What if churches took intersex people seriously?

by Susannah Cornwall

There are several reasons why it’s strange that this post should be hosted on the Queers for Jesus blog. To start with, I’m a heterosexual, cisgender woman married to a heterosexual, cisgender man, so in many respects there’s nothing very queer about me.

What’s more, this is a post about intersex conditions – and plenty of intersex people would find it odd that anyone would consider intersex particularly “queer”. Many intersex people – who have something about their bodies which means they can’t be easily classified as male or female – don’t like the fact that intersex is often considered in the same breath as LGBTQ issues. Intersex, they say, isn’t anything to do with sexual orientation or gender identity as such: it’s just a medical condition, and doesn’t, in itself, make someone more likely to identify as LGBTQ than a non-intersex person.

So what is this blog post doing here? Well, first of all, I like the fact that Jay and Symon, who edit this blog, are working with a definition of “queer” that’s so wide. For them, “queer” doesn’t just mean “LGBT” – although they’re very sympathetic to LGBT struggles. Rather, “queer” here means something more like “subversive” or “resisting” – with a particular emphasis on resisting heteronormativity (the idea that heterosexuality is the only “right” or “normal” way to be).

In that sense, although I’m heterosexual and cisgender, I can still be part of a conversation about disturbing and uncovering some of the damage done by heteronormativity. This is especially important in the context of faith and religion, because there’s a perception among many people that religion is unreservedly opposed to homosexuality and queer issues, and that no person of faith could be accepting of non-heterosexuality. In fact, there are many, many Christians who want to come out and say unreservedly that homophobia and heteronormativity are a distortion of the loving, just and peacemaking message of Jesus.

But what does intersex have to do with queering religion – especially if, as I’ve said, lots of intersex people don’t consider themselves queer or subversive in any way, and actually don’t like being lumped together with LGBTQ issues? Well, that brings us back to our broader definition of queer. Queerness is about questioning assumptions of all kinds, not just those directly connected with sexuality and sexual orientation.

What kinds of assumptions do we need to question if we take intersex seriously? Most obviously, we need to question the assumption that everyone is clearly and unproblematically male or female. Maleness and femaleness often seem so self-evident to us that we don’t stop to question how we really define them. When it was suspected in 2009 that Caster Semenya, the South African athlete, might have a condition which made her different from other female athletes and gave her an unfair advantage over them – or even that she might have been a man masquerading as a woman – a lot of commentators on news blogs said things like, “Pull down her pants and have a look! That’ll soon make it clear whether she’s really female or not!”

Actually, things aren’t always as straightforward as that. For a start, some intersex people have genitals which don’t look male or female, but somewhere in between. Furthermore, genitals aren’t the “last word” in physical sex: even people who have “normal”-looking male or female genitalia can also have other physical characteristics which don’t “match”. For instance, some intersex people have female external genitalia (a clitoris, labia, and vaginal opening), but also have internal testes and XY (male) chromosomes. Other intersex people have a mixture of XX and XY chromosomes, or one testis and one ovary, or other unusual features. At different times in history, different features have been taken as the “ultimate” arbiter of sex: for example, genital appearance; whether someone has testes or ovaries; what chromosomes they have; whether they produce eggs or sperm; and, simply, whether they feel more male or more female!

What other assumptions, then, does intersex disturb? Well, importantly, there’s a lot which is said and done in churches which never questions that idea that everyone’s clearly and unproblematically male or female. Some churches teach that only men should be priests or bishops, but never get as far as defining what they mean by men (someone with XY chromosomes? Someone with testes? Someone who just feels like a man?). Some churches believe that only people of different sexes should be allowed to marry; but, again, intersex makes that harder to define than we might think. Is someone who identifies as a woman and has breasts, a clitoris, vulva and so on “really” a man because she has testes and XY chromosomes? In that case, should she only be allowed to marry an XX woman – in what would, in all but chromosomal terms, be a lesbian partnership?

These might seem like exceptional cases. However, it’s thought that about 1 in every 2,500 people has an intersex condition (about the same number of people with cystic fibrosis) – so they’re not really all that exceptional. What’s more, even if intersex conditions are relatively rare, the very fact that they exist at all means that people of faith might need to stop and think hard about whether their teachings about sex, gender and sexuality continue to make sense in light of what we now know about intersex and, more generally, sex and gender development.

There are two issues in particular in the public eye at the moment which are working with this assumption that we can always know whether someone’s male or female.

The first is the question being debated by the Church of England about whether women should be consecrated as bishops. Some of those who are opposed to this, and who want protection enshrined in law to ensure that their parish doesn’t have to have a priest who’s been ordained by a woman bishop, believe that there’s something about a female body which means it just can’t represent Jesus in the way a male body can. But the existence of intersex means we need to think hard about the assumption that male bodies and female bodies are so very different from each other in the first place. After all, which particular bit of a male priest or bishop’s body does his maleness reside in? Is it his testes? Is it his chromosomes? Is it his penis? Is it his masculine identity? In any of these cases, an argument could be made that a transgender man or an intersex woman could just as well represent Jesus. Maybe intersex should prompt us to reconsider the whole idea that humanity splits easily and obviously in two along sexed lines.

Second, there’s the question on which both the government and the Church of England have recently held consultations: that is, the issue of same-sex marriage. Here, the question is whether extending the bounds of marriage to include same-sex couples fundamentally changes its definition in an unacceptable way. Again, though, we need to ask how “sex” is being defined here. Some people believe the existence of intersex calls into question a binary definition of sex, and that we can’t really talk about “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” relationships at all. Rather, they suggest, human sex is a spectrum, with a variety of physical possibilities in between male and female.

Christians who oppose homosexuality often do so because they believe God intended everyone to be either male or female with a (heterosexual) sexual orientation and a (cisgender) gender identity to “match”. But once we accept that things are more complex than either-or even on a biological level, we need to rethink the “unquestionable” nature of sexual orientation and gender identity too.

Lots of intersex people consider themselves perfectly unremarkable men or women who just happen to have an unusual medical condition. They don’t consider themselves queer, subversive, or in any way extraordinary. But I want to suggest that, even so, there’s a way in which intersex is “queer” in one particular sense. It demonstrates that maleness and femaleness aren’t always obvious, and that our current definitions of maleness and femaleness don’t fit every single body. Intersex therefore calls into question the whole idea that humans are created always and only male or female – and, in turn, it calls into question lots of the theological and social norms based on that assumption.


Susannah Cornwall is a theologian specialising in issues of sex, gender, sexuality and embodiment. She is the author of Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology (Equinox, 2010) and Controversies in Queer Theology (SCM Press, 2011).


4 thoughts on “What if churches took intersex people seriously?

  1. Leo says:

    Why do “heterosexual” contributors to blogs like this feel the need to tell us they are married straights? I read it as insecurity on their part, even when thatched in to the narrative of an article like this one. It tends to reenforce and superimpose distinctions that are challenged by Queer politics.

  2. Susannah Cornwall says:

    Leo, I can’t speak for others, but for myself it stems from an awareness that some queer people are suspicious of the language of queerness being colonized and used by others for their own purposes. Although queer methodologies and identities are much broader than solely LGBT ones, it’s still the case that queer theology, at least, has its roots and history in lesbian and gay theologies, and I think it’s important to note that plenty of LGBT people aren’t happy about the idea of heterosexual allies calling themselves queer because that isn’t their history.

    Similarly, I try to make clear when I’m talking or writing about intersex that I don’t have an intersex condition myself, not because that would be anything bad or shameful but because I want to make it clear that I’m speaking *with* other people and not *for* them.

  3. […] castles” and the need for queers to stand alongside disability activists. Today we have a post from Susannah Cornwall, a theologian at Manchester University, pointing out that the existence of intersex people […]

  4. Lana says:

    Thanks for writing this. I love it.

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