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Male and Female God Created Them

By Sally Gross

“Is it a boy or is it a girl?” This is probably the first question asked about all newly-born babies. The answer which is expected is either “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl”.

It seems natural to assume that each baby is either a boy or a girl. In about one in 2000 births, however, this assumption comes unstuck. These babies are what is best called intersexed, though sometimes called “hermaphrodites”. They are born with bodies which, in some significant way, are in-between, not clearly male or female. The genitals of these babies are usually ambiguous.

Intersexed bodies are generally no danger at all to the physical health of the baby. Since the mid-1950s, though, such births have been treated as a medical emergency. Doctors tend to cut such bodies into conformity, as early as possible. Most bodies are “reshaped” as female because, as one surgeon put it, “It’s easier to dig a hole than to build a pole”.

The experience of many intersexed activists show that such surgery frequently leads to both physical problems and psychological anguish later on. Parents are often not told the truth or the whole truth, as are people who are intersexed.. Imposing what is generally cosmetic surgery denies the children the chance to make choices about their own bodies. Later in life, they often have to battle with the medical establishment to uncover the truth about their own bodies.

As a result, intersexed children often grow up with a sense that there is something shameful about their bodies. They are often unaware that anyone else in the world is like them, have a sense of dark secrets in their childhood, and may well even fear that they are physical monsters.

The branch of medicine which studies intersexed people, among others, does label intersexed people and some others as monsters. It is called “teratology”, from the Greek term for monsters. Intended or not, this is major discrimination, a kind of apartheid, and should have no place in our new South Africa.

Some Christian fundamentalists also have negative attitudes towards intersexuality. They see it as something which is in conflict with God’s plan for humanity, as a mark of sin.

Such people often quote Genesis 1:27-28, “So God created humankind (Adam) in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” Many argue that those who are intersexed are therefore not in the image of God..

This is an odd way to use these verses. The Jewish Rabbis, through whom scripture was passed on to the world, understood them very differently. Adam, they taught, was created intersexed, not just male or female but both. This is the image of God in which humankind was created. It was only later that God divided Adam into male and female. Intersexed babies are no less created in God’s image than other babies. Those who reject intersexed bodies as monstrous, shameful or sinful reject the very image and likeness of God in which all were created.

There is a small but significant and growing movement of intersexed activists. It recognises that in societies like ours at present, babies need to be raised consistently either as boys or as girls until they are able to make choices for themselves. “Best guesses” do need to be made. Even the best-intentioned guess, however, can turn out to be the wrong one in the longer run. Space for free and informed choices need to be left open to intersexed children. It must not be removed by cosmetic surgery. Surgery which is genuinely needed to preserve life or health is of-course a completely different matter.

Our new South African Constitution and Bill of Rights sets itself against Apartheid of all kinds. It seeks to teach our people to cherish its diversity as a “Rainbow Nation”. This surely holds true of the different ways bodies are from birth. As the birth of intersexed babies shows, we are a “Rainbow Species”. It is part of the process of transformation in the new South Africa that intersexed babies, children and adults should be cherished, treated with dignity, protected from discrimination, and enabled to flourish.

The Intersex Society of South Africa (ISOSA) can be contacted by post at:
Suite No. 171
Private Bag X18
Rondebosch 7701
or by email at: isosa AT

The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) can be contacted by post at:
PO Box 3070
Ann Arbor, MI 48106-3070
United States of America
or by email at : info AT

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