One of my oldest friends is pregnant at the moment and it is so amazing to notice how one of the very first things people still ask is “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” Every single movie I’ve ever seen featuring a birth has the doctor, the midwife, the partner, or a shocked bystander shouting “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” and it’s almost as if the wee one does not really get to exist before that moment. We are called into one of only two kinds of existence with a whole set of clearly defined expectations attached to each by a random.
Frightening stuff indeed.
And since many of us reading and writing for this great site here know, if we try to be our own unique little snowflake and mess (even just a little) with these expectations we get punished and punished hard for doing so.
But what happens if your physical body happens to not conform to these expectations?
Big-time panic is what happens.
Remember the whole drama around Caster Semenya’s sex a few years ago? Remember the talk about tests to decide whether she’s a man or a woman? Have you ever read about these magical tests that can tell you definitively whether you are a REAL woman or a REAL man?
I bet you haven’t, because they don’t exist.
Sex is incredibly complicated, and the term intersex is actually kind of misleading, because there are so many different forms of intersex and the term in a sense re-establishes a linear story, and our bodies and lives generally are crazy, yet wonderful universes that just refuse to flow along straight lines. One example (amongst a great variety of examples): A person has an XY chromosomal basis, develops testes as a fetus, and produces a lot of testosterone, but lacks the receptors that can hear the testosterone, and therefore doesn’t respond to the testosterone at all. This is known as androgen insensitivity syndrome. So when this child is born she looks like a girl, is raised as a girl, is a girl, develops breasts, but doesn’t get her period, and only upon doing some tests will she figure out that instead of ovaries and a uterus, she has testes and a Y-chromosone.
Does this mean that she’s really male?
It’s not at all that simple.
Keep in mind that a person whose body is typically female actually does produce androgens and does respond to them, which means that her body’s brain has been exposed to way more androgens than the person with the testes. So who is really more male, and who should be seen as in the middle? This is just one example of a form of intersex, but there are many other kinds of bodies that are not typical. Anne Fausto-Sterling argues for at least 5 different sexes, but in reality there are many more. The illustration below explains in more detail and far better than I can how wonderfully complex sex is:
What is very obvious and important to take note of is that sex comes in lots and lots of different varieties, and within each variety there is a lot of diversity, and we all know if we throw gender into the mix too this diversity just explodes all over. So who gets to draw the line?
Sadly, far too often still, surgeons do.
Bodies that do not conform to our social categories of what a boy’s body should look like, or what a girl’s body should look like often get cut up to make them fit within these social categories.
The thing of course with surgery is that it is irreversible, plus this kind of surgery has nothing to do with the child’s health. Most of the time intersex infants are perfectly healthy. So not just surgery, but cosmetic surgery performed on a person without their consent. Surgery is also what is very likely going to lessen or even destroy sexual sensation in the genital area for this individual. Forever. The very real possibility of no orgasm. Ever. If that isn’t bad enough, the surgery revolves around making stereotypical hetero penis-in-vagina sex possible. So right there the doctors also make it their business to decide for you what kind of sex you will be interested in as an adult. Also, chances are pretty good that this surgery will lead to major health, not to mention mental health issues for you.
The scientifically complex instrument used to decide whether surgery should be performed or not?
A ruler. Or maybe in a fancy clinic, a tape measure.
Yep. The 2.5cm rule is a thing.
So clearly this is barbaric and needs to stop.
But sadly, that is not the worst of it.
I recently attended a talk by all-round incredible individual and intersex activist Sally Gross who informed us that in the Northern Cape in South Africa something even more sinister is going down, and has most likely been going down for a long-long time. A local LGBTI organization, LEGBO conducted interviews with 90 midwives in the Kuruman area in 2010 and a shocking 88 of them reported that they twist the necks in order to kill infants born with genitalia that don’t fit the social norm, believing the family to be bewitched or cursed. The mother is then told that the child was stillborn.
Authorities have been informed, sector 9 institutions, the Medical Research Council have been informed, and the response so far: silence.
What does it mean in terms of our humanity and the health of our communities when we allow certain lives to be seen as not worth our time and just not worth our grief? Not worth to have a chance at life at all? Have we not seen enough of this kind of thinking with Colonialism, the Rwandan genocide,the holocaust, present day American imperialist wars, apartheid?
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