Written by: Gyles Ward ‘21
Edited by: Casey Chan ‘23
In a world where we must choose between doctor or lawyer, chocolate or vanilla, Netflix or Hulu, must we also choose between male and female? This is the dilema facing intersex individuals today. The term intersex, coined by Richard Goldschmidt in 1917, refers to a person born with genitals or internal reproductive organs that defy classic male or female anatomies . Astoundingly, intersex babies make up 1-2 in 100 births in the U.S. alone . Despite its prevalence, intersexuality is treated like a medical anomaly and intersex individuals are shamed into silence, isolation, and conformity . If sex is nothing more than a genetic marker, why does it determine our civil liberties?
Traditionally, sex hinged on the presence or absence of the Y chromosome. Persons with XY sex chromosomes are considered male while those with XX chromosomes are considered female. Today, scientists’ views on sex determination have evolved. Many have found that several genes contribute to sex phenotypes. In the 1990’s, scientists discovered the SRY gene on the Y chromosome, which directs testicular development in the gonads. Interestingly, XX females that contain a fragment of the Y chromosome with an active SRY gene are phenotypically male. Furthermore, the WNT4 gene, which interrupts testicular development, can be found in XY males, leaving them with a rudimentary uterus and fallopian tubes .
Hormonal receptor genes also play a large role in sex determination. Some XY males are born with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), where genes on the X chromosome are unresponsive to androgen (male sex hormones). This leaves them with internal testes but genitalia of that of a female . Conversely, XX females with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) produce excess male sex hormones. In this case, individuals have ambiguous sexual anatomies. Some have an enlarged clitoris while others have a fused labia resembling a scrotum. On the cellular level, some individuals experience mosaicism whereby they are made of a collection of cells that express different sex chromosomes. This happens when there is an uneven distribution of sex chromosomes during early embryonic development. For instance, individuals with Turner’s syndrome have cells with both XY and X chromosomes. These intersex conditions are medically termed Differences in Sex Development (DSD) 
While genetic theory on this subject quickly improves, the unjust social implications of intersexuality remain the same. The primary issue concerning intersex activists like Sean Saifa Wall is that children who are born intersex undergo nonconsensual gender assignment surgeries. Wall, who has androgen-insensitivity syndrome (AIS), developed both male and female sex characteristics. He recounts his terrifying experience as a 13-year-old unaware of what he was going into surgery for and how it would change his life. Of seven family members that have AIS, he is the only one that talks candidly and unashamedly about his condition. Today, Wall not only fights for bodily autonomy but to also remove the stigma around intersexuality .
The core principle upon which this stigma is based is that there are only two sexes- male and female. Anyone who falls outside of those constraints must be designated to a sex. These strict regulations unfortunately leave intersex individuals who opt out of gender assignment surgeries on the outskirts of society. Many are hopelessly wandering the chasm between male and female. Anick, a memeber of the intersex community, bravely admits in a interview, “I was taught to be ashamed of my body, not intentionally, but through making me feel like I had something natural about me that needed fixing. I didn’t choose to be born this way, and for most of my life so far, I did everything to avoid this reality. I honestly believed that if people found out, I’d be ostracised.” . Unfortunately, Anick represents the vast majority of intrsex individuals. A recent study done on 198 intersex individuals revealed that 53% of participants reported fair/poor mental health .
Intersex individuals aren’t the only contradiction to the sex binary. A recent Gallop survey study revealed that 11.3% of LGBTQIA+ adults identify as transgender. This number increases when we focus on specific generations. 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming and 25% of gen Zers will alter their gender identity at least once in their lifetime . Despite these phenomena, many traditionalists are clinging desperately to the sex binary; refusing to embrace a world where sex is insignificant and gender is a spectrum. As Frederick Douglas famously inquired “What, to the American slave, is your fourth of July?”, perhaps we should ask traditionalists, What, to the world, is your sex binary?
Many might be shocked to discover that the sex binary is a relatively new concept; it is a colonialist structure predated by flexible gender systems . In pre-colonial India, Hijras (intersex and transgender people) existed for millennia and occupied sacred roles as performers and blessing-givers at weddings and childbirths . European society was ruled by the one-sex theory, which stated male was the only sex and females were merely men with inverted penises or to put it bluntly, failed men. After what historians term the long eighteenth century (1688-1815), the sex binary emerged as the dominant gender theory- of course still positioning women below men in the sex hierarchy . 1858 marked the beginning of British colonization of India and the abrupt ending of Hijra liberty. Considered a threat to “masculinity”, Hijras were declassified as sacred beings. Colonial police publicly unclad them of any “feminine” attire and chopped off their long hair. Under the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871, Hijras saw their civil rights revoked and could be imprisoned for wearing “feminine” attire . They were all but erased from society.
Similarly, indigenous North Americans had a third gender, “two-spirit”, who had sacred ceremonial duties, Indonesia had bissus, who were ritual-leading priests, and Oaxaca Mexico had muxes who were celebrated and revered . Some cultures had more than three distinct genders. For instance, traditional Jewish text recognizes six genders and the South Sulawesi Bugis people have recognized 5 genders for the past 600 years. What’s more, some cultures didn't pay much attention to sex and gender at all. Pre-colonial Yoruba disavowed gender as a sign of ability and the Dagaaba people of Ghana assigned gender based on energy instead of sex . Some of these gender systems are still intact today but all of them have been touched by the cold hand of European colonization.
The two-sex theory is also rooted in white supremacy. Distinct differences in sex characteristics between white women and African women (African women tended to have larger clitorises and elongated labia) led white women to believe they were the superior females. Moreover, white scientists alleged that only white people were advanced enough to differentiate on the basis of sex, leaving black folks, to all intents and purposes, unsexed. These theories provided a scientific framework to keep black people in slave labor for generations to come .
Knowing its violent history, why do we insist on the sex binary? As academics hunt for an answer in the annals of time, organizations such as The Intersex Justice Project and Reimagine Gender are posing new questions: why isn’t intersexuality a protected identity? Perhaps that question cannot be answered verbally but rather through action and intent. We must all do our part by decolonizing our own views on gender and creating new spaces for folks to explore their own gender identity safely and without restriction.
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