Opinion: Embracing pride: Understanding sex, gender, and freedom


Published: 06-11-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

I worry about Riley.

I wonder, too, if I should have known more, been more supportive, more appreciative of their courage.

Riley, as I’ve chosen to call them in appreciation of their privacy and struggle, was 15 when we first met, living under, and uncomfortable with, an assigned gender within a large family that was not only ignorant of their gender struggle and true identity but who were opposed to Riley’s attempt to have agency over their life.

Riley was post-puberty but not yet 18, America’s legal definition of adulthood. As life at home became contentious — Riley became homeless at one point — schoolwork and attendance suffered and their future became increasingly bleak.

Finally, having reached 18, Riley moved in with supportive friends they had met in school.

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I wish them well.

It was not only a classic confrontation between teenager and family, the more one opposes their wishes the more stubborn they become, but a conflict between the complexities of science and free expression, as experienced by Riley, and religion and traditional social mores, as practiced by their parents.

A confrontation repeated ad nauseam across America today between believers in science on one side and believers in misogynistic and patriarchal interpretations of authority and sacred texts on the other.

To this day I don’t know whether Riley, seemingly alone, made all the right decisions at the right time, but I wish them, after a childhood of enduring rejection and abandonment, a future of beauty and love.

I know, too, that in supporting Riley I learned not only that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but that with some effort more could be learned — by all of us.

I learned that people who are intersex, as the Cleveland Clinic writes, “have genitals, chromosomes or reproductive organs that don’t fit into a male/female sex binary, [that] their genitals might not match their reproductive organs, or they may have traits of both.”

I learned that “Being intersex may be evident at birth, childhood, later in adulthood or never. Being intersex isn’t a disorder, disease or condition.”

I learned, from Amnesty International, that “‘transgender’ – or trans – is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth ... [that] an intersex person may also identify as trans, but they are separate things, because gender and sex are separate.”

Riley’s struggle advanced my enlightenment — I am thankful.

I thought of Riley recently when I read an opinion piece in The Washington Post: “To understand biological sex, look at the brain, not the body,” by Jennifer Finney Boylan, who explained that “not every person with a Y chromosome is male, and not every person with a double X is female. The world is full of people with other combinations: XXY (or Klinefelter Syndrome), XXX (or Trisomy X), XXXY and so on... Most of these people develop as female and might not even know about their condition until puberty — or even later.”

A friend reminded me of fiction reflecting science in season two of House MD, in an episode about a woman who had never menstruated, had little pubic hair, and undersized ovaries was discovered to be intersex and actually had testicular cancer; that in season five the parents of a patient who was born with both male and female DNA and ambiguous genitalia decided to raise him as a male and had surgery “performed to remove female characteristics from his genital region.”

I am reminded of South African Caster Semenya, a two-time women’s 800m Olympic champion, a three-time 800m world champion, and a double Commonwealth Games middle distance gold medallist who, in 2019, was told to take medication to suppress their testosterone levels or they couldn’t compete.

What I’ve come to learn, most of all, is that people who have spent their lives denying any science that contradicts their personal or religious beliefs, from the age of the earth to evolution to climate change, are not going to spend much time trying to understand the complexities of human sexuality or empathize with LGBTQIA+ peoples.

For such people the fact that today at least 6,000,000 Americans have been born with intersex traits and expressions is irrelevant, ignoring the fact that our physical sexual characteristics have little to do with how we consider our gender identity, or to whom we are attracted.

In April, The Economist wrote that “For many Americans, the great tragedy of trans rights is the story of how Republican governors and state legislatures are stigmatizing some of society’s most put-upon people—all too often in a cynical search for votes... In a free society it is not the government’s place to tell adults how to live and dress, which pronouns to use, or what to do with their bodies.”

I agree.

The Economist continues, “...On different sides of the Atlantic, medical experts have weighed the evidence for the treatment of gender-dysphoric children and teenagers, those who feel intense discomfort with their biological sex ... the consensus in America is that medical intervention and gender affirmation are beneficial and should be more accessible. Across Europe several countries now believe that the evidence is lacking and such interventions should be used sparingly and need further study. The Europeans are right.”

I’m not convinced “The Europeans are right.”

What I do know is that we must listen to our children, that some children begin expressing gender dysphoria at very young ages, sometimes before reaching school age, and if we don’t listen, don’t counsel, don’t love them unconditionally and have conversations with them about the importance of trusting their own hearts then we risk burdening them with a lifetime of trauma.

Understand that no one chooses to live as a LGBTQIA+ person in America today because it’s fashionable or trendy, or because they like the attention. They choose to do it, embracing all threats and risks, because they can’t live as they were assigned, in an intolerant world, that insists one must either be cisgendered female or cisgendered male.

I worry about Riley.