By Janine Warrington
The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) defines intersex as “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” These conditions range from ambiguous genitalia, to hormonal insensitivity, to unusual chromosomal patterns. The physical manifestations of these conditions are similarly diverse, and sometimes undetectable.
This diversity in sexual biology can be difficult for some people to understand. Focus on the Family, a Christian organization created by James Dobson to provide resources to married couples and parents on how to create a healthy family, teaches that God’s natural creation includes two complementary sexes, male and female. Focus on the Family contributor Caleb Price addresses the apparent discrepancy between a God who creates two distinct sexes and the existence of intersex individuals by saying:
“Yet, we humans live in a fallen state – and in a fallen world – which impacts us spiritually, emotionally, mentally and even physically. Indeed, there are a number of genetic, biological and congenital conditions that manifest themselves in ways that preclude certain activities and plague our physical existence. But we know that God is good and He intends to show Himself strong in our weaknesses.”
In saying this, Price refers to intersex conditions and individuals as a result of the fall of man, plagues upon those individuals’ bodies, and a weakness.
This attitude is reflected in Western culture at large. I remember sitting in a desk in junior high, learning about chromosomes for the first time. When our teacher told us about sex chromosomal disorders such as having an XXY or XYY chromosomal pattern, the tone of that lesson was one of tragedy and pity. I felt horrible for people born like that – ambiguous and abnormal.
Because society at large holds this posture toward intersexuality, there tends to be a sense of fear or disgust when a baby with ambiguous genitalia is born. If a parent can’t clearly choose between a “Congratulations! It’s a Boy!” sign or a “Congratulations! It’s a Girl!” sign, they are completely baffled. As a result, infant normalizing surgery has become standard medical practice. Unfortunately, as anatomy historian Alice Dregersays, “The reason that children with these kinds of bodies… are often ‘normalized’ by surgeons is not because it actually leaves them better off in terms of physical health. In many cases, people are actually perfectly healthy. The reason they’re often subject to various kinds of surgeries is because they threaten our social categories.” In other words, intersex babies undergo surgery that they are unable to consent to not for their own good, but to make the adults around them less uncomfortable.
Author and activist Hida Viloria illustrates what a healthy life for someone with an intersex condition can look like in his/her memoir Born Both. Viloria is able to lead a full social life and healthy sex life without his/her ambiguous genitalia interfering. Sometimes intersex conditions are a sign of a related metabolic or urinary condition, but in those cases, that medical condition can be treated without “normalizing” the individual’s body.
Why, then, does our society insist on continuing such practices? Why do we allow medical professionals to operate on infants simply because their anatomy is unusual but not dangerous? I propose that rather than “normalize” the bodies of individual people, we ought to normalize the idea of intersexuality on a societal level.
The idea that the natural order of creation involves two distinct and complementary sexes is dangerous. Many Christians will point to the creation account in Genesis 1 as evidence that this is God’s intention for humankind. In a previous articleof mine, I explain why this interpretation of Scripture doesn’t make sense. I would now like to go further and suggest that by trying to maintain such a rigid definition of what people can and cannot be, humans are playing god. We are trying to limit the True God’s creativity by forcing people to be something that God did not create them as.
Alice Dreger says, “we know that sex is complicated enough that we have to admit: Nature doesn’t draw the line for us between male and female, or between male and intersex and female and intersex; we actually draw that line on nature.” ISNA similarly describes sex as a spectrum much like color which has been broken up into arbitrary categories for our convenience, then concludes:
“So nature doesn’t decide where the category of ‘male’ ends and the category of ‘intersex’ begins, or where the category of ‘intersex’ ends and the category of ‘female’ begins. Humans decide. Humans (today, typically doctors) decide how small a penis has to be, or how unusual a combination of parts has to be, before it counts as intersex.”
There is nothing in creation that is outside of God’s grasp. God makes it clear through Scripture that we were not present at creation, so we do not understand the order of things (see Job 38). Consequently, when we try to dictate what nature can and cannot be, we are committing the ultimate hubris. It is prideful to play god by saying that somebody is outside of God’s intentions for Creation and that we have to “fix” them.
As a society, we ought to normalize the idea of a spectrum of sexes and celebrate that diversity. We ought not fear bodies that are different from our own, and we should not operate on people until they are of age to decide whether they want such an operation or not. And we need to love and embrace our intersex siblings as beloved children of God, because that’s what they are.
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