You get home at the end of a long day at work. You come inside, scarf down some food, and decide its time to hit the hay. You head to the bathroom and as you brush those pearly whites, you stare into the mirror and see somebody staring right back at you. If you’re anything like me, sometimes that person is an exact replica of you; a backwards version of that good lookin’ self you remember. Other times though, you see some stranger staring right back. This person doesn’t look like you at all. This person looks too thick, too thin, you see a pudgy stomach where you once imagined washboard abs, you see blemishes, the wrong hair color, the wrong eye color, the wrong image, the wrong person. Now imagine that every single time you looked into that mirror the wrong person was staring back. You just could not find a way to relate to that reflection. For individuals who were born with an intersexed condition, this is exactly how they can feel every single day.
Our Society is based on two binaries. First is the sex binary that inevitably leads to a gender binary. It leads us to believe that there are two sexes, male and female which relate to the body and these sexes must adhere to their assumed genders, man or woman. Men act masculine and women act feminine. Almost every aspect of our culture has been separated to fit into either category. Things are either masculine or feminine and the system usually discourages people from mixing gender roles. For the majority of the population, we except this system and believe that bodies can only come in two forms and these forms follow their norms. What that majority doesn’t realize is that there is the possibility to be neither male nor female or both male and female or somewhere in between. One of these categories of people that do not fall into the categories of the sex binary those who are born intersexed.
Immediately after birth, we are categorized as either male or female. But there is a large percentage (1 in 2000) whose biological sex cannot be classified. These individuals are known as intersexed (Wilchins, 72). Chromosomal and hormonal irregularities can cause a new born to have atypical, and usually ambiguous, genitalia and gonads. For many years, surgical procedures have been performed soon after birth in order to build a less ambiguous looking genitalia allowing for easier classification. The doctors would usually assign a sex as quickly as possible. More often than not, the child was assigned to be a female because it is an easier procedure (Beck). Once the aesthetics of the genitalia have been normalized, the parents would then raise their child as a female. The problem with this is that often the child will have a hormonal imbalance and genitalia that does not function fully causing for much confusion as the child reaches puberty and onward. Intersexed individuals are one of the many groups that suffer through our social construct of a sex and gender binary because they are forced into living a life as a sex and gender other than their own. They are forced to live a life identifying as either male or female because a third or forth or even fifth option is not available. Following is the story of a man, Max Beck, who grew up intersexed and fought through the battles that our sex binary has created.
Max Beck was born a healthy, well nourished and developed baby. The only problem was that upon delivery, the doctors found out that he had ambiguous genitalia. Some tissues were found to have XY (male) chromosomes while others XO (partially female) chromosomes (Beck). When looking at his genitals they found “a rudimentary phallus” and “fused labio-scrotal folds.” This meant that neither a fully developed penis nor vagina was present. The decision was made to raise Max as a female. They brought her home and named her Judy. Judy grew into a tomboy and was living the way that felt natural, defying the norms that society has created. As she grew older, she began to realize her masculine behaviors were becoming less and less acceptable. This, paired with the constant visits to the doctor filled with “lots of genital poking and prodding” and hormonal tests, caused for somewhat of an identity crisis. Her puberty “came in pill form” causing her to feel more and more disconnected with her physical self as she watched her peers explore and embrace their bodies (Beck). “I was a walking head…So I reached adolescence with no physical sense of self, and no desire to make that connection” (Beck).
As life progressed further, Judy began to realize more and more that something just wasn’t right. Her sexual life was little to none and defied norms as she had relationships with both men and women. When things did happen, the response she received was often proof that there was something wrong with her body. After one specific encounter with a female partner, this woman stated, “Boy Judy, you sure are weird” (Beck). Fighting this identity crisis while never feeling able to truly act as herself and live a comfortable life without embarrassment, she tried to commit suicide. After a long mental recovery, Judy decided it was time to try to get back out into the world in hopes that she would find herself. In her search she came upon a job that required medical records. Judy found out that she was born neither male nor female but intersexed. She didn’t feel right all this time because she didn’t even know the truth about her own body. The identity crisis continued with long periods of depression and soul searching. She had gone through so many self identities that now she had to question them all. Beck was raised female, switched back and for the between straight and lesbian, defined herself as a butch lesbian, found out she wasn’t “normal” and that she was intersexed, and then became lost in all the questions of who am I. “How could I be a butch if I was ‘really’ a man? How could I call myself ‘lesbian’ when I wasn't even a woman? I felt like an imposter, a fraud, and now more than ever, a freak” (Beck). It was near impossible for Judy to find some way to identify with the rest of the world knowing that she was born neither male nor female and society left no third option.
Judy was forced to examine all aspects of her life. She had to look at how she felt as a person and how the rest of the world most likely viewed her. Looking back at all her past experiences and identities she was forced to make a decision as to what her new identity would be. This identity had to have a form that allowed her to adhere to social norms while also giving her the opportunity to act the ways that felt natural to her. It had to be a body with a personality and gender that fit the way that Beck saw herself. After a long and tolling self reflection period, Judy decided to switch her hormones and make the transition into a man, now Max Beck. The option to remain somewhere in the middle, which is where she truly lied, was nonexistent so transitioning into being a man seemed to be the best option. He then married a long time girl friend who supported him through the transition and now they continue to live together through the struggles of intersexuality (Beck). Now feeling more comfortable in his body, Max still looks into the mirror and isn’t sure what he sees. Having so many identities through is life, tomboy, butch, monster, woman, man, husband, father, how can he pick one when he has been all of the above?
This story illustrates the struggles created when living with the social construct of a sex and gender binary. Max was forced to live a life as either extreme when really he fell somewhere in the middle. Society had no norm for him to follow no group he could classify with. He had the understanding for so long that he was one of the only ones like him, a “freak” compared to the rest of the population. The binary left him feeling as though he didn’t belong; he didn’t belong in our society and he didn’t belong with his body. He looked into the mirror and was unhappy with what he saw as he noticed the external image did not reflect the inner image. This is mostly due to the fact that he was forced to conform and adhere to one of the two sexes we as a society have institutionalized.
For those of us lucky enough to fit into the gender binary, it seems to go unnoticed. We know which bathroom to go into, which section of the store to pick out our clothing, and how we are supposed to present ourselves for the rest of the world to see. But it is important to realize that there is a large population out there that does not fit these norms. Therefore, they are pushed to fit into our two categories, male or female, and adhere to them both physically and psychologically because we give them no other options. With the disappearance of such an old fashioned system, or at least the creation of new identities that could be contained within it (a widely understood and accepted gender and sex fitting intersexed individuals), we could better allow for everyone to feel as though they belong both inside their bodies and a part of accepted culture. It could be possible for the mirror to finally reflect the self and the intersexed population could finally feel as though they have their place and finally their own norms.
Beck, Max. "My Life as an Intersexual." Nova Online: Sex Unknown (2001): n. pag. Web. 8 Mar 2010. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/beck.html>.
Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2004. Print