April Herndon's blog
This comes from Christina Matta, author of a very interesting new article on the history of intersex: “Ambiguous Bodies and Deviant Sexualities: Hermaphrodites, Homosexuality, and Surgery in the United States, 1850-1904,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 48, no. 1, Winter 2005. We asked Ms. Matta to summarize for our visitors what she learned about whether people with intersex faired well or poorly in the era before pediatric “normalizing” surgeries became standard practice. Here is what she wrote:
To anyone who understands that intersex genitals are not a life-threatening condition, the predominance of childhood “normalizing” surgeries as a medical response to atypical anatomies is completely inexplicable. It is even more inexplicable given that historically, adults with intersex were, by default, completely in control of their anatomies. Even if they had reason to consult a doctor (and those who did almost always did so for reasons that had nothing to do with their genitals), very few individuals were interested in the “solutions” doctors spontaneously offered. In the first half of the nineteenth century, in fact, all doctors could do was tell patients that they were not the sex they thought, and to order them to stop wearing pants (or to start wearing pants!) or otherwise act according to more appropriate gender roles. (In Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, Alice Dreger tells the story of a Belgian doctor who, in 1886, exclaimed after examining his patient, “But my good woman, you are a man!”) But this was the extent of medical treatment for intersex, and there’s nothing to suggest that patients bothered to do as they were told.
When I came to work as the Director of Programming for ISNA, many of my friends and colleagues asked why someone with a background in the scholarship of fat politics would come to work in the intersex rights movement. As it turns out, the issues involved are strikingly similar, and I find more common ground each day. We’re doing so much good work here at ISNA that undoubtedly benefits people with intersex conditions and their families, but I also think our work benefits other people with stigmatized embodiments. By insisting that we understand both the social and medical issues involved (and which is which!), advocating for patient autonomy, and working to end the stigma and shame that often surrounds bodies that are different, ISNA helps set the stage for many groups of people to receive better medical care and social support. We hope you’ll support this important work. And I hope you’ll read on to find out more about what fat and intersex have to do with each other.
Pam Farrell and Nina Williams, a member of ISNA’s Medical Advisory Board, are running a monthly reading group for social workers who want to learn more about intersex conditions and how to provide better psychotherapy for patients with intersex conditions. The group also seeks to educate other social workers and push for institutional change. This year, the group has focused on ISNA recommended readings and videos, heard Janet Green speak, and debated the issues raised by these materials. On October 22, 2005, group members will present a panel at the NASW-NJ annual LGBTI conference about how their education in DSDD has altered the way they think about gender and sexuality. When this group disbands in December, the plan is for current members to team up and lead groups of their own.