Annotation: Roundtable Discussion on “Intersex Practice, Theory, and Activism” (2009)

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Creighton, Sarah M., Greenberg, Julie A., Roen, Katrina, and Volcano, Del LaGrace. “Intersex Practice, Theory, and Activism: A Roundtable Dicussion.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 15.2 (2009): 249 – 260. Print.

A group of activists and scholars gathered to discuss the crucial issues, obstacles, strategies, and goals facing intersex activism. Ranging across multiple personal and professional backgrounds, these activists–Creighton (Gynecologist and researcher), Greenberg (law professor), Volcano (visual artist), and Roen (social scientist)–emphasize the importance of sustaining such a conversation and “building bridges” in order to understand and address activism through multiple channels (259).

One of the most crucial issues facing gender variant individuals is genital surgery. Many infants born with variant sex are either operated on by doctors without the awareness of the parents or executed by the consent of the parent. This leads to questions of what constitutes the best interest of the child as well as the autonomy of the child in determining whether or not ze desires surgery. Legal scholar points to two ways in which the law could be used to address this issue: (1) through legislature preventing surgery and (2) as a means of redress through filing a lawsuit. Yet, several obstacles impede such efforts, including lack of governmental support and the question of who is to file the lawsuit. Other related questions are definition and “normative pressure” (254): who gets to define the child?; how may the child negotiate the category of intersex when it is defined by the medical community that is often oppressive through the individual?; how does one decide when surgery is necessary?

Efforts could be made through other means. For clinicians, they often feel the tension between activists who insist on appreciation of gender/sex differences and social pressures for gender normativity that might be internalized by patients. This tension between desires for social change and individual patient desires may be mediated through other means to ensure the best interest of the patient are met. Clinicians must ensure that parents and patients understand all the benefits and risks of surgery. Clinicians should also discuss all the treatment options available. Indeed, surgery is necessary at times. For older patients, the inability to have sex might be a frustration leading to a decision for surgery. However, alternative treatments such as vagina dilation are available and must be made known to patients. Unfortunately, desire for genitals that appear ‘normal’ lead many to choose surgery and may result in damage to sexual sensation as well as a lack of psychological improvement.

More structural issues then are forms of societal pressure and discrimination against intersex bodies, which are forced to conform to faulty gender and sex binaries. Thus, individuals face “fear of difference and compulsory heterosexuality as well as gender normativity” (253). These social pressures often lead individuals to desire a ‘normal’ appearance and to view surgery as a cure for all their problems. While scholarship and activist work serve as means to change social opinion, education should also be entertaining, as artist Volcano suggests.

Many obstacles still exist in terms of establishing a dialogue and working toward social change. Difficulties exist in reaching across disciplinary boundaries and building relationships between individuals and institutions. Although this article ends on this disappointing note of realities, the formation of this discussion and increasing scholarship/activism on issues of justice for intersex individuals serves as a source of inspiration and hope for an increasing movement.