Philosophy Lecture Tackles Queer Embodiment and Intersex Conditions

At a lecture hosted by the Marist Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies on Sept. 12, Hil Malatino read the following from their recently released book: 

“What was this phenomenon termed biological sex?...If I was intersex, could I also be a woman or a man? If so, how?...These are enormous, unwieldy questions for a sixteen year old to grapple with.” 

At 16, Malatino was diagnosed with an intersex condition, more specifically partial androgen insensitivity syndrome. They called being born intersex an “explanatory paradigm for everything they did” with complex and lifelong implications. A dearth of literature and research on the topic as well as their own embodied experience propelled Malatino’s research. Today, they are an assistant professor of philosophy and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University. 

Their book, “Queer Embodiment: Monstrosity, Medical Violence and the Intersex Experience,” hit shelves this April and constitutes what Malatino describes as a monstrous assemblage: part autobiography, part theory and part medial genealogy. They explained how the book, much like Frankenstein’s monster and even like an intersex person, challenges categorical divisions. 

Historically, discussion regarding how to determine sex can be traced back to the mid-1800s. Malatino attests that today medical professionals and parents of intersex children continue to feel compelled to assign sex at birth, even if that means surgery. The practices across the medical field are discontinuous, but nonconsensual surgery is not uncommon. Like Malatino, many intersex people are then on estrogen or other forms of hormone pills. They pointed out that the surgeries transgender people fight to obtain are simultaneously forced upon infants. 

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Intersex, as Malatino mentioned after their lecture, disrupts the categories of gender and sex. Every person with an intersex condition approaches their diagnosis differently, whether that be identifying as one gender or sex or choosing one over the other or finding themselves somewhere in between. It boils down to epistemology – how someone knows what they know, and what sense their bodies are able to make about the world around them. 

Doctors referred to Malatino as an “unfinished woman,” furthering the narrative that intersex bodies are failures that require fixing. Intersex conditions remain a taboo topic and the subject of very little research, literature or activism. At the time of Malatino’s diagnosis, the only related organization was the Intersex Society of North America, which focused primarily only stopping nonconsensual surgeries. Despite the merits of this work, it constitutes just one aspect of an expansive and largely unexplored issue. 

Julia Feigus ’21 attended the lecture with members of her Embodied Writing and Rhetoric class, and she said Malatino’s discussion and research helped strengthen her knowledge of embodiment. 

“Hil gave such an engaging lecture, and really opened my mind to the stigma people with intersex conditions face,” Feigus said. “It would be difficult enough to come out as gay, and this issue has received much less attention and is therefore very misunderstood.”

Sarah LynchComment