Saturday, February 19, 2011

When gender matters

Yesterday I learned that my cat, Lady, is intersex. I called the woman who gave her to me to confirm that she had all her vaccinations and had been spayed. "Well, she didn't need to be spayed," the woman told me. "We call her a "she", but she actually has partially formed organs of both sexes. They named her Lady Gaga at the shelter."
"Oh," I said, startled.
"It just happens sometimes," she said calmly.

And that was it. It was the first time I'd heard anyone outside a gender studies class bring up intersexuality. And, more amazing, it was so casual. We both know Lady is a happy, healthy, very pleasant cat. There's no reason to worry about her dating life, or what kind of clothes she should wear, or whether she will want to have kittens. It's just something that "happens sometimes."

But when intersex humans are born, we freak out. In gender studies classes you always have to read the diary of Herculine Barbin, a French intersex person born in 1838. Her story paints a grim picture of Victorian gender roles. She was raised as a girl but later determined to be "more male than female", so had to start living as a man. It was impossible to get a job because she was dropped into her twenties with her past erased; while living as a man she couldn't tell people she had spent the last ten years as a ladies' maid. Destitute and forbidden to see her childhood girlfriend, she committed suicide. The diary constantly expresses the pain of not fitting in, complete with many exclamation marks. (This was the 1850s, after all.)

Around 1% of children are born with some "sexual ambiguity". Many of them are surgically altered - essentially, if your penis is too small, they cut it off so you can be raised as a girl. Many adult intersex people are not so happy about the choice doctors and parents made for them. We go through a lot of rigmarole to make people fit the binary.

Lady (...Gaga?) is sleeping beside me on the couch. Because gender doesn't matter to cats, their sex doesn't really matter either. If only we left everybody in as much peace.

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