“The liberation of Eros and the achievement of communism pass necessarily via the (re)conquest of transsexuality…”
Mario Mieli, Towards a Gay Communism, 1977
When Mario Mieli referred to homophobia as really directed towards “transsexuality,” he provided today’s queers with a powerful lens for overturning our oppression that we have yet to make proper use of.
With Mieli in mind, we can hope for better than a careful itemization of anxieties: homophobia, transphobia, interphobia. A gay communist view demonstrates that each of these are mashed together.
This might seem an untimely claim: transphobia seems to be ascendent across the feminist movement, while intersex people are only thought of hazily (often a call is made to distinguish inter from trans on some basic level, with no words left for how so many might be both.)
But in truth, interphobia and transphobia always appear conjoined. Guiding them is a yearning for the body to be simpler than it is, or ever can be. For sexual difference to be so decisive as to require no explicit clarification.
For Mieli, heterosexual manhood was achieved through excising and habitually denying the transsexuality of human existence, an underlying indeterminacy which entry to society typically stripped away. Heterosexuals could only become such through foregoing part of themselves, in a process Mieli described as a self-mutilation.
If this language causes a certain flinching, and unease, perhaps it’s for the best: Mieli’s account of the passage from infancy through the brutality of childhood to heterosexual manhood as a delimited and constrained form was intended to upset. To unsettle the assumptions of heterosexual identity as natural, which Mieli and other writers of early gay liberation could never find convincing.
Mieli tells us gay life was threatening to those who had undergone this process of becoming heterosexual, as it opened up obvious reminders of their formative mutilation, and demonstrated the ever-incomplete state of their disfiguring conditioning.
A heterosexual encountering a homosexual was forced to confront a reminder of their own loss, and partially self-inflicted disfigurement.
Homophobia was therefore not simply a display of ignorance, or even a truly baseless fear: for as long as forming oneself as a heteorsexual remained an excising and delimiting process, peaceable co-existence with gay men who had (by whatever means) refused this process was hopeless.
Every display of exuberance and overtly effeminate joy on the part of gay men could only prod at what had been lost during the process of his heterosexual counterpart’s committment to manhood.
It was for this reason that homosexuals were resented by heterosexuals. Not because queers forego the future, but that their very presence haunted those carved into heterosexual identities with the circumscription they had undergone.
This is a universalist argument. Mieli argued that it was exactly what gay and heterosexual men shared that provided a relational basis for phobia. The shared upbringing, and sharply divergent paths in response to it, provided the basis for the disgust, rage and fixation which heterosexuals displayed.
Whatever particularity defined gay life, however small a minority this underground might be, the contempt and disgust it evoked was a relational one. Heterosexuals lashed out to avoid memory of their developmental self-injury. In contrast to the liberal truism that gay bashers were “really gay,” Mieli offered a total reversal: there were no heterosexuals without homophobia.
The history of this view was starkly Freudian: Mieli had reworded what Freud called the “bisexuality” of life prior to entry to civilization. But he had also weaponized the notion. Working from the perspective of those attempting to emancipate ourselves from the predictable grind of day-to-day phobia, and chaotic bouts of violence our mere presence in the world seems to elicit, his hope was not to understand the mid-20th century Italy from which he was writing, but to transform it through a flamboyant and unapologetic movement.
Society’s heterosexual regime continued to be threatened by all displays of homosexuality. But particularly those that upset the distinction of genders visibly, or unabashedly.
Protecting the social order meant heterosexual men (and usually less violently, women) loathed reminders of the process of self-denial that lay at the root of the heterosexual identity.
Homosexuals were the telltale remnants of the process of purging that was the only true means of generation for heterosexuals. This remains true today, as opposing the normalization of overtly gay relationships, and life, has remained a central concern of the global resurgance of nationalist movements.
Mieli called this shared aspect of life that was haunted by the gay man “transsexuality,” and his political suggestion was extravagant ownership. He referred to gay men who attempted to reform their peers into less sissified form (those we would today call “masc4masc”) as “homocops.” Mieli astutely observed how not even gay men could be relied upon not to tell one another to “man up.”
While this idea is useful, it is not the last word. New visions of the “transsexual” have flourished, and many have even urged us to abandoned any notion of us switching sex, altogether. Today, trans politics is certainly not “nested” into gay liberation.
Many individuals may embark on transitions without ever having had a place in any gay scene, or movement. Politically, here is an increasingly sizable, separate transgender movement, with its own concerns, organisations, cultures, and in-jokes. Today’s trans activist is more likely to assert herself as a whipping girl—a victim of sexism much like any other—than one who exists awkwardly between worlds, and across mundane boundaries. Our exotic glow has—along the way—been dimmed in favour of civic palatability.
But we can still borrow from this bygone gay communist approach to grasping, and defeating, those who we remind of their deepest injuries. We can extend Mieli’s view of transsexuality still further, to understand the transsexual themselves.
In the same way Mieli traced homophobia beyond revulsion with particular sex acts, and into the question of formation of the heterosexual self, we can grasp the contours of popular hatred in the upsetting presence that our highest displays of self-celebration and expression pose.
In the same way, we can see the gravest fears of today’s transphobia as nested within an over-arching fear of hermaphroditic flesh.
This casts a new light on what intersex movement terms “interphobia”: an aversion to those with intersex variations.
First let us consider transition: whereas variations are largely in-born physiological features—over which clinical science is quick to assert dominance (never entirely successfully, always at grisly cost)— transition is a project which one embarks on.
Clearly it’s exactly what is most beautiful about transition that most horrifies those who are set against us. Whether a strict partition between the sexes is justified through divine mandate, or for the consistency of social theory, to see people stray across these borders causes great upset.
Transition is a working that we live out as best we’re able (or can be bothered to)—along with the combined work of endocrinologists’ prescriptions, vocal coaches’ drilling, beauticians’ lasers, surgeons’ reconfigurations, photographers’ angling, perky tips from make-up artists recording video clips.
This is not the “essence” of transition, or if it is an essence it is one that never floats freely. From one context to the next the features under closest scrutiny will alter: the techniques and treatments required to pass unnoticed when singing in a choir are not those that will serve us in a sauna.
A transition seen by the heterosexual regime as “successful” is one that has most effectively scraped away the vestiges of a past life.
Yet at once what horrifies the heterosexuals most about transitions is that they happen: that through some combination of personal assertions, scheduled surgeries, bureaucratic wrangling, sartorial adjustment and sympathetic communities there are those who reshape their social forms, their state-recognized identities, their physical bodies.
And so we are told always that the alterations we make are never enough (to swap F for M, M for F), and too much (a mutilation, a parody, a waste of resources).
The truth is that transition itself can never be digested by the heterosexual regime. The anxiety transition induces may spiral in different directions, but it always shares a source: that what was assumed to be a given (the body) is in fact contingent, never fully fixed, and unreliable.
In other words that one could return down the same hermaphroditic pathway one came from, and begin anew, as another letter.
The dread at this prospect on the part of phobes takes different typical forms: some dismiss the very possibility out of hand (a man is a man, a woman a woman, and that’s that!), while others reduce the change to “the surgery.”
For the most part, anti-trans views draw basically nothing from the last century of endocrinological research. Let alone the pre-existing theories of a bisexuality which sexual difference emerges from (always incompletely).
These displays of “refusal to know” are clearly an assertive, cultivated ignorance: these bodily features must be taken as a given for the heterosexual regime to hang together at all. This is the most common mode of the phobe: an assertion that “I don’t want to think about any of that,” twinned with a blithe belief that they know everything relevant that is to be known.
By contrast, a cresting new wave of phobes determined to present themselves as progressives linger on the lurid details of transition, framing surgeries freely consented to (and often paid for handsomely) as “mutilation,” collecting extreme close-up photos of inversions, forearms missing slices of flesh, melodramatic accounts of binding, and referring to Hormone Replacement Therapy as “pumping yourself up on steroids.” These approaches capture decontextualized steps taken toward a less painful expression of the self. They present transition as a horrorshow, a disjointed series of titillating glimpses of self-mangling ideologues.
What transition explores, and relies on, is the very lack of fixity to sex. That it appears not as carved stone dropping from the heavens, but the mutable and developing cultivation of flesh.
The stubborn assertions that sex can never change are in truth normative injunctions: that it should not or must not be twisted out of the shape it was originally taken to be destined for.
It’s exactly the capacity for change and purposeful alteration that trans culture at its best has celebrated, and phobes have been reliably discomforted by. I call this quality of embodiment “hermaphroditism” in the tradition of Mieli’s “transexuality,” to play up its twin faces. How on-lookers are quick to at once declare it outright impossible, yet find themselves compelled towards furtive engagement.
Typically the hermaphrodite is dismissed as a myth: there are scarcely any humans with two complete sets of genitals. But the mixture of sex traits seems to have been enough to unsettle and disrupt apprehensions that many would prefer to keep beyond conscious deliberation.
Further, the experiences of intersex people show up exactly the lack of “give” provided by bodily variation, the limits of the plastic to be reshaped into exactly the predictable forms demanded by the narrowest of social expectations.
Not only the horrors routinely performed upon those of us born with intersex variations, but equally the failure of these surgical cuttings, or deceitful upbringings, to bring about a semblance of orderly sex division show us that there remains a stubborn indeterminacy that fully trained medical experts have never succeeded in fully eradicating.
The medical profession has operated according to the logic that all intersex people are really male or female, their defects aside. Yet it seems these “disorders” (as today’s medics refer to our variations), are beyond their remedies.
Babies born visibly intersex often threaten to disrupt at a fundamental level the expected dichotomy that ranges from the familiar cry of “It’s a boy/girl!” to the supposedly appropriate color coding of attire, to markedly differentiated treatment throughout both infancy and childhood. Previously this had mostly been resolved by “picking a side” and leaving the child’s genitals a point of shame and silence (or in certain contexts, through infanticide). But the industrialization of hospitals both increased the number of intersex children detected, and provided a surgical temptation for physicians now overseeing proceedings.
Let us repeat a tale told a hundred times before. Who are “the intersex”? Why did we find ourselves birthed as an abject category? And why is that term now being discretely disposed of?
Beginning in the mid-20th century, doctors set about the Promethean effort of “correcting” intersex infants, attempting to eradicate all traces of embodied ambiguity they found. True to their reputation as one of the most conservative professions, they displayed an obvious discomfort with indeterminacy itself. Crudely arbitrary points for “redundant” clitoral tissue were set, and in most cases it was decided to remove any supposed excess.
This term was vaguely justified by a conceptual breakthrough. Doctors declared those born ambiguously sexed as “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” (This garish term is still found on the medical records of many living intersex people.)
The logic developed here was that an underlying level of “true” sexuation resided beneath the fleshy facade, and that surgical means could save would-be inverts from a life as a queer freak.
The same logic plays out in the new term “Disorders of Sex Development” (rejected by the intersex movement). Physicians declaring us to have “DSDs” are implying our bodies are presented not as their own form, with its own dignity, beauty and integrity, and that there remain only two trajectories (M/F) from which we have been pathologically blown off course, but could hopefully yet be corrected.
The conceptual work the medical profession demands is to sustain the “pseudo” in front of “pseudo-hermaphrodite,” whatever the human cost.
Just as heterosexuals resented the homosexual for showing up the processional harm required for confident heterosexual identification, the pseudo-men and increasing number of pseudo-women who make up the medical profession struck out at the intersex, trying to draw them into line.
While a minority of these procedures were to correct a non-cosmetic issue, for the most part these procedures were primarily oriented towards upholding gender norms, at the cost of those unable yet to consent to this enlistment.
True to the heterosexual order’s demands, a priority was always set around penetration:
¶ those unable to perform it would have to have tissue removed in order to be raised as girls.
¶ In other cases, those judged unable to be able to stand to urinate were considered non-viable men (the same justification for the otherwise purely cosmetic hypospadias corrections).
¶ Those born with vaginas which seemed too shallow to host a penis would have to have them expanded for the sake of the child’s presumed future husband.
We can see here the guiding “close enough” of heterosexual society drawing unwitting anatomies into line with its expectations. With these decisions usually taken well over a decade prior to puberty, this was a patchwork effort to re-establish an imagined norm, through arbitrary guidelines.
But most importantly, these invasive surgical treatments which have attempted to draw intersex bodies into line with mandated norms have not produced contented males and females.
Instead, the findings of the earliest intersex consciousness raising have shown up the horrors done by surgeries intended to be “corrective” of genital ambiguity. Many intersex people lost track of the number of childhood surgeries needed to “follow up” on the original offense against them. Rather than digging down to reveal an obvious truth besides a facade, these procedures consisted of injury piling upon injury.
The movement calls these procedures “Intersex Genital Mutilation.” This is not simply a provocative piece of rhetoric: legislation against Female Genital Mutilation often explicitly exempt clitorectomies performed on intersex children and infants.
These practices are clearly motivated more by an incomprehension of how one could live a sexually indeterminate life, than any successful project to impose a tidier sexual difference at the level of the flesh. This “refusal to know” plays out unmistakably both on the part of the medical establishment who insist upon these procedures, and parents who formally consent to them.
In many cases, intersex activists keen to expand the horizon of their audience will stress less conservative estimates of infants born intersex. For instance, saying those of us with these variations are “as common as redheads.” The hope is to shock a world that refuses to concede we exist at all, with our proportional numerical strength.
In truth, the work of the medical establishment, in conjunction with parents fully committed to “normalising” their children, means that we’ll never know the total of those born with an intersex variation across the world.
Rather than a fully-fledged identity, in many instances being intersex is taken to be a burden, best borne in private.
Following official guidelines, US doctors instructed parents to lie to their children, covering the tracks of the professionals. In the face of this silencing, systematic deception, and attempted eradication, the majority of intersex people will live much of our adult lives without being aware of our medical categorisation.
A shroud of falsehood covers us: we are denied abstract terms for our shared condition, and tend to see ourselves as freaks, often as truly isolated (even when sharing a family household or childhood classroom with intersex peers!). Heterosexual society will never give us the tongue we need to speak of ourselves openly.
In light of this, intersex activists struggle in the face of widespread ignorance about the plight routinely faced by those born with “ambiguous” genitals, in addition to the same pervasive normative bedrock assumptions that resist all LGBT(QI) activism. “There are only two genders” reads, for us, like the statement of intent it has surely always been.
Joining the intersex movement is at first a means of passing out of the acute loneliness and chronic individuation our variations are prone to causing. But following this emergence, the realization of how much of the world is configured against us, how many born into our exact circumstances today are at risk of dire treatment, can be devastating, and easily induce despair.
The very existence of an international political movement dedicated to exposing these practices, confronting those responsible, and ultimately ending them demonstrates how far these procedures have fallen from achieving a true tidying of M from F.
Intersex Genital Mutilation is at once the most obvious end point of the eliminative approach to sexual difference, but also a demonstration of its ultimate futility. All this suffering, all those lost prospects, have not resolved us.
Attempting to correct “disorders” provided by nature, and bring our physical forms in line with civilizations’ expectations, doctors instead provided mostly devastating consequences, acute alienation, and an exemplary case of how imposing an eliminative vision onto those who land between conventional sexed norms will never achieve its grisly aim.
We stubbornly remain, despite all the decades of professional training and official guidelines arrayed against us.
In both the jibes cast at those undergoing transition, and the reliably failed efforts to bring intersex bodies in line with expected dyadic forms, we can see the grinding hatred of the same eliminative logic. In each, we can see the yearning for what open displays of hermaphroditism defy: a fixed underlying truth of distinction, some bedrock of the reliable that will always exist between.
To say that sex lacks fixity is not to deny that the notion it should be fixed remains powerful. For many who undergo transition, one’s former self does not rest easily. Whereas those you meet on the street might take you as your intended gender without incident, the inwardly known weight of however many years (or decades) were lived another way can still cling.
Those who wish to see sexual difference as a sturdy basis for two complimentary forms to fit together, or those who wish to assert an inevitable conflict, will find themselves equally frustrated in the face of transsexuality’s stubborn reality.
Those straying from expected norms, into the practices of transition, cause offense and horror. This is exactly for our unveiling of the indeterminacy (not the emptiness) that expression layers itself over.
Whether our status is one we disclose, or don’t have to, the power to shock or unsettle is palpable.
In declaring sexual indeterminacy (be it willful or in-born) beyond the realm of possibility, in declaring M forever distinct from F, those who outline the commonsense order of things cast us living out these stations from history to fantasy. They leave us in exotic garb that is our very tissue and bone.
While still people, we find ourselves coated with sickly myths, and gazes that at once don’t quite know what to make of us, and cannot fully pull themselves away.
Hermaphroditism shows up the unfixed nature of the human. It is the writhing reality of the plastic that always characterizes the flesh.
While adherents to strict taxonomies declare human hermaphroditism an impossibility, depraved readings of psychoanalysis and other gay sciences have shown us that the most mythical creature of all is someone tidily sexuated. This point is one that many find themselves mindlessly striving towards, with the sight of those not equally invested causing any amount of upset.
Encountering this mutability of human forms appears to horrify those committed to a tidier world, to predictable distinctions and clear cut lines.
What has often been termed “interphobia” and “transphobia” in reality converges and overlaps quite freely. It is impossible for the heterosexual regime truly to tell transsexual and intersex people apart, even if it may set us against each other when expedient.
Tidy analytic distinctions seem to dissolve quickly, in the apprehension of phobes. They do not see us for what we are, but what we fall short of.
I consider here an occasion I wrote a piece on intersex rights for a popular web magazine, who posted the link to their social media pages, only for it to be crowded with transphobes.
Apparently oblivious to any distinction, they posted the typical array of transphobic memes they presumably had saved and ready to hand for such occasions. Clearly these bigots had little conception of any difference between transgender and intersex people, nor did they seem much to care.
In a much more ornate form, the Catholic Church’s 2019 guidance document “Male and Female He Created Them” gathers together gender deviants with hope of dispensing with us all. This text was one of the first official statements on intersex people, although it followed many of the same kind characterizing trans people as delusional. The text instructs physicians to make “therapeutic interventions” when children are born indeterminate. But let us focus on its reasoning for a moment.
“Male And Female He Created Them” refuses to allow for any analytic approach to trans and intersex experience, arguing this will obscure the tragedy of indeterminacy itself:
The process of identifying sexual identity is made more difficult by the fictitious construct known as “gender neuter” or “third gender,” which has the effect of obscuring the fact that a person’s sex is a structural determinant of male or female identity. Efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference, such as the ideas of “intersex” or “transgender,” lead to a masculinity or femininity that is ambiguous, even though (in a self-contradictory way), these concepts themselves actually presuppose the very sexual difference that they propose to negate or supersede. This oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a “provocative” display against so-called “traditional frameworks,” and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy.
For these Clergymen, there can be no transgender or intersex position: as the document’s title has it there is only the male, the female. To recognize any differentiated experience, nevermind two intermediate positions sorted on the basis of gender or sex, would be to risk an “annihilation” of fundamental human distinction.
While differentiating between trans and intersex people might be useful for progressive analysts, reactionaries deliberately allow the two to slop into a mess of the freakish. We are reduced to slop, to that which should not be spoken of, or if at all then only sweepingly, never with precision.
Whatever differentiations exist between our typical experiences, intersex and transsexual alike elicit roughly the same response: we are interchangeable in that we are awkward, indigestible for the heterosexual world.
Both common bigots and schooled theologians affirm: M is apart from F, and any who stray from this ruling must be brought in line, whether this requires surgeries, mockery, or grandiose treatises.
To understand how transitions and intersex variations are distinguished is to grasp at once why they will overlap continuously: birth assignment is a given that can only work through willfully oblivious assertion. To assert “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” is to deny the response “We don’t know, yet.”
At this point I should be clear: overturning the oppression either trans or intersex people face in any society will not be simply an exercise in thought. We require a broader movement of liberation which overturns the whole system of property rights, division of labor, and colonially-informed classification of bodies which the particular offenses against us are always enmeshed with.
Nor can we allow intersex experiences to be reduced to articles of symbolic truth, the ultimate allegory to be drawn upon, with our lives being reduced to exemplars of the awkward.
In its own way the trans movement finding a truly popular voice risks this role simply shifting from trans women (now nascently acknowledged subjects) to the intersex (still exotic, unknowable).
But clearing a space for fresh projects demands of us an undoing of the existing ways we have made sense of the world, an abdication of the responsibility to be ultimate arbiter of what is “valid,” or delusional.
We do not need recognition or protective measures from any authority or global body for our liberation (even if securing these may serve us as useful tactics along the way).
Nor is our passage to gay communism today solely a work of education, of correcting misconceptions and casting a spotlight on bigotry. A greater change than that is needed for hermaphrodites to thrive. A thoroughgoing shift in our society’s ordering.
Intersex liberation would require an overturning of existing divisions of labor, a disempowerment and replacement of the medical profession as overseers and editors of human diversity. And also a wholly new space for those who live out (from birth) indeterminate lives, without coercion to find attachment or affinity in either branch of a dyadic split.
Trans liberation requires making the most of the flexibility that defines sex, the plasticity that is at once always present and always denied, of wriggling free from birth expectations by any means inappropriate. And also a systematization of the manifold ways of supporting each other we now provide to one another ad hoc.
And so we have seen that the same eliminative approach to sexual difference guides a varied set of bigotries, and justifies an array of torments for those who step out of line, usually intended as “corrections.” As communists, it is our role to end this violence, and come up with another approach to life.
What’s required, among many other emancipatory tools, is a new stubbornness in our concepts. We should think beyond the “pseudo” of “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” That declared impossible should be firmly asserted as part of the real. Whereas the thinking of phobes demands that each individual be classed between one sex or another (the eliminative approach), we should instead affirm that there are only differing modes of being which are adopted and cultivated in the context of their history, and ours (the expressive view).
We need to observe how whatever analytics we attempt dissolve in the phobias of bigots, how our complexities vanish from the phobe’s-eye view.
That our continued, recalitrant existence is a marvel does not mean it cannot benefit from a new Gay Science.
We need a new logic, which begins from the hermaphrodite, rather than demanding we be excluded, set aside, and eventually eradicated.
For all this, our movement must force a space to live, scenes and moments where our indeterminacy openly might survive, and then go unforgotten. We must come to understand how it is that we have already survived. ⊱