on being a gender outlier and a complication of “identity politics”
“Identity politics” are strange territory. I have always approached them from this historically supported angle—that the ways the bodies we live in are characterized and related to by the societies we live in (legally, medically, culturally, personally) absolutely shape the ways we are able to, in turn, relate to and participate in that society. They often shape our conscious perspectives in indelible ways. When state police violence is disproportionately experienced by black people, and internal police policies are clearly built to justify such targeting and violence, how could it not affect those most likely to be hurt or killed? When laws attempt to segregate bathroom use formally by the biological sex classification granted to us at birth (which in and of itself is fairly arbitrary — more on that in a second), thus forcing trans women and men into potentially violent and dehumanizing situations, how could it not affect those of us for whom gender doesn’t align with our birth certificate?
I learned recently, because I finally have a doctor who listens to me and takes me seriously, that I have biological intersex characteristics. That can mean a lot of different things; in my case, my body manufactures both testosterone and estrogen in wild, off-the-charts amounts — more testosterone than the average male, more estrogen than the average female. I’m like some sort of hypergendered mutant. I’ve never felt right in my body, and though I am shaped extremely “womanly” on the outside — hourglass figure, huge breasts and hips and so forth—woman has never felt like the right category, nor has man. I have a self-aborting uterus, like a self-cleaning oven; no zygote will ever make it past fertilization/implantation. (Good thing I’ve never wanted my own kids and enjoy being a gay punk older brother/dad to successive generations; I can’t imagine how brutal this would be if I had ever really wanted kids.) I have, like a lot of people, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which itself causes hormonal variations, and clusters of regularly occurring uterine fibroids, but my hormonal freakishness is rare even for someone with these common chronic conditions (it’s why my PCOS got worse when regular treatment methods, like hormonal birth control, were applied), and my doctor suspects some sort of genetic mutation. More to be learned. More to be studied.
When I first suspected I had PCOS about a decade ago, I had to push my doctor at the time to do an ultrasound in order to diagnose. Because I don’t have a lot of body hair, she refused to make the diagnosis based on a list of pretty common symptoms, including having a cyst actually burst. (None of the men in my family have a lot of body hair!) This incredible medical short-sightedness is common; doctors, and especially doctors who deal with reproductive medicine, are often taught very very narrow binary views of sex and gender, despite the fact that there is an immense body of medical research out there that supports a vast range of experiences. Even my cis female friends who don’t want kids are often pressured by their gynecologists, told they’ll change their minds, and so forth; the medical world for trans and intersex people is a constant minefield. I feel immensely lucky to have a doctor right now who actually trusts me with my choices and assessment for my body.
Learning that I am intersex has been a great relief for me. Like any good diagnostic assessment, it brings things into focus, opening up perspectives and options for understanding and treating my chronic PCOS that are realistic, and also validating a thing I knew to be true about myself inherently but could never put my finger on. Knowing that you aren’t the gender assigned to you at birth, that something just feels wrong, is bizarre and potentially crazy-making (I say this as a person who also has biological major depression—who knows how my hormones and interactions with society have complicated my wonky brain?), and I feel grateful that I have a great community of friends with whom to discuss our varying perspectives and experiences with this dislocating sense of self.
I’m writing about this in public right now for a few reasons. One—I want to contribute another voice and experience to a world in which we are finally starting to recognize publicly that sex and gender aren’t as simple as we initially thought. I want to say that I’m proud of who I am, that my being a genetic freak doesn’t make me wrong or shameful. Two—I want to complicate our contemporary understanding of “identity politics” a little. In the world of gender/sexuality politics in particular, but in other writing, theorizing, and community-building based on the idea that the bodies we’re in and who we desire constitute some sort of socially coherent set of identities, there is a tendency to flatten out the experiences at the margins, to declare the most common and average shared experiences to be The One True Analysis and Experience and to push everyone who doesn’t fit whatever the current paradigm is out of the nest. This is dangerous, and sad, and antithetical to how I understand the utility of such politics. Any healthy identity politic makes room under the umbrella for all different kinds of experiences, for challenge and growth, and is wary of any kind of one representative collective voice, and yet I have never seen any large identity politic be able to handle this reality.
Some of the reason why is undoubtably due to the human tendency to need categorization and commonality in order to relate to one another. We’re taught that strong bonds are built through common ground, and indeed, some are—but I find as I get older that the strongest friendships I have are not built necessarily on common experience but are built around shared respect. I grew up in a primarily black city; by dint of proximity, many of my friends are black, whether from immigrant African families (mostly Nigerian or Ethiopian; I’m from D.C.) or black American. I, however, am a ghost from the central Eurasian tundra. There is no way I can understand their (also varying) experiences of race in America intimately, no way I can bond with them about it. (When I was younger, I tried! The immediate cross looks of disappointment on my friends’ faces told me everything I needed to know; bad plan, kiddo. You fuck up, you apologize, hopefully your friend accepts your apology; either way, you don’t do it again.) That’s fine! It doesn’t mean that we can’t love one another dearly, that I can’t talk about my experience of race in America sometimes, and that we can’t figure out ways to have one anothers’ backs. Those friendships have ended up being some of my longest-lasting and strongest. A thing I’ve learned is that infinite difference is far more interesting and valuable than shared experience, and that truly getting to hear another’s experience without interjecting yourself into the narrative is a true blessing.
And some of it, currently, is most definitely due to our surface-level understanding of what “diversity” should actually entail, which is defined in large part by the intersection of media and marketplace. This is how we end up with the perennial Benetton ad analysis of diversity—a select few “representative” people from each major continent or category, brought in to satisfy a well-meaning quota and speak to The Whatever Experience. I cannot tell you how many times someone has brought me in and asked me to speak As A Queer Person, or As A Woman, As A Rape Survivor, so on and so forth. This is a dangerous position to be in! The power of a platform is seductive, especially when one occupies a position of some social marginality, and being given time to speak by a person in power seems like a can’t-miss opportunity. It’s hard to ignore that when we are in positions like this we’re often pressured to give The Definitive Statement On The Fucked Up Thing By This Demographic—when we can’t possibly. We can only ever speak from our own experiences. I try to always acknowledge that off the bat—I am grateful for the time and platform, but my experience is my experience alone, and if one is looking for insight into one demographic experience, they’ll only find a constantly shifting kaleidoscopic prism of people who might share concrete experiences, for sure, but have wildly differing perspectives on what those experiences are. I have a lot to say, because my brain won’t turn off, but I try very hard to not position myself as any kind of authority and to bring as many people as I can in with me to speak about their experiences as well, or, at the very least, point the audience toward further reading, further ideas, further people who have smart things to say that don’t necessarily reflect my own personal experiences.
The Benetton ad analysis works in the service of the people who have always had the power, the people who decide police policies and make bathroom legislation. You sit through your diversity training, you probably hate it, you don’t learn anything, but maybe the existence of that training settles the voices from the margins for a minute. We’re taught that a surface-level understanding of diversity, occasional boardroom representation with limited decision-making power, is all we get. There is a lot of lip service to “intersectionality” these days, but little to no understanding of how it actually works; it’s not about ticking off as many representative demographic boxes in one person as possible. It’s been no surprise to me to see that the people with the most facile analyses get the most airtime, and that they’re also often people who have the liberty of moving between worlds; they usually present as safe in some way to a mainstream resistant to change (someone with consistently cis gender presentation speaking to The Genderqueer Experience, someone who is most consistently in relationships within the bounds of heteronormative understanding speaking to The Queer Experience, and so forth; these writers and authorities and figures are also often as conventionally physically attractive as possible, again appealing to a sense of safety and/or exoticized allure). These are people who can be packaged and sold more easily than those of us further out at the margins. It’s a marketing strategy. And they are the ones who often get paid for speaking on our behalf. There is something deeply unethical about that to me, something I feel allergic to deep in my bones.
And so I offer this counternarrative from the boundary of genetic freakdom, as close as I will ever get to a manifesto (I hate manifestos): value voices and perspectives over demographic representation. Be wary of what is sold to you as representative of a demographic you don’t belong to, and listen to critiques from within that demographic. Aim to disrupt power. Make room for the freaks. Make room for the ugly people. Make room for the people who are most challenging. Make room for everyone who doesn’t fit. Step aside sometimes. Don’t put yourself at the center of understanding; you don’t have to understand someone to respect their core humanity or to listen to them with empathy. Resist the idea of one common perspective. Listen to the margins. Value the underrepresented. Question everything.