Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We've Always Been Here

I exist.

When is the last time somebody told you that there is not such thing. . . as you?

OK, perhaps that's not an experience you've had, but I encounter it periodically. This morning I had a frustrating experience with a person who insisted that intersexuality is a myth. He was certain that sex dyadism was an unassailable natural fact--that people and animals come in two flavors, male and female. In his mind, hermaphrodites and centaurs and dragons were equally mythic creatures, and equally likely to be waiting in line at the store with him.

Really, what this guy objected to was my appearance, which is androgynously masculine. He wanted me to "make up my mind." Basically, he objected to genderqueering on the grounds that gender identities must be dyadic because bodies are sexually dyadic. When I pointed out that I am actually intersex, he dismissed me as making a deluded, faddish assertion. He compared me to a furry, and dissed me and furries together as crazy folk possessed by a trendy madness. He told me to "grow up."

How would you respond to that? Am I expected to walk around with an MRI in my pocket? I've already posted how people don't get to do a pants check on me.

I choose to respond less personally, with empirical data, scientific and historical. Though in truth, when people are religiously attached to a belief in sex dyadism, all the empirical evidence in the world may fail to convince them to let go of their dogma. That was the case in my conversation this morning. Still, others may listen, so I share some data you can use should you find yourself in a position like the one I was in today.

The Divine Androgyne

Many--perhaps most--world religions incorporate divine androgyny. This reflects the presence of intersexuality in the collective unconsciousness. Angels in Judeo-Christian tradition are neither male nor female. In Greek mythology, the child of Hermes (the jock god) and Aphrodite (prom queen goddess of love) was Hermaphrodite, as seen in the image attached to this post. The ancient Egyptian god/dess of the Nile was Hapi, whose breasts and phallus were depicted as constantly flowing with fertility, like the Nile itself.

Some intersex advocates are uncomfortable discussing intersex deities in the world pantheon, because they feel it links us with fantasy.
But mythos is based in fact--sometimes psychological, and sometimes material. It can be very useful. Psychologically, it can give us validation, and materially, it gives us clues to the historical past. After all, Homer's city of Troy was considered mythic until archeologist Heinrich Schliemann took the Illiad seriously and located and excavated Troy's ruins.

What the myths of the world show us is that intersexuality did not signify barren disorder, as it does to Western doctors today. It signified perfection (for the Judeo-Christian), beauty (for the Greeks), creation (for the Egyptians).

Cultural Traditions

More important from the empirical position of "proof" of our eternal presence are the cultural traditions that societies have all over the world for giving social roles to the intersex. For example, I'm Jewish. Jewish religious practice is traditionally highly sexed and gendered--males are circumcised on the 8th day of life, females must immerse in a mikvah after completing a menstrual cycle. What then of intersex children? The gemara instructs that intersex children (and animals) are given two additional gender titles, androgyne and tumtum. A Jewish child whose genitalia include both a clitorophallus and an invagination is an androgyne, and must follow all of the rules applying to males and females. A child without significant external genitalia is tumtum and is exempted from all gendered rules.

Intersex people have been born into all cultures throughout history, so there are many traditions for giving them a place in society. As intersexuality has been erased by modern medicine, the meaning of these traditions has often shifted or been forgotten. For example, Native American traditions for giving a socially valuable place to the two-spirited are now typically understood as relating to lesbian, gay, or transgendered individuals, while the home they gave to intersex children is largely forgotton. The Hawai'ian role of mahu is another example. Today, the word "mahu" is often assumed to mean crossdresser, and has taken on a derogatory edge, like "fag." But in Hawai'ian tradition, intersex children were deemed mahu, and it was an important social role. Individuals who were mahu memorized oral traditions, were instructors of the revered hula, and were consulted when infants were named.

Scientific Evidence

It seems ridiculous to present scientific evidence that intersex conditions exist--rather like gathering scientific evidence that some people are born with red hair, or that animals of all sorts have albino offspring at times. But for convincing those who demand such evidence, some facts.

Intersexuality is common in pigs. The people of Vanuatu revered intersex pigs, and carved their likeness, genitalia and all, onto statuary and bowls. British farming tradition was less appreciative. Intersex livestock were called freemartins, and in some localities killed at birth.
In the U.S., where the most revered animals are our domestic pets, intersex is studied by veterinarians in cats and dogs. Intersex conditions have been studied by scientsts in goats, in primates, in mice, in horses, in smallmouth bass . . . in fact, just about any animal you can name.

The Moral of the Story

Intersex happens. It always has happened; it's hardly some new discovery or "fad." In fact, the fad in the historical story is the recent medical erasure of intersex people, our surgical alteration, and the attachment of shame to our bodies. We've been made so invisible that most people in Western nations aren't even aware we exist, and can voice the myth that we are mythic right to our faces. Let's hope that this fad passes soon.


  1. Illuminating and well spoken as always. You rock Luminis--thanks for giving us intellectual ammo with which to fight back against ignorance. As with homosexuality, so with intersex and gender variance--the first step towards acceptance and inclusion is visibility.

  2. I'm glad to see that you posted. I wondered where you went, it felt like it had been a while.

    I haven't introduced myself. I'm a cis straight woman and I consider myself to be an ally. That probably sounds stupid but I don't know how else to say it. I want to learn about LGBTQI issues so that I can repeat these messages, and I have to say that I love reading your blog and it has always given me a lot to think about.

  3. I'm sure you are aware of this, but since Hindu mythology and Indian ritual are of particular importance to me I'd like to mention similar examples to those you've given:

    Ardhnarishwara is a hermaphroditic deity. Though visually represented in a similar way to the half-man half-woman circus poster, the spiritual message was transcendence of the gender binary.

    Hijras, while not well treated, is a historically established community for both transgender and intersex. There is even the possibility (depending on interpretation) that the Bhagavad-Gita refers to this group.

  4. Its just discouraging how some persons ignore that intersexuality exist. And its even worse when even some "medics" tell you so.

    Im tired of being mislabeled, or not being believed and getting my medical needs attanded. Or just simply that my body its what it is.

  5. I have been trying to find out if the statistic of five intersex surgies a day is still accurate today 2009. Do you have a current reference on that?

  6. Thanks for your comments, friends.

    Lauren, visibility really is so vital. Strange how difficult it is, and how potent.

    Jessica, some of my best friends are binary cisfolk. Joke :P. Really, without good allies most struggles would be futile. And sorry about my posting less--I had a death in the family and it's been taking a lot of my energy.

    Jubi, thanks for posting about Ardhnarishwara and the hijra community. You're right, there are examples from many world cultures of roles and models provided for intersex people.

    Anonymous, I hear you. I need to post about how even medical staff can't see us when we're right in fron of them.

    Benjamin, there's just no national data being gathered, which is part of the problem. We need funding and research and longitudinal follow-up on intersex patients.

  7. Luminis -

    I'm sorry to hear that.

  8. A quick comment from a GT (gender typical ;-) ) person to let you know you are supported. As with anything else, education is the key to acceptance and I thank you for your informative blog.

  9. I recently found a neat little books someone has out (I'll just post the website link here) that just shows people can do their own research and find that most of what society bases it's "truth" on is scewed anyway.


  10. btw, I am Eunis lol

  11. If you want some other kinky scientific evidence of intersexuality in nature, look at snails, who are natural hermaphrodites and mate and are mated with at the same time.

  12. wow. am reviewing all your blog and just saw I asked the question I asked earlier today here a year ago. thanks for the answer!!

  13. So I'm just flipping through your blog, both this one and the other one, and learning a lot and really enjoying it. And mostly I have nothing to say.

    But as a Greek Pagan, I have to correct one tiny factual error concerning my deities. Hermes is not a jock. He's a god of herdsmen, business, messengers, thieves, and tricksters, but he's not a jock. Herakles* is a jock, Ares is a jock, Apollo is a jock. Hermes, not so much.

    Sorry to butt in on what might seem to others to be a really minor point, but Hermes is a god with whom I have a specific relationship, and I really don't care to see him mischaracterized.

    *Yes, actually a god. After his death, Zeus deified him by feeding him ambrosia and nectar.

  14. I too was born with one ovotestis, with the other testis being sort of normal, accept for size. Luck me this ovotestis became malignant with ovarian cancer.