People come in two sexes, male and female, depending on their endowment of sex chromosomes, XX or XY. However, things aren’t always this simple. As an outcome gender and sex categorization provides an interesting example of the intersection of natural and artificial and biological and social categories.
Sometimes due to accidents of genetics, as in Klinefelter’s syndrome (XXY) and Turner’s syndrome (XO) and accidents within the endocrine system, persons can be born with ambiguous genitalia. By definition intersex is the abnormal condition of being intermediate between male and female; hermaphroditism. Even the presence of the word, ‘abnormal’ represents these individuals, as something outside of what is normal! No wonder, such individuals are perceived differently to those born male and female.
An ambiguous genitalia raises complexities for doctors and parents alike, as they must decide the sex of such individuals almost immediately. In an attempt to help people with these conditions to lead ‘better’ lives, they are often surgically ‘corrected’ so their genitalia correspond to the male or female ideal. Many doctors and parents decide for the female ideal, as it’s easier to construct a vagina then it is a penis and testicles. This provides evidence of how societies feel pressure to allocate people by sex and how individuals must be recognized as either male or female in order to be successful within society. But why should individuals be obligated to decide to be male or female? Why can’t there be another gender or sex for such individuals?
In 2013 Germany became the first country in Europe to allow babies with characteristics of both sexes to be registered as neither male nor female, creating a new category of ‘intermediate’ sex. The law was created to take pressure off parents to decide on sex reassignment surgery to newborns or decide a gender. However, some campaigners claim the law doesn’t go far enough. One campaigner claims that the new law does not take into consideration the surgeries; another, that it doesn’t recognize who gets to make the definitive decision of what the sex will be. It is also unclear how this law will impact on marriage and partnership laws.
Daniela Truffer was surgically assigned her gender soon after birth. Born with ambiguous genitalia the doctors decided Truffer would be female, ‘They threw my testicles in the garbage bin’. Truffer is one of the few intersex people to take a public stance. It’s as if people who are intersex or don’t conform to being male or female are shamed and automatically seen as something different and abnormal. Claudia Kreuzer who is also intersex provides evidence of my opinion, ‘since you are the unknown gender, you are often refused at first sight. If humans cannot allocate something, they are often suspicious and careful.’ This reinforces how people allocate gender and sexes and discard or create negative concepts of such individuals who cannot be recognized as either male or female. It reinforces how if we cannot categorize someone’s sex they are perceived and represented as something different and strange.
Because the sex is left undetermined with this new law I wonder who will actually decide the gender of someone who is born intersex and when this would be defined. Will it be the intersex people themselves? Will it be their parents? Will it be nature and their physical development? Will it be when they are a child or a teenager? Dr. Michael Wunder reflects such questions and feels that it is unclear what happens to these ‘indeterminate’ babies when they’re older, ‘Are they obliged to decide whether to be male or female?’ Society and life in general make us believe that we must fit within the conforms of gender which for many of us is the result of our biological sex. However, for those who are intersex it raises the question: when does gender come to be? Is it when the child is self-aware or is it the genitalia assigned?
Anne Fausto Sterling (Myths of Gender and Sexing the Body) has identified three ‘intersex’ gender categories, where the individuals deviate from the ‘platonic ideal’:
Chromosomally male with female reproductive anatomy
Chromosomally female with male reproductive anatomy
Chromosomally and anatomically half male and half female
Fausto-Sterling argues that rather than force these individuals to conform to the platonic ideal (male or female) they constitute separate gender categories. These should be acknowledged and considered to be normal, not pathological. This would mean creating new categories outside of the norms of male and female. For Fausto-Sterling the categorization of people into two sexes is a social construction, imposed on the individual by society. This links with arguments from Judith Butler and B. F. Skinner, ones I will explore later.
It’s become clear that as law-abiding citizens categorizing people and recognizing people as either male or female, is normal and necessary and that we struggle with anyone who exists outside of these categories. This seems to be something ingrained within us but I’m still yet to explore why we believe and trust these categories to be right and natural and what influences the way we perceive things.
Berkley (2013) Social Categorisation. [online] available from <https://bspace.berkeley.edu/access/content/group/cf3d9c57-a0ab-4f22-b55f-4d8b59a1c15e/Lecture%20Supplements/SocCateg/SocCateg_Supp.htm>
BBC (2013) Germany allows ‘indeterminate’ gender at birth [online] available from: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24767225>
Youtube (2013) Germany adopts third gender law [online] available from: < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRC7TsoV-u0>
Fausto-Sterling (1992) Myths Of Gender: Biological Theories About Men and Women. U.K: Basic Books
Fausto-Sterling (2000) Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. U.K: Basic Books