The television program “Freaks and Geeks” aired for only one season (1999-2000) before it was cancelled. But one can hardly call it a failure, for it has since developed a large cult following, amassed numerous awards and distinctions, and launched the careers of stars like Seth Rogen, Jason Segal and James Franco. The program addressed many interesting and difficult topics in its eighteen episodes, but none was as progressive as the discussion of intersexuality in episode 17. In this episode Ken (Seth Rogen) is dating Amy when she confides in him that she was born with ambiguous genitalia. The doctors undertook an operation in order to “correct” the problem and Amy insists to Ken that she really is female.
Attitudes on this difficult topic continue to evolve. While the condition was once referred to as “hermaphroditism”, this term has since been abandoned due to its stigmatizing potential and replaced with the more neutral term “intersexuality”. (For further discussion see http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex)
And that’s not the only change. While doctors used to be quick to undertake surgery to disambiguate genitalia that don’t conform to simple male and female categorizations, today they are more reluctant to do so. Intersexuality is thus increasingly being recognized as a distinct identity over-against the male and female genders.
Intersex people are not a “problem”. But the recognition of intersexuality does present various problems or, if you prefer, challenges. For example, it presents challenges for societies and governments. On that issue, Germany garnered attention last year as the first European country to recognize indeterminate gender as a legitimate social identity (e.g. for census forms and drivers licences).
Some Christians will view this growing recognition of intersexuality as a “third way” with suspicion or even hostility, seeing it as a sign of sexual perversion and a denigration of moral values and the “traditional family”. One imagines the case for that view begins with Genesis 1:27:
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them
Consequently, so the assumption goes, any child born with ambiguous genitalia must be created as male or female. And it is simply a matter of discerning the true gender and undertaking the proper corrective surgery.
Others, however, will disagree with this approach. The reality is that while Amy may have been satisfied with her corrective surgery and comfortable in her assigned gender, many other times intersex people subjected without their consent to corrective surgery do not find themselves identifying with the gender they have been given. As you can imagine, this can lead to a deeply traumatizing situation that cultivates confusion and depression. To say the least, it seems harsh to insist that every person who self-identifies as intersex rather than male or female are sexually perverted and seeking to attack the traditional family.
But then what should a Christian think of the proposal that intersexuality should be recognized as a distinct identity over-against the male and female genders? This is a complicated question. My first observation is that Christians should not allow fear of censure by religious conservatives to quash an important conversation that needs to be had. It is a tragedy when we allow fear to keep us silent on a topic that urgently requires careful theological reflection.