A small percentage of us are born with ambiguous genitalia. One’s chromosomes are simply askew. At birth, depending upon the variants, the doctors involved or the parents generally assign the infant a gender, though it is typically impossible to be sure if the infant is a boy or a girl until the child is older and develops his or her own gender identity.
Whereas the child may very well grow up well adjusted, society at large is uncomfortable with hermaphrodites. Beginning in the early 1960s, children with ambiguous genitalia were typically assigned a gender. Those with larger penises were boys, so their vaginas were surgically closed. Smaller penises were surgically turned into clitorises. In the 1990s, some affected intersex individuals formed the Intersex Society of America to address the issue of premature gender assignment.
It’s a classic example of nonacceptance and prejudice against those who are different. By Mother Nature’s hand, some of us are born different. How can anyone see our diversity as anything other than the beauty of life? Intersex individuals can and do lead productive, normal lives, and wish for nothing more than to be accepted. Interestingly, many have the capability to choose an intimate relationship with either gender
In 2002 Jeffrey Eugenides published a Pulitzer Prize winning novel called Middlesex, which is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Primarily a Bildungsroman and family saga, the novel chronicles the impact of a mutated gene on three generations of a Greek family, causing momentous changes in the protagonist’s life. According to scholars, the novel’s main themes are nature versus nurture, rebirth, and the differing experiences of polar opposites—such as those found between men and women. It discusses the pursuit of the American Dream and explores gender identity.
In the novel, Narrator and protagonist Cal Stephanides (initially called “Callie”) is a hermaphrodite man of Greek descent with a condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes him to have certain feminine traits. The first half of the novel is about Cal’s family, and depicts his grandparents’ migration from Smyrna, a city in Asia Minor, to the United States in 1922. It then follows their assimilation into the American society. The latter half of the novel, set in the late 20th century, focuses on Cal’s experiences in his hometown Detroit, Michigan, and his escape to San Francisco where he comes to terms with his modified gender identity.
What struck me about the book is how Cal was identified as a girl at birth, then came to realize that, through a traumatic puberty, he was actually a boy. Thus began his struggle to find his place in an unforgiving society. It’s a long road for Cal, but in his own bittersweet way, he succeeds, mainly through a relationship with a girlfriend that is, in many ways, as ambiguous as his physical identity.
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