Intersex Significance is Human Significance
Guest Post by Nicole Sbitani. Nicole is an adult convert, a non-Black woman of color, and a professional diplomat. She blogs at nandm.sbitani.com and writes microfiction @nsbitani on Twitter. The content of this post does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government.
Intersex rights advocates often point out that intersex people make up 2% of the general population: about the same proportion that natural redheads do. It is important to counteract the false popular narrative that intersex people are statistically insignificant. Intersex people include those who don’t fall neatly into male-female categories based not only on genitals at birth but also differences in chromosomes, hormones, brain and reproductive organ development, and more. With this improving scientific understanding in mind, it’s clear that there are far more biologically non-binary people than most expect.
At the same time, the dignity of intersex people does not and must not rest on their relative numbers. Statistical significance has no bearing on human significance. If there was only one intersex human in the whole world, that person would still have a divine nature and eternal destiny. A theology that does not make space for intersex people is an insufficient theology, whether it excludes one person or one hundred million. Given that even Jesus acknowledged in Matthew 19:12 that some are born eunuchs, it is contrary to his teachings to pretend everyone is simply born male and female. That was neither the case in ancient times nor today.
Focusing on the doctrinal language of male and female that emerges in Genesis, some progressive theologians have pointed out that gender is one of a series of binaries in the surrounding verses that can be more accurately described as a spectrum than discrete. For example, the opposition of light and darkness are key to the design of Creation, but nobody would question the existence of infinite points between.
The General Handbook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints avoids using the term “intersex” directly but includes a section on “Individuals Whose Sex at Birth Is Not Clear”. The Church conception of these individuals focuses on “extremely rare circumstances” of ambiguous genitals at birth, ignoring modern science on the many other well-established markers of biological sex. Some intersex characteristics are not apparent until puberty or later and would be impossible to determine at birth. The Handbook’s omission of these children of God is striking.
Moreover, the Handbook provides little information on how to include members who do not fit into the Church’s gender binary theology. It reads: “Questions about membership records, priesthood ordination, and temple ordinances for youth or adults who were born with sexual ambiguity should be directed to the Office of the First Presidency.” There is no room in existing guidelines for members like Courtney Skaggs and Sarita Venkatapathy to actualize their own belonging in the Church on their own terms. The best they can hope for is to appeal to Priesthood authority for direction. It is unclear how even the most well-meaning Church leadership, though, could possibly advise members who don’t fit neatly into Relief Society or Elders Quorum, Young Men or Young Women. Besides meetings, to participate in much of Church life is to participate in a gendered way, when eligibility for everything from ordination to missionary companionships to certain callings to Temple work is determined by biological sex.
Of all the official verbiage, though, this is the sentence that gives me the most hope: “Special compassion and wisdom are required when youth or adults who were born with sexual ambiguity experience emotional conflict regarding the gender decisions made in infancy or childhood and the gender with which they identify.” Calling members to compassion and wisdom for those who don’t fit into the doctrinal dichotomy is the bare minimum followers of Christ can do for intersex people. It is up to all of us to expand our conception of who might experience conflict regarding gender more broadly and respect individuals’ prayerful and inspired answers to their own questions about gender identity.