What intersex people teach us about gender

What is gender?

Just finished watching the documentary InterSEXion on CBC TV. A powerful piece of visual storytelling by an intersex filmmaker about the many injustices intersex people face in today’s world.

The main point the film makes is that intersex people are natural, and as natural beings, as persons, they have a right to define their own identity. The film is a strong condemnation of what has been a common practice within the medical community of subjecting infants and young children to so-called corrective genital surgeries. Babies are getting cut up to make them conform to common standards of boy or girl.

But, as the film asserts, there is really nothing to correct — because intersex people are not broken. As Dr. Milton Diamond proclaims in the film: nature loves variation.

I recall my own conversations with an intersex woman I met while at film school. She talked about the shame she felt growing up, the lack of family support (they refused to talk to her about it) and the devastation that followed when a Doctor matter-of-factly informed her that she was sterile. Her response, while not morally upstanding, was understandable: she slept with as many married men as she could. Why not?

It took a long time for her to make peace with herself and even longer to find a loving partner. In fact, when I met her she was in her sixties. I don’t recall how old she was when she met her partner, but I think she must have been in her fifties. Her partner, interestingly, was a female-to-male transsexual. They both identify as female but both have XY chromosomes.

The film interviews many intersex people who have simply given up on love. They’ve become pigeon-holed for their unusual genitalia or mannerisms, classified as gay or freak. And as a result, they have avoided the pitfalls of romantic relationships altogether. After all, medical doctors and adults in their lives have been touching their genitals since they were infants. They were raised from the earliest age to see their body as ugly, different, monstrous. As far as most of them knew, no one else like them existed, nor were their bodies desirable in a sexual way.

It was refreshing to see among those interviewed, some who had loving childhoods, and who were able to develop healthy love lives and partnerships when they grew older. Either by chance or by the luck of the draw some of these children ended up with parents who did not allow their children to go under the knife. These children grew up oblivious of their difference until they were faced with the genitalia of their peers.

None of these people, the ones who escaped the knife, felt any shame at all about their difference. Not, at least, until they were confronted, as in one person’s case, with a medical professional who told him when he was 14 that based on his genitals and chromosomal makeup he was neither female, nor male; he was nothing.

Who calls a 14 year old nothing? Who gets to make that call about anyone else’s worth – regardless of their gender? And since when is gender the baseline for one’s value to society?


So many lives have been affected because of Dr. John Money‘s misguided assertion that gender was more about nurture than nature. Dr. Money was considered a brilliant psychologist at John’s Hopkins Hospital in the 1960s and his theories, which held that children were blank slates that could be raised to be either men or women regardless of chromosomes or other biological factors, were largely taken as gospel in the medical establishment — still are by many to this day, despite the mounting evidence discrediting his claims.

As one expert eloquently explains in the film: it’s not so much that John Money got it wrong. It’s that when evidence appeared that he was wrong, he simply wasn’t able to admit his mistake. After all, his blank slate theory of gender had made him world renowned. To admit he was wrong would be to admit that the theory that had launched his career was a sham. No one wants to be wrong, least of all a brilliant, ambitious psychologist at one of the world’s most prestigious hospitals.

Interestingly, the obituary for Money in the New York Times (he died in July 2006), presents him as an advocate for transsexual rights: [Money] was an early proponent of sex reassignment surgery for men and women who believed that their biologically given sex was at odds with their sexual identity. This does not square with my understanding of the man. He is much reviled in the trans community, understandably. Here is a man who thought he could change gender with the flick of a blade and the cooperation of trusting parents.

But back to the question I started with: what is gender? Gender is what you want it to be – but I believe it is also innate. It’s more than a choice, it’s in your DNA. As a transman who was raised as a woman, I believe gender is a choice we make only insofar as we let ourselves live out the identity we feel belongs to us. For some, that identity is pretty straightforward: man or woman. And for most, that conforms to the genitals they have. But for some of us, gender is more like an inverted onion — with layers upon layers of complexity the more you examine it up close.


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