Through Us, With Us, In Us: Relational Theologies in the Twenty-First Century, in which I have an essay, was recently reviewed in the Church Times by Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee, the Bishop of Lincoln. Dr Saxbee said of my essay,
"Susannah Cornwall follows this [Carter Heyward's opening chapter] with a powerful personal testimony to both the traumas of intersexuality and the way this led to a new understanding of God, because if the intersexual person is made in the image of God, then God is intersexual as well — and lesbian, gay, transgendered, and straight."
I'm interested by Dr Saxbee's reference to my "powerful personal testimony". I wonder whether he believes that I myself have an intersex condition, or am claiming an intersexed identity in what I write. Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of my essay, which might be said to be my contextualization of what follows:
"I have been particularly keen to explore the theological and Christological implications of the existence and treatment of physical intersex conditions, as in my forthcoming book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology (Cornwall, forthcoming 2010). Approximately 1 in 2,500 individuals is born with a biological intersex condition which, in some cases, manifests in ambiguous genitalia. Other individuals may have unremarkable male-related or female-related genitalia, but the chromosomes or internal organs usually associated with the “opposite” sex. Children born with ambiguous genitalia, particularly before the mid-1990s when the intersex activism movement began to challenge the early surgery paradigm, often had “excessive” or “inadequate” genitalia surgically altered soon after birth or through childhood and into adolescence. This sometimes involved, for example, removing the penis of an XY child and assigning a feminine gender of rearing (see e.g. Preves 2003; Dreger 1999; Kessler 1998; Karkazis 2008). Many intersexed individuals identify unproblematically as the gender in which they were raised, but others – including some who underwent surgery to normalize their genitals since the 1960s when this became commonplace – identify themselves differently. Intersex activist Thea Hillman notes that the nebulous “intersex community” is far from homogenous:
“What many of us have in common are repeated genital displays, often from a young age. Many of us have had medical treatments done to us without our consent to make our sex anatomy conform to someone else’s standards. Many of us suffer from intense shame due to treatments that sought to fix or hide our bodies. And many of us have experienced none of the above.” (Hillman 2008: 149)
Some intersexed individuals report facing exclusion or suspicion from their church communities, which they attribute to a lack of understanding about their conditions (Curry 2006; Gross 1999: 70; Gross speaking in van Huyssteen 2003), stemming from assumptions that intersex equals homosexuality or a propensity for paedophilia."
In fact, the only direct personal identification I offer early in the essay is that I am a white feminist theologian. Later on, I discuss Iain Morland's suggestion that non-intersexed people should consider “a deliberate repudiation of male and female identities” because of the concomitant oppression of non-males-and-females bound up in these identities and in sex descriptivism itself. I note that my journey of working through what Morland’s imperative to cede unremarkably-sexed privilege would mean for me, a heterosexual female who also identifies as broadly feminine, is still in process. I remark that it does not cost me much to take small steps such as refusing to disclose my gender on application forms and documents where, as almost always, it is not relevant; it might cost me a great deal more to stop wearing make-up or recognizably feminine clothing. I happen to have a markedly feminine given name; I enjoy publishing under it, but coupled with other aspects of my identity perhaps it is too conveniently “sexed”. In these outer things inhere more than I usually care to admit of my confidence, self-projection as capable and adult, and personal and professional personae.
It is possible that I am misunderstanding John Saxbee, and that he is simply noting that my piece is "personal" (which, of course, it is), without assuming that I am writing as an intersexed person. However, his use of the phrase "personal testimony" leads me to suspect that he thinks I am, in fact, an intersexed individual.
This is not the only time such assumptions have been made. A blog write-up of my talk on intersex at the Greenbelt Festival in 2009 said that I had spoken "on being intersexed". A commenter added, "An intersex person at Greenbelt? Did I have it wrong when I considered it more of a conservative Christian fest? It sounds like fun though!" There were indeed plenty of intersexed people at Greenbelt 2009, some of whom came to the talk and were kind enough to contribute questions, comments and observations. I, however, am not intersexed myself, and have never claimed to be.
After the blog post in question appeared, I thought long and hard about whether or not I should clear up the misconception. (In the event, the blog's privacy settings did not allow me to do so, so the comments still exist out there in web-land, unremarked upon by me.) If I jumped in and said "Oh, no, I don't have an intersex condition", would that be construed as my seeking to distance myself from something I deemed bad or undesirable? Or would it, conversely, simply have made clear that I speak and write about intersex as something of an outsider, so that my words should not be taken as representative of some kind of intersex consensus? But then, would that not be just as much the case if I did have an intersex condition, since my experience and testimony would still be specific to me, and not unproblematically universalizable?
In my forthcoming book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology, I seek to be very explicit about my own relationship to the issues about which I write:
"Representing intersexed individuals, and working toward a theology from intersex/DSD, is problematic if done, as here, by a non-intersexed person. However, this does not mean that thinking with intersex/DSD as a non-intersexed person is entirely inappropriate. In fact, whilst it would be reprehensible to colonize the standpoint of an intersexed person as my own, it is crucial that those who are not intersexed consider and participate in discourse about it along with those who are. To say that only someone from a particular group can speak about or reflect on that group risks ghettoizing particular issues, so that they are always pushed to the edges, left as minority concerns rather than those which conceivably impact upon and implicate everyone. This point is made convincingly by Alice Dreger, a non-intersexed activist for intersex/DSD issues, who has written of her opposition to the notion that identity politics can only be done by individuals who claim the specific, given identity (Dreger 2006b). It is crucial, as far as possible, to reflect on intersexed people’s own reflections and testimonies concerning their lives and experiences; but my own reflection on intersex/DSD also necessitates a self-critical evaluation of my assumptions and the ways in which my background affects the manner in which I view it. The existence of intersexed people can help to query the perceived norms of physiology and gender which seem to undergird much mainstream theology (not just that concerned with “sex” issues), but I should be asking them on my own behalf. They should prompt me to re-examine my own assumptions and situation as a non-intersexed person. In her study of Christian feminism among black and white women, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite remarks,
“Gustavo Gutiérrez once said that he is suspicious of anyone who is not in the liberation struggle for themselves. I am not in this exploration of the difference race makes for black women; nor am I in it on behalf of black women. I want to know for myself what is being hidden and carried along unexamined in the class and race solidarity of white women.” (Thistlethwaite 1990: 46)
My non-intersexed experiences are mine to own in a way that those of people with intersex/DSD conditions are not."
I think it's worth quoting Dreger's blog post, since it was so useful in helping me think through my own relationship to intersex experience and testimony. Dreger, who has written about the historical and contemporary existence and treatment of a variety of "atypical" bodily states, including intersex and conjoined twins, says,
"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."
As I suggested above, one of my concerns during my past and ongoing research on issues like intersex, transgender, disability and queer theology has been that I not be seen to misrepresent people. I now try to make it very clear that I am (as far as I know) a white, heterosexual, female, non-intersexed married woman. There are undoubtedly times when I unwittingly exoticize, fetishize or misrepresent those about whom I write and speak, however much I endeavour not to. I am conscious that there are many respects in which my bodily, intellectual, class and other privileges mean that I can access academic arenas and the world of "respectable" publishing in a way which many people cannot. It is therefore, I believe, my responsibility not to speak for other people but with them.
However, like Dreger, I believe that this does not mean that only someone who inhabits a particular identity can speak or write about it. It is for this reason that I hope I have misunderstood Dr Saxbee and the aforementioned blog writer, and that they do not in fact assume that the only reason someone would think intersex was important, noteworthy or significant was because they were themselves intersexed.
I'm facing similar tensions at the moment in my British Academy-funded project, Readings from the Road, in which I've been facilitating Contextual Bible Study sessions with a group of homeless and vulnerably-housed people in a city in the South-West of England. My co-researcher and I have discussed at length the conflict we feel about the fact that the words and experiences of the homeless participants are going to help the two of us advance our careers, since they'll be used in published academic papers and will score highly in terms of the knowledge "dissemination" which it's becoming increasingly important to show you're doing. Does that mean we shouldn't use them? We don't think so, but it's made us very mindful of ensuring we're as transparent as possible with both our research participants and the eventual readers of our papers about who "owns" the material and what that means for how it should be read and used.
As I'll be saying in my new book, Controversies in Queer Theology,
The issues surrounding identity and ownership are manifold and spiralling, and what I continue to seek to do is to keep channels of communication open."If there are moments when I have unwittingly misunderstood or misrepresented an argument or a motivation, then I can only apologize and hope that those I have wronged, or their advocates, will do me the privilege of letting me know so that this conversation might be a multivocal and ongoing one. There is another important reason for letting the voices of those who have worked on questions of queer theology over the last few decades speak for themselves ... The chapters below will show that there is much debate over the extent to which a heterosexual person can be considered queer, or can speak about queer theologians. Some people believe that a heterosexual can only ever be an ally to queer people rather than claiming queerness themselves; others say that queering is about a rejection of more than heteronormativity, and that it is the responsibility and task of heterosexual married people just as much as others to queer discourses of regulatory race, class, gender and sexuality. I do not claim a right to speak on behalf of others: rather, I seek to speak with them, reflecting on how queer theology implicates and interrogates all Christians. Nonetheless, I am aware that the society in which I live grants me certain privileges not afforded to those whose gender, sexuality and “race” are often deemed non-normative or non-ideal. It is not my intention to patronize, misrepresent or equivocate about anyone else. "
That's what the comments function is for, folks...