We are all led to believe that Dr Alice Dreger, the Truth Bitch, has been working away on a “History of what happens when doctors say nice and wholesome things to help the ungrateful masses and the ungrateful masses do not agree!”
What we actually read in her blogs and her articles is something that is quite intriguing. Basically Dr. Alice Dreger has this utopian vision of a world where intersex people can be fitted into nice neat categories and she has this role of overseeing the care of intersex people in her new utopia.
The problem is that she does not fully understand what intersex people really are. She seems to have this view that intersex people are children who are born with medical questions about whether they are male or female. For example a girl with XY chromosomes or a boy with XX chromosomes is in her view a “Disorder of Sex Development”. While there are many variations and conditions, she clearly aims to have them all categorised as children under this “DSD” scheme. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, while much has been said about the terminology of “DSD”, the idea of a set of diagnostic criteria is workable and probably would help ease a lot of confusion about many intersex variations. The problem starts when she gets into areas she simply does not understand, the lived experience of being intersexed perhaps eludes her the most. For good reason, she is not intersexed, and as she often likes to remind the world, she is a mother of a healthy child herself, with a nice job in a university.
She seems preoccupied with the notion that adults with intersex conditions or “DSDs” (To use her terms) can be split into two groups, the first group consists of those who conform to her diagnostic standards and have a life narrative that matches to her expectations.
The second group would be those who do not fit into her expectations, a group she dismisses as “Transgender”. This is perhaps the first characteristic of the Dreger utopia that looks a bit dystopic when looked at in more detail. For some reason she does have this very arbitrary set of expectations about who should be assigned to what sex. She will define a “DSD” and then define the sex they should be assigned. If she encounters an adult who does not live according to those expectations she then turns their history from that of an intersex history to that of a psychiatric disorder or that of a political trouble maker.
This is one reason she appears to have invested so much time and effort into defending Professor. J Michael Bailey, a psychologist at the Northwestern University of Chicago who has gained some notoriety for his discussions about transsexual people, or transsexual women in particular. He essentially describes them as men who are sexually aroused by being female. There is plenty of discussion about this and this does not fall within the scope of the article, but the one thing Bailey does provide is a sort of mental health waste disposal service where the labels of “Transgender” and “Mentally ill” can be applied quickly to anyone with a “DSD” who does not conform to Dr. Dreger’s expectations.
Dr. Dreger often seems to repeat the mantra that people who are transsexual and ashamed of it opt to be defined as intersexed in order to avoid the pathologization of being transsexual. Which is interesting because she clearly supports the pathologization of transsexual people. If your life does not conform to Dr. Dreger‘s strict criteria, you are in a no win situation, you are suddenly a “Transgender seeking to avoid being pathologized by people like Professor. Bailey”. But Dr. Alice Dreger has clearly ensured that it is all set up like this anyway by supporting Professor Bailey and his work in the first place.
Where was it ever said prior to the founding of the Intersex Society of North America that transsexuals were lower down some pecking order from intersex people? While there were certainly some transsexual people who claimed to have an intersex history (Some who helped Dr. Dreger set up ISNA for example, which is curious – more on that later). There were not any significant numbers of such people. Dr. Dreger also describes those who do not fit her expectations as “Transsexuals seeking intersex privilege”. A very strange thing for a self proclaimed intersex activist to say given that she likes to remind us all that intersex people suffer a life of unwanted surgery, secrecy and shame. How is suffering a life of unwanted surgery, secrecy and shame a privilege?
She could argue that people are more sympathetic to intersex people than they are transsexual people, well yes, but then Dr. Alice Dreger is engaged in making sure that this is even more the case. It is almost as if she has been setting the situation up so she does not have to make a real argument. She just repeats the situation as it now is, the situation she has been instrumental in bringing about.
This is the point where you have to step back from the debate and ask a few questions she probably won’t be able to answer. In terms of activism ISNA used to claim that before anyone could consider themselves to be an intersex activist, they either had to be a lesbian who was born fully female or provide endless documentation to prove they were intersexed. It was during this time the strict criteria first started to appear. But as a woman who boasts endlessly about her heterosexual status (Not that lesbianism has anything to do with intersex anyway) who was involved with Denise Tree (Who has to this day never explained what her diagnosis actually was and yes she is now seen as the very thing Alice Dreger despises, a transsexual claiming to be intersexed) and “Cheryl Chase” (Bo Laurent) another individual with about 5 other aliases and at least four contradicting narratives about her intersex history.
Dr. Alice Dreger became the main player in an intersex organisation she claimed to be “The genuine article” as a heterosexual woman, with two people who certainly would not measure up to her strict criteria as people with “DSDs”. Today she claims that “intersex” is a word to describe a political identity, and was never a medical term, which is odd because it was used prior to her promoting the “DSD” terminology and a lot of medical literature did use “intersex”. She also claims that “intersex” is a demeaning term used today by transsexual people seeking legitimacy. Yet today she still describes herself as an “Intersex activist”. So is she a closet female to male transsexual seeking legitimacy?
There is also her almost obsessive commentaries in various sexology discussion groups insisting that transsexual people have no innate sense of being male or female that would contradict the sex into which they were born, she was even instrumental in making sure Professor. D. Swaab’s study on the BSTc in transsexual women never gets a mention in any academic publication she has any influence over. It is as if she is still trying to drive home the notion that “Transgender = mental illness”.
It all starts to look less like some utopia and more like some very oppressive form of gender policing. And this gender policing does seem to have a very bizarre system of reward and punishment. The reward is that you get to be defined as a physical illness, but it is probably not a reward most people would want. “I award you with being a Disorder of Sex Development“. How does that act as a reward? The punishment is to be deemed as some “Gender Identity Disorder”. This utopia is beginning to look a little hollow; there is no benefit in it for anyone because wherever you are placed within it, you are deemed to be some sort of disorder that has to be managed. OK the levels of (Engineered) cruelty may differ, if you are seen as a “Disorder of sex development” you don’t get psychologists and sexologists classifying you as some “Gender identity disorder that has to be stigmatized”.
The reality of this is that either way you lose, she wins. There are a few other strange contradictions with the way Dr. Dreger presents her utopia.
She clearly has a problem with identity politics.
She does seem to insist on unbiased, neutral perspectives in any discussion with intersex activists who do not agree with her because, according to Dr. Dreger, they identify as “intersex activists” (As she herself does curiously enough). Her latest article that really goes into her problem with identity politics has “Feminist Theory in action” in the title. This is where the greatest mystery of all seems to make a little more sense. ISNA was an organisation run by “Lesbians” for “Intersex”, and we are not talking the present day third wave feminism (As you may have guessed) either. But the second wave feminism as espoused by Germaine Greer and Janice Raymond. You know the feminism I am talking about, the feminism that was synonymous with lesbians huddled in female only spaces telling everyone else not to invade their sacred space, and really being angry when there is even a whiff of colonisation from any outside groups. Now think of this carefully when reading “Feminist theory in action” by an “intersex activist” who is very much a woman who breeds and tells the world about it.
This is where we get on to those “Acceptable DSD narratives”. You may notice that the one theme that runs through all her writing is that she likes to talk about boys who were made into girls and grew up wanting to be men. These are acceptable, if it just happened to be the other way round, that is someone was assigned male as a child by surgery or hormones etc. and someone rejected being male, well they are “Transsexuals using intersex to gain legitimacy”.
What sort of “Feminist perspective” is that? It is as if she is saying that boys are better off than girls and in order to make a child with a “DSD” conform, assign them male. Which does not address the core problem which is that the very conclusion she makes is sexist.
And this is where you see the dystopia for what it really is. Much of what she says makes little or no sense when you look at it at on its face value, but it does when you put it into a context of someone who clearly does not like any deviation from a norm.
Another contradiction (and perhaps her biggest) is the way she berates the sort of men who go onto emailing lists and online support groups looking to get a thrill out of those mysterious intersex people. Two contradictions arise from this.
She herself creates a mystique around intersex people. She constantly talks about the “Majority of intersex people” and “The real intersex people ” as if she is always holding conversations with some mysterious and enlightened group of intersex activists who are invisible, for most of the time, claiming that those people who describe themselves as part of a grass roots community are all interloping transsexuals or genuine “DSDs” who have been deceived. But who is she talking about? The AISSG? Well I am a member of the AISSG myself, And many of them were not all that keen on her “DSD” model either. So who does she mean? Cheryl Chase/Bo Laurent and Denise Tree/Kiira Triea? It would seem that way considering the praise she heaps on them in her blog. But they have not exactly made their own histories clear while demanding that others do. The other contradiction lies with her clear distaste for men who appear on gender variant, or intersex websites to get a cheap thrill. And yet there she is supporting Professor. J Michael Bailey a man who is notorious for that sort of behaviour.
This where any analysis of Alice Dreger seems to end. It is a drainage pipe full of contradictions that ends up in the gutter. It is quite possible that her attacks on the present day intersex support groups who simply do not agree with her will probably result in her ruining her own reputation. ISNA is gone. It was not quite the beacon of intersex activism she claims it was and people who speak in many different languages, worldwide are going to see her writings in English as irrelevant and spiteful.
She objects very strongly to the word “Interloper”. Well perhaps she can explain what she really is. She is not an impostor because she makes no pretence of being anything other than a fertile woman. Which does beg the question, what is her interest in this subject? She is a very strong advocate of pre natal screening and abortion; perhaps she is nervous about the possibility that she may be a carrier of one of these “DSDs”. Well thankfully for her child, it has not been passed on if this is indeed the case.
Her interest in intersex people and her need to control the lives of intersex people does leave more questions than answers. When she said she was going to focus on “Little people” and cut her ties with intersex activism the comments that ran around the emailing lists were something like “Oh she is going to pick on someone else now? Well at least it is not us!”
Instead of attacking people or dismissing their experiences as “Transgender” to feed into a prejudice she herself was instrumental in promoting, she perhaps needs to consider how all this is beginning to reflect on her, she may be a prominent figure in the history of intersex activism, but as it stands, she appears like a petty minded dictator who cannot let go of the past. ISNA is gone. People no longer consider her involvement as relevant and her DSD model has caused more anger than anything else.
Progress and Politics in the Intersex Rights Movement, Feminist theory in action.
Dreger A, Herndon A 2009.