This week I read an interesting article about intersexuality in Gaza, Palestine. Gender identity issues for intersex children have received much international attention recently due to Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose gender has been questioned endlessly since she won the 800 meter women’s race in the 2009 World Championship.
The population of Gaza is highly isolated; armed conflict between Israel and Palestine makes movement into or out of Gaza nearly impossible. For this and other cultural reasons, inter-marriage between close relatives is relatively common, resulting in a disproportionately high number of children born with intersex traits. I tried to research intersexuality on the internet, but could not find very much (reliable) information. Some facts, however, were consistent in every article. Intersex is a term most commonly used to refer to people with male pseudohermaphroditism. Deficiency of the hormone 17-B-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase during pregnancy causes the fetus’ male genitalia not to develop as it would on a typical male. Most commonly, the testes do not descend from the abdomen and the genitalia appears outwardly female.
What struck me about the article was the families’ and children’s desperation to be assigned to one gender or the other. The two children mentioned in the article, Nadir and Ahmed, were first raised as girls because their genitalia appeared outwardly female at birth. As soon as they began displaying outward signs of a typical male, namely facial hair, the girls transformed themselves nearly overnight to boys. Almost without exception, all cultures define their people on a binary gender scale. If an isolated area is heavily populated with people who do not fit into this mold, could it be possible for them to adopt a gender spectrum?
In my reading on the subject of intersexuality, I came across an op-ed about Caster Semenya written by a person who identifies as intersex. Xe (a gender neutral pronoun for any readers unfamiliar with the term) compared the gender binary to dividing fruit into only two categories.
It’s as arbitrary as saying all fruit is either sweet or sour. Sure, ripe cherries are sweet and ripe limes are sour, but most fruit gets its savor from both tastes, and some fruits balance at the tangy sweet-and-sour midpoint. You can measure all the fructose and ascorbic acid you want, scientifically. You can create a rule that divides all fruit into sweet and sour categories using precise measurements of sugars and acids. But that will not eliminate the fact that the experience of tasting fruit is complex, and that this complexity is what makes eating fruit delicious.
A simplified comparison, yes, but an enlightening one for some who may not be able to see beyond the two medical genders to which we assign every baby born. Caster’s fate in running is unknown, and the two boys in Gaza are hoping to raise funds for gender re-assignment surgery to clinically return to the gender with which they identify. “My hair cut and clothing makes me look like a boy, but on the inside, I am a girl,” says Ahmed. “To fix that, I need a sex change operation.”
These children have suffered as a result of their intersexuality. Caster may not be able to continue with the sport she loves and has been subjected to several humiliating gynecological exams. While Nadir and Ahmed try to raise funds for gender reassignment surgery, the Palestinian government will not assign them male identification cards thereby preventing them from continuing with their education. Even the language in the article was negative. Nadir and Ahmed were described as boys born with a “birth defect” whose male reproductive organs were “deformed”.
Perhaps we will never stop squeezing everyone into a gender binary, but it is nice to imagine a world in which children are allowed to explore their gender identities instead of living a lie or undergoing excruciating and humiliating medical procedures. I believe Luminis, author of the op-ed, said it best:
My heart goes out to Caster Semenya, an intersex sibling caught in an impossible position–required to live in a dyadic gender, and then accused of wrongdoing because the assignment suits poorly.
For more reading on the subject, the following books look interesting:
Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex by Elizabeth Reis
Intersex (for Lack of a Better Word) by Thea Hillman
Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience by Katrina Karkazis
And incidentally my favorite book of all time is a fictitious memoir of an intersex girl:
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides