The Third Sex

August 2017 Pulse

In the past few decades, scores of books on homosexuality and transgenderism have poured out from the Christian presses in America, UK and Europe. However, works by Christian theologians and ethicists on intersexuality – a condition which affects 0.1 – 0.2 percent of the population – remains scant and sketchy.

‘Intersexuality has not been properly addressed within recent ethical discussions about sexuality, writes John Hare. ‘One consequence of this omission has been that the rigid and polarized view that humans are clearly and discretely either male or female has gone unchallenged’.

The term ‘intersex’ covers a wide range of conditions that present atypical physical sex in one form or another. These include people (1) with ambiguous genitalia, whose physical appearance is between the male and female genitals; (2) whose genital appearance is not matched with some other physical aspect (e.g., a female vulva with testes); and (3) with unusual chromosomes (e.g., XXY or combination of XX and XY).

Intersex must not be confused with transgender. Transgendered people experience a dysphoria between their biological sex and gender identity, while intersex people have physical features that make their biological sex ambiguous. In the same way, intersex should not be mistaken as homosexuality because it does not have to do with sexual orientation but with biological sex.

In the past – between 1960 and 1990 – it was not uncommon for children born with atypical genitalia to undergo corrective surgery soon after birth. This approach, however, has been largely abandoned because of the serious ethical and psychological issues it presents.

Current approaches include delaying surgery until the children are old enough to understand their condition and explore options for their own bodies. In some cases, treatment does not involve surgery at all because of the belief that intersex people can achieve psychological security about their gender without the need to have a typical genital anatomy.

Intersex has called to question current definitions of biological sex. For example, many legal commentators have pointed out that English law’s emphasis on chromosomes as the decisive factor in determining sex is problematic when it comes to intersex people.

This in turn has created problems in ascertaining the legal status of people with genital anomalies. Needless to say that this has profound implications for marriage law.

In some European countries (e.g., Finland, Portugal and France) the sex of the child can be registered at a later date if it cannot be determined from birth.

Intersex people pose a challenge to the Christian understanding of sex because they do not fit into the neat categories of ‘male’ or ‘female’. This has led some intersex people to think that they are a ‘third sex’.

John Hare echoes the views of some Christian writers when he writes: ‘The existence of intersexuality confounds the tidy categories that some Christian ethicists and church leaders work with and challenges us all to think more deeply about the God-given nature of our sexuality … The condition of intersexuality … draws our attention to the complexity and diversity in the development of human sexuality’.

In similar vein, Susannah Cornwall of the University of Manchester asserts that ‘Theologies which assume everyone is clearly male or female may find themselves uncomfortably stretched when they begin to take into account the experiences of people whose bodies do not fit either category’.

However, despite the undeniable theological and pastoral complexities associated with intersex, the biblical or creational norm of human beings created as either male or female (Genesis 5:2) must be upheld.

As Dennis Hollinger has rightly argued in his book entitled, The Meaning of Sex: ‘Natural sexual conditions and anomalies in no way undermine the creational norms. All distortions in the world must be judged against the divine creational givens’.

‘In a fallen world’, he adds, ‘there will be chaos and confusion that extends even to human sexuality. But the normative structure toward which God calls humanity is not the fallenness of nature; it is, rather, God’s created designs’.

To argue that intersex is one of the distortions of our sin-scarred and fallen world is not to say that atypical genitalia is the result of the personal sins of the people with this condition. It is rather to emphasise that they – like all of us – are part of a world fractured by original sin, a world that is radically different from what the Creator had originally intended it to be.

Christians must regard intersex people as bearers of the image and likeness of God, who must be accorded with equal dignity and value. Christians therefore can never tolerate the discrimination or humiliation of intersex people.

More reflection is needed on the part of theologians, Christian ethicists and pastors on the theological and pastoral issues associated with intersex Christians – issues such as marriage, having children and their full involvement in the life of the Church, including leadership and ordination.

In addition, we must listen very attentively to the experience of intersex people so that we may achieve a deeper appreciation of their struggles and aspirations.

But most importantly, we must accept intersex Christians as members of Christ’s body, the Church. For as Christians, our identity is established in Christ.

As the Apostle Paul puts it: ‘For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:26-28).


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.