Why Intersex Representation Matters
Originally published on the Feministing Community.
Author’s note: The author is not intersex and does not necessarily speak for the entirety of the intersex community in this post. They write this post in allyhood with the intersex community.
Representation is a critical aspect of identity for people around the world — especially for intersex people, who are often invisible, invalidated, ashamed, or even unaware that they are intersex. Representation — and even visibility — of intersex people is crucial to validate (and protect) these identities and break down the archaic and harmful idea that there are only two sexes.
In its broadest definition, being intersex means that a person’s physical body/anatomy is not congruent with the male-female sex binary in which society is so deeply mired. As the Intersex Society of North America writes, “intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation.” Both external variations (like genitalia) and internal variations (like chromosomes) from the male-female model in sex anatomy can be classified as intersex. Intersex is often recognized at birth, but it may be only noticed later in life. There is a stigma that intersexuality is a ‘disorder’ or ‘condition’* in relation to this normalized model of sex, which has social implications for intersex people, who may end up feeling inferior, ashamed, etc. We all know that the sex binary is problematic for a number of reasons, and its isolation of intersex people is another reason to work against it. Still, there are more terrible implications for intersex people.
Historically, the sex binary’s inapplicability to intersexuality has led doctors to forcefully commit atrocities against intersex people including, but not limited to, concealment surgeries and hormone treatments. These methods of ‘dealing with’ intersex infants are still prevalent today. Nonconsensual surgeries are performed on infant genitalia in order to make them physically conform to the male-female binary, complete with sexist undertones in which ‘female’ genitalia are preserved for their fertility and ‘male’ genitalia for their size and function. Patients who might not be noticeably intersex or have already undergone concealment surgeries are often lied to about their sex, withheld medical records, and so on. Instead of facing the inherent institutional problems with the sex binary (even as modern science has literally proved it to be incorrect), doctors choose to mutilate the genitalia of infants so they conform to society’s outdated model of sex.
With all this in mind, representation of intersex people is unbelievably important. Media, TV, and film portrayals of intersex people serve to validate and empower these identities and break down the sex binary. Plus, increased visibility and normalization of intersex people can eventually put an end to the horrific practices of concealment-based care for intersex newborns. And besides, any form of inclusion — especially when it breaks away from the cis/het/etc. norm in pop media — is never a bad thing! Ongoing representations of intersex people in pop media include Lauren Cooper, an intersex character played by Bailey De Young on the MTV show “Faking It”. Bailey has received a massive amount of support for her role as TV’s first intersex main character, even though she herself is not and does not identify as intersex. In an interview with MTV, she said that she hopes her role will set a precedent for future representation of intersex people.
*Intersex is medically classified as a disorder of sex development (DSD), but this may not be how some intersex people want to identify. Still, intersex people who use/reclaim the terms ‘condition,’ ‘disorder,’ et al. for any reason/s are valid!