The Gist of It
- There is a third gender that exists despite what we think, and there are people who are intersex.
- Most people are ‘hard-wired’ to a gender identity; whether this is male, female or something in between.
- Gender cannot simply be reconfigured through surgery and hormone treatment and will cause more harm than good.
The problem with conventional wisdom is when something unconventional happens, seemingly defying all logic, it often provokes all kinds of responses – usually bringing out both the best and worst in us.
Take gender, for example. All of us know there is only male and female division to consider. There’s no need to consider an asexual person or neuter – as none exists.
Similarly, we dismiss any possibility of someone with both genders – until we’re forced to confront this reality.
Intersex is Not Something New
Even centuries ago, this issue of twin genders was common knowledge. The famous Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato had purportedly said the original perfect human form was the hermaphrodite.
But when the mythical Greek god Zeus decided humanity had gotten too numerous, he supposedly split humanity into male and female parts – causing humans to spend most of their sexually separate lives trying to find each other and rejoin to procreate.
Then, there is the Greek scholar Diodorus Siculus, who wrote of the mythical double-sexed Hermaphroditus. He was quoted: “Some say (he) is a god and … has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of a man.”
“But there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities and coming rarely into the world as they do, have the quality of presaging the future – sometimes for evil and sometimes for good.”
Such expression of disgust mixed with wonder is atypical of all humans, inclined to think of only distinct gender classifications.
How Does One Become Intersex
The New England Journal of Medicine states intersex as a rare, complex, congenital condition usually described as ‘True Hermaphroditism’ – with undescended, sub-sized ovotestes (a gonad with both testicular and ovarian aspects) – and is found in approximately 1-in-25,000 births.
Why intersex occurs is unknown as it can be found in both the standard genetic makeup (or karyotype) of 46 chromosomes as well as in those with the more unusual karyotype of 47 chromosomes.
In simpler language, this means intersex individuals can typically be classified as XX (female) or XY (male) with 46 cellular chromosomes. With karyotype 47, the classification is either XXY or XYY.
Still, it is known that one common condition called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) – where overactive adrenal glands can cause a female foetus with XX chromosomes to ‘over-virilise’ – causes the development of anything from a large clitoris to a fully formed phallus.
Another condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) can cause a male foetus with XY chromosomes to ‘under-virilise’, thus developing only a partially formed penis and testes.
Intersex Babies are More Common than You Think
Maternity doctors are quite familiar with intersex babies – who are more common than widely perceived – as the number of live births displaying ‘genital dimorphism’ is estimated at approximately one in every 2,000.
The standard response is to surgically ‘correct’ the baby’s ambiguous genitalia – trim down an enlarged clitoris or remove a malformed penis and fashioning a vagina with the refrain: “It’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole.” This is done to help the child avoid getting stigmatised later in life by these unconventional appendages.
Largely influenced by the ‘optimal gender policy’ of psychologist John Money in the 1960s – who asserted nurture could override nature – intersex babies often end up being classified as females. Their parents are advised to raise them as girls and oestrogen pills administered to induce female puberty.
Confusing Consequences When Reconfiguring Gender
UK Intersex Association (UKIA) director Dr Jay Hayes-Light describes the whole medical fraternity outlook as misguided. “Our constant pursuit of perfection has left many children infertile, with their gender identity stolen.”
Dr Hayes-Light too, was born with an extremely rare intersex condition known as 5-Alpha-Reductase Deficiency (5-ARD) – in which the chromosomes are XY, but the body is unable to convert testosterone to dihydrotestosterone necessary for the formation of full male genitalia.
“What saved me from being poked and prodded, and operated on, was the fact that my mother was a doctor.” But she did agree to try raising him as female and did so until he was 10.
“I was then asked if I wanted to take oestrogen tablets, to push my body through a female puberty,” he recalls. “I refused. I shudder to think what I’d be like now if I’d been forced to transition.”
Don’t Mess With Nature
With the setting up of UKIA in 2000, Dr Hayes-Light has unveiled his own studies of individuals who were reassigned as infants. He found some to have eventually transitioned back to their original gender while others have committed or attempted suicide.
“Sex is between the legs while gender is between the ears,” he asserts. “Most people are ‘hard-wired’ to a gender identity; whether this is male, female or something in between.”
Insisting that gender cannot simply be reconfigured through surgery and hormone treatment, he added: “Reducing a clitoris carries the risk of permanent loss of sensitivity, while reducing a phallus and removing the testes destroys the child’s fertility.”
“There’s this fear that if we have women with large clitorises and men with small penises, it’ll be the end of civilisation as we know it. In fact, the individuals who end up most damaged are those who are surgically altered, without their permission, to suit someone else’s agenda.”
And just how common are intersex individuals?
While statistics are sketchy, it is estimated there are more than 30,000 intersex individuals living in Britain today.
With growing awareness that intersex isn’t a condition to be ashamed of, many individuals are going public and speaking out for the need to end the prejudice.
Adele Addams’ Story
Project Silverfish founder Adele Addams set up the support service last year for intersex and transgender people, whom she describes as “the most marginalised minority community in London”.
The service is named after her friend, the transgender deejay and music producer Alex Silverfish, who committed suicide in 2008 following years of harassment. Now in her 30s, she too is an intersex, as she has Klinefelter’s Syndrome and is classified XXY.
Advised by doctors to be raised as a boy, she described a difficult childhood and adolescence.
“My family couldn’t cope with what was supposed to be a boy but looked and sounded more like a girl.”
She then lived as a gay man and yet, she didn’t feel right either. After fighting the UK medicalsystem, she was eventually allowed to undergo surgery to make her body female.
Receiving the UK Home Office Community Engagement Award in December 2009, she explained that transgenderism and intersexuality are not the same. “It’s not uncommon for transgender people to discover later in life that they’re intersex.”
Lynn Edward Harris’ Story
American Lynn Edward Harris – born Lynn Elizabeth Harris in Orange, California in 1950 – even took on the legal system for the right to choose his gender.
Raised as a female, he filed a suit with the Los Angeles County Superior Court to plead for a change of middle name from ‘Elizabeth’ to ‘Edward’ and be a re-issued birth certificate changing the sex designation from ‘female’ to ‘male’.
Due to ambiguously-formed genitalia at birth – a stunted penis, divided scrotum and a vagina – it was only at age 23 that Harris was clinically diagnosed by a team of specialists as being an intersex.
Based upon his unusual documented medical history, the court – realising the case had merit – granted on February 18, 1983 the two-part request. With the judge’s signature, Lynn Elizabeth Harris no longer existed and had become a legal non-entity.
But the Californian State Registrar of Vital Statistics refused to issue the new birth certificate – citing the California Health and Safety Code that “no plastic surgeon’s affidavit of surgery had accompanied the approved, submitted petition”.
As Harris prepared to sue the state, the Chief of the Vital Statistics Branch fully recanted and admitted to having mishandled the filing from the start. A brand new Certificate of Live Birth with sex designation listed as ‘male’ was formally issued on June 2, 1983.
This spokesman for intersex freedoms and transgender social justice said: “All records of the original female middle name and female birth certificate from 1950 were permanently frozen and sealed for life.”
Sarah Leaver’s Story
The arts have usually been one avenue to increase public awareness of issues needing to be treated with sensitivity – with American actor Tom Hanks being a notable advocate who brought AIDS into the mainstream with his portrayal in the movie Philadelphia.
British actress and playwright Sarah Leaver is aiming to forge a similar path – staging Memoirs of a Hermaphrodite in London, the true story of Herculine Barbin, a 19th-century intersex Parisian.
Barbin faced misunderstanding and contempt when she fell in love with another woman, and was later discovered to have both male and female genitalia. Forced then to become a man, she descended into depression and poverty, dying in tragic circumstances.
Leaver only discovered she too was an intersex only recently. Upon checking her medical history, she learnt the operation she’d had as a toddler in 1977 to remove a ‘hernia’ had in fact been to remove a male gonad – but neither she nor her parents had ever been informed.
“It was like finding the missing piece in a jigsaw,” she recalls. “I knew there was something that made me different. Part of me was relieved and part of me was really angry. Why had the doctors hidden this from me?”
Alexandra Tovey’s Story
Then, there’s Alexandra Tovey, 41 – who had always felt she was “born with a female brain, but a male body.” Her intersex condition – Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS) – was only diagnosed last year and the singer-songwriter expresses herself through music, having released 18 albums since 1992, with many of her lyrics reflecting her experiences as both a trans and intersex person.
UK medical experts seem to have been listening and in 2001, the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons (BAPS) recommended that babies with ambiguous genitals should not be given corrective surgery, and should be left to decide their own gender eventually.
“We’ve also succeeded in getting intersex included in the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. And we’ve seen major changes in social attitudes, with more balanced media reporting, too,” said Hayes-Light.
Leaver also looks forward to a time “when intersex people are no longer viewed with disdain or pity, and the world doesn’t cling so much to ‘male’ and ‘female’.”
The last words belong to Dr Diamond: “Let’s see if we can change society, not nature.”