To be sure, for this series, I’ve focused on science, biology, behavior and data; however, I want to acknowledge that what we are really talking about here is people.
Even though I might dispassionately discuss the scientific and biological underpinnings of gender and sex, I never take lightly the issues that are faced by intersex people and their families, and that includes my own family.
Likewise, I acknowledge that although I am transsexual, not all trans people would be comfortable with a discussion that looks for the biological basis of gender.
Some members of the trans community might say that there are more important discussions to be had, that discussions about gender just perpetuate the gender stereotypes that confine us, and that we are who we are and it shouldn’t matter how we became this way.
For the intersex community, the goal is to refrain from forcing a gender on the intersex child, to give intersex people the right of self-determination and to eliminate genital surgeries that are designed to “correct” something that is actually a natural result of biological variation.
Therefore, in considering these different points of view, I would like to use this post to ask a different question:
“Are these scientific discussions about the origins of gender disrespectful and insensitive toward trans and intersex people?”
I am not an ethicist and I don’t know enough about the discipline to be able to speak about ethics with authority, and yet, that is what I am faced with in answering this question.
This question and the doubts behind it did not come to me suddenly. If they had, I’m not sure I would have made posts on this topic in the first place. Instead, I wrote these posts in order to address my own internal question of, “Why am I transsexual?” and I have taken the scientist’s approach toward the answer. In satisfying my own curiosity about myself and in sharing this discovery process with others through this blog, I now wonder whether I may be offending some people or even working against their goals.
To explain what I’m talking about, I would like to direct readers to the website of The Intersex Society of North America and their mission statement. Even though the ISNA is closed, the information on their website is still up-to-date and important:
The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is devoted to systemic change to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female.
We have learned from listening to individuals and families dealing with intersex that:
- Intersexuality is primarily a problem of stigma and trauma, not gender.
- Parents’ distress must not be treated by surgery on the child.
- Professional mental health care is essential.
- Honest, complete disclosure is good medicine.
In my recent blog posts, I have referred to research publications about the gender of intersex people in order to help understand the biology behind gender, but the first bullet point above is clear that gender is not the issue with intersexuality.
Reading further on the ISNA web site, I came across a web page devoted to “Shifting the Paradigm of Intersex Treatment” by Dr. Alice Dreger. I have reproduced some of this page here, and have highlighted in bold italics the statement in the table that is of note:
Shifting the Paradigm of Intersex Treatment
Prepared by Alice Dreger, Ph.D., for the Intersex Society of North America
Key points of comparison
What is intersex?
Intersex is a rare anatomical abnormality which is highly likely to lead to great distress in the family and great distress for the person with an intersex condition. Intersex is pathological and requires immediate medical attention.
Intersex is a relatively common anatomical variation from the “standard” male and female types; just as skin and hair color vary along a wide spectrum, so does sexual and reproductive anatomy. Intersex is neither a medical nor a social pathology.
Is gender determined by nature or nurture?
Nurture. Virtually any child can be made into a boy or a girl if you just make the genitals look convincing. It doesn’t matter what the genes, brain, hormones, and/or prenatal life are/were like.
Both, surely, but that isn’t the point. The point is that people with intersex conditions ought to be treated with the same basic ethical principles as everyone else—respect for their autonomy and self-determination, truth about their bodies and their lives, and freedom from discrimination. Physicians, researchers, and gender theorists should stop using people with intersex conditions in “nature/nurture” experiments or debates.
At first, when I read the highlighted sentence above, I thought that I was guilty of doing just what is criticized– using people with intersex conditions for my own blog discussions about gender. Then, after a some thought, I considered that I am not debating nature vs nurture determinations of gender. I am squarely in the nature camp because, as a trans person, I know that I have felt my gender since a very young age and I believe that I was born this way.
That brought up another question then. Even though I know that I have not entered into the nature vs nurture debate, have I referred to any data that were generated by researchers who did? If so, am I then perpetuating their work to the detriment of the intersex community? By citing these data, am I being just as exploitative as some of the scientists who have indeed researched intersex people to the tune of the nature vs. nurture debate?
And then going back to the people in the trans community who feel that discussions on the origins of gender act to reinforce gender stereotypes, I wondered whether that added a second “strike” against the discussions I had written in my blog posts.
Because of these doubts, I not only considered canceling the final post in the gender series that I have been writing, but I also thought about taking down the first three parts that I had already posted.
Then I stopped and wondered, is there danger in silencing the discussion? Would ignoring these issues be any better than putting them out in the open for transparent dialog?
This is new territory for me and I don’t know much of the history involved, so I decided to talk to some people who are more knowledgeable about this subject than I am, one of whom is Jamison Green.
To quote James on the subject, “Scientific discussions are not inherently exploitative. Silence perpetuates the exploitative science that was done. Discussion is good so long as the discussion eradicates the exploitation. There’s no way to combat the bad science if you don’t discuss it.”
So my next question was then, “Are my discussions eradicating the exploitation?” At this moment, I’m not sure I have an answer, although I’d like to think that my posts are anti-exploitative.
James continued, “We have every right as trans people to use the language that is available to us to try to articulate our experience. The unfortunate thing, in our case, is that there is no science about us. The science is about disorders of sexual development, and they have biological markers that we are able to measure at the present time. But, trans people need to be very careful not to co-opt the experience of intersex people, even though we use similar language to speak about our own experience.”
In addition to talking with James and other members of the trans community, I have also reached out to knowledgeable people in the intersex community for their input. I will continue these discussions until I feel that I understand the issues well enough to make a decision on how best to proceed with my blog posts on the origins of gender.
In the meantime, I invite readers to weigh-in with their own insight and opinions in the comments section.