Following on from yesterday’s blog about the variety of gender choices there are and how these can make everyday decisions like which public toilet one should use extremely difficult, I was interested to read an article in Nature the other day that further complicates things. This time instead of gender – that is whether one understands oneself to be a man or a woman socially – being contested, it is a person’s sex – the biological definition of male and female, the body including the hormones – that has been shown to have a far more complex definition than the typical binary we usually use.
Technically there are a few ways that someone can be “Intersex”, that is neither strictly male nor female but something in between. We have all heard of those people who have indeterminate genitals, hermaphrodites as they used to be called (now referred to as Intersex), but the article outlines other ways that someone can be neither of the binary sexes, and it claims 1 person in a 100 has some form of complex status of their sex.
Some people have ‘mosaicism’ (1 in 15,000 people) which refers to a genetic make up that is not entirely homogenous, it is mixed depending on which cells you test; others can be a chimaera (which is very rare, affecting only 1 per cent of all intersex people), which means a person who is developed from a mixture of two fertilised eggs; we are also able to contain our mother’s and for women, our children’s cells in our bodies for a two or three decades, further complicating our definition of both a person’s sex and that of an individual person.
Such people may be completely unaware of their make up until they seek medical assistance for some other complaint, or they seek fertility treatment. The article describes one Australian chimaera, a 46 year old woman who whilst pregnant with her third child, was found to be largely chromosomally male.
Wow. One would have thought that being able to give birth twice guaranteed you were a woman (something especially ironic when sterile women have been historically accused of not being a ‘proper woman’ due to her inability to give birth). As the article discusses, much as scientists have long known that sex more closely resembles a spectrum than a binary, society has a long way to catch up.
It begs the question, what would have to happen for us to really comprehend such a spectrum? How would society have to change, especially legally? First of all, we would have to acknowledge that there are a lot of people walking around who either know they are intersex but do not share that knowledge publicly, or are completely unaware of their mixed sex status, AND ONE OF THEM COULD POTENTIALLY BE US!
How’s that for a seed to start a moral panic?
Going back to yesterday’s article about toilet use, would we need to change whether men and women can use each others’ loos to enable the mosaics and the chimeras among us to use a facility that does not match their appearance? I still say no to that, but the argument for an intersex toilet, for our facility binary to be challenged could be open. But isn’t that to once again an attempt to label someone crudely and falsely, just like the sex binary has always done? I think so. What really needs to be done is for us to queer it up, to shake our very established ideas around both sex and gender and start seeing ourselves as part of a spectrum with reference to our gender, sex and I also believe, sexuality. We are just one of a variety of potential definitions…
I’m really pleased to see that the sex binary is now being legally challenged too. This is being done most notably by intersex children who grow up to disagree with the doctors’ and parents’ interpretation of their “correct” sex. The Nature article notes a key case in 2013 in North Carolina of a child who was operated on aged 16 months to make him a girl; he then chose to be a boy by the age of eight. The case argues for both medical malpractice and that he has been denied his constitutional right to both his bodily integrity and his right to reproduce.
I have always thought it disgusting that children are operated on in such ways with such a blithe disrespect for their consent, after all the operations are not done for medical reasons but for reasons of shoehorning the children into gendered norms ‘for their own good’ (this is also the case for circumcision). This is still believed even though we now know many have to take lifelong drugs to maintain their chosen gendered status and that they may not have genitals that are sexually or reproductively useful. This should be outlawed surely? If a person wants to have the operation, have it when they are 16, or at least when they can vocalise their consent and when hopefully the success of such operations have advanced since they were a baby.
In the meantime we need to work on our entrenched ideas about what it is to be male or female, and I for one look forward to a time of more nuance, because nuance means choice and choice is more freeing and interesting. I say it again, what an interesting time of gender development we are living in, and it can only get even more fascinating the more we know about how we all differ. That is, if we can fight off the conservative types who are scared of change and complexity (the toilet legislating types). Maybe the sex wars wont be between men and women in the future but between the progressives and the conservatives?