Addressing Gender Binary

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April 21, 2014

This image was taken from http://complicatingqueertheory.wordpress.com/.

This image was taken from http://complicatingqueertheory.wordpress.com/.

Does the gender binary exist? Are the options of biological sex only between female and male?

The word mutation usually has a negative connotation, meaning an abnormal change or that something unnatural has happened. Yet in genetics, mutations occur on their own and frequently–or in other words, naturally. “Mutation” can be understood as synonymous with “variance.” They are, in part, the reason that the human genome is so genetically diverse. However, there are socially constructed views that people with genetic differences are somehow “unnatural” and “wrong.”

Not only does variation show beauty, it’s also necessary. Variation makes us, as a species, less susceptible to diseases. It also allows us to adapt and evolve faster.

Yet we’re raised to believe (or at least I was) that there are two categories for humans, and only two–male and female.

While intersex births or births where the child is of variant sex are not extremely common, they do happen (more frequently even than albinism, a genetic mutation which many people are familiar with); an approximated number given by scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling is 1.7% of births. Due to mid-20th Century medical advancements, the 1.7% of children are frequently operated on immediately after birth or undergo treatment to make the child either completely male or female. That means out of 1,000 children born, 17 will be affected. That’s not a small number!

In Fausto-Sterling’s book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, she writes that if a child is born intersex or ambiguously-sexed in a place that practices Western medicine, doctors “declare a state of medical emergency” and “before twenty-four hours pass, the child must leave the hospital ‘as a sex,’ and the parents must feel certain of the decision.”

She continues that currently in medicine, there are “no national or international standards [that] govern the types of intervention that may be used.”

Doctors use the “size rule” to determine biological sex; smaller genitalia are identified as female, larger as male, and in the middle as in need of operation.

When talking to parents of ambiguously-sexed children, “physicians are to allege that the intersex child” is actually male or female and that only “embryonic development has been incomplete,” Fausto-Sterling said in her book.

Intersex people are increasingly being recognized. Germany changed their law to give parents the option to mark “X” on birth certificates, which allows parents to leave the hospital without legally or surgically choosing between male and female.

Hijra, present in parts of South Asia, have been recognized as a third gender in India (where they can mark “E” on their passports for Eunuch, which is what hijras are often called) and Bangladesh.

I just learned that in California, while you still have to choose either male or female at birth, the process to legally change your name and your legal sex is getting easier and less expensive later in life – you can receive partial refunds for the fees.

There are so many ways that a person can biologically turn out as something other than male or female. Does that mean they’re genetically “wrong”? Absolutely not. It means society has constructed a gender binary is not all-inclusive. Excluding individuals tells these people are “abnormal,” which implies a negative difference.

This is an excerpt. For the full article, go to http://complicatingqueertheory.wordpress.com/systems-of-knowledge/genetics-and-the-gender-binary/.


Addressing Gender Binary was published on April 21, 2014 in Column, Letters to the Editor, Opinions

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