Intersex rights, transgender rights, sex worker rights, anti-ableism and anti-racism were among the comprehensive array of topics covered by speaker Emi Koyama at the Queer History Month keynote this Monday.
Flipping through an organized slideshow packed with information, Koyama gave her perspective on how activists should question and challenge the treatment of intersex children, transgender people, disabled people and others who are heavily disadvantaged within the institutions of modern society.
“I think she was a good speaker to bring because I had been looking to bring a keynote speaker who could talk about intersectional feminism and activism in a way that I think that she was able to do,” Yovanna Garcia, the queer peer services coordinator at the Women’s Center, said. “ She was able to talk about disability, transgender rights and intersex justice in her presentation which I think are underreported-on issues within the LGBT community and outside.”
In addition to being a “multi-issue social justice activist and writer” as described by the poster advertising the event, Koyama is also the founder of the Intersex Initiative and a member of the Survivor Project. Although Koyama’s presentation covered many different topics, she stressed that all of the areas of activism that she engages in are connected, saying that her multi-faceted advocacy was not a matter of random choice. The issues she focused on are a result of both her own life experiences and her realization that the many different forms of oppression that she and others face intersect and do not exist in isolation. For example, she pointed out that many transgender women who are victimized in prison are also impoverished racial minorities, and that this is not a coincidence.
Koyama also explained that these issues relate because they are all sewn into the institutions of society. Most of her presentation focused on the institution of medicine, which she argued facilitated the abuse of intersex children and the stigmatization of transgender people.
The event, in addition to being one of the last events in Ramapo’s Queer History Month celebration, fell on Intersex Awareness Day. Intersex refers to “a series of medical conditions in which a child’s genetic sex (chromosomes) and phenotype sex (genital appearance) do not match, or are somehow different from the ‘standard’ definition of male or female,” according to the Intersex Initiative.
A newborn who cannot be assigned male or female by a doctor or midwife based on the appearance of their genitals would be an example of a person with an intersex condition. However, a person who has a penis and testes externally but has internal ovaries, or has different sex chromosomes than just XX or XY, would also be considered intersex.
Koyama explained the difference between an intersex person and a “hermaphrodite,” which is considered to be a very offensive and outdated term, with a humorous story about the mating ritual of snails. Snails, she explained, are hermaphroditic animals, meaning they have both the ability to impregnate other snails and to become pregnant – therefore, when two snails mate, they both become pregnant with each other’s offspring. This is not true of intersex people, who can only have one reproductive capability or the other, or may be infertile.
This quirky explanation got some laughs from the audience, but the presentation became more serious as Koyama described the extreme, invasive and often painful treatments that intersex infants and children are put through without their consent, in order to make them “normal.” A large percentage of intersex children are surgically altered to appear “male” or “female,” with arbitrary standards for what makes a child’s genitals “male” enough or “female” enough. Although this may render the child infertile, and break anti-sterilization laws in some areas, it is still frequently done.
“I found that very disturbing,” said Jamie Prizer, the president of Ramapo Pride, referring to the practice of forced vaginoplasty on intersex children who are chosen to be assigned female. Prizer attended the event along with several other members of the Pride club, which focuses on LGBTQ+ rights on campus.
“More awareness needs to be brought to the issues of all types of ‘corrective’ surgeries,” Prizer said.
Koyama said that there is disagreement over whether or not transgender people should be considered as having a medical disorder, which adds stigma to their identity and contributes to the idea that their identity is a problem, but which also gives them access to medical resources they would otherwise have a harder time receiving. She argued that the conversation should go deeper than just “whether or not,” and actually challenge the institution of medicine itself, which forces people to define themselves as being damaged or having a problem in order to receive any accommodations for their differences in ability or needs.
Koyama finally wrapped up the conversation by saying that people should not only advocate for access to resources for the disadvantaged, but to ask themselves “access to what?” – are the resources and spaces that they are trying to make accessible actually worthwhile? For example, she said advocates should not only fight for impoverished children of color to get an education, but to make sure that that education is comprehensive and not whitewashed. At the end of the presentation, students had the opportunity to purchase zines – political writings – authored by Koyama, as well as buttons that ranged from cutesy to radical, with phrases like “lame is sexy” and “prison is the real ‘modern-day’ slavery.”
Prizer said she thought that Koyama’s keynote speech was “very important,” saying, “So many people don’t know many of these issues that she spoke of, such as intersexuality, disability and LGBTQ+ justice issues.”
Garcia was also happy with the perspective that Koyama was able to share with the Ramapo community.
“You don’t often see somebody talking about all these things in relation to LGBT communities, so I think that was interesting lived experience and perception that she brought to the keynote,” Garcia said.