Imagine that you meet a man (assumingly), hair lines the outside of his mouth, chin, and just below his nose. She also has long eyelashes, big beautiful eyes, and long, flowing hair. He has thick, strong arms, and surprisingly large round breasts and wide hips as well. Is he a she, or is she a he? You find out that he has a penis and she menstruates as well. When you look at him/her you see a mosaic of the normal social binary, but he/she is neither one nor the other. The societal gender binary says that a man is masculine and a woman is feminine, and ultimately creates a stigma against anything that deviates from that standard. You can point out the characteristics that would belong to the male or female stereotypes, but what does it mean that he/she maintains both? So what is he/she? When society comes to you begging for the answer of either male or female, what will you say?
Believe it or not, there is a population of these people living in between the social binary boundaries that exists within our society, they are known as intersexual. Intersexual people struggle to balance what society expects and the acceptance of what they truly are. Intersexuals are humans who have “intermediate or atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish male from female…[These atypical physical features are] usually understood to be congenital, involving chromosomal…gonadal anomalies” “Intersexuality”. Right after an intersexual baby is born, especially in the recent past, parents and doctors see ambiguous genitalia. This scares them. Born into a society where beings are placed into one bin or the other, doctors usually try to ‘correct’ the baby’s gender with the scalpel. To the parents, this solution seems to make the most sense, being conditioned in society's strict gender binary. In a world where society only has space for two choices, male or female, the people who live in between these boundaries are impacted the most by the people who are attempting to objectively decipher their gender. In the end, the people judging these intersex infants harm them the most, causing unnecessary harm in the form of genital mutilation.
A problem with intersex infants and their extensive surgeries in early life is the inability to audibly sway any decisions made on their behalf as babies. In Max Beck’s story, he is born with "‘a rudimentary phallus’ and ‘fused labio-scrotal folds’" (NOVA). The parents were shocked as were the doctors, they decided to immediately place their newborn baby under the scalpel. Nevertheless, the solution to his gonadal ambiguity was not any clearer after the surgery. Max Beck describes his experience after his genital surgeries: “after five weeks of study and surgery, they weren’t any closer to the truth; mine was a fuzzy picture. Not even the almighty gene provided any clear answers, since it was discovered that I was a mosaic, with some cells in my body having the XY genotype and other having XO. The decision was made to raise me female” (NOVA). Thus, any trace of the Y gene was disregarded, and his parents very actively raised him as a girl, creating gender confusion within the young Max Beck, known as Judy at the time.
In these mutilating clitorectomies or clitoroplasties, humans are deprived and negated the ability to orgasm, and with these negations, they are extremely isolated and limited as sexual beings. Cheryl Chase, author of “Affronting Reason”, was born a ‘true hermaphrodite’. She was first labeled male, Charlie, and then with the help of a clitorectomy, an operation that deprived her of a clitoris, inner labia, and the ability to orgasm, she was reassigned to a female and renamed Cheryl. When she found out about the surgeries she endured as an infant, she struggled to understand and accept what had happened. “For many months I struggled to reclaim the label hermaphrodite. I knew that I had been mutilated by the clitorectomy, deprived of the sexual experience most people, male and female, take for granted” (206). The harm done to her genitalia cannot be irreversible. Her body is inept in functioning sexually. She is void of a certain sensation that most human beings can experience, orgasm.
These doctors look at the genitals as simply a statement of one’s sex, and not specific areas of tissue that provide pleasure, and enable one human being to connect with other human being’s body. Cheryl states, “It is very difficult to get parents or even physicians to consider the infant as a future adult sexual being… for intersex specialists, male genitals are for active penetration and pleasure, while female genitals are for passive penetration and reproduction: Men have sex, women have babies” (209). These strict guidelines and boundaries need some retrospection considering the amount of people it harms and the isolation they feel in a strict gender binary society when they are neither one nor the other, male nor female, but a fusion of both.
Intersex genital mutilation leads to a more heightened issue of gender identity. Instead of being born, growing, and getting to know what genital situation you have, someone creates a more “normal” genital situation. In both Cheryl Chase and Max Beck’s situation, they had to deal with mental health issues. As we read earlier, Chase “struggles to reclaim the label hermaphrodite” (206) and deals with the unfair mutilation that doctors performed on her as a child. Beck, who was raised as a girl says, “I reached adolescence with no physical sense of self… All around me, my peers and former playmates were dating… while I, whose puberty came in pill form watched aghast from the sidelines” (NOVA). This excerpt from Beck illustrates the isolation that he feels while growing up, she at the time cannot seem to connect with those around her. As she grows older, she deeply feels and recognizes the “dreadful gulf between normal and me” (NOVA); and, as a result, tries to commit suicide. Beck goes through many stages and despite finding his life partner in the end, he describes vividly the thoughts of self-loathing that he feels. “But a proud butch identity and a powerful femme at my side weren’t enough; Frankenstein’s monster would not be propitiated… the old self-loathing returned… How could I call myself a ‘lesbian’ when I wasn’t even a woman? I felt like an imposter, a fraud, and now more than ever a freak” (NOVA). These instances demonstrate the mental issues that come with genital mutilation, an extreme isolation and struggle to find one’s true self in the midst of a mass of scar tissue.
The stories of Chase and Beck are stories of struggle and self-discovery. These two people have experienced a lot of prejudice, depression, and general in between. As children they were born with ambigious genitalia in a world where there exists a strict gender binary. Instead of being accepted into this world, and their genitalia being celebrated, they were immediately put under the scalpel, a gender being assigned to them. Despite the silence that has existed about this subject for so long, they broke this silence. They found themselves through much struggle, and assigned themselves a gender that was right for them. Chase and Beck speak out about their experience for the sake of the intersexual living presently, and those to come. They are a group of trailblazers who are fighting for future of their race. The existence of a society where all is accepted, and lines are not so harsh and strict. The birth of a baby with any genitalia is celebrated.
Chase, Cheryl. "Affronting Reason". Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary. Eds. Nestle, Joan, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002. 86-89. Print.
Beck, Max. "Sex: Unknown; My Life as an Intersexual." NOVA Online. PBS, Oct. 2001. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/beck.html>.