About a month ago, I read Middlesex, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose first novel was The Virgin Suicides. I had seen the film version of Suicides, directed by Sofia Coppola, but that isn’t why I bought Middlesex.
The voice of Middlesex is a person whose anatomy is not easily identified as male or female, what has come to be termed intersex. I have a child who, though not physiologically intersex, has been influenced by Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing theory which holds that autism spectrum disorder, or Asperger’s syndrome, leads to an extreme male brain (EMB). As described in a 2011 post on Woman with Asperger’s, some female Aspies do feel in between:
While I am biologically female, I have never felt at home in the world of women. I have trouble understanding and socializing with most neurotypical women, and I am not interested in the same things that they are: I’d rather talk about the Enneagram or philosophy than about the latest gossip in the mill. My sense of fashion and style has come from years of observation, developing my own color palettes (I find that black, purple, blue, red, gold, and silver are each to match with each other), finding comfortable fabrics and shoes, and making a lot of mistakes, and it did not come natural to me; you are looking at the girl who was more interested in Greek mythology and African-American poetry than fixing her hair, which used to drive the aunt who raised me to distraction. And as I have mentioned before, I have empathy but lack the ability sometimes to decode the signals of what people are feeling and what they might need. Truthfully, I do almost feel half-female, half-male as Simone described above – for example, I have a primary male alter-ego who finds himself as the speaker in about a good third of my poems.
But EMB is a controversial theory, as described in a 2013 post on Musings of an Aspie:
There are a lot of holes in the EMB theory. It bases maleness and femaleness on a single pair of traits, which aren’t even mutually exclusive. It subscribes to outdated gender stereotypes of men as less nurturing and women as less logical/intellectual. It uses questionnaires designed by the researcher to prove the researcher’s point. It fails to even acknowledge the existence of nonbinary gender identity (which is especially significant in autistic populations, as mentioned later in this post). It completely ignores the possibility that females are simply underdiagnosed, which undermines the protective effect line of thinking. It uses characteristics of autism as a proxy for gender traits, thereby “proving” a link between gender and autism.
I have read my child’s prolific fan-fiction writings, and they strike me as coming from a female perspective, but it isn’t my journey. So I’m trying to read up on intersex and transgender issues.
Intersexuality is a very uncomfortable topic, as evidenced by all the people arguing over who uses which bathroom. I guess some people simply don’t know the difference between transvestites, who simply wear clothing of the opposite sex, and transgender people, who have changed their bodies to become the opposite sex. Others do know the difference, but enjoy being mean.
3 Quarks Daily featured an article in Nature, The spectrum of sex development: Eric Vilain and the intersex controversy. DSD is short for Disorders of Sex Development. It’s a good article:
Vilain has spent the better part of his career studying the ambiguities of sex. Now a paediatrician and geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he is one of the world’s foremost experts on the genetic determinants of DSDs. He has worked closely with intersex advocacy groups that campaign for recognition and better medical treatment — a movement that has recently gained momentum. And in 2011, he established a major longitudinal study to track the psychological and medical well-being of hundreds of children with DSDs.
Vilain says that he doesn’t seek out controversy, but his research seems to attract it. His studies on the genetics of sexual orientation — an area that few others will touch — have attracted criticism from scientists, gay-rights activists and conservative groups alike. He is also a medical adviser for the International Olympic Committee, which about five years ago set controversial rules by which intersex individuals are allowed to compete in women’s categories.
But what has brought Vilain the most grief of late has been his stance on sex-assignment surgery for infants with DSDs. Although he generally opposes it, he won’t categorically condemn it or the doctors who perform it. As a result, many intersex advocates who object to the practice now see him as a hindrance to their cause.
Some deaf people have embraced their lack of hearing as normal for them, and assert that cochlear implant surgery separates deaf children from the mainstream of deaf culture. Similarly, some intersex people oppose any sort of corrective surgery on infants or children as not normal for them, and as rife with disastrous realizations later in life. In some ways, Middlesex is a very long explanation of that point-of-view.