My son the Tiger is lefthanded. He’s getting pretty good at invented spelling, which our teachers stress in kindergarten and the first grade. His classmates’ writing is often tricky to decipher, but the Tiger’s requires skills in cryptography. Or a mirror. Because if he’s not prompted otherwise, he’ll write right-to-left and produce a perfect mirror image. Just like Leonardo da Vinci!
If the Tiger had been born 30 or 40 years earlier, none of us would have been amused. His teachers probably would have beaten his lefthandedness out of him, probably quite literally. His mirror writing – a skill linked to lefthandedness – would have been cause for discipline, not fond amusement. His late talking, which I think has to do with the Tiger’s brain being wired differently than most, would have branded him as stupid. This is exactly what happened to his uncle in the early 1960s.
I can’t help but see a parallel between the persecution of lefthanders, which is now unthinkable, and the barbaric treatment of intersex children today. In both cases, the bodies of very young children are forced to fit a rigid norm. In both cases, kids’ lives were distorted and their sense of self irrevocably harmed in an attempt to shoehorn them into society’s expectations.
Obviously the analogy has its limits. Sex is binary and dichotomous; there are “two right answers.” Handedness is either right … or wrong. More seriously, the physical damage wrought by infant surgeries is irreversible. The psychic and developmental scars once routinely imposed on lefthanders can be irreversible, too, but there’s at least the possibility of undoing them through therapy and time. The Tiger’s uncle started to stutter as a result of being forced to write with his right hand, and he struggled in school, but as an adult he went back to school and has built a vibrant career.
On the other hand (so to speak), the analogy offers hope, too. I don’t know of any Western society where lefthandness is still demonized (though we still see vestiges of this in such terms as “lefthanded compliment” or “sinister”). If we can leave behind our rigid thinking about hand preference in a generation, we just might be able to do the same with intersex conditions. Maybe I’m an optimistic fool but I can see how lefthandedness is correlated with some pretty cool qualities in my son: freewheeling creativity and a talent for drawing, math, and music. I certainly don’t expect the Tiger to be Leonardo incarnate, but seeing his gifts, I can’t get too worked up about his quirky use of pronouns or his insistence on making all verbs regular. I’m hopeful that we can gain a similar appreciation for persons who just happen to be born intersex.
Darned if I know how this relates to the current uproar around the runner Caster Semenya, who was found to have undescended testes instead of ovaries. Odds are pretty high that she has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), which would mean her body can’t actually make much use of her high testosterone levels; more likely, it’s almost all converted to estrogen. I’m not a huge sports fan and I don’t know how international sporting authorities should deal with intersex athletes. I just know that I’d rather live in a world in which her gifts are recognized and celebrated, instead of one where she’s treated like a freak and her medical information is publicized even before she’s informed of her test results.
Update, 9/13/09, noon: Based on comments, I can see that I took an overly rosy view of how far we’ve come in revaluing lefthandedness. Apparently there’s lots of variations in how it’s treated. I don’t know this for a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those locations where it’s still discouraged also go in for corporal punishment in the schools and general, all-around conformity. Also, one point I should have made in the original post is that the shame attached to being intersex also partakes of the shame that’s still associated with genitalia, and so it’s going to be more resistant to change.