Intersex in history

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Intersex, in humans and other animals, describes variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies".[1][2] Intersex people were historically termed hermaphrodites, "congenital eunuchs",[3][4] or even congenitally "frigid".[5] Such terms have fallen out of favor, now considered to be misleading and stigmatizing.[6]

Intersex people have been treated in different ways by different cultures. Whether or not they were socially tolerated or accepted by any particular culture, the existence of intersex people was known to many ancient and pre-modern cultures and legal systems, and numerous historical accounts exist.

Ancient history[edit]

A Sumerian creation myth from more than 4,000 years ago has Ninmah, a mother goddess, fashioning humanity out of clay.[7] She boasts that she will determine the fate – good or bad – for all she fashions:

Enki answered Ninmah: "I will counterbalance whatever fate – good or bad – you happen to decide.

Ninmah took clay from the top of the abzu [ab: water; zu: far] in her hand and she fashioned from it first a man who could not bend his outstretched weak hands. Enki looked at the man who cannot bend his outstretched weak hands, and decreed his fate: he appointed him as a servant of the king. (Three men and one woman with atypical biology are formed and Enki gives each of them various forms of status to ensure respect for their uniqueness) ...Sixth, she fashioned one with neither penis nor vagina on its body. Enki looked at the one with neither penis nor vagina on its body and gave it the name Nibru (eunuch(?)), and decreed as its fate to stand before the king.[7]

In traditional Jewish culture, intersex individuals were either androgynos or tumtum and took on different gender roles, sometimes conforming to men's, sometimes to women's.

Ancient Greece[edit]

In the mythological tradition, Hermaphroditus was a beautiful youth who was the son of Hermes (Roman Mercury) and Aphrodite (Venus).[8] Ovid wrote the most influential narrative[9] of how Hermaphroditus became androgynous, emphasizing that although the handsome youth was on the cusp of sexual adulthood, he rejected love as Narcissus had, and likewise at the site of a reflective pool.[10] There the water nymph Salmacis saw and desired him. He spurned her, and she pretended to withdraw until, thinking himself alone, he undressed to bathe in her waters. She then flung herself upon him, and prayed that they might never be parted. The gods granted this request, and thereafter the body of Hermaphroditus contained both male and female. As a result, men who drank from the waters of the spring Salmacis supposedly "grew soft with the vice of impudicitia".[11] The myth of Hylas, the young companion of Hercules who was abducted by water nymphs, shares with Hermaphroditus and Narcissus the theme of the dangers that face the beautiful adolescent male as he transitions to adult masculinity, with varying outcomes for each.[12]

Ancient Rome[edit]

Hermaphroditus in a wall painting from Herculaneum (first half of the 1st century AD)

Pliny notes that "there are even those who are born of both sexes, whom we call hermaphrodites, at one time androgyni" (andr-, "man," and gyn-, "woman", from the Greek).[13] However, the era also saw a historical account of a congenital eunuch.[14]

The Sicilian historian Diodorus (latter 1st-century BC) wrote of "hermaphroditus" in the first century BCE:

Hermaphroditus, as he has been called, who was born of Hermes and Aphrodite and received a name which is a combination of those of both his parents. Some say that this Hermaphroditus is a god and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman, in that he has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of man. But there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do they have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good.[15]

Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) described a hermaphrodite fancifully as those who "have the right breast of a man and the left of a woman, and after coitus in turn can both sire and bear children."[16] Under Roman law, as many others, a hermaphrodite had to be classed as either male or female.[17] Roscoe states that the hermaphrodite represented a "violation of social boundaries, especially those as fundamental to daily life as male and female."[18]

In traditional Roman religion, a hermaphroditic birth was a kind of prodigium, an occurrence that signalled a disturbance of the pax deorum, Rome's treaty with the gods.[19] But Pliny observed that while hermaphrodites were once considered portents, in his day they had become objects of delight (deliciae) who were trafficked in an exclusive slave market.[20] According to Clarke, depictions of Hermaphroditus were very popular among the Romans:

Artistic representations of Hermaphroditus bring to the fore the ambiguities in sexual differences between women and men as well as the ambiguities in all sexual acts. ... (A)rtists always treat Hermaphroditus in terms of the viewer finding out his/her actual sexual identity. ... Hermaphroditus is a highly sophisticated representation, invading the boundaries between the sexes that seem so clear in classical thought and representation.[21]

Historical accounts of intersex people include the sophist and philosopher Favorinus, described as a eunuch (εὐνοῦχος) by birth.[14][22] Mason and others thus describe Favorinus as having an intersex trait.[3][23][24]

A broad sense of the term "eunuch" is reflected in the compendium of ancient Roman laws collected by Justinian I in the 6th century known as the Digest or Pandects. Those texts distinguish between the general category of eunuchs (spadones, denoting "one who has no generative power, an impotent person, whether by nature or by castration",[25] D 50.16.128) and the more specific subset of castrati (castrated males, physically incapable of procreation). Eunuchs (spadones) sold in the slave markets were deemed by the jurist Ulpian to be "not defective or diseased, but healthy", because they were anatomically able to procreate just like monorchids (D On the other hand, as Julius Paulus pointed out, "if someone is a eunuch in such a way that he is missing a necessary part of his body" (D 21.1.7), then he would be deemed diseased. In these Roman legal texts, spadones (eunuchs) are eligible to marry women (D, institute posthumous heirs (D 28.2.6), and adopt children (Institutions of Justinian 1.11.9), unless they are castrati.

Ancient Tamil[edit]

Gopi Shankar Madurai notes that In ancient Tamil Sangam literature it uses the word pedi to refer to people born with an intersex condition; it also refers to antharlinga hijras and various other hijras, Intersex people are popularly known as Mabedi Usili in Hijra community but the identity of Intersex people always remained as a distinct identity from popular hijra community.[26][27] In Tirumantiram Tirumular recorded the relationship between Intersex people and Shiva.[28]

Middle Ages[edit]

An illustration from a 13th-century manuscript of the Decretum Gratiani

In Abnormal (Les anormaux), Michel Foucault suggested it is likely that, "from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century ... hermaphrodites were considered to be monsters and were executed, burnt at the stake and their ashes thrown to the winds."[29]

However, no historical evidence has been found for such claims. Instead, Christof Rolker and others have found that Canon Law sources provide evidence of alternative perspectives, based upon prevailing visual indications and the performance of gendered roles.[30] The 12th-century Decretum Gratiani states that "Whether an hermaphrodite may witness a testament, depends on which sex prevails" ("Hermafroditus an ad testamentum adhiberi possit, qualitas sexus incalescentis ostendit.").[31][32]

In the late twelfth century, the canon lawyer Huguccio stated that, "If someone has a beard, and always wishes to act like a man (excercere virilia) and not like a female, and always wishes to keep company with men and not with women, it is a sign that the male sex prevails in him and then he is able to be a witness, where a woman is not allowed".[33] Concerning the ordination of 'hermaphrodites', Huguccio concluded: "If therefore the person is drawn to the feminine more than the male, the person does not receive the order. If the reverse, the person is able to receive but ought not to be ordained on account of deformity and monstrosity."[33]

Henry de Bracton's De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae ("On the Laws and Customs of England"), c. 1235,[34] classifies mankind as "male, female, or hermaphrodite",[35] and "A hermaphrodite is classed with male or female according to the predominance of the sexual organs."[36]

The thirteenth-century canon lawyer Henry of Segusio argued that 'true hermaphrodites' where no sex prevailed should choose their legal gender under oath.[37]

Early Modern Period[edit]

The 17th-century English jurist and judge Edward Coke (Lord Coke), wrote in his Institutes of the Lawes of England on laws of succession stating, "Every heire is either a male, a female, or an hermaphrodite, that is both male and female. And an hermaphrodite (which is also called Androgynus) shall be heire, either as male or female, according to that kind of sexe which doth prevaile."[38][39] The Institutes are widely held to be a foundation of common law.

A few historical accounts of intersex people exist due primarily to the discovery of relevant legal records, including those of Thomas(ine) Hall (17th-century USA), Eleno de Céspedes, a 16th-century intersex person in Spain (in Spanish), and Fernanda Fernández (18th-century Spain).

In a court case, heard at the Castellania in 1774 during the Order of St. John in Malta, 17-year-old Rosa Mifsud from Luqa, later described in the British Medical Journal as a pseudo-hermaphrodite, petitioned for a change in sex classification from female.[40][41] Two clinicians were appointed by the court to perform an examination. They found that "the male sex is the dominant one".[41] The examiners were the Physician-in-Chief and a senior surgeon, both working at the Sacra Infermeria.[41] The Grandmaster himself who took the final decision for Mifsud to wear only men clothes from then on.[40]

Mid Modern Period[edit]

A golden-coloured statue of a man in a gown on a seat with a sword on his knees. In front there is a polished wooden table with goldleaf and a blue and white porcelain vase with yellow flowers. Behind him is a wooden altar with lights and incense holders. The altar has the same design as the table. The wall is cream-coloured.
Bronze statue of Lê Văn Duyệt in his tomb

During the Victorian era, medical authors introduced the terms "true hermaphrodite" for an individual who has both ovarian and testicular tissue, verified under a microscope, "male pseudo-hermaphrodite" for a person with testicular tissue, but either female or ambiguous sexual anatomy, and "female pseudo-hermaphrodite" for a person with ovarian tissue, but either male or ambiguous sexual anatomy.

Historical accounts including those of Vietnamese general Lê Văn Duyệt (18th/19th-century) who helped to unify Vietnam; Gottlieb Göttlich, a 19th-century German travelling medical case; and Levi Suydam, an intersex person in 19th-century USA whose capacity to vote in male-only elections was questioned.

The memoirs of 19th-century intersex Frenchwoman Herculine Barbin were published by Michel Foucault in 1980.[42] Her birthday is marked in Intersex Day of Remembrance on 8 November.

Contemporary Period[edit]

The Phall-O-Meter satirizes clinical assessments of appropriate clitoris and penis length at birth.

The term intersexuality was coined by Richard Goldschmidt in the 1917 paper Intersexuality and the endocrine aspect of sex.[43][44][45] The first suggestion to replace the term 'hermaphrodite' with 'intersex' came from British specialist Cawadias in the 1940s.[46] This suggestion was taken up by specialists in the UK during the 1960s.[47][48] Historical accounts from the early twentieth century include that of Australian Florrie Cox, whose marriage was annulled due to "malformation frigidity".[5]

Since the rise of modern medical science in Western societies, some intersex people with ambiguous external genitalia have had their genitalia surgically modified to resemble either female or male genitals. Surgeons pinpointed intersex babies as a "social emergency" once they were born.[49] The parents of the intersex babies were not content about the situation. Psychologists, sexologists, and researchers frequently still believe that it is better for a baby's genitalia to be changed when they were younger than when they were a mature adult. These scientists believe that early intervention helped avoid gender identity confusion.[50] This was called the 'Optimal Gender Policy', and it was initially developed in the 1950s by John Money.[51] Money and others controversially believed that children were more likely to develop a gender identity that matched sex of rearing than might be determined by chromosomes, gonads, or hormones.[52] The primary goal of assignment was to choose the sex that would lead to the least inconsistency between external anatomy and assigned psyche (gender identity).

Since advances in surgery have made it possible for intersex conditions to be concealed, many people are not aware of how frequently intersex conditions arise in human beings or that they occur at all.[53] Dialog between what were once antagonistic groups of activists and clinicians has led to only slight changes in medical policies and how intersex patients and their families are treated in some locations.[54] Numerous civil society organizations and human rights institutions now call for an end to unnecessary "normalizing" interventions.

The first public demonstration by intersex people took place in Boston on October 26, 1996, outside the venue in Boston where the American Academy of Pediatrics was holding its annual conference.[55] The group demonstrated against "normalizing" treatments, and carried a sign saying "Hermaphrodites With Attitude".[56] The event is now commemorated by Intersex Awareness Day.[57]

In 2011, Christiane Völling became the first intersex person known to have successfully sued for damages in a case brought for non-consensual surgical intervention.[58] In April 2015, Malta became the first country to outlaw non-consensual medical interventions to modify sex anatomy, including that of intersex people.[59][60]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Free & Equal Campaign Fact Sheet: Intersex" (PDF). United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2015. Archived (PDF) from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 28 March 2016. 
  2. ^ Domurat Dreger, Alice (2001). Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex. USA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00189-3. 
  3. ^ a b Mason, H.J., Favorinus’ Disorder: Reifenstein’s Syndrome in Antiquity?, in Janus 66 (1978) 1–13.
  4. ^ Nguyễn Khắc Thuần (1998), Việt sử giai thoại (History of Vietnam's tales), vol. 8, Vietnam Education Publishing House, p. 55
  5. ^ a b Richardson, Ian D. (May 2012). God's Triangle. Preddon Lee Limited. ISBN 9780957140103. 
  6. ^ Dreger, Alice D; Chase, Cheryl; Sousa, Aron; Gruppuso, Phillip A.; Frader, Joel (18 August 2005). ""Changing the Nomenclature/Taxonomy for Intersex: A Scientific and Clinical Rationale."" (PDF). Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism. Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 27 July 2016. 
  7. ^ a b "The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature". Archived from the original on 24 December 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2007. 
  8. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.287–88.
  9. ^ Taylor, The Moral Mirror of Roman Art, p. 77; Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, p. 49.
  10. ^ Taylor, The Moral Mirror of Roman Art, p. 78ff.
  11. ^ Paulus ex Festo 439L; Richlin, "Not before Homosexuality," p. 549.
  12. ^ Taylor, The Moral Mirror of Roman Art, p. 216, note 46.
  13. ^ Pliny, Natural History 7.34: gignuntur et utriusque sexus quos hermaphroditos vocamus, olim androgynos vocatos; Veronique Dasen, "Multiple Births in Graeco-Roman Antiquity," Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16.1 (1997), p. 61.
  14. ^ a b Philostratus, VS 489
  15. ^ Diodorus Siculus (1935). Library of History (Book IV). Loeb Classical Library Volumes 303 and 340. C H Oldfather (trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Archived from the original on 2008-09-27. 
  16. ^ Isidore of Seville, Eytmologiae 11.3. 11.
  17. ^ Lynn E. Roller, "The Ideology of the Eunuch Priest," Gender & History 9.3 (1997), p. 558.
  18. ^ Roscoe, "Priests of the Goddess," p. 204.
  19. ^ Veit Rosenberger, "Republican nobiles: Controlling the Res Publica," in A Companion to Roman Religion (Blackwell, 2007), p. 295.
  20. ^ Plutarch, Moralia 520c; Dasen, "Multiple Births in Graeco-Roman Antiquity," p. 61.
  21. ^ Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, pp. 54–55.
  22. ^ Swain, Simon, "Favorinus and Hadrian," in ZPE 79 (1989), 150-158
  23. ^ Horstmanshoff (2000) 103 n. 39
  24. ^ Eugenio Amato (intr., ed., comm.) and Yvette Julien (trans.), Favorinos d'Arles, Oeuvres I. Introduction générale - Témoignages - Discours aux Corinthiens - Sur la Fortune, Paris: Les Belles Lettres (2005).
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  26. ^ Shrikumar, A. "No more under siege". The Hindu. Chennai, India. Archived from the original on 2 January 2017. Retrieved 27 May 2017. 
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  28. ^ Winter, Gopi Shankar (2014). Maraikkappatta Pakkangal: மறைக்கப்பட்ட பக்கங்கள். Srishti Madurai. ISBN 9781500380939. OCLC 703235508. 
  29. ^ Foucault, Michel (2003). Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975. Verso. p. 67. 
  30. ^ Rolker, Christof (2013). "Double sex, double pleasure? Hermaphrodites and the medieval laws". Leeds, England. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2016-08-27. 
  31. ^ Decretum Gratiani, C. 4, q. 2 et 3, c. 3
  32. ^ "Decretum Gratiani (Kirchenrechtssammlung)". Bayerische StaatsBibliothek (Bavarian State Library). February 5, 2009. Archived from the original on December 20, 2016. 
  33. ^ a b Raming, Ida; Macy, Gary; Bernard J, Cook (2004). A History of Women and Ordination. Scarecrow Press. p. 113. 
  34. ^ Henry de Bracton. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 17 March 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Archived 2009-03-24 at the Wayback Machine.
  35. ^ de Bracton, Henry. On the Laws and Customs of England. 2 (Thorne ed.). p. 31. Archived from the original on 2016-10-29. 
  36. ^ de Bracton, Henry. On the Laws and Customs of England. 2 (Thorne ed.). p. 32. Archived from the original on 2016-10-29. 
  37. ^ Henrici de Segusio, Cardinalis Hostiensis, Summa aurea, Venice 1574 here at col. 612.
  38. ^ E Coke, The First Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England, Institutes 8.a. (1st Am. Ed. 1812).
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  40. ^ a b Savona-Ventura, Charles (2015). Knight Hospitaller Medicine in Malta [1530-1798]. Lulu. p. 115. ISBN 132648222X. Archived from the original on 2017-02-06. 
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  42. ^ Barbin, Herculine (1980). Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite. introd. Michel Foucault, trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-50821-1. 
  43. ^ Goldschmidt, R. (1917), "Intersexuality and the endocrine aspect of sex", Endocrinology, 1 (4): 433–456, doi:10.1210/endo-1-4-433. 
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  49. ^ Coran, Arnold G.; Polley, Theodore Z. (July 1991). "Surgical management of ambiguous genitalia in the infant and child". Journal of Pediatric Surgery. 26 (7): 812–820. doi:10.1016/0022-3468(91)90146-K. PMID 1895191. 
  50. ^ Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-07713-7. 
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  52. ^ Australian Senate; Community Affairs References Committee (October 2013). Involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people in Australia. Canberra: Community Affairs References Committee. ISBN 9781742299174. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. 
  53. ^ Dreger, Alice Domurat (May 1998). ""Ambiguous Sex"--or Ambivalent Medicine?"". Hastings Center Report. 28 (3): 24–35. 
  54. ^ Dreger, Alice (3 April 2015). "Malta Bans Surgery on Intersex Children". The Stranger SLOG. Archived from the original on 18 July 2015. 
  55. ^ Holmes, Morgan (17 October 2015). "When Max Beck and Morgan Holmes went to Boston". Intersex Day. Archived from the original on 20 October 2015. Retrieved 2015-10-24. 
  56. ^ Beck, Max. "Hermaphrodites with Attitude Take to the Streets". Intersex Society of North America. Archived from the original on 2015-10-05. Retrieved 2015-10-24. 
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  58. ^ International Commission of Jurists. "In re Völling, Regional Court Cologne, Germany (6 February 2008)". Archived from the original on 5 January 2016. Retrieved 27 December 2015. 
  59. ^ Reuters (1 April 2015). "Surgery and Sterilization Scrapped in Malta's Benchmark LGBTI Law". The New York Times. 
  60. ^ "Malta passes law outlawing forced surgical intervention on intersex minors". Star Observer. 2 April 2015. Archived from the original on 14 August 2015.