I’ll never forget seeing the cover of a 1950’s lesbian novel called The Third Sex. It’d been made into a postcard, and was on sale at one of those touristy gay stores in Manhattan’s West Village. The cover was alarmist, calling homosexuality “society’s greatest curse”, and featuring a picture of two women about to make illicit love.
But it wasn’t just the sexy pic and taboo tone that made my hands reach for my wallet to buy the card: the words “the third sex” equally intrigued me. I wasn’t able to articulate it yet, but I knew that I had a physical difference that made me different from other girls. Yet I wasn’t a boy either, and had never wanted to be. I was something else altogether, which I didn’t understand or have a name for.
When our minds don’t have a way to categorize new information, we’ll either invent something or just try to ignore it. Queers have historically been great at both. For example, way before the LGBTQIA community existed, we still had our own names for ourselves, in addition to the ones thrust upon us. And conversely, “the closet” has always been there for any and all queers who can’t deal with having a non-mainstream identity. What, you love members of the same sex? Don’t worry, no need to make it into a big deal (or a deal at all).
I was like this before I learned about “intersex” in 1995. What? My body looks more like that hermaphrodite statue than the ones of men and women? Weird, but no need to make it into a big deal….
I lacked the language to define myself to the outer world, but I did have ways that I secretly identified in the privacy of my own mind. And to my surprise, some of the intersex folks I’ve met over the years had the very same ones! Back when we were all roaming around a presumably male/female-only world, without a publicly recognized label, we sometimes thought of ourselves as “mutants” or “aliens”. These terms were obviously inaccurate and a huge exaggeration — just like describing gays and lesbians as a third sex. But this is what happens when you live in a culture where being you is socially unacceptable and unacknowledged: you become something else.
Today, as more and more folks become aware that intersex people exist, the question sometimes rises: aren’t we, in fact, a third sex, since we aren’t either male or female? It seems that way on the surface, but when you actually know and/or learn about intersex people, you realize that we make up a huge range of people with very different physical traits.
Intersex people’s bodies range from very female looking, to very male looking, to everything in between, so defining us all as the same one sex isn’t remotely accurate or useful. This is one of the reasons that the organization I’m chairperson of, OII (the Organisation Intersex International), has officially opposed the creation of a third sex since it was founded ten years ago. In addition, the intersex advocates who participated at last year’s Third International Intersex Forum, the only global gathering of intersex activists, also oppose the creation of a third sex.
Another reason why creating a “third sex” isn’t practical is that we don’t define people by “biological sex” anymore. In much of the world, it’s become very clear to anyone who’s paying attention that the biological sex traits people are born with don’t dictate what their gender will be. So while a “gender” is still listed on birth certificates (and FYI “gender” is used to signify biological sex in U.S. law), people can and do change this if they grow up to be something else.
Most adults in the U.S. are allowed to legally identify as the gender they feel, regardless of what bodies they’re born with, and I think that’s a good thing. But I say “most” because people who don’t feel either male or female don’t have this right. The United States and society as a whole needs a gender category for adults who don’t feel either male or female, like the “X” that is now available to non-binary adults in Australia.
It’s important however to be clear that creating a third gender category is about allowing folks with non-binary gender — most of whom are not intersex, FYI, but genderqueer, gender fluid, two-spirit, trans*, etc… — to accurately identify themselves. It’s not about creating a third sex. Intersex people are living proof that biological sex is a huge spectrum of possibilities, and that trying to create precise definitions and categories isn’t scientifically accurate or beneficial.