I’m deeply honored to have been asked to participate in the Smithsonian Channel documentary, “The General Was Female?”, which examines years of research which conclude that American hero Casimir Pulaski was intersex! As often happens with interviews–and particularly in this case as the focus of the show was historically, not intersex–the more policy related issues which I discussed did not make it in, so I’ve written this essay below to share them. Please tune in tonight, share and join me and the intersex community in celebrating this amazing news. <3
What if General Casimir Pulaski, revered as the “Father of the American Cavalry,” had been surgically carved into a female body at birth and made to grow up as a woman? It sounds crazy yet today, this is precisely how babies born like Pulaski are treated. <This evening>, the Smithsonian Channel’s America’s Hidden Stories episode, “The General Was Female?” reveals how years of research have determined that Pulaski was an intersex person born with XX chromosomes (typically considered female) and a variation known as Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH). The implications are enormous.
For starters, Pulaski would not have been able to serve in the military under the current trans ban. Women were not allowed in the military then, so deeming Pulaski female due to his chromosomes, as the ban insists, would have stolen this hero of the American Revolution from us. In addition, “The General Was Female?” examines how historians credit Pulaski with saving George Washington’s life during the Battle of Brandywine, so excluding him from service would have robbed us of our very founding father as well.
In case you’re wondering why Pulaski was raised as a boy, given his female biology, it’s because having CAH often causes fetuses with XX chromosomes to masculinize in utero, sometimes to the point where they are born with genitals that look in between or male. In the past, before chromosome tests were available, this meant that a baby with CAH who was biologically female might nevertheless be assigned male and raised as a boy if they appeared more male than female. In Pulaski’s case, this worked out very well not just for him, but for the entire nation.
However, in the 1950’s, the practice of subjecting intersex babies to medical procedures to make them typically male or female began; and still continues. When it comes to babies born with Pulaski’s specific type (there are many) of intersex, stakeholders commonly recommend genital surgeries and hormones to make them look female, and raising and socializing them as girls. Pulaski’s life is a powerful testament to the fact that this practice is extremely problematic.
Even though intersex people have existed since the dawn of humanity, we live in a world which is not accommodating to third sex or third gender individuals. This creates the difficult situation of having to assign a male or female sex to a baby which obviously isn’t either. Numerous parents have discussed how having to do so felt like, “a crap shoot.” So why would you make it harder to change the initial decision by adding irreversible genital surgeries to the mix?
Putting future gender identity issues aside, even in the many cases where intersex individuals have grown up content living as the sex assigned to them, countless have stepped forward to share that the medically unnecessary surgeries they were subjected to were extremely harmful, both physically and psychologically. This is why intersex activists like myself have been advocating against this practice, and for self-determination, for over two decades, and our community’s voice has risen exponentially in recent years as more, often younger, social media savvy intersex people have joined the effort.
Some folks feel confused by the concept of intersex self-determination, but it’s actually not that complicated. As Tiger Devore, an intersex clinical psychologist, sex therapist, and movement pioneer, has been advising since the1980’s, we recommend that parents should assign a provisional sex, with the awareness that your child may grow up to feel differently and should be supported as whatever gender they grow up to be: men, women, or non-binary (an umbrella term for anyone who feels they are both or neither a man or a woman).
Medical doctors in the field have historically devalued this approach, preferring to try to predict what gender the child will be and using medical means to create the physical sex associated with that gender. Time has proven, however, that it is impossible to predict a baby’s future gender—even when they are born a typical male or female.
This past February, California Senator Scott Wiener introduced SB 201. The bill has been delayed for further review until January 2020, but it is significant to note that every intersex led organization on the planet supports the it’s passage, which “…would, absent a medical necessity, prohibit a physician and surgeon from performing any treatment or intervention on the sex characteristics of an intersex minor without the informed consent of the intersex minor.” SB 201 follows recommendations by three former Surgeon Generals and numerous medical associations, that medically unnecessary infant surgeries be delayed until the child is old enough to weigh in. These recommendations are based on evidence of the practice’s harms from both medical studies and countless reports by former patients.
However, medical organizations with a vested interest in the continuance of these practices, such as the California Medical Association and the Societies for Pediatric Urology, oppose SB 201, sometimes employing deceitful tactics to do so. For example, in a recent article, Dr. Lane Palmer, president of the Societies for Pediatric Urology, outlines some of the procedures which babies with CAH—which sometimes carries health risks—might need for their immediate health, and concludes that, “The proposed legislation would expressly prohibit such procedures.” The claim is unequivocally false, as the bill’s text clearly states that, “The bill would authorize a physician and surgeon to perform the medical procedure without the minor’s consent if it is medically necessary and the physician and surgeon provides the written and oral disclosure to the parent or guardian and obtains their informed consent, as specified.”
It is deeply troubling that the head of a medical organization would misinform the public this way. What is even more troubling though is the evidence which Pulaski’s life sheds on what is potentially stolen from intersex individuals, as well as society, when irreversible decisions about how we can live in the world are made by others.
I know this firsthand because my experience of being intersex has been nothing like the ones so often shared by those subjected to harmful, nonconsensual, purely cosmetic, intersex-trait-erasing medical procedures. They have consistently spoken about the deep feelings of “shame and secrecy” which being raised under this medical lens and control gave them. Sadly, those who wish to erase intersex people from society, surgically and socially, have often sometimes used these testimonies to attempt to portray being intersex as an innately difficult, psychologically unhealthy experience, one that they should help children and future adults avoid by surgically carving them into typical males or females. It is critical to realize that shame and secrecy are what the experience of discrimination against intersex people looks like, not what being intersex is innately about.
Those of us who were lucky enough not to be subjected to these procedures know that being intersex is a rich, fulfilling, life-enhancing, experience. Unfortunately, because most intersex people who live and thrive in intact, androgynous, visibly intersex bodies are still doing so privately, as Pulaski had to in his time, we don’t often hear this perspective. In addition, the mainstream focus has remained so seated on harmful medical procedures that numerous intact intersex people reach out to me privately over the years to share that because they were not subjected them, they did not know if they were a part of the intersex community. The majority have been queer, trans or non-binary individuals, and some have shared that they felt additionally unwelcome as such.
My hope is that knowing that a celebrated historic figure was an intact intersex person will inspire more intact intersex people to come out as such, and I urge allies and fellow activists to include and highlight our contributions, even though we are less accepted within our society’s binary-gendered, heteronormative status quo. After all, as our goal is to end the medical practices aimed at erasing intersex bodied people from society, we must make parents and other stakeholders aware that letting children grow up and live with beautiful, visibly intersex bodies is wonderful, just as it’s been for me and was for Pulaski.