*Below is a copy of a presentation given to a tech company looking to be more LGBTQ+ aware and inclusive.
I wear a lot of labels, and I’d like to share some of them with you. I’m a philosopher by education and practice. I am also an artist by education and practice. I am also a wife and mother. Despite my non-binary biology and abnormalities, I have three, beautiful, healthy children. Mother is an important label to me, as is my label of wife, which indicates I am a feminine counterpart in a marriage. I am a sister. I am a sister to two amazing and wonderful sisters. The label sister gives me the language of describing my relationship to them in a very meaningful way. I am also a daughter—a label that describes my relationship with my parents. I’m also Mormon, a Latter-day Saint. This label indicates that I am a part of and committed to a religious belief and/or organization. I’m also a board member. Occupationally, I am on three boards of three non-profits. This label gives me legitimacy to act in a specific capacity at work. I’m also an author. As a writer and contributor of books, academic journals, and periodicals, the label “author” tells you something about what I do. Lastly, I also go by the label “queer” and “bisexual.”
We all wear labels. Some labels are controversial, while other labels are more widely accepted. Some labels are impersonal, while other labels are quite intimate. The labels I wear are not simply self-identifiers, but are a practical necessity. Labels help us identify and describe uniqueness and differences.
For example, one of the favorite labels I wear is my name, Blaire. My name is important because it helps to distinguish me as a whole, unique person. When someone asks for “Blaire Ostler,” they are not looking to Wendy, John, Sam, Edwin, or Jessica. Nope. They are looking for Blaire. The funny thing about my name is that even though it is one of my favorite labels, it’s not even one I gave myself. My parents gave me the name Blaire Carpenter and I identified with that name. I had no interest in changing that name until I was married. Once I was married, I no longer wanted to be known as Blaire Carpenter, I wanted to be known as Blaire Ostler. Some people change their names when they are married, some people do not. Neither is right or wrong. Keeping or changing a label is a personal decision. Sometimes people don’t even go by their legal name, but go by a preferred name. Culturally, we find it customary to call people by their preferred name—which could be a nickname or even a middle name. The point is that naming and being named is both a personal and communal experience.
Tensions sometimes arise when the community and the individual are not on the same page about a name, label, or pronoun. It is sometimes insisted that the community will label a person according to their preferences without considering the preference of the individual being labels. In this regard, labels can be a source of both trauma and euphoria. If my friends and family insisted on calling me “Sam” instead of “Blaire” it might be annoying at first, but could eventually turn into trauma. On the flip side, hearing someone call me “Blaire” can be euphoric when it is a label I accept and rejoice in.
We are Different
Some people ask, why all the labels? Why do we need to be so divisive? Can’t we all just be human? These are important and well-intentioned questions. While I appreciate the sincerity of finding unity, identifying everyone as “human” is impractical and homogenizing.
Linguistically, the label human is divisive—it is part of a scientific taxonomy which separates us from birds, insects, or dinosaurs. Are you a bird or are you a human? You’re human. The label “human” is still a divisive label. The problem is not that our labels distinguish us from others. The problem is we allow these differences to become grounds on which to harm or subjugate each other. For example, distinguishing labels throughout history have been used many times to hurt vulnerable groups of people. Indigenous people have been subject to genocide. Black Americans have been subject to slavery. Jews have been the target of hate crimes. Women were denied the right to vote. Queer folks have been abused and marginalized.
How can this be when we are all human? Women have always been human, yet that hasn’t stopped many cultures, governments, religions, and policies to exclude, marginalize, or subjugate woman. If stopping discrimination were as simply as claiming everyone to be human, we would have fixed systems of oppression long ago. Getting rid of our labels won’t help. So what is the problem? How do we fix it?
The problem is not that we have failed to recognize each other as humans. Humans knowingly harm other humans every day. Homogenization of our differences will not save us from one another. The problem is we have failed to see that our differences do not mean we should or can treat each other poorly. We are different and that’s okay. In fact, it is through our differences that we can learn from each other. Our labels can be an aid or a hinderance to the goal of diversity and understanding depending on how we use them.
As mentioned, I go by many labels. Two of my most controversial labels are “Queer” and “Mormon.” LGBTQ+ and religious labels can be strangely divisive. In my academic work on queer issues I am sometimes treated with skepticism and distrust because I am Mormon. I have been called a “self-hating bigot” for not denouncing my religion. I have been told I can’t be trusted in queer spaces when I am aligned with a “religious hate group.” I have been told I am “brainwashed victim with a bad case of Stockholm syndrome.” On the flip side, when I enter Mormon spaces I am often treated with skepticism and distrust. I have been told by fellow worshipers I am a “servant of Satan.” I need to be “fixed” via conversion therapy and repent, or God will make me straight after I die. I have been told how people feel badly for my husband and children for having a queer wife and mother.
Strangely while both communities have been skeptical of me on account of my labels, both communities have also been my strongest allies. I cannot forsake one label in favor of the other just because people don’t think they should go together. I defend my labels.
But what else can do we do? If people want to keep their labels for emotional or practical reasons, how do we not let our labels become a source of contention?
One thing that I have found helpful is to treat labels as an introduction—not a verdict or diagnosis. If I say, “Hi. I’m Blaire. I’m Mormon.” The best response is, “How fascinating. I’d love to learn more about what you believe.” If I say, “Hi. I’m queer.” An appropriate response would be, “Fascinating. I’d love to learn more if you’re willing to share your experience with me.” If we can drop our initial assumptions about labels, we might have a chance at using our labels to effectively communicate with one another. We can’t genuinely know or understand another person when we are busy trying to sentence them with a verdict according to a narrow view of the labels they wear. Consider labels as a jumping off point just to get the conversation started. If we come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to understand the person who is sitting across from us, we may find our differences can become a source of discovery.
In the spirit of understanding and discovery, I want to share more with you more about my labels and what they have meant to me. As you may have noticed, I don’t use the acronym LGBTQIA+ very often. Frankly, it’s cumbersome and a mouthful. I prefer the term “queer” as an umbrella term to encompass the entire community. If for nothing else than practicality, “queer” is just easier to say.
In the queer community, there an many labels to describe a diversity of experiences. The most commonly used ones are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual. These labels have been an important aspect of identifying and legitimizing queer experiences. Without these labels, life can be disorienting for a queer person, especially as a teenager.
For example, when I was younger, I didn’t have the words to describe my experience. I knew I was experiencing something atypical, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to identify myself. In a way, not having the words to describe an experience made the experience distant, hazy, and disorienting. Going through puberty was hard enough and not having the words to explain it made it harder. As a teenager, I knew I was attracted to boys at school, but shortly later I found myself attracted to girls too. In the environment I grew up in, I was implicitly and explicitly told that being gay was bad. Strangely, I never considered myself gay even though I was attracted to the girls in class. I assumed ignorantly that if I was attracted to boys that I wasn’t gay. Plus, in my community being gay was a bad thing. I knew I wasn’t bad so I couldn’t possibly be gay. In hindsight, I imagine I used this limited logic to distance myself from the reality that I was a queer kid growing up in a less than optimal environment.
Yet, as I grew, dated, and eventually met my husband, I never “grew out” of my feelings for women. They were always there. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to identify my experience with a label. People often talk about their “coming out” experiences when it is a public affair, but equally as difficult and important is “coming out” to yourself. As an adult, I realized there was a word for my experience. I was bisexual. The labels homosexual and heterosexual were both accurate, but also incomplete. It wasn’t until I came out to myself and adopted the label that I felt legitimized. Growing up I was having a legitimate experience and there is even a word for it. Adopting the label bisexual was like going home. I had a word to label my experience.
However, I would learn that I was queer in more than one way. Not only was my sexual orientation queer, my biology was queer. Like so many others, I assumed biological sex was binary. You’re either male of female, or maybe there is something in-between, but that’s so rare it doesn’t even matter, right? Well, I was wrong. Turns out my biology was queer below the surface.
Determining what is male and female according to scientific taxonomies is not always as simple as it seems. What does it mean to be female and male—scientifically or medically?
The oversimplified version of sex chromosomes is that women have XX chromosomes, while men have XY chromosomes. It seems straightforward, until it’s not. There are multiple chromosomal types a person can have. Roughly 1 in 1,000 births are of XXY [i] chromosomes, known as Klinefelter syndrome.[ii] Other chromosomal variations include Turner syndrome, XYY syndrome, or triple X syndrome.[iii] Many of these people are also born with an inability to reproduce. These individuals are intersex and are not chromosomally classified as male or female even though their genitalia may or may not present indicators of their chromosomal variance.
2. Gametes and Gonads
Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines sex as “the fundamental distinction based on the type of gametes produced by the individual.”[iv] Smaller gametes called sperm are assigned male and larger gametes, called “ovum,” are assigned female. While most people fall into their assigned male and female categories, some people are born with ovotestis, which are gonads that contain attributes of both ovarian and testicular tissue.
Natural sex hormones are made by the gonads and interact with androgen or estrogen receptors.[v] The two main sex steroids for assigned females are estrogen and progesterone. For assigned males, it’s testosterone.
Extreme hormonal abnormalities could constitute a biological sex variance that is non-binary. For example, females who contain high levels of testosterone may experience deepening of the voice, increased muscle mass, enlarged clitoris, or frontal balding similar to men. Hormonal variance can play a significant role in how a person experiences gender.
Recently, track athlete Caster Semenya has been disqualified from racing as a woman due to the natural levels of testosterone she produces.[vi] Her natural hormones have been deemed grounds in which to disqualify her from the label woman in specific athletic spaces.
4. Internal Reproductive Anatomy
Internal reproductive anatomy of assigned females generally includes a vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.[vii] Internal reproductive anatomy of males generally includes a vas deferens, seminal vesicle, prostate gland, Cowper’s gland, epididymis, and testes.[viii] However, when we look at the intersex population there are overlaps which can challenge our binary categories. A person might be born with external male genitalia, while also having internal female reproductive anatomy. A man could have a fully functioning uterus and a penis. A woman could have an abnormal or dysfunctional uterus, while still having average female genitalia.
The clitoris and the penis are homologous organs, meaning they share a biological structure, but not the same function. Clitorises and penises are made from the same tissue in utero and both will fill with blood and become erect during arousal. In fact, all of our genitalia are homologous. The labia and scrotum are made from the same tissue as well.[ix] So why do genitals look so different if they are homologous? In the womb, when genitals are being developed we start off as unisex. The esthetics of your genitalia and the functionality of your breasts are then affected by the hormones that are present. Females will often develop fatty breast tissue with functional mammary glands for production of milk. Generally, males are denied this function.[x] With advancements in medical technology, that function has also been afforded to lactating transgender women too.[xi]
But what happens when there is a variation in the hormones during genital development? Sometimes you get non-binary genitalia.[xii] A clitoris can look like a small penis or a penis can look like a large clitoris. Hormones can affect all sorts of development.
Emerging theories suggest there is such a thing as “gendered brains,”[xiii] and people who identify as transgender are experiencing an intersex condition where their brain’s gender doesn’t match their anatomy. I will say this is a controversial theory with both substantiated and unsubstantiated claims. There simply isn’t enough science yet to confirm or deny, but I do want to mention it as part of the ongoing discussion and discovery of what constitutes as intersex conditions. It’s a theory I look forward to learning more about and eagerly support research into further understanding.
Now that we have a better understanding of biology, we can take a closer look at the challenges people with non-binary biology might face. Intersex folks are people with a variety of different conditions in their reproductive anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical expectations of what is assigned male or female. Generally, sex is assigned according to genitals, regardless of other anatomical variations, but not all intersex conditions effect genitals. For example, a woman with androgen insensitivity syndrome will likely be assigned female on account of her genitals, even though she has high levels of testosterone and XY chromosomes.
Biology is a little more complicated than an imagined sex binary. I am no exception. Some of us share concordant categories, and sharp binary division of gender or sexual orientation don’t tell the whole story for us.
It is with caution that I share my own experience. My gender, like my biology and sexual orientation, does not fit into neatly into mutually exclusive categories. For bisexuals the categories homosexual and heterosexual are not mutually exclusive. This is one reason why bisexuals are often perceived as never “gay enough” and never “straight enough.”
For me, I’m not 50 percent straight and 50 percent gay. This assumption causes a lot of stress to bisexuals because it assumes we don’t fully belong in either category—that we aren’t having a "whole" experience worthy of consideration. Bisexuals aren’t having a partial heterosexual experience and partial homosexual experience—we are experiencing many whole experiences at once. Yet, it’s as if our sexual orientation excludes us from full fellowship of either community. In fact, it leads many bisexuals to believe we don’t belong anywhere.
I don’t see it that way. I am wholly straight, and I am wholly gay. I am wholly bisexual. I’m wholly queer. I’m not having a partial experience identified with partial labels. I’m not a part that can be cut up and cut out when my identity or orientation is inconvenient to either community.
Besides having a queer sexual orientation, my biology is queer with multiple biological variations which are atypical of the average woman. I was assigned woman and identify as a woman, albeit a queer woman, yet my biology produces some atypical sex characteristics. I have heightened levels of testosterone along with a retroverted, mutated, bicornate uterus. Like many intersex persons, I have encountered significant difficulties reproducing due to my non-binary biology.
I’ve seen more doctors than I care to list. I’ve been examined, cut, poked, and photographed inside and out. There is still no precise diagnosis or classification for my body’s sex abnormalities, but intersex or gender variant are the most accurate descriptors for my subjective experience. I, along with my transgender peers, need to be trusted in our subjective gender experience—especially when medical knowledge is insufficient to adequately understand gender variant bodies.
Upon one memorable doctor’s visit, I had my testosterone levels measured among other invasive examinations. A few days later, the nurse called me with the results. She rattled off several numbers before discussing with me my testosterone levels. She gave me the number and said, “This number is higher than usual which could be the cause of some of your abnormalities. But don’t worry. You’re still a woman.”
I slightly chuckled at her response as questions went beaming through my mind. How peculiar? It was as if my gender label was determined by a number on a scale. If I had scored a mere three points higher would I no longer be a woman? What if my testosterone levels were nine points higher? Could I still compete in women’s sports? How woman is woman enough and who gets to decide? Some say its matter of chromosomes, but even that can’t be right when women with androgen insensitivity syndrome have XY chromosomes. What makes me a woman or not a woman? I have concluded for myself, that the label “woman” is a biologically complicated and a very personal experience. At some point, we must trust in diverse subjective experiences when science is still progressing, and labels carry emotive meaning.
I had also been prescribed “feminine hormones” to induce menstruation, because my body can go up to a year without bleeding. How strange that my “natural biology” had so much in common with transgender men and transgender women? Some transgender women take the same treatments as I do, yet because I was ignorantly assigned female at birth without any knowledge of my internal sex characteristics, I can call myself a “woman” with full gender entitlement. Yet, a transgender woman could not. I had the right to my gender identity on account of my gender passing privilege, but she didn’t.
It’s for reasons like these I use terms like a “gender variant,” “queer,” or sometimes “intersex” to describe myself. There is a proliferation of naturally occurring gender variant bodies and I don’t think gatekeeping people’s experiences, biology, bodies, and labels is nearly as important as respecting people’s experiences, biology, bodies, and labels. In the intersex community, bodies are being “diagnosed” and cut as a way of gatekeeping the myth that a biological sex binary of female or male as the ideal of what all bodies should fit into or identify as. Likewise, experiences like mine are being shuffled under the label “woman” as a way of ignoring the diversity of bodies which are standing under the label of “woman.”
My sexual orientation, gender, and biology straddle multiple categories. Even labels like transgender and cisgender are not mutually exclusive for some of us, especially when our gender experiences are fluid. People who have a gender variant biology or an intersex condition could identify as both cisgender and transgender. For example, I am cisgender in that I was assigned woman upon birth and I still identify as a woman. Yet, that label doesn’t tell the whole story. I still experience gender dysphoria on account of my biological variances. I have felt more masculine at times in my life and more feminine at others. The complexities of sexuality and biology simply can’t be shoved into mutually exclusive categories. As for me, I’m a gender variant, bisexual woman, and my queer experience includes both cisgender and transgender experiences, and heterosexual and homosexual experiences.
One thing we all can do is respect each other’s labels—not erase each other’s labels in an effort to erase our differences. We ought to constructively embrace our differences. Gender and sexuality are complicated. It’s not always binary. At the end of the day, I don’t want to pretend like my experience doesn’t exist or doesn’t deserve a label. I do exist, and I do deserve a label. Not just one label, but lots of labels. Let use our many labels as an introduction, not a verdict.
Notes and Citations
[i] Intersex Society of North America, “How common is Intersex?” ISNA, accessed February 12, 2017, http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency.
[ii] “Klinefelter Syndrome (KS): Overview.” Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 2013-11-15. Archived from the original on 18 March 2015.
[iii] Janell L. Carroll, “Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity,” 4th Edition (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2013), 87.
[iv] Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, s.v. “Sex,” 32nd Edition. (Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders, 2012).
[v] Guerriero, G (April 2009). "Vertebrate sex steroid receptors: evolution, ligands, and neurodistribution". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1163: 154–68.
[vi] Jeré Longman and Juliet Macur, “Caster Semenya Loses Case to Compete as a Woman in All Races,” New York Times (accessed May 5, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/sports/caster-semenya-loses.html
[vii] Janell L. Carroll, “Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity,” 4th Edition (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2013), 113.
[viii] Janell L. Carroll, “Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity,” 4th Edition (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2013), 137.
[ix] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. "List of Related Male and Female Reproductive Organs," (accessed March 28, 2017), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_related_male_and_female_reproductive_organs.
[x] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. "Mammary Glands," (accessed March 30, 2017), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammary_gland.
[xi] Tamar Reisman and Zil Goldstein, "Case Report: Induced Lactation in a Transgender Woman" Transgender HealthVol. 3, No. (Jan 1, 2013).
[xii] I don’t use the term “ambiguous genitals” because it implicitly privileges binary genitals as being the standard of unambiguity. I prefer the term “non-binary genitals.” Just because a person’s genitals are non-binary, doesn’t mean they are ambiguous. Furthermore, I would consider myself to have a “non-binary anatomy,” not an “ambiguous anatomy.” My anatomy is only ambiguous if you suppose my anatomy needed to have a binary assignment to begin with. Non-binary genitals and non-binary anatomy are rare, but are also a naturally occurring biological expression of human various.
[xiii] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World. (New York: Routledge, 2012). pg 59.