In my Psychology of Women and my Psychology of Sexual Orientation classes, we spend a good chunk of time talking about intersex identities. In most cases, after this particular lecture, if a student wants to talk to me after class, it’s usually for one of two reasons: (A) they knowingly have an intersex condition and want to tell me about it, or (B) they suddenly realized during class that they probably have an intersex condition, and they’re freaked out and upset by it. Scenario (B) happens far more commonly than Scenario (A); in fact, in my 12 years of teaching, I’ve had more than a dozen students come to me visibly upset and shaken, trying to digest the strong possibility that they’re intersex – and that no one ever told them about it.
Intersex conditions are not all that uncommon. According to most medical experts, obvious atypicalities in the genitals occur in about 1 in 2,000 births. However, many intersex conditions don’t involve clearly identifiable genital anomalies, so this is a pretty conservative estimate. If you cast the net wider and consider people whose bodies differ in any way from standard male or female, the number jumps to 1 in 100 births. From a statistical standpoint, it’s almost guaranteed that we know someone who is intersex.
So if intersex is so common, why does Scenario (B) happen so often? In her 2006 interview on Oprah, intersex activist Hida Viloria said this: “Intersex bodies have been systematically eliminated.”
What does she mean by that, “systematically eliminated”? If a newborn baby has obvious genital anomalies, medical protocol typically involves assigning a sex, performing “normalizing” surgery on the infant’s genitals, and raising the child as a “normal” boy or girl.
No more intersex.
Activists in the intersex community use very powerful words to refer to these practices. Genital mutilation. Intersex genocide. Powerful words to describe practices that are powerfully damaging.
If you want to see just how damaging these practices are, look no further than Cheryl Chase. An intersex activist and founder of the Intersex Society of North America, Cheryl was born with ambiguous genitalia and originally labeled as a boy. At 18 months, doctors reassigned her as a girl and performed a clitoridectomy, and evidence of her intersex condition was concealed from her. Later in her adulthood, amidst bouts of suicidality, Cheryl gained access to her medical records and learned the truth about what had happened to her. And thus began a lifelong goal of trying to prevent this from ever happening to another intersex child.
Cheryl Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America twenty years ago, in 1993. Since then, intersex activists have fought tirelessly to bring visibility to intersex people, and to protect them from unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries. Thirteen years later, in 2006, the journal Pediatrics published a letter titled, “Consensus Statement on the Management of Intersex Disorders,” which recommended that surgery should only be done on patients who are able to make an informed choice; that children should be assigned a gender at birth, but parents should be prepared for the possibility of a gender transition as the child gets older; and that parents should provide clear and honest information with their children about their condition.
So now it’s 2013 – seven years after the Consensus Statement was published. Have we come a long way, baby?
I’m not so sure that we have.
In researching my upcoming book, I’ve been looking for information about intersex people that’s geared towards kids. Anything – websites, educational materials, children’s books, you name it. There’s lots of stuff out there about intersex conditions and intersex politics, but it’s written for adults (and, in many cases, highly educated adults who can decipher academic gobbledygook). There are websites and children’s books about trans* identities and gender nonconformity. But there are almost no kid-level resources out there about intersex – which I find to be incredibly disturbing. If intersex kids can’t find information about themselves, and if they still don’t see themselves reflected in the culture in a positive way, then I don’t think we’re that far away from Cheryl Chase’s childhood experience.
The one exception is a book written by Maya Christina Gonzalez titled The Gender Now Coloring Book, which is an activity book that helps to bring a child-friendly awareness to gender. This book introduces the concept of multiple genders to young children, it gives examples of various gender forms in nature, and it includes images of a wide variety of bodies – male, female, and intersex. It clearly defines the words “intersex” and “transgender,” and it gives examples of ways for young children to talk about gender – for example, a “girlboy” could be a way to describe a girl feeling inside a boy body, and a “boygirlboy” could describe a boy feeling inside an intersex body that is more girl.
If you’re thinking that’s too complicated for a young child to comprehend, think about this: I interviewed Hida Viloria for my upcoming book, and during our conversation, she said, “If you taught every toddler that there are male, female, and intersex people, it’s done. That’s it. They totally get it.”
They TOTALLY get it. At least, when I test-drove the book on my daughter, she got it. She knows that she has a girl feeling inside a girl body. She knows that I have a girl feeling inside a girl body, and that her other mom has a mostly girl feeling inside a mostly girl body. To her, this is not weird or complicated at all.
The other day, my 5-year-old daughter came home from a trip to the library holding a copy of the children’s picture book Chowder. She said, “Mommy, I think Chowder is intersex.” (Chowder is a bulldog, for any of you who might be wondering.)
Hmm. “What makes you think that?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “I just do.” She handed me the book, indicating that I should read it to her. I opened the book and looked at the first page.
Chowder had always been different. His owners liked to think of him as quirky, but most people thought he was just plain weird.
It’s clear to me that kids understand things on more levels than we give them credit for.
It’s one thing to be different. It’s another to be totally shut down, silenced, and, well, systematically eliminated. In the end, Chowder gets to be himself, and others come to accept him. My beacon of hope lies in these happy endings.