Dangerous Intersections:
Intersex and Transgender Differences
Raven Kaldera, November 2001

"You're just jealous because I'm a real freak and you have to wear a mask." - The Penguin

"You just might be right." - Batman

I'm an intersexual, and I'm also transgendered. This puts me in a peculiar place with regard to community lines....straddling the border between the transgender community (at best in its adolescence) and the intersex community (still in its infancy). I have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, I was raised as a girl, and I have now lived five years as a man. When I took on the task of Intersex Liaison for a major American transgender organization, I figured that I was being assigned to heal the split between these two communities.

Instead, I'm finding myself doing frantic damage control between two groups who should be allies. The newest issue is whether or not transgendered people should be "allowed" to call themselves intersexuals, to claim that both groups are, for all practical purposes, the same, and should be combined into one big gender-transgressive group.

I disagree with this concept fairly strongly, while sympathizing with the ideas of those who push for it. I'll outline my reasons in a moment, but first let's discuss the reasons why, as IS liaison, I constantly get emails and letters from transgendered people asking, "Can you help me find out if I'm intersexed?"

What most of them really mean, of course, is, "I hope I'm intersexed in some way, because then I'll have a legitimate biological reason for being transgendered that I can throw in the faces of my parents/relatives/boss/friends/ spouse/kids/the mullahs/etc." It's as if, on some peoples' minds, being IS is more "real", and thus more legitimate, than being transsexual or transgendered.

It's certainly more real to the medical community, and it's also more unacceptable. They have set the definitions for who is and isn't intersex, and those definitions are extremely narrow. If you do not show clear and present medically identified symptoms of such conditions as Klinefelter's, CAH, AIS, PAIS, etc., you are not intersexed as far as they are concerned.

Borderline hormone variations do not count with them, and neither does your internal gender identity. If your chromosomes match your apparent sex at birth, and/or you were born with ambiguous genitalia (which may or may not have been altered surgically, and since the surgeries are not great, you'll probably know by the scarring alone), and/or you had a puberty that was extremely anomalous and required hormonal intervention, it is highly unlikely that you will be declared intersex by the doctors or the IS community, which still, ironically, takes its definitions of intersex from the medical establishment that it professes to despise. Sorry.

And anyway, you might want to think hard about why you want to be classed intersex. If it's for "legitimization", that's colonization of someone else's identity without their permission, in order to please people who probably don't deserve to be pandered to.

If you think you'll find it easier to get a sex change, you're wrong - intersexuals who desire sex reassignment (and there are a few of us) often find it harder than "normal" transsexuals to find endocrinologists who will work with us. In fact, the single biggest problem for adult intersexuals is lack of adequate medical treatment. That's where the IS and TG communities differ from each other....although the TG community is also boundaried by medical issues, medical treatment that is adequate, appropriate, and ethical for both children and adults is the single biggest issue for the IS community.

We are far less concerned with academic gender theory and the deconstruction of social gender roles and far more concerned with stopping infant genital mutilation and getting some decent health care. This means that the two communities that I straddle have very different immediate goals and objectives.

Right now, the thrust of those TG folk who would combine the two movements is to point out the preliminary research that suggests primary transsexualism may be some sort of intersex condition in and of itself.

Personally, I don't think that this theory is at all unlikely, but it's not proven - not even to a reasonable doubt - and basing your political stance on unproven science is a shaky place to plant your flag. On top of that, much of the IS community - I'd say more than half - do not think of themselves as being anything more than men or women with unpleasant medical histories. They are uncomfortable enough with those of us in their own community who have chosen to get sex reassignment; they don't want the public to think of them as transsexuals. It's taken us long enough to get them (and the medical community) to accept the term "intersexual"; it will do serious damage to us as a community if that newborn term is promptly stolen by another group.

The suspicion of the IS community towards the TG community stems from more than just internalized transphobia. Intersexuals have been continually assaulted by transgender activists who offer to do work for us only because they feel that it will look good on their activist resume (to have an "in" with the "real" freaks, I suppose), and transsexuals who express envy to those of us who have been mutilated at birth. ("You're so lucky! You got the sex change that I wanted!").

This latter disastrous bit of public relations probably stems from thoughtless but well-meaning frustration, but it comes across on the IS end with all the charm of an amputee fetishist expressing envy to a former marathon runner who lost both legs in an accident.

Intersexuals also have some discomfort with the nebulous labels of the TG community; let's face it - ask any four different transfolk where the difference lies between "transgender" and "transsexual" and you'll get four different answers. Perhaps we, the transgender community to which I also belong, should maybe work on nailing down some common definition of our existing labels before we go appropriating more.

There are other good reasons for leaving the IS label alone, more than just the obvious fact that it will offend nearly all of the intersexuals. It will also offend many transgendered folk as well. Academic "genderqueers", who believe that all gender has a social rather than a biological basis, and who seek to tear down societal constructs of gender under that ideal, will not be happy with being classed under the (stolen) label of a biological anomaly. We've got enough infighting on that subject in the TG community already; let's not go making it worse. Forcing a biological label down the throat of cultural determinists could create a schism in our already fractured movement.

I do believe that the TG and IS communities should be allies, if only for the sake of those of us who fall into both communities. Putting some slack into the gender system will be good for all of us, and we can come together against certain political struggles. I can even see, in some contexts, adding intersex temporarily to the umbrella group, as in GLBTI, but the two need to be separate entities. As an example, someone who is transgendered might also identify as gay or lesbian, but that doesn't mean those two categories should be combined, or that they are the same thing.

And when groups decide to include intersexuals, it's important to actually research the issues that are important to this population, or you risk turning the gesture into empty tokenism. The fact that some transgendered people are willing to alienate the majority of the IS community in order to get their hands on that label is a clear sign that they have not bothered to investigate our actual concerns.

Claiming the medically defined identity of intersex when you have none of the problems involved has been compared to claiming a nonexistent disability to get better parking spaces, or claiming a minority identity that you don't have in order to get a better job in an area with affirmative action laws.

We are all minorities, and we don't need to prey on each other. If those transgendered people who feel that they A) have an identity somewhere between male and female, and B) that it is biologically based would like to create a previously unused term to describe themselves, I'll add it to my vocabulary.

But please don't steal another minority group's term, or declare that "we are all one" without actually consulting any of them.

As as for those of us who are both intersexed and transgendered.....we didn't do what we did in order to be anyone's justification. Like anyone who lives a both/and life rather than an either/or existence, we are psychically spread-eagled across the gap between these two groups. Transfolk of all people should know by now that whenever a line is drawn, it passes through someone's flesh.

Whenever infighting between two communities causes a chasm to open up between them, it is we who fall into it. It's all we can do to bridge the political and social gap between IS and TG as it is. Perhaps, someday in the far future, we will be able to bring our communities closer together, but right now this kind of identity colonization only deepens the gulf of resentment and misunderstanding, and makes our jobs - and our lives - that much harder.

In hopes of better understanding all around,

Raven Kaldera
Intersex Liaison for the Board of Directors
American Boyz