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Addison Smith

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Marriage Debate, Meet the Science of Bodies Like Ours

Posted: 10/12/11 10:06 AM ET

In these dark times for political reason, advocates for the freedom of same-gender marriage need to rediscover the scientific bedrock of their moral high ground. It turns out that science has been on their side since the dawn of Homo sapiens. That's both the science-tells-me-so dawn some 200,000 years ago in Africa and the Bible-tells-me-so dawn of, say, 7,000 years ago in the Garden of Eden (sometimes known as Missouri, U.S.A.).

No, I'm not here to report that scientists have found a "gay gene" (just like God, they haven't, and perhaps never will). I'm simply here to remind us of what we have always known: when you look at God-given genitals and/or chromosomes, not everyone is born strictly male or strictly female. And it's been this way since time immemorial, until medical science allowed us to better hide our bodies.

One of the things your parents probably never told you (even if they signed off on your first gender-assignment surgery) is that in as many as 1 in 1,000 human births, the child's gender is neither male nor female but intersex. Those unfamiliar with the term "intersex" may still recognize the term "hermaphrodite" -- a single human possessing both male and female genitalia -- which is one variety of intersexuality. But while true hermaphroditism is very rare (some 1 births in 150,000), other variations of intersex people (who, please note, do not want to be called hermaphrodites) are much more common.

The Intersex Society of North America reports that as frequently as 1 out of every 2,000 times a child is born, a specialist in sex differentiation has to be called in to advise the situation: the genitalia are partial and/or multiple and, well, too close to call. Nowadays in countries where medical treatment is available, parents and doctors must usually decide whether to call the baby a boy or a girl. Even though "I" or "M/F" isn't a ready option on the birth record, they can choose to select a gender for the birth record but not actually operate. This road, ending one future day in informed consent to any operation, is typically the road least taken yet most advisable, according to many intersex advocates today. More often, the parents and/or attending physician deems it "best" to operate and hope for the best. For a boy, the doctor might close and/or remove the female genitalia and leave, shape or enhance any male parts; for a girl, the doctor might remove any male genitalia and leave, shape or enhance any female parts.

Are those well-intentioned folks who choose surgery for another mostly right? Doing more harm than good? We don't really know, because the recent past in which medical science has been operating is mostly scarred by stigma, shame and secrecy.

But stories of intersex lives are out there, and boy/girl do we need them now. Here are the broad strokes of one that I adore: guy walks into the doctor's office after some 25 years of not feeling like he fit his assigned birth gender only to find out that, well, he's correct. This is the story of Sabrina Hill, one half of a same-sex couple who last year got hitched in Texas: two women, legal marriage, Texas. Hill was assigned an "M" at birth, but a doctor visit at age 28 confirmed that he was as much of a woman as he knew he was at age 3. So, newly armed with the truth, he chose to fully embrace her she, leading to an ultimate "F" on her driver's license.

Incidentally, she also chose another F for her partner, and they coupled for 17 years before legally marrying in 2010 -- two F driver's licenses, trumped by one "gotcha" birth certificate does a technically legal marriage in Texas make.

Now, Hill and many intersex people don't want to be part of the "gay marriage" debate or "gay agenda." But the sooner that their reality can shape a more constructive dialogue, the sooner we all can get on with building a world where intersex people, like all human beings, are afforded the respect and dignity they deserve. Because of the "gay choice" conundrum, too much time is being wasted fighting for and against "gay marriage" or "gays in the military" and not enough time building quality systems that serve everyone -- whether white, black, Latino, disabled, poor, transgender, rich or what have you (or think you have). The land of the free and home of the brave needs to learn through the stories of our intersex citizens, as their stories can make us all a little braver as we make a home for freedom. Advocates for Informed Choice, Bodies Like Ours, the Intersex Initiative and The Intersex Roadshow are but a few good places to start listening.

It's time to use science -- that bully disinfectant -- to clean the slippery Santorum off the ladder and climb our way out of this perfectly dishonest "one man, one woman" debate (yuck, how did we even get here?!). Let's make the new standard follow-up question to anything about "one man, one woman" an honest one: "Don't you really mean 'one perfectly fruitful penis and one perfect fruitful vagina'?" What if?

Presidential candidates like Bachmann, Perry, Romney and the rest make it abundantly clear that citizens of Earth who want to survive (at least another 100 years or so) can no longer pull punches with science on this or any other social or political issue.

Fear not, candidates: your churches are still free to do whatever they want -- except get politics to "establish" them, or harm people who don't have a choice about the matter. But we the people reserve our right to put your churches in their place, establishing through science, reason and law that they do no harm to us.

As for the fashionable question of the day: what would the Founding Fathers do? Well, they would not shy away from scientific reason, either. In fact, they always fought for its side.

 

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