Landing Outside of the Sex Binary

Am I a man or a woman? That’s not a question that most people ask themselves every morning when they wake up and look in the mirror. It’s a knowledge that you grow up with and know visually from the look of your genitals: but what if that’s not the case with everyone? This is the reality that some adults experience when they learn that they were born intersex: the reality that they were not distinctively one sex or the other but had biological aspects of both. Where does ones life go from there and how damaging is that knowledge to your own self-identity?

In many cases, intersex people are not informed of their condition until late adolescence or even early adulthood. This has proven to be very damaging to individuals because of the two-sexed society in which our culture operates. There are only two possible sexes and everyone who does not fit into them perfectly, faces some form of persecution. What our society does not account for is the fact that about one in every fifteen hundred babies is born with ambiguous genitalia that can be defined as intersex (Lareau 1). Modern society is constructed in a way that assumes that people can only be male or female but the facts do not actually support this strict view.

Personal accounts of people born intersex provide insight into the difficulties that accompany this diagnosis. Almost every person emphasizes that his/her intersex diagnosis was most difficult because of our society’s two-sex way of thinking. The intersex condition fundamentally challenges modern society simply because there is not a place for its existence. As a result of contemporary society’s rigid views toward sex, being born intersex can result in feelings of shame, sexual deficiencies, and a lifetime of questioning ones own self-identity.

Cheryl Chase’s story is an example of an individual whose childhood experience of secrecy/silence surrounding her intersexed condition resulted in her associating it with immense feelings of shame. When Cheryl was twenty-one years old she received her medical records from infancy. They stated, “Diagnosis: true hermaphrodite. Operation: clitorectomy” the hospital records showed Charlie admitted, age 18 months. His typewritten name had been crudely crossed out and “Cheryl” scribbled over it” (Chase 204). The doctor had originally diagnosed Cheryl’s enlarged clitoris as a small penis but decided at 18 months to change that diagnosis. Therefore, the baby Charlie, with a small penis was changed to Cheryl with a “subjectively” large clitoris. This meant that, upon returning home from the hospital, Cheryl’s parent’s had to discard the life they had made with their child up to this point in order to normalize her new sex. Cheryl writes that her parents “discarded every scrap of evidence that Charlie had ever existed. They replaced all of the blue baby clothing with pink, discarded photos, birthday cards” (Chase 205). Imagine knowing that your parents went through all of this to conceal your condition from you. Her childhood insecurities about her body were never discussed, leaving her feeling lost and ashamed. Cheryl’s parents’ persistence in keeping their daughters intersex diagnosis a secret inadvertently demonstrated to her that it was shameful.

The medical decisions made on Cheryl’s behalf, as an infant, negatively affected her ability to ever feel “normal” sexual pleasure. In the process of making Cheryl a “true” female she underwent a clitorectomy, which involved the removal of her entire clitoris. Until discovering this “secret” medical history, Cheryl had no explanation as to why she could not experience any type of normal response during sex. She writes, “I simply couldn’t take in that such a irreversible harm had been done to me- and by adults who were responsible for my well-being” (Chase 210). The pressure to normalize Cheryl’s genitals as a child was considered far more valuable then sustaining her future sexual satisfaction. Cheryl writes, “It is very hard to get parents or even physicians to consider the infants as a future adult sexual being” (Chase 209). Doctors do not consider future sexual pleasure when they are assessing how best to “normalize” an intersexed infant. In Cheryl’s case the medical decisions made by the adults she trusted, her parents and her doctors, resulted in permanent loss of sexual functioning.

After Cheryl found out about her history, she began to seek out a way to understand the new self she would have to form that included her intersexuality. Initially, she experienced a long period of “emotional numbness”. Following this numbness, she reports, “extreme emotional turmoil and suicidal despair arrived suddenly, threatening to crush me” (Chase 205). Her intersexuality was a part of her identity that she could not ignore. Therefore, she was forced to begin the very hard process of incorporating her intersexuality into her self-identity. In defining oneself, it is helpful to seek out examples of people like you and temporarily model yourself after them until you can build your own unique identity. Cheryl attempted to do just that by looking for pictures and stories of intersex people who had come before her. She writes, “No such help was available to reclaim my intersexuality” (Chase 206). All she could find were medical journals that described individuals like her being studied, mutilated, or experimented upon. After significant searching, she eventually came to recognize that she couldn’t identify entirely as female, male, or intersexual. Instead, she is satisfied claiming a queer identity and attempting to live a life that challenges the sex dichotomy that exists in our society.

Society’s strict cultural adherence to a view of sex with only two possibilities, negatively affects those whose bodies fall outside of the norm. A significant number of infants are born with biological aspects of both the female and male sexual anatomy. These babies are left somewhere in the middle of the sexual dichotomy without a sex to identify with and are therefore, subject to the adults in their life attempting to “normalize” them at any cost. Cheryl Chase’s story is one example of a person born outside of the sex binary who suffered because of it. Society attempted to force Cheryl into the male/female box as an infant and her body and mind were damaged in the process. Nevertheless, Cheryl learned to incorporate her intersexuality into her identity and transcend the two-sex society we live within. She did not have to conform as male or female to form a satisfactory identity. Her story offers the hope that in the future infants won’t have to be sorted into categories but will be allowed to develop without interference and make decisions about their bodies when they’re old enough. Open-mindedness from our society can eventually facilitate inclusion of those who fall outside the sex norm. It is a tall order to ask intersex individuals to accept themselves when society cannot incorporate them with understanding.

Resources for Additional Reading:

Intersex Society of North America

Psychological Effects of Gender Reassignment at Birth

Nova Online

Google Health: Intersex

Works Cited

Lareau, Alyssa Connell "Who Decides? Genital-Normalizing Surgery on Intersexed Infants". Georgetown Law Journal. 12 Apr, 2010.

Wilchins, Riki Anne. "Affronting Reason." Cheryl, Chase. GenderQueer: Voices from beyond the Sexual Binary. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2002. 204-16. Print

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