INTERSEX VS. TRANSGENDER: ADDENDUM TO GREEK PRAYER FOR NAME CHANGES by Giacomo Sanfilippo

intersexOn October 19 Orthodoxy in Dialogue published my “Greek Prayer for Transgender Name Change: Urging Caution,” written in response to Gregory Pappas’ article which had appeared the day before on The Pappas Post, “The Greek Orthodox Church Has a Prayer for Name Changes Following Gender Reassignment Surgery.”

Since then two theologians in Greece have reached out to me independently of each other to offer some additional clarity. They agree on the following basic outline:

  • Metropolitan Timothy (Matthaiakes) composed the prayer in the 1960s for a specific pastoral case with which he was faced.
  • The prayer first appeared in print in a euchologion published in 1978. (The 1985 edition pictured in Pappas’ and my article was the second printing.) 
  • The euchologion was published with the imprimatur of the Holy Synod of Greece.
  • There is no evidence for the use of the prayer after the initial case for which it was composed—or presumably the non-use, since the argument from silence is always tenuous at best.
  • Most significantly the prayer refers, not to gender reassignment surgery for a transgender person in the surgical stages of his or her transition, but to corrective surgery in an intersex child for whom an error in medical judgment had been made at birth.

Intersex, or less commonly intersexuality, is the proper term for the biological condition of a child born with some configuration of both male and female reproductive organs. (Intersex as a noun refers to the condition; as an adjective, to the individual born with it.) Until recently it was considered a medical emergency of the first magnitude in a newborn, one that required immediate surgical intervention to assign one gender or the other—no matter that intersex poses no threat whatever to a child’s life, health, or vital functions. The decision to operate was forced on the parents with little or no time for reflection. Sometimes they had not even a formalistic say in the matter: the gender was announced as the newborn was whisked away for “emergency surgery,” without the parents being informed of the nature of the “problem” or its “correction.” The surgeon’s selection of gender for the child depended solely on which presented the least challenge. Typically it is easier to “make” a girl than a boy. 

Sometimes intersex is not detected until later in childhood or even adulthood, when a person having abdominal x-rays for an unrelated reason is found to have internal sex organs inconsistent with his or her completely normal external organs. It can happen that a person who identifies as transgender is discovered to be intersex during gender reassignment surgery.

In the matter of intersex infants subjected to neonatal surgery, there are documented cases in which the child begins to ask—as early as three or four or five years of age—”Mommy, how come I don’t feel like a girl? I feel like a boy.” The heartbreak for the parents, the anguish, the regrets, how and when and even whether to explain to the child….

This latter nightmare seems to be the precise scenario addressed by Metropolitan Timothy with such astonishing pastoral delicacy in his unusual prayer.

Yet there are documented cases in which the surgically misgendered child grows to adulthood, attempts to live as the gender that he or she knows himself or herself to be, but finally ends his or her unbearable existence in suicide.

The larger point cannot be more stark: if we can speak of “gender ideology” at all, we must look to the normativizing ideologues who would butcher a perfectly healthy baby’s body to force it into one binarial mold or the other, thereby creating severe risks to the child’s later emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being—and to what purpose? It is this ideology that kills people. 

Some will read the foregoing paragraphs and feel relieved that Timothy’s prayer was not intended for transgender people. Their relief will be misplaced. Christ Himself (Mt 19:12), the earliest Church (Acts 8:27), transvestite monastics and holy fools throughout the ages of the Orthodox Church—among them the beloved Russian saint, Blessed Ksenia of Petersburg (+1803)—all attest to the fact that gender is never so neat and tidy as an ideologically fundamentalist and literalist reading of Genesis would prefer to have it. 

Up to our eyeballs in the diabolical culture wars, we have lost sight of the fact that the human person constitutes no less a mystery than God; that parallel with and inseparable from our apophatic theology we have an apophatic anthropology—necessarily so because we are created in the image and recreated in the likeness of the Transcendent One, the Unapproachable One. We commit a very grave sin against human persons when we reduce them to their “non-normativity” and strip them of their innate mystery and holiness.

Metropolitan Timothy evidently looked at the real facts in the real lives of real people, and responded in the image and likeness of the Good Shepherd. His gentle voice beckons us to another way—the way of Christ.

For more information visit the Intersex Society of North America.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He holds an Honours BA (First Class) in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA (First Class) in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He is also an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course work for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.