For years it was thought that the distinction between sex and gender was a useful tool in achieving equality. It was believed that the world was divided into male bodies and female bodies, because the belief prevailed that there was an essential difference and that this difference was related to sex. However, what is sex really? Is gender the only one of these two categories that is a social construct?
Curtis Hinkle is the founder of the Organisation Intersex International. Intersex activists, previously known as hermaphrodites, have much to teach us about the misconceptions surrounding the classical concepts concerning the difference between the sexes.
How does one define intersex?
It is difficult to answer this because we do not have precise definitions for male and female. Without the discursive power of modern biomedical technology, intersex would not exist at all, because in past centuries the majority of people who were intersex did not even know it since the modern technology necessary to determine it did not exist. It is a quest specific to our modern societies, armed with the required technological innovations, that is determined to define the “true” sex of every human being. Personally, I find this search (or so called “research”) to determine the “true” sex of every individual ridiculous, because it is something that we cannot define. Once we feel we have found the precise definitions for male and female, new technologies emerge which reveal even more variations and exceptions.
The problem which results from this inability to conceive of more than two sexes and all the variations possible is that many infants are subjected to very painful and irreversible treatments.
For many intersex people, their intersexuality is not something that is detected at birth. It appears only later, and for the children that are detected in infancy, there are surgical and hormonal treatments, which are very difficult because they often require numerous interventions to reshape or cut the clitoris or to construct a penis which is more in conformity with what the medical experts feel is appropriate for a male. This is very traumatic and all this is undertaken without the consent of the child and since these interventions are done at such an early stage of the child’s life, they have no way of taking into account the gender identity of the child. And we know that in many cases, the individual is not in agreement with the assigned sex. For this reason, it is very important that parents be told what the most likely gender identity will be and above all that the doctors inform the parents that the child may change opinions later.
In our societies, we constantly have to declare our sex: forms, legal documents, bathrooms…
The most basic problem is the idea that there are only two sexes because that is not true. It is a problem based on binary thinking and categorization, heterosexism and sexism in general. All three of these are violations of our basic human rights and that is why I am an activist. Presently, it is impossible to get sex designations off birth certificates because it is obligatory: before leaving the hospital it is necessary to have a sex on the birth certificate in almost all countries. Why is it necessary to put the sex on birth certificates? I don’t think it is and that this only serves to perpetuate sexism in our societies.
For example, in the state of Louisiana where I lived before moving to South Carolina, it was necessary to put the race of all persons on birth certificates, but like sex, it is difficult to define the race of everyone because there are people who are neither black nor white and therefore the state of Louisiana had to come up with a whole group of categories and if an individual had only one eighth of “black blood”, the race on legal documents was black. This is now illegal in Louisiana. This is similar to the same situation now concerning sex on legal documents: it is sexist. It is a way of oppressing intersex people and women.
Health care professionals, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts need to listen and revise their theories
If there were so much difference between the two sexes, then intersex people could not exist at all. If there is so much difference between males and females, then how is it possible for so many intersex people to present as either or to switch quite easily from living as one to the other? And for many intersex people this can prove rather easy, especially if they have not had too many early treatments. This would not be possible if there truly were so much difference. No, all this is an invention of modern technology which oppresses many people. That is what I think.
Original article in Spanish: Click here