Intersex Challenges Binary Theology (& Politics)

Just sometimes, when a baby is born the answer to “Is it a girl or a boy?” the answer is simply, “No”. A small but significant proportion of people have bodies that just do not fit into that binary divide of either male or female.  There are few firm estimates of the number of intersex people, because definitions vary. By one narrow definition, the proportion of the population who are intersex is 0.018%. In a world population of 7.6 billion, even this lower estimate is still an awful lot of real people – something like 1.4 million. A broader definition puts the proportion at 1.7%, or as many  as 129 million, worldwide.

For Intersex Awareness Day, I share links to some previous posts on intersex. First, there’s the story of How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology. Sally  Gross was assigned male at birth, and as an adult became a Catholic Dominican priest and a teacher of moral theology in England. However, Sally was in fact intersex, with internal organs primarily female. When this became known, it led to a decision to transition – and the forced expulsion from the priesthood. Later, she returned to her native Cape Town, where she founded Intersex South Africa.

In  Galatians 3:28 we read that  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Science shows that it is not only in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, but even in the real world – at least not in any rigid, binary sense. In addition to the biological absolute male and absolute female, there are a wide range of intermediate “sexes”, collectively known as intersex. (It is this wide range that gives rise to the range in definitions, and hence to widely differing estimates of the proportion in the population). In Beyond Male and Female: Gender Trouble, Biology Trouble, I describe some of these variations.

While intersex people present a problem for the Catholic Church, this is not the case for other denominations which do not reserve the priesthood to males.  Intersex, Women Bishops, and the Body of Christ, deals with a discussion of the implications for the Church of England by Dr Susannah Cornwall, a theologian with a specialist interest in intersex issues.

Intersex people are not transgender, and the issues must not be confused. However, there is one area where both present the same problem – that of pronouns. Which pronoun should one use when referring to an intersex or trans person, and we do not know their preferred pronoun? “T and Conversation”: Beyond Binary Pronouns  considers this, with some suggestions.

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