This is a question I get asked a lot and, to be honest, it’s one of the hardest to answer. Firstly, being asked to second guess someone else’s motivation is problematic. I can only guess what they’re thinking based on their behaviour, I can’t know. Secondly, I don’t think it has a simple answer, like most things in life. Still, it bears discussion, so I’m going to try to explore the phenomenon.
Before we begin, a quick history lesson.
Trans people claiming to have some sort of DSD/intersex status is not a new phenomenon. I’m going to illustrate his with the story of Agnes Torres, probably one of the most well documented cases ever.
In 1962, 20-year-old Agnes was referred to University of California Medical Center at Los Angeles because of “progressive feminization” since the age of 12. Agnes is described in science papers as presenting with “feminine body contours and hair pattern and large, well-developed breasts coexisting with the normal external genitalia of a male.” Medical history indicated that Agnes had been a typically presenting, healthy male at birth and had remained so pre-puberty. Then, during puberty, a “progressive deepening of the voice, phallic enlargement, development of a feminine pubic hair pattern and progressive breast enlargement” had occurred. Agnes also expressed a desire to have been a woman since childhood and to have had an interest in “girls’ toys”.
Agnes’ case baffled doctors. Numerous tests were carried out. None provided any conclusive answers for her appearance. She was found to have an excess of oestrogen, which explained the feminised development, but doctors could not explain why this had happened. She was eventually diagnosed with a rare form of ‘male pseudohermaphroditism with feminizing testis’, an outdated term used back then for Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS).
Agnes wanted sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to align her genitalia with the rest of her appearance. Doctors agreed, due to Agnes’ hyper-feminised appearance and traits (Agnes spoke at length in psychological interviews about studying how women behaved and taking instruction form her boyfriend, Bill, on how to pass as a woman), that Agnes was “entitled” to a vagina and so SRS was performed.
Agnes stayed in touch with the doctors who had treated her and written about the case. She dropped a bombshell though when, 5 years later, she revealed she had been self-medicating with oestrogen tablets, stolen from their mother, since the age of 12. This was the cause of Agnes’ feminisation, not a mysterious intersex condition.
It would seem Agnes was uncomfortable with her own sexuality and gender non-conforming behaviour. It’s impossible to think that 12-year-old Agnes really understood the consequences of taking female hormones. In fact, doctors described Agnes’ belief that she may become a woman as sort of magical thinking. It may be that she believed the medication would help that process. She certainly seemed to have had no thought of the need for surgical alteration until later in life.
Much has been written about the case since, exploring the reasons that Agnes may have chosen to lie to doctors, but also why they were so taken in. The main theory seems to be that doctors and Agnes felt she needed some “true claim” to womanhood to be eligible for SRS and to explain her feminine appearance and behaviour. Constructing an intersex narrative positioned Agnes as the victim of a mistake by nature that could be fixed by man. This clearly appealed to the doctors who could make a name for themselves by being the ones treating her and reporting on the case. Agnes herself said later in life she had co-operated with whatever the doctors said in the hope that this would mean surgery was performed as quickly as possible.
It’s interesting to note that many of Agnes’ comments have since been criticised as being homophobic and transphobic. She referred to trans and homosexual people as “abnormal” and explicitly did not want to be classed with “them”. Agnes is not the only recorded case where a belief in being born intersex among transsexuals has been found to be caused by internalised transphobia. This is a common theme. As a side note, arguably, the portrayal of intersex in this case is also interphobic in viewing it as a mistake that needs to be fixed.
I’ve often considered this may be a reason for the claims of intersex status by many of the trans activists I have spoken to. In fact, it is a motivation that has been acknowledged by trans activists. It seems many feel that being intersex legitimises their access to procedures such as SRS and hormone treatments or their claims of feeling an incongruence with their sex. This is not a popular view in intersex activism circles, who tend to be against unnecessary medical interventions, particularly for children. It is, however, something intersex orgs have tackled before in the shape of “intersex brains” theory (I will blog about this one day, but in the meantime, you can hear some of my thoughts about it here).
This argument, that being intersex will make access to medical procedures easier, isn’t without other contradictory problems though. In the UK, anecdotal evidence suggests that access to cosmetic procedures for adults can be easier to access with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, rather than a diagnosis of a DSD. It would perhaps then be better to suggest that some claims are due to a perceived ease of access to medical procedures, rather than this being reality.
Another hypothesis for why trans people may claim to be intersex is “individuals may also be attracted to the novelty and perceived freakishness of being “intersex.” In some cases, this may take the form of, or be akin to, a sexual paraphilia”. This may not be as far fetched as it seems. Certainly, there are boards on trans peer support sites, such as Susan’s Place, which discuss the fetishization of “hermaphrodites”. Even in literature written by respected academics, such as this from Anne Fausto-Sterling (the woman behind the 1.7% stat) it’s clear to see the idea of intersex people being reduced to a fantasy and fetishized.
“Perhaps we will come to view such children as especially blessed or lucky. It is not so far-fetched to think that some can become the most desirable of all possible mates, able to pleasure their partners in a variety of ways.”
I must confess, in terms of most disturbing quotes ever, Fausto-Sterling is a strong contender there. Worrying views about children as sexual objects aside, I notice no thought is given to the intersex person themselves receiving any pleasure from sexual intercourse. They are merely positioned as the one who exists to please others.
In terms of modern, online intersex appropriation, it’s easy to see why this prevails. There are many links to the anime community in some trans circles. Hentai, the pornographic branch of anime, has a whole genre named ‘Futanari’. Futanari is the Japanese word for hermaphroditism, although it can also be used more broadly to mean androgyny. In hentai, however, it specifically describes characters with both primary sex characteristics, nowadays referring almost exclusively to characters who have an overall feminine body, but both female and male genitalia.
As I have written before, it is not actually possible for a person to have both sets of genitalia. In fact, as in the Yaniv case, it is often factors like this that make it obvious that the claim of being intersex is fictitious. Many trans activists will make other such implausible claims, such as contradictory, multiple diagnoses, the existence of both sets of genitalia and/or gonads and even in extreme cases tales of self-impregnation.
In the case of Yaniv, there is one other factor that’s worth considering.
Trans activist Tracie O’Keefe wrote an article in 2010 encouraging trans people to identify as intersex as a way to “mess with the system”. O’Keefe makes it clear that the aim is to use intersex as a political label and a tool to confuse authorities by suggesting that binary classifications of male and female don’t work. This certainly seems to be the aim of the fabled sex spectrum. O’Keefe posits that this will make it easier for trans activists to push for legislative changes that give them access to the things they demand, such as changes in documentation along with the destruction of any evidence of former identities. Although not an administrative matter, it’s clear to see this at work in the Yaniv case, where spurious claims about “intersex genitalia” are accepted almost without question.
I’m going to wrap this up soon, but I think we also need to acknowledge why this is such an issue for the intersex/DSD community. Firstly, intersex discussion groups can quickly become dominated by trans activists claiming intersex status and wanting validation for this. This over-representation means that often it is these stories that make it into the mainstream media, with some trans activists becoming actual spokespeople for the intersex community, despite not having the experience or even an interest in the issues facing those with DSDs. This leads to the spreading of misinformation which unfortunately, due to its proliferation, can end up influencing intersex protocols. As it can be easy for trans activists to claim an invasion of privacy when asked to prove their credentials to speak on behalf of intersex people, it is difficult to challenge these claims. This, in turn, promotes the unhelpful and inaccurate ideas held by the pretending individual, or poseur, while intersex people who dare to contradict the narrative become further marginalised.
Whatever the many and varied reasons trans activists lay claim to intersex status, be it an inability to accept themselves for who they are, for perceived status or access to medical interventions, fetishistic curiosity, or just to create political confusion for the advancement of their agenda, it is not a claim that helps either group, nor is it a new phenomenon. Trans people need to be able to accept themselves and understand who they are without this conflation. Encouraging the mistaken belief that they are somehow intersex does nothing to help with this, all it does is shutdown discussions and muddy the waters. Intersex people deserve accurate information about their differences, not only to be available to them but also to fight social stigmas surrounding DSDs. And finally, both groups deserve their own voices and to talk about their own needs and reality without being political pawns in someone else’s game or sexual fantasy.