Intersexuality: a problem with gender binaries

The problem with binaries is that they often don’t exist where we think they do. We want them to exist; it’s easier to divide the world into halves, than, say, thirds or fifths or (heaven forbid) admit that there are some shades of gray.

Right/Wrong. (What about things that are the exceptions to the rule?)

Conservative/Liberal. (What about moderates?)

Male/Female. (What about people who are intersex?)

Hmm.

After reading the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex, I’ve been thinking about the last binary quite a bit.

A book like this blows apart traditional assumptions about gender.

  • How do you classify an intersex person?
  • Do you consider this person as male or female?
  • Upon what basis: external genitalia, internal genitalia, chromosomal patterns, outward appearance, self-identification, upbringing?
  • What if those conflict with one another—some aspects seem traditionally “male” and others “female”?
  • (Who decided those traditions, anyway?)

Cal, the narrator of Middlesex, has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. At birth, he appears female. He doesn’t feel out of place in the “female” world of his all-girls school, though he is bewildered by his physical attraction to “other” females. But once he hits adolescence, a surprising thing happens: nothing.

No period.

No breasts.

Nothing but genitalia with an appearance that increasingly distresses Cal (then Callie).

When his parents drag him to see a specialist at the Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic, the doctor advises them to have Cal injected with hormones and operated on so he will appear female.

So easy. No one will know. After all, the doctor reasons, he’s been raised female and (thanks to a bit of lying from Cal about his personal experiences) feels female inside. The doctor doesn’t bother to inform the parents that their child is genetically male; that’s too hard for parents to handle. His solution is the best one.

Cal feels otherwise.

This is a novel. But this situation does happen in the real world, so it’s worth discussing.

Play a pastor’s role for a moment. A couple in your congregation have a child. The genitalia are ambiguous. Doctors are giving them conflicting advice. Operate? Let the child develop naturally? It’s a confusing realm, filled with more questions than certainties. They want your advice.

What do you tell these parents?

  • If you advise them to let the child develop naturally, allowing for ambiguity in the gender-department, are you prepared for how to handle the confusion among workers, peers, other parents?
  • If you advise them to go the fix-it route, what will you do if the child later says he/she self-identifies with the other gender? What then?

Or say the case is more like Cal’s. The child appears one gender. She’s happy enough in nursery and elementary school, playing with the “girl” toys, being friends with the other girls, doing the girls-only activities the children’s minister plans, and then hits adolescence. It’s now apparent something isn’t quite normal. The family discovers this sweet little girl is genetically male. How do you handle this? How does your congregation handle it?

  • Will you allow the boy (the one you’ve always thought a girl!) to use the men’s restroom or go on a boys-only camp out?
  • What if the child still clings to a female identity? What then?
  • How do you help this family and especially this child adjust to this new knowledge?
  • How do you influence the congregation (particularly the child’s peers) to accept and not ridicule, to love and respect, not judge? (There are always judgmental people, and they won’t care if disordered chromosomes are the cause for the intersexuality.)

What if this same person—comfortable, possibly, with being intersex, or at least accustomed to it—came to your congregation as an adult? How do you handle this ambiguity? It’s probably most problematic in a complementarian church setting, where the church “roles” are divided into male-only and female-only categories.

  • Can he stand for election as elder or deacon?
  • Can she lead the women’s ministry?
  • Do you feel threatened by a person who doesn’t fit into the male/female binary and wish he or she would latch onto another congregation and not upset yours?

Apply the same questions to any person in these situations. Other parents. A peer. A teacher. An average pew-dweller.

The answers aren’t as clear cut as you’d like, are they? A little unsettling, right?

In my opinion, that’s a mark of a good book or a good question: it unsettles me.

Middlesex did that, more than once, and these questions definitely cause me to examine my own attitudes toward gender identity and sexuality. I’m definitely female, so there’s no way I can empathize with intersexuality on an experiential level. So if I face any of the above situations, what is my role?

I can hear some conservative Christians, shuffling in the pews, intone, “Our job is to help them have a healthy gender identity.”

To which I say: “Bullcrap. You don’t even know what that would be, do you?”

Our job is this:

To treat everyone with respect and dignity.

and

To encourage others to do the same.

That’s the big picture. The details of the nitty-gritty are harder, and I think they’d have to be taken as they come. A book like Middlesex can help, not with easy solutions—those are in short supply in Eugenides’ novel—but with creating empathy for those in this situation. When we have empathy for another human being, it is easier to see that they are more than just their genitalia or sexuality or any other single factor.

They are human, just like us.

Complex, just like us.

Made by God, just like us.

And God doesn’t make mistakes. Always remember that. 

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23 thoughts on “Intersexuality: a problem with gender binaries

  1. God doesn’t make mistakes, but we live in a fallen world. These people need compassionate Christian counseling to help them work through their confusion. Pandering to it is not beneficial to anyone involved.

    Since when do feelings have to dictate how we behave? If someone had a strong urge to steal, would we encourage them to follow their urge? What about someone who has an urge to cheat on their spouse? Or pedophiles? Murderers? Just because you feel the urge to do something, doesn’t mean you have to act on them. We all have sinful urges. The sinning comes in when we give in to those urges.

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    1. See my reply under Jeannie’s comment, but I’ll also add this. There’s a big difference between an urge to sin (steal, cheat, murder) and feeling completely out of place in traditional gender roles. I’m not saying that feelings should dictate our behavior, but we still have to consider them.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Diane, Jesus talks about men who, for the sake of the kingdom, alter their biology to become eunuchs, a legal classification distinct from male. Considering that God blesses eunuchs and requires nothing of them beyond faith in Christ, I’d have a hard time justifying a blanket condemnation of trans people.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lianne,

        Thanks for commenting on this. I hadn’t thought about the “eunuchs” in Jesus’ words as possibly referring to trans people, though I confess that I don’t know any Koine Greek and don’t know what exactly Jesus meant in those verses. (I seem to have a lot of verses like that. 🙂 ) Even a quick google search of “eunuchs in the Bible” brought up a lot of interesting links, and a lot of thought-provoking posts. Do you think voluntarily becoming a eunuch (as Jesus describes in Matthew 19) for the sake of the kingdom of God is necessarily a physical alteration of the body, or could it be the person who remains celibate and asexual (and therefore like a spiritual eunuch)?

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      2. Matthew 19:12 specifies three ways of becoming a eunuch. (1) birth, (2) forced by others, and (3) choosing to be. As far as I know, without altering the gonads/genitals, there was no legal change in status. Changing them definitely changed your legal standing (Deut 23:1). I don’t think Jesus was taking about trans people, but it definitely indicates that legal sex can be changed, and it can be changed in a way of which God approves. (i.e. for the sake of the Kingdom)

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    3. Please…PLEASE do some actual research. It HS been proven medically beyond a doubt that true homosexuality is not a choice it is genetic. They have also shown that Transgenderism is also genetically based in the chromosones. No amount of “comassiinate christian counseling” can cure it. You cant cure what isn’t a sickness.

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      1. Hi, Jack, thanks for commenting on this. I was wondering if you could post a link to an article or scholarly source for the medical proof. It’s not that I don’t believe you and agree–I’ve always thought the “they’re CHOOSING to be gay” idea sounded bizarre! (It’s not like I chose to be straight; I just am.) But it helps to see the research and to have a reliable source to point others to. I didn’t cover anything like that in my post because I was talking about intersex people and not those who are gay/lesbian/bi/trans/or otherwise outside mainstream sexuality.

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  2. This is so interesting, Laura — this is slightly different, but just a couple of nights ago at my book club, one of the members (male, 60+) was talking about a radio program he’d heard recently about transgendered persons and issues around gendered washrooms etc. And the way he was discussing it was so refreshing, as if he was learning about something he’d never thought of before and that was more complex than he’d even imagined — and he was OK with that, happy to be having his mind stretched and thinking over issues that were problematic. He wasn’t freaked out about it at all. I love your final sentences: “They are human, just like us. Complex, just like us. Made by God, just like us.”

    I just want to add that I don’t see ANYTHING in your post that suggests feelings must dictate how we behave or that if you have an urge you must act on it. Considering your post is all about complexity and un-settledness, it wouldn’t make any sense for you to be making cut-and-dried suggestions like that. Just saying, I don’t see any of that here.

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    1. But people with gender confusion are making these decisions based on feelings, not facts. Someone who has male genitalia who thinks they are a female has serious psychological issues that need to be addressed with a compassionate Christian counselor. Playing along with their gender confusion isn’t beneficial to anyone.

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      1. Diane, I think you maybe mistaking intersex with transgender. The folks I’m discussing here are intersex, born with both types of genitalia. In the case of fictional Cal, his maleness isn’t discovered until adolescence and he has been raised female; he later says that he doesn’t feel comfortable in either the “male” world or the “female” world.

        According to the research I’ve done on intersexuality, the person could have external genitalia that conflicts with internal genitalia, or vice versa. Test on the chromosomes are usually performed and many doctors urge the parents to surgically change to whatever the chromosomes indicate is the birth gender. But sometimes the chromosomal patterns aren’t clear, for whatever reason, and then the parents are forced to choose whether to operate or not. It’s not a clear cut decision.

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      2. Not a problem! I was used to the term hermaphrodite, too, but I’ve read that the more preferred term now is intersex. In fact, when Eugenides used the word “hermaphrodite” in Middlesex, a few commentators fussed over it. Apparently, because it’s linked with the Greek myth (and carries a lot of baggage, including the implication that intersex individuals are destined to psychic misery, etc., because of the mythology), the term intersex (more neutral) is now preferred. Ironically, though, Eugenides uses the term hermaphrodite in reference to the greek myth and not to his character! And you’re right, it’s rare.

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      3. Sorry if I muddied the waters by referring to my friend’s discussion of transgendered people. I just mentioned it because of the openness he expressed to learning about something that for him was new and unknown territory. I didn’t mean to suggest that transgender and intersex are the same thing.

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      4. Not everyone is open to new ideas or things, are they? On my part, I’m just glad the spammers haven’t been sending me nasty sex-related spam with my recent posts on sexuality and gender. 🙂 They need to be open to getting a life!!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. In regards to bathrooms, I wish that there was always a third, unisex option. It’s really helpful for parents with kids of the opposite gender, for one thing! And please, bathroom designers, stick a changing table in there and the men’s room, too. Changing diapers isn’t the task of females alone!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent job dealing with complexities that go way beyond whether someone is born with XX or XY chromosomes, Laura. As you say, the answer to whatever people are facing in life isn’t “Let’s fix them” but rather “Let’s love them”.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Laura, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m a Christian housewife. And intersex. And I changed my legal status from male to female about forty years ago. I was never nearly as confused about my sex or my gender as the people around me were.

    I can share freely and openly both my testimony and my history–with everyone except those in my own conservative church. I dare not, lest I cause division and perhaps be declared perverse without a chance to explain. Yet I love Jesus. And would cherish a deeper communion with the people in my church.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Lianne, for commenting on this and sharing part of your story here. I find it sad that you can’t speak freely to those in church about this; I attend a conservative church myself, and I can see a fuss being made over an intersex individual. (Is “intersex” considered an adjective and a noun, like the word “gay” is? I puzzled over this while writing this post.) I know what it’s like to long for deeper communion with other Christians; other than the cyber-fellowship I have with my other Christian blogger friends, I’m in a lonely place right now in relation to other believers. I’ll pray that you can find that communion in your church!

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      1. Intersex is usually considered an adjective. Yes, sad to hide from our own. But a couple of years ago, the Lord nudged me toward greater transparency and vulnerability. That will eventually lead to my church knowing.

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  5. Fantastic. I love what you’ve written here and all the great questions you’ve raised. (Less aggressive toward conservatives, too 😉 ) Is Middlesex a YA novel? I’ve also heard that NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED is a fantastic look at intersex issues amid the confusing medley of high school and hormones.

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    1. I wouldn’t say it’s a YA novel. There are probably elements that would appeal to teens who might identify with Cal, but it’s not written in the tone of a YA novel. More literary, lots of allusions to mythology and historical events. it raises lots of questions about race (the main part of the action takes place in Detroit in the 60s and 70s) and ethnicity (the family is Greek, the grandparents come to America after their home is destroyed by outside invaders, their children struggle to assimilate, Cal is a third generation American). And for being a “literary” novel and about some huge issues, it’s not a difficult-to-read book. (I could read it in the carpool line! I can’t do that with most literary books.)

      I’ll have to see if I can find Not Otherwise Specified.

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