‘Think beyond male and female limits’
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Gender is a spectrum rather than just male and female.
This is the message a researcher wants to spread to “liberate those who are oppressed by limited options of self-expression or limited ways of being”.
Justine van Rooyen, who works in sexual and reproductive health rights at the Aids Foundation of SA, has called for education and awareness at school level and even among medical professionals on gender variance.
Her call comes after she conducted research that showed a lack of understanding of the biological anomaly of intersexuality.
Knowledge, she said, would ease, “the traumatic experiences of intersex people through the numerous medical and social mistakes brought on by the problem of the social dichotomy or binary way of thinking.”
Van Rooyen presented her Trinity College Master of Science in Global Health thesis titled “Understanding the Social Inclusion or Exclusion of Intersex People Living in South Africa” at a seminar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society last week.
One person she interviewed, Lebohang*, underwent eight unsuccessful gender assignment surgeries before deciding to stop “destroying” his body to change his ambiguous genitalia to that of a man.
But so strong was the desire to be accepted that he went to initiation school and was circumcised to prove his “manhood”.
“I didn’t know what to think about it or who to ask about who I am… about what I am actually. Even my parents didn’t know,” he said.
Lebohang is intersexed, which, according to Intersex SA, means being born with ambiguous genitalia or sex organs that are not clearly female or male.
Although intersex births have to be recorded in hospitals, no clear statistics are available on this. According to Intersex SA, it is believed one in 500 people are born intersexed in the country.
“Your gender is such a core part of your identity that it must be traumatic every day if you can’t establish whether you are male or female,” said Van Rooyen.
Siphokazi* was raised as a boy, with a boy’s name. As a child, she was subjected to three surgeries, without explanation.
When these failed, she was reclassified a woman and has been living as such, but resenting the surgeries which included the removal of her uterus.
She recalls being heckled by her sister when they took baths together as children because she was “different” and there was something “wrong” with her.
“I thought I was the only person who was like this,” she said.
But there are others, and one of them is Karabo*, who was sheltered by her mother, saying her ambiguous genitalia was their “little secret”.
Only when she was old enough to go online did she make the connection, reading that this was a “disorder” that had to be “fixed”. She threatened suicide if her mother did not take her for surgery.
They visited a doctor who did chromosome checks. This revealed Karabo had XY chromosomes. The doctor told her mother, because of the chromosomes, “this is a boy and you made the wrong decision to raise it as a girl”.
It was a double blow for Karabo. Being called an “it” by the doctor and hearing that she was “made” the wrong gender despite identifying as a woman and having no inclination to identify as a man.
Van Rooyen said Karabo now identified as an androgynous “pansexual”.
“That means she embraces feminine and masculine characteristics and is sexually and romantically attracted to anyone, regardless of sex or gender identity.
Gender expression is a matter of individual choice and the dichotomy is a limitation on human potential. Intersex is a hidden population. Many are ashamed and not empowered,” said Van Rooyen.
“I was isolated from the community because people were questioning my gender. I would wear feminine clothes and people would say ‘look at this gay guy in ladies’ clothes’.
“I would wear masculine clothes and people would say ‘look at this girl in guy’s clothes. That put me in a difficult position – I was trying to discover my gender expression according to people’s expectations,” Karabo said.
* Not their real names