Argentinian historian and philosopher and trans and intersex activist. Mauro Cabral is co-director of GATE (Global Action for Trans Equality) and member of the Latin American Consortium on Intersex Issues (Consorcio Latinoamericano de Trabajo sobre Intersexualidad).
Statistically, situations related to intersexuality have place in one over 2,500 births. Every time a child whose sexual and reproductive anatomy varies from both male and female bodily standards is born, his o her body is forced into surgical and hormonal treatments aimed to ‘normalize’ the appearance of his or her genitals. Among the international frameworks on Human Rights, at present only the not binding Yogyakarta Principles make a specific call for States “to ensure that no child’s body is irreversibly altered by medical procedures in an attempt to impose a gender identity without the full, free and informed consent of the child in accordance with the age and maturity of the child and guided by the principle that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”. in their article 18 on “Protection from Medical Abuses”
In what sense is intersex children’s genital mutilation a feminizing procedure?
The majority of the different interventions done to normalize intersex children’s bodies are addressed to create female genitals because from a medical point of view they are technologically easier to make than male genitals.
Is it also a political issue?
In medicine it is basically a technical issue which, from the intersex activism is remitted also to the running of stereotypes that have to do with the fact that sexuality and the male gender are intrinsically dependent on the existence of a functional penis and that it is therefore easier to become a woman than a man if there is not a male body sustaining such masculinity. However, the issue could be seen the other way around and think that masculinity is more fragile because it has more requirements… These are activist interpretations on decisions doctors make without them appearing in an explicit way.
According to the International intersex Organization (oii) the correct definition should not be children’s genital mutilation but non-consensual normalization treatment, a term that also includes hormonal therapy and virilising surgery. How do you see it?
They are rhetorical choices. Talking of mutilation has a stronger ethical political impact and allows connecting this intervention with other practices such as female genital mutilation. Mutilation refers to something that cuts not only each person’s possibilities but also the possibilities that each culture has to recognize the body diversity of its members.
For what to the connection between intersex normalization and homophobia is concerned “It is considered that a man with a micro-penis won’t be able to function like a man who penetrates women and that therefore he won’t be sexually accepted by any woman and will possibly ‘end up’ being homosexual. In the case of women with a clitoris that is too big, it is thought that they either become ninfomaniac (since they enjoy too much) or they become lesbians (since they might use it as it were a penis). And if they don’t have a vagina they cannot be penetrated and therefore they won’t be accepted by any man, which will possible bring them to ‘end up’ being lesbians”.
Is it possible to identify any environment where these ideas are especially promoted?
Some years ago I would have tended to say yes but now I think it is a cultural shared responsibility. I can go to a hospital and hear a doctor saying it is preferable to assign the female sex to someone because if this person does not have a penis cannot be a man and on the same day enter a space for men only and have them telling me that if I don’t have a penis I am not really a man.
The difference is that doctors make decisions, but they don’t leave in a cultural vacuum. The common cultural sense says that men have to have a functional penis to be so. One could say that doctors could leave the possibility that an intersex is assigned to the male gender without being forced to have a phalloplasty and to have him grow up as a boy. That would be great but the thing is also how our society can make this person’s existence possible, admit it, celebrate it and desire it.
The rank of the body considered to be desirable has just started to broaden but is still very limited and medicine operates with that same rank.
Therefore it is very difficult to tell doctors and parents ‘do not operate your kids because they can have a good life with their bodies’. Of course they can have it but it is something medicine cannot guarantee, we all have to do it.
In fact you hold that “the main difficulty lies in the personal and social overcoming of the thingification entailed in a culture that recognizes us as (hardly) humans only starting from a certain body stereotype”. How could this personal and social overcoming be achieved?
The construction of the “how” keeps being an everyday work. There are options that have to do with visibility, other with support groups, with the production of eroticism and pornography, essays, critical texts and fiction, but whether this is working or not is something we will know when the intersex boys and girls who are growing up now might be able to tell if their lives have been different from ours.
When I was younger I strongly believed in the importance of information but I don’t as much anymore. Some people think that knowing more about the issue produces a change by itself but information simply piles up and the question remains how to articulate that information.
I believe that in order to produce changes in this king of cultural functionings it is necessary to reconsider things about our own positions with respect to the body, the sexuality, the identity, the gender expression, to think what is that we demand the others to recognize them as men, as women, as objects of desire and as subjects of desire and it has to be a personal work.
When I do workshops on intersexuality, more than informing people on how is intersex people’s life and situation, I prefer to explore with them what are their own positions with respect to their bodies, to femininity and masculinity, because that is the kind of things that we need to deconstruct in order to have more space for bodies that might defer from the male and female average.
You also wrote that “one of the most arduous problems trans people face is the permanent codification of our experience in strict terms. Part of our challenge is to increase intelligibility and to get rid of the load of reality and authenticity that binds the full enjoyment of the human rights to be “truly” someone or something”.
Is this still current?
Intelligibility is now wider. When I as a teenager started to identify myself as a boy and to say I liked boys there were not many people around me who could understand it and it took me a long time to find other people who identified themselves as I did. Years ago it was much more difficult to understand that there might be trans people who might not want to have an operation or decide which kind of surgery they wanted and which ones not or who might defend their reproductive rights. Nowadays all these possibilities effectively exist and people don’t have to invent a totally new narrative to tell their stories.
What I believe that still needs to be broaden is the narrative that has to do with those people who desire us. When someone has to say ‘I like transvestites’ or ‘I like trans or intersex people’ intersex’, he or she has to build a narrative for his or her interlocutor.
Narrative, intelligibility and vocabulary have to do also with a necessity of classifying, of naming things. You identify yourself as man, trans and intersex which, although complex, are still classifications, aren’t they?
The stack of classifications makes them somehow lose their meaning. One turns intelligible for the others but there is also a certain irony with respect to intelligibility. It seems to me that people have too clear what it means when they say ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am a woman’. We think we understand it all while they really are categories as dull as trans or intersex.
The intersex activism does not want to link intersexuality with a ‘third sex’, right?
Yes, first of all because there is not only one intersex body and then because, in the name of numerical multiplicity, what would be done would be to stick the bodies to a specific sex and in a possible intersex box would go all those people with a body different from the male and female average and that would create a corporal stability, which is not what the intersex movement defends. What it does is the right of the people, whatever their identity, to live in a culture that respects their body integrity and celebrates body diversity.
As far as identity is concerned, you identify yourself as a man. In the end it all reduces to men and women? Or it is not necessary?
The definition of gender does not depend on me. People suppose that the ones who have to subvert the gender binary are trans and intersex when in reality this is something you could ask any of your friends, why they identify as men or women and if this implies that there are only men and women. There are many people who identify themselves in other ways; I do it as a man. Have you ever asked this question to another man?
Talking about your personal experience, how have you ended up to the doctors and to be operated to ‘feminize’ your body?
As a teenager I looked like a girl but I did not menstruate, so my family brought me to the doctor.
When, as an adult, you started to look at the issue from a theoretical, political and philosophical point of view, have you had the chance to talk about this all with your family?
No. Well, my family…My mother had died, with my father I had other problems and we haven’t talked to each other for a long time and the rest of the family is my two brothers I have never had problems with, so there was nothing to talk about with them.
I wanted to understand whether you could find out what had brought them to have you have an operation…
In the end this turns out to be the least important issue because precisely by staying in touch with other stories one starts to understand how his story worked and that people can make serious mistakes moved by the best intentions.
I had a second surgery as a consequence of the first one and then a very long treatment as a consequence of these two surgeries, all things nor doctors nor the adults of my family could have never previewed and this is part of what we tell parents when they believe they will be able to fix their children’s bodies only with a surgery.
Medicine produces some disorders that can be previewed and others that are unpredictable and that sometimes have very deplorable consequences on people’s life. The surgeon who operated me ended up doing a master degree on bioethics, working on intersexuality and revising his positions.
I don’t feel hatred no grudge towards them all, it is more sadness for a shared destiny about something profoundly wrong those people believed in.
What marks do you still have from the operations?
I have many scars, lack of sensibility in the skin between my belly button and my pubis and immense tiredness. The treatment with general anaesthesia I had to undergo to for many years has left me exhausted for life.
The sort of very profound short-circuit at a sexual level that is generated makes for sexuality to become something different from what it might seem to the rest of the people.
The feeling, that I share with many other intersex people, is that of someone who has been raped many times and who, moreover, has to deal with the experience of living in a culture where this kind of interventions are not considered to be nor rape nor mutilation but a standard medical treatment. There is something a friend of mine says that I really like which is that the answer of the people is ‘this is not true nor is bad’. This produces a certain distancing with respect to the experience of gender, to the corporal prize the majority of people around us believe that is necessary to pay in order to be a man or a woman.
According to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently DSM IV) for being trans and intersex you would have more than one …Did you have to see psychiatrists?
Yes, but I lived to a very violent father, to the death of my mother when I was a kid, to this kind of surgery…the truth is that when I started to do some kind of therapy I think how I identified myself was the least relevant thing…I work in the ‘Stop Trans Pathologization’campaign‘but the truth is that the DSM has never been specifically relevant in my life.
Have you had limitations while accessing health services, both specific and general?
To have a sex reassignment surgery is not my priority but it is not an option I dismiss. Generally speaking I have a strong resilience to have my life enshrined in institutional frameworks…If I wanted to, I would have to face the conditions in which it is possible to do it in Argentina) or see where to do it.
As for the general services sometimes it is hard to put a body like mine in a hospital stretcher. Also, the way in which doctors tend to deal with the body for someone who has suffered medicalization in such an invasive way can be unacceptable and even unbearable.
As far as possible I try not to go to the doctor.
Anyways I am trans but ‘white’, I have a good job and can pay a private professional. If there is any kind of transphobia it circulates in a different way than for someone who goes to a public hospital and has to face the brutality of the health system from a different position not only identitarian but also from the class point of view and who might not receive health care or do it in shameful conditions, which it does happen to other trans people but also to those who are not in the same city I live in.
Your ID says you have another name. Does this create problems for you?
It is not the most comfortable situation in the world, especially because I am always travelling, but to me it is still healthier to face these problems than to undergo a trial to change my name. I do not feel like carrying out a narrative of my life that might make sense to a lawyer first and a judge later.
In an interview you said “To feminists the problem is that intersex surgeries happen to people they are not sure they are women yet, they are so starting from surgery. To them we are not contemporaries: on the one hand we are ancient monsters, hermaphrodites, on the other, people of the future, of whom the feminist groups will take care of once the problems of the average women have been solved”. Do you still think this?
Yes, of course there are thousands of feminists who are interested in the intersex issues but I think the great majority of feminism maintains this position.
In the same interview you also said “Where is intersexuality in the feminist sexual and reproductive rights? Where in the discourses on sexual difference?”
Where are they?
At present the proposal for the Interamerican Convention on sexual and reproductive rights (Convención Interamericana de derechos sexuales y derechos reproductivos) incorporates some intersex issues but generally to those who work within these frameworks body integrity is not understood in the same way as the intersex movement does, it is not a priority nor is it something that seems easy to articulate. For instance the right to abortion appears as a minor and difficult issue on which there is not much sureness when it comes to face it.
Do you feel that trans and intersex are somehow marginalized by the same LGBTI movement?
There is a kind of exclusive inclusion, meaning letters are included but people aren’t or they are as cases. The LGBTI is basically a movement of gays and lesbians where trans and intersex have a place but a marginal one.
That’s a bit much, isn’t it?
It might be but it is a constant feature. I think it is basic to break with the idea that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and intersex need some kind of natural belonging to a same community. What is there is a political alliance which works as any political alliance does. There are those who exercise their own privileges, there are class issues involved…I think that with a great effort we might get to belong to a same political movement but to me it is a little dangerous to think that we are all part of the same world because it is not so.
First of all issues of sexual orientation are mixed with those regarding gender identity…
Yes, moreover we could ask what does intersexuality have to do with the merger of these two variables…Really the I is there as an inclusion mark but it doesn’t mean anything more since in general nor the gays, lesbians and bisexuals movement nor the trans one really bring their body stereotypes into play… As a trans I am not a separatist but I do think it is about time to revise the way in which trans groups enter alliances with gays, lesbians and bisexuals groups because until now it is an alliance that has been detrimental to us more than it has helped. I mean, it has allowed groups to grow but always under the wing of agendas that are not their own.
How do you think trans and intersex policies could be better given visibility?
Honestly I don’t know what would the political configuration I prefer be but I do think that it is necessary to contaminate these categories so that people can understand that one can be trans and gay at the same time, or lesbian and intersex, trans and with disabilities…My specific job has to do with strengthen the positions of those who do trans and intersex activism whatever the activism they want to do. What we need is more trans and intersex activists with more access to funding, with the chance to define their own agenda and to make their own decisions with respect to build an alliance with gays, lesbians, bisexuals…
…And women’s groups, right?
Yes, always if and when this does not imply to always occupy a subordinate position. What seems interesting to me is a fragmentation with capacity of dialogue and of a contingent and non-forced articulation. I would rather talk about activisms instead of movement.
For what to the coverage the media use to do about intersexuality is concerned you said “The only ones who appear naked are intersex. The most relevant thing is the piece of flesh that makes us different and it is not that, it is to treat us like a piece of flesh what makes us different”.
Just like doctors the media reflect a ghoulish that is in our culture or you feel they promote and somehow create it?
I would say they do a lot to promote it but I don’t believe the problem is produced exclusively by the media.
Would you underline anything else on the treatment of the media towards intersexuality?
There is a more artistic work, such as the cinematographic one, where some kind of revision takes place but in general there is little media coverage on trans and intersex and the treatment they receive leaves a lot to be desired with respect to how people’s experience, their body, sexuality and relationships are objectivized. I guess any experience is susceptible of such media coverage but it is extremely difficult to find a media treatment on these issues that is more celebratory, respectful and that might stress more subjective issues and not the production of a life’s story as an object of media consumption.
The need of moving from an idea of suffering related to intersex people to a celebration of being as one is, is another idea that appears a lot in your writings. Who celebrates and what?
Celebration is a political resources, the festive form of the pride, for instance the celebration of body diversity, but at the same time I see more and more that it is something that is cast on the experience of those who perhaps do not have anything to celebrate anymore and that there is very little space to recognize that there are people that have lost this capacity to celebrate. Joy as a mandate can be as oppressive as suffering. At present I would rather plead for trying to break these one way ways of understanding experience or people’s current positions. I can be very happy with my body and celebrate it and even so go out and survive in a culture that does not have a single space for this celebration or I can find around me a continuous celebration of what I am without me finding too many reasons to celebrate…
Do you like your body?
Yes! I can say I like my body in spite of all the things that happened to it but when this body starts circulating in a narrative of desire, it is good but I do not know if it is a desire my body can deal with.
In order to face the damage medical intervention produces it is necessary to be able to recognize that there is also a capacity for celebration that has been mutilated. I think the celebration of body diversity is necessary in order to modify cultural mutilating practices in a wider sense. However there exist people like me who have suffered in our own flesh the experience of mutilation, therefore the celebration of body diversity has to have spaces to recognize that not all of us have a body for which sexuality is going to be a party.
Other ways of understanding and perceive what is sensual and what is pleasure could also be found, couldn’t they?
Indeed. The production of intersex erotic is something that will increase the possibilities of introducing intersex bodies within the imaginary of desire and within the cultural forms of pleasure. Even though we work to extend the opportunities for pleasure that does not mean it will work for us in the context of our bodies, among other reasons because they have been intervened. This is part of what is means to be intersex today. To many people the experience of the medical interventions is very similar to the experience of torture or of the female genital mutilation. One works so that these things won’t happen to other people but this work does not make it to modify the things that already happened to someone. Mutilation is irreversible and it does not matter how much celebration surrounds us.
This is why we fight against these non-consensual normalization procedures, precisely because they are irreversible no matter what one does afterwards.