Deconstructing the Gender Binary: How Religion and Society Dismiss the Intersexed

By Guest Author: Amanda Brown

Religion, especially the Abrahamic religions, has pervaded western society for centuries.  Majority of religions have prescriptions for what is expected of its followers in regards to gender and sex life.  With so many barriers for so many people the beliefs of the followers has found its way into the mainstream thought of American society.  Intersexed individuals have been demonized by the religious for not adhering to their strict prescriptions of what they believe to be their god’s will for a happy, normal productive life. Throughout this paper I will outline how and why religion has shaped American society’s view of what is acceptable and unacceptable for an individual’s sex life and gender role.

Religion has woven its code of morality and ethical conduct into the everyday life of the American citizens.  Many believe that without some sort of religious code or set rules this world would go “the way of the dogs”.  Everyone would just start suddenly stealing, murdering one another, buildings would be on fire, and there would be chaos in the streets.  But, I know that scenario is absolutely ridiculous.  Society wouldn’t just fall apart at the seams.  Morals do not come from a book written over 2000 years ago (Christian), or longer for Judaism and shorter for Islam.   Morals, ethics, and character come from life experience.  Christians, Jews, and Muslims didn’t just realize that stealing was wrong after reading a book, they were taught this from their parents, and so on.  This moral character is in each one of us regardless of our gender or religious background.  We know not to steal because it’s wrong, and will hurt other people; same for murder, cheating, and all of the other “sins”.  We do not need a religion to tell us what is right or wrong.  Societies have existed without religion and have still flourished.

Abrahamic religions tell its followers to adhere to strict gender roles and prescriptions when it comes to how they are to live in society.  Women must be submissive to men, take care of the children, take care of the home, and to not assert themselves into politics or “men’s decisions”.  Men must protect their wives and children, make enough money to support their families and church, be strong and tough, to “stand-firm” in their beliefs and be willing to fight for them.  As children, you are raised to believe masturbation is a sin and must refrain from partaking in lustful acts and to not give into sinful desires.  Any of these acts or desires could range from pre-marital sex to simple French kissing before marriage depending on the religion.  Being an intersexed individual makes all of these rules even harder to achieve.

American society has adhered too many of these religious prescriptions when it comes to how it has handled the medicalization of sex and the treatment of intersexed individuals.  Since two-thirds of this country claim to be Christian, according to the latest census, it is no wonder that these insane values have been pushed upon the rest of the people living here.  These views do no coincide with the scientific knowledge of sex, sexuality, and intersexed individuals.  Intersexed people are born with a part of both male and female genitalia in varying forms.  No two intersexed individuals look the same.  Some of them have a large clitoris’s, other micro-penis’; some with testes, and others with ovaries; some showing half female labia with a descended testicle and others displaying complete male or female genitalia while the internal structure isn’t there.  Until recently, intersexed individuals have been treated like mutated fetuses that just need to be “fixed” in order to fit into society.  Instead of doctors agreeing with evolution and the diversity of life, the medical establishment decided to “fix” these individuals so they could fit in to American ideal.  John Money was one of the first doctors to publicize his research on “fixing” intersexed individuals.  He was praised for his revolutionary surgeries that had been conducted by other practitioners for years but he was the first to make a case study public of how this child was perfectly assimilated into society as a female after removing and reshaping the clitoris or micro-penis of the child.  What John Money didn’t do was look into the after effects of what harm he had actually caused this child.  This child “Bruce/Brenda” was psychologically scarred and physically destroyed because of John Money’s so-called life saving surgeries.  Intersexed children have recently, come out of the closets, screaming at the medical establishment for their non-functioning genitalia and psychological distress that the surgeries and inability to “fit” into society has caused them.

Many intersexed individuals claim that they never felt really male or female depending on what sex was prescribed to them.  That there was always this sense of knowing something was wrong with them.  Majority are lied to as children and told that some other medical problem is hurting them and that they must undergo some sort of surgical procedure but are never told the real reasons why.  Psychological scarring happens to the intersexed individual.  This occurs because they are lied to about the reasons for the surgery in the first place and then are told to be one gender or the other.  This is the fault of the religious establishment insisting that everyone adhere to the male-female reproductive system.  They do this in spite of the fact that these individuals couldn’t reproduce after these surgeries in the first place.  Every person should be given this option to adhere to the social norm prescription or to go their own way, especially in the US where we are supposed to give voice to the minority (but, it obviously doesn’t happen that way).  This practice of lying has been found to be extremely damaging to the child.

Doctors have begun to see that giving intersexed children knowledge about what is going on with their bodies (rather than blatantly lying to them) could be more beneficial than just forcing them into a defined gender role.   Most have shown severe psychological trauma from this forced identity.  Every child should be allowed to make the decision whether or not they want to “fit in” to a society that wouldn’t want them or to make society accept them for who they are.  And, who they are is a natural human being with partial genitalia from both sexes of our forced gender binary system.  Everything in nature is on a sliding scale: size, intelligence, hair color, height, emotions, sexual attraction, and thousands of other characteristics. They don’t fit easily in Box “A” or Box “B”. Now we know genitals are also on a sliding scale and vary greatly thanks to nature.

So why continue the status quo?  On pages 132 and 133 Fausto-Sterling wrote,

“Those who defend current approaches to the management of intersexuality can, at best, offer a weak case for continuing the status quo. Many patients are scarred—both psychologically and physically—by a process heavy on surgical prowess and light on explanation, psychological support, and full disclosure. We stand now at a fork in the road. To the right we can walk toward reaffirmation of the naturalness of the number 2 and continue to develop new medical technology, including gene “therapy” and new prenatal interventions to ensure the birth of only two sexes. To the left, we can hike up the hill of natural and cultural variability. Traditionally, in European and American culture we have defined two genders, each with a range of permissible behaviors; but things have begun to change. There are househusbands and women fighter pilots. There are feminine lesbians and gay men both buff and butch. Male to female and female to male transsexuals render the sex/gender divide virtually unintelligible.”

Americans continue the status quo because this is what their religion tells them to do.  God wouldn’t want to have an imperfect child that doesn’t fit into the binary system he prescribed.  The problem with this thought is that if God made this child in “his image” then wouldn’t their natural state of being be what is preferred?  Rather, they are rejected as a genetically mutated offspring that should not survive in our advanced civilized society.  Are the intersexed a mistake by God?  If American society adheres to the religious prescriptions of the gender binary (which it does) then the intersexed must be a mistake and must be fixed.  But, evolution and the diversity that is life on this planet tells us a different story.  Every plant, animal, insect, and microorganism has evolved to be what it is today.  All walks of life occur on this sliding scale and as humans on this sliding scale we must accept the differences that will occur.  Gender roles, sexuality, and sexual acts are under attack in the religious and medical establishment.  Instead of each person deciding for themselves what “fits” best for them our society listens to their religious moral authority.  This moral authority only enforces guilt, sadness, and feelings of non-acceptance for any form of difference.  Living in this type of society is harmful to ones psychological and physical well being.

Acceptance of what is natural and unique is the course of action that should be taken.  Adhering to millennia year old books that no longer pertain to what is known about the world isn’t going to advance our society or further our understanding of life on this planet.  If we do not start to allow for these obvious genetic differences to not only live but to thrive we will be depriving ourselves of the diversity we need in order to survive in an ever changing world.  Intersexed individuals do not need to be separated, fixed, or made to feel unaccepted in a society that claims to be the “land of the free”.  Intersexed individuals should be loved, accepted, and nurtured.

A place should be made for them in our society.  A person should be able to check “I” for intersexed like India has done.  Acknowledging the diversity and giving them acceptance will not break down the moral fabric of a society.  All it shows is the strength of the moral fibers of that fabric.  The society that accepts every human for who they are and what they are has the moral high-ground.  Not the society who constantly forces people into perfect little boxes that they can never escape from.  Our world is always changing and people must change with it.  Religion continuing to have authority over natural measures will end once the religious wake up and realize that their God never intended them to fix the mutated but to accept them as human beings and a natural part of evolution and this diverse world.

A species has never become extinct for being too diverse. Yet, we fear our own diversity. We appreciate variety in so many things. But, we don’t want to accept more than two genders. We relish in our desire for evidence and rational thought. However, religious thought and teachings of the bible have been blessed by an impenetrable wall of shame for doubt. Questioning the decrees of the divine and the moral interpretations of them by “his” imperfect prophets, priests, pastors, and rabbis has become an age old “sin” and is therefore avoided at any cost.  This taboo must be broken and replaced with a shared appreciation for science and nature. Modern thought should be upheld over tradition. Religion offers us two gender roles with little variety. Secular Humanism offers us a beautiful array of millions of different sexes on the spectrum that is humanity. You may like your world painted in only black and white, but I know I prefer mine with a lot more color.

 

References

Fausto-Sterling, Ann.  “Should There Be Only Two Sexes?” The Feminist Philosophy Reader. Bailey, Alison

& Cuomo Chris. Boston: McGraw, 2008. 124-144. Print.

Green, Jamison.  “Sex and the Trans Man” Sex matters: The sexuality and society reader. Stombler, Mindy; Baunach, Dawn M.; Burgess, Eliasbeth O.; et al. (Eds.). 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2007. 27-30. Print.

Haas, Kate.  “Who Will Make Room for the Intersexed?” Sex matters: The sexuality and society reader. Stombler, Mindy; Baunach, Dawn M.; Burgess, Eliasbeth O.; et al. (Eds.). 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2007. 10-26. Print.

Kessler, Suzanne. “Defining Genitals: Size Does Matter”. Sex matters: The sexuality and society reader. Stombler, Mindy; Baunach, Dawn M.; Burgess, Eliasbeth O.; et al. (Eds.). 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2007. 26. Print.

 

  • http://Volizden.Xanga.com Volizden

    Awesome, loved it…

    I like how she centered on abrahamic faiths, but I would like to point out that certain things like Tribal beliefs are very different…

    For instance, many American Indian tribes, and by extensive research, various world tribal societies, accept gay, lesbian, intersex, and transgender individual as a BLESSING from the spirits/god/whatever. The reason for this? The tribal societies discovered that they were better at understanding opposing "sex" individuals. A gay man endowed with the "spirit of the feminine" was easier to talk to for other men to understand their women (why they were mad, or acting a certain way). But also Tribal society is more apt to accept diversity as ever member of the society is important and needed.

    The religion, of the tribal societies, tend to be more tolerant of such things.

    Just thought I would mention this

    • James Campbell

      Some people contributing to this debate seem to prefer to discuss homosexuality. Intersex people are no more likely to be homosexual than any one else.

      Jeffrey does refer to intersex matters, but is speaking, as so many do, from his own, limited perspective on the subject. Some of us have both professional and personal experience that most (including Jeffrey) lack. I am touched that he thinks that “the doctor, who has medical knowledge of the physical implications of surgery and the relevant psychological literature”. The fact is they don’t. I teach medical students and most, including surgeons, are relatively ignorant of child psychology.

      I too am a doctor and know first hand that medicine does not have all the answers. This is why it is vital for the practitioners to work with the patient and the family to arrive a a joint decision in matters that are not a medical emergency.

      My own experience of being a specialist in child health is that neither a large clitoris nor a small penis is a threat to life or good health. What I do know for a fact is that to perform cosmetic surgery on an infant with the promise that it will be “better for child” is a lie. Proven to be so by the years we have witnessed the trauma of young people discovering (often by accident ) that they were (for example) born male with a potential to be able to father a child, but because their penis was undersized it was thought a ‘kindness’ to surgically reassign the boy to look (externally at least) ‘female’ and in the course of the surgery his gonads would be removed and along with them, his fertility.

      Then there are the girls who had the audacity to be born with an enlarged clitoris. Some girls may, in the future, choose to have their clitoris shortened, but research has now shown that the majority of women would refuse any surgery, most especially since there is no guarantee that the girl would be left with any erotic sensation in her genitalia at all, so goodbye to a fulfilling sex life.

      I suggest that the Jeffrey’s of this world and others should do their research, speak with intersex people, listen to what they say and then speak with doctors (like myself) who have had years of experience in working to limit the damage done by our species’ head-long rush to what the uninformed regard as ‘normal’. Intersex people have been part of our species since we first evolved and will continue to exist as a contradiction to the ignorance-led myth that the only sex is binary and the rest are simply ‘mutants’.

  • Adam

    @ Volizden: We wrote about this topic in India a while back (http://www.atheismresource.com/2011/indian-hermaphrodites-religions-altered-history) and yes, they are treated differently there than in the US. Tribal societies really did used to treat intersexed people differently. Religions have distorted out view of people that don't fit into one of the two accepted gender boxes. We have lost our appreciation for the diversity of life when it comes to this area of humanity – and we make these people feel non-human and ashamed of who they are. Thanks for reading and commenting – please share it.

  • http://Volizden.Xanga.com Volizden

    Hey Adam,

    I did share and pushed it on a couple other sites as well. I am going to blog it as soon as I get a break here at work.

    I think I should mention about the tribal societies, at least here in America, that as Christianity crept into those societies the respect for the diversity of BGLT has all BUT disappeared. the hate for BGLT is becoming prevalent in those societies and the only reason that can be found is the bigotry taught by christian religion. I should blog on this sometime, though I only have personal experience to deal with I DO have an avenue to tap into.

    recently a Pan-Tribal group has formed in the Montana area for BGLT Tribal members of various tribes to come to to feel welcomed, they even have their own Pow-Wows and spiritual events. My mate found them and made contact recently, I might set up a interview with someone from the group and get some further input.

  • Adam

    Sounds fantastic, Volizden. Write us if you want to post on here about it. Thanks.

  • http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/indexExp_111189.htm Jeffrey Eldred

    I think I can empathize with the situation that Amanda Brown describes, but ultimately don't feel like the case is well-argued or the solution well-defined.

    First we get all these bizarre references is Nature: "Instead of doctors agreeing with evolution and the diversity of life, the medical establishment decided to “fix” these individuals so they could fit in to American ideal…Acceptance of what is natural and unique is the course of action that should be taken." The preference for what is natural is an unjustified assumption here. Blindness is natural, are steps taken to prevent or "fix" blindness automatically unjustified? No. The only justification I know of for deferring to nature is the religious one, and we already know what the author thinks or religion. So let's not make the conversation about that.

    Next, the author goes on to criticize the medical establishment for making an assuming without evidence that these operations are what is psychologically best for the children, but the author also fails to give any evidence why the operations are not what is psychologically best. My best guess (in the absence of evidence) is that people are weird: they get upset about things they "shouldn't" and they don't get upset about things they "should". You will never find a perfect policy for this situation.

    Amanda Brown's solution to this tricky dilemma is unworkable:

    "Every child should be allowed to make the decision whether or not they want to “fit in” to a society that wouldn’t want them or to make society accept them for who they are."

    The child makes the decision. Not the doctor, who has medical knowledge of the physical implications of surgery and the relevant psychological literature. Not the parent, who is trusted for raising the child and knows about the cultural environment the child will grow up in. How old is this child being asked to make a decision about surgery anyway? The only reasonable solution is that the doctor and the parent make the best decision that they can given their knowledge and options at the time.

    I actually agree with Amanda Brown that individuals in society should consider all the possibilities and see if they can't give an inter-sexed child options later in life by declining to take action now. But sometimes there aren't good options and I don't see why a child should be punished with indecision.

    The world is not just more complicated than the male and female dichotomy, but more complicated than the trichotomy. I think society can still be respectful and accommodating of inter-sexed people without differing to the assumption that this "gender" should be preferred to all others.

  • Amanda Brown

    @Jeffrey, If you looked through my reference material that I provided at the bottom you would see that there is a lot of proof that there are psychological effects that harm children when they undergo these surgeries to alter the appearance of their genitals. I honestly, as my paper suggests, believe a child's genitalia should be left alone until they are old enough to make the decision for themselves. This doesn't mean that physicians and their parents wouldn't be involved in helping the individual make this decision. Just like a transsexual seeks out a therapist and a network of support in order to change from one gender to another. I'm sorry that point wasn't clear but I'm not saying let a 2 yr old decide whether or not to have a penis or vagina. I'm saying that doing the status quo (performing genital surgery on infants and toddlers that forces them to go back under the knife several times throughout life) isn't the way to go. Genital surgey is very intrusive and very painful not only to the body but also to the mind. Intersexed individuals have been screaming for support and help in this matter. More people need to understand and support the children born this way without mutilating them before they've had a chance to figure out who they are.

    If you have any other questions or want more evidence than what is already listed at the end of the article please let me know.

  • rick povero

    . . . start with one Big-Lie from the Big-3, god endorsed male supremacy.

    ** homophobia is a by-product of male supremacist pro-birth mores

    Homophobia is common to the Big-3 monster theisms — since they condemn any form of sex not directed to reproduction. Heterosexual intercourse during infertile periods, anal and oral sex, and the ever dicey coitus interruptus are all forbidden.

    As for heterosexual sex between fertile partners: no chemical contraception: no pill, no spermicides. No barriers to conception: no IUD, no condoms. No abortions, not even in cases of rape, incest.

    These are atavistic pro-birth customs: androcentric, completely misogynistic, demands that *no impediment to births should be permitted by law.*

    Here is the right-wing ideological imperative behind RC priests, fundie preachers, mormons, xian thugs harassing at Planned Parenthood, xian murderers of abortion providers, theocratic Congress members of the “C” Street Family supporting “kill gays” legislation in Uganda.

    Homosexual sexuality obviously fails to be reproductive. On this basis alone, it is forbidden. True believers’ knee jerk horror and disgust are produced by religious conditioning which grinds into the neurons another Big-Lie, the inherent “filth” of sexual organs, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior.

    After all no one knows the voluptuous pain of rigorism better than sexual involutes. They are constantly tormented by sin in their "members" — each true believer a do-it-to-yourself Marquis de Sade.

    Other cultures worldwide, present and past, lack an aversion to homosexuality — which gives the lie to cross-cultural congruence presumed by xian know-nothings.

    Given useless “abstinence only” sex ed, pro-birth fanaticism makes for rampant spread of STDs throughout the US, not just among know-nothing sub-cultures. Xianity and islam have long been widespread moral cancers. That should not overshadow their beginnings as small bands drawn from the ignorant, anti-intellectual dregs of their originating cultures.

    Paternalism, Prudery, Pro-birth fanaticism — Mores dictating sexual control over women by men belong to a common cultural atavism — faith based male supremacy. There is nothing moral about these mores. They are immoral through and through.

    the anti-supernaturalist

  • http://www.godconfusion.com/ Xanthe Wyse

    Excellent article. Intersex is extremely common but religion has permeated society into believing anything other than male or female is defective.

  • Bob

    This is BS.

    Blaming religion is the stupid as fuck. Intersex is dismissed because Westerners are all about Male and Female and stray from the unusual. Just like Westerners are all about science and the dismissal of the Supernatural or the unusual.

    The Bible is a mistranslated, misunderstood Western piece of crap anyway. Anybody who goes around blaming the Bible for s*** is ignorant. It’s called human beings are stupid. Human beings create their own problems because they are constantly establishing cultural norms no matter what. That’s how humans survive.

    Blaming the Bible for everything is just nothing more than a typical temper tantrum of someone who doesn’t like Patriarchy. Even though the Western mindset believes in order and science and not chaos, therefore there will always be a Patriarchy.

    The Bible never established Misogyny in the Western mindset. Misogyny been established way before in Greece because Greece was all about men. The same Greece where Western ideals sprouted from.

    Homosexuality and Pederasty was used to established Male dominance in the upper class. Women were nothing more than something used to reproduce with.

    Homosexuality and Pederasty created Misogyny.

    Sparta in fact was relatively fine with Women being involved in Men affairs because they were constantly at war and women were the only ones left to handle affairs.

    Rome also was heavy in recreational homosexuality. Even the Samurai class was heavy in Homosexuality and Pederasty.

    The rejection of Homosexuality was because of the rejection of Pederasty.

    Westerners decided that doing little boys up the butt was no longer needed in their Society.

    This blaming the Bible for everything is pathetic. It’s called Human Beings establishing their Cultural Norms.

  • Nate Andujar

    i think Intersex is the next step in human evolution……… because God just got fed up with people blaming everything bad in the world on Gays so God was like you know what fuck it im giving everyone dicks and pussies over time because after thousands of years people still hate lesbians and lesbians rock and then he rested……..WORD