans, comes from latin and is used primarily in science to denote “on the same side”, while trans means “the other side” or “to change sides”.

In the context of gender and sex, it is used to de-naturalise the default of people who aren’t trans, because trans and intersex people are so “Other” in society.

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2 thoughts on “Intersex Invisibility

  1. The term cis, like trans, comes from latin and is used primarily in science to denote “on the same side”, while trans means “the other side” or “to change sides”.

    In the context of gender and sex, it is used to de-naturalise the default of people who aren’t trans, because trans and intersex people are so “Other” in society.

    I’ll add this explanation to the main post. Thanks for asking!

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