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Posts from the ‘Intersex’ Category

Intersex and the Environment: The Politics of Nature v. Culture

By Elizabeth Reis

It’s complicated for a person who cares about intersex, as I do, to grapple with the growing body of scientific evidence that environmental pollutants are producing an increase in genital and reproductive anomalies in animals and possibly even in humans. I have always understood intersex differences to be “normal” variations. We know that intersex has always existed (it’s discussed in the Talmud, for instance); and we need to recognize that not all bodies match conventional expectations or fit neatly into the sex binary. At the same time, I deplore the way that toxic chemicals, which have multiplied astonishingly in our world since the mid-twentieth century, are polluting our environments and causing harmful changes to our bodies. Intersex isn’t inherently a problem, but what if it was caused by one? How can I argue that intersex is a normal divergence in sex development and at the same time abhor the toxic degradation of our earth, which seems to be afflicting us, transforming our bodies in “unnatural” ways?

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Birth Certificates can be Changed; Surgery is Forever

By Elizabeth Reis

We shouldn’t get too enthusiastic about Germany’s new birth certificate designation: “indeterminate.” Because the category will be an obligatory designation for babies born with ambiguous genitals (commonly known as intersex), the law might do more harm than good. Most infants are born with seemingly uncomplicated gender designations; we look at their genitals and decide their sex and their gender in an instant. Of course, not everyone grows up to agree with the gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people grow up feeling out of sync with the gender they were assigned, even though the decision for most of them seemed perfectly straightforward at the time.

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Reflections on Transitions: How my Transgender Issues Class has Changed in the Last Fifteen Years

By Elizabeth Reis

In 1998 I taught a new class at the University of Oregon called “Transgender History, Identity, and Politics.” Back then there were only one or two students who knew what “transgender” meant when I asked them on the first day of class. The others had enrolled either because the class hours fit their time schedules or because they had taken other classes with me and liked my teaching style (or had received a good grade!). I have taught the class several times over the past fifteen years, but this term I have noticed a distinct difference; it’s astonishing how the class composition and its general knowledge about the subject has been transformed in such a relatively short time. Change happens.

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Do No Harm: Intersex Surgeries and the Limits of Certainty

By Elizabeth Reis
The Southern Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Informed Choice have filed a lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS), Greenville Hospital System, the Medical University of South Carolina, and several medical personnel for allowing physicians to remove the atypical genitals of a 16-month-old toddler because that child, in the state’s custody at the time, was born with an intersex condition. M.C. had been identified male at birth, but his genitals were sufficiently indeterminate that surgeons removed his ambiguous phallus, a testis, and testicular tissue on one gonad, and surgically created an ostensible approximation of female genitals. The suit asserts that there was no medical need for this surgery, which was meant to permanently “fix” this child and turn him into an unequivocal girl, but it did him more harm than good. M.C., now eight years old, feels more like a boy, lives as a boy, and heartbreakingly has asked his mother, “When will I get my penis?”

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Why I Love Hedwig and the Angry Inch

By Adam Turner
Today I'll be focusing specifically on the idea that a person, or a part of a person's body, can be "ambiguous." I'd like to start by noting that the word itself is fraught. As I mentioned, it can be both empowering and hurtful depending on how it's used. The first question is: ambiguous to whom? Is this person ambiguous to themselves? Or are they just ambiguous to the person doing the looking? A person who, like many of us, is trying to sort and categorize the people around them into boxes labeled "male" or "female," "gay" or "straight," "black" or "white." But -- and this gets at one of the reasons I love Hedwig, with all its issues -- ambiguity does not have to be a problem. Taken up dusted off and worn proudly ambiguity can carve out spaces for human difference in a culture and a history too often resistant to divergence from the "norm."

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Feminist Conversations: Elizabeth Reis Talks Intersex

Elizabeth Reis is a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon and is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). This year (2012-2103) she is a visiting scholar in the History of Science Department at Harvard University. This interview originally appeared in Feminists for Choice and is reprinted with permission.

1. What was the motivation behind writing Bodies in Doubt?

So much of the “history” of intersex begins in the mid-1950s with a critique of John Money and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University. This was an important period, of course, because Money’s protocols became widely adopted, but it was hardly the beginning of the story of the medical management of intersex. As an early American historian, I wondered what happened to those born with unusual bodies in earlier eras. I wanted to find out how the gradual process of medicalization affected our understanding of how male and female bodies were supposed to look.

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