The gender binary is problematic as it excludes all and any other form of gender which compels doctors and surgeons to perform intersex genital mutilation on infants born with ambiguous genitalia.
Couples who are about to have a baby worry over those nine pregnant months about the health of their baby, hoping that it will have all ten fingers and all ten toes. These worrying couples just want their baby to be “normal”. One out of every two thousand pregnant couples will be in complete shock the day their baby is born when the doctors are unable to tell them whether they have a little boy or little girl. When the parents had been worrying about the health of their baby all of those nine months, they never thought to worry that their baby could be born without a clear sex. Most of these parents will feel extremely confused when given this information, and will not know what to do with a baby that has no clear sex as a male or female. In most circumstances, the parents will want the doctors to try to “fix” their baby, so that the baby will have a clear sex as male or female. This demonstrates the constraints of the sex binary on our society as there are no acceptable options for a sex outside of the male and female choices. The sex binary refers to the system that only recognizes two sexes, female and male.
The doctors will eventually tell the parents that their baby has been born with ambiguous genitalia and is defined as Intersex at this time. These terms means that the doctors can not clearly determine the sex of their baby due to medical and legal rules. Certain medical rules recognize a baby as a girl if her genitalia is under a certain size and as a boy if his genitalia is over a certain size. Their baby could have genitalia that don’t fit either of these measurements and may have some characteristics of male and female genitalia. Also, there are medical rules which determine sex based off of chromosome composition, meaning a boy’s chromosomes would be XY and a girl’s chromosomes would be XX. This intersex baby could have mixed chromosomes that do not look like either a boy or girl’s chromosomes. Another medical rule to determine sex deals with the sex organs that should be present in a boy, such as gonads, or those that should be present in a girl, such as a uterus. This intersex baby could have mixed genitalia and sex organs or may be missing one or the other.
The doctors refer to this situation as a social emergency, although in most cases the baby’s health is not at risk with this condition. They will most likely recommend that surgery be performed anyway in order to make this baby look as though it is either male or female, and the parents will most likely agree. First, the doctors will perform several tests to determine which sex characteristics are most dominant in the intersex infant, and afterwards the surgery will be performed to fit the results of those tests. Either the genitalia is cut to make the baby appear to be a girl, or the genitalia is constructed into a penis to make the baby appear to be a boy. The doctors will then advise the parents to raise the child as whatever sex was assigned at birth, however most often raising this child will not be as easy as they make it seem. These sex assignment surgeries are performed under the constraints of the sex binary system, so that all children will fit this “norm” of being one of the two socially accepted sexes.
The community of intersex people call these gender assignment surgeries, Intersex Genital Mutilation or IGM, and most are very against it. They argue that intersex babies should leave the hospital as they are and should have the right to make the decision regarding their sex and gender when they have the capability to make that decision, maybe around adolescence. Many Intersex people who had gender assignment surgery as babies find themselves in a life of confusion, depression, and isolation as they face many different excruciating struggles being raised in a society so accustomed to knowing only two sexes. This is why sex assignment surgeries for intersex infants create more harm than good.
One of the many hardships that Intersex people who have been subject to IGM experience is the confusion as they grow up feeling like they do not belong inside their bodies. The story of Cheryl Chase demonstrates the confusion she faced as an Intersex individual growing up in a society constrained by the sex binary. Cheryl had been born as “Charlie” and was “Charlie” for the first eighteen months of her life, but “Charlie’s” genitalia included a vagina, a female urethra, and an extremely large clitoris. At 18 months doctors decided that they had made a mistake in their identification of Charlie’s sex, and “Charlie” became Cheryl when a clitorectomy was performed (210 Chase). Normally, the confusion experienced by Intersex people that had this surgery originates from an inability to fully identify as their assigned sex. Cheryl Chase describes the confusion she faced, “As a woman, I am less than whole. I have a secret past. I lack important parts of my genitals and sexual response” (211). It is important to note that many Intersex people who have gone through IGM do not have the exact sexual anatomy of a female or male, and therefore many do not experience sexual pleasure. This is the case particularly for infants who are given clitorectomies, because the tissue capable of sexual sensation is sometimes removed. More confusion is attached to this tragic result of the surgery as Intersex people wonder why they can not experience such a fundamental part of being a human being. It would be much easier for Intersex people to deal with their differences if they had been the ones who had ultimately made the decision about their sex and gender. With this forced Intersex Genital Mutilation, Intersex people must live with whatever sex was decided for them and the consequences of that decision.
Another of the struggles that these mutilated Intersex individuals must face are severe bouts of depression. These bouts of depression also are related to the confusion they face with their sex and gender identity. Cheryl Chase was ten years old when her parents told her that when she was a baby she had had surgery to remove her genitalia. Her parents then told her to never tell anyone about what had happened, showing Cheryl that this was something to be ashamed about (210). Cheryl describes her memories of younger years, “I remember myself as a withdrawn, depressed adolescent, trying to steal a glance of a woman’s genitals. Do hers look like mine?” (210). Although many adolescents go through hard times with their identity in general, imagine how it would feel to also be completely unsure of your sex and/or gender identity. Intersex individuals would feel less depression if they had had control over their gender and sex instead of having the decision made for them before they had the chance to object.
Another battle that Intersex people who have had IGM fight is one with society and its narrow view on sex and gender. Society tends to be ignorant and unaccepting of intersex conditions in many different ways, making intersex people like Cheryl Chase feel censured, silenced, and even fearful. This ignorance infiltrates all areas of society, including school, work, and even home, so many intersex people do not have a place where they feel safe or understood. Cheryl’s story specifically points to her own parents as representative of the society which silenced her condition. Cheryl says, “My parents were so traumatized by the appearance of my genitals that they allowed no one to see them: no baby-sitters, no helpful grandmother or aunt” (207). This illustrates how ignorance of these conditions are even present among the family. Even as a baby, Cheryl’s own parents did not know how to present Cheryl to a society with such a narrow view on sex. Intersex people experience a fear every day as they are forced to face society’s judgment on their condition, which could lead to ridicule or even violence.
All of these internal and external conflicts experienced by Intersex individuals are products of the gender assignment surgery or IGM performed at birth that steals away the right of each Intersex individual to be able to make their own decision about their bodies. Although society is generally unaware and/or unaccepting of sexes and genders that exist outside male and female, Intersex individuals would not suffer like this if they controlled their own gender/sex destiny.
It seems that doctors and parents believe sex assignment surgery at birth is what is best for the Intersex child. Both think that their patient or child needs to have this surgery to make them either boy or girl, because no one knows how to care for or raise a child that is a sex other than one of these two options. No one wants the child to “suffer” from being a social outcast due to not being one of the two “natural” sexes of the binary system. While these may seem like good intentions, they only seem this way as the doctors and parents are ignorant to the truth of the future that this child faces. The child will most likely suffer from these same hardships that the doctors and parents thought they were avoiding with the surgery and most likely will suffer much, much more as a direct result of the surgery. By now, doctors most definitely, and parents of Intersex children as well, need to be more knowledgeable about the condition and need to allow the child grow up without having been subjected to this Intersex Genital Mutilation. When the child begins to identify as a certain sex, whether that be boy, girl or even something else, then that child can also decide to remain as they are or have surgery to be more like the sex that they feel they are. Cheryl Chase harshly states, “Who benefits from this medical erasure and social silencing? Certainly no intersexed children”(211).
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.