‘I’ is for Intersex: Identity and ‘I’
“After stillbirth, genital anomaly is the most serious problem with a baby, as it threatens the whole fabric of the personality and life of the person. The trauma of discovering a genital anomaly in the labour ward is great for both parents and doctor.” – Dr John Hutson, MD.
Since I can remember my life has been carefully constructed around the sexual binary. During my childhood I was told both explicitly and implicitly how boys, men, males, must behave. And I obeyed – I was, after all, male. Following high school I was able to achieve financial independence and a degree of control over my life and in doing so I found that the gender binary that I had been brought up to obey was not as an immutable construct as I had believed. While undertaking a Women’s Studies major to better understand this realization, I have grown to comprehend the role that feminism, and feminist theory, has not only in helping women, but all of society. It is coming from that background that I now explore the role that intersex, those that have atypical combinations of chromosomal, morphological and/or genital presentation, have in feminist discourse.
I was born in the afternoon of early autumn here in Brisbane, a fact that took doctors 31 days to acknowledge before signing my birth certificate. I was born with gonadal dysgenesis – an intersex condition – and until the doctors had decided on my ‘true sex’ I remained in that state of limbo. At the time (and, to a degree, still today) the accepted model of treatment for babies born with ambiguous genitalia was originally put forth by Dr John Money in 1972 after a ‘successful’ re-assignment of a baby boy into a girl. Money believed that by performing sex reassignment surgery to make the child appear female and instructing the parents to raise the child unambiguously as a girl, then the ‘nurture’ would override the child’s inherent ‘nature’. Only by conforming to the physical and behavioural expectations of the sexual binary can a child be ‘normal’. So how did this apply to me?
Under this model my parents were instructed, and perhaps determined themselves, to raise me ‘unambiguously’ male – ‘hypermale’. I was to have a surgery before I could even walk to try to remove my ‘ambiguity’, several more during my childhood, and lifelong hormone injections to take the place of my ‘failed’ testes. As a child I was not permitted to play with my sisters, especially if it involved any kind of ‘feminine’ activity. Neither was I able to join in any event where I could be seen naked by others. To my doctors I was seen to be a ‘success’ in that I do not identify as being female – however what they could not comprehend is that I do not identify as being male either. For all the efforts made, once I was able to live independently I found that what I was doing was merely an ‘act’ of male; the degree to which I was raised, as ‘hypermasculine’ (or, rather, hyper un-feminine) allowed me to realise this as it clashed with my own sense of self. So while I continue to ‘perform’ as male – in my clothing choices, hair style, e.g., I have become increasingly aware of that such choices do not have to be at the exclusion of ‘feminine’ ones, and that if that is the case, then what is the purpose of separation? Why do we place so much importance on the division of the sexes?
In Gender Trouble and Undoing Gender, Judith Butler put forth her theory of the heterosexual matrix – that normative Western assumptions about sexual identity are based on a belief that anatomical sex causes gender development which, in turn, causes sexual orientation. By not being able to separate between biological sex and the social and cultural categories of gender means that in order to obtain a gendered place in society, one must have a linearly associated sex as well (as per my state of limbo at birth). My own experiences attest to the existence of this matrix – the importance placed on having ‘normal’ genitals, and that I be raised unambiguously male. It was reading these texts that I was able to realize the intended purpose of my upbringing, and its effect on my identity. I could see that how I was raised enabled me to ‘act’ male, but it did not bind me to the male identity. And if I did not have to be bound to a gender identity, why was one forced upon me?
As expressed in the opening quotation, the trauma the doctor speaks of is “for both parents and doctor”, not the child. I would argue instead that the degree of ‘normalization’ wrought upon an intersex child is not so much on their behalf, but for others’. For those that have never had to question the validity of the heterosexual matrix, to acknowledge the existence of those upon whose bodies the fallacy of the sexual binary is written must be intolerable. In fact, regarding the importance that others place on the necessity of ‘normal’ genitals, David Reimer, the ‘failed’ child of Money’s John/Joan experiment, recalls thinking: “Leave me be and then I’ll be fine… It’s bizarre. My genitals are not bothering me; I don’t know why it is bothering you guys so much”. Likewise, I can honestly say that my own genitals have not caused me any distress directly, and that any negativity – recurrent pain and infection, insensitivity – were brought about by doctors in their efforts to make me ‘normal’ so that I did not pose a threat to the heterosexual matrix. This degree of effort and the magnitude of its effects on my life only serve to reinforce to me the validity of the heterosexual matrix paradigm – why else would they go to such efforts?
Unfortunately, this adherence not only affects the intersex, but also innately priorities one sex over the other – a prioritisation that invariably leaves women as inferior to men. As Humm said, when societies divide the sexes into differing cultural, economic or political spheres, women are less valued than men. Until the artificial separation of male/masculine and female/feminine is broken down, then the prioritisation of the masculine male is always going to cause inequality.
From my own experiences I have seen that not only is the concept gender socially and culturally constructed, but having had them forcing upon me, that they are remorselessly unaccepting of those do not fit within its narrow range. When a society linearly regards sex and gender, they then both limit those with non-typical sex and non-typical gender expression. This practice of conflating sex with gender, as well as insisting on the sexual binary not only affects the lives of intersex individuals, but also results in an inherently unjust society that favours one division over the rest. Through my own life story I know that it is possible to develop as a person without needing a male sex identity or typical male anatomy, and going against my strict upbringing. ‘Being’ a man or woman cannot simply be ascribed to chromosomes, anatomy, or hormones – neither can it be solely determined by social upbringing. Rather, to me, sex, gender and sexuality arrive from the result of complex interactions between all of those variables and more. In addition, regardless of the mechanism for sexing or gendering an individual, I see no reason why one must subscribe to one, more, or none of these identities, nor why a society should prioritise one identity (white, heterosexual, masculine male) over others.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. Boca Raton, [Fla.]: Routledge.
Colapinto, J. (2001). As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised a Girl: New York: Harper Collins.
Humm, M. (1992). Modern feminisms : political, literary, cultural. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hutson, J. (1992). Clitoral Hypertrophy and Other Forms of Ambiguous Genitalia in the Labour Ward. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 32(3), 238-239.
Money, J. b., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972). Man & woman, boy & girl : the differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity. Baltimore ; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
 Gonadal dysgenesis, either full or partial, results from variable gene mutations causing abnormal testicular formation in XY foetuses. This event can occur at any time during the development of the foetus, resulting in a range of external genitalia presentations from nearly typical female with clitoral enlargement to nearly typical male with hypospadias. Sex assignment is based on the degree of external development.