Michael Phelps doesn’t like Erasure

Back in November, The Guardian reported reports that moderately-successful Olympic athlete, Michael Phelps, was seeing someone. I know. A scandal in and of itself.

The love lives of the stars are, frankly, of no interest to me and, as such, I had never heard the name Taylor Lianne Chandler before I read the article, and I have no idea whether or not they are still an item. Sorry, you’ll have to get your vapid gossip elsewhere.

The fact that Mr Phelps is seeing someone isn’t news, and was not the reason that he was in the news. The “scandal” was that his partner was intersex (actually, the Washington Post article suggests that nobody had even asked Mr Phelps if he and Ms Chandler actually were in a relationship: for the sake of this post, I’m going to take her at her word). And it’s a scandal because intersex people are erased by the very same structures that I was talking about a couple of weeks ago. In fact, intersex people are even erased (most of the time) by the acronyms that are used to describe sexual minorities. LGB – lesbian, gay and bisexual –talks exclusively about people’s sexual orientation (whom they fall in love with); LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – adds transgender people to the list (with its own problems, because being transgender doesn’t tell anyone whether you are L, G or B or even asexual); genderqueer people should be acknowledged too to give LGBTQ; add intersex people to the list to get LGBTQI; and we shouldn’t forget the asexual people I mentioned earlier, to get LGBTQIA.

Then you overload the acronym slightly, to expand Q to include questioning and A to include allies, and we are starting to scratch the surface of the complexities and subtleties of human biology and behaviour that is one of the reasons why I named this blog after people and declined to categorise anyone in the tagline.

Anyway, back to the subject.

Intersex people don’t appear on the statistics because it is not a legal option open to most people in most countries. You must be registered as male or female in order to be registered at all, and being registered is compulsory in most countries. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, transgender people who transition from one sex to another are mostly OK, because they move from one registration to another. Intersex people, and transgender people who move from one registration to somewhere in the middle end up in limbo. They have no category and yet must pick one. Tough times indeed.

As the Guardian article suggests, intersex people are a real challenge to our assumptions about humanity. Gay people, we can dismiss because sexual orientation happens in the brain, and we don’t know much about brains. Transgender people, we can dismiss for the same reason. Intersex people, however, are a clear and unambiguous challenge to our naïve assumptions about the way God made the universe (cf Genesis 1:27). When faced with an intersex person, we simply cannot persist in our uninformed belief that the gender binary is a valid model of the world.

When faced with intersex people, we are forced to admit that categorising people as either men or women is too narrow.

When faced with intersex people, we are forced to admit that there must be more to sexuality than falling in love with a member of the opposite sex, for there is no opposite when you’re standing in the middle.

When faced with intersex people, our claims that one sex is better than the other must fail, because that is based on the false assumption that there are two sexes.

When faced with intersex people, our belief that sex and gender are the same thing fails because many intersex people identify with the gender binary regardless of what their genitals look like.

When faced with intersex people, we are forced to re-evaluate our attitude to transgender people: if we can admit that a person’s body might look different to what we expect from their pronouns, we must include everybody whose body looks different from what we expect from their pronouns.

I’ll make a quick mention of Alex as Well as a pretty decent story featuring an intersex person. Maybe it would be better for me to recommend a book where the sex of the protagonist is an aside, but it helps us to understand the kind of difficulties faced by intersex people because they are intersex.

But, when all’s said and done, it’s none of our damn business. What a person’s private parts look like is private. That’s why they’re called privates. Marlo Mack says it better than I ever will.

We are all people. Our sex (and all those other characteristics) is secondary.

Leave a Reply