Meet the Book Author: Intersex Embodiment: Legal Frameworks beyond Identity and Disorder

Fae Garland, University of Manchester and Mitchell Travis, University of Leeds

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Fae Garland and Mitchell Travis, whose new book Intersex Embodiment: Legal Frameworks beyond Identity and Disorder was published in November 2022 with Bristol University Press.

What is the book about? 

Intersex Embodiment is about intersex people and the way that they are constructed by law, medicine and psychology. When we say ‘constructed’ here we mean it in a very real sense – intersex people (and the meaning of intersex) is being produced by different regulatory frameworks. For example, in Germany intersex has been historically understood as ‘non-binary’. When this conflation is legislated for it creates a particular understanding of intersex people as synonymous with non-binary. Similarly, when intersex is understood primarily through an LGBT lens it generates a particular perception of what intersex means, suggesting that their lived experience and the challenges they faced are the same as others who fall under the LGBT banner. 

Intersex Embodiment engages with intersex people to think about these different constructions of intersex and reflect on how useful they are to their needs, desires and day-to-day lives. For the intersex people we interviewed, the majority of regulatory forms were unsatisfactory because they failed to capture the essence of what it means to be intersex. Rather than opening possibilities, narrow constructions of Law can stifle meaningful change. We note in the book some beginnings of promising practice (such as Malta) where Law has adopted a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be intersex. However, we also highlight the limits of law and the frustrating pace at which meaningful social change occurs. In light of this, we take time to consider law’s place in justice based reform in tandem with other forms of change, such as medical and psychosocial care – interdisciplinary is thus embedded into the book. 

Why did we write it? 

Intersex Embodiment is the culmination of a decade of research in this field. Throughout this time we have used the term ‘intersex embodiment’ to highlight how the experience of being intersex was always mediated by and produced through the institutions of law and medicine. Intersex Embodiment improves upon our previous work by highlighting the contentedness of the term ‘intersex’ and highlights how intersex people might be understood very differently in different contexts. 

More than this, there was a need for research that demonstrated the limitations of differing legal approaches to intersex. Intersex Embodiment provides an important tool for both intersex activists and policy makers on the potential pitfalls for creating the conditions for intersex justice. 

At the same time, academically, there was a lacuna in the field of interdisciplinary intersex studies about law’s role in the production of intersex embodiment. Conversely, save for important contributions by DietzThomson, and Fox and Thomson, there was a strong need within legal literature for a worked through example of law’s role in the construction of embodiment. This book aimed to fill these gaps. 

How did we go about doing this research?

In 2013 we were the recipients of an SLSA small grant award to do research on the intersex community. As part of that research we interviewed people about legislation that affected intersex people in Germany, Australia and Malta. These interviews were useful for thinking through other forms of regulatory control that intersex people faced. 

Additionally, in 2019 we received a British Academy small grant award to look at Malta’s implementation of intersex rights following its prohibition of non-therapeutic surgeries on intersex children in 2015. At the time of the book’s publication we had interviewed four people including policy makers and clinicians.

In many ways, Intersex Embodiment is also about our mistakes – as researchers and reflecting on what it means to work in this sphere and with the communities that we do. We are open and honest about these mistakes and we hope that by being up front about them that researchers following in this field can learn from them! We remain incredibly grateful to the people who gave up their time to discuss these issues with us and show us where we were wrong. It is important to us that the voices of intersex people are brought to the forefront in this type of research. 

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