On a nice, spring day in 1994, I drove from Gaithersburg, MD, to Haverford College outside Philadelphia, to visit my daughter, Joy, who was at that time a student there. I found her on the sidelines of a co-ed rugby game. She pointed out one particular player and asked me, “Is that player a male or a female?” It was difficult to tell as I assessed the individual from the female side and then the male side. I can’t remember which side I came down on, but Joy commented to me, “When you meet a person you immediately classify them as male or female. When it is difficult to tell, you feel uncomfortable until you make a decision, even if it is wrong. Then you feel comfortable again.” This quick determination, according to Joy, is even more basic than that other American assessment as to the race of the individual.

But what of people who are neither male nor female or rather both male and female. These people are called “intersex”. Into which gender box are these people put?

In the United States there is LGBTQI standing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex. In the United States when a baby is born with both sexual characteristics, the birthing doctor often would make a gender determination and “fix” the baby to be one sex or the other. Sometimes they did not even inform the parents and naturally the new-born baby had no say in this arbitrary decision. In some cases the intersex characteristics don’t develop until puberty. Currently there is a strong movement in the United States to stop any surgical interventions on intersex babies and waiting until the child is an adult to make his/her own choice.

While it is unclear exactly how many intersex people there are in a population, the number is not insignificant. As Joy noted above, people are uncomfortable when they cannot assign gender to a person. The obvious solution is that there needs to be a third “box” for intersex people.

Interesting enough, even though there is major homophobia in Kenya for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people, intersex people have been separated from these and now have their own classification “box.” The difference is that, while LGBTQ people can be discriminated against because their sexual orientation is “voluntary” and “unnatural”, there is no way this can be ascribed to intersex people who are the way they are because of their physical genetic characteristics.

The situation began in 2014 in Kenya, when a five year old intersex child could not get a birth certificate because he didn’t fit into the two boxes available. Without a birth certificate the child was not allowed to attend school. The court determined, wisely, I think, that the third intersex box should be allowed on the birth certificate so that the child could attend school.

In a more recent case a intersex “boy” was given a masculine name at birth, but at puberty he acquired characteristics that were much more similar to a “girl.” He petitioned the court to have his name change to a female name. Again the court agreed with this request.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) has championed the rights of intersex people in Kenya. It noted the discrimination against intersex people and for the August 2019 census effectively lobbied the census bureau to include, in addition to the usual male, female classification, a third one for intersex people. 1524 brave intersex people chose this classification during the census. There was at least one intersex person recorded in each of the 47 counties of Kenya.

There is an estimated 20,000 to 1.4 million intersex people in Kenya so many people who fit this category did not select it. This is not a bit surprising because of the discrimination against intersex people. Moreover I doubt many of the census takers gave people the intersex choice when asking for their gender. Therefore only those intersex people who had become aware of the classification through the media before the census would be aware enough to chose the classification.

Hurray for Kenya and those brave 1524 intersex people who were willing to self-identify as intersex.


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David Zarembka

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