While many Christians believe that biological sex is clearly defined, trivializing the struggles of transgender people, there’s another demographic that gets repeatedly ignored: People who were born intersex, that is, with biological characteristics that are not explicitly male or female.
In an editorial for the UK-based Church Times, Sara Gillingham writes about what it was like to grow up in the Church of England with intersex traits.
I was a tomboy, which caused my parents further stress, as they were encouraged to raise me as a “typical girl”. But raising me this way was not better: I was still bullied throughout my school years, as children sensed that I was different. I had little resilience and was traumatised, as the secrecy that surrounded me led me to believe I was something to be ashamed of.
I continued to struggle into early adulthood. It was not until I was in my forties that I recovered my medical records and found out the truth. It was liberating, as it explained all that had happened to me, and helped me lift the secrecy that was so stigmatising.
That is not to say, however, that all my struggles are behind me. I have faced discrimination in church, and from Christians outside church; I have been called “possessed” and “an abomination”; I have had rumours spread about my gender and embodiment; and have been worn down by the constant drip of being called “disordered”.
In a church context, there is no specific pastoral care for intersex children. In fact, there are elements of the Church’s teaching which positively undermine it. The Church has, largely unwittingly, “othered” people from birth if they do not fit normative assumptions about what it is to be made in God’s image.
This understanding of God’s image rests on assumptions about how we are embodied, with fixed mental and physical traits. Any deviance from these may be considered impure or in need of healing.
It’s interesting that many Christians believe this — and she’s right that they do — yet have no problem seeking medical or psychological attention for other conditions that are deemed unpleasant to live with. On a lesser scale, how many Christians alter the way God made them with hair dye, makeup, and tanning beds? What about eyeglasses and hearing aids? Why are those things morally permissible, but not living with biological characteristics that are beyond a person’s control?
Not everyone born intersex sees themselves as being in need of “correction” or “fixing.” Gillingham sees no need to do either and requests that bishops and other church officials educate themselves more about what it’s like to be intersex:
It is time to stop instrumentalising intersex people. Too often, the Church’s current conversations are not about our concerns as intersex people, and the discrimination that we face. Where is the good theology that can help to address our concerns about non-consensual surgeries, secrecy, stigma, and the lack of informed health care?
It is time to listen to simple churchgoers like me, who do not hold positions of power and authority. Many intersex people are overcoming the secrecy and stigma and finding their voices outside the Church.
The challenge now is to find ways to create a Church in which people can find their voices and flourish. Those outside the Church have much to teach us.
Gillingham’s story is a reminder that cisgendered people do not get to dominate the conversation about sexuality. No one has the authority to speak on something they have not personally lived.
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