Female, male, or both? We need to talk about intersex persons
MANILA, Philippines – How many sexes are there? We always assume there are only two sexes: female and male. This is what we always see in documents and applications forms.
We have often heard of the term LGBTQ: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. One’s assigned sex at birth — male, female, or intersex — is biological. Meanwhile, sexual orientation — lesbian, gay, or bisexual — is not; this refers to whom you are attracted to. Gender identity — transwomen or trasnmen — refers to how one identifies, which may or may not match one’s assigned sex at birth.
Gender is social, transgender is identity-related, and queer is the umbrella term for those who do not identify with heterosexuality.
Now how about the term “intersex?”
There are roughly 30 known intersex conditions. With “intersex” as the politically correct umbrella term, there are people who are true hermaphrodites (herm), female hermaphrodites (ferm), and male hermaphrodites (merm), according to Brown University professor Ann Fausto-Sterling.
True herms have one testis and one ovary. Ferms have ovaries and some aspects of the male sexual organ but no testes; their clitoris could be large enough to resemble a male penis. Merms have testes and some aspects of the female sexual organ but lack ovaries. There are also other permutations of intersex people in between. (READ: Identifying as intersex)
When we fill out forms, some people cannot choose between the male or female checkboxes, because they are neither female nor male exclusively but could be both female and male to varying degrees.
Some ancient religions actually have intersex deities.
Ardhanarishvara is an androgynous Hindu god combining the male Shiva and his wife Parvati. Guanyin is a female Chinese goddess who was originally the male god Avalokiteśvara from South Asia. In Tibetan Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara is known as Chenrezig, of whom the Dalai Lama is supposed to be his reincarnation.
On the genetic cellular level, we inherit sex-specific X and X or X and Y chromosomes from our parents, which make us female or male respectively.
Girls and boys produce different hormones at different ages. On the anatomical level, girls develop ovaries, while boys develop testes.
However, not all conform to this sex assignment at birth. Chromosomes, hormones, gonads, and the genitalia vary to a greater degree than what we know. Women’s ovaries produce the estrogen hormone, while men’s testicles — and to a lesser extent, women’s ovaries — secrete testosterone. But intersex folks can secrete similar amounts of both estrogen and testosterone.
Women have ovaries as the gonad or sex gland, which produces egg cells. Men have testicles as the gonad or reproductive gland that produces spermatozoa. But intersex folks can have both testicles and ovaries.
With so many variations of femaleness and maleness in real life, there is a whole spectrum of biological sexes. A person with chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia biologically assigned to a female may have a male identity.
Intersex persons do not conform to the absolute male-female division. They are born intersex. One in two thousand live births is intersex.
Intersex folks have both female and male reproductive organs to varying degrees. For example, some people have X + X chromosomes that make them female, but have high levels of testosterone and therefore have both female and male traits.
Some individuals have X and Y chromosomes, look very female, have testes which produce testosterone, and who do not menstruate, but their parents and doctors assigned them as girls. Other individuals have X and Y chromosomes but only have female sexual organs.
Due to ignorance, many doctors and parents decide to make a baby exclusively male or exclusively female, by performing “normalizing” surgery on the genitalia. This is done by removing the female or male genitalia, and recreating the “required” missing genitalia for the assigned sex. (READ: Intersex dilemma)
When testes are removed, the intersex person is assigned female identity, raised as a girl, and given estrogen treatment. In this way, the intersex person fits in and belongs to the female sex exclusively.
Some individuals have genital anatomy that conforms to male sex on the outside (penis) and female on the inside (ovary) or vice versa.
Some individuals who have X and Y chromosomes are assigned the male sex but would develop breast at puberty.
For people who are LGBTQ, peers and support groups could help one another. Often times, intesex folks need to consult a specific, knowledgeable, and highly skilled medical team that understands their biological conditions, social construct, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
The next time you fill out a checkbox in forms requiring you to choose between male and female, remember that one out of 2,000 persons will be uncomfortable and forced to answer male or female, as they may not be simply male or simply female, as they could be both to varying degrees.
Don’t assume that that person is either male or female only; the person can be intersex. In the same way that we should never assume one is “straight” or not, whether one is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, whether they are gender-conforming or not.
Isn’t it about time to overhaul checkboxes? — Rappler.com
Rey Ty is a political observer and lecturer. He received his doctorate from Northern Illinois University and his Master’s degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Northern Illinois University.