Intersex and Religion: The Fourteen Days of Intersex

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ON the Eleventh Day of Intersex we draw your attention to intersex and religion.

What is intersex?

Intersex people are people who, as individuals, have congenital genetic, hormonal and physical features that may be thought to be typical of both male and female at once. That is, we may be thought of as being male with female features, female with male features, or indeed we may have no clearly defined sexual features at all.

How do religion and other systems of belief regard intersex?

How contemporary religious institutions and the religiously inclined regard intersex is a mystery indeed.

In the distant past intersex people were held in high esteem by many religions.

In traditional Korean and North American cultures intersex were perceived as mendicants or shamans. Early Christians and some parts of the Judaic tradition likewise saw us as a gift from god or at least gifted. Hindu and Muslim societies likewise, in the ancient past, had respected places for intersex.

Intersex suffering under the sex binary construct

It no accident though that intersex people have been seen in an increasingly unfavourable light as the Western insistence on strict sex binaries escalated as a consequence of escalating homophobia. This demand that all human beings conform to the sex binary construct is justified with a variety of religious texts.

The emergence of strong demands that all relationships must be heterosexual, a partnership for life between a man and a woman, resulted in the need to ensure that there were in fact only male or female contenders. Where once those of us with atypical sex anatomies were seen as being gifted, we now became a problematic impediment to the certainty of heterosexuality. Our bodies, in unhinging heterosexual certainty, became somehow sinful, unnatural.

Intersex once revered, now condemned, killed or worse

In cultures where we were revered, such as Hindu culture, we were given a caste called Hijra and thought to be lower than the lowest of the low. In North American cultures missionaries gave the formerly revered shamans the insulting name Berdache <> and our respected place was lost.

The missionary zeal in the Pacific islands has seen intersex people condemned in keeping with the homophobic teachings of visiting Western preachers.

In Africa the situation is dire. Missionaries preaching throughout Africa against homosexuality have seen cultures take those teachings to heart and then project their revulsion of the apparently “queer” onto intersex bodies.

Intersex activists in equatorial Africa now rescue intersex newborns from latrine pits and rubbish dumps where they have been thrown.

African intersex activists rescue intersex children from being burned alive or stoned to death, at risk to their own lives, because cultures that were once sanguine in regard to intersex have become repulsed by and frightened of us.

No paradise for intersex

Even now, Western observers imagine that those who are intersex or those who are gender non-conforming must retain some kind of legitimate place in society. They imagine that Kathoey in Thailand <>, Hijra in India <>, and Fa’fa’fine in Samoa <’afafine> live in some kind of Rousseauian paradise of cultural acceptance.

Nothing could be further from the truth. That grossly mistaken view is driven by anthropologists and political scientists with a barrow to push, generally a feminist one and Western wishful thinking.

Intersex people are driven from rural communities to the main cities where they live itinerant lives, in misery, rejected by family, friends and community.

Religion offers nothing to intersex

In the one hundred and fifty years since Herculine Barbin was born not one single religious organization has stood up for the rights of intersex people.

Not one religious organization has argued for our equal rights and social inclusion.

Not one religious organization provides intersex-specific pastoral care.

Not one religious organization provides resources or support for intersex people.

In recent human rights round tables, fundamental human rights for intersex people have been opposed by religious organizations. One peak religious body declared that we were in fact male or female in essence; that our relationships could be declared heterosexual or homosexual and that when we were reclassified as the latter then we were sinful.

Intersex ignored during national human rights circus

During the Rudd Government’s human rights national caravan chaired by Catholic theorist Frank Brennan, intersex rights were ignored completely. Our need for inclusion in anti-discrimination law was strenuously overlooked. Attempts by intersex people to engage directly with Father Brennan in helping him understand intersex and attempts by us to impart the facts about our lack of rights were rebuffed.

From time to time we do come across congregations and individual people of religious conviction who are sympathetic and supportive. Their governing bodies, unfortunately, do not share those kind and inclusive sentiments.

For an intersex person to be included in membership of a religious body, organization, religion or religious family, it is critical that their intersex is made invisible, all traces of its existence in the world and the bodies of individual intersex people erased.

Hospitals collaborating in religious oppression of intersex

In the United States two leading teaching hospitals assist in this endeavour. In New York, the Methodist Hospital Brooklyn provides a warmly welcoming environment for Dr Maria New to administer the anti-lesbian medicine dexamethasone aka DEX to mothers suspected of carrying an intersex fetus and to Dr Dix Poppas who checks out his intersex “reparative” surgery by sexually stimulating the cut-up clitorises of five year olds. The hospital’s ethics committees passed both treatments. After appropriate consultation with heaven, perhaps? Who knows?

Another American Institution, the Johns Hopkins University, replaced the disgraced gender theorist John Money with Paul McHugh, a practicing Catholic and advisor to the Vatican on intersex and trans issues. McHugh used his religious convictions to advocate against transsexual people and then advocated for an essentialist and normalizing view of intersex.

Both Johns Hopkins and the New York Methodist Hospital are driven by their own and parental fears that intersex people are somehow, magically and mysteriously, “gay”. There can be little doubt the underlying religious convictions are used to justify this fear.

We do not argue that no secular organization is as unhelpful to intersex people as religious organizations. We can say that some intersex people are supported by some secular organizations.

What we can say is there is little acceptance of intersex people in religion and little help or comfort to be gained from it.

Gina Wilson
Chairperson, Organisation Intersex International Australia Limited (OII Australia)