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Intersexuality/DSD In North America & Europe

Comments on intersexuality. Religious attacks.

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This essay was originally written at a time when the term "intersexual" was in wide use.
It is now being replaced by the term "Disorder of Sexual Development" or "DSD," at least
among the medical community.

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Comments on intersexuality/DSD:

Stacey O'Erasmo, in her review of the novel "Annabel" concerning the family of an intersex child, comments:

"Gender has a funny way of multiplying, refracting, shifting into myriad shapes and configurations. These days, more than a few people custom-mix their identities through hormones and surgery. There aren’t only two or three or even four genders, but as many as can be imagined, and they can change over time. Fluidity isn’t a rallying cry, but a fact of modern life."

"Fiction that attempts to contemplate this state of affairs is still rare. ... Still, the same multiplicity that offers so much to the writer also comes with obstacles. Sexual politics, medicine and sociology press hard on the subject, all bearing claims and arguments. A transgender or intersex character may open up many possibilities, but narrative is often anxious for closure, and so are readers. Moreover, and perhaps toughest to manage, is the hunger to decide what gender means and the concomitant insistence that it must mean something. We like to think of gender as a noun; we have a hard time understanding that it can be a verb as well. All of which is a long way round of saying that Kathleen Winter’s first novel, “Annabel” — a No. 1 best seller in Canada — is absorbing, earnest and in many respects quite beautifully written, but as often as it tries to fly into the open space that gender ambiguity creates, it is pulled back by convictions and assumptions that contradict, and deaden, its richer aspirations. Gender and desire want to ramble, but Winter dutifully presses them into the service of a feminist parable, depriving her story of much of its anarchic, unpredictable force." 7,8

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Conservative religious attacks on intersexual persons:

One would hope that the unique challenges faced by intersexual individuals could be handled through an interaction of intersex persons, their families, physicians and other health professionals. Unfortunately, some conservative Christians have introduced religious objections to intersexuality, based on what they believe are literal interpretations of scripture passages. Some examples are listed below:

bulletGenesis 1:27 states: "God created man in his own image...male and female he created them." (NIV)

Many Conservative Christians interpret the verse (and similar Biblical passages) literally, and believe that there can be only two genders: male and female. They reason that if there were intersexual peoples, then God would have mentioned them. Thus, they reject the concept of gender as a continuum, with one or more varieties of intersexual genders.

bullet One intersexual individual 8 cites an ancient Jewish tradition "that Adam was an hermaphrodite," and that God severed Adam into two parts to create a second human, Eve, a female.

bullet

Many Liberal Christian theologians interpret Genesis 1:27 to refer to God's original creation of Adam and Eve as male and female. It would not necessarily refer to their descendants, who can be male, female and intersexual. Many religious liberals consider the Old Testament creation story to be a myth, -- an event that never happened, but described in a story of major religious significance. They believe that it was copied from two earlier Pagan middle-eastern religious sources. It is similar to the creation stories of other religions.


bulletNumbers 5:1-3 states: "The Lord said to Moses: 'Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has an infections skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of [touching] a dead body. Send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.'" (NIV)

Many Conservative theologians point out that the phrase "male and female alike" is a way of including everyone. Thus, God has implied that there are no such persons as intersexuals, or they would have been mentioned.

bullet However, one intersexual individual pointed out: "The phrase which tends translated as 'male and female'...reads 'mi-zakhar ve-'ad neqevah', or 'from male to female,' in the original Hebrew. The form 'from A to B' suggests a continuum of some sort." 8 The concept of male and female with one or more intermediate genders fits perfectly into the phrase in its original Hebrew. Numbers 5 appears to be one of many Biblical passages in which translators have created an English text that discriminates against minorities, even as the original Hebrew text is inclusive of all gender minorities.

bulletMany liberal theologians interpret this passage in a different way. The authors of the book of Numbers lived in a pre-scientific age and were unaware of sex chromosomes, hermaphrodites, intersexuals, and other sexual minorities. They would have naturally assumed that there were only two genders when they wrote this passages as if it had been stated by God.

Chuck Colson has written a particularly insensitive attack on intersexuals. He states (in part):

"The Bible teaches that the Fall into sin affected biology itself -- that nature is now marred and distorted from its original perfection. This truth gives us a basis for fighting evil, for working to alleviate disease and deformity - including helping those unfortunate children born with genital deformities."

"...for the Christian, nature is not our basis for determining normality. Scripture tells us how God created us before the Fall, and how he intended us to live: as males and females, reflecting His own image. We take our standards and identity from His revelation of our original nature." 9

One cause of this attack on the reality of intersexuality is the desire by conservative Christians to delay as long as possible the recognition of same-sex marriages. One method of continuing special rights for heterosexuals was the US Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) This law had two main objectives:

bulletrestriction of the definition of "marriage" in federal legislation to unions between one male and one female,

bulletallowing states to refuse to recognize marriages performed in other states that do not involve one man and one woman.

If more people accepted the belief that there are more than two genders, it might have helped to have DOMA ruled unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court had already declared a Colorado amendment to be unconstitutional because it singled out one group (homosexuals) for legalized discrimination. DOMA could be interpreted as singling out two groups (homosexuals and intersexuals) for such discrimination.

However, during 2013-JUN, in the case Windsor v. United States, the Supreme Court declared the key section of the federal DOMA law to be unconstitutional for a different reason: it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it gave special rights and privileges to opposite-sex couples, and thereby discriminated against same-sex couples.

In recent years, religious and social conservatives have attacked the concept of same-sex marriage on the basis that a child has the right to be raised by a father and a mother. Thus, it is important for groups that are opposing same-sex marriage to maintain the belief that there are only two genders, and that intersexual people do not exist. Otherwise, their argument gets much weaker.

It would be unfortunate to intersexuals if the rejection expressed against homosexuality by many conservative Christians spreads and becomes widely directed against intersexuals as well.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Sally Gross, "Intersexuality and Scripture" at: http://www.qis.net/ (Apparently now offline)
  2. Charles Colson, "Blurred biology" is a Fundamentalist Christian attack on intersexuality. See: http://www.goodnewsmag.com/ Apparently offline
  3. Anne Fausto-Sterling, "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are not enough", The Sciences, 1993-MAR/APR, 1993:20-24. Responses were printed in the JUL/AUG issue. The article was reprinted on the New York Times Op-ed page on 1993-MAR-12.
  4. Cheryl Chase, "Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism," GLQ: Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 4 (2):189-211 (1998)
  5. A.D. Dreger, "Ethical Issues in the Medical Treatment of Intersexuality and 'Ambiguous Sex,'" Hastings Center Report. (1998-MAY/JUN)
  6. Suzanne Kessler,  "Lessons from the Intersexed," Rutgers University Press, (1998-AUG)
  7. Stacey D'Erasmo, "Announcing her existence: A first novel explains the emotional turmoil within the family of an intersex child," The New York Times Book Review, 2011-JAN-09, Page 4.
  8. Book cover imageKathleen Winter: "Annabell, A novel," Grove Press, Black Cat, (2011). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Also available, cheaper, in Kindle version. Publishers Weekly review:

    "Isolated as Croyden Harbour may be from the social upheaval of 1968, the tiny village on the southeast Labrador coast plays host to its own revolution in Winter's sincere, self-serious debut. Jacinta and Treadway Blake are like any other couple in town--he's away on the trapline all winter, she's confined to domestic life. But the clarity of traditional gender roles begins to unravel when Jacinta gives birth to a hermaphrodite. Both Treadway and the local doctor decide the baby will be brought up as a boy--he's named Wayne, and his female genitalia are sewn shut. Meanwhile, Jacinta's friend Thomasina, quietly tends to the spiritual development of the child's female identity. Kept in the dark about his condition for most of his childhood, Wayne struggles to live up to the manly standards imposed by his well-meaning if curmudgeonly father, but when adolescence rolls around, Wayne's body reveals a number of surprises and becomes a battleground of physiology, identity, and sexual discovery. Though delivered at times with a heavy hand, the novel's moral of acceptance and understanding is sure to win Winter many fans."

  9. "Intersex Society of North America," Wikipedia, as on 2012-DEC-02, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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Copyright © 1998 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1998-MAR-16

Last updated on 2013-AUG-22
Author: Bruce A Robinson
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