In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Amanda Lock Swarr. Swarr is Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Her book is Envisioning African Intersex: Challenging Colonial and Racist Legacies in South African Medicine. The book is available for free, open-access on the Duke University Press website.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Amanda Lock Swarr: Envisioning African Intersex analyzes racist histories and intersex activist interventions in Africa. This book starts by challenging a false claim in science and medicine that has been repeated for centuries. Since the 1600s, scientists and doctors have claimed that so-called “hermaphroditism” and intersex are disproportionately common among Black people. This claim came to be accepted through what I call “citational chains” of shoddy research and manipulated images that are repeated again and again and work together to create a sense of truth. In the current political and social climate, we’re inundated with lies and false claims. The book offers a way to understand how racist deception becomes widely accepted and entrenched through citational chains.
Another pressing issue in the current political climate is the escalating attack on transgender and intersex people, including children and athletes. We are seeing systematic violent efforts to police the boundaries of what it is to be a man or a woman. In reading my book, I hope that BAR readers can get a sense of the specific ways these contemporary attacks are inseparable from racist taxonomies and that they learn from the strategies that African intersex activists use to fight back for equity.
2. What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
This question highlights something that is so important to me! To begin I want to mention that the book is free to download, and this was a result of fundraising and close work with Duke University Press. Also any royalties from the sale of print copies of the book will be donated to Intersex South Africa, an organization that an activist who I worked closely with named Sally Gross founded over two decades ago. Much of the book focuses on the work of Gross and other South African activists, including those who have formed a multi-country coalition they call the African Intersex Movement, to document interventions they have made over the past 25 years. Envisioning African Intersex was written more for activists’ use than for academics. So I hope the book will be helpful to activists’ work to change the ways that people think about intersex and trans experiences and to change impactful policies.
I also hope that the book will be useful to activists working for intersex justice transnationally for the histories and effective strategies it shares. South African activists were responsible for the first mention of intersex in anti-discrimination law globally, and South Africa then became the first country in the world to have a constitution that is intersex-inclusive. Now activists are having incredible success in using social media to share their stories and influence societal norms. Lastly, I hope that activists and community organizers who are less familiar with intersex politics will take away the important work being done in the Global South and the recognition, as many intersex activists have put it, that the “I” in LGBTI is not silent!
3. We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
In many ways the whole book is focused on dismantling dominant ideologies. One of the most important ideological challenges of the book is to the naturalness of the sexed body. While many smart thinkers have long-argued that representations of the body as simply male or female are inaccurate and that sex is better understood as a spectrum, the myth of binary sex has proven to be very strong. I hope that readers will get a stronger sense of the importance of thinking about sex and gender in more complex ways and the violent material effects of not doing so.
One of the areas most affected by these kinds of rigid ideologies in the news right now is sport. In Envisioning African Intersex I write about Olympian Caster Semenya, a South African athlete who BAR readers might know of because for over a decade she has been publicly subjected to racist interrogation over her ability to compete in women’s sport. The book demonstrates how the kind of gender verification testing Semenya has battled is inherently racist and US- and Eurocentric in its histories and applications. The athletes who are most scrutinized are those from the Global South who sporting regulators want to exclude from sport for a range of reasons. Given the ramifications for folks like Semenya, unlearning sex binarism, with all of its racist roots and effects, is urgently important.
4. Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
This is a tough question as my work draws from so many traditions. But my thinking always starts with African scholars and activists articulating what Queer Africa means, and those whose work I sit with the most often include Stella Nyanzi, Keguro Macharia, Zethu Matebeni, B Camminga, SN Nyeck, Sylvia Tamale, Jordache Ellapen, Neo Musangi, and Zanele Muholi. They all have made critical contributions and undermine the universalisms of US-based white queer studies.
My work is also inspired by intellectual movements exposing racism in medicine. Canonical texts like Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body and Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, as well as C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides, are ones that I come back to again and again. Snorton’s work on racist histories of gynecology, and the ways that he puts these histories into conversation with transgender studies, is foundational for me. In my work, I find that the connections between US and African gendered medicine are striking. For example, one of the physicians who perpetuated the false claim of disproportionate Black intersex in the US was Dr. Howard Jones of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Not only did Jones parrot racist ideas about intersex, he was also personal physician to Henrietta Lacks when she had cancer.
Finally, I need to mention some brilliant folks thinking about sex expansively as part of a critical emerging intersex studies. These writers include Hil Malatino, David Rubin, Jules Gill-Peterson, Katrina Karkazis, Aren Aizura, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Elizabeth Reis, Morgan Carpenter, and Iain Morland, among others. I really appreciate being in conversation with their incisive work.
5. Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
The two books I would recommend for BAR readers are texts that I think deserve a much wider readership. Both are written by African feminists for both popular and academic audiences. The first is Sylvia Tamale’s Decolonization and Afro-Feminism which advocates for a decoloniality that disrupts colonial legacies and what she refers to as the colonization of the mind. This is one of the first texts to foreground feminist approaches to African decoloniality, and Tamale issues a wide call for attention to the wounds caused by heteropatriarchy. I especially appreciate her challenges to human rights paradigms that focus on gender equality in favor of African philosophies of Ubuntu.
The second book I would recommend is an anthology centered on Black South African feminist writing by a range of radical thinkers titled Surfacing: On Being Black and Feminist in South Africa and edited by Desiree Lewis and Gabeba Baderoon. The collection includes essays, life histories, interviews, poetry, and, like Tamale’s book, Surfacing appeals to a wide audience. In different ways both books make strong cases for confronting imperial power through African feminist approaches. As far as my future work goes, I am already teaching these texts in my classes and working through the authors’ engagements with praxis. Both books bridge the gap between academia and activism in important ways that push back on the dominance of theories from the Global North. My next projects are collaborative and continue to center the ways African intersex, trans, and queer activists decolonize sexualities and gender binaries.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.