The Absent I: Marriage Equality and the Continued Erasure of Intersex People

Guest Post! This week’s article at LQTU is written by Celeste Orr.

The image features colorful beads that spell out the words, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual."

Why is “intersex” an afterthought in our community?

While many queer and allied folks have been celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, many others rightly question whether this time is indeed a time for celebration.

How can we celebrate as our fellow queers, specifically trans people of colour, face homelessness, un/underemployment, housing discrimination, staggering suicide and murder rates, and police and prison violence?

Recently many articles address this matter and note that trans issues are the “next fight” or the “next step” in fighting for LGBTQ equity, freedom, and liberation. But framing trans issues as “next steps” neglect that fact that, for trans folks and many other queer people, same-sex marriage was never the first step.

For many queer folks same-sex marriage was never the first step because we think that marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution. Marriage has deep sexist, anti-poly, and queerphobic roots. Many queer people are not homonormative and marriage, therefore, does not reflect their lives. For many other queer people same-sex marriage was never the first step because evading being killed was and remains the perpetual, all too often unachievable first step.

For queer and trans people who do not have white privilege, class privilege, homonormative privilege, and/or non-trans privilege, mere survival is always (and already) the first step.

Framing trans issues as “next steps” erases the (continued) activism and work it took for transphobia to be recognized as not just as the “next step” but a “step” at all.

Even if well-intentioned, framing transphobia as the “next step” also inadvertently re-creates a hierarchy of queer lives, identities, acts, and of (life-threatening) queer issues. Many trans activists, queer people of colour, and queer poly people have criticized this very hierarchy. Queer and allied folks should be wary of reproducing this hierarchy with “next step” discourses.

In thinking through the ways in which certain queer folks, even within queer and feminist communities, are marginalized, regulated to the bottom of the hierarchy, or are the proverbial “next step” I am not too surprised that, in the midst of this supposed queer watershed moment of same-sex marriage, the “I” in LGBTQI has been dropped, forgotten.

All of the articles I have come across in mainstream and feminist forums that address marriage “equality” and the “next steps” queer folks are “going to fight for” (or more accurately have been fighting for) exclude the “I.” Why is the “I” not a “next step” in mainstream discourse?

Building from the Organisation Intersex International’s (OII) definition of intersex, “intersex” is a general term “applied to human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly” or exclusively “male or female. An intersex person may have the biological attributes of both,” typically Western, culturally recognized, legitimized, and institutionalized “sexes or lack some of the biological attributes considered necessary to be defined as one or the other sex.”

Put differently, “intersex” refers to numerous kinds of embodiments that deviate from the (hetero)norm or, what Abby Wilkerson refers to as, “normate sex.” In other words, intersex embodiments illustrate that the cis-trans binary is insufficient.

Intersexism – the structural and systemic oppression of intersex folks – is real and palpable. Despite the fact that intersex embodiments, specifically those with variant genitals, typically pose no health risk, intersex infants and children are often subjected to state-sanctioned, non-consensual, genital mutilation at the hands of medical professionals.

This mutilation is paternalistically done in the name of fixing, curing, or managing the queerly disordered intersex body. In the United States alone, Emi Koyama reminds, “five children are being mutilated everyday.” That means approximately 1,825 children will have their genitals non-consensually cut on and de/reconstructed this year in the US by “benevolent” medical professionals.

In addition to this unspeakable violence with various long- and short-term physical and psychological effects, many intersex folks face systemic shaming, gender policing, queerphobia, and discrimination at school, work, and home.

Historically, many medical professionals have kept intersex folks’ medical records secret even when asked to view them. Some intersex people struggle with fitting into sexed and gendered spaces, like bathrooms. Some intersex folks also struggle with filling out governmental (or otherwise) forms that force one to pick a sex or gender.

In fact, these spaces and institutionalized sexing practices utterly erase the very existence of intersex people.

So I ask, why is the “I” forgotten; why is the “I” not the “next step” in the emerging LGBTQ next step discourse? Answering this question many seem easy, albeit devastating: the “I” is rarely taken into account or represented. In 1999, near the beginning of the Intersex Rights Movement, Robert Crouch referred to this absence as the “structural invisibility” of intersex people and the systemic violence they face. That invisibility still persists today.

It is true to state that the “I” has probably been forgotten because historically, intersex rights – like trans rights, disability rights, and the rights of people of colour – are invisible to the majority of people. But, I want to complicate this narrative because sometimes the “I” (like the “T,” “B,” and POC) is tactfully excluded at the expense of homonormative or (white) women’s rights. Or, if intersex rights are visible or added to the queer feminist conversation, they are added superficially.

That is, the “I” is present in “LGBTQI” but it is never meaningfully addressed. With this in mind I cannot reduce the absent “I” to thoughtless negligence. Even if the absence is thoughtless, it is political.

I suggest that the “I” is forgotten or is being tactfully excluded because intersex embodiments, by definition, illustrate and remind us that the way in which we understand sex as dichotomous is a farce. And, in turn, we are reminded that the institution of marriage, an institution based on the dichotomous understanding of sex, is insufficient. If we remembered the “I” we would have to address the fact that the same-/different-sex marriage model erases intersex bodies, experiences, and people.

At this moment of the same-sex marriage “win,” many people probably do not want to be reminded that the institution excludes a part of our queer community, intersex and genderqueer people alike.

But it is imperative to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is not really a queer “win” or it is not a win for all queer or differently bodied people. Same-sex marriage is not really a “win” because an entire community cannot fit into the sex binary. Same-sex marriage is not really a “win” if we recognize that intersex infants and children are literally being cut on so they can fit into the sex binary the institution of marriage and our culture is based on.

It is true that for some people with intersex embodiments, specifically those who do not identify as intersex and/or identify as exclusively male or female, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a win if they want to marry their partners. For other intersex people it may be non-consequential.

Ultimately, though, it is another instance of erasure and marginalization. It is another law, another moment that further entrenches the idea that sex is binaristic, that intersex bodies are “wrong.”

If we remember the “I” and advocate for intersex rights, as I call all queer and allied people to do, we cannot make the same mistake and narrate the “I” as a “next step.” We cannot continue to reproduce the violent hierarchy of queer lives and issues. Like trans people, particularly trans people of colour, the crises intersex infants, children, adolescents, and adults face is immediate and dangerous.

These issues are not “next” – they are now and always.

 —

Celeste Orr is a Ph.D Candidate at University of Ottawa in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies.

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2 thoughts on “The Absent I: Marriage Equality and the Continued Erasure of Intersex People

  1. Hida Viloria says:

    Hi Celeste — Hida from OII here, thanks for the great piece! It’s awesome to see allies getting the intersex community’s views out there! Since you are committed to making sure intersex people and our voices do not get forgotten, and you may not be aware of this,I want to point out that the term “intersexism” has already been coined & defined by intersex folks — namely, by Claudia Astorino, fab intersex blogger & OII-USA’s former Associate Director . As she has discussed with myself & others, and in this essay (http://www.autostraddle.com/where-intersex-meets-lesbian-266121/), it refers to the dynamic where, “more masculine presenting or performing intersex people seem to have privilege over more feminine intersex people.” Likewise, what you refer to (the systematic oppression of intersex people), has been defined as “interphobia” by intersex people such as intersex & trans scholar Cary Gabriel Costello, PhD (http://intersexroadshow.blogspot.com/2010/09/interphobia-not-cured-by-hiding-us-away.html), & used as such by intersex advocates such as myself (http://oii-usa.org/2402/intersexphobia-intersex-phobia-interphobia-what-is-it/) and others. Tx again for being a kick ass ally!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Celeste Orr says:

      Hida, thank you so much for these resources and correcting my terminology! I really appreciate your kind words and I will continue to learn and work on being a great ally!
      -Celeste

      Liked by 1 person

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