Monday, September 17, 2007

The Abrahamic Religions and Intersexuality

Rather than continue to inject comments on this subject over at Debunking Christianity, I felt it appropriate to build up my case in a post here.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. - Gen 1:27
Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for [her] hair is given her for a covering. - 1 Cr 11:14-15
In several places, the Old and New Testaments and the Qur'an make it clear that the Hebrew and Christian gods intended that there be two human sexes with a distinct gender role assigned to each within the religion and within the ideal family structure. For a member of either of these sexes to perform the other sex's gender is a shameful or sinful thing. This model was the dominate view within European and Middle Eastern societies since that time as it has been in many other cultures. With the advent of empirically driven medical sciences, many within these societies have come to acknowledge the fact that other cultures have long recognized: among all sexually dimorphic animals, there is room for "error" when primary and secondary sexual characteristics are expressed in an individual.

Among homo sapiens, around 0.018% of all children born fall within that margin of atypical sexual development and are born with ambiguous genitalia or other mismatches between external phenotype, internal body chemistry and structure, and genotype. Due to social norms and the success of behaviorist psychology, the dominant approach by European and North American medicine to these children over the past century had been to "fix" their genitalia when they displayed outward signs of their condition. Often this meant simulating the outward appearance of the female organ due to an assumption that living as a female with lessened reproductive capabilities would somehow be less distressing than living as a male with an atypically small penis. The professionals involved assumed that conditioning during childhood would cause the child to develop in the assigned gender role. The number of cases that were successful cannot be determined, but the number of cases where a gender was chosen unsuccessfully are building. You can read more about the current state of affairs at the Intersex Society of North America's website.

A few things should be noted here:
  1. I am not discussing transsexuality, where an individual of one sex identifies psychologically as another gender. Although intersexuality is often included under the blanket transgender label, the causes of the two conditions and their manifestations are different enough to distinguish them.
  2. Like the rest of us, individuals with disorders of sex development tend to identify as one of the genders typical in their culture. The majority of intersexed individuals in the United States, for example, identify as a man or a woman and not as a third gender because our mainstream culture does not recognize more than two genders. I do not see this as a contradiction of my point, as I am discussing sex, not gender. The first is biological, the second is a combination of the psychological and social.
  3. I understand that what I am arguing poses no problems for theists who have left the exclusivist or literalist wings of monotheism and recognize that all ancient books are human documents and subject to human failings.
My question is: when the documents one is supposed to accept as divinely inspired law maintain that sex is a discrete category and the biological reality is something else entirely, how does one reconcile the difference? What becomes of the strict gender roles when their biological basis is shown to be a failed hypothesis?

When raising a child with fused labia, no uterus, and an enlarged clitoris, do we require them to cover their head or not in prayer? Should they wear hijab? Can they become a priest? Who are they allowed to marry? Do any answers change if they undergo masculinzation at puberty? What if they identify with that masculine identity but had been raised a girl up until then?

Today we might recognize an individual's specific disorder and prescribe hormones or other treatments to help them achieve a semblance of sexual normality and restore some function. Individuals in the past may have been wrongfully condemned or punished because they were unable to seek similar treatments. Who is at fault: the individual, their contemporaries, or the authors of the religious texts that insisted there were discrete sexes and condemned homosexuality and gender atypical behavior?

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