The use of language and terminology is closely linked to our understanding of sex and gender. The category of intersex is no exception where use of the term itself is subject to heated debate. Ph.D. in rhetoric and Assistant Professor at Princeton University Gayle Salamon examines one of the core issues of this discussion: the relationship between the term intersex and stigma.
Intersex – a stigmatizing term?
RetorikMagasinet har fået et særligt bidrag om intersex fra den anden side af Atlanten. Vi introducerer her emnet og begrunder hvorfor vi for første gang bringer en artikel på engelsk
Jesper Ingemann Redaktør på RetorikMagasinet.
Uanset om vi befinder os i Danmark eller USA, i forskningsmiljøer eller i et samtalekøkken over en flaske rødvin, er det en tilbagevendende konstatering at langt de fleste samtaler eller debatter som bevæger sig ind på køn, er flankeret af to udmattende grøfter: den stereotypiserende, aktivistiske og fordomsfulde på den ene side og den politisk korrekte, temmelig teoretiske og ganske langhårede på den anden. Og det er tilsyneladende nemt ofte at ende i en af disse grøfter. Når vi problematiserer eller forholder os til vores forestillinger om køn, herunder også seksualitet og identitet, skal vi nemlig håndtere en diskussion som vitterligt ikke er simpel af flere forskellige grunde. Dels er den tæt forbundet til en konkret forståelse af os selv som individer og vores medmennesker, og dels kan den ses som et udtryk for et større videnskabsteoretisk skisma som adskillige ansete tænkere og teoretikere stadig forsøger at blive enige om.
Det er ikke sket før i RetorikMagasinets historie at vi har bragt en artikel på et andet sprog end dansk. Når vi har valgt at gøre det denne gang, skyldes det at vi har fået en unik mulighed for at bringe en artikel som giver indblik i noget af den nyeste internationale forskning på området for køn og retorik. Et forskningsområde som kun i sparsom grad er blevet udforsket retorisk i en dansk kontekst. I USA er køn, seksualitet og identitet efterhånden blevet etablerede retorikfaglige interessefelter.
Denne retoriske interesse er egentlig ikke overraskende eftersom en af de stadigt mere fremherskende teorier er at køn skabes gennem vores sprog og handlinger. Man taler om doing gender frem for being gender. Teorien hviler især på tanker inden for den retning af samfunds- og kulturforståelse som kaldes kritisk teori, som blandt andre Habermas har været eksponent for, hvor kommunikation og diskurs menes at være grundlæggende elementer i skabelsen og forståelsen af vores samfund. Heroverfor står en mere traditionel, naturvidenskabeligt funderet tilgang til forståelsen af køn der påpeger evidensen for to biologiske køn som man antager også koder os som socialt kønnede individer.
At forskning i retorik og køn kun så småt har set dagens lys herhjemme betyder at der endnu ikke findes en rimelig entydig fagterminologi.
Eksempelvis har vi ikke som på engelsk et ord for det biologiske køn – sex – og det sociale køn – gender. Det har også været en medvirkende årsag til at vi har valgt at bringe teksten i sin originalform, simpelthen fordi en oversættelse ville være en opgave som vi mener skal forankres i et mere indgående retorikfagligt, akademisk arbejde, som endnu ikke er tilgængeligt, og som det ligger uden for vores rammer at igangsætte.
Intersex – a stigmatizing term? undersøger forholdet mellem køn og identitet ved at se nærmere på nomenklaturen omkring intersex. En nomenklatur er det sæt af termer vi anvender til at betegne noget – fx en genstand, et fænomen eller et begreb. Artiklen undersøger påstande om, at anvendelsen af betegnelsen intersex om mennesker der fødes uden et klart defineret biologisk køn, dels stigmatiserer dem, og dels pådutter dem en identitet som seksuel minoritetsgruppe af samme type som homo- og transeksuelle selvom de ikke deler identitetsmæssige vilkår med dem.
Med dette engelske bidrag fra Gayle Salamon – af Judith Butler kaldet ”one of the most important US scholars writing on rhetoric and sex” har vi fået en usædvanlig mulighed for at sætte fokus på et omend kompliceret, så spændende og nyt område af kønsdebatten. Det kræver en tunge lige i munden, men vi tror på at denne særlige prioritering i forhold til dette tema er både væsentlig og relevant.
Intersex – a stigmatizing term?
There is perhaps no contemporary category of sex or gender changing more rapidly than intersex. Within the larger LGBT umbrella, “intersex” has for some time appeared as an ‘I’ at the tail end of the acronym — LGBTI – providing an additional dimension through which to understand nonnormative aspects of gendered experience.
But that closer proximity of intersex to LGBT discourses is happening at the very moment that the term is in the process of being replaced by the phrase “Disorders of Sex Development,” or DSD, within medical discourses.
DSD is a newly-coined term of art within medical circles that has been hailed by some as a much-needed move away from the stigma of the earlier language used to describe mixed-sex development — hermamphrodite, intersex — and vigorously protested by others as a capitulation to medicalization and a subsumption of sexual variation under the sign of disorder.
Four claims to eliminate intersex as term
A vocal contingent of prominent writers, activists and academics support the dismantling of the category, including Cheryl Chase (the founder of ISNA and an early intersex activist), Alice Dreger and Ellen Feder. The arguments in support of doing away with “intersex” as a category tend to emphasize four things.
Some have argued that intersex has
been misused as a marker of community
affiliation, and part of the reason to do
away with the term is that it has become
problematically entangled with the
language of identity.
First: is the objection that the term “intersex” carries a stigma that makes treatment difficult for patients and their guardians, and also makes medical professionals wary.
Second: the objection that “intersex” is a leaky umbrella term; Since intersex does not actually name a specific condition but rather refers to a number of conditions related to sex development, there has been constant contestation around which conditions should be considered a part of intersexuality and which should not, where those contestations have rarely served to benefit the patients themselves. A new name, the logic goes, means doctors will be less preoccupied than they historically have been with figuring out if this or that condition technically fits under the larger category of intersex, hopefully enabling them to attend with less wariness and more care to the specific needs of each individual patient.
Third: the category of intersex has the effect of construing intersex as if it were a type of person, rather than a medical condition. The objection is that the term has what might be called an ontologizing function.
The term could in this way be described as performative in the Butlerian sense, in that it actually brings into being what it purports to describe. This position is also offered in an inverted form: other writers have suggested that intersexuality is a resolutely medical condition, whereas homosexuality is an invented category: Ellen Feder cites the work of Jonathan Ned Katz and Michel Foucault to argue that the homosexual is, essentially, a “made-up person” whereas many intersex conditions have had their resolutely material (read: non-social) causes discovered by science.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly: Intersex has been misused as a marker of community affiliation, and part of the reason to do away with the term is that it has become problematically entangled with the language of identity and attempts should be made to withdraw it as a term of identity or identification. This is ostensibly desirable because intersex as an identity marker has become problematically linked to LGBT communities, and where the political aims of each is in reality more divergent than convergent.
Intersex and the issue of stigma
I want here to take issue with the first and last of these claims. To the first: Alice Dreger points out that “intersex” is a medical term that came about in the 1950s and was at the time viewed as less stigmatizing than the older term “hermaphrodite”, which, as we have seen, carries a stigma that apparently goes back to at least Plato’s time. It is not clear to me, however, that the stigma can quite be dissipated by simply substituting a new term for the old. If the term “intersex” does have stigma, it managed to acquire it after just a short few decades in use. In order to avoid this unwanted stigma, any new term would need to function as something other than merely a new iteration of the last.
The new term would have to perform itself differently, in terms of either its taxonomic capacities or its ontologizing function, making a new intervention in either the classificatory system to which it indexically relates, or offering itself as a name for a bodily category that differed in some significant way. It is not clear to me that “Disorders of Sex Development” is able to satisfy those criteria, not least of which because it does not take a particularly close reading to notice that the term “disorder” seems to already have embedded within it the very logic of stigma that a renaming attempts to escape.
Social stigma invariably proves itself to
be sufficiently flexible to attach itself to
new terms in place of the old, and with
To the last point: though Ellen Feder, for example, wants to emphasize the ways in which intersex ought to be unlinked to homosexuality or LGBT communities, there is at least one way in which they may share some resonance. The DSD marker seems to be an attempt to de-literalize or dematerialize the thing to which it refers, much as the term ‘queer’ was an attempt to unyoke sexual practice from any specific referent.
In this case, however, the process of stigma works in the reverse way: the dissemination and proliferation of the word “queer” and its use by communities trying to combat its perjorative connotation has served to partially decouple it from the stigma that formerly haunted it. I am not suggesting that intersex necessarily needs to be recuperated in the same way, although there are several activist communities, including Intersex Pride and Organization Intersex International, who have done just that. I am suggesting that social stigma invariably proves itself to be sufficiently flexible to attach itself to new terms in place of the old, and with astonishing efficiency. The thing about a spoiled identity, to use Erving Goffman’s phrase, is that it quickly acts as a social contaminant.
The relation between transsexuality and intersex is a complex one. Even if both groups might share the goal of expanding the social viability of the concept of benign sexual variation, they are oppositionally positioned on the question of medical intervention. One activist recently summed up that opposition to me this way: intersex people want to get the scalpels off of their bodies and trans people want to get them on. I have difficulty with that formulation for a number of reasons: its conflation of trans with medical intervention at the level of the body, its further reduction of medical intervention with cutting.
And I am suspicious of an implied moral distinction between an emancipatory politics that refuses the gaze and the touch of the medical establishment and one that ostensibly misrecognizes itself as being constituted by that gaze and touch. It does, however, point to the ways in which one’s relationship to medicine and technologies of health and illness, and strategies of either accessing services or freeing oneself from them, may differ in different populations. When thinking about naming and stigma, I think of the rhetorical interventions of American activist groups such as Queer Nation and Transsexual Menace, where the political goals destigmatizing these sexual and gender categories were achieved not through outrunning the stigma wrongly thought to attach to them, but by confronting that stigma in the most direct way through the process of appropriating those terms themselves.
But perhaps we are bound to be frustrated if our hope is to fix or finalize the language we use to describe mixed-sex embodiment. The shift in nomenclature, from hermaphrodite to bisexual to intersex to DSD does seem to replicate with uncanny precision our cultural fantasies about the mixed-sex body itself. In each different context, that mixed-sex body is imagined as resolving itself into a more consolidated and scientifically legible expression of unitary gender, even if that consolidation turns out to omit or obscure as much truth as it delivers.
Af Gayle Salamon Assistant Professor at Princeton University.
RetorikMagasinet 79 (2011), s 18-21.