Is the Baby a Boy or Girl?

by Jani Farrell Roberts. c2000

An extract from her book "Seven Days: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender."

My own experience has taught me that even the gender of a child is its own business. The old way and the old wisdom, from societies and religions that go back before the era of patriarchy, is that we do not make an absolutely final decision at birth on the gender of our child. Our hospitals provide pink and blue blankets but sometimes life is not so easy to classify. One in five hundred new born children are not "standard issue" in genitals. It creates an immediate crisis if a midwife looks and cannot decide if that is a large clitoris or a small penis. (Ref. ISNA) Birth Certificates cannot be completed, as the gender cannot be given. At this point a surgeon may be called in to give the child a gender according to surgical convenience if it is the only way to make an immediate decision - as happens in one in a thousand births. Such children are known as "intersexed", as having physical aspects of both genders, - and they are not allowed to stay intersexed in our gender rigid society.

We now also know that our very brains are gender-shaped - and those whose brains do not correspond to genitals seem to correspond to those who are transsexual - meaning that these too are "intersexed" for they too are born with mixed bodies. Some midwives say that they can tell when this happens because it is reflected in the behaviour of the newborn. Research now indicates that, no matter how mixed their bodies, no matter what surgery or what conditioning is applied, such children are naturally inclined, not to see themselves as androgynous, but as the gender of their brains.

Today's experts argue about what makes a person a girl or boy. Some say it is the hormone shaped pre-birth brain. Others give more of the credit to social conditioning, peer pressure and our wish to conform. Some think a pre-birth difference hazardous for they believe gender equality requires there is not a difference that cannot be overcome by conditioning. But I have learnt through experience, history and pain that a well-founded gender identity cannot be created solely by social conditioning but first requires a gendered brain. In many old cultures it was seen as a gift to be born between the genders, with a gender identity that differed from genitals, a gift of value to the whole community. Human society needs variety. It is not a "disjunction" or "abnormality" to be born thus. It would instead be abnormal if none were so born.

Some of the oldest cultures believe a child's brain is informed and shaped by the living spirit given to a child by the creating forces. When I went to work with the Tjungundji, the Aboriginal people of Mapoon in NE Australia, I learnt that they traditionally regarded the gender of every child as a property of its spirit rather than of the brain. For them every child is formed out of the earth. For them, it was not just Adam but every child that is thus created. They told me that once the body is formed, then a spirit is formed by the Creator out of one of its parents' spirits and put into the child. If it is formed from the mother's spirit, then it will be a girl, if from the father, then a boy.

There is a theory that says that human society was a matriarchy before it was a patriarchy. I will look more at this later in Chapter 6 (See Sat.) The Yamana-Yaghan people of the Amazon have stories of women who ruled because they put on the paint of the Spirits and were seen and honoured as Spirits by men - but when two girls were seen without their make up, then the men stormed the women's hut, killing the women or turning them into animals. After this the men keep the woman's hut and keep on doing the same magic as had the women- while the survivors continued the women's magic. P137 But this could also be a cautionary tale warning of what happens when anyone claims a role that puts society out of balance. The outcome of this struggle is that both men and women do magic. A story of another Amazonian people, the Selk-nam, was more explicitly gender-balanced in its outcome. The women had their own hut where they did magic that was fearful to the men - so the men develop their own hut in which they did their own magic.

All that I have read indicates that in the societies that honoured and respected women, in societies that were gender-balanced, the transgendered and the homosexual were also respected. This seemed to be true in many of the ancient religions that flourished before the arise of the patriarchal forms of religion in the Iron and Agricultural Age. It is still true, or was until very recent times, in the hunter-gatherer "tribal" societies that have continuous histories going back perhaps over 100,000 years.

In these societies, the parents and elders watch as the child grows older to discover the rare cases when the child's appropriate gender was opposite to that first thought. Among the Inuit of North America, the Incas of South America, the Navaho of the south western US and the tribes of Siberia, a child that felt the call to change gender roles was regarded as especially privileged; as having a divine gift from that allowed her or him to know some of the secrets of both genders. Such a child was often trained to become a spiritual leader of the community - an outcome entirely unlike the commen western definition of such children as needing to be "cured" in order to be "normal" and not "disfunctional" in society. It seems these older societies achieved this without putting the child into a "third" gender but saw them as a special type of female or male, thus honouring the gender self-identify of such children.

The Greek Heroclitus recorded rumours that among the Scythian nomads who lived to the north of the Black Sea, there were many, even among the warriors, who after living as males, "became impotent, do woman's work, live like women and converse accordingly... they put on women's clothes, holding that they have lost their manhood." P200 He recorded how some of them said the Goddess had affected them thus so they could devote themselves to sacred work. We now know that such processes of transformation could be assisted by the use of certain herbs and through an extract taken from the urine of pregnant animals. We have records of such extracts being taken by "witches" who lived in classical times in societies near to the Sythians. (Ref.)

Vladimir Borgoras wrote early this century of the Chukchi transgendered Shaman of the far north of Russia ( he used the male pronoun for them for he did not accept the validity of their newly assumed female identity - despite their community accepting it.): "He throws away the ... lance, the lasso of the reindeer - herdsmen, and the harpoon of the seal-hunter, and takes to the needle and skin-scraper... Even his pronunciation changes from the male to the female mode. At the same time his body alters... his physical character changes." The attitude of Borgoras towards women comes through when he noted: "The transformed person..becomes... fond of small-talk and of nurturing small children".

The local communities religious interpretation of such transformations is apparent in the following 19th century account about the Koniag Inuit living in Russia's far north: "when the father or mother regard their apparent son as feminine in his bearing, they will often dedicate this child in earliest childhood to the vocation of Achnutschik (shaman or religious leader). Parents highly prized these children. Their mothers reared them as girls until they reached 15 when an elder would start their training as shamans. The Chukchi shaman makes life long marriages with the usual rites - but anyone who married them were seen as especially privileged as their marriage represented on earth the divine marriage existing between humans and a deity that had both genders - as is appropriate to a Creating Spirit that needs no partner to create. N39

This was also how the transgendered were seen in many of the Goddess centred religions of the Mediterranean or Middle East in Pre-Christian times. They often were accepted as priestesses in the temples of Innana, of Isis and of Cybelle. They were said to be alike to the Creating Deity in knowing what it was like to live in both genders. (Those who travelled in the other direction from life as a female to that of male may well have become priests as they could also represent this energy.)

In Okinawa in the Pacific there was a ceremony known as winagu nati "becoming a woman" in which the shaman-to-be after the time of gender role transformation, went in women's clothes into the sacred groves to be trained as shamana. The Ngaju shamans of Indonesia were seen as women - including by men who would expect them to act " as women sexually". They were not seen as "pretending" to be women. In Angola gender identity was seen as residing in the spirit that we each possess. Sometimes, it was said, a male-formed body would be " possessed since childhood by the spirit of a female ". Such a person was known as a sacred Oma Essenge. P41 Among the Incas parents used to pray that they might be blessed with such a transgendered child.

Zulus for all the image of them in feature films as fierce strong fighting men, believed perfected souls would normally return to live as female spirits in female bodies - but sometimes these perfected souls would return to those who had previously been seen as males. They were thus compelled to speak for a female spirit. The transgendered youth would experience nervousness, insomnia and would dream that the ancestors that dwelt within need a spokesperson. Typically the ancestors are heard to say: "We are you ancestors... We have long tried to make your people understand that we want you to be our house - to speak for us." p42-3

The transgendered Zulu youth may also dream of being caught, torn to pieces and reassembled. They would leave the settlement and spend time in the wilderness where visions would continue. They may have to catch a female snake and wear it around the neck. When exhausted and starving, they went to an elder to be healed and transformed. At this stage they change gender roles.

It was not just a male to female process. Sometimes girls were magically transformed into men. Those becoming males among the Zulus were allowed to carry a shield and spear - the badges of malehood - and to enjoy beer and meat. Those becoming women had their hair plaited, their face and body painted, were given beads and their voice changed. These transformed male and female shamans worked in healing, divining, magic and performing sacrifices. N33

The Omaha, an American Indian tribe of the Plains, had a custom by which the people would recognise those who were called to change gender roles in either direction by examining the nature of their dreams. A suitable candidate was said to dream of the moon deity who would be holding in her hands a bow and a burden strap. She would ask the youth to chose between them. If the youth chose the female symbol, the burden strap, then that child was to be a girl; if the child chose a bow, that child was to be a boy. The youth who chose the burden strap would then find that a passing elder woman would stop and call out "Welcome daughter." After this she would begin instructions in the mysteries of the Moon. Such a youth was henceforth seen as female and called a mesoga "instructed by the moon." N43

The Navaho Indians had a custom by which a youth who needed to change gender role was put at puberty into the centre of a sacred fire circle and given the choice between a spear and a digging stick. The youth would henceforth have the gender symbolised by the chosen tool. If the digging stick were chosen by a child brought up as a boy, she would now be welcomed by the women, given female garb and name - and possibly trained as a shaman. They were known as nadles and thought to have the wisdom of both genders. Their training was in healing mental and physical illnesses and aiding in childbirth through the use of magical songs. N62. They were also said to be capable of raising storms and of transforming themselves into animals, plants and stones.

Both ancient Greek and medieval Europe had their own ideas on how such transformations happened. These early scientific theories saw such children as naturally occurring. Plato in his book "Symposium" had Aristophanes say: "the male sprang from the sun and the female from the earth, while the gender of the one which was both male and female came from the moon, which partakes of the nature of both the Sun and Earth." Medieval Europe had another theory. Then many doctors thought the uterus had 7 cells: 3 cold cells for boys, 3 warm for girls and one for hermaphrodites. (Ben Stiles, "Med. Understanding of Women's Physiology" net.)

So much for how flexible gender role assignment was in the past and in non-Patriarchal societies. What has it been like since the Churches came to rule? There is no longer any value placed on the experience of those who find they must walk between gender roles. They are simply psychological or physical mistakes. At first some of the Fathers of the Church, such as St Augustine, came out with outraged attacks on the transgendered priestesses found in pagan temples. Then silence came to reign. In more recent times electric shock therapy was used to try to "cure" people who said they were being socialised into the wrong gender. Today those born with genitals that are not standard issue, are often operated on before their parents take them home from hospital so that they will very hopefully grow up as standard issue men and women.

The 1988 Standard Surgical Operating Guidelines allow our surgeons to define a newborn child's gender solely by the size of penis or clitoris. Their confidence came from a theory that infants are psychologically gender neutral at birth. The presumption is that if we can be vaginally penetrated or penetrate, we then need nothing else but appropriate conditioning to grow up happily as men or women. (Note. A theory that was pioneered in 1955 by John Money of Johns Hopkins University.) This operation is done soon after birth in conditions of a medical emergency with the parents not always told what precisely is happening. (Ref. Int. Soc. Report.) It has to be done quickly in the UK because, as after the birth certificate is issued, the gender designated on it cannot be later changed (unlike in nearly every other country in Europe).

The official guidelines in the US and the UK allow surgical intervention if a child has a penis less than 2.5cm (1 inch) long at birth - even if the child has testicles and XY hormones. The presumption is that a boy with a short penis is going to suffer from life long inadequacy. Such children instead are usually allotted officially to the female gender by being given a vagina by surgery for, as one surgeon accurately but crudely put it, it is easier to make a hole than build a pole. Female hormones are then given at puberty.

These same guidelines also allow surgery if a girl child is born with a clitoris over 0.9 cm in length. It may be surgically shortened, removing the most sensitive and erotic part, since such a clitoris is presumed to be a potentially embarrassing deformity for a girl. This operation may be akin in its impact to the cliterectomies once practised to stop girls masturbating. Alternatively, some children may be assigned to the male gender because of the length of their clitoris. Such children have any ovaries removed and are given male hormones at puberty.

These surgical guidelines run in the face not only of the old wisdom that the energy and dreams of a "different" child should be monitored while the child grows up to determine what is its appropriate gender - but also of recent discoveries that confirm this ancient wisdom. What has been discovered is that the human brain is physically different in men and women - meaning that, no matter how a surgeon sculpts the genitals at birth, without any knowledge of the child's brain's gender they may well assign a child incorrectly. What we have also discovered though post mortems is that, in some unusual cases the gender of the human brain need not correspond to the genitals. Those who grow up with this discordance often seem to possess instinctual knowledge that tells them that their spirit or brain does not correspond to their gender labels. These instincts are often revealed through the dreams that the shamans of old were trained to recognise. The magic such unusual people then have to achieve is to learn to blindly trust these instincts despite the evidence of mirrors. Today we normally call such people "transsexuals".

Until recently an accepted theory was that all human embryos were by default female with males being formed in the womb by a gene triggered hormonal intervention and that there was only one gender before the "y" gene evolved to be different from the "x" gene. But this did not explain why a few men had XX chromosomes. Nor is the human fetus by default female. It seems instead that the human embryo at first lays the foundations for both sets of genitals as if it were going to be an hermaphrodite. Then, at 6-8 weeks, a gene trigger prompts first the destruction of the one foundation and then the forming of the other into a set of genitals -. and then, some 4 weeks later within the womb, a new hormonal surge forms the brain along gender specific lines. (Ref.) The explanation this science gives for "transsexuals" is that their brains did not form along the same pattern as their genitals - or to put it another way, our Creatrix sung a different song when she formed us in the womb.

To understand just what tragedies ill advised modern theories have inflicted on those born "intersexed" we need to read the testimonials of some of those affected.

An intersexed woman, Cheryl Chase, wrote: "Surgical and hormonal treatment allows parents and doctors to imagine that they have eliminated the child's intersexuality. Unfortunately the surgery is immensely destructive of sexual sensation and of the sense of bodily integrity...I find myself forced to wonder whether a concept of sexual normalcy that defines the sex organs of up to 4% of new-born infants as "defective" is not itself defective. Intersex specialists are busily snipping and trimming infant genitals to fit the Procrustean bed that is our cultural definition of gender... Those I have located have told me that they feel most lucky to have escaped with their bodies intact "The Sciences, July/August 1993

. A person surgically assigned at birth to the male sex stated: "Since I had been raised as a male I was given testosterone, to see how I reacted. I cannot describe the sense of horror and the feeling that my entire being was being raped, which I experienced from being endocrinologically mutated against my will. I reacted so badly that they decided it might be better if I were a girl and so now I was given that choice." Intersex Society of North America (ISNA):

Another wrote: "I call myself a lab rat because that is how intersexed kids are treated. Tested, photographed, examined, tested again, photographed some more... It was the experience of being so dehumanised, which was so damaging I never uttered a peep about being intersexed to anyone, not a word. Ever. It was something that I seemed completely incapable of doing. It was unthinkable to even think about doing such a thing. Talking means death. Intersexed people don't talk. It is one of the Mysteries. I never went on a date, had sex, or responded with anything but fear and anxiety to any man or woman who indicated that they might like to get close to me, either as a friend or a potential lover. They might find out about my terrible dark secret. I seemed normal, went to school and did well, had casual friends, all the time living in fear and shame."

In 1996 I visited in hospital a woman labelled a "transsexual", undergoing painful surgery to correct surgery given to her at birth to make her look like a male baby. I also met a man who at birth was labelled female and given female hormones when female puberty did not occur. In mid-life both of these victims were adjusting themselves back to what they believed was their true gender by means of a so-called "sex-change" operation. In both cases they had instinctively known all their lives that something was very wrong. They were both victims of medical errors. Both were now the victims of an official refusal to correct the gender given on their UK birth certificates.

In a 1998 legal case in the UK, it was decided that a child born with male chromosomes, testicles but no penis, assigned to the male gender at birth, but brought up as a girl from one year of age and given female hormones, could have her birth certificate changed from male to female. Hopefully her mother took note of her behaviour and found it female before taking this action. Otherwise it seemed it was solely the lack of a penis that made the authorities define her as female.

The testimonies of adults who were wrongly assigned at birth seems to demonstrate that our gender identity is determined more by the shape of our brain than by the shape of our genitals or by socialisation. This has also been the finding of a study that carried out post mortems on "male to female" transsexuals. They had typically female shaped brains - unlike gay males who were typically male.

It would be a mistake to consider "male" hormones exclusively male - simply because we have labelled them as male - and likewise for "female' hormones. Androgens are at home in every female body but at a lesser levels than in man. Some scientific research has indicated that pre-birth exposure to "male" hormones at lesser levels than those that change the gender of the brain may help create women with good spatial perception and with more aggression. "Female" hormones may help a male express emotion and empathy.

Our bodies are delightfully complex. Why do we try to simplify? Our gender is determined by so many factors. Chromosomes control the gift of hormones to embryos. If there were only two gender sets of chromosomes then deciding the gender of the child would be easier - but again Nature loves diversity. There are more than just XX or XY humans - there are XXY and XYY and more. One human in 500 does not have XX or XY chromosomes. (ISNA). Some people are also known to have both.

It is strange when we require modern research in order to reinstate older ways. The discovery that humans come in many types and may grow up to be males or females in different ways was well known to ancients but became sadly forgotten in Western society. In ancient times the elders knew of Black Cohort, the oestrogen rich herb used in North America to help both those whose bodies did not make this female hormone that their spirit needed. In England hops similarly contain oestrogens.

The assertion by Western medical researchers that it is "abnormal" to be born intersexed or transsexual comes with a value loading that suggests it would be good if such children could be "cured" in the womb. (Xref60) This narrowness of view ignores the functionality of societies that allow a wide flexibility in gender expression, in sexuality and that allows its children to assign themselves to genders. It also ignores the wide variety in gender expressions and sexualities among other species - something documented among over 400 species of mammals and birds by Bruce Bagemihl in "Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity". He saw an exuberance of sexual expression as a feature of a healthy biological system and as something that gives it greater balance and vitality.