Acknowledging ‘cis’ Privilege

When I was young it was so much easier. We had drag queens with a history of playing netball on Sunday afternoons, and we had butches of surpassing handsomeness. I have a soft spot for butches (is it so obvious?)  so I fell in love with all of them. There was something about the interplay of male and female energy in one body that felt like home to me.

We were all so poor that nobody transitioned in a bodily sense. The drag queens talked wistfully of saving to go to Rio to have the surgery done, but I only know of one person who ever actually did it. The butches, naturally, were strong and said little. As far as I can recall they did not want to be men. They wanted to be butches. And mind you, in those times just being out and staying alive was a challenge that drained everyone’s energies.

When I think of the people I now know were intersex, they were deep in the closet and working through tremendous trauma. Sally, having been all but castrated as a baby, was passing for male in a monastery. When Sally’s body became more female she confessed all to the Prior and was eventually expelled.[1] It was to be the beginning of a long journey to be recognized as human. Sis Funeka was undergoing genital mutilation at 18 and recovering from the after-effects which proved to be life long.[2] To this day she says she regrets it. Indeed, bodily mutilation creates tremendous trauma which in many ways cannot be fully overcome. Sally became asexual. Sis Funeka passed for butch. The rest of us lived in oblivion.

I know from my work with Black working class men that to get people who see themselves as oppressed in one way to acknowledge that they are privileged in another way is hard political work. In some ways it is the hardest. Victimhood is comfortable. Becoming a survivor, and from thence to resistance and then revolution is such a hard mountain to climb. For anybody to say that one must complete the journey by acknowledging the ways in which one contributes to another’s oppression seems just impossible. I can only imagine it begins with an apology. I am sorry for the ways in which I have benefited from the gender binary.  When Bernedette Muthien of Engender used to say the very act of engendering is violent, I had no clue what she meant. I can only apologize for my obtuseness. Without a doubt I was in some way seeking to protect binary privilege.


I have of course laughed at whites for years as I watch their fumbling attempts to acknowledge privilege. I have been amused and occasionally angry at the way in which they seek refuge in denial from having to confront the benefits which white supremacy bestows on even the most conscious of them. Well, karma has its own revenge. I sit now having to confront my liberal years. There can be no more bitter statement from one whose political life has been Black Consciousness.


In 2003 I ran a Girl-Child Movement workshop in Namibia and during the session on ‘what is gender?’ was told the story of somebody’s cousin who was born intersex but in such a remote rural village that nobody knew but the family. The mother bathed the child separately and brought them up as a boy. At that point I did not realize that this child was one of the lucky ones. If you are fortunate enough to be born in a rural area so remote that there is no doctor, no clinic and not even registration of birth certificates, there is a chance that you may escape genital mutilation and forcible engendering. The poor sods born in city hospitals are mostly not so lucky.


I became more aware of intersex issues when, upon being appointed Commissioner For Gender Equality in 2007, almost my first meeting was with Sally whose insistence was polite but uncompromising. Sally asked for me to intervene in the matter of forcible genital mutilation of babies, a matter so clearly unconstitutional that I needed no convincing that it was part of my job description. She also wanted me to complete the work she had begun with the Promotion of Equality and Unfair Discrimination Act (2000) of ensuring that intersex people had legal status. Yup, that’s right folks. Here we had a naturally occurring genetic order, occurring in about 1 in every 2000 people, something which orchids, pawpaws and snails handle without any fanfare at all, for which this sizeable minority had absolutely no protection in law. Until the promulgation of PEPUDA, the law required a human being to be either male or female. For those who were both (or should we say a third gender ?) the law literally declared them non-humans. Of course I promised to ‘help’ Sally.


AWID conference in Cape Town 2008, an intersex human from the US decided to come out in mine and Berne’s seminar. I said ‘but in my culture that’s very familiar. You get three genders, male, female and intersex. ‘ This person broke down and cried and needed much hugging. They said it was the first time in their life that anybody had said that.To this day I am ashamed that I could not see what the big deal was.


There wasn’t much I could do to keep my promise to Sally until the Caster Semenya debacle of 2009, at which point I am pleased to say the entire CGE pulled together as one and not only offered Caster any assistance in our power but also made the most of the opportunity  to raise awareness on this issue. It was good to be held by the organization and to know that LGBTI issues were not ‘my’ issue but all our issue. I only wish I could have led by example. I still needed to recognize intersex as a human issue: that while my siblings were dehumanized then so was I.

And of course I supported sis Funeka whenever possible, although it would be more correct to say she supported the CGE during the End Hate Campaign, doing all the groundwork of the Zoliswa Nkonyana murder trial and contributing in no small part to the legal history we made on the day we got a guilty verdict that specifically mentioned homophobic hate crime as a motive.

But see, I was still ‘helping’ and ‘supporting’. I continued to benefit from the gender binary without even thinking about it. I thought I held my job on merit without considering that no openly intersex person has ever been appointed to high office in this country. Sally had applied twice and twice been turned down. How liberal was I? It shames me now.

Yet it is easy to see how I have benefited from the binary system. Despite a life of much hardship, I have never been subjected to genital mutilation, and the life-long trauma which comes with it. I have never been subjected to the fear of genital mutilation and forced to hide my true identity in order to not be mutilated. I have never come out at a seminar and burst into tears at even mealy mouthed liberal acceptance.


I have written of being a lesbian child and how the secrecy I was forced to practice damaged my personality development, possibly irretrievably.[3] But I don’t know and cannot begin to imagine what it is like when the very fact of your genital mutilation is kept a secret and you do not even know about until puberty, or even later, when you wonder why you cannot have children and why you live in constant pain.[4]  I do not know what it is to feel lucky that you are still reasonably whole bodied.


I acknowledge my privilege in that I never had to wonder why I was not killed at birth as some intersex babies still are. I acknowledge privilege in that I never had to see guilt in my mother’s eyes every time she looked at me, until I no longer knew what love was, really. I have never had to be afraid in intimate relationships of – like the ‘stone butch’ of old – allowing myself to be seen and touched. I have had rejection many time in love but never because of my physical conformation, an accident of birth and something over which I had no control. Once, in trying to dissuade an intersex person from having surgery in her thirties I said “but it is a political struggle, you cannot solve it on an individual level” and she looked me in the eyes and said “but for me the problem will be solved”. I acknowledge privilege in that until that moment I could remain blind to the truth.

I know that too many straight women are genitally mutilated too. But they are never called ‘not human’, ‘freak’ or demonized and cast out of home as the personification of evil.   I don’t think comparisons of victimhood are meaningful, that is not what I am saying. I am just trying see binary privilege with eyes which have been socialized to be blind.


So you understand why it hurts me particularly when the Black feminist movement, in some essentialist appropriation which even I (a part-time essentialist for as long as I have been a scholar[5]) find embarrassing, seeks to in some way exclude or silence intersex, genderqueer or non-binary people from its work. It hurts my feminist heart to see women enforcing binary privilege and claiming it as some form of ‘right’.  The feminist movement here stands at a cusp. In ” The Epistemology of Intersectionality” elsewhere on this blog I have written on the importance of  understanding that for identity politics to be revolutionary they have to ultimately seek to deconstruct the very identity around which they organize. This is the political work done by conscious intersex and trans people. ? Is dismantling the gender binary not the most important political work we can possibly do? Should we not be extending leadership to those who do that work simply by living, with dignity and unimaginable courage, from day to day? Can we fail to dismantle privilege and still call ourselves feminist? I think not, because to do so would be to add wilful blindness to our exercise of privilege. It would be the end of us as a movement. We might survive but we would certainly not be feminist.


And to welcome intersex as our own means welcoming trans as well, because the politics of the closet which even so called feminists enforce means, as my late friend Karin Koen never failed to tell me, there is a lot of intersex going on amongst the trans movement.[6] In fact I would go so far as to say we would probably not see the strong non-binary movement coming through the way we have were it not for trans. Trans is a liminal space, the joker in the pack, which makes a multitude of other movements possible.

Well, I continue to learn to see with non-binary eyes. No doubt it is a lifelong journey along which I stumble with humility. My feminism demands that I take responsibility. I own this.


Cis is probably not the right word. I mean, intersex people are as cis as the rest of us (if they are lucky).  Maybe ‘woman born woman gendered woman’? But then we are stuck with another acronym: WBWGW? I think the last thing Queer needs at the moment is another acronym. There. I have entered the liminal zone (or at least I peer tentatively at the margins). I don’t know who I am anymore. That is progress. The first step to knowledge is admitting ignorance.


[1][1] .

[2] Personal communication, Bernedett Muthien 15 November, 2016.  For more information cf. also

[3] “Your Silence Will not Protect You”: Silence, Voice and Power Moving Beyond Violence Towards Revolution in South Africa OUTLIERS: A Collection Of Essays And Creative Work On Sexuality In Africa Theorizing (Homo)Eroticism In Africa Vol 1, 2008, pps. 30-45

[4] . Limor Meoded-Danon Ph.D. & Niza Yanay Ph.D. (2016) Intersexuality: On Secret Bodies and Secrecy, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 17:1, 57-72, DOI: 10.1080/15240657.2016.1135684

[5] . Abrahams, Yvette “We’re Here Because We’re Here…” Speaking African Womanism , in Duncan, N. and P. Gqola et al  Discourse on Difference and Oppression, CASAS, Cape Town, 2000.

[6] . Yes, I know trans has a perfect right to exist on its own without needing justification or anybody’s approval (although I continue to call for accountability like any other sector). But that is not the point I am making here.

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