English version of presentation given in French at the 1st European OII Intersex Conference, Paris, August 2006
I would like to express my thanks to the organisers of this conference, and OII France and Belgium, for asking me to speak today. I had only intended to come to show solidarity with my fellows here in Paris today, so please forgive me if this is a bit hastily written, and for my lack of French.
My subject is very simple, that we can define our terms, but not people. Throughout my research, I have been struck how the terms we use can be liberating for some, and offensive to others. Even to discuss words like intersex, transsexual, transgender, and intergender, in the same sentence is seen by some as being almost heretical. Yet, people come in many different forms, and their life-experiences may lend to them a unique experience which the fixed categories drawn up in the 19th Century may not encapsulate.
Although I do not speak French, I have personally been much inspired in my own work through translations of some of France’s greatest thinkers. It was, almost inevitably for anyone working in this area, Michel Foucault who first inspired me to return to my books, pens, keyboard and re-kindled my love for Philosophy. My research took me back through the earliest of definers of sexuality and gender-nonconformity in the 19th Century and into the early twentieth century; I found the Philosophy of this basic aspect of humanity deeply lacking as I went over Descartes (Descartes, 1673/1974), and the British Empiricists. Yet, out of this arid intellectual desert I looked once more into the writings of people like Sartre (Sartre, 1958), deBeauvoir (de Beauvoir, 1949/1997), Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty, 1962), as well as other continental phenomenologists, and I found something very liberating I had not appreciated before.
Even if our sexual and gender identities can be defined through biological and psychological essentials, these cannot be understood in such terms. As with consciousness, where it may be possible to explain the brain and what it does, descriptions of neurological mechanism and activity cannot inform what it means to have a conscious life (McCulloch, 1994). Sartre understood that understanding people and their world is a different exercise to an objective study of nature. Similarly, to understand the lived-experience of people in the context of sexuality and gender-identity cannot be achieved through empirical investigations either. The lived-experience of intersex is understandable existentially and phenomenologically, rather than through science and medicine.
The kernel of what I discovered is that the way we are, in our bodies and the mind that is an integral part of them, this is our being, our existence, our essence, and our spirit. This cannot be encapsulated in the dry categories of academia, this is the living flesh of which we are made. We become what others see in us. The role of medicine has been to categorise, define, dissect and describe us – to take us apart, reduced from the whole. We have been defined as something alien and other, something to be modified, corrected, and conformed. Yet, this entire approach of defining terms, allocating categories, strips us of our humanity – it is dehumanising, and it has as its premise that we are in some way deficient, deformed and wrong.
Yet, we exist, and we exist in ways that defy the rigid constraints that professionals seek to impose upon us, impose through the arbitrary definitions of binary sex, gender and sexuality configurations. There is no comfort in holding on to these MacDonaldised notions of how people should be, because our very existence from birth as people who have not developed in ways that “should” be, exposes these definitions for the inadequate representations that they are. They are a collusion of experts, and a conspiracy to prevent us from pursuing our full membership of society, unless we conform.
These definitions do not serve us at all – they serve those who create them, and in order to become free, we must liberate ourselves from the definitions imposed upon us by others. Professionals have sought to define us through terms such as transsexual, intersex, hermaphrodite, and now disorders of sex development. In submitting to these terms we collude with them in the whole process of oppression that has been perpetrated against us in the past. This is the essence of our being – we are human beings, and it is as human beings that we need to be defined.
The process of definition becomes a channel through which we can be assessed, judged, manipulated, and coerced. Experts will act as assessors to see how well we correspond with their definitions, make us go through tests, in order to see how well we can fit in with the categories they have deemed are acceptable avenues for us to follow. People have not been listened to, allowed to describe themselves, consulted on what is the best for them. This is because the expert is the expert, and we have been regarded as inferior, not fit to judge what is best for ourselves. The evidence of this is quite clear – children have been assigned and treated in ways that were deemed as acceptable, but without questioning what they might have wanted themselves. Adults have been given a very narrow range of options, and upon pursuing those options given a very limited set of ways of pursuing those options.
In both situations, what is expected is that the individual will conform to what society expects them to be, not to what or who they actually are. The definitions that affect us are definitions about society, and social expectations, not the individual themselves. Having defined the way people should be, the individual has to conform, and their interests have been deemed secondary to those of society as a whole. So, the whole area of defining people when it comes to sex and gender identity and identification is about social control and policing the boundaries of sex and gender.
Because of this, I find myself increasingly reluctant to say ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am a woman’, or ‘I was a man’ or ‘I was a woman’ or ‘I became this or that’; just as I am increasingly reluctant to say ‘I am intersexed’, or ‘I am a transsexual’, or ‘I am transgendered’, or ‘I am intergendered’, or ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am a lesbian’, or ‘I am not gay’ – because these do not define who I am. They are ways of categorising me in order for others to have power over me. This power is so significant that the entire force of the state and the medical profession becomes involved in trying to enforce such conformity.
de Beauvoir, S. (1949/1997) The Second Sex, Random House, London, Sydney.
Descartes, R. (1673/1974) In The Rationalists.
McCulloch, G. (1994) Using Sartre, Routledge, London, New York.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomonology of Perception, Routledge, London, New York.
Sartre, J.-P. (1958) Being and Nothingness, Routledge, London, New York.
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