Wait, Wait, Please Do Tell Us, NPR, What Is So Funny About Intersexed People?
Okay, perhaps I’m being a killjoy here (as I know I’m often accused of being oversensitive), but I’m trying to “get” the “hermaphrodite” joke here. On Saturday, February 6, 2010, NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!‘s segment Who’s Carl This Time?, the show had a question regarding congressional statements on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The approximately 1:45 minute section of the audio has about a 30-second bit on what Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s statements regarding “transgenders and hermaphrodites” being able to serve openly if the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy is repealed:
Peter Sagal (Show Host): Duncan Hunter: He’s a Republican Congressman and military veteran, He went on All Things Considered and he said…
Well, if you let the gays in, then you’ll have to let in the quote ‘transgenders and hermaphrodites.’ Unquote.”
Carl Kasell: Huh.
Peter Sagal: He said that. He was worried about the hermaphrodites. He doesn’t understand that hermaphrodites would be a tactical asset: They can pursue enemies into both men’s and women’s restrooms.
Adam Felber: That’s true. Yeah.
Julia Sweeney: Then maybe…
Peter Sagal: The Taliban would have no place to hide.
Adam Felber: I don’t think we have any laws on the books preventing hermaphrodites from serving in our military, do we?
Peter Sagal: Well…he’s afraid that they will figure that out.
Mo Rocca: They fall under the Don’t Ask, Can’t Tell policy.
Julia Sweeney: *Laughs*
What I don’t like about this bit is fourfold. To begin with, i understand the quoting Rep. Hunter using the term “hermaphrodite,” but I don’t understand repeating the term when the North American Intersex Society had identified hermaphrodite as a term to avoid:
The words “hermaphrodite” and “pseudo-hermaphrodite” are stigmatizing and misleading words. Unfortunately, some medical personnel still use them to refer to people with certain intersex conditions, because they still subscribe to an outdated nomenclature that uses gonadal anatomy as the basis of sex classification. In a paper titled Changing the Nomenclature/Taxonomy for Intersex: A Scientific and Clinical Rationale, five ISNA-associated experts recommend that all terms based on the root “hermaphrodite” be abandoned because they are scientifically specious and clinically problematic. The terms fail to reflect modern scientific understandings of intersex conditions, confuse clinicians, harm patients, and panic parents. We think it is much better for everyone involved when specific condition names are used in medical research and practice.
…One more thing: While some intersex people seek to reclaim the word “hermaphrodite” with pride to reference themselves (much like the words “dyke” and “queer” have been reclaimed by LBGT people), we’ve learned over the years it is best generally avoided, since the political subtlety is lost on a lot of people.
So, media stylebooks generally take the tack of indicating reporters should only directly quote derogatory or problematic terminology, but otherwise these derogatory or problematic terms should be avoided. I personally believe the reporters and comedians on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! went beyond just quoting terms the INSA identified as potentially stigmatizing. Certainly Rep. Hunter initially used the phrase “transgenders and hermaphrodites” specifically to stigmatize transgender and intersex people.
Secondly, I don’t appreciate how that joke about the bathrooms intersexed people follows the Bathroom Meme. There has been much use of this Bathroom Meme — that transsexual women, as well as other transgender people presenting as women, are potential bathroom predators — in arguing against basic civil rights not just for trans people of all stripes, but also against basic civil rights for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.
Using the Bathroom Meme in a segement regarding intersexed people seems to me to be making intersex people as a public bathroom suspect class — in a similar manner as trans people have been defined by the religious right as a public bathroom suspect class.
Thirdly, the Taliban reference. The host, the reporters, and comedians may think it’s funny to link transgender and/or intersex people with terrorism, but this is actually serious subject matter. From a 2004 DHS Advisory to Security Personnel:
Previous attacks underscore Al-Qaeda’s ability to employ suicide bombers – a tactic which can be used against soft targets and VIP’s. Terrorists will employ novel methods to artfully conceal suicide devices. Male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny. Al-Qaeda operative Richard Reid employed a novel and unique “shoe bomb” device in an attempt to destroy a transcontinental airliner in December 2001.
I would argue transsexual women, other transgender women, and intersexed people of all stripes aren’t anymore likely to be terrorists than other people in the general public, so it matters when gender expression is tied into terrorism — even in a joke.
Lastly, the “Don’t Ask, Can’t Tell” comment. There is an assumption that intersex people are gender confused because of genetics, ambiguous genitalia, or other biological factors. I would argue that just as transsexuals aren’t gender confused about their gender identities, neither are intersexed people.
Gender confusion, as well as bathroom predation, are terminology and arguments by the religious right to stigmatize people for sex and gender variance; it’s a way that has been used against intersex, transsexual, and other transgender people to be portrayed as less than fully human.
It would seem that NPR‘s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! mocking of intersex people wasn’t done based not upon the behaviors or character of intersex people as a group or community, but due to the human conditions of intersex people. We wouldn’t find it acceptable to mock African-Americans for the color of their skin; we wouldn’t find it acceptable to mock physically disabled people for their disabilities; we wouldn’t find it acceptable to mock women for being women — so why would the host, reporters, and comedians on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me find it acceptable to mock intersexed people for being intersexed?
I know I’d like to know.