It's a - um, baby:
Intactivism and Intersexuality
... And for a woman wert thou first
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.
Shakespeare, Sonnet XX
About one child in 2000 is born such that doctors are
immediately assign it as "male" or "female". (As many as one in 100
have lesser degrees of gender variance.) They are commonly described as
"hermaphrodite" or "intersexed". (The term Disorders of Sex Development
has been coined, but this too has been condemned as judgmental and
pathologising.) These variations are commonly, but not always,
expressed in the genitalia. Those who think in binary male/female terms
call them "ambiguous genitalia". (They have one set of genitals,
uniquely their own, not two.)
Sex Development Variations can vary in degree; there may
be just a slight variation of the genitals, such as hypospadias,
where the urinary opening appears part way down the penis, or
clitorimegaly, where the clitoris is bigger than usual. The standards
by which a child is deemed to have a penis that is "too small" or a
clitoris that is "too big" are purely arbitrary.
Sex Development Variations can have a variety of causes:
- Androgen Insensivity Syndrome (AIS)
- 5-alpha-reductase deficiency (5-AR)
- Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)
- Turner's Syndrome
- Klinefelter's Syndrome
- and others. 25 per cent of affected people remain
without diagnosis or established cause.
These names all suggest a disease, disorder, or
deviation from some
(societal) norm. It is heavily ingrained in us that everyone must be
"one sex" or "the other". We don't even have the language (in English)
to speak of intersexed people, states or conditions accurately. "He"
and "she" leave no middle ground.
There is some evidence that gender identity (what sex we think we are)
is internal, generated in the brain, independently of how we are
socialised (nurture), but usually corresponding to our "nature" - the
form of the genitals (phenotype) and the type of sex chromosomes in
every cell (genotype).
Many people with variations in sex development
male or female. They may yet prefer to keep all of their genitals
unmodified, whatever their external appearance.
Non-European cultures, such as Polynesia and Native
often have a third gender category into which people with SDVs can be
assigned. In India the Hijra (commonly called
comprising intersex, transgender and other gender-nonstandard people,
form a community with a clear (low-class) role.
(People are sometimes presented to the public as
"hermaphrodite" or "man-woman" for sexual reasons or for profit: those
may be transgendered, born physically male, with their original male
genitals, but with a female identity and taking female hormones to
enlarge their breasts.)
Most parents in our society are inclined to panic at the birth of an
intersexed baby (they are, after all, inclined to ask "Is it a boy or a
girl?" even before they ask "Is s/he all right?"). In the past, a
baby's sex variation might actually be concealed from the mother until
the "problem" had been surgically "solved". Nowadays, systems of
consultation are more inclined to swing into action, but intersexuality
is still seen as something "wrong" which has to be "corrected" if
possible, before the child is old enough to have a say in the matter.
The surgical "correction" is often entirely cosmetic,
on giving the appearance of "one sex or the other" and having the
capacity for heterosexual intercourse. The sex chosen is more often
female, since that is easier to achieve surgically. Where a person with
testicles is assigned female gender, they are removed, making "her"
Hermaphrodites speak out
Now intersexed people are speaking for themselves in opposition to
non-consensual genital modification. The intersexed community has
looked for anyone who is happy to have had infant gender-assignment
surgery, and failed to find any.
The position is complicated by the intense grief and
by the parents and communicated to the child. This may make the child
want surgery in order to calm the parents, and makes it harder for
intersexed adults to either complain about what was done to them or
Legal recognition of Intersex
Only a few countries have any legal recognition of
people, such as a gender category other than "male" or "female", or
protection from non-consensual sex assignment surgery. They are
Australia, Colombia, and Nepal. Germany has a third gender category,
but it is designed to be interim, until the "true sex" is determined,
and this has proved counterproductive to the Intersex community. More
details are on another
For further information about Sex Development Variations:
- The Intersex Society of North America has closed.
There is, however, an important farewell message at its website.
- Its work is continuing at the Accord Alliance.
- The largest UK campaign group is UKIA
(the UK Intersex Association). Founded in 2000, UKIA now has 12
Associate groups around the world.
campaign against all forms of medical pathologisation of intersex
conditions, including the cosmetic surgical reassignment of intersex
Intersex International (OII) "the largest grassroots intersex
organisation in the world"
has a branch of OII.
- in New Zealand, the Intersex Trust of Aotearoa New
ph +64 4 381 2221
PO Box 9196
IANZ distributes the PAL version of "Hermaphrodites Speak Out"
Intersex and informed consent:
how physicians' rhetoric constrains choice
by J David Hester
Assume Nothing, a
photographic essay about gender-variant people in New Zealand, by
Captain and Thomasine, a historical novel
featuring America's first known intersexual, Thomasine Hall,
in 17th century Jamestown, by Don Floyd
Black and White, a
documentary about the shooting of Assume Nothing
but frustrated movie stuntwoman Rebecca in San Francisco is sent some
photos of her brother Pedro, who died in their native Peru soon after
his third birthday - or so she was told. But there are no photos of the
two of them together. Rebecca is determined to find out why. Her gay
colleague turns down another friend as a surrogate mother for him and
his partner because the friend's child Morgan is intersexed - and she
is raising Morgan unmodified to be whoever they will be. Rebecca's
search takes her to the children's hospital where her brother died, but
when she is told the surgery was successful and she sees his records,
the pieces start falling into place. The arrogant doctor's name is
Silver. (Any resemblance to Dr John Money is purely coincidental.)
about the hijras
("eunuchs") of India
Story, Qantas Media Award-winning
documentary about Mani Bruce Mitchell of New Zealand
(NZ, 2012) "...director Grant LaHood follows [Mani] Mitchell ... in
America, Ireland, Germany, South Africa and Australia to meet other
intersex people. ... Mitchell says the result is a heartwarming story
told with a mixture of laughter and tears in the most frank and
revealing way. Best New Zealand Feature Documentary, Best Editing" -
Capital Times (Wellington, NZ) May 16, 2012
One in 2000, documentary
about intersex people in the US
Circumcision and gender reassignment
Involuntary gender-reassignment (raising boys as girls) has in the past
also been a treatment of (doctors' and parents') choice for boys whose
entire penis was accidentally cut off in the course of circumcision. David Reimer's
was an example celebrated as a success at the time, but now denounced
as a total failure - most of all by him. He has since committed
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