Gender Is NOT In The Eye Of The Beholder
Parents of an adopted boy, referred to as M.C., are suing the South Carolina Department of Social Services, social workers, and doctors who were all involved in surgically changing their son’s genitalia to match that of a girl’s. M.C., who is now eight, was born intersex. The surgery was performed when he (M.C. now presents as male) was sixteen months old. On top of violating M.C’s rights, the doctors also failed to get informed consent from the foster service that was caring for him. According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex “is 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. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.”
Further adding to this disregard for intersex people’s rights, the South Carolina documentation for the child’s surgery used the term hermaphrodite to describe him. Hermaphrodite is quite an outdated term, one that some intersex people want to reclaim similar to “queer” or “dyke” by their perspective communities, but the overall consensus by intersex activists is that the term carries too much stigma from its mythological origins and from the abuse carried out by doctors who have performed unnecessary surgeries on them for years.
While the parents of M.C. seem to have his best interest in mind, the fact that this unnecessary medical procedure was done without thought adds to a greater problem: America’s ignorance about the lives and existence of intersex people as well as America’s need create fixed binary gender identities. There are a multitude of gender identities in existence in the world that do not correlate with genitalia. There are people who identify as two-spirit in many Native American and Indigenous North American communities (mixture of male and female), hijra in South Asian countries (born male or intersex but identify with femininity), third genders in Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, and many more countries, as well as a number of identities that fall under the transgender umbrella in Western countries. This should show that gender is complicated, and assuming we know what someone’s gender is before they have the time to process that for themselves is dangerous. Both for transgender people and intersex people, gender is a journey, one that should not be interrupted by coercive surgeries and correctional therapy.
You will be pleased to learn that the United Nations has made a step forward. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (SRT) released a statement in February denouncing the use of these surgeries to “normalize” intersex children. According to the Ms. article on the subject, “SRT invited Advocates for Informed Choice (AIC), a leader in the fight for intersex rights, to testify on the medical treatment of intersex. The hearings resulted in the SRT’s formal stance against irreversible, involuntary and nonconsensual medical interventions.” The report states that, “these [genital-normalizing surgeries] are rarely medically necessary, can cause scarring, loss of sexual sensation, pain, incontinence and lifelong depression and have also been criticized as being unscientific, potentially harmful and contributing to stigma.”
Speaking as a someone who identifies as genderqueer, our society’s use of policing children to adhere to only the fixed binary terms of male or female will continue make transgender and intersex children suffer. There needs to be a more collective opening of minds to the idea of gender as complex.