The Sexuality Blog: Genitals means gender… or does it?

A gay man is silhoutted on a gay rainbow flag during a demonstration for gay rights in Hanoi, Vietnam, November 24, 2015. While transgender, gay and lesbian people are persecuted and even jailed in many Asian countries, Vietnam has quietly become a trailblazer, with laws to decriminalize gay marriage and co-habitation and recognize sex changes on identity documents. Picture taken November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Kham - RTS8O3C

We are not really good at calling things out in Nigeria, and if we do venture at it, we are either too hypocritical or too ignorant forcing many important conversations to be silenced.

See, we were taught that if a child is born with a penis, it is male and if born with a vagina, it is female- no questions asked, it’s just the way it is. Our generation and the ones before us were raised with the ideologies of masculinity: men were portrayed as athletic, with a beard, deep voice, strength, and a Herculean physique. Slender men and men with a higher pitched voice were subconsciously looked at as weaker men, some might say feminine, the word gay has been known to be used. The significance of biology on outward expressions of gender has made it pretty straight forward… until recent times.

A gay man is silhoutted on a gay rainbow flag during a demonstration for gay rights in Hanoi, Vietnam, November 24, 2015. While transgender, gay and lesbian people are persecuted and even jailed in many Asian countries, Vietnam has quietly become a trailblazer, with laws to decriminalize gay marriage and co-habitation and recognize sex changes on identity documents. Picture taken November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Kham - RTS8O3C

“My skinny frame has pushed me away from participating in sports and physical activity, ultimately removing me from usual signs of masculinity,” says photographer Ryan James Caruthers in his work titled Tryouts which challenged these archetype. “This estrangement from athleticism further separated me from other boys in school — as this is what they were preoccupied with.”

Before the term gay and trans visibility became so prominent in our society, there were people living between the lines, born between the lines who were left by the corridors in society. Often (and wrongly) referred to as hermaphrodites, these were people whose sexual anatomy fell between the classic boundaries of male and female. Not popular in our daily vocabulary, the term ‘intersex’ refers to a wide condition from the external (ambiguous genitalia, micro-penises, enlarged clitorises) to the internal (hormone imbalances and missing organs). In many scenarios, the symptoms are so varied that science is still too stumped to give them a diagnosis and in Nigeria, there are a good number of people born in these circumstances. Many go undiagnosed, some becoming sexually confused unable to fully understand why they feel stuck.

There is an urgent need to address the strong sense of shame and secrecy surrounding these symptoms. “Many doctors encouraged me to keep silent about being intersex,” explains Amanda, who was diagnosed with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS) at the age of 13. “They said it was for my own well-being. To a degree, I understand that. The world is hostile to intersex bodies.” But why? Is it their fault they are born this way?

In 2014, Sebastian. O Ekenze, Consultant Paediatric surgeon at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, UNTH, Enugu addressed the issue of gender and intersex “disorders” in children, pointing out that dealing with the situation early will save the individual from stigma at a later stage in life.

Ekenze, told the DailyPost that the UNTH has managed 39 children with intersex in the last 10 years. Reacting to a mob attack on a male who was discovered to be possessing female-size breast in Sapele Delta State, he said if not handled early, the condition could pose a more psychological challenge to the patient. According to Ekenze, intersex is “a condition in which the reproductive structures do not fit the typical male or female”. “The anomaly has a worldwide occurrence and affects about 1 in 2000 people. Though most of the cases are evident at birth, some affected persons may be discovered at puberty or during an investigation for infertility, and less commonly some cases may live and die with the disorder without anyone ever knowing”- within those periods, sexual orientation and attraction may vary.

Early this year, Time Magazine reported the story of a 17-year-old who visited Stephen Rosenthal, a paediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. The high school student looked like a girl. She had external “girl parts.” She lived as a girl, dressed as a girl and had never had any question about being a girl. But her primary care doctor had become concerned because she hadn’t started developing breasts, something that happens to most girls by the age of 13. And a blood test the primary care doctor had given her revealed a clue as to why: this young woman had 46 XY chromosomes, the makeup usually associated with males.

What happens to her, would you say she a man with a female organ or a woman with male chromosomes? Most people never have their chromosomes checked, so when a “man” doesn’t develop the archetypal way- does this make them a taboo? – see there how we now have the word man in quotes.

Examining testimonies from Intersex people published on DazedDigital:

“I was born with gonadal dysgenesis, which is a fancy way of saying that some of my reproductive parts never formed,” says Hann, 24. “My body doesn’t naturally produce oestrogen or testosterone. Externally I look female, although I have no ovaries and XY chromosomes. I was an awkward child (a pre-teen goth) and this didn’t help at all. My presentation and orientation fit in with what most people would think of as ‘female’, even if my body doesn’t.

Amanda, 21 says she “was born with XY chromosomes, undeveloped testes, and lacked a uterus and a fully formed vagina but she didn’t develop entirely into a typically male body either. “I don’t get periods, and I can’t carry a child. At around age 12, I noticed that I wasn’t unfolding in the ways that I was taught to expect. I had a massive growth spurt, my voice dropped, and my face was pocked with acne – and, much to my dismay, my hips and chest remained boyish.”

Oluwaseun Samuel Fajilade, 29 from Ekiti State-born with both female and male genitals said he was 12 when his breasts started developing. Early this year, he told a newspaper that finding an identity has been extremely difficult for him and though he identifies as a man, he is desperately seeking surgery to have his breast and other genitals altered so that he can reflect physically as a male, and be socially accepted as a man. Due to Seun’s hormonal in balance, he might be attracted to men, maybe also females too as Hann above who asked: “Why was I experiencing same-gender attraction?”

Former Delta Queens’ football player, Bessy Ekaete Boniface was kicked out of the Fal­conets camp prior to the Chile 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup for being manly possessing both organs. “My wish is to get married and raise a family of my own but I cannot have it because of this situation,” she told the press. ‘How do you explain to a man that you have both organs, which man will stand such a situation?

“Who do I run to, where will my help come from? Doctors have told me that I’m 85 per cent woman. I need the help of Nigerians to come out of my nasty condition, I plead with them to help me raise some money for an operation to correct my condition,” Ekaete cried out.

The existence of intersex traits serves as a useful example of just how complicated sex and gender are. Just because a child was born with a penis, science shows he may not necessarily grow to show attributes of being a male. If the law for one is the law for all, where does the minority in between these lines stand as our society remains so hard-wired into thinking anyone not fitting into the archetypes are immoral and negative? Young intersex people in Nigeria today should not feel guilty or evil for being born the way they are.

The Anti-Gay law has been passed in Nigeria- and though to many it might seem very black and white, we must ask ourselves- when do genitals mean gender?

***If you have been affected by any issue discussed in this article or have an opinion, we will like to hear from you. Email us and tell us your story.

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