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  • Provincializing IntersexUS Intersex Activism, Human Rights, and Transnational Body Politics
  • David A. Rubin (bio)

How are debates about intersex—an umbrella term for individuals born with “atypical” sex characteristics—shaped by the politics of difference and struggles for sexual and gender justice in a multicultural, transnational world?1 How do activist and academic critiques of the medicalization of “bodies in doubt” rearticulate the meaning and materiality of human rights in neoliberal landscapes?2 How do geopolitics, colonial legacies, consumer citizenship, and biopower inform and mitigate contemporary intersex politics? And how might transnational feminist perspectives contribute to critically rethinking the local and global travels and trajectories of the intersex movement?

In the space opened up by these questions, this article explores how US debates about intersex are shaped, challenged, and interrupted by global activism and transnational feminist perspectives.3 Acknowledging that the term “transnational feminism” is contested, I employ it here as an intersectional set of understandings, tools, and practices that can attend “to racialized, classed, masculinized, and heteronormative logics and practices of globalization and capitalist patriarchies, and the multiple ways in which they (re)structure colonial and neocolonial relations of domination and subordination.”4 Transnational feminisms both draw from and are aligned with other traditions of feminist praxis (including postcolonial, women-of-color, Indigenous, materialist, queer, and poststructuralist feminisms). Challenging “monological and monocausal approaches to subjectivity and power” and refusing “colonial logics of similitude,” they do not presume that all sexed/gendered subjects around the globe are essentially the same or that sex/gender is separable from other axes of difference.5 Transnational feminist perspectives are therefore distinct from, and critical of, cosmopolitan and internationalist celebrations of “global sisterhood.” Furthermore, they do not view capitalist globalization’s cross-border flows (of people, goods, capital, and information) as either inherently liberatory or exclusively exploitative. Instead, transnational feminist [End Page 51] analytics focalize the shifting, unstable, but vital interdependencies between nation-states, political economies, social formations, and subjects—revealing these entities to be fundamentally contested, non-natural, non-identical across space and time, and laced with contradictions.6 Recognizing that “there is no such thing as a feminism free of asymmetrical power relations,” transnational feminisms “involve forms of alliance, subversion and complicity within which asymmetries and inequalities can be critiqued.”7

Utilizing transnational feminist perspectives, I argue that US-based intersex advocacy risks reiterating structures of US and global Northern dominance when it does not self-reflexively interrogate its own politics of location in relation to transnational histories of imperialism, neoliberalism, and biopower. In her reading of Adrienne Rich’s influential concept of the “politics of location,” Caren Kaplan argues that practicing ethical accountability in transnational contexts requires acknowledging “the historical roles of mediation, betrayal, and alliance in the relationships between” various subjects in diverse locations.8 Drawing on Kaplan’s intervention, I investigate how human-rights discourse, colonial legacies, biopolitics, and neoliberal ideologies contour the locational politics of US intersex activism. I do so by examining two crucial events in the history of the Intersex Society of North America (isna), an advocacy group that became, during the tenure of its existence (1993–2008), the most highly visible and influential intersex activist organization in the world: isna’s failed attempt to lobby for the inclusion of intersex surgery in the US Congress’s 1997 federal ban on “female genital mutilation” (fgm); and isna’s influence on two 1999 decisions by the Constitutional Court of Colombia to rework the definition of informed consent and limit doctors’ capacity to perform normalizing genital surgery.

I contend that transnational feminist perspectives provide indispensable tools for analyzing the politics of location of US intersex activism and, ultimately, for provincializing and decolonizing the intersex imaginary. I use the term “intersex imaginary” to refer to shared yet situated ways of imagining intersex bodies.9 The intersex imaginary is a site of political struggle and contestation. US and Western understandings of intersex are historically and geopolitically particular, not universal. In the English language, for instance, the term “intersex” assumes an analytic separation between sex, gender, and sexual orientation that is not indigenous to many cultures around the globe.10 For this reason, articulations of the intersex imaginary can falsely...


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pp. 51-83
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