Gender dilemma. Lost words


You are either a woman or a man. When a child is born you are announcing it’s a baby girl or a baby boy.

These are the immortal words of a young firebrand Julius Malema. He once said that the word hermaphrodite does not exist in his home language of Pedi, and so concluded that the physical manifestation itself does not exist.

This was in response to the 2009 controversy surrounding track champion and South African sports darling Caster Semenya after the media had labelled her as such.

His sentiments are perhaps reflected in a shocking recent article in the Mail & Guardian (“Intersex babies killed at birth ‘because they’re bad omens’”), by Carl Collison, where traditional midwives admit to murdering newborns when they cannot announce that “it’s a baby girl or a baby boy”.

To be exact, 88 out of 90 traditional birth attendants and midwives admitted to killing intersex babies at birth, in interviews conducted by a Northern Cape LGBTI rights group, reports Collison.

“A quick, merciless twist of its neck later and the newborn, the ‘bad omen’, is gone,” said one traditional healer who was also training to be a nurse.

The traditional healers apparently justified these baby murders as “an act of love”, as they believe they are “saving the mother from too many questions from the community”.

The stigma against intersex children can also be found across the pond as intersex infants have their sex surgically assigned since “most parents are disturbed by the appearance of the genitalia” of their newborn. This is according to a July 2014 story that appeared on The Atlantic news site which features a lawsuit by parents of an adopted child who was surgically assigned as female but who identified as a boy at seven years old.

Champion athlete Caster Semenya

Granted, the indigenous healers resort to murder, while the Western method is to decide for the child what a “normal” life will be for them.

Perhaps qualitative interviews conducted informally (not as part of, say, an official PhD research project) by a group representing the interests of intersex people cannot be solely relied on to paint a picture of South African communities’ behaviour towards such individuals. Yet it does highlight something very troubling, since traditional healers are the custodians of beliefs held by their communities, and can be a reflection of those communities and their values.

Intersex people have been long considered less than human and with their humanity lost, so too is their dignity. Many people feel the need to decide for them how they should act; “You are a boy, you must act like one”, or the classic question I hear when people cannot decide whether a person is male or female, “What are you?”

The late intersex rights activist Sally Gross rejected the term “hermaphrodite”. In a Mail & Guardian opinion piece, she said that the Greek mythological connotations of the word were akin to making them  mythical creatures. “We are real people: ‘intersex’ describes us more adequately.”

Gross helped change the definitions of sex in the Judicial Matters Amendment Act of 2005 to include intersex people, which in turn worked to humanise them. “Now, by statute, we are bona fide human beings in South African law, protected from discrimination on the grounds that we are intersexed.”

The numbers of intersex people are hard to come by and confirm, but estimates range from an incidence of one-in-500 to one in every 2,000. It is scary to think how many are killed at birth, how many others are not considered human by law, and how others have their sex determined by a society frightened by anything other than “normal”.

I cannot imagine what it is like to be told by an influential leader in the community that you do not exist.

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