Intersexuality

Human biology is everywhere the same, and follows the basic mammalian sexual pattern. There are, of course, a variety of genetic and hormonal anomalies which occasionally occur. Examination of the ways in which different cultures deal with these helps make the case for understanding gender, and, to some extent, cultural sex, as culturally constructed in ways that are not dependent on biological realities. One anomaly, the birth of a child with external genitalia that are not clearly male or female, usually referred to as intersexuality, illustrates that the variation is along the lines of social and cultural location.

The Pokot, living in Kenya, respond to intersexed individuals as an extremely unfortunate occurrence, and frequently resort to infanticide (Edgerton, 1964). The Navajo classify such individuals as belonging to a third category that is neither masculine nor feminine (Hill, 1935). Most segments of middle class U.S. culture tend to see such people as "mistakes of nature" and seek to correct the "error." For the Pokot, there is no cultural place for those they call sererr, and those few who survive live on the margins of the society. U.S. cultures also have no place for intersexed individuals, but try to fit them into one of the two normatively accepted categories.

Although both the middle-class United States and the Pokot can be said to have a bipolar view of sex and gender, the conceptualizations are still very different. For the Pokot, only those with the normatively appropriate morphological structures can be transformed into gendered children. For the United States, a surgical transformation renders biologically anomalous individuals fit for the social and cultural transformation that will occur. Ultimately, in every culture there is a process by which genderless neonates are transformed into gendered children (or adults-in-training).

Recently, at least in North America and Western Europe, people who see themselves as transsexual or transgendered have been agitating for an end to the assumption that biologically intersexed people suffer from a malady. They have also urged an end to automatic consideration of sex reassignment surgery. Their vision is of North American macroculture as it might be. However, it is still the case that the most frequent occurrence is to view children born with ambiguous genital structures as needing treatment so that they can fit into one of the two culturally accepted poles.

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