Hermaphrodite Reflections

If you have been reading the news you’ve probably heard that world athletics is in crisis with tests showing champion runner Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite – a person with both female and male sexual characteristics.

As a Christian blogger I have to ask the question, what is the Christian community to make of this? Personally I think our first response must be compassion. I can’t imagine how awful it must be for Semenya, to have this personal tragedy played out in the public sphere.

But beyond that, I wonder what Christian fundamentalists make of it? Whatever the truth of the genetic basis of homosexuality, there is no doubt that hermaphroditism is genetic. On the other hand, I wonder what Christian liberals make of it? No one is suggesting this condition is one to be celebrated. It would seem hermaphrodites challenge many homespun truths.

I wonder, how would Jesus counsel a hermaphrodite who came for help?

18 thoughts on “Hermaphrodite Reflections”

  1. I think it depends on what you mean by celebrating it, Matt. I certainly believe that people should embrace who they are in all aspects of their lives and being. I don’t think that intersexed people should feel shame over being intersexed, nor do I feel they should have to keep it some dirty secret. Granted, I understand they may choose not to discuss it with other people and instead keep it private. But there’s a subtle, yet important difference between those two things.
    I’ll admit that I know little about what it means to be intersexed. And when I did a brief Google search, I became even more aware of just how little I knew. For example, I now know that there are actually four different broad classed of what it means to be intersexed. And in each of those classes, there are multiple possible causes and diagnoses, each with its own treatment plan.
    So knowing that I know very little and can’t hope to form a comprehensive and informed opinion over the course of this comment, I can only offer the questions and thoughts that I would tackle if talking to someone who is intersexed.
    What are the health implications of being interesexed? Are any of them life-threatening? If so, what can I do to help address them?
    What does the person need in terms of emotional and social support?
    There’s a lot of talk of surgery to “assign” the person one gender/sex or the other? Why? Are their health reasons motivating this? Or is it simply because we as a society insist on making everyone fit our two-role gender system? Is it what the person wants and needs? Is it right?
    I’m sure there are other questions. I simply don’t have the answers to them at this time.

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  2. I read in todays Sydney Morning Herald that 1 in 400 babies are born with this issue and are “assigned” one way or another by doctors. So its a reasonably common issue. Also for those who are not discovered at birth it often creates signigicant problems for them in later life. Personally I believe compassion, not legalistic judgmentalism is clearly the way to go and would be Jesus’s preferred Way.

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  3. It also raises questions of medical and journalistic ethics.
    How do the Australian media get to publish inimate reports about a South African teenagers genitalia when she herself hasn’t seen the report yet?
    While I’m not a fan of the latest fashion of apologising for other peoples sinse — see
    http://khanya.wordpress.com/2007/03/27/blair-the-slave-trade-and-apologies/
    perhaps this is where Australian Christians could both make a point and satirise the fashion by publicly apologising for the behaviour of the Australian media in this instance.

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  4. I’m not quite sure why you’re even linking homosexuality (a sexual orientation) and being a hermaphrodite (the physical condition of having both male and female organs). How are they related?

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  5. How are they related? Consider this: the Christian ideal of marriage between men and women is elusive in both cases, but with hermaphrodites they definately have no choise in the matter. What then if they enter a relationship? If their sex is indeterminate how could it be said to be an opposite sex relationship? Hermaphrodites raise some of the same boundary issues. Part of the reason McLaren explored it in his novel I think. He was using hermaphroditism as a vehicle for challenging Christian thinking about other gender issues.

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  6. Jarred, what I do know of intersexed people, which admittedly is far from comprehensive, suggests that many of them find their condition deeply traumatic. I had heard there were different types, but don’t know the answers to your other questions. I think these questions are worth asking though.

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  7. Steve, I am not sure who published the reports to be honest, I haven’t delved that deep yet. I know what you mean by journalistic ethics though. I vacilated on commenting myself. With the cat already out of the bag though, I decided to proceed since I thought some counterbalancing Christian voices wouldn’t go astray. The crucifixion by media is disturbing though.

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  8. Matt,
    I saw the story on e-news (South African) and BBC and Sky News (Brit), and all three said that it had come from the Australian media, and the South African sources said that Caster Semenya herself had had no report.
    I should imagine that her condition, whatever it is, is distressing enough without having the media circus added to it.

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  9. Just to answer part of the medical question: if there are testes inside the abdomen, these have a high risk of developing malignancy, so are usually removed

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  10. I suppose I can answer my own question by saying that homosexuality, gender identity and hermaphrodism (is that a word?) all almost certainly have biological factors heavily at play… genes, hormones, etc.
    In other ways they are distinct issues, and a deep understanding of these distinct issues seems more helpful to me than lumping them together.
    In my understanding most hermaphrodites do develop one gender identity or another… it seems poor Castor has a female gender identity and must feel terribly upset about all of this.

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  11. Matt, I’ll look forward to reading the links you and others have posted.
    This is more than a theoretical issue for me. I personally know several people with conditions categorized as intersexual, and have also done research writing to help others who have concerns for themselves or for their child. All together, these relate to such syndromes and situations as: Klinefelter, Androgen Insensitivity, Turner, hypospadias, Kallmann, and cryptorchidism. I’ve also been friends with at least 20 people with some form of transgender identity concern. Their actions range from no movement toward the other gender, to partial or complete sexual (re-)assignment surgeries, to reversion to their genetic/birth gender after already having reassignment surgery.
    In the year 2000, I presented a research/resource paper on transgenderism as an emerging bioethics issue in the 21st century. I also addressed issues of intersexuality. My emphasis was on the necessity for Christlike compassion as part of this emerging concern. How would Jesus respond to people with intersexual and/or transgender conditions? Below is a short section I wrote 10 years ago, with only minor editing. Although the paper focused on psychological transgenderism rather than physiological intersexuality, I believe the principles of compassion are still the same. — Brad
    * * * * * * *
    Some of the material covered in this paper may make us cringe. We may find transgenderism weird, perverse, evil, sinful, broken, or any number of other descriptors. But it is the actual condition of a number of men and women, girls and boys for whom Christ died. Will we further marginalize and exclude from God’s Kingdom those who already feel isolated from their true self? Or will Christ’s love drive us beyond our fears and feelings to love and serve those He cares about?
    I have two initial suggestions to help us transition to compassion. First, we must realize that all creation has been affected by The Fall. All of us are broken. What forms of brokenness do we personally embody? What wounds that we have sustained remain to be healed? What temptations, sins, and addictions do we carry that we wish were gone forever?
    Second, according to 2 Corinthians 1, all Christians are more equipped than we think to minister to people whose life experiences and personal problems seem far and foreign from our own. “Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of ALL comfort, who consoles us in our EVERY trouble, so that we may be able to encourage those in ANY kind of distress, with the consolation with which we are divinely sustained” (2 Corinthians 1:4, Modern Language Bible, emphasis added).
    When God tells us “all, every, any,” I believe He means it. We need not have the exact same experiences as other people in order to connect with them and offer them the kind of consolation they need. Compassion is a human universal, not a need-specific commodity. And as we relate with those affected by transgenderism issues, we may well find ample common ground among ourselves and our personal stories, and conclude as I already have: “Same roots, different fruit.”

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  12. I was similarly thinking that the effects of the Fall need to considered here. After all, wouldn’t we be saying the same if we were considering some non-genital birth defect? This allows us to say, it’s an effect of sin, but not their sin. So how are they any different from anyone else who has had to suffer the effects of the Fall? Their condition creates some social ambiguities, but wasn’t Jesus a frequent transgressor of social boundaries? Many questions emerge for me.

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  13. I know I am really late to this but I just wanted to say I read an article on Christian responses to intersex in the Church Times a few moths ago by Susannah Cornwall and now I see she has a book coming out on this very topic! Can’t do a link, sorry, but it’s called Sex and Uncertainty in the body of Christ at Amazon.com.
    I think intersexuality is to do with gender not sexuality so it’s not to do with being homosexual or not but more whether you feel male or female.
    Katelyn

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  14. Greetings Matt, presently,I am in the position that gives me the privilege to provide counseling to a woman that is medically classified as a hermaphrodite. When I came to your site, I was looking for answers and yet the questions remain. I do agree and appreciate your response that the individual and the matter be ministered to with and in compassion.
    The woman I am serving is in her mid-thirties. She was born and raised in a Christian family, educated, praying and charismatic pastors and ministers. Yet, here I am a substance abuse counselor in a correctional facility with this opportunity, especially, under unusual circumstances. Happen-stance, I think not; this is a divine appointment. ~RC

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