Why Doesn't ISNA Want to Eradicate Gender?

We’re often asked why ISNA doesn’t forcefully advocate for a genderless society. Many times, these questions come from people with a genuine interest in gender studies and educating people about intersex. The truth is that we share lots of common ground with people in the humanities and/or activist communities who have fought long and hard to insure that the voices of marginalized people are heard.

When women of color told feminists that their lives weren’t reflected in theories that assumed white experience to be universal, scholars listened. When queer people came forward to say that theories of gender that neglected sexuality often fell short of capturing the realities of their lives, scholars listened. Without a doubt, scholars have a rich history of taking the voices of marginalized people seriously and changing their theories and practices accordingly, and now ISNA asks that scholars listen to what people with intersex conditions have to say—even if it might not be what they’d like to hear.

At ISNA, we’ve learned that many intersex people are perfectly comfortable adopting either a male or female gender identity and are not seeking a genderless society or to label themselves as a member of a third gender class. Although it’s true that the urge to perform surgeries on intersex children’s sex anatomies is sometimes born out of the belief that children must have sex anatomies that are clearly male or female in order to be comfortable in either a male or female gender (and this is clearly a harmful belief born out of antiquated notions about gender identity corresponding directly to genital anatomy), the idea of raising a child as a boy or girl isn’t what most adults with intersex conditions point to as their main problem.

In fact, many of the people with intersex we know—both those subjected to early surgeries and those who escaped surgery—very happily accepted a gender assignment of male or female (either the one given them at birth or one they chose later for themselves later in life). Instead, adults with intersex conditions who underwent genital surgeries at early ages most often cite those early genital surgeries and the lies and shame surrounding those procedures as their source of pain. Later in life, like many people with typical anatomies, intersex people take pleasure in what some gender scholars (like Judith Butler) might call doing their gender. Thus, intersex people don’t tell us that the very concept of gender is oppressive to them. Instead, it’s the childhood surgeries performed on them and the accompanying lies and shame that are problematic.

Again, many of these surgeries are performed with the belief that these procedures will help a child settle into a gendered world, but that doesn’t mean the whole system of gender must fall in order for people with intersex conditions to live happy, fulfilling lives. It simply means that these surgeries and the shame that surrounds them are an unfortunate instantiation of problematic gender norms and we should work on ending unwanted surgeries and stigma.

There are, of course, some people with intersex conditions who identify as a third gender or gender queer—just as there are some people with completely typical sex anatomies who don’t identify as strictly male or female. Our aim at ISNA isn’t to undermine these people’s goals, or to suggest that people who identify as a third gender don’t exist or don’t matter, or to suggest that everyone must adopt a gender. Rather, we hope to end painful and unnecessary childhood surgeries that rob people of corporeal autonomy and sexual function because everyone—regardless of gender identity—deserves that. And we hope to end the shame and secrecy that cause so much pain for so many people with intersex conditions.

We hope that scholars, particularly those invested in helping members of marginalized groups gain a voice in conversations about themselves, will take seriously the concerns about surgery, secrecy, and shame raised by intersex people and understand that ISNA and the majority of its constituency don’t necessarily share the goal of eradicating the very notion of gender.