Progress and Politics in the Intersex Rights Movement: Feminist Theory in Action

Alice D. Dreger and April Herndon, “Progress and Politics in the Intersex Rights Movement: Feminist Theory in Action,” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, in a special issue on “Intersex and After,” edited by Iain Morland, vol. 15, no. 2, March 2009: 199-224.

Abstract: Since 1990, when Suzanne Kessler published her foundational feminist critique of the modern-day medical treatment of children with intersex, much has changed in intersex politics, practice, and theory. This paper traces some key points of progress and considers in particular: the relationship of academic feminism and intersex advocacy; proof of and reasons for success in intersex medical advocacy; and intersex identity politics, especially with regard to the nature/nurture debate and terminology (“intersex” versus “hermaphroditism” versus “disorders of sex development”). The authors are university-based academic feminists who worked as volunteers and paid directors in the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), the best known and arguably most effective intersex advocacy and policy organization. In this work, we draw on the published literature as well as our own activist and academic experiences. We argue that, in the last 15 years, much progress has been made in terms of improving the medical and social attitudes towards people with intersex, but that significant work remains to be done to ensure that children born with sex anomalies will be treated in a way that privileges their long-term well-being over societal norms. We also argue that, while feminist scholars have been critically important in developing the theoretical underpinnings of the intersex rights movement and sometimes in carrying out the day-to-day political work  of that movement, there have been intellectual and political problems with some feminists’ approaches to intersex.

The graphic shown here is a Phall-O-Meter, a now-famous activist tool created by intersex activist Kiira Triea based on a critique of intersex clinical practice by Suzanne Kessler.