Review: Between XX and XY by Gerald Callahan
Title: Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Genders
Author: Callahan, Gerald N.
Length: 195 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Gender
Publisher / Year: Chicago Review Press / 2009
Source: Charis Books, Atlanta, Georgia (LOVE this store!)
Why I Read It: It looked interesting, and I had zero knowledge on the subject.
Date Read: 15/05/10
Warning – this is a long one. I just couldn’t stop!
When I read the blurb on the back cover I thought wow, I know nothing about this, I need to read this book! And am I ever glad I did. Here is what the blurb says:
Every year in the United States, more than two thousand children are born with an intersex condition of disorder of sex development. What makes someone a boy or a girl? Is it external genitalia, chromosomes, DNA, environment, or some combination of these factors? Not even doctors or scientists are entirely clear. What is clear is that sex is not an either-or proposition: not girl/boy or XX/XY, switching between two poles like an on-off switch on a radio. Rather, sex is like the bass and tremble knobs on the radio.
Between XX and XY provides a fascinating look at the science of sex and what makes people male of female. There are many people born XXY, XXXY, or XXXXY, or with any number of variations in X or Y chromosomes, yet those who do not fit into society’s preconceived notions about sex often face a difficult path in life.
I had to copy in that whole section because I don’t feel I will be able to convey the total relevance of this book, but I think that everyone should read it. There is a good chance that you had never heard of this condition, I know I hadn’t. I had heard of hermaphrodites, but not of any of the other conditions mentioned, including the chromosome differences. And with between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1000 living with some type of disorder of sex development, that is a huge segment of the population and a huge disorder that we completely ignore. Not only that – you may have been born intersex and the doctors may have hidden the knowledge from you and simply performed surgeries! Scary stuff.
In the introduction Callahan says:
… we try to keep sex simple. Men and women come in two, and only two, opposite forms: male and female, men and women, boys and girls. Black and white simplicity, no gray. We understand that gender – the ways that society molds us into proper girls or boys, men or women – is complicated. Gender depends on a lot of things – upbringing, culture, the stories fed to us by television and movies, hormones, and power struggles. Throughout it all, sex remains inviolate to us – boy/girl, black/white.
But that point of view doesn’t fit very well with the world around us.
He starts by giving us some real life examples of people living with these issues. He talks about the way these people feel, how they are raised, and how common it is. Because in our culture we demand to know, boy or girl, doctors often had to make the decision. And doctors make the decision based on what they see. It turns out that a surprising number of children are born with indeterminate sex features (surprising given how little attention the fact gets). If doctors weren’t sure, they just make a decision. Sometimes the family was involved, sometimes not. He says on page 7:
Surprisingly, until very recently, standard practice usually excluded the child and the parents from the decision-making process. The physicians made the choice of boy or girl and did what they could do to ensure that the child would walk that path for the rest of his or her life. Physicians believed that they knew best and that the input of others was unnecessary.
How crazy is that? Some children were raised never knowing the truth, some happily, some always feeling that they were ‘in the wrong body’. In one story by Kalana Sidrandi Alaniz, she says the following (on page 74), which I thought was so powerful:
Truthfully, I think the most important thing I would like people to understand about me is that I am a person, I have a right to my own body. It is mine after all , I am the one that has to live with it, and no one else has a right to make decisions for me. I really hope people come to understand that each of us has that same right. There isn’t a person on this planet who should be forced to live as something they aren’t. While doctors still continue to spread the belief that assigning a child as a girl or a boy is extremely crucial to their well-being, for those of us who they chose [the] wrong [sex for], our lives are just tortured. And for [those of us for whom the doctors] chose correctly, there are still huge emotional conflicts and emotional issues that are continually being ignored because of the medical standards in practice for intersexed people.
And then we have Nicky Phillips. She was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which makes male babies look very similar to girl babies. The sex chromosomes say boy, but the appearance says girl. She says, on page 108:
I have AIS, which is passed down through the X chromosome. If it were color blindness, which is passed the same way, no one would think it was a big deal. Because it is tied in with issues of sexuality and gender, it becomes something to be laughed about or discussed with discomfort.
So Callahan gives us personal accounts, and he also talks about the history of intersex. He talks about how these people were viewed and how we viewed gender in various cultures. He also discusses the different conditions, how they come about, the process by which a fetus develops, and what chromosomes and other bits and pieces make us into who we are. The discussion gets a little bit technical by times but he did keep it fairly ‘dumbed down’ so that I never found myself too lost. While I couldn’t list the various differences and what causes each, I will definitely be keeping the book as a reference.
Based on studies and anecdotal evidence Callahan says, on page 158:
… under the right circumstances, ambiguous genitalia are no impediment to becoming a boy or a girl. It seems that left to his or her own devices, an intersex child may find his or her own gender identity as easily as any other child.
The issue though, is that many doctors still say a sex needs to be chosen at birth. Their reasoning?
We don’t have any social system for accepting as human somebody who doesn’t have a gender assignment as male or female as a child. There are some adults who manage and struggle with having no gender, or having a third gender, or having two genders, but there is no social system at all for a child like that. I think it would be incredibly cruel and incredibly damaging to try to raise a child without a gender.
My idea? After reading this book, I would say don’t mess with something when you don’t know the consequences. The solution isn’t to ‘modify’ children’s bodies, the solution should be to change our thinking. These people exist, they make up a large part of our society, it’s time we recognize them. Obviously male/female one or the other does not work, we need to have a third option, or multiple options, or simply the right to not specify. I am human, isn’t that enough?
I will leave you with the following quote from the conclusion, on page 163:
Sex isn’t a switch we can easily flip between two poles. Between those two imaginary poles lies an infinite number of possibilities. Somewhere within that infinity is where you will find each of us. Intersex people have shown us that. We should be grateful. Because they are not bound by the traditional ropes of our traditions, they have shown us that we can untie the knots that bind us to our own preconceptions and begin to live freer lives.
Did you know about intersexuality? I didn’t realize it was as huge an issue as it is until I read this book. I now feel I have a general overview, though still want to read more. Any book suggestions?