Biological categories make a difference to some things. Female and male as distinct body types defined by reproductive capacities are necessary for the continuation of the species and so cannot be eliminated. Our cultures and languages cannot and should not simply ignore that sexual reproduction happens and that the two types of human beings defined by producing sperm delivered through a penis, and producing ova that can implant in the uterus and become a new human being, exist. This fact of our human existence is not negated by the existence of intersex people. It has been compared to the question of whether we can say that as a species human beings have certain physical attributes including sight, hearing, arms and legs – the existence of people whose bodies differ from this generalization doesn’t negate the fact that as a species these attributes are significant. We don’t stop using our sight or hearing, we don’t ignore the meaning or pleasure that these attributes give those who have them, in order to recognize and value the lived reality of what it is to be blind or deaf or deafblind. It is not a question of negating the general case but making a possibility of understanding that’s not all there is.
Sex is a little different from these other attributes because it’s a binary in the way we experience it on a species level. The binary quality is the general case on the species level, i.e. being either male or female as defined by gamete production and capability to gestate, is the general species characteristic.
Because sexual reproduction is so central to our existence, it is also important to human cultures everywhere. Some make sexual reproduction and the generally binary attribute of sex into dogma and enforce compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchy. That is not necessary or universal. But, sexual characteristics and attributes still matter in many ways.
Some of us are definitely same-sex attracted or definitely opposite-sex attracted, others are bisexual. It matters whether a potential partner is male or female – at least to many of us. lesbians are being denied the right to exist by male transgender people who say that we are denying them. Lesbians are the only group of people who are the target of these attacks, transgender advocates are not trying to define heterosexuals or bisexuals or gay men out of existence, only lesbians. There are even some ‘LGBTQ’ advocacy materials that define ‘gay’ as male homosexual, or male who is same-sex attracted but define ‘lesbian’ as woman-identified person attracted to a woman-identified person. What bullshit.
Lesbian culture, culture developed by females for females autonomous from male influence or male ‘gaze’ – that is part of what is at risk and what is being attacked. We, most of us in the world, are living under patriarchy. women – females – have been suppressed for millennia – we do not have political autonomy, the institution of the state was created by and for men and is still run by and for men. (The best I have read on this is by Carole Pateman, a book called ‘The Sexual Contract.’ I have mentioned this book before and expect to return to the theme.)
Women’s health care, menstruation, menopause, abortion, fertility, birth control, the power of the female body including its sexual and reproductive power, the power of giving birth, knowing ourselves and celebrating our bodies and rejecting the patriarchal barbie-doll bullshit fed to us everywhere. That is at risk if we are told we can’t name ourselves as women and have to stop using binary categories. Again it’s women’s political self-definition that comes under attack in the name of erasing the binary, not men’s acts of oppression and suppression and subordination of women, not men’s governments or rape or patriarchal marriage. No, somehow it is thought this will all wither away if we just pretend that male and female do not exist as a binary in the human species. We don’t buy it, it’s not happening. In the queer spaces where lesbians are being told they don’t exist, they have also been raped by ‘transwomen’ and then statistics say a woman committed a rape of another woman or of a man (e.g. if the female person so harmed identifies as a transman).
Too much is at stake also in women’s sports, women’s colleges, women’s shelters, rape crisis, women’s centers at universities, women’s studies becoming gender studies and depoliticizing the failure of academia still to include women and female-created, female-autonomous perspectives and culture on anything near an equal basis with men.
Intersex existence does not negate male or female existence. Recognizing intersex embodiment as fully equal in dignity and beauty and acceptability compared with identifiably female or male embodiment does not require us to ignore the sexual binary as a species characteristic. Furthermore, given this centrality of this binary to both an essential species activity (reproduction) and intense physical and emotional experiences (sexuality), language and culture need to be able to name our distinct types of sexual and reproductive embodiment. Intersex expands the possibilities but does not erase the distinctions.
This matters in countering gender identity political assaults on women’s rights, female autonomy and lesbian identity. It is not only that we need female-only spaces and set-asides because of patriarchy, as affirmative action or ‘temporary special measures’ in the language of human rights treaties like CEDAW. (Parenthetically, I am defining patriarchy as systematic extraction of resources by males from females, enforced by violence and ideology.) Female autonomy at all levels – sexual, economic, political; individual and collective – is a necessity and precondition for any human society to exist that is egalitarian between males and females – in which females enjoy at least equal power and resources as males. I think that in such a society it should be natural to also accept the diversity of sexed bodies and sexualities, as female autonomy includes the autonomy to choose one another in preference to males, and there would be no material reason to enforce any rigid categorization of bodies, so that intersex existence could be accepted and flourish. There is no need to do away with heterosexuality or sexual reproduction in order to accept and elevate materially and symbolically the existence of lesbians and gay men, and there is no need to do away with the language and concepts to know ourselves as female or male, in order to accept and elevate materially and symbolically the existence of intersex persons.