The Myth of Normality
Rethinking Feminist Ideas of Gender

Gender is a continuum with typical male and typical female at the extremes

Oh lord, how society loves things to be "normal"!

The world we have built for ourselves to live in has been built by "normal" people, designed for "normal" people. The underlying philosophy is that if we design everything with "normal" people in mind then that will mean that the vast majority of people's needs will be met.

OK, so some people will fall outside the parameters of what we define as "normal" and they might find things a little inconvenient but they will be a small percentage of the whole and, as we cannot meet everyone's needs, the fairest and most democratic way of proceeding is by catering to the vast majority and making special provision for the rest.

Isn't it?

Well, the theory's good; what about the practice? Let's look briefly at a few examples.

We design door heights for people of "normal" height. People who're taller than what we call "normal" will be inconvenienced slightly but most people will find most doors perfectly adequate. So the taller people who are inconvenienced by not being "normal" are really a relatively small minority.

The heights of shelves and worktops and the distances between steps on staircases are designed for people with "normal" lengths of legs. Anyone smaller than "normal" will be inconvenienced slightly but most people will find most of these things perfectly adequate. The shorter people who are inconvenienced by not being "normal" are really a relatively small minority, too.

Screw-on tops on jars, the weights of doors and a myriad other devices requiring physical manipulation are designed for people of "normal" manual dexterity and strength. People who do not have "normal" muscular strength or manual dexterity will be inconvenienced but they're a minority, aren't they?. Anyway, who would they be? Well, how about - a large number of women, people who use wheelchairs, people with muscle-wasting conditions, children, older people - we could make quite a list, really.

Can openers and scissors are designed for use by "normal" people. Someone who is left-handed will be inconvenienced slightly but . . .

OK, that's enough. By now, you can see where I'm heading.

It is quite reasonable to look at the world around us and come to the conclusion that most of us don't fit all of the criteria which define "normal" in all circumstances. In fact, if you think of all the other examples I haven't included above, then probably the only people who do actually qualify as being "normal" under all circumstances are right-handed adult heterosexual car-driving hirsute God-fearing males aged between 18-40, 6'0" tall, 180lbs in weight, with good vision, good hearing, good teeth, baritone voices, no physical disabilities, in robust health and financially comfortable. In other words, a rather precise small minority of the population of the earth. All the rest of us are, by some standard being applied somewhere at some time, classifiable to some degree as "abnormal".

So "normal" isn't quite as normal as it appears after all.

The most inflexible "normal" in our society is sex. We have males, we have females. All of us are expected to fit into one or other of these groups, no exceptions. There is no box marked "None of the Above"; if you're not one then you must be the other.

What is the first question asked when you say, "I've just had a baby"?

Indeed. "Congratulations - boy or girl?"

Just for fun sometime, try saying, "Well, actually, it isn't really either".

Shock, Horror, End of Civilisation-As-We-Know-It. This reply is not an option. The child has to be a boy or it has to be a girl.

Conventional wisdom states that, in order for our society to continue functioning, people have to be "normal" male or female. The only difficulty is that not all of us are; perhaps, depending upon what criteria we use for defining male and female, many more of us than is generally presumed.

Is it possible to look at an individual and, with 100% guaranteed accuracy, say whether they are male or female from their external appearance? Not just 99% of the time, but all of the time, correct answer every time?

What test do we use? Chromosomes? Shape of genitalia? Gonads? External appearance? A combination of all these?

OK - here's a woman who looks and behaves absolutely female in all respects; nobody would ever dream of being so silly as to confuse her gender. Can you tell what her karyotype (sex chromosomes) is? 46,XX? 46,XY? 47,XXY? 45,X0? Some cells 46,XX and others 45,X0? All of those are possibilities, and there are even more. How can we tell by looking at her? The answer is, we can't. Nobody wears a tattoo of their karyotype on their forehead. So, if XX=female and XY=male, then what are all those who are neither?

Well, what about her genitalia? For the sake of argument, let's ignore the consequences of stopping someone in the street and asking them to confirm their sex by exposing their genitals. Everyone knows that men have a penis and testicles and women have a vagina and clitoris. And everyone knows the difference between a clitoris and a penis, don't we? Do we really? Ever heard of an enlarged clitoris? Micropenis? OK then, at what point do we start to call an enlarged clitoris a penis? Or a micropenis a clitoris? One centimetre? One inch? Three inches? If having a penis means male and having a vagina means female, then what are those who have both/neither? Is a woman born with an imperforate vagina not a woman? Does a man who has an industrial accident or military injury resulting in penectomy and castration suddenly become a woman?

What about gonads? If testes=male and ovaries=female then what is someone who has one testis and one ovary? Or ovotestes?

Ambiguity in all these forms is not a rarity - it is much, much more common than most people would believe. Around 1 child in every 100 is born with genitalia which are to some degree atypical and 1 child in 2000 is born truly of indeterminate gender. The technical term for such people is "Intersex". They used to call us "hermaphrodites".

People like me, born of indeterminate gender (around 1 in 2000 of the population, remember?) have to be "normalised" so that the rest of humanity can sleep safely in the knowledge that everyone is absolutely male or absolutely female and therefore all is well in the universe.

I was born before modern surgical techniques had developed enough to make it routine to surgically coerce infants like me to "female". So when I was 12 hours old they told my parents that the first pronouncement made at my birth (it's a girl) was a mistake (err, no, actually, we've changed our minds, it's a boy), pumped me full of testosterone as I was growing up - without telling me what I was taking - did a bit of corrective surgery just before I got to puberty and no doubt congratulated themselves and each other on having saved the planet and me from a fate much worse than death.

And left me to grow up in a state of bewilderment, confusion and the conviction that I must be insane.

I had reached adulthood before my parents finally admitted to me that there had been confusion at my birth. And when I was eventually told, it was with an embarrassed laugh and an "imagine doctors making a mistake like that!" attitude. And I was in my 40s before I received confirmation of the truth, that I had actually been born intersexed.

So how did I know I wasn't "male"?

There was nothing in my life to give me any clue as to why I couldn't just fit into a male identity, why I was hopeless at doing many so-called "boy things", why all my friends were female, why I found boys unfathomable yet intuitively understood girls, why I cringed in horror at the idea of sharing showers with boys and neurotically avoided anything to do with sports where I would have to share a changing room with them - I could go on and on and on.

According to those who insist that infants are psychosexually neutral and that gender identity is entirely a result of rearing and socialisation, there is absolutely no reason why I should have questioned that I was male, and why I should not have simply grown up quite happy with my "maleness" and been a "normal" boy. Yet, throughout my entire life, something kept telling me that I wasn't. As a child, I used to cry myself to sleep, praying desperately to whatever Gods there might be to let me either wake up as my real self or die in my sleep, just to let this living nightmare end. The children I grew up with and went to school with knew I wasn't a "real boy". I was bullied mercilessly until I was forced to fight back purely to survive.

There was nothing fluttery or "girly" or effeminate about me; had I been brought up as female, I would have been branded a tomboy. No, the problem was not that I acted like a stereotypic female - it was that I was incapable of behaving like a stereotypic male. The way I looked, the way I walked, the way I talked, the way I related to others, the interests I pursued, all were incongruous. Everything about me screamed "freak". And all because the doctors tried to prevent me being what they perceived as a freak. They were wrong. They were appallingly, terrifyingly wrong. But they never knew how wrong they were. They did no follow-up studies on me, there was no long-term care, in spite of the fact that my condition had left me with a malfunctioning endocrine system. Nobody ever told me.

And what was done to me is fairly typical.

When an infant is born, the midwife or attending doctor takes a quick look between its legs and announces "boy" or "girl" based on the appearance of the genitalia. In 1 case in 2000, they are unable to tell from a casual glance and so further exploration is necessary. The determining criterion is ultimately whether or not the child will have a functioning penis. The rough rule of thumb is that if this measures less than 2.5 centimetres, the infant is classed as female.

If you think that this is fundamentally misogynist, you're absolutely right; the mindset is that anyone who is not "viable male" should be reclassed as female. In other words, female is incomplete male. As one surgeon crassly put it, "It's easier to dig a hole than make a pole". And, if the decision has been made that the child will not be a 'viable male' (using the functioning penis argument) but has an elongated clitoris, usually estimated as anything greater than 1 centimetre, then surgical reduction is normally carried out, surgery which frequently results in scarring and total loss of sensation.

To look at it another way, these doctors are arguing that the core identity of a human being is conditional upon whether or not they have a penis and how big it is. The defining factor in human identity is deemed to be the ability to perform penetrative sex. That which (in the doctors' opinion) is regarded as being incapable of penetrating is assigned the role of being penetrated. Everything else is subsidiary to this.

They persist in trying to justify this obsession with the shape and size of genitalia by inventing terms with which to pathologise and portray those of us who do not fit either of the stereotypes as problems which require fixing. The most recent attempt is the current in-vogue buzz-phrase "Disorder of Sex Development" ("DSD"). And everyone knows that medical intervention is perfectly reasonable to fix that which is a medical disorder.

It all sounds like a joke in poor taste, but I assure you that this is deadly serious; the decision about the identity of an individual human being, a decision which will have huge consequences for that individual's future life, including fertility or sterility, is taken on the basis of the length of one small piece of tissue between their legs.

In the opinion of those carrying out these gender assignments, it is better to be a sterile female than a male with a small penis. I leave contemplation of the psychiatric origins of this mindset as an exercise to the reader.

What does society gain by allowing the medical profession to make the crucial decision as to an individual's sexual assignation?

First, society can continue to believe in the myth of human sexual bipolarity and can avoid confronting the uncomfortable truth by having most of the evidence of variation eradicated at source. It can then claim that the small number which actually manage to slip through the net are aberrations and very rare freaks, labelling us "disordered" or "hermaphrodites", creatures of mythology.

Second, society can dump the responsibility for patrolling the border between the two artificially created absolute states of male and female onto those skilled in the use of scalpel, suture and syringe. When asked, society can then reply, "We didn't know", and the practitioners can claim, "We were merely carrying out the wishes of society that all people be normal male or female".

Third, in a society obsessed with who is sleeping with whom and what other people have between their legs, and which will go to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid the possibility of embarrassment, it helps people avoid messy confusion when selecting sexual partners. And heterosexual, lesbian, gay and transgendered people all frequently share an equal vested interest in maintaining this charade. How embarrassing to climb into bed with a woman to discover that she has genitals which bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those stereotypically classed as male, and vise versa. And yet again individual human identity is reduced to the shape of their sexual organs.

Fourth, the laws of inheritance of title and property are safeguarded in countries where these are gender based.

What price does society pay for this?

First, because society is uncomfortable with difference, 1 in 2000 of our children are being surgically and chemically mutilated, rendered sterile and psychologically traumatised.

Second, the belief in bipolarity underlies the gender apartheid which dominates so much of our lives. Once it became a fundamental ideological tenet that all humans could be segregated into the male and female camps, it became inevitable to create stereotypes which could be used as expectations of "normality" or socially acceptable behaviour and presentation. Add the fashion and marketing industries and these stereotypes eventually come to be, not just expectations, but templates, with a battery of experts defining the norms for look and behaviour and another battery of priests, shamans, psychiatrists and social workers telling us that the key to happiness is to conform to one or other of these stereotypes.

It's self-evident that the existence of intersex people like me raises profound questions for feminists. In the first place, experiences such as my own should provide proof to all but the most passionately closed-minded that the argument that gender identity is exclusively a social construct is untenable. What I have experienced is what I have experienced. It actually happened to me. I didn't read all this stuff as an academic theory in some classroom somewhere; I lived it.

And so have many, many others. We are living evidence that the "nurture not nature" argument is flawed. I knew I didn't fit in the box marked "male" even though I had no logical reason for even suspecting I didn't. There is something fundamental in my sense of self which survived all the intense socialisation, surgery and hormonal reassignment which, according to received wisdom, should have made me content, fulfilled and comfortably functional living in a male role. I simply knew. The eventual diagnosis was merely external confirmation of what I had always known. It didn't tell me who I really am, it simply told me that I had been sane all along.

The real life experiences of intersex people may be inconvenient for many who think that they have the "nature v nurture" debate all sewn up but real life is full of facts which prove inconvenient for our theories.

I have never been able to comprehend the argument that in order for women to break free from oppression we have to prove that there is no difference between men and women. By arguing that identity is purely a social construct we have actually thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The existence of innate gender identity does not carry the inevitability of gender stereotype let alone gender apartheid. It is the myth of normality, the presumption that gender is exclusively bipolar, which does that.

Most of the arguments given to support the belief in the psychosexual neutrality of infants are based upon the evidence presented by John Money in the notorious "John/Joan" case. This case is now well documented so I'll simply give a brief synopsis.

An infant was brought to Money at the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins. He was born a perfectly "normal" phenotypic and genetic male but had had his penis accidentally removed in a botched circumcision. Money's professional opinion was that this child would grow up psychologically damaged by not having a real penis and that the child should have his testicles removed and a pseudo-vagina created and that he should be raised as a girl.

Money then proceeded to report that this child was successfully living as a female and therefore provided evidence that there was no such thing as innate gender. The case of "John/Joan" was conclusive proof that children were psychosexually neutral and that gender identity can be altered by socialisation. In 1972 when John Money started triumphantly reporting that "Joan", (born "John") was living happily as a girl, many feminists loudly shouted Hallelujah and rushed to proclaim that here at last was the incontrovertible proof that gender was indeed exclusively a product of socialisation. Volume after volume were written hammering home this argument until it came to be almost an article of faith for feminism.

In 1997, a paper was published [* Milton Diamond, Ph.D. and H. Keith Sigmundson, M.D. Sex Reassignment at Birth: A Long Term Review and Clinical Implications. (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, March, 1997) ] which was a long term follow-up study in this case and which revealed that Money's reports of a successful outcome were entirely false, that the child had totally rejected a female identity, had transitioned back to male at puberty, was now married to a woman who had three children and was living happily as a male. While Money had been presenting his reports of stunning success, his experimental subject, with nothing other than his internal sense of self to tell him that he had been born as anything other than a phenotypic female, had been barred from using the girls' bathrooms at school because he insisted upon urinating standing up, was refusing to wear "girl" clothing and was threatening suicide unless he was allowed to live as a boy.

Money's great successful experiment had been nothing more than a fantasy and all the theories which had been developed as a result were based upon wishful thinking.

Apart from Money's discredited experiment, no supporting evidence has been offered anywhere as proof that infants are psychosexually neutral. All the arguments in support of that view are unsubstantiated theoretical speculation; there are no case studies, there is no valid research. They are contradicted by the concrete evidence of cases like that of John/Joan and myself and the growing number of intersex advocacy and support groups, and by the research done by medical professionals and academics like Suzanne Kessler and Milton Diamond.

We have been duped into accepting a false argument because of its seductive simplicity - that there is no difference between men and women other than socialisation and phenotype and that, as there is no real difference between men and women, there is no reason why we should be treated differently.

The more difficult argument seems to me to be the correct one - yes, we are different but that presents absolutely no justification for unequal status. Different is not synonymous with unequal and there is absolutely no reason why difference should be used as justification for inequality or the denial of difference be necessary for arguing for the ending of inequality.

Intersex people are a very large spanner in the social works. Many of the concepts which most of us have taken for granted in discussing gender issues need serious reconsideration when intersex people are added to the equation. The existence of intersex people also poses some very tricky questions when we come to the question of sexual orientation.

If I, as an intersex woman raised as male but reverted back to my birth sex, meet and fall in love with a woman, do we call me a lesbian woman or a heterosexual man? If I fall in love with a man, am I a gay man or a heterosexual woman?

Let's look at a more complex example.

Individual A is a genetic female but is intersex and was assigned as male at birth as she has profoundly virilised genitalia. She is raised as a male until she reverts in her late teens to living as a female.

Individual B is a genetic male but was born intersex with a micropenis and so was surgically assigned as female. He is raised as a female until his late teens when he reverts to living as a male.

A and B meet, fall in love and start a relationship. What is the nature of their relationship? Are they an ordinary heterosexual married couple? If so, who is "husband" and who is "wife"? Are they a lesbian couple? A gay male couple? Are they merely playing role-reversal?

The fact that there is a substantial minority of people who do not fit either of the "normal" gender stereotypes is incontrovertible evidence that those stereotypes are, at best, unsound. Trying to safeguard the stereotypes by creating a "third sex" stereotype category to catch all those who do not fit the existing two will not resolve the dilemma any more than the third racial category, "coloured", was able to save racial apartheid in South Africa.

For so long as we continue to believe in the illusion that there is such a thing as "normal", with clearly defined discrete categories, we support the perpetuation of stereotypic gender roles and the entire apparatus of gender apartheid which accompanies them.

Social classification and unequal treatment of humans according to perceived gender should be as intolerable as such classification on the grounds of perceived race or ethnicity.

The road to true equality lies in respect for the wonderful, beautiful diversity created by God or Nature and in joyful acceptance of the many differences which make each of us a unique and complementary - therefore equal - member of the human family.

Mairi MacDonald, March 2001
(re-edited and updated © 2009)