Cartesian dualism led to a way of thinking about things that separated the body and the mind. As a result, when we think of the “self”, we tend to ignore that the brain is part of the body, and treat the mind as if it is some kind of separate entity, This way of thinking gave us all sorts of ridiculous things, Freud’s “unconscious” being a notable example, with Money’s “gender identity” being a more recent absurdity.
It is this dichotomy which lies at the heart of the disagreements between some trans activists who talk about “brain sex” and those radical feminists who do not accept narratives that can be reduced to the “wrong body”. A psychological state is posited that is somehow biologically driven, and yet overrides biological phenotype. The opposing position is that the original phenotype is what matters, and that any psychological state that fails to accept this is a delusion based on a social construct called gender.
The problem with both of these positions, which are the extremes, is that they are both deterministic. On the one hand, we are determined by what our “gender identity” is, and so the story goes that trans people have no option other than transition; the alternative is stress and the risk of suicide. On the other hand, there is no “gender identity”, there is biological sex, and through therapy people can override the signals that conflict with this, and learn to live in their biological sex.
Whatever our brain or biology might be telling us we are, or should be, the only choice within the deterministic paradigm that traditionally leads to a specifically transsexual outcome is of acceptance or denial. That entailed more choice than that afforded by those who deny there is a choice to make, that we are the way we were born and the only coherent response is to remain so. Yet neither give hope for freedom. Transgender options muddy the waters, except they still often rely on the same paradigm that transsexualism relied on. In practice, the hostility towards transgender transition can seem even more pronounced than towards transsexual transition. Anything short of full realignment, which ends up with a mixed phenotype, retains the spectre of retained male characteristics which are seen as a threat by some people. That may seem irrational to those who are that way, but not to those for whom it is a concern.
I have struggled with this issue for as long as I can remember, ever since I was first introduced to radical feminism by my then partner back in the early 1980’s. It is what led me to try and find some other way of dealing with my own dysphoria and dysmorphia. In the 1990’s, I found these so overwhelming, that eventually I gave in. For me, this millennium was the time I chose to affirm rather than deny this awkward truth about myself, only to discover that underlying it all was a deeper, darker, truth that had been denied me from a very early age.
Interestingly, it was at the GIC I attended that the bombshell was dropped, gently, obliquely, that my history suggested a lack of masculine development from an early age. My experience at the GIC was not at all what is characterised in some quarters – people seemed to go to great lengths to avoid facilitating a transition. At the time this was frustrating, but with hindsight, I wonder whether they were trying to do me a favour. What I learned about myself was devastating, given my supposed intelligence and the length of time I had blithely lived my life unaware that I was never what I had been raised to believe – a man.
Even though my “mind” reeled against what I learned over the next five years, I eventually learned to accept that I was intersex. I cannot express how grateful I am to those few intersex people I got to know at that time, and how they encouraged me, and how they helped me accept what was so obvious, yet had entailed a web of denial throughout my adolescence and adulthood. Eventually I came to understand that being intersex gives me a third option – I can step outside these binary choices that confront trans people, or lack of choice, and just be myself. So, instead of making the choice to transition to a different binary option, I can choose to be myself – even if that option was denied me from birth. Accepting intersex as an option is a choice, however, it is only open to people who were born between the sexes.
I resisted the temptation to get official recognition of my intersex state through diagnosis – not wishing to seek a pathologising confirmation of what had happened to me as a child. However, without any effort on my part, my intersex state is now medically recognised.
It was very liberating to step outside of the dichotomy of male and female, and yet because of my experiences I can feel empathy for those locked into it in the way many trans people are; I also feel empathy for those who reject reassignment as the answer in the way many radical feminists do. My own development as an intersex-identified person goes back to over a decade ago, things have moved on a lot since then. Trans now incorporates what are now called non-binary options, so for trans people who are not intersex, there is the option to position oneself in a location that is outside the dichotomy. I have to celebrate that, because I know from my own experience, for some people being male or female just doesn’t work.
Is taking this position, as awkward as it is socially, selfish? I don’t see it. Claiming my identity as an intersex person who is naturally, physically, androgynous is no more selfish than the gender reinforcement I was subjected to in my youth, where without ever consulting me about what I might want, my body and my “mind” were disciplined into conforming to other people’s expectations of masculinity. Since when can reclaiming and oneself be selfish? Liberation involves dismantling oppressive structures, both within one’s own life and within society at large – and the compulsory assignment and reinforcement of gender is part of a primarily oppressive structure. It is only through reflection on my own lived experience at the receiving end of this that I have become aware of just how oppressive it can be. It is that which drove me to try and challenge this for a decade. Trying to live out my truth, openly, and working towards dismantling this structural oppression, was initially driven by my affinity with liberation theology – and it is a struggle that I cannot see is in any way selfish. It is about liberation. The struggle is not just for me, nor for people like me, nor for intersex people, nor for transgender people, nor for feminists; it is for all people, men as well as women, who are oppressed by this social convention we call “gender”.
The reason I choose intersex is because I can, when for so long this was denied me. Nobody can deny me this. It is my act of resistance.