David Reimer was born biologically male but raised female due to the result of a medical procedure gone wrong. Being ill-adjusted to his state, David later transitioned to male at the early age of fifteen. Known as the John/Joan case, this was taken up as an instance of nurture versus nature, and later used to support the argument that gender identity is something that is inherent in an individual, and not something that is necessarily connected to one’s genitalia, i.e., it is unconnected to one’s sex.
Sex and gender are two vastly different things. One’s sex is what an individual is born with – male or female depending on the genitalia, while gender – being a boy or a girl – is what is accordingly assigned to an individual at birth by the social order. In a society that cringes at variance, gender identity is inherently tied to one’s sex, and any deviation is sought to be ‘rectified’ as soon as possible. While some people are slowly recognizing the concept of being transgender, most are still struggling to understand that gender- and that too, unconnected with one’s sex – need not be binary.
In all the confusion, the phenomenon of there being a ‘third’ sex is completely overlooked – what is contemporarily known as being intersex, i.e. when a human being has both male and female genitalia, or some variance of the same. Earlier, the term used for such individuals was ‘hermaphrodite’ (meaning fully male and female) which was grossly misleading, as this is not possible in humans. The correct term is ‘intersex’. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, since intersex individuals are relatively rare (around 1 in 2000 babies), they are rendered ‘medical emergencies’ at the time of birth.
Society is conventionally divided in two sexes – the male and the female. This division, which exists at the core of every societal institution, also has the power to influence medical procedures, which firmly segregate between the two, and provide the courses of action to be taken, for example, female individual hits puberty at twelve, and a male individual at eighteen: medical treatments are undertaken accordingly. The ‘medical emergency’ situation arises when the sex is undecided, and consequently, the future of the child, both medically and in other areas discussed below, is called into question. In this case, the doctors apply themselves to ‘right a wrong’ – little realizing that there is no inherent error in the individual, rather surgery to alter sexual organs can harm sexual function instead.
This fear of the unknown seems to haunt major sports associations as well- the Olympic Association has enforced strict regulations on the testing of testosterone levels for women for fear of doping – it seems reasonable at first, until one realises that not all women are subject to it, only the ones ‘falling under suspicion’- i.e., the women who look masculine. Even after testing, if such individuals are found to be intersex, they are banned from competing on the grounds that they are not ‘real women’ and that their increased testosterone levels would give them an unfair advantage in competition- a claim found to be false, as the ‘extra’ hormone naturally present in their body does not give them an ‘extra’ advantage. Hence the controversy caused over athlete Dutee Chand (who has hyperandrogenism) following protests on the ground of her ‘not being a real woman’. This is gender discrimination, and in such cases, the only fair ground for testing would be to divide competing categories on the basis of testosterone levels, and this would be unrealistic in terms of costs and efforts involved. The lines between the ‘two’ genders are being blurred, making many uncomfortable.
In a bipolar gender paradigm, there is no simple social category for those assigned ‘intersex’- hence the doctors- and parents who think they mean well- increasingly opt for surgical corrections to bring biological sex in line with the assigned gender. This is with a view to firmly reinforce the concept of the duality of the sexes- and hence, the associated gender, according to the rigidly set social norms that strive to create increasing physical differences between men and women to ‘fit’ them into a pre-arranged system. The social order has evolved through careful policing, and anyone who is ‘different’ presents a potential threat- they could shake the entire cultural order of our society, and things would no longer make sense. Any sexual relationship that is non-heteronormative, and therefore untraditional, is often seen as bizarre, with people struggling to normalize the social order. Thus the worry about intersex individuals is this – if a male is supposed to desire a female, where does one place an intersex individual? Further, if males and females are assigned the gender boy and girl at birth, how do you assign a gender identity to an intersex human being?
Our anatomy affects our existence in the social order, in terms of how we view as well as interact with others- it even affects our rights and privileges. Our anatomy, and hence the gender identity imposed on us, are reinforced so often that it almost seems natural. However, it is important to note that this rigid ordering is not in fact so. Hermaphroditism in animals is very common – these animals have both reproductive organs and are capable of self-fertilizing, hence ensuring their survival and adapting themselves to live in difficult conditions. Slugs, snails, and a number of invertebrates are capable of ‘normal’ reproduction as well through the aforementioned process. In addition to this, there are a number of animals who are capable of sequentially changing their reproductive organs. When the male in a pack of coral reef fishes dies, the largest female ‘changes’ its genitalia and naturally transforms into male. How then, does one contend that intersex humans are ‘abnormal’ and in need of surgical ‘correction’? In this case, it seems a likely conclusion to draw that we are more concerned about the dictates of human society than we are about what is naturally prevalent in it.
Gender binary is just one way of ordering the world – it is not the only way. When taken into account the spectrum of gender as well as sexualities, it would be difficult to group individuals into any one of two options society makes available to us. Why not just let people be, without trying to label them or ostracise them on the basis of such labels?