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Between the lines

Susannah Cornwall

If God is as obsessed as the church about gender, why is one in every 2,500
people born with physical characteristics of both sexes? SUSANNAH CORNWALL believes intersex people are the clearest indication yet that our creator loves diversity.


Sally Gross has an unusual perspective on Genesis 1:27. Like 25,000 people currently living in Britain, she was not created male or female, but intersexed, with a marked physical ambiguity. Formerly a Roman Catholic priest, her vows were annulled after she decided that living as a woman would do less injustice to her anatomy.

Sometimes called 'disorders of sex development', intersex conditions affect roughly one in 2,500 people and involve some kind of mismatch between an individual's genitals and chromosomes (for example a 'female' vulva and XY 'male' chromosomes), or a mixture of characteristics - for example a uterus and ovaries as well as a penis.

The issue was aired with customary insensitivity in the media last year when it was revealed publicly that Caster Semenya had been asked to take a 'gender test' following her victory in the women's 800 metres at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Terms like 'hermaphrodite' and 'inter-gender' were bandied around while the South African athlete struggled to retain what was left of her privacy.

But for Sally Gross the intrusive questions have a theological edge too, as intersex clearly poses an enormous challenge to Christian beliefs grounded in the binary nature of human sex. 'Both Genesis 1:27 and Numbers 5:3 have sometimes been used, in discussion with me, to argue that God created all human beings determinately male or determinately female with nothing in between,' she reports. 'At a more personal level, they have also been used to argue that an intersexed person such as me does not satisfy the biblical criterion of humanity, and indeed even that it follows that I am congenitally unbaptizable and must therefore be said not to have been baptized validly'.1

Sadly, my own work has brought me into contact with other Christians like Sally Gross. Some, like her are ministers who have been removed from ministry when they chose to speak publicly about their conditions. Others simply feel unwelcome in churches where everything from the liturgy to the tea rota makes it evident that not to fit into a binary male-female system is essentially not to exist.

Since there is no legal consensus about whether chromosomes, gonads, genital appearance or something else should be used to determine sex, it is difficult to say how someone with a mixture of male and female characteristics should be classified. People with Androgen Insensivity Syndrome, a relatively common intersex condition, have female external genitalia and vaginas, but also have testes rather than ovaries. The vast majority of people with AIS live and identify as women, and many marry men. However, some Christians believe people with intersex conditions should not marry at all because, by doing so, they are causing their partners to enter into an unwitting homosexual relationship.  

This kind of response is grounded in an assumption that sex is God-given and unquestionable, and that gender identity (that is, one's sense of being masculine or feminine) should match it. However, the fact remains that there are a significant number of people whose anatomy is in some way ambiguous. They may identify as unremarkably masculine, but some aspects of their physiology would not be recognized as male by other people. Some intersexed people insist that their ambiguity or 'in-betweenness' is itself given by God, and that it should not be considered problematic or illegitimate by other Christians.

'I am a creature of God,' says Sally Gross. 'I'm created, and intersexed people are created, no less than anyone else, in the image and likeness of God … What we've got here is not a walking, talking pathology, but a human being'.2


In a society where sex-segregation is becoming less common, and where very few things remain that legally separate males and females, the existence of sex ambiguity might seem unimportant. But some parts of the Christian churches in Britain still believe there are important reasons for knowing exactly what sex someone is and ensuring that their gender identity fits it.

Debates surrounding the ordination of women as priests and bishops in the Anglican Church, for example, rage on. For many who oppose women's ordination, their objection is rooted in a belief that a woman cannot image and thereby represent Christ in the way that a man can. However, this assumes that Christ's 'Christness' is reliant on his maleness, and that there is something shared by all males in common which is not shared by any females.

Intersex disturbs this assumption, making it clear that the physical differences among members of the 'same' sex are often greater than those between members of so-called 'opposite' sexes. Moreover, many intersex conditions go totally undiagnosed, one example being genetic mosaicism where people have patches of XX cells and XY cells in the same body. There is no way of knowing for sure that Christ did not have a condition like this: his 'maleness' is therefore not as obvious or as unambiguous as many people would like.

Indeed, if the story of the Virgin Birth is taken literally and Christ had no biological material contributed by a human male, it is likely that he had no Y chromosome and was, by one system of classification, himself female. However, classification by division into maleness and femaleness is not the only or most fundamental way to categorize human beings and to negotiate their various roles within the Church.

Christians who believe that the marriage relationship is one where females must submit to males as the Church submits to Christ are also strongly invested in maintaining clear distinctions between maleness and femaleness. For many, however, this seems to be grounded in an ideal notion of gendered masculinity and femininity which assumes that all people unproblematically fit one of these categories. This is simply not the case. Furthermore, those who acknowledge that the purpose of sexual intercourse is not just procreative (so anyone who sanctions the use of contraception by heterosexual couples) have already, whether they like it or not, made a move toward saying that sex is not necessarily something which need only occur between people of 'opposite' sexes.

Intersex demonstrates that the distinctions between maleness and femaleness are not easy either to make or to uphold, and might be considered arbitrary. This might have important implications for Christian attitudes to transgender and to homosexuality too, since opposition to them is often grounded in an assumption that everyone is unproblematically male or female and should have gender behaviour which 'matches'. There is no final universal agreement about what constitutes a male or a female. Legal definitions of maleness and femaleness have changed over time: someone who would have been legally classified as female a century ago might be considered male today, since gonads are no longer considered the ultimate arbiter of sex Someone legally classified as female in one country might be male in another - which means, for example, that doctors in the UK encounter foreign-born children being brought up as boys who would have been assigned girls had they been born in Britain.

Bodies are not something universalizable or incontrovertible: the ways in which their sex is read and understood depends on the culture, society and time in which they exist. Importantly for Christians, it is likely that the Bible's writers did not understand maleness and femaleness as we do today. They probably based their classifications of maleness and femaleness mainly on genital appearance, taking no account of internal anatomy or chromosomes as we now can. In some ancient cultures, where an individual's genital anatomy was not obviously 'more male' or 'more female', an individual's own sense of being a man or a woman was also important.

The biblical texts are not scientific in a modern sense: they do not account for all the exceptions and challenges to a binary classification system which we now know exist. Insisting that everyone simply is male or female, and basing theological doctrine and ecclesiastical law on this 'truth', is inadequate, and does not do justice to the multiplicity of human physiology and lived bodily experience. The Bible should not be taken as scientifically normative: even if it makes mention of maleness and femaleness, that does not mean that these are the only possible or desirable categories of human sex. Christianity's ongoing obsession with homosexuality fuels suspicion of intersex, as well as of different but related phenomena such as transgender. Where there is greater acceptance of a variety of human sexuality, a variety of anatomy (including genital anatomy) also comes to seem less threatening.

Some Christians insist that, since the Bible makes clear that humans are made in the image of God, male and female (as in Genesis 1:27), that anyone who does not fit into this is an example of something which has 'gone wrong' somewhere along the way, perhaps as a result of living in a 'fallen' creation. But this is profoundly simplistic both ethically and hermeneutically. For one thing, it is grossly problematic to assume that intersex is a 'problem' which will be 'fixed' in the new creation. Theologies from disability, like those by Nancy Eiesland,  John M. Hull, and Hannah Lewis, have gone a long way toward showing that differences of physiology should not necessarily be understood as problems, and that to assume that a phenomenon like deafness or blindness will be 'healed' after death might be to erase an important aspect of the identity of the person in question.

The fact that our culture has historically invested so much in knowing whether someone is male or female - which has affected laws about marriage, inheritance, employment and so on - means that we tend to see unambiguous sex as a 'good' which everyone wants or must have, but this is not necessarily the case. For males and females to be made in the image of God means that human difference and diversity is made in the image of God. This, however, does not occur only along stereotypically gendered or unambiguously sexed lines. Male and female might both be made in God's image, but they do not necessarily tell the whole story: such a statement does not mean that only male and female image God. Interestingly, some commentators have suggested that the biblical eunuchs, castrated men who lived in a 'third' gender role, might be considered spiritual ancestors of intersexed and transgender people. There is no condemnation attached to eunuchs in the New Testament: indeed, in Matthew 19, Jesus notes that some people have been born eunuchs, and others have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom.

Doctors dealing with intersexed children have started to move away from assuming that all people need to have unambiguously sexed bodies, and that if a baby is born with atypical genitalia these should be surgically 'corrected' as early as possible. Many doctors now believe that the best course of action is to delay any genital surgery until children and parents can talk together about their options. Such doctors work with parents to show them that children can live happy and healthy lives even with unusual anatomy, and that other people can be educated about the non-pathology of their difference. It is time for Christians to exercise similar creativity and compassion in re-examining our ideas of what it is to be a sexed and gendered person, and what this means
for all of us in our relationships with God and one another.  

1 Gross, Sally (1999), "Intersexuality and Scripture", Theology & Sexuality 11 (1999), 65-74, here 70.
2 Speaking in The 3rd Sex, a film produced/directed by Wessel van Huyssteen and broadcast by SABC (South Africa) in November 2003.