Sex and Gender Identity: Part 1, Sex

After reading a few different perspectives on what happened at PantheaCon both this year and last year, along with a few of the perspectives in the book Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism, I figured it would help to provide a bit of background on why this is both a complicated and important issue to understand, regardless of exactly where you fall on the various questions involved. You can, if you are interested, also browse this reference which discusses terminology and also politeness.

As another note, while I have my personal biases, I am not seeking to argue for right or wrong except possibly around the topic of polite usage of terminology. It’s more trying to lay out some discussion around factors that might inform people’s beliefs in this matter.

Moving right along, let’s talk about the matter of sexual identification.

What is Sex

We like to, in our societies, maintain a bit of a fiction that there are two sexes. This is deeply ingrained in our society, with the classical first pronouncement on the birth of a child being “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” based largely on the apparent genitals. There are a lot of people out there who think that this matches up perfectly with chromosomes: The presence of an Y chromosome means a male, the absence means a female.

The problem is that biology didn’t get the memo, and not everyone falls into one of two neat little boxes as we like to conceive of them. Anne Fausto-Sterling writes:

But if the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature. For biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least five sexes–and perhaps even more.

“Intersex” isn’t a single state of being, but rather a wide-ranging spectrum. There are numerous different intersex conditions, including many that aren’t obvious until much later in life, or even at all if they are assigned a sex at birth and surgically corrected at that point in time (which is an increasingly controversial practice due to later gender identification potentially not matching). They may never even be told that there was a correction.

Examples abound: CAIS women have a 46,XY karyotype (male), but are born phenotypically female and they develop female secondary sex characteristics when they hit puberty. With the exception of when certain conditions develop, it is generally not discovered that they aren’t 46,XX until they hit puberty and fail to show a menstrual cycle.

Except that diagnosis isn’t that simple either, as there are a variety of uterine malformations that can also lead to a lack of a menstrual cycle, some of which do not involve a Y chromosome.

Then we get the various phenomena where people may not only not match our expectations, but may do so in a dramatic fashion. Levi Suydam (who Fausto-Sterling writes about) was visibly identifiable as male (and diagnosed so by doctors due to a penis and one testicle being present), however, it turns out that Suydam also menstruated, though not as heavily as most women.

The question at the time was important because they were determining whether Suydam’s vote should be counted, since Suydam lived in the 19th century in the US in an era and area where only men could vote.

There are also conditions where a clitoris is enlarged to the point of allowing penetrative intercourse with women as well as with men.

Some of these various conditions involve infertility. Others still allow for the person to have children.

These conditions aren’t common, but they also aren’t especially rare. The Intersex Society of North America says that the total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female is one out of every 100 birth, with 2 in every 1,000 receiving surgery to normalize genital appearance.


My point here is not that any one particular definition of man or woman is “right” or “wrong” or that any particular religion needs to view intersex in any particular way. More that biology doesn’t like boxes: As we try to put things in nice neat little containers such as “male,” “female,” and “intersex,” biology likes to throw at us all sorts of little quirks and variations that challenge our understanding of what goes in each box. Certainly, others may not share the same perspective on how these boxes are split up or what goes in which box.

So when we are thinking in terms of men and women’s mysteries or talk about celebrating the beauty and grace of the feminine [/male] form in all of her infinite variety and define these things strictly in terms of apparent sex, it is worth reflecting on where exactly we draw the line between men and women in terms of sexual identification, and that how we classify people and how they classify themselves–even if we know everything, which we usually don’t–may not be the same.

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