Repost – Sexual and Gender Ambiguity: My Once Gross Ignorance

Since posting this in April 2011, it has been my most popular blog with over 11,000 views so far. It seems a good idea to reblog it since intersex births and sexual orientations are commonly misunderstood or avoided, or worse… attacked.

In my archaic way of thinking, or perhaps as my conservative culture taught me, I thought that a boy was a boy not only by how similar he acted among me and other boys, but also because of his genitalia.  And a girl was a girl not only by how similar she acted among other girls, but because of her genitalia as well.  It all seemed pretty obvious and quite simple, so I thought for more than 30 years.

A few years ago my mother informed me of the death of a dear family friend and halfway-house mother to my sister of addiction and innumerable relapses.  She had been there for my mom and other women countless times as my sister fought her disease on the losing end.  This woman had been a pillar of hope and therapy in the community for battered, abused women, and many typically in chemical addiction.  I was unaware that she had been what is often termed as an “intersexed baby”; a prenatal condition I knew absolutely nothing about.  Subsequently, this not-so-rare occurrence completely overhauled my views on sexual orientation, “same-sex” marriage, and gender identity.

Exact numbers of intersexed births are difficult to determine due to the lack of a humane dignifying definition of what physically should be considered normal or abnormal.  The ignorance and social stigma the condition carries with it is as much a part of the difficulty as the collective understanding by medical science.  Despite the ongoing studies one thing is quite clear.  Sexual orientation, same-sex marriage, and gender identity IS NOT a social-religious debate, period.

Here is some perspective.  It is commonly accepted in the medical community that on a global scale there are likely as many intersexed births as there are Jews.  It is more common than multiple-sclerosis.  More specifically, according to the Intersex Society of North America, about one in 100 births are intersexed or do not fall under “standard” male or female identity.  One in 1,666 births has no clear XX or XY chromosome structure.  For a more expansive report of all types of intersex conditions visit the ISNA (http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency) website.  With chromosome structures outside of the traditional gender dichotomy, how can sexual or gender identity ever be separated from a genetic hard-wiring?  Intersexed people could not have made the presumed adolescent or adult choice in “un-Godly perversion” if their condition formed in the womb.  As such, social political shaming of these people can never be justified by any ideology.  In fact, under such an archaic model one could argue that the molecular, biological, hormonal embryonic designing of intersex babies is from God’s workshop.  Think about those implications.

The available prenatal and neonatal hormonal development studies are showing that aside from physical conditions, the development of testosterone and estrogen levels, or the under-developed levels, can sometimes vary widely.  Pediatric and adolescent psychology has shown that intersex patient’s social behavior are indeed influenced by the relative levels of these and other gender hormones not necessarily specific to their external natal anatomy.  A wonderful comprehensive article on the intricacies of intersexed births by Joy A. Bilharz can be found in her scholarly report (Click here).  I highly recommend reading it two or three times.  With this medical knowledge, it is not a stretch by any means to theorize, if not conclude, that there are smaller variations hormonally and neurologically in the general “natural” population that despite their social catch-all external anatomy, internally their gender development is different starting at conception.

For me, this is obvious:  The rigid binary sexual-gender identification models many Americans have must be trashed for a more biologically, chromosome-informed model for not only political-legal reasons, but more importantly for humane reasons.  However, the LGBT and intersex communities must avoid pendulum-mania.  Elitism would certainly hamper hard fought gains.  As Joy Bilharz notes,

The transgender movement…is attempting to breakdown the boxes into which people are pigeonholed on the basis of actual or presumed characteristics. Unfortunately, however, it has shown itself to be as exclusive and intolerant in many respects as the society whose values it rejects. This may represent the radical beginning typical of most social movements and it certainly doesn’t represent all of those who see themselves as transgendered. On the other hand, an attempt to bring all sex and gender and sexual minorities under a single umbrella of “queerness” can also be seen as having a homogenizing effect that creates discord within the category as different groups jockey for leadership positions or stake out their exclusive turf.

From a legal-political standpoint, I encourage the intersex/LGBT community to show first and foremost that they have something very unique to offer society without segregating it.  A tall order in some cases, yes.  But remember, men like myself, however fortunate to have grown up in a Humanist home, who are heterosexual and unaware that there are truly MORE flavor’s of ice cream than simply vanilla or chocolate.  Since the condition did not directly affect my family, I was a product of our society’s concealment-approach to intersex and sexual orientation.

In defense of those like me, it is mindful to remember the “democracy” the United States of  America was founded and later built upon:  primarily European theological and social doctrines, which traditionally ostracized non-Catholics, or non-Protestants, or non-Christians who challenged or questioned them.  Do not despair.  Our nation’s brief history is laden with violent civil-rights movements that took many decades and generations to change legally.  Fortunately, they did happen.  One day, hopefully soon, ignorance will once again be overcome.

[Later addition]  Our wonderful close family friend had told my Mom that for her entire life she felt her doctor and parents made the wrong gender choice for her at birth.  She never felt as if she was female.  Her social assimilation growing up was often unbearable at times eventually leading to prescription drug addiction, alcoholism, and illegal drug addiction.  Thankfully, by her late thirties she turned her life around with large support by chemical dependency programs but most of all the support by other intersex support groups.  As a result, she became the Director of no less than four women’s halfway-houses!  Listening to my mother speak so fondly about her, I cannot help but wonder what mental and emotional state my Mom might otherwise be in, much less my sister.  Thank all goodness in this Universe that someone so special and unique as her was THERE for us….us “standard” humans who too often treat people like her politically and socially as sub-human.

If this blog has piqued your interest, let me know and begin your own study of the subject.  Start perhaps with Wikipedia’s basic overview:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_differentiation#Hormonal_differentiation.  I think you will find how much you DIDN’T know.

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