My identity/politics

1 Feb 2007

Twice in the last week I’ve again been asked The Question. Well, more than twice, come to think of it: once by a reporter interested in my work, and about fifteen times at the wonderful annual meeting of the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group, where I was privileged to speak at three sessions.

What’s “The Question”?

Why are you interested in this stuff? Hey, Alice, why do you study and help out people born with intersex conditions? Why did you write a book on conjoined twins? How come you speak at meetings of professionals and families concerned with craniofacial anomalies? What gives?

Here are the various theories people have had about my motivations: I’m intersex. I’m the lover of a person with intersex. My kid has intersex. I’m a closeted lesbian. I was joined at birth. I have some kind of fetish about anomalies.

Yeah, right. By which I mean, um, no.

You want to know why I’ve been working on this stuff? OK, I’ll tell you if you promise to keep the little secret about my identity: I like being helpful.

If you want to read the long story of precisely how I got into this line of work, read the introduction to One of Us or read the article I wrote on being the resident historian in the intersex rights movement.

But my motivation is summed up pretty simply: I like feeling useful.

I hate that good liberals like me have driven identity politics to the point where everyone interested in an identity issue is presumed to have that identity. I mean, I don’t really care if people mistakenly think I am intersex, or lesbian, or was born conjoined (except that then they are attributing experiences to me that I don’t have). What I mind is the p.c. attitude that no one but those who have an identity should study, speak, or care about that identity.

This kind of attitude has led to an annoying situation where people who don’t have the identity think they shouldn’t care about it. It’s not their issue.

Well, as I’ve been telling my students for years, maybe if they make it their issue, things will get better a lot quicker. Here’s a piece of history too many people seem to forget: Women didn’t give women the vote. Women (and some men) agitated for it, and then men gave them the vote. Black people didn’t pass key civil rights legislation. Black people stood up for themselves, alongside some good white people, and then mostly white people passed civil rights legislation. Gay people are not going to get the right to marry unless straight people make it happen. Do the numbers, people.

I’m really not the first person in history to figure out that the people with the privilege might do the most good by working with and for the people without. Yet I know a whole bunch of liberals sitting around with energy-sapping, navel-gazing guilt, a guilt they think is all they’re entitled to, being white, able-bodied, straight, middle-class people. I haven’t got time for that silliness. There’s too much work to do.

Do I sometimes take crap from people in identity rights movements (like the intersex rights movement) for being a supposed interloper? Sure, sometimes. But most people figure out that it’s a good thing to have someone capable helping out.

Could we all spend a little less time questioning people’s identities and motivations and a little more time getting good work done? Remember what Martin Luther King said: Let’s judge each other not by the color (or shape) of our skin, but by the content of our characters. And it’s hard to judge that content if it remains unmanifested. So go manifest it. Take my word for it: it feels good.