The Sex That Dare Not Speak Its Name

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The Sex That Dare Not Speak Its Name


April 29, 2000

The Sex That Dare Not Speak Its Name

by Emily Nussbaum

In Lingua Franca, May/June 99

A long article by Emily Nussbaum in the current

issue of Lingua Franca details the rise of the

increasingly successful intersex social justice

movement, its alliances with humanists and

social scientists in the academy, and growing

pockets of change within the medical



According to Philip Gruppuso, a professor of

pediatrics and biochemistry at Brown

University who has recently embraced ISNA's

agenda, his colleagues intransigence is the

result of basic medical conservatism mixed with

a genuine emotional anxiety. "Whenever

physicians are confronted with the fact that

something that was standard is incorrect, you're

forced to think about all the damage you did,"

he explains. . . . But, Gruppuso worries that

doctors are simply unwilling to grant expertise

to academics in nonmedical disciplines, even

when it would illuminate their own work. "We

need to concede that we might be experts on

the biology and science but not necessarily in

psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I

would hazard a guess that Suzanne Kessler

[author of "Lessons from the Intersexed,"

Rutgers 1998] knows more about these diseases

than 95% of pediatricians."

One of the most striking examples of a medical

turnaround is Judson Van Wyk, Kenan Professor

of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina

School of Medicine and the author of the classic

textbook chapter "Disorders of Sex

Differentiation" on the diagnosis and surgical

treatment of intersexual infants. . . . Van Wyk is

now opposed to many of the protocols he

helped establish. In his earlier work, "I claimed

that children should not be assigned male

unless it is reasonable to expect an adult

phallus of adequate size. I wrote about the

tragic outcomes associated with assigning a

male gender to kids with small penises." ... "I

would take that back today." He would also take

back his recommendations that doctors conceal

intersex diagnoses from parents: "That's one of

the most damaging things I said in my chapter.

I myself used to tell families that their child's

sex was 'unfinished' and compare it to a cleft

lip; I assumed they could not accept the truth."


Nussbaum, Emily. 1999. The Sex that Dare Not Speak
Its Name. Lingua Franca, May/June, 42-51. Available from


The Intersex Society of North

America (ISNA) is a peer support

and advocacy group for people

born with mixed sexual anatomy.

For more information, visit our

web site at