Intersex Representation and Visibility
One of the first questions that people often ask after the birth of a child is “is it a boy or a girl?”. More commonly than people think, the answer isn’t always so straightforward. The United Nations report that “up to 1.7 percent of babies are born with sex characteristics that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. That makes being intersex almost as common as being a redhead!” (UN Free & Equal Website).
So, why are we, as a society, so sure that male or female are the only possible sex categories? Most children who are born with an intersex trait or variation of sex characteristics (I/VSC) are subjected to surgeries in order to ‘fix’ the appearance of their bodies. These children are then assigned a sex and have repeated medical interventions to sculpt their bodies into what is considered normal (whatever that means). Until 2006, it was widely recommended by the medical community that the parents of children with I/VSC were informed that their child’s bodies were ‘unfinished’ and could be ‘corrected’ and that it would be best not to share this information with the child later in life. Clever linguistic devices were employed by medical professionals to discourage any idea that the child was anything other than male or female. This resulted in a generation of people who were left unaware of their medical histories, were frequently lied to and were dissuaded from raising any questions about their bodies. People with intersex traits frequently report growing up with a sense of shame and confusion. This response and representation of people with intersex traits as being rare and in need of treatment has only perpetuated the belief that male and female are the only natural sex categories.
I/VSC have always occurred, but since the 1950s, and until very recently, it was believed that medical intervention could ‘correct’ I/VSC and the child would adapt and grow up to be a typical male/female member of society. Now the silence about intersex traits has been broken. Since the 1990s, intersex activists have been coming forward to share their lived experiences of how these medical interventions “can cause permanent infertility and lifelong pain, incontinence, loss of sexual sensation, and mental suffering” (UN Free & Equal Website). Finally, in 2005, the medical community started to listen. With the help of intersex advocates, new medical guidelines were published that recommended that parents and patients should be given age-appropriate information about their medical histories, cosmetic surgical interventions should be avoided until the patient is able to give informed consent (apart from in ‘severe’ cases) and that parents and patients should be supported by a multidisciplinary team. The problem is that these guidelines are just that – guidelines.
While many argue that 2005 signalled a change for the better, what is still lacking is positive, accurate and comprehensive visibility and representation of I/VSC, both within and outside the medical community. And that is achieved through language, through narrative choices that we make, individually and culturally. For every time someone says ‘people are male or female, you have a penis or a vagina, testes or ovaries, XY or XX chromosomes’, there needs to be someone responding with the truth: that intersex traits are natural variations and intersex-bodied people are perfect, just the way they are.
My doctoral research at the University of Lincoln considers narrative representations of I/VSC in literature, film, televisual series, media reports and medical publications. We can literally change the world through how we use language, so let’s use it to celebrate diversity, to promote equality and drive change. In conjunction with the Eleanor Glanville Centre, I’m hosting a three-day, international, interdisciplinary conference entitled Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Intersex (IPI2019) from 17 – 19 July 2019 at the University of Lincoln to raise awareness about intersex issues. Conference tickets are available to everyone with a supportive interest in this topic and a roundtable discussion will be held on 19 July 2019 from 1pm, which is free to attend.
Megan Walker, Postgraduate Research Student, School of English and Journalism, Universit of Lincoln