The Question of Gender

From Jessa Crispin at The Smart Set:

The last century of gender theory has expanded the idea of binary masculine-or-feminine gender: It’s more of a spectrum — not one on which you are assigned a place to occupy for the rest of your life, but one on which you can shift like a be-socked child sliding over a newly waxed floor. From tomboy to cheerleader, from boy drag to girl drag, there are myriad influences on your gender expression, some more socially palatable than others.

But what about the idea of sex itself being a spectrum, rather than the binary of male or female? If you try to write out the criteria for the sexes, it quickly gets complicated. What makes someone male? The first obvious answer is genitalia. But take that away, due to a birth defect or an accident, and is the person still male? Of course, but why? Next answer probably goes to the chromosomes. But there are physical reasons why a child born with XY might have female genitalia and think of herself as female. Is maleness then caused by androgen exposure in the womb? Testosterone production? All fetuses start out as female, and things can happen during the pregnancy that prevent masculinization, or will masculinize a fetus with XX chromosomes. Currently, the word used to describe people born with physical traits both masculine and feminine, or with gender variations like Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) or Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS), is “intersex.”

Some, like Thea Hillman, the author of Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word), are not diagnosed until early childhood, some not until puberty. Hillman was four when she began to grow pubic hair. After a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with a mild form of CAH and put on hormonal treatment in an attempt to inhibit the growth of body hair and to allow her to grow to a normal height. The mildness of her CAH means she will not have the infertility, dwarfism, hermaphrodism, or facial hair that can occasionally result. But she is still poked and prodded her entire life, and every doctor’s visit begins with her pulling down her pants. It is a childhood of feeling ashamed of her body, of feeling there is something wrong with her.

Read the whole thing here

Reviewing Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word) by Thea Hillman

and Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority and Lived Experience by Katrina A. Karkazis

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