Boy, girl, or...? Leave intersex babies alone

What's the first thing most people ask when a baby is born? If the father of the newborn doesn't stuff your mouth with a pink- or blue-ribboned cigar reading "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" most people ask about the sex of the newborn.

What do you do if your newborn is intersexed? Intersex means it's not clear physically whether the child is a boy or a girl.

More babies are born "intersex" than white people are born with cystic fibrosis. Intersex happens in one of every 2,000 births. If my abacus is right, that means the Charlottesville-Albemarle metro area is home to about 70 intersexed people. But you don't see a telethon going on for intersex research and support.

I was shopping in Barracks Road Shopping Center, and one of my television fans asked me what I was going to write about this week. I said, "intersex." I think she thought I said, "intercourse," because she frowned at me: "Lord, you talk about everything, don't you?" Um....yeah!

When I explained what intersex means, she frowned so hard even Botox wouldn't help her. She apologized for not knowing about the intersex phenomenon, but I told her that was totally fine. That's why I'm writing about it!

In general people are embarrassed to talk about the condition, and when parents don't know what to do with their intersex baby, they often let a doctor decide whether to surgically make the child a boy or a girl. Research suggests that surgeons usually change the sex to a girl because it's an easier surgical procedure.

If you have a child, you will know that your child is really fixated on his or her gender by the age of two or three. "I'm a girl because...." "I'm a boy because ..." they say.

However, what does a child do if he/she doesn't know which sex he/she is? Suppose you're "assigned" to be a girl when you're genetically a boy and feel like a boy? That is kind of like Pamela Lee Anderson trying to be an actress: awkward! Some transgendered people are actually intersex, and they face a lifetime struggle to live life as the sex they were forced to be rather than the sex they actually are. Also, the surgical procedure often destroys sexual function.

If the parents are freaked out by having an intersex child, I don't imagine it's going to be a topic of discussion at the dinner table. "Pass the peas. By the way, you were changed to a boy when you were a newborn. Could I have the butter?"

The shame and secrecy of intersex are understandably acute, and I imagine the majority of readers have never heard of the condition. Intersex is usually reserved to folklore and pornography, but changing times may herald more open discussion and understanding of the condition.

Each day, five children are surgically assigned a sex without their consent. I don't believe the majority of Americans would want to have a sex assignment forced upon them. Shoot, we have a hard enough time having a cable station assigned to us!

The International Intersex Organization is pushing the medical community and our civil authorities to allow the intersex child to grow and mature to the point where he or she can decide which sex feels most natural. I don't know if that will make things better for the child, but it seems to make sense.

When 1 in 2,000 persons is intersex, it should not be something that is shameful and ignored. On I Love Lucy, Ricky and Lucy were not allowed to say the word "pregnant" on the air. They had to say, "We're having a baby."

Well, now that it's 2005, intersex shouldn't be such a hard thing to talk about.

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