What’s marriage equality got to do with intersex?

Intersex people have, consciously or not, been queering marriage long before U.S. activists were fighting for marriage equality. Intersex people, that is, people whose bodies defy arbitrary markers of sex, including genital, chromosomal, and gonadal characteristics, didn’t have to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s historical decision to legally say “I do!” to a romantic partner with the same sex chromosomes, a key, albeit arbitrary, marker of biological sex.

I vividly remember queering my own marriage in 2001. On a rainy October Saturday in a suburb of Chicago, I walked down the aisle in a traditional white wedding dress and married a cisgender man who, like me, has XY chromosomes. We were legally married surrounded by our families and friends (and later amicably divorced, but that’s for another blog post).

I was diagnosed with complete androgen insensitive syndrome (CAIS) when I was a young teenager, but I didn’t know this until years after my parents received the diagnosis and I underwent “normalization” surgery, the removal of my internal and undescended testes. Like many intersex people with CAIS, I had no idea that I had testes and XY chromosomes because doctors lied to me and told me I was born with precancerous ovaries, not healthy testes that were removed because medical providers didn’t think it was acceptable for a girl to have testes. Encouraged by the health professionals who “fixed” me, my parents went along with the medical lies in order to protect the development of my gender identity.

I uncovered the medical lies I was told when I obtained my medical records and read through the redacted text to learn I had testicular feminization syndrome (what my intersex trait was called when I was initially diagnosed). I didn’t discuss my diagnosis with anyone, as I was too ashamed and was worried others would see me for the freak that I felt I was. I remember questioning whether or not I was really a man. Why else would providers and my parents lie to me? I also remember making a conscious decision to keep my medical history from my then soon-to-be husband. I was convinced he would call off our wedding if he knew what I had just found out about my body.

When the time came to sign the marriage license, I felt my gender as a woman legally validated. Marriage, a state-sponsored institution, was the powerful vehicle that disentangled my sex (biological, albeit arbitrary, markers of “male” or “female” characteristics) from my gender (socially agreed upon, and also arbitrary, markers of “masculinity” and “femininity” characteristics). Marriage, to a man, was a big step in making me a woman.

In 2008 I found myself in a sociology doctoral program studying the complexities of sex, gender, and sexuality. It was then that I decided to embrace my intersex trait and question my gender identity, although this time in a liberating, rather than stigmatizing, manner. As I learned about the arbitrary markers of biological sex, the complexities of gender, and fluidity of sexuality, I felt like a unique variation, not a freak of nature. It was then that I started to refuse to keep my medical past a secret, and instead wanted to bridge my personal experience with intersex and professional passion in sociology in an in-depth analysis of the ways intersex people, their parents, and medical experts define, experience, and contest intersex in contemporary U.S. society. That project has evolved into my book, Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis, where I tell the complicated story of how intersex was reinvented as disorders of sex development in order for medical providers to escape critiques from intersex activists over medically unnecessary and irreversible surgeries providers force intersex people to endure.

My research also reveals that some intersex people, encouraged by medical providers who wanted to make sure our gender identity aligned with the sex they surgically constructed, looked to heterosexual partnering to validate their gender identity. This was especially the case for those who were not exposed to feminist ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality, and more specifically, bodies and embodiments.

As it was in my case, marriage was a path by which intersex people learned to accept themselves as “real” women, or in some cases “real” men, while also pleasing their parents, medical providers, and others in their lives by assuring them they made the correct medically unnecessary and irreversible surgical decisions.

On June 26, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, my social media exploded with rainbows and excitement. Many of my intersex friends from around the world also shared these celebrations. But marriage has historically functioned as a heteronormative institution, and one of the primary ways intersex people have validated their gender assignment and normalized their selves. So I wasn’t surprised that the marriage equality ruling also seemed to cause some discontent or uneasiness among a few, albeit a minority, of intersex people and parents of intersex children. For decades now, many medical providers viewed their medically unnecessary and irreversible interventions as successful when those they “fixed” enacted or engaged in heterosexual relationships, which was formally achieved with marriage.

This theme even came up in my own medical records. After a routine exam soon after my marriage, the doctor who removed my testes wrote in my chart: “She has recovered well from surgery and is married and doing well.”

The marriage equality decision leaves me, as both an intersex person and as a feminist sociologist, with a number of questions. What will happen, I wonder, to intersex people who would have or do seek gender validation through the institution of marriage? Because marriage is now more inclusive than it once was, will it no longer serve as a viable path to gender validation? What other state sponsored institutions will rise to become mechanisms of gender validation? What new markers of successful gender assignment will medical providers rely on as they seek to (problematically) categorize intersex people?

Georgiann Davis is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her book, Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis, is forthcoming at NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter at @Georgiann_Davis.

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