Tuesday, May 21, 2013

South Carolina Lawsuit: State Assigned Gender to Hermaphrodictic Baby (and My Theological Reflections)

I blogged a few weeks ago about the story of Thomasine/Thomas Hall of colonial Virginia, who appears to have been a hermaphrodite, and who baffled the Virginia government because she/he straddled the line dividing the genders neatly into this and that, so that Virginia's General Court decided that Thomas (as he was known in Virginia) was both a male and a female, and should wear men's clothes surmounted by a woman's bonnet and apron.

The following tragic story from South Carolina suggests that the fascination with drawing hard and fast lines to separate the genders, and the determination of the government to enforce those lines, are hardly confined to the American colonial period, but remain alive and well in American cultural life even into the 21st century. Perhaps in the American South, in particular . . . .

As Dan McCrue reports, two adoptive parents, John Mark and Pamela Crawford, have sued South Carolina Social Services and three doctors on behalf of their adoptive child, who is 8 years old. The suit alleges that when the child was 16 months old, the state's Social Services ordered gender-assignment surgery for the baby, whose gender was initially determined to be female and then found to be hermaphroditic. The baby, whose biological father had abandoned it and whose biological mother was found unfit to raise her child, now shows signs of developing into someone who identifies as a boy, his parents maintain--though his biological ability to reproduce as a male has now been removed by the gender-assignment surgery.

This story draws my attention for a number of reasons:

1. First, to my way of thinking, it illustrates how strongly (and strangely) we are determined in many cultures of the world today to place people in hard and fast categories of gender, even when they don't (and can't) fit neatly into those categories for biological reasons. What's at the bottom of that fixation, I ask myself?

2. Second, isn't it interesting that the state and its doctors decided--arbitrarily, it seems--that a gender-ambiguous baby, one whose biological characteristics straddled the gender line, should be made female and not male? What's that all about, I wonder--especially when the baby whose gender was determined without his or her consent is now showing signs of identifying as a male?

3. Third, doesn't this story prove Michel Foucault correct in his argument in his classic work on the history of human sexuality that the effects of the Enlightenment on sexuality have been ambiguous at best? Foucault was highly suspicious of the belief that the Enlightenment was an entirely progressive development in European culture. He noted that, in the area of human sexuality, one effect of the Enlightenment appeared, in fact, to be anti-progressive.

Foucault maintained that the Enlightenment led to the notion that more and more social and ecclesial institutions should exercise dominative, determinative control over a human sexuality that had been previously treated as more malleable, more fluid. Compare the two stories of Thomasine/Thomas Hall and of the South Carolina case, and you can't help but wonder if Foucault is absolutely right: modernity is more preoccupied with controlling questions of gender (and, I'd submit, placing heterosexual males in absolute charge of everything) than premodernity was.

4. Fourth, at a theological level, what will all the right-wing Christians for whom gender is now a holy shibboleth make of the South Carolina story, which reminds us that God makes some of us both male and female? Engage a right-wing Christian of any confessional stripe today about gay and lesbian issues, and he/she is almost certain to intone early in the conversation, "Male and female He created them." As if that scripture verse solves it all for us, explains it all to us . . . . As if that scripture verse is the sum and total of all scripture . . . . As if that scripture verse totally obliterates Paul's statement in Galatians that in Christ, there is neither male nor female . . . .

Of course, what the right-wing Christians intoning this verse mean when they intone it is that God has neatly and absolutely assigned every human being either a male or a female gender, and that the assignment of gender by the creator God is deeply important to God and is at the very center of God's plans for the world. What they mean is that God is intent on policing gender lines and punishing anyone who transgresses them. What they also mean when they intone the verse is that God has placed heterosexual men at the top of the ladder of creation, and women are meant to stand beneath men on that ladder.

What they don't mean, but the South Carolina case reminds us of as a real possibility in the real world that we Christians claim God has made, is this: God quite literally makes some of us male and female. In the very same body.

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