Hands Off

Sexual Identity: a
Step Beyond Anatomy

When President Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage last week, a wave of optimism and hope swept the nation. It is as if in what this issue is concerned, the U.S. has finally entered the 21st century.
After all, it’s been some 50 years since the sexual revolution took western societies by storm. Despite the good news, though, we’re far from seeing meaningful changes in people’s attitude towards sex.

The slow and arduous process that marriage rights for same-sex couples is taking in the U.S. has been a sobering reminder of how much we still lack in awareness about this issue.
Still, as residents of New York, the sixth state to legalize such unions, we have reasons to be proud for having helped this crucial issue of social justice to get the president’s attention, and things seem to be moving forward. We’re just not quite as far as we wished, after so many years since the first gay parade took to the streets.
But if we think progress has been slow for gender acceptance and equality, we haven’t yet been acquainted with the struggles of another sexual minority, now grouped under the Disorders of Sex Development banner, no doubt, for absolute lack of a better name.
The expression “anatomy is not destiny,” used so appropriately to describe and protect the needs of minorities, is even more accurate when applied to those born with different anatomic sex configurations. And there are many.
Worst, for generations born with DSD in the 20th century, their most severe challenge was not in the cards nature or a set of fortuitous circumstances dealt to them. It was in the way they were perceived and “treated” by the medical establishment.
And, of course, the lifetime of bullying, abuse and shame that followed an arbitrary decision taken when they were too young to reject.
For the overwhelming majority of people born anatomically different from what’s still considered “normal,” there was no choice but surgical “reassignment,” the medical practice of literally sculpting the genitals to resemble either one gender.
Such radical intervention was usually done without full consideration of its consequences, and the more involving, multi-staged and complex the procedure, more chances that such a person would lose most of his or her sexual identity.
Pleasure, for instance, would be the first one to go, since surgery would disable nerve endings and render sexual organs completely numb. And so would be sexual function, and oftentimes, any other function associated with the genitals.
All done in order to preserve an appearance of normality. The cruel irony is that depression, mental disability and all sorts of anti-social behavior, due mostly to the feeling of being “different,” became rampant among these lost generations.
Many simply couldn’t resist the pressure, but others endured it and still walk among us. Hopefully, we’re living in different times. The “dictatorship of normalcy” has lost much of its veneer and is now perceived by what it is: intolerance, prejudice, ignorance.
So, it seems reasonable to expect that same-sex marriage will soon become the law of the whole land. And that horrifying medical practices such as the “reassigning” of the gender of babies will be destined to the dustbin of history.
We don’t fool ourselves, it may take a long time. Just look at how worked up political and religious leaders get over a woman’s reproductive rights. How easy it is for a group of men to take upon themselves to decide what the women in their lives, community or country should or should not do with their own bodies.
How pious and unwavering seem most faith-based groups about what they believe is a woman’s moral duty to never voluntarily terminate their pregnancies. And how fast the same piousness turns into cold shoulders when she becomes a single mother.
From rape as a weapon of tribal war to sexual harassment as a tool to perpetuating class and social rank, sex is closer to the struggle that may determine who dominates and who’s emasculated, than the need for shared pleasure and companionship.
And it’s hardly ever a choice, as millions of transgender people can attest daily. It’s a completely different experience, that of someone needing a body to match his or her identity, compared to having been assigned one by social convention. In both cases, though, whatever choice the person once had, it’s been taken away.
Only someone who did go through the painful, strenuous process of gender reassignment can tell you how much has been lost along the way, so they could achieve a moment of wholeness, denied to them since birth. Society is not an ally in their journey, and will try to derail any attempt at achieving such wholeness.
Once again, someone may be bullied with impunity throughout life just because he or she lacks that assumed definition of “either/or.” Once again, the fight will be about who controls the narrative that defines gender, the vulnerable candidate to body reassignment or the faceless, brutal crowd.
From India comes disturbing reports of gender manipulation for yet another reason: social mobility. It’s been known that a disproportionate number of abortions in India involves girls.
The practice is common among parents concerned about the costs of marrying daughters, which imply paying dowries to the groom’s family in a country still ruled by old traditions.
As a result, there are now seven million more boys than girls aged under six in the world’s second-most populous nation. Apparently, not even that is enough. The government is investigating claims that hundreds of girls were surgically turned into boys.
Doctors who’ve charged about $3,200 for the operations, now say that the girls had genital abnormalities that needed to be “surgically corrected,” and that only children born with both male and female characteristics were eligible for the procedure.
But activists for women’s and children’s rights say they were misidentifying the condition for financial gain. It’s another sign of how poorly India, a country with staggering social woes, is coping with its explosive demographics.
We could end with a morally correct, overarching conclusion about the sins of our contemporary societies. Instead, it’s better to focus on the notion that sexuality is a fluid constant, and that male and female genders are closer to each other than one would be led to believe.
What’s the more insidious and destructive about the intolerance and determinism towards sexual identity and the politics of sex in society is that they share so much with the oppression of dictatorship regimes, the authoritarianism of mass murderers, and the fanaticism of religious leaders.
As with the issue of rape, it has little to do with sex, and a lot with dominance, control, power over someone else’s life. That’s why any struggle for sexual affirmation reflects the human longing for freedom, self-determination and happiness.
Everything that those who use sex as a power tool hate the most.

* Originally published in June 2010.

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