Imagine that you have been awaiting the birth of your child for almost nine months and the day has finally come. You head to the hospital, excitedly anticipating the birth of your son or daughter. Your friends and family have been asking you for weeks, “do you want a boy or a girl?” You’ve always responded that you don’t care; you just want a healthy baby.
Now imagine that after your child is born the doctors tell you that they have bad news: your child has ambiguous genitalia; they don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. You realize that all that time you didn’t want just a healthy baby, you wanted a normal baby.
Many parents each year face this situation and in the past the doctors have considered it a “social emergency,” immediately taking the newborn into surgery to “fix” him/her so that the medical community could assign the child a sex. This activity is a manifestation of society’s desire to only allow for two sexes: male and female, an idea also known as the sex binary. Nearly 1 in 200 people are born with ambiguous genitalia, with 1 or 2 in one thousand born as intersex (“Frequently”).
Intersex is a term that describes a person who does not fit strictly into one sex or the other. It could refer to a person who has both testes and a vagina, a penis and ovaries, or any other combination that does not fit into what is commonly defined as male or female. When a baby is born and is found to be intersex many doctors still recommend surgeries to normalize the genitals (“Frequently”). Though some surgeries are medically necessary the majority are simply for aesthetics. Throughout the child’s young life he or she may be subjected to multiple surgeries, depending on how much needs to be done to “normalize” the child’s body. When he or she reaches puberty the child also may have to begin hormone therapy. Many intersex people are put through multiple surgeries during childhood to make them “normal,” or to form their bodies so that they are in adherence with the sex binary; this practice has extreme adverse effects on the individual and alternatives to this practice need to be explored.
As more discussion regarding the medical treatment of intersex individuals has come to the forefront, some intersex people also have, wanting to share their stories to inform others about the impact the sex binary has had on their lives and why they believe changes to how cases of intersex are treated.
One person who has chosen to share their story is Max Beck, who as a result of his many surgeries and having the truth about his medical past hidden from him struggled with depression and identity crisis for many years. Max was born with some cells with an XY genotype and others with an XO, as well as genitals that were difficult to distinguish (Beck). When he was born the doctors recommended that Max’s parents raise him as a girl and they named him Judy. Throughout his childhood Max had frequent visits to doctors’ offices that he didn’t understand; Max writes “the doctors and surgeons assured me I was a girl, that I just wasn't yet ‘finished.’” At age 21 Max had his first sexual experience with another woman, who noticed how different their bodies were; Max describes her saying: “Boy, Jude, you sure are weird." With the realization of how different he was, almost feeling like a monster, Max tried to kill himself, though unsuccessfully. Later on Max obtained some medical records where he found the truth about his body that had been kept from him for so long. He finally understood that why he was so different and learning this information allowed Max to begin to accept and understand his body. After many years of therapy, and finding a women who loved him no matter what, Max decided to transition to a man, though he still feels somewhat woman, somewhat man, and identifies as an intersex person.
From Max’s story you can see how much he struggled as a result of his hidden identity. Years of depression, an attempted suicide, multiple surgeries, and many years of confusion all were all extreme adverse results from his parents’ and doctors’ attempts to “normalize” his body. Had they waited and allowed Max to develop without the medical poking and prodding, perhaps he could have had a happier life as a young adult. From Max’s story you can see why alternatives to traditional sex-assignment surgery need to be explored so that devastating situations, like Max’s, can be prevented.
Another person from the intersex community who has decided to share her story of how surgeries performed in her young life had damaging physical and psychological effects is Cheryl Chase. At age 21 Cheryl obtained her medical records, which showed her that she had been born intersex; a doctor explained to her “it seems that your parents weren’t sure for a time whether you were a boy or a girl” (Chase 204). Devastated, Cheryl struggled with depression for fifteen years, trying to understand what her diagnosis of intersex meant for her. She writes that “it wasn’t easy to overcome my feelings of intense shame" (212), feelings provoked by a secret that had been kept from her and her lack of inclusion in the sex binary. Cheryl found that immediately after her birth she had been Charlie, raised in baby blue clothes, but following her clitorectomy, which was performed to remove her “oversized” clitoris, she was renamed, new clothes and toys were bought, and no one told her about her infancy throughout most of her young adult life. Cheryl sought the help of therapists, who only advised her to not think about it because she looked enough like a woman. Cheryl also faced issues sexually, as without a clitoris it was difficult for her to have a normal sex life, something she feels robbed of. Cheryl has struggled with her identity for many years, writing that she is “unable to experience [herself] as total female" (211), but has found a place in the intersex community, where others can understand her unique situation.
From Cheryl story, like Max’s, you can begin to see how difficult it is for intersex individuals if their true identity is kept a secret, even from them. This practice clearly can result in depression and a search for identity, as many of these individuals, like Cheryl, may feel that their childhood was a lie and can’t find a place where they fit into society. Though Cheryl decided to continue to live as a woman she still questioned what it meant to be an intersex person, something that may have been easier for her to deal with had she know about her past throughout her life. Additionally, Cheryl felt scarred by a surgery that she had no ability to prevent.
Given the inherent problems of surgeries that are done to “normalize” intersex infants and children it seems apparent that alternatives to these procedures must be explored. The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) recommends waiting to perform any surgery that is not medically necessary until after the child is old enough to help make the decision (“Frequently”). After birth the parents should choose a gender to raise the child as; the ISNA does not recommend trying to raise the child as gender neutral. Additionally, they suggest that parents should be honest with their children and not withhold information about the child’s medical history. Hopefully through these methods the difficulty intersex individuals face as a result of surgery will be reduced, as they will be informed and have the ability to make to decision to have surgery or what kind themselves.
Because of the medical community’s tendency to want to normalize children with ambiguous genitalia many people have been scarred both physically and emotionally as a result of surgeries and procedures that they did not understand. In the future hopefully the medical community will take these facts into consideration and follow the recommendations of those who have been impacted by intersex conditions and treatments, by waiting to perform surgery, not withholding information from the child, and keeping an open dialogue, so that the negative impacts of intersex conditions can be reduced, and we can become more open minded about the sex binary.
"Frequently Asked Questions." Intersex Society of North America. Intersex Society of North America. 2008. <http://www.isna.org>. 8 Mar 2010. Web.
Beck, Max. "My Life as an Intersexual." NOVA Online. PBS. Oct 2001.<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/beck.html>. 8 Mar 2010. Web.
Chase, Cheryl. “Affronting Reason.” GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. New York, NY: Alyson Books, 2002. 204-217. Print.