Intersexuality and God Through the Ages

The idea that intersexed bodies are “birth defects” is perpetuated by a lack of familiarity with intersexuality. But it wasn’t always this way.

11.09.14 10:45 AM ET

This week news broke that the Vatican would be inviting representatives of the world’s religions to a conference in late November on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman.” The conference’s attendees will be drawn from 23 countries and include speakers from Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam as well as conservative Protestants like mega-church pastor Rick Warren. After the recent media storm over the “softening” of the Church’s position on same-sex marriage and divorce, the announcement of a conference on the “complementary” (read: different and not necessarily equal) roles of men and women has flown completely under the radar. It just doesn’t fit public perceptions of Pope Francis.

Feminists should be concerned about the invocation of traditional roles. But in this discussion there’s a bigger issue here: when will religious groups talk about intersexuality?

Ignorance about the existence of persons with intersex conditions is hardly limited to the religious. Also known as hermaphroditism or DSD (“differences of sex development”), intersex is a general term used to describe a whole range of conditions in which a person’s sexual anatomy does not fit conventional definitions of male and female. Sometimes intersex happens at birth but sometimes it is revealed later in life—most commonly at puberty.

If you haven’t thought much about intersexuality, you’re not alone. Even though approximately 1 in 2,000 people are born with intersex (roughly the same amount as are born with cystic fibrosis or Down’s syndrome) it’s rarely discussed. One of the reasons for this is that doctors have employed a concealment-centered model focused on normalizing—through surgery and medication—the body and often even concealing intersexuality from the patient.

There is also striking lack of agreement among doctors about the precise definition of intersex. Do atypical “ambiguous” genitalia alone count? Is it about hormones or DNA? Must both ovarian and testicular tissue be present for a person to be “counted”? Doctors have wrestled over these kinds of questions for over 150 years, in part because intersex is, as the Intersex Society of North America states, “a socially constructed category.” We divide the world into male and female, and any biological variation that didn’t quite fit was labeled “intersex.” The truth of the matter is that, biologically speaking, there’s a great deal of diversity. Intersex isn’t a third category; it is a cluster of biological traits that reveal just how fluid gender really is.

Alice Domurat Dreger, Guggenheim-winning author of Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, told the Daily Beast that the male/female binary is accurate only “if you’re looking at some metrics—bathrooms, most medical intake forms, [and] Republican wedding ceremonies, but in terms of nature, while most of us are clumped at one end or the other, almost every [biological] trait blends along a spectrum from one end to the other, so there are lots of ways our sexes can vary, even if we appear to be lumped at one end or the other of the binary.”

While intersex activists have done an excellent job of re-educating the medical profession about the perils of across-the-board involuntary gender assignment, our cultural commitment to the male/female binary is about the reinforcement of majority rule, tradition, culture, and power. And a great deal of that tradition is about Christianity. According to Genesis, when God created humanity he created “humankind in his image” and “male and female he created them.” The idea that human beings are created in the image of God and divided into two complementary pairs has left a deep impression in our understanding of the world.

The idea that intersexed bodies are “aberrative” or result from “birth defects” is perpetuated by a lack of familiarity with intersexuality. Today, even celibate intersexed Christians who are committed to traditional familial models face social stigmatization and judgment from their peers.

But it wasn’t always this way. Biological variation was celebrated in the pantheon of the gods. The god Hermaphroditus was portrayed in Greco-Roman art as a female figure with both breasts and male genitalia and many in the ancient world were familiar with the myth of the androgyne: a primordial two-person entity with two sets of genitalia (some male-male, some female-female, and some male-female) that was divided into two. The idea is immortalized in Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium and pops up in popular culture in the song “The Origins of Love” in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Even the Biblical roots of gender are more ambiguous than people think. The creation stories themselves are up for grabs. Early interpreters of the creation stories in Genesis noted that God created human beings twice: the first time when God created humanity in its own image and the second when God made Adam and used his rib to make Eve. In dealing with this oddity, Genesis Rabbah, the classical collection of ancient Jewish commentary on the first book of the Bible, suggests that God first created an androgyne in his own image and only later divided it into male and female.

In this view, only intersexual people are created in the image of God.

Paul’s famous statement in Galatians that “in Christ there is no male or female” can easily be read as a divine endorsement of those who are neither or both. Definitions of sex and gender were actually contested in the early Church. As Benjamin Dunning, Professor of Theology, Comparative Literature, and Women’s Studies at Fordham told me, “Religious polemics against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons of faith tend to assume a single, fixed, and timeless notion of the sexual division—male and female—and then appeal to the authority of the tradition for support. But careful historical work in the ancient Christian sources shows … [that] we in fact abandon tradition when we assume as Christians that sex and gender are self-evident.”

Despite all the ancient gender-bending religious figures there were many in the pre-modern period who saw hermaphrodites as monsters. But they lived with it. It was only with the rise of medical technology that surgeons were able to eliminate social anxiety about gender by literally cutting the ambiguity out of the human body. First appearing in 1779, sex-assignment surgeries became increasingly popular from the nineteenth century onward. By the 1950s the rapid assignment of gender to an ambiguously gendered infant had become standard.

While some forms of DSD require careful medical attention, most cases do not require violent surgical intervention. Cultural pressures to police gender norms fuelled the widespread practice of surgically reassigning gender at birth. And this, in turn, reinforced the religious vision of a God-given binary.

Strangely, and despite thousands of years of theorizing about sex and gender, there’s precious little discussion of intersex in modern religious discourse. When it appears it is largely used to chastise transsexuals and to promote celibacy.

Part of the reason for this is that the stakes are so high. If we acknowledge that the world isn’t neatly divided into men and women, then highly sensitive political issues like same-sex marriage and transsexual identity become moot points. On what grounds can voluntary gender reassignment be objected to when involuntary gender assignment takes place on a regular basis? The realization that the biological traits used to determine sex fall on a spectrum means that pathologizing intersexuality is no longer viable. And it is difficult to object to same-sex marriage when so many binary-defying unions have already taken place.

The power of intersex bodies is their ability to disrupt social norms. In lobbying to stem the tide of surgical interventions in children, intersex activists have reassured the medical establishment that they are not interested in disrupting the status quo. The truth is that intersex just might be the silver bullet in the culture wars about sex and gender.