Policing Intersex Americans’ Sex and Gender

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05/04/2021

Unlike many other cultures, the Anglo-American mainstream has always relied on a binary view of sex and gender. In the case of intersex people, who have inherent biological characteristics that don’t divide neatly into male or female, authorities have gone to great lengths to maintain a binary, as historian Elizabeth Reis explains. Reis writes that medical texts used by the early Puritan settlers in North America generally only talked about intersex people as infants. They identified them as a subset of “monstrous births,” sent as a warning from God. But in one 1629 case, the Virginia General Court took up the question of how to understand an adult intersex person. Thomas/Thomasine Hall was arrested for wearing women’s clothes and having sex with a maid. Hall explained that they had been baptized as a girl, but had switched gender roles several times, and that they had genitals that weren’t clearly male or female. Asked “wether hee were man or woeman,” Hall replied, “both man and woeman.”

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