Sex & Gender

intersex people are proof that nature is not as obsessed as we are with putting people in boxes

March 24, 2017

Gender is a fascinatingly all-encompassing construct. From the moment we are born, most of society reads one of two onto us and insists on treating us accordingly–often violently. These two genders, male and female, inform almost everything; from the colors we are supposed to like, the people we are supposed to be attracted to, the music we are supposed to be drawn to, to the way we are supposed to deal with emotional stress and trauma.

Increased awareness of trans and gender non-conforming issues and communities has worked toward flipping many of these essentializing narratives on their head. Before then, feminist movements challenged how we assign behaviors such as working outside the home based on gender in ways that most can easily understand now as silly.

Still, even today many people in feminist spaces have shown a reluctance to fully embrace the fact that gender is socially constructed around ideas that do not make sense for everyone. Trans experiences are still being reduced to “the way people wear their hair.” In arguing that trans women have “male privilege,” their biology is still being made the main determinant of how their gender should be perceived, as though living in a masculinized body does not encourage gendered violence toward women.

But even biology is not as two-dimensional as we might think. According to The United States affiliate of the Organization Intersex International, about 1.7% of the population is intersex–having physical sex characteristics that don’t fit stereotypical definitions of male and female–which makes it about as common as having red hair, with numerous different intersex conditions and expressions. Intersex people challenge the notion that one of two biological expressions are the biggest determinants of gender, and encourage a more expansive recognition of how gender works. In reality, hormones, chromosomes, genitalia, bodily history and psychology can interact in endless ways to create so many different gender expressions, sometimes with one of those things having more influence than the others.

Unfortunately, intersex people also face extreme gendered violence, particularly in the form of genital mutilation. Those who are invested in the gender binary not only assume people must experience one of two biological expressions of sex the same way, but also that not having one of two biological expressions is wrong. Throughout history, parents have been encouraged to have “corrective” surgeries on their intersex children to devastating effect.

It is important to include recognition of these experiences if we are ever going to get anywhere in talking about gender. As intersex activist Hilda Viloria recently told <em>Rolling Stone</em>, “If intersex people were welcomed and acknowledged from the beginning, transphobia and homophobia would not even be a thing. You can’t have these binary, transphobic and homophobic attitudes when you realize that biological sex comes in a multitude of categories and expressions. If intersex people, if we had been known about, these anti-trans bathroom bills would have never been drafted.”

*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.

Intersex activist Hida Viloria, Banner Image Credit: Hachette Book Group