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Joycelyn Elders (sort of) responds to intersex activist–for the first time!

Date: June 4, 2007

I just came back from the conference Let’s Talk About Sex! in Chicago, organised primarily by SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective. While I was too exhausted from everything going on to attend all the sessions, it was good to meet many women of colour working toward comprehensive social and economic justice.

Thanks to Shira at Young Women’s Empowerment Project and SisterSong’s director Loretta, I was invited to speak about intersex human rights on a plenary panel appropriately titled “Controlling Communities through Controlling Bodies,” and to present a more detailed workshop on intersex later in the day.

I only had 15 minutes on the plenary, so I gave a brief overview of intersex issues, focusing on how surgeries designed to “fix” intersex are based on white straight male assumptions about sexuality, particularly that of women. For example, I refuse to accept the notorious statement by one of the intersex specialists, “it’s easier to dig a hole than to build a pole” (I joked “you didn’t know doctors could rhyme, aside from Dre…”) as a statement of objective fact: I believe that it reflects the (mostly male, mostly straight) doctors’ obsession with what a “functional” male genital must be like, versus their limited understanding of what female genitalia was for (the hole to be penetrated, that is).

There were hundreds of people in the audience (they told me that 800+ people pre-registered for the conference), but one caught my eyes: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General during Clinton era, who was sitting almost directly in front of me on the third row. She was to give a keynote speech after the plenary, but she had somehow arrived early and was hearing my talk.

While Dr. Elders is well respected among progressive activists due to her views on healthy sexuality and commitment to social justice, she is also a pediatric endocrinologist with a history of actively promoting unnecessary medical surgeries on intersex children. During the 90s, intersex activists have tried to engage her in dialogue, but she never responded to many letters, phone calls and emails from intersex activists. But I bet that this is the first time that she actually sat in the audience while an intersex activist spoke–it was historical in that sense.

Toward the end of my presentation, I said that while intersex surgeries reflect white straight male assumptions about female sexuality, it is not only practiced or promoted by white straight male doctors. “In fact, our own keynote speaker Dr. Joycelyn Elders wrote, in her autobiography:”

Determining a person’s sex doesn’t feel the same as making decisions about high blood pressure or back surgery. But I don’t think we ever spent too much time on the philosophical side of it. The worst thing of all would have been not to have clarity.”
From “From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States” by Joycelyn Elders with David Chanoff.

I continued: This is not to single her out, but to illustrate the pervasiveness of this approach, since even the most progressive, most sexually enlightened doctor holds such a view. But there are worse things than not having clarity, such as not having an orgasm–and it’s ironic for someone who was fired by Bill Clinton for publicly mentioning masturbation to endorse a procedure that makes it difficult to masturbate or to achieve orgasm.

Later, during her keynote Dr. Elders commented on each of the panelist from the plenary, including me. “Emi… did a slam dunk on me when I was sitting in front of her on the third row,” to which the audience laughed. “We sometimes made mistakes because we didn’t know… but it’s not true that we just cut off clitoris,” she insisted. Then she sort of murmured a bit about how doctors actually try to “rework” clitoris, but I don’t know if that helped, since surgically “reworking” clitoris doesn’t seem much better than cutting it off, especially for an audience that is skeptical about medical technologies messing with women’s bodies. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me that they were shocked to hear Dr. Elders’ response because she is otherwise very enlightened about issues that deal with women’s sexuality and physical integrity.

I actually had a chance to chat with Dr. Elders for about ten seconds, in which she seemed to be trying to put me off by using medical jargons. For example she insisted that surgeries aren’t common anyway because one would have to be Prader V CAH or equivalent to receive surgeries, but that is clearly not true (there is a move to limit surgeries for less severe cases of CAH, but almost no doctors would question performing surgeries for Prader III and IV cases). Perhaps she thought that I didn’t know what Prader scale was, or at what point doctors are likely to perform surgeries, but she underestimated my knowledge a bit too much. (For those of you who don’t know what Prader scale is, go to this page and click “Prader scale” from the list of topics.)

But there were lots of other people who were trying to talk to her, and I wasn’t able to speak with her any more. So I gave her a copy of my article, “From Controversy to Consensus: An Activist Perspective“, and then did a photo-op with her. If you want to see the photo of Joycelyn Elders smiling next to me, do email me :-)

1 Comment »

  1. Hello! Am glad you wrote this — I am an academic who is beginning a new project on trans identity and have always been amazed by how african americanists (my field) have dodged or ignored the issue about the genesis of Dr. Jocelyn Elders’ career. I’m going to have a look at your piece and try to get something out about this at another conference.

    thanks again,

    Comment by SPH — December 5, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

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