Seeking in Silence: The Challenges of Writing the Recent History of Intersexuality in South Africa from 1950-present

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Seminar Date
November 3, 2010
For most South Africans, and for many throughout the globe, the gender testing saga surrounding Caster Semenya would have been their first encounter with the issues of intersexuality. Yet, this silence on intersexuality that casts her story as a rarity belies the enduring existence of the intersexed within human society. As such these are people with a past and a history that is now only beginning to be written. Yet, no historical work, to my knowledge, has been done on intersexuality in Africa or Southern Africa. This paper, I hope, will be a small contribution towards this immense but interesting and relevant project However, work in this field is one that also poses substantial methodological and ethical problems and conundrums. Firstly, raises the pressing questions of where and how one may begin to fill such a gap. The silences produced by years of medical scientific toil towards refining the facts of binary sex have veiled the reality of intersexuality from day to day life and also from the historical record as the conventional archives collections bear little or no trace of the intersexed. Yet if one turns to the very source of erasure – that of medicine – the imprint of intersexuality is substantial. Even so, working with largely medical source material carries with it its own urgent set of methodological and ethical challenges, especially given the highly sensitive and personal nature of intersexuality. As such, it is outside of the scope of this paper to write a history of intersexuality in South Africa. However, it is first necessary to untangle and map out the problems it poses. It is to this task of interrogating the problems of researching and writing the potentially rich history of intersexuality in South Africa.
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