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?)
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.
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.
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.