Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is There An Intersection Where Transgender and Intersex Meet?

Over at A Word To The Wise, a thread is developing about whether there is any validity to the claim that Transsexual and Intersex conditions intersect with each other. This essay is intended to explore the implications of some "eureka" discovery being published that showed an unequivocal relationship between the two groups of conditions.

Allow me to open by clearly stating my own thoughts before I dive into the implications of some discovery drawing a clear line between transsexualism and some collection of intersex conditions. Personally, I find the idea intellectually appealing. The notion that transsexuals are a result of various biological factors resolves the issue of rationalizing some of the more difficult aspects of the transsexual narrative - such as the knowledge of being different long before any sense of social gender would be emerging. That said, as intriguing as the various bits of research are out there that suggest physiological factors at play are, they remain inconclusive to date. Inconclusive does not imply negation of the hypothesis however.

Intersex is an extremely broad term today - it covers everything from ambiguous genitalia (what used to be called "hermaphroditism") to an emerging array of chromosomal and genetic variations that result in various forms of sexual ambiguity. In fact, about the only thing it doesn't encompass yet are conditions which are seen as primarily psychological in nature.

The implications of subsuming transsexualism under the Intersex umbrella are enormous - but not necessarily bad.

(1) Shattering of the "Gender Binary"

I would argue that this change would all but destroy the concept of gender as a binary along "male/female" lines. The very existence of Intersex people on this world already calls into question the idea that there are only two physical genders. Including transsexuals would clearly demonstrate that physiological variations occur in ways that affect brain function and/or structure as well.

(2) Evolution of Gender (and Sexuality) Models

If the intellectual construct of the gender binary is rendered invalid, what replaces it? Ideally, some kind of "gender as a spectrum" model which recognizes that there are more than just two genders out there. This leads us back into the world (at least temporarily) of variations on the Kinsey scale - more likely loosely based on The Harry Benjamin Gender Disorientation Scale (which is modelled somewhat on Kinsey's).

When one views humanity as existing on a series of continua (for different attributes), it becomes a lot easier to accept as normal the presence of the unusual.

(3) Normalization of the Abnormal

The language of gender and sexuality that we have today tends to work primarily on the notion that there is "normal" and everything outside of that is "abnormal" (and hence, implicitly bad).

Both Intersex and Transsexual individuals suffer the negative consequences of this on a daily basis. Whether it is an over-eagerness to perform surgery on Intersex people to "normalize" their appearance, or the discrimination that anyone who appears gender variant can experience in using public washrooms.

In the long term, a broader understanding of gender than is currently typical will go a long ways towards removing the stigma of being different - regardless of the reason.

(4) Clarification of Gender Debates

Ironically, this would also be to the benefit of gender studies overall. Right now, we have a situation where theorists studying topics such as feminism are obliged to attempt to answer the "but what is gender?" question in order to have logically consistent models. This has produced some truly execrable results (such as Butler) which deny evidence already available. A more generalized view of gender would move those debates back into the world of the study of the social implications of gender - where people like Butler are much more able to form coherent arguments.

(5) Access To Treatment

Whether one is transsexual, or Intersex, accessing appropriate medical treatment is horrendously difficult right now. Most practitioners are ill-equipped to deal with such marginal populations, and the stigma that is associated with either is such that many practitioners are unwilling to even provide referrals to appropriately qualified peers.

Again, a more broadly defined view of gender would go a long ways to making it easier to shed the stigma that is associated with either condition. Normalizing a condition's existence goes a huge distance to making it easier for the professionals to be directly involved.


Anonymous said...

Personally I've given up on the word "normal" when I speak of people. If it's natural (and both intersex and transgender experiences are natural) then there is only "usual" and "unusual"; everything nature creates is normal. As unusual as I am, I am not abnormal at all. One tiny word can make a world of difference in how the world sees things.


Anonymous said...

transexuals are a a small but significant part of the the IS community

transexuality only exists because IS exists. The only difference is on group is classified at birth and the other is left to find its way in childhood, adolescence and adulthood

MgS said...

Penny - wisely said. Thank you.

@Anonymous@11:39: While I am inclined to agree that is where the research is pointing, I remain reluctant to claim that the results are conclusive.

MgS said...

@Maggie - re: your unpublished comment (26/12/09): agreed.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you. Their is no intersection where transgender and intersex meet. I think that the both are very different and that they are not the same thing.

Their is a deep difference between genetics and psychology and to mix those two up would be a very dangerous thing.

MgS said...


That's the interesting part of things. Not only is the transsexual narrative frequently consistent with an awareness of difference, but there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that those differences have their roots in both genotype and phenotype variations in the individuals.

If being trans was "all in your head" (euphemistically speaking), one would expect that a variety of conditioning therapies would be successful in allowing trans patients to overcome the drive that leads the most severely affected to transition.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Anonymous here. Intersex is completely different from transsexual and it is very dangerous to mix the two up. Sort of like nitroglycerine, it could explode all over the place if you are not careful.

MgS said...


You say "they are completely different", would you care to elucidate how they are mutually exclusive?

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