The Emotional Scars of Intersex Individuals
Imagine requesting an immunization form from your doctor. Simple enough right? Now imagine on your medical records something seems out of place. You look closer, it says that you were born with an intersex condition and underwent genital reassignment surgery as an infant. You don’t understand what they mean by intersex, your whole life you’ve been raised to believe that are two biological sexes, male and female. You go to look it up and find it means you were born with ambiguous genitalia, for example possibly when you were born your clitoris was “too long”, or your penis was “too short”, and the doctors could not determine what sex you were. So as a child you went through a series of operations to sculpt your genitalia into something “acceptable” to match what sex the doctors chose for you. That explains why though your parents raised you as a female (your gender) you never quite felt right about it? Right? After all, what really are you? Something out of a science fiction novel? Unfortunately not. This very thing happened to an individual named Max Beck, and has happened to many others like him.
In society today, there has been a movement for the acceptance for many identities that extend beyond the gender binary. Everything from sexual identity (lesbian, bi, gay, etc.) to gender and sexual association (transgendered, transsexual, etc.) have come to a new level of consciousness in society. However, even with all this new discourse that extends beyond the gender and sexual binary, there is a silent majority that believes that we all start on the binary, having a set sex at birth of either male or female. This is not the case though, as many individuals are born with ambiguous genitalia or other conditions such as hormonal differences that make it difficult to determine a child’s sex. According to the Intersex Society of North America, 1 in every 1,500 infants are born with some form of intersex condition. That’s approximately 20 people on the CU campus, 195 people in the city of Boulder or over 3,300 individuals in the state of Colorado.
Up until recently these infants were considered a medical emergency and immediately underwent a sex reassignment surgery until their anatomical parts matched either those of a female or male, and they were raised according to the gender that corresponds with their supposed sex. This has created an entire group of individuals who often don't know the gender they were raised as was picked at their birth due to what was considered an anatomical abnormality. Many of these individuals have faced problems identifying with the sex and/or the gender that was picked for them and often struggled even more once they found this out. Although medical professionals may have the best intentions of the child at heart when they attempt to help children fit into the norms of female or male sex, the surgery often does intersex infants more harm than good. It goes beyond physical consequences, as often times intersex individuals face difficulties in their personal and sexual lives and live with a feeling of inadequacy and incompleteness.
One fascinating yet heartbreaking story that displays the complexity and struggle that intersex people face is that of Max Beck. Max was born with an intersex condition. Doctors could not tell if his genitals were “a rudimentary phallus" (an underdeveloped penis) or "fused labio-scrotal folds." (a slightly deformed vulva and vagina. Because of this, his genitals were reassigned a female. Max was raised as a girl and struggled throughout childhood and adolescence with his identity. He felt incomplete and at times in physical pain from the number of procedures he had to endure, leading to the most debilitating trauma of all, his emotional pain.
“I knew I was incomplete. I could see that compared to—well, compared to everyone!—I was numb from the neck down. When would I be finished?… Still, the only thing that felt complete was my isolation. Now the numbness below my neck was real—a maze of unfeeling scar tissue.” (Beck)
As Beck grew older, he began to engage in sexual relationships. First he experimented with a man, like he thought he was supposed to as a “girl”. The experience only fueled his feelings of strangeness and inadequacy. From there he pursued a relationship with a woman, thinking that it might be his sexuality that was out of the norm. Unfortunately he struggled with both relationships. His male partner didn’t comment on his “weird” sexual anatomy, but his female partner did. This only furthered his feelings of sexual and emotional inadequacy. He finally sought acceptance in the lesbian community in college and began a lesbian relationship with a female partner. This changed when Max found out about that he was born as a “pseudohermaphrodite” from his birth certificate when obtaining his medical records for immunizations. Remembering his vaginoplasty from when he was younger, he started to understand the situation more. Due to this, Max underwent even more intense guilt and confusion. His whole life had been a lie and he’d spend many years feeling miserable and abnormal with no explanation provided to him
Clearly placing individuals like Max in these positions could be avoided if doctors and parents were to stop looking at intersex conditions as a medical emergency that needs to be immediately covered up and fixed. A simple solution is to instead make it clear that gender is not set in stone or binary so these individuals can have the chance to discover who they truly are and be happy with it as they grow older. However, this is much easier said than done. Doctors and parents are generally not mal-intentioned when they opt for gender reassignment surgery on intersex individuals. They want these children to live what is considered a normal life. And in our society, a normal life consists of growing up with an assigned and more importantly recognized physical sex.
Until our society stops judging individuals based on their sex and their gender, it will be difficult if not impossible for intersex children to be raised as what they are. No parent wants their child to be tortured, ridiculed and even possibly killed for being a freakish like so many other people who break sexual and/or gender binaries (like transgender and homosexual people). To them, assigning their children a sex at birth so to speak, is the most humane way to deal with a very difficult problem. Ideally we need to change society, to make society open to intersex individuals. This can be done through current educational programs, encouraging tolerance, eliminating harmful stereotypes, etc.
Ideally the best way to deal with intersex individuals would be to create and advocate the idea of a third biological sex (other than male or female). This way intersex children could be raised as they were, and if their sex was recognized they’d be able to avoid a lot of the physical and emotional trauma of trying to fit the binary. However this is a idealistic, long term solution. In contemporary western society there has been a counter culture fueled push for a third recognized gender without much mainstream success. This would lead one to believe that pushing for a third biological sex would be equally as difficult.
At the current time though, it seems like the best thing parents and doctors can do for intersex individuals on a personal level is to continue their current practices but increase their level of understanding about intersex conditions and open up more dialogue with their children. It seems that while parents think they might be helping their children by covering up their intersex condition by raising their child as one of the two recognized gender and then possibly pursuing gender reassignment surgery to match this when the child hits puberty, it seems like it may be best for them to be open with their children as soon as they are old enough to comprehend the situation. Hiding the truth from people negates any positive intentions. This way individuals won’t have to go through years of not feeling right about their gender, but not knowing why like Max Beck did. Hopefully this would allow people to remain in the gender roles they’re in if they’re comfortable, or to change them if that suits them better.
On a larger level the key to intersex conditions is understanding as well. Society needs to understand that not everyone is born as a biological male or female, and that this is a perfectly natural, normal occurrence. By advocating to change society’s views, it would help parents and doctors understand that such conditions are not the end of the world, and while they are trying to help their children, forcing them into a role that may not suit them is not the best approach. With time, hopefully situations like what happened to Max Beck will be eliminated, as intersex awareness and understanding spreads.
- Wikipedia: Intersexuality
- Bodies Like Ours
- Intersex Initiative
- Organization of Intersex International
Beck, Max. "My Life as an Intersexual." NOVA Online. PBS, Oct. 2001. Web. 29th Feb. 2010. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/beck.html>.
"How common is intersex? | Intersex Society of North America". Isna.org. http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency. Retrieved 2010-3-21