Search Results for: Elizabeth Reis

Bodies in Doubt, A New and Expanded Edition: An Interview with Elizabeth Reis

I first met Elizabeth Reis at a conference about intersex several years ago, and we became fast friends. Lizzie served on the board of interACT, the country’s largest intersex advocacy organization, when I was the board president, and though neither of us are on the board anymore, we both have continued our activism in various… Read more →

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.

Vagina Dialogues

By Elizabeth Reis

Students at Mt. Holyoke College are protesting the annual performance of Eve Ensler’s feminist classic, The Vagina Monologues. Their gripe with the play is that by focusing on vaginas, the play perpetuates “vagina essentialism,” suggesting that ALL women have vaginas and that ALL people with vaginas are women. Transgender and intersex people have taught us that this seemingly simple “truth” is actually not true. There are women who have penises and there are men who have vaginas. Not to mention women born without vaginas! Hence, these Mt. Holyoke critics imply, the play contributes to the erasure of difference by presenting a “narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” and shouldn’t be produced on college campuses.

Crafting Womanhood

By Elizabeth Reis

As a women’s and gender studies professor, I am especially aware of my privilege in not having to think constantly about my gender. Because I fit most of the criteria of a typical white American woman, I never get questioned or called out on my gender expression, and so I’m free to focus on other aspects of my life, leaving this area relatively unexamined. There have been two times in my life when I thought consciously about my gender identity: the first time I had sex (“this is how it’s done?”) and when I gave birth to my first child (“this is what women do?”). With both of those experiences, I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve never really felt like a WOMAN, whatever that’s supposed to feel like, but many women do this, and so I guess I’m one of them.” And that was the end of that. Since both of these events, many years ago, I’ve been able to put the question of my “womanliness” on the back burner and instead teach about the history and politics of gender in the United States.

Circumcision Debate: Cut the Hyperbole

By Elizabeth Reis

What frustrates me about the circumcision debate is that both sides exaggerate their claims. Maybe this happens with most controversies, but I am particularly attuned to this one because I have been researching the history of circumcision in the United States. A recent article by Brian J. Morris and others in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings overstates the health benefits of circumcision and downplays the risks. They argue that the public health benefits (i.e. reducing sexually transmitted diseases) are so great that circumcision should be mandatory. Mandatory?

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?

Trans History and Trans Students: Further Reflections on Teaching Transgender Issues

By Elizabeth Reis

Earlier this term, I wrote a blog post for Nursing Clio about the ways in which teaching my class on Transgender Issues has evolved over the last fifteen years. I first taught this course in 1998 when very few students knew what “transgender” meant and only occasionally would a transgender student enroll; in 2013, not only are students well aware of the topic, but I typically have four or five who identify either as transgender or somewhere else along the gender continuum. Most everyone in the class is cognizant of many of the controversies that surround the subject, such as what pronouns to use for those who identify as transgender or gender fluid. The demographics of the classroom have made teaching the class easier in some ways, as I described earlier, but harder in others, as I will explain here.

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.

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.

Sex in the Nursing Home

By Elizabeth Reis

Last week Bloomberg News published a two-part story about sex in nursing homes, which has sparked an interesting conversation among ethicists: Should the elderly living in a residential facility, particularly those suffering from dementia, be forbidden to have sex with other residents? The possibility of banning sex is controversial, as it is at odds with the fact that residents are not inmates under confinement, without basic rights and freedoms. As Americans are living longer lives, often spending their final years in nursing homes, we need to address their well-being and quality of life.