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An intro to intersex identities Part 2: When trans-centred language falls short

Speech bubble 1: Transphobes should know that biology tells us that there's much more that XX or XY. Speech bubble 2: The gender binary isn't a "natural order." Haven't they heard of intersex peopl?!" Speech bubble 3: "So does anyone actually care about intersex issues, or does our existence simply make good arguing points?"

Image by Sophie LaBelle, @Assigned Male

As the topic of gender politics and trans identities become more common and nuanced, members of certain communities are finding themselves pushed further to the margins of what is coming to be known as the “mainstream” trans movement. Awareness and inclusivity of intersex communities in particular is commonly lacking or nonexistent, both in general society and in queer spaces that endeavour to be welcoming to as many bodies and identities as possible.

Here are some trans-centred language and behaviours that we can shift in order to do better for intersex people in our communities:

1) Playing the intersex “trump card”

A frequent critique of queer and trans activists is that intersex people are usually brought up as a “trump card” to shut down biology-based arguments meant to invalidate trans identities. Commonly, though, the activists using these arguments are generally observed to have very limited knowledge of intersex identities themselves, and rarely make room for intersex people in their own communities. For activists and allies, it is important to celebrate our triumphs but also to acknowledge our shortcomings – to analyze our language, our behaviours and our beliefs about trans politics and the place of intersex people within these movements. It is not enough to simply pay lip service to intersex people when convenient, or to “check off” another box of diverse identities. We must make space for intersex friends and leaders to bring their own talents, knowledge and experience to the table, and disrupt the common narrative of erasure and tokenization.

2) When “cisgender” falls short

It is common for activists to use the term cisgender to refer to anyone who does not actively identify as trans or non-binary. However, the use of this term raises many questions in relation to intersex people; If someone is genitally intermediate at birth, assigned female due to surgical intervention and grows up to identify as a woman, the term seems inadequate to describe her experience as someone who both underwent a physical transition process to align with gender characteristics while still identifying with the gender she was assigned at birth. For very similar reasons, the way that binary terms like AFAB and AMAB (assigned female/male at birth) are currently used to describe one’s socialization based on their birth sex are also insufficient for describing intersex experiences.

Speech bubble 1: Transphobes should know that biology tells us that there's much more that XX or XY. Speech bubble 2: The gender binary isn't a "natural order." Haven't they heard of intersex peopl?!" Speech bubble 3: "So does anyone actually care about intersex issues, or does our existence simply make good arguing points?"

Image by Sophie LaBelle, @Assigned Male

3) Only trans people hormonally transition

Many intersex people undergo comparable hormone therapy to trans people in order to stabilize their physical characteristics, however they do so to align more with their assigned gender at birth, not to transition to another gender. There are also many people who are both intersex and trans whose experiences are almost totally erased by dominant narratives about transitioning, and expectations about what physical and social changes are involved in being trans. (Many cisgender people are also hormonally supported to align with the gender they identify with, but there are some serious double standards when is comes to access, and that’s a conversation for another time.)

Moving forward

Trans activists in North America are currently being acknowledged and given platforms in exciting ways that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. Movements that disrupt traditional narratives about gender and socialization are gaining traction and being discussed in ways that are increasingly common and public. People are able to find community and put names to identities that once made them feel isolated and scared. However, it is important to take a critical look at what kinds of gender and sex identities are gaining power and support, and which are being left to the wayside.

As a community that is subject to very literal erasure from the medical system, it is simply not enough to only include intersex people in trans politics when it is convenient. For a movement to be inclusive and represent all marginalized gender and sex identities, we must first begin with a self-reflective critical lens of the ways we can do better by everyone we claim to support, not only our friends or people who fall into common narratives. We must create communities that celebrate intersex people and build them up as leaders, and look at the ways that our own practices and language can support this.

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Ambit Gender Diversity Consulting