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Intersex Bodies, Trans Bodies, and the Media

August 11, 2009

lady+gagaIf you read gossip blogs, you already know about Lady Gaga’s recent “scandal.” During a recent concert, she flashed her private parts to the audience, revealing a part of her body that appears phallic. Rumors began to circulate, and then a statement attributed to Lady Gaga was released, stating publicly that she is, in fact, intersex:

It’s not something that I’m ashamed of, just isn’t something that I go around telling everyone. Yes. I have both male and female genitalia, but I consider myself a female. It’s just a little bit of a penis and really doesn’t interfere much with my life. The reason I haven’t talked about it is that it’s not a big deal to me. Like come on. It’s not like we all go around talking about our vags. I think this is a great opportunity to make other multiple gendered people feel more comfortable with their bodies. I’m sexy, I’m hot. I have both a poon and a peener. Big f*cking deal.

Unlike other blog reports of this news, I will not post the video of the performance in question, because that’s really not the point. If Lady Gaga says that she has male and female genitalia but considers herself to be female, I will take her word for it. I’m not interested in policing the biological and gender identities of anyone else. I am, however, interested in the media’s coverage of the incident and her remarks, because much of the coverage I’ve read is quite telling as to the ways in which gender non-conforming bodies are understood and accepted in mainstream Western society.

The reports I’ve read on most blogs are actually quite skeptical that the news is accurrate. To a point, I can understand the skepticism, largely because Bossip, the site that broke Lady Gaga’s announcement, doesn’t actually cite her statement or offer any indication as to its source. And that’s a very legitimate reason to be skeptical of reading something on the Internet. However, some have taken this as a cue to jump to the conclusion that the whole thing is a publicity stunt orchestrated by Lady Gaga, which is a pretty cynical and insensitive viewpoint to take.

From Queerty:

Did you know cartoon character and songstress Lady Gaga has both boy and girl parts? At one point you couldn’t be blamed for thinking her acknowledgment of being intersexed was just a publicity stunt to drive up her Twitter mentions.

From Gawker:

Lady Gaga has a knack for getting attention. So it’s no surprise that video of the singer revealing a mini-penis at a concert successfully captured the attention of the Googling hordes. Britney Spears would be proud of this NSFW non-slip-up….Is hermaphrodism officially the last gender-sexuality combination still reliably considered freaky, in a titillating way, around the world? Quite possibly!

I understand not wanting to report something as news when the source the news is coming from isn’t completely reliable, but chalking it all up to a publicity stunt? Really? I’m somewhat inclined to believe Bossip’s quotation, in part because I doubt a fabricated statement would include a sentence like “I think this is a great opportunity to make other multiple gendered people feel more comfortable with their bodies.” Plus, Lady Gaga has not spoken out against the rumor — although her manager has called the reports “ridiculous.” If the news does turn out to be true, I certainly hope these blogs will issue apologies for implying that her public ownership of her identity was just some “freaky” hoax meant “to drive up her Twitter mentions.”

Even if the whole story turns out to be fabricated, the coverage all across the board has been disrespectful at best and downright offensive at worst. There have been constant mentions in the articles linked above of Lady Gaga being a “hermaphrodite,” a derogatory term long rejected by the intersex community. Even the Bossip post that started all this discussion is crudely titled “Chicks with D*cks,” an offensive and sensational way to refer to intersex women. It really is irrelevant, at this point, whether Lady Gaga is actually intersex or not — either way, her body is being talked about in a completely disgraceful manner.

And the implications of this media coverage suggest serious problems for the ultimate acceptance and understanding of non-normative gender identities by the media and our mainstream U.S. society. It’s not all that different from the reactions to the announcement of Chaz Bono’s transition back in June. Though Bono is giving much-needed visibility to a marginalized community, his transition and identity as a man has not been discussed respectfully in the media. From sources that incorrectly refer to Bono with female pronouns, to sources that talk about his “sex-change operation” (another frequently-used derogatory term), people are trying to use Bono to talk about transgender identities — and they’re failing. Reading the recent coverage about Lady Gaga reminded me about all of this insensitive coverage about Bono from June. It’s apparent that no one’s learned much in the past two months.

Ultimately, we don’t know for certain right now if Lady Gaga is intersex or not. We might never know, and, frankly, it’s really none of our business. But the media hype that has resulted in response to the rumors is an indication of how intersex and trans people will be regarded by the media and our society at large. Will the outings of people like Lady Gaga and Chaz Bono lead to a mainstream acceptance of people with non-normative gender identities? Maybe.  I certainly hope so. But the media coverage we’ve seen so far proves that it’s going to be a long, long time before that acceptance manifests.

2 Comments
  1. August 15, 2009 3:32 pm

    Thanks for writing this. I have been especially disturbed by folks from the queer community reposting the video in question and actually encouraging people to try and catch a glimpse of her genitals and speculate as to her being intersex or not. As a (queer) intersex person I feel that old familiar feeling of being marginalized, gawked at, and viewed as a freak show act whose body is open for public consumption.

    Specifically this blog post: http://queersunited.blogspot.com/2009/08/lady-gaga-comes-out-as-intersex.html

    I encourage folks to respond and hold “Queers United” accountable. This is not the first time they have been downright irresponsible and un-accountable to the intersex community (see the comment on this post http://queersunited.blogspot.com/2009/07/word-of-gay-intersex-surgery.html)

    Anyway, thanks for writing this. It was refreshing to see I am not the only one who’s been thinking about this.

  2. August 17, 2009 8:46 pm

    Hello, Carrie and Caitlyn! Rock on for writing and commenting, respectively, on this issue! I am also a queer, intersexed individual, and have also been thinking a lot about this incident, and think it’s beyond shitty that Lady Gaga may feel pressure to explain the video to the public. Because if she had wanted to tell the world anything, she would have made an announcement that didn’t coincide with an accidental skirt-up. This is exploitation if nothing else, and serves only to sensationalize intersexed individuals and not to view them as simply PEOPLE. End of story.

    I would like to state, however, that I am highly, HIGHLY skeptical that Gaga’s “quote” is legitimate. Even if we can forgive its apparently source-less-ness, the quote is biologically inaccurate. As described, her supposed anatomy is impossible to possess in humans. Despite being a highly offensive term in the intersexed community (as Caitlyn stated above), humans cannot biologically be hermaphrodites (e.g., possessing both sets of external and internal sex organs, which are fully functioning) based on how human sex organs develop. Besides, an intersex-aware individual would know that external genital anatomy is not the sole diagnostic characteristic for identifying intersexed. In reality, it is based on possessing one or several features, including atypical external and internal genitalia, chromosome combinations (= karyotype), hormone levels, musculature, bone structure, body hair, breasts, etc. Thus, the range of intersexed conditions is highly variable. For any other readers, the following is a great place to start in gaining information about different intersexed conditions:

    http://www.isna.org/faq/hermaphrodite
    http://www.isna.org/faq/conditions

    Additionally, I have posted about this incident in my intersexed blog, which serves to raise awareness about intersexed individuals, experiences, health, and media portrayal. The link is below:

    http://fullfrontalactivism.blogspot.com/

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