Having read an article in today’s Huffington Post about a set of 12 year old conjoined twin boys from India called Shivanath and Shivram Sahu it got me thinking about how we perceive normality both in physical and gendered terms. The twin boys who share a set of legs have learned to live a life in harmony and even though experts say they could be separated, they and their father (and their mother?, any idea what she thinks journalists?) are adamant that they wish to remain conjoined. The twins came from an impoverished Indian background and one wonders if, in a more affluent Western environment whether they would have had the opportunity to live such a different life.
The article and associated video piece pivot around the idea that individuality is at least desirable if not ultimately a necessity once these boys hit puberty and want to have children of their own (for one brother at least). This is the undertone of the piece, even when surgical separation would result in leaving one of them without any legs and therefore wheelchair bound and reliant entirely on lifelong care. It is argued by medical professionals this is preferable in order that they can fall in love and marry as individual men, such being the centralised notion of the importance of marriage and procreation in ours and India’s society. But at least in this article we are also being asked to consider their position and to change ours away from what the doctor advises, it focuses on the boys’ and the father’s words.
This reminded me of a few other instances recently where some cemented ideas of physical normalcy has been challenged. A friend of mine had a baby a few months ago which was intersex, the first time I (or she) had experienced such a rare phenomenon in anything other than in representations in the media. My heart went out to her, she seemed a very attentive mother of her first born and clearly loved her intersex child very much, yet it was very important to her and the medical profession to ascertain the child’s sex as soon as possible. I thought it was important that I bring to her attention the studies and writings I had come across during my gender PhD that shows that intersex adults often wish their parents had left their bodies alone as they can face serious physical and emotional repercussions and may require lifelong medication. So I messaged her even though I felt I was intruding (and so did my husband for that matter!) because I think we need to fight the silence more than anything. My friend was unlikely to know anyone else who had spent so long learning about the socially constructed nature of gender and if I didn’t fight my English middle class woman’s tendency to keep quiet under the proviso that ‘parents and/or doctors know best’, then she was possibly not going to hear it from anyone.
I urged her to allow her child time to choose its own gender, to give it a gender neutral name, toys, clothes etc., and to actively give the child space. I added that in 16 years time if the child wants to change sex, the operations will be far more advanced. Meaning that if her child wanted to have a male body for instance, he would be far more likely to get a penis that works well in every sense by then (they can grow vaginas in the lab already), and this needed weighing up against a perceived idea of her child passing in an assigned sex whilst young (which I don’t think would be achievable anyway, kids are very perceptive to difference).
I knew encouraging someone to accept their child was different and to resist the need to conform was a big ask, especially as she wasn’t the anti establishment type, and I knew that it might well be perceived as interfering but to her credit she thanked me for my advice and has done since on other occasions too. However, the first thing the doctors did was to undertake blood tests, which showed the child was ‘really’ a boy, and so he has been channeled. I since heard that ‘he’ was going in for genital surgery, which although she said was more about his ability to urinate rather than to assign gender, I wasn’t so sure and I really felt I could no longer sit by and watch, so I have since ceased contact, it just made me very angry that the child was not consenting, not just to the surgery but also to being labelled a boy.
I have written before about my beliefs about gender being an arbitrary performance assigned to us at birth and it seems according to a recent article by a a intersex person called Claudia, I am not alone in arguing for an understanding of gender as something we should all consciously choose, this being especially crucial for intersex people. It frustrates me to see the countless examples of how we police gender and sexuality, whilst still believing ourselves to be liberal. Yet I can understand why we do it, not least that it took a PhD to learn about how we nudge each other into acceptable social places in invisible ways, and to stop feeling the abject horror of seeing someone different, myself. Even after many years of reading both gender and more generally, philosophy (that challenges the way we perceive most things as givens) I still had to consciously make the jump to viewing transgender, intersex and physically disabled people as ‘one of us’, simply because I thought it politically and ethically necessary. I’m glad to say like all types of learning, it soon becomes second nature but at first it felt really odd, a feeling that contradicts my beliefs in equality and therefore something I don’t like to admit to.
We are not truly encouraged to see similarity in others across gender, sexuality, etc. yet at the same time we are encouraged to be politically correct in assigning equal rights. People are different but equal is the mantra. Yes, on the face of it that is true but surely we have more overlap than exclusivity in what we share across all human manifestations? As Judith Butler points out, it is a political act to chose to focus on the ways men and women differ (genitals, breasts, etc.) when physically 90-95% of our bodies are the same.
This brings us back to the dreaded (in feminism, anyway) ‘human’ of the Enlightenment, the unpoliticised white, rich heterosexual male that spoke for all, without any sense of contradiction. It was assumed that women were the same but different, right up until the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft began to argue otherwise in 1792. Indeed we are different, and feminism has quite rightly explored women’s differences. But sometimes it feels like our focus on difference only serves to make us intolerant, precisely because we cant see similarities between ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is an underlying similarity in the way we all approach The Other, whether they be transgender, intersex, conjoined or any other manifestation of the human kind. We approach it with fear, that is until we are exposed to more difference and we can incorporate such people into a wider sense of what it is to be human, just as we have historically done across sexuality lines with homosexual people. Shivanath and Shivram’s body teaches us that we may invest too much in an ideal of autonomy (it is interesting that they should come from a culture that is less focused on individuality than the West) and Claudia can show us that we need to chill out about ‘saving’ intersex children from themselves. Maybe its us they all need saving from after all.