The simple truth that gender and sex are not intrinsically linked has gained substantial footing in the last two decades, in queer and non-queer spaces alike. In an era where trans and gender abundant people fight for the right to urinate in the same public spaces that host gender reveal parties, the conception of gender as a social construct has not only liberated many gender abundant people from compulsory cis-heteronormativity, it has shaken cisgender minds to their core.
When it comes to gender theory, one must simply turn to history to see the abundance of gender roles that not only exists for cisgender men and women, but roles that also transcend binaries and supposed anatomy. One can even turn to language to see how gender is socially constructed, whether it’s the grammatical gendering of inanimate objects in languages such as French, German, and Spanish, or the casual way that cis men often refer to their cars and boats as “she.” Here we can see easily that gender truly isn’t about genitalia if une chaise can be feminine according to French grammatical rules and Derell’s corvette can be a bad bitch depending on how much gas is in the tank. The simple reality of our ‘gender trouble,’ as Judith Butler puts it so effectively, is that cisgender people toy with conceptions of gender identity for animals, babies, and inanimate objects more often than they like to admit, and in doing such, have more creative power and control over gender than they consciously accredit themselves with.
If all of this is true about the construction of gender in terms of social roles, grammar, biology, and identity, then what can we say about the construction of biological sex?
It is often frustrating to me to hear queer, gender abundant and straight people alike arrive at the conclusion that “gender is a social construct” and stop themselves there, just short of the scenic mountains that surround them. It is true that gender is a social construct that depends heavily on time, place, culture, language and tradition. And the same is true of biological sex.
This is where I lose a lot of people.
“But sex is biology, and biology is science, and there’s no arguing with science!”
Have you ever talked to a biologist? Whether we’re talking about amphibians, snails, or humans, any credible biologist would certainly testify that biology is not binary.
Science has unraveled mysteries, and undoubtedly transformed the world for the better in too many ways to count. On the reverse side, plenty of individuals have turned twisted ideas of “science” in a poorly veiled attempt to validate their racism, classism, and cis-heterosexism. “Science” has been used by settler colonialism since its conception as a practice to validate oppressive practices, ideologies, and principles by passing them off as inherent truths. Nothing is flawless or untouchable in a society poisoned by settler colonialism.
“Science” was used to conclude that cis women’s uteri travelled around their body in states of hysteria. “Science” was also used to advance Darwinism as a mode for white supremacy, and to hospitalize and sterilize queer and trans people, writing us off as another illness in the DSM.
As an intersex, mentally ill, Two Spirit person, “science” has been used to undermine my entire existence.
In some dark, twisted way, it brings me something akin to joy when a transphobe breaks down at the thought of some pre-teen going to a doctor for gender affirming surgery. The mere idea of a pre-teen making decisions about their body terrifies cis people to no end. What they don’t realize is that doctors around the country perform gender reassignment surgeries daily, on newborn unisex infants.
I have read about and personally spoken with other intersex people who, as children, were torn away from their caregivers moments after birth because of unspecified “medical complications.” Many of these intersex people would later find in their medical records a list of surgeries performed on them when they were only days old. In some cases, these surgeries continued into early childhood.
These surgeries medically assign the intersex newborn a binary sexual presentation, the epitome of assigning a gender at birth. The child’s genitals are reconstructed to present either as penis and testicles, or as a clitoris. The genitalia of intersex children is intensely scrutinized from the moment of birth. In many cases, a doctor will look at this child’s genitals and determine whether it’s “too small to be a penis” or “too large to be a clit.” Doctors pass off these surgical procedures as being in the child’s best interest. “What if this child is made fun of for the rest of his life for having too small of a penis? What if this young woman will never find a husband because her clit is too big?”
Most disturbingly of all, these surgeries not only happen every day, they are entirely legal. Oftentimes they happen without the parents being informed on what the surgeries are intended for. When the parents are made privy to the situation, doctors pass off the surgeries as in the best interest of giving the child “a normal life”. What should be normal, instead of shaving down the clitorises of newborns and setting them up on hormone suppressants, is medical professionals sitting down with parents and care-givers to break the stigma surrounding intersexuality, something as common in humans as the genes for red hair.
Coming into an intersex identity, whether through the horror of discovering nonconsensual surgeries in one’s medical files, undergoing chromosomal testing, or even knowing one’s whole life that one wasn’t perisex (not intersex), is a complex process. There are many layers and factors at play for the intersex person who is figuring out how to conceive of both their gender and sexual identities.
Many intersex people have to go back to the drawing board, seeing the possibilities that were taken away from them as a child, and re-examining what that could mean for their conception of their own gender as an adult. Some follow pathways to effectively “detransition” from the gender that was assigned to them in favor of a gender and sexual presentation that is more their own. Others do not go under medical procedures, which is just as valid as they live their lives according to the truth of their own gender and sexual experiences. I personally see the intersexuality present in my chromosomes as the universe doing me a favor. Whenever someone says that although my gender may be non-binary, my sex is still male, I can counter that, in fact, my chromosomes say otherwise.
What makes the intersex experience similar to the transgender experience is that the journey to living comfortably in one’s body often begins with a misdiagnosis at birth. However, unlike transgender experiences, intersex people are rarely offered a concept of ‘being cis.’ No matter what gender an intersex person embraces, chooses for themself, or reclaims, there is always this idea of “transitioning.” If a person born with a penis and ovaries calls herself a woman, she is seen as trans. If the same person calls himself a man, he is still seen as trans. If the same person decides that instead of a penis, they want to call their genital a clitoris, that person is still seen as trans. In cases both where intersex children have their sex surgically assigned at birth, or when an intersex person embraces a binary, non-binary, or fluid identity, there is almost always a denial of the possibility of being cis. Intersexuality is not at odds with being cis, since the opposite of intersex is not cisgender, but rather perisex. Intersexuality is not at odds with being trans, either, although it is not inherently one and the same.
All of this raises the question: can intersex people really feel empowered to embrace our intersexuality, whether that be through a binary, non-binary, or third gender expression, when from the very moment we are born, our right to bodily autonomy is stripped from us? Although I discovered my own intersexuality through chromosomal testing, I still stand in horror and frustration at the utter denial of intersex humanity at the hands of medical professionals, not only from my own experiences but from the myriad of experiences I have come to know.
Intersex people are one of the medical field’s biggest secrets, because our very existence challenges the preconceived notion that sex is something undeniably and biologically binary. On the other hand, we are kept in the shadows of the queer community, where both perisex and intersex people alike do not know whether we should consider ourselves inherently queer, and how we fit into conversations surrounding being cis, trans and genderqueer.
The main thing I hope readers take from my story is an understanding that intersex people have been deprived of autonomy over our bodies and identities for far too long. The fight to stop invasive surgeries on intersex children is ongoing, and in that fight, we must continue conversations surrounding gender and sex that no longer deny the ways in which sex has been socially constructed and as such is used as a tool to further cis-heteronormative ideologies surrounding gender and the body. It is also vital that intersex people have a space in the queer community if they want it, a place where they can feel free to explore sexuality, gendered and sexual roles, identities, and presentations without being forced to identify in any preconceived fashion. I am writing this piece so that intersex issues and people are not confined to the shadows, so that people who have no idea we exist outside of circus shows and textbooks can learn about the complex violence we face as a community both medically and socially.
There can no longer be any denial that intersex people exist, and that the conception of biological sex as scientifically proven binary is completely, historically, undeniably false. There has been a very large movement to understandably separate gender from genitalia. I hope that we can circle back and again reevaluate that relationship, to realize that in the case of intersex adults and children, there is a conversation that needs to be happening concerning genitalia and sex, although it is by no means the end to what is a very nuanced discussion, deserving of time, attention, thought, and advocacy.