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Galileo’s Middle Finger

Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice

By Alice Dreger
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

Galileo’s Middle Finger (2015) tackles head on the controversial issue of transgender research and the conflicts that have arisen between academics, scientists and activists. These blinks offer a behind-the-scenes look at just how dangerous an idea can be when it challenges a familiar narrative or an established ideology. They remind us that, in the face of harmful threats and accusations, it’s important to be open, honest and persevering.

Key idea 1 of 7

Transgenderism describes a distinctly different identity than intersex.

When discussing sexuality, many people get confused by all the complex terminology. You might hear the terms “transgender” and “intersex” and wonder what, exactly, the difference is.

First of all, the term intersex is directly related to biology and anatomy.

It describes someone whose anatomy corresponds neither to standard biological definitions of male or female. An example would be someone who is born with a set of ovaries and a pair of testes.

Through the ages, the lives of people straddling the gender divide have often been difficult. Society has tended to stigmatize intersex people, inducing in them feelings of guilt, shame, grief and trauma.

Over the years, the intersex community has been subjected to countless sex “normalization” procedures designed to make individuals adopt whichever sex the doctor assigns them. The procedures are often horrific. People deemed to be more male than female might have their clitoris removed, for instance, and those deemed to be more female might be injected with hormones.

Brian Sullivan is a friend of the author who was nineteen months old when doctors discovered that he had both a uterus and ovotestes, sex glands that contain both ovarian and testicular tissue.

The doctors, reasoning that Brian might become a fertile woman, decided to remove his phallus, and so Brian became Bonnie. In her teens, she became a sexually active lesbian and realized that she was missing a clitoris and was unable to achieve orgasm.

There are plenty of other case histories, as well as plenty of evidence, that shows how normalization efforts are dangerously harmful and can lead to severe dissatisfaction in life.

The other term, “transgenderism,” is related to a person’s gender identity – the way they identify sexually, regardless of biological definitions of sex. This usually means rejecting the gender assigned to them at birth.

In a way, the difficulties faced by people who are transgendered are the opposite of those faced by people who are intersex. Many want to undergo sex-change surgery and take hormones, but access to these resources is often very hard to secure.

Good examples of transgenderism can be seen in Bruce Jenner’s public transition into Caitlyn Jenner, or the television show Transparent.  

The medical establishment remains heteronormative. It continues to control what gender a person does or doesn’t get to be. And this presents challenges for both transgendered people as well as intersex people.

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