Children born with intersex conditions are given gender assignments as boys or girls shortly after birth. Gender assignment is accomplished the same way for all children, whether they have an intersex condition or not: by figuring out which gender identity the child is most likely to feel as she or he grows up, and assigning that gender.
Sometimes it can take a few days or even a few weeks for the doctors to figure out which gender assignment (boy or girl) to recommend. There’s also a small but real possibility that the doctors will recommend a gender assignment different than the one the child will later express. This means that it is possible that the doctors will recommend your baby be assigned as a girl, but as your child grows up, it will be clear that he really feels and acts like a boy, or vice versa. (Doctors are not infallible fortune tellers of gender.) What, then, should the parents tell friends and family when they ask “Did you have a boy or a girl?” and a gender assignment hasn’t yet been made?
Well, folks, good news and bad news:
The March issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine includes a big article on vaginas, called “The V-Zone: A Guide to Your Most Private Body Part.”
The good news first: We were so pleased to see that the article actually recognizes intersex and other kinds of sexual variation! Fact point #9 tells us “few lips [labia] are a perfect pair,” and #22 reports “some women “don’t have [a vagina].” Right on—we’re not born all alike!
The bad news? Cosmo suggests that the solution for having less than “ideal” genitalia is surgery. Get this: “Luckily, women with this rare condition [vaginal agenesis] can use a dilator or have surgery to construct a vagina and experience a relatively normal sex life.”
You may have seen ISNA in the news in the last two days! An important article directly linking www.isna.org went out over the Associated Press wire on Friday, and doubled our ordinary high level of web traffic. It was entitled “Surgery May Be Hasty for Unclear Gender” and has appeared in more than 100 national and local news outlets, including the New York Times, CNN, and NBC.
Check out the N.Y. Times if it didn’t appear in your local paper.
To better educate our audiences, we’ve updated the FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions). To take a look, just go to www.isna.org/faq.
A number of spiffy navigation tools have also been added to make your “travel” around the FAQ’s easier.
Those of you who are teachers will be especially pleased to hear that we’ve also included a way to access an printer-friendly version of the revised FAQ’s. Feel free to print that and use it in your classes with attribution to ISNA.
To continue to serve the thousands of visitors we get each month—new parents, adults who have just learned they have an intersex condition, clinicians, students, and teachers—we’ll keep augmenting, editing, and updating FAQs. (For example, we still need to complete the section on intersex conditions, and provide a segment on the biology of sex development.) But if you know an FAQ we should consider posting, please send it along to us.
A diverse collection of academics and activists gathered at a symposium on Intersex Education, Advocacy, and the Law held at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York City on February 22-23 co-sponsored by the Cardozo Women’s Law Journal and Bodies Like Ours. Panelists discussed
- Classifying Gender: Cultural Imperatives and Legal Constraints
- The Cultural [Il]logic of “Normalization” Surgery
What has happened to people with intersex in countries outside North America?
Read the story of Tony Briffa of Australia at the website of Melbourne’s The Age. You’ll see there how the concealment-centered model of treatment developed at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s spread across the world, unintentionally hurting people with intersex as far away as Australia.
An important thing to note: Though the title of this article is “Choosing the Right Gender,” being assigned the “wrong” gender (the gender he didn’t ultimately identify with) is just a part of Tony’s story. He also tells a story of being medically displayed “like a freak”, being lied to and mislead, and struggling with his sexuality following his medical treatment.
On Jan. 18, 2005 NBC aired an episode (“Identity”) of Law & Order SVU closely mimicking David Reimer’s story (“the John/Joan case”) as a plot, right down to a vaporized penis, quotes like “easier to dig a hole than build a pole,” secrets and lies and a very unsavory representation of a doctor implicitly modeled after John Money. (Note that John Money is actually a psychologist, not a medical doctor.) If you see it pop up on the tv schedule in re-runs (often on the USA Network), check it out.
But does the Urology Department listen to the Psychiatry Department?
“For children with birth defects the most rational approach at this moment is to correct promptly any of the major urological defects they face, but to postpone any decision about sexual identity until much later, while raising the child according to its genetic sex. Medical caretakers and parents can strive to make the child aware that aspects of sexual identity will emerge as he or she grows. Settling on what to do about it should await maturation and the child’s appreciation of his or her own identity.”
Paul McHugh is University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.
The Casper Wyoming Star Tribune is carrying an article about Miki Ann Dimarco. Early this year, a U.S. District Court judge found that 438 days of confinement in Pod Three, a maximum security four-cell segregated area that is used to house the Wyoming Women’s Center worst inmates, was not cruel an unusual punishment. Dimarco was found guilty of passing six bad checks, totalling $742.85. That’s not why she was confined all alone for over a year. Rather, prison officials decided to segregate her when they discovered that she was intersexed.
Dusen, Matthew Van. 2004. Separate and Unequal. Casper Star Tribune, December 8. Available online.