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"Historically, whenever a culture is on the brink of stepping into a new paradigm, members of that culture react quite predictably. As the old paradigm begins to disintegrate, people attempt to reinvigorate or reinforce the paradigm in order to try and preserve what is known and therefore safe and secure, while resisting the forces of change for fear of facing the unknown” (Noble, 2010)



I set out to examine Intersexuality as one of the invisible battlegrounds for postcolonial assumptions of a sex and gender binary set against the mythical backdrop of Australia’s postcolonial whiteness, our patriarchal culture and an idealised national identity, which continue to infuse the Australian national consciousness (Lopez, 2012).


The construction of sex, race, gender, and the Australian national ideal

The construction of sex and gender is closely related to the construction of race through claims of biological determinants and factors, which also maintain the notion of white racial supremacy (Glenn, 1999). These social constructs are deeply embedded in Australian culture through its historical narratives and maintained through powerful institutional structures, hence it has been difficult to detach from the beliefs that have no basis in reality, yet continue to profoundly inform and shape the social experience (Hall, 1997). Lopez writes that there is a lack of theory on colonial whiteness particularly in the exploration of the relations between whiteness and the continuance of colonial power through institutional discourses.  The patriarchal nature of colonial rule and the rigid binaries set out for both its colonists and the colonised remain embedded in Australian society to this day (Lopez, 2012) and perhaps it is the invisibility of whiteness that ensures it maintains its power and keeps its sexual stereotypes alive.


There is no doubt that intersex births challenge Australia’s normative stereotypes, exposing the remnants of colonial discourses on sex and gender. The most enduring remnant that continues to inform Australia’s historical discourse is that of the mythical heroic bushman as the ‘Aussie’ pioneer and the working class battler (Bellanta, 2012).  This vision of Australian masculinity, which emerged at the end of the colonial era, signaled a shift from the patriarchal sentimentalities of British Imperialism to that of a ‘tough but honest’ national ideal that persists as the national image of Australia. The great Australian stereotype is the all-Australian bloke, who works the land and never complains. Each night, after a drink with his mates he makes his way home to his subservient but loyal wife and adoring family, satisfied with a job well done and ready to work for the good of the nation. We all recognise this image because it is still informing the Australian national imaginary.  The Australian Legend, written by Russell Ward and published in 1958 is the enduring postcolonial interpretation of Australian-ness (Davison, 2012) and it is this idealised notion that battles against the reality of Australia’s true colonial and indigenous histories and also against the non-binary reality of sex and gender. Australia’s colonial past informs the discourses of Australia’s dominant institutions together with the assumption that; sex exists within a natural stable framework in a white heteronormative society. To renounce this belief would destabilize our patriarchal social and political systems. However over the last three decades, Australia’s assertion of white masculinity struggles to retain its cultural supremacy (Bellanta, 2012).


The ‘all-Australian’ imaginary and intersexuality

The Australian contemporary understanding of intersexuality is deeply flawed as is the notion of what it means to be Australian; limited by the normative experience of a white male/female gender binary, which forms the central framework and context for both a personal sense of self and the construction of an Australian national identity (Murrie, 1998).  One of the legacies of colonialism is that this established power dynamic continues to undermine anyone who does not fit the ‘Aussie’ masculine/feminine ideal. This has effectively erased the voice of the intersex community, which is heavily marginalised through its biological ambiguities and routinely defined through medical discourse (Bing, Bergvall & Freed 2013, p.8).  Discussion of Intersexuality is a social taboo; it has been kept hidden and has no place in the national imaginary.  If we add being indigenous to this equation, then we have a multi-marginalised experience as constructions of sex, gender and race come into play (Glenn, 1999). Aboriginal friends who identify as gay or transgender have expressed to me that in their early years of coming out, they were rejected by both the indigenous and non-indigenous communities and perceived themselves to be on the lowest rung of a heavily stratified society and this is confirmed many times over by indigenous members of the LGBTI community (Sisters & Brothers NT, 2016). Without minimising the experience of other sex and gender variant individuals, I discovered during my research that the intersex individual has been hidden deep within our social, sexual and racial hierarchies; invalidated, surgically or hormonally assimilated into the dominant binary order and then more recently, burdened with the responsibility of leading society out of its hetero-normative limitations (Holmes, 2008, p.16).


Defining Intersex: alternative genders and the missing Intersex

It is important to concomitantly clarify and reclaim the term ‘intersex’ as distinct from the more generalised understanding of terminologies associated with alternative genders, particularly if sociological research is to be effective for addressing intersex marginalisation.   Intersexual persons are routinely mistaken for transgender. Put simply, the difference between intersex and transgender is that transgender has to do with ones gender identity and intersex is about ones biological characteristics. The term intersex applies to a chromosomal, biological phenomenon and Intersex births are not as uncommon as most people think. One in two thousand births are considered intersex, however 1 in 400 births show some kind of hormonal and sexual anomaly that does not fit neatly into the ideal male/female binary.  One in 4,500 are born with both male and female genitalia (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Sexual dimorphism has been to date a dominant area of research in studies on sex and gender with definitions of sex variant and non-binary genders including persons born carrying a combination of XX and XY chromosomes (Organisation Intersex International Australia, 2012). The number of intersex people worldwide is estimated to be 1.7% and may be as high as 4% of the world’s population if we include people born with “unacceptable genitalia” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Clearly there is a human sex spectrum that has always naturally occurred. This is not some recent mutation or abnormality; nor is it rare, therefore it is important to examine why we still find it difficult to distinguish intersex from transgender as they have always been a part of human biological history. On deeper investigation, they have not been included as part of Australian social or cultural histories, which have been constructed around colonial and postcolonial perspectives and I sought to investigate whether there was a time when the intersex individual was recognised or socially accepted, relative to Australia’s colonial past.


Intersex in the pre-colonial era

I was surprised to find that “17th century England recognised two genders but three biological sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite” (Moore, 1998). Intersex persons were socially acknowledged and accepted, provided they chose one of the binary-gender identities and either married an opposite gender or entered the church for a lifetime of monastic service. This was in adherence to church law and the religious belief that sexual relations were for procreation between a man and a woman. Also interesting to note is that attraction to the same sex, although considered a transgression was tolerated as long as the status quo was maintained and people continued to be married as man and wife. It was between 1690 and 1710 that this attitude radically changed. It appears that during the pre-colonial Enlightenment era the secularists sought to delegitimise religious authority. As we entered the colonial era, the move toward individual autonomy developed and these changes became the “ideal prerequisites for modern masculinity” (Moore 1998, p.4). Consequently, what we term as the ‘alpha male’ was coming into his dominion. Through colonialism with its white racial ideal and masculinity, it became the central figure for Australian national pride.


The normalising society

While Australian society has in recent times become more accepting of trans/sexuality our medical institutions continue to define those born with both male and female chromosomes; and more specifically those born with ambiguous genitalia, pathologically (Fausto-Sterling, 2000) and perhaps this is because they represent a scientific challenge to the status quo.   Intersex infants are routinely assigned a gender at birth, with many subjected to surgical intervention from infancy and nearly all receiving hormonal intervention as pre-pubescent children despite irrefutable scientific evidence that a male/female sex-binary does not exist in nature (Ainsworth, 2005). Biomedicine has come to recognise intersexuality as a naturally occurring anatomical and sexual variant but defines it as pathology rather than a natural difference (Holmes, 2008, p.20). Hence the intersex body from birth is subject to the laws of a particular mode of living, centred on the acceptable appearance of human genitalia in order to conform to social expectations and be suitable for life in a binary system (Guidotto, 2007). The histories of sexualised bodies and sexualities are formed within a political and cultural framework that continues to deny the instability of sex.  Our biomedical institutions act as agents for a heteronormative society and legitimise the assumption of a stable sex binary, by altering the bodies of healthy intersex infants. This invasive, violent body shaming has emerged as a serious human rights issue (Wilson, 2012). It is hard to accept that we live in a society that gives up its intersex infants as the subjects of a personified medical discourse on sex and gender (Holmes, 2008) to satisfy the systemic belief in a sexual binary.  


Why intersex? : Postcolonial bio-politics in Australia

As Intersex persons have existed throughout human history and are about as rare as redheads (Barnes, 2013) I was motivated to explore why healthy Intersex births continue to be defined as a chromosomal disorder, an abnormality or a medical problem and I determined that colonial constructions of sex and gender are deeply embedded in contemporary discourses, which have controlled the topic of intersex through largely medicalised terms. Foucault found that power operates within the institutional apparatus and uses knowledge to regulate the conduct of others (Hall, 2001). The relation between sex, race and gender as historical, social and cultural constructs began to make some sense to me at this point (Stoler, 1995). The dominant system has rules and these rules regulate behaviour and physical appearance until they are in line with its social norms:

“ It is taken for granted that sexual and racial difference are inherent qualities of the corporeal, and, moreover, that male and female bodies, black and white bodies, may each respectively fit a universal category” (Price & Shildrick, 1999).

There is little sociological research that deals specifically with intersex invisibility, or the deeper systemic implications of the taboo nature of their existence. They have almost no protections under Australian law as intersex people; in fact a paper that consolidated federal anti-discrimination laws was 60 pages long yet the word ‘Intersex’ was not mentioned (Wilson, 2012). It is curious that this would occur despite extensive feminist scholarship on the construction of sex and gender and a substantial history of medical research on hermaphroditism.  Gender seems more deeply engrained than race in biology; through reproduction, sexuality and the body itself. Women of colour for example have historically born the bulk of the burden as household laborers for the middle-classes in colonial and postcolonial societies with the added emotional responsibility of rearing white middle class children hence freeing middle class white women to pursue cultural activities and later take up careers, which ironically facilitated the feminist movement (Glenn, 1999) and initiated debates on human rights and equality.   While Australian political discourses about equality and human rights are convincing, they have their limitations and partialities.

Our human rights discourses once excluded anyone who fell outside of the white, middle class male classification and emphasised particular values and meanings as comprehensive and unanimous.  These values, which are a legacy of Australia’s colonial past, remain engrained in our culture and within our language (Weedon, 2002) and continue to support Australia’s social hierarchies. The Patriarchal construction of gender is not based on natural difference but on the inherent view of women as the frailer sex, which is conversely in possession of an unknown and threatening source of power. Most alternative genders still function within this binary framework and do not challenge it, however I believe the intersex individual has been isolated for special treatment precisely because they do.   The intersex individual’s biology contradicts the patriarchal domestic order; based on the mistaken assumption of a natural sex binary, yet today this assumption cannot be supported by scientific evidence (Moore, 1998 p.6).

We can easily imagine the social, political and legal upheavals, which intersexuality poses for Australia’s patriarchal systems, particularly for the assigned roles within our society and for the actual language we use since they challenge the established order of ‘man or woman’, ‘black or white’ and ‘heterosexual or homosexual’ by occupying a space in between and standing as physical evidence for what modern biology has confirmed – that the binary is not natural but a social construct that serves to support a patriarchy and its colonial legacies (Moore, 1998). It is therefore a bio-political assault that otherwise healthy intersex persons are medically defined at birth and treated to conform to a binary system. Our medical institutions are enduring symbols of patriarchal authority and power and as such they practice bio-politics on the population. Medical discourse and its discursive subcategories demand submission to biomedical surveillance, authority, diagnosis and treatment (Turner, 2007). The regulating power of medical discourse is particularly relevant for parents who give birth to an intersex child with ambiguous genitalia, which is seldom anticipated (Organisation Intersex International Australia, 2012). Many parents submit to medical authority, which intervenes quickly to change the intersex infant’s body (Chase, 1998).    


The postcolonial gender imaginary: binary personal pronouns

By the end of the 20th century, postcolonial theories of sex and gender were being questioned. Exploration into previously unchallenged social, moral and biological assumptions prompted new discussion about the influences that have shaped mainstream views on gender and sexuality (Noble, 2010) particularly as British colonial literature and scholarship had featured sexual domination as symbolic of European supremacy (Stoler, 1989). The structure of the English language was therefore key to colonial power and control, and continues to support the assumptions of a sex binary and anyone who does not outwardly conform to the accepted gender stereotypes are marginalized or excluded.  It has been suggested that the binary pronouns of he, she, his and her, forcibly impose the normative binary system in support of the assumption that non-binary genders must fit into either the male or female gender category and this is profoundly relevant to the intersex individual (Wayne, 2005).   As far as the English language is concerned there are two sexes, two genders and two sexual orientations. Modern attempts to address the missing reference to a non-binary sex and/or gender are admirable and may take hold in the future, (Corwin, 2009) however what is interesting is that a pronoun for the third gender has never existed in the English language besides the derogatory ‘it’ even though intersex individuals have been a part of humankind since the dawn of time. Consequently the intersex individual is easily overlooked and excluded from the national histories of Australia and the cultural adherence to a gender binary, which is embedded in our social and political discourses and supports the continuance of the colonial puritanical imperative on the intersex body (Hester, 2004).




Australia’s national narratives are bound to both a white racial ideal and a patriarchal sex binary that do not exist. The struggle for liberation becomes the location for an ideological battle yet it is also the point of departure; where we can cast off the unnatural assumptions and beliefs that dominate Australian culture.






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