Intersexed people have until recently been without a voice. Things changed four years ago, when Cheryl Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America and its witty and oft irreverent newsletter, Hermaphrodites With Attitude. This issue of Chrysalis, which is edited by Cheryl and Martha Coventry, both of whom are intersexed, reflects the groundbreaking work of ISNA.
—Dallas Denny (Editor)
We are thrilled that Dallas has given us this opportunity to present to Chrysalis readers these writings about the lived experience and the history of intersexuality.
Intersexuality refers to having a body whose sex differentiation is atypical. It is a matter of being different. There are dozens of reasons why a person may be born intersexed, but its major import is the same for each of us: We are different. Although difference is not an illness or a medical condition, sexual difference has been treated as illness since the middle part of the nineteenth century. Medical historian Alice Dreger relates, in “Doctors Containing Hermaphrodites: The Victorian Legacy,” just how Medicine turned its gaze on intersexed people in the latter part of the 1800s, and how that legacy is visible in modern day medical treatment of intersexuality.
During the early twentieth century, medicine developed technologies, both surgical and hormonal, to alter the body’s sexual characteristics. In the late fifties and sixties, treatment protocols were established. The birth of an intersexed child was labeled a “psychosocial emergency”— but one which was and continues to be addressed by surgeons and endocrinologists, not psychiatrists or sociologists!
Current medical thinking holds that having a body which is visibly different from most males and most females is incompatible with quality of life. Intersexed children will be rejected by their parents, stigmatized by their peers, and as adults be unacceptable as intimate partners—doomed to live without love. The medical solution is to erase the evidence of intersexuality from the child’s body, and then to deep-six that history of difference by treating it as shamefully unspeakable.
The effect of these protocols was to render intersexuals and intersexuality invisible. No medical follow-up was performed, and we certainly did not publicly identify ourselves. Most doctors assumed that we had all successfully blended into the woodwork, and were now living our lives no differently from men or women.
That is not the reality. Many of us treated for intersexuality as infants or children have been terribly hurt by the treatment. Genital surgery has damaged or destroyed our sexual and urinary function, as related by several contributors to this issue. Medical attempts to eliminate difference have failed to do so— plastic surgery does not produce genitals that “pass,” and for many of us, our sexual difference looms large in our psychic make-up. In the effort to transform “different” into “normal,” medical and surgical intervention succeeds only in compounding the suffering of a child who will always feel different anyway.
The first large group of people treated in this way has only recently reached an age at which we have been able to gather enough material resources and practical skills to begin to heal. Medical treatment, by rendering our intersexuality unspeakable, delayed rather than facilitated our healing. The first step was to find each other, so that we could begin to tell our stories, to overcome our shame. We learned that our secret worry—that perhaps others had benefited from this treatment, perhaps we were the only one abused and damaged in this way—was not true.
As intersexuals have come together—through the Intersex Society of North America (US, Canada, New Zealand), the Androgen Insensitivity Support Group (UK, US, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Australia), Hijra Nippon (Japan), the Workgroup on Violence in Pediatrics and Gynecology (Germany)—we have heard the same stories over and over again.
Hearing these common histories has given us the determination to speak out publicly and to prevent infants being born every day—about one in two thousand —from being hurt in the ways that we have been hurt. The stories you will read in this issue are an important part of that effort.
Until we found each other through support groups, the only images we had of intersexuality were horrible photos in medical books: children standing naked in front of a wall marked out in centimeters; tight closeups of infant genitals with surgeon’s fingers spreading the parts; surgical illustrations of clitorises being removed, of Frankenstein techniques for making penises more cosmetically acceptable. And all with the eyes blacked out.
When we first came together, we were still too filled with shame to allow our pictures to be published, or in many cases even our real names. Now, we are finding our pride and finding the strength to show our faces. With special assistance from Dallas, we have complemented this issue with a gallery of pictures of us. Pictures of our childhoods, of our lives today, and of the joyful changes that breaking silence has made possible for us. These pictures are our gift to ourselves and to our intersexual brothers/sisters and their parents who have not yet begun their healing journey. And to the world, to declare that we exist, we are human, we are everywhere among you.
Copyright © ISNA 1993-2008