DSD: Disorders of Sexual Development and How We View Gender

Which one is the "real" female?

DSD, or disorders of sexual development, is a controversial term because of the word “disorder.” Many who “suffer” from sexual abnormalities (another charged word) take issue with the idea that they are abnormal. They view their conditions as natural variations that have always occurred, in much the same way that homosexuality has always been with us. But, also like homosexuality, people with DSD are often seen as either freakish mutations or frauds.

Some cases of DSD are clear cut and can be verified biologically. Babies can be born with the sex organs of both sexes (also known as hermaphroditism). People with the condition may have irregular chromosomes: XXY for example, instead of the typical XX (female) or XY (male) set. The genes on the chromosomes may be defective. Or the body may lack the receptors that allows sexual hormones to be put to work.

But classifying sex by chromosomal or hormonal evidence can be tricky. What many people don’t realize is that the fetus is sexually ambiguous until around seven weeks when the sexual structures (known as “indifferent genitals”) begin to develop into the organs of a male or female. But in approximately one in 2,000 births the differentiation isn’t conclusive.

However, unless there is reason to suspect DSD from outward examination, the presence of the “other” sex’s organs may not be discovered until adulthood, if then. Some people go their whole lives never suspecting that they have sexual organs of the opposite sex, or that their sex chromosomes are defective, or that they cannot utilize sexual hormones appropriately. Often the only clue they have that something is wrong is that they “feel” more like the opposite sex than the one they were assigned at birth.

And then there are individuals who identify with neither sex (or with both). They often refer to themselves as “intersexual.” This is sometimes used interchangeably with DSD, but it is mostly used as an attempt to purge the terms that apply to their condition of their pejorative nature.

So why am I writing this post for a feminist blog? In other words, how is this a feminist issue?

Continue reading “DSD: Disorders of Sexual Development and How We View Gender”

Gender Roles and Religion

Just so I don’t seem to be picking on Islam, I’m going to write first about Christianity and then about religion in general when it comes to gender roles. Islam is generally seen as the most oppressive to women, followed by Judaism and then Christianity. But in reality, Christianity has mixed reviews when it comes to its attitude toward women. On the one hand, it has the whole Mary devotion thing going on (which ironically it shares with Islam) and women had key roles in Jesus’ ministry. On the other hand, it has Paul whom my mother used to call a misogynist, and whose writings heavily influenced the Church’s attitude toward women.

The thing about the Christian religion is that it is hung up about sex. And since women are the objects of men’s sexual desire, they are often seen as temptresses and whores. There’s also the little matter of Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden and through her actions (some say) unleashing sinfulness among mankind. The Church Fathers never forgave her for that. (Nor did they assign Adam equal responsibility for his actions.

The Catholic Church has its Mariology and female saints to whom its adherents pray. And orders of nuns have done incalculable good in this world. (Tell that to a Catholic who went to a parochial school, particularly in “the old days.”) But it has also done more to give people (especially women) sexual hangups than any other Christian denomination–or other religion, for that matter.

But what about gender roles? When you compare Christianity to Islam for example, it’s important to compare like with like. That means that you have to take into consideration that it is the fundamentalists on both sides who are the most rigid about gender roles. You can’t compare a liberal Christian–which means almost everyone who belongs to a mainline Protestant denomination–with an Islamic fundamentalist. There are plenty of Muslims, even devout Muslims, who don’t see women as strictly bound into their roles as wives and mothers. And there are plenty of Christians, especially those who are conservatives, who insist on specific gender roles for men and women.So in essence it’s not the religions themselves that are the culprits. They may lay the foundation, but it is the adherents who build the building that most people see.

The more germane question is: are gender roles a bad thing? Most feminists would say yes. But developing an identity that is consistent with your sexual identity could be seen as an important part of your maturing process. I think the real question is, how rigid are these roles? If a woman feels forced into having children, for instance, that’s not a good thing. And it’s no accident that insisting on rigid gender roles is a key component in homophobia. People just don’t like those who don’t fit in boxes.

The problem with gender roles is, it’s hard to tell how much is biology and how much is socialization. Feminists are most interested in allowing people to develop according to their unique personalities. When socialization occurs, it obscures what might be a very broad spectrum of gender behavior. This is especially important when we consider trans-sexuals. What if a person doesn’t fit into gender roles and descriptions? What if a person feels like he or she was born into the wrong gender? Few, if any, religions do a very good job of ministering to people with gender “confusion,” let alone accepting them the way they are.

Gender roles can be comforting. They guide us through the tricky business of living. But when they get in the way of personal fulfillment, they’re not doing what God intended. I don’t mean to say that religion is all about feeling good about yourself. There are times when you shouldn’t, when your behavior doesn’t hit the mark, so to speak. But if you believe, as I do, that God has a plan for each of us, then it is a matter of following Him and discerning His will for you. That may mean that you stay home with the kids or provide for the family. But it could also mean that you do the opposite of what gender roles tell you to do, or at least that you don’t fit into them completely.

I believe that the most mature religious people recognize that their religions are strong agents for socialization. And that this is not necessarily a good thing, when it comes to each person’s standing before God. It should not be man who socializes, or shapes, us into who we are. It should be God who does the shaping.

Hate Crimes Legislation Debate

Jos, on Feministing, is against hate crimes legislation for several reasons, one being:

“Hate crimes legislation puts the power to bring and pursue such charges in the hands of a law enforcement and criminal justice system that disproportionately targets marginalized communities. As a result, hate crime charges are brought against black folks for allegedly targeting white folks and against queer folks for allegedly targeting straight folks. In fact, as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) points out in their non-endorsement of GENDA, so called anti-white hate crimes constitute the second highest amount reported by the FBI. Self defense in the face of a racist, homophobic or transphobic attack can equal a harsher sentence for the person being attacked in the first place.”

Read entire post here.

The SRLP’s statement includes their assertion that “[hate crimes legislation] encourage[s] us to lay blame and focus our vengeful hostility on one person instead of paying attention to institutional prejudice that fuels police violence, encourages bureaucratic systems to ignore trans people’s needs or actively discriminate against us, and denies our communities health care, identification, and so much more.”

The SRLP’s interpretation of the FBI statistics is misleading. Anti-white crimes may be the second most numerous type of hate crime based on race, but they still only constitute 18.3% compared to the 69.3% of the race crimes that are anti-black. Big difference. Also, the FBI statistics don’t even include a separate category for transgendered individuals.

Jos’ objection, “the fact that hate crime legislation does not have any quantifiable positive impact makes it a very poor reason to go against my larger belief about prisons” is a legitimate one. But I don’t understand a view that is willing to let hate crime perpetrators off the hook. Ideally, laws reflect the values of a society but sometimes they help to bring about change in those values. Hate crime legislation is both. There are still a lot of people in this society who think it is all right to commit crimes against persons and property base on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/nationality and disability. They need to be shown in no uncertain terms that our society will not stand for that behavior.

Meanwhile, I agree that other means to change people’s attitudes should be employed. But that kind of change can be slow in coming. Jos’ assertion that “harsher sentencing does not decrease the amount of hate crimes being committed” may be true, but not making laws against them implies a tolerance that our society cannot afford to exhibit.

The Matthew Shepard Act that is now going through Congress is an example of the attempt to tighten hate crimes laws. It seeks to achieve three objectives:

1) Expand the law to authorize the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute certain bias-motivated crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Current law only includes race, color, religion or national origin.

2) Eliminate a serious limitation on federal involvment under existing law which requires that a victim of a bias-motivated crime was attacked because he/she was engaged in a specified federally-protected activity such as voting, serving on a jury or attending school.

3) Add “gender” and “gender identity” to the Hate Crimes Statistics Act*

This does not seem to be too much to ask.

*Source: Matthew Shepard Foundation

Sexual Hate Crimes

The FBI shows [see below] that hate crimes based on sexual orientation are the third most prevalent type. That’s why it doesn’t make sense that George Bush vetoed the Matthew Shepard Act when it landed on his desk in 2007. This legislation would have protected people from hate crimes on the basis of perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

For those who don’t know the story, Matthew Shepard, age 21, was tied to a fence post, tortured and beaten and left for dead by two other young men. He was found 18 hours later and was pronounced dead five days later. The defense tried to use a “gay-panic” defense as a way to circumvent any affiliation with hate crimes, but the fact is, the perpetrators couldn’t have been prosecuted for a hate crime anyway, because Wyoming didn’t recognize sexual orientation as one of the “conditions” that precipitates hate crimes. It still doesn’t. (It is not the only state that does not have such legislation; at last count there were 18 more who have ignored the importance of legislating sexual hate crimes.) Huffington Post article about this here.

This is not the only time a person has been beaten or murdered for having an sexual orientation that is considered by some to be deviant. Some well-known victims include Brandon Teena and Angie Zapata. How many more have to die before sexual hate crimes will be prosecutable nation-wide?

An FBI 2008 press release about hate crimes in general reported that “of the 7,621 single-bias incidents [in 2007], 50.8 percent were motivated by a racial bias, 18.4 percent were motivated by a religious bias, 16.6 percent were motivated by a sexual orientation bias, and 13.2 percent were motivated by an ethnicity/national origin bias. One percent involved a bias against a disability.”

The only reason I can think of why President Bush would have vetoed the Matthew Shepard Act is because he thinks violence against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals is justifiable. And that is just plain sick.

The State of Gay Marriage

Even though the battle is ongoing in California, there are other states that are affirming their conviction that gays have the right to marry. In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, on the ground that denying gays the right to marry was unconstitutional. In October of last year, Vermont’s supreme court struck down a statute that limited marriage to heterosexuals. On April 3rd, Iowa’s supreme court ruled that laws limiting marriage to heterosexuals violated the rights of gays to equal protection. On April 7th, the District of Columbia council voted provisionally (until the official vote on May 5th) to recognize out-of-state gay marriages. Also on April 7th, Vermont’s legislature voted to override its governor’s veto of a law allowing gay marriage.

This is perhaps a poor showing out of 50 states, but it does indicate a slow but sure change in public opinion. I believe that more states will recognize the validity of gay marriages that were conducted in other states. Then it’s only a short jump to allowing gay marriage in their own states. I know that many people think that is unthinkable, but the tides are turning. Just a few short years ago, lesbians automatically lost custody of their children, gays were routinely fired from “sensitive” jobs because of their sexual orientation, few people had even heard of the term “transgender” and the military wouldn’t tolerate even a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy of dealing with gays in the armed services. We’ve seen gay characters in television and movies who are not depicted as perverts or freaks. Several celebrities are open about their homosexual orientation and it hasn’t seemed to hurt their careers. (Think Ellen Degeneres–she has her own highly-rated talk show.) And would Harvey Milk have ever dreamed that a movie would be made of his life not only depicting him positively, but earning the actor who portrayed him an Oscar?

I don’t mean to give the impression that gays have it made. They don’t. Hundreds of thousands of them don’t trust the world enough to be open about their orientation. Lesbians do still lose custody of their children in a divorce between a man and a woman. Transgenders are misunderstood at best and reviled–and even murdered–at worst. Few gays have the right to be on their partners’ health insurance policies or even to visit them or make decisions about their care when their partners are in the hospital. And of course most gays do not have the right to live in a  state of matrimony.

I don’t understand the attitude that the very institution of marriage is threatened by gays wanting it for themselves. It’s actually a reinforcement of the concept that marriage is a unique and (hopefully) durable union. It promotes stability among gays just as much as it does among straights. It protects the married couple from the vicissitudes of daily life and the capriciousness of the legal system. But most of all it is a form of flattery: if gays see marriage as a valuable institution, they are more likely to protect it no matter who participates in it. Heterosexuals would do well to do the same.