I happened to be off from work on the day Oprah broadcast her show on intersex people. It's a community that can definitely use the media face time and I eagerly tuned in to watch and learn more about a community that definitely needed the media face time. I was enjoying the show until a panellist made this comment in an effort to explain the differences between the transgender and intersex communities:
"Intersex is a medical problem, transgender is a mental one."
FYI to that person, there is increasing research into transsexuallity that point ot such causes as the 'hormone wash' theory and the BSTc brain regions of transgender people being being at variance with the biological birth gender identity. That would make it a MEDICAL condition.
Transgender people have to deal with enough drama from the religious Right, conservatives, ignorant sheeple in society, right wing talk show hosts and elements of the GLB community. The last thing we want or need is piling on from the intersex community as well. You can respectfully point out the differences between our communities without making incorrect statements as this person did on Oprah.
So what is intersex? It's the preferred description for what used to be called hermaphroditism, which according to the Intersex Society of North America, is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. It occurs in one out of every 1500-2000 births.
For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.
Intersex is the preferred term of the community. Using the old hermaphrodite term is considered by some people in the intersex community as an insulting and derogatory slur, while others are seeking to reclaim it as a pride word to describe themselves like some people in the GLBT community did for the words 'queer' and 'dyke'.
But a sometimes contentious debate in the intersex community roils up about not only how far do they go to raise awareness and educate the public on these issues, but how to build coalitions with allied groups to advocate for the interests of intersex people.
Some of that debate is exposing some peeps in the intersex community's frustrations with being lumped in transgender people. There are some intersex people who have expressed the opinion that 'transgender activists' are 'forcing them into an unwanted association with the GLB and transgender communities and trampling their rights to self-determination'.
As someone who is one of those 'activists' that peeps love to throw shade at, speaking for myself, that charge is ludicrous and baseless.
The last thing that I or any transgender person wants, given our own tortured history with the GLB community, is to be perceived as someone or a group interfering with the self-determination rights of others like our intersex friends.
I lived for two years with a roomie that was intersex, and I'm deeply aware of some of the shame and guilt issues she had (and still has to) deal with along with her post-surgery gender transition during her late teens. As Lynell Stephani Long can tell you, it ain't easy being an African-American and growing up intersex.
I agree with this closing paragraph from the ISNA website in the section concerning the differences between transgender and intersex people.
People who identify as transgender or transsexual also face discrimination and deserve equality. We also believe that people with intersex conditions and folks who identify as transgender or transsexual can and should continue to work together on human rights issues; however, there are important differences to keep in mind so that both groups can work toward a better future.
Amen. There are issues in which intersex and transgender people can collaborate on that will result in a win-win partnership for both groups. The anti-gay marriage push has negative effects on our and intersex people's marriages. We need to be in coalition fighting ANY Religious Right sponsored legislation that seeks to fix gender definitions based on birth genitalia, makes it harder to change identity documents or even narrowly defines what a woman or a man is legally. We also have shame and guilt issues we have to work out, and that's common ground for jump starting a dialogue between our communities.
But those working partnerships have to be built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust.