Intersex Revolutionary War Hero Did Good Because Doctors Did No Harm
The startling knowledge that the Polish nobleman and military leader, Casimir Pulaski, a hero of the American Revolution, may have been intersex should leave us with two important takeaways. First, people have always been born with intersex traits, or atypical sex development. Even the ancient laws of the Talmud recognized this fact, offering rules for how to navigate such births. And second, those born with intersex traits do not need cosmetic genital surgery in order to thrive. Pulaski certainly had no such surgery and thrive he did.
Since the nineteenth century, physicians have sought to surgically “correct” intersex people’s bodies to make their genital appearance conform to typical standards. But when Pulaski was born in 1745, if his genitals appeared to be unusual, his parents would have simply chosen to raise him a boy or a girl, hoping they made the right call and that he would grow to adulthood successfully and contentedly. Pulaski prospered and showed the talent, command, and confidence that allowed him to successfully lead in Washington’s army.
In early America, most born with intersex traits would have just tried to live their lives in the best way they could. People have always been wary (and maybe scared) of bodily difference, though, and so it’s not surprising that few publicly announced their intersex conditions. Nonetheless, occasionally intersex people did come to the attention of legal or medical authorities. Divorce, for example, was uncommon in early America, but if a marriage couldn’t be consummated, then couples could get divorced. In my research on the history of intersex, I have found records of people who were physically examined to determine their ability to consummate their marriage, and some of those who could not sometimes had intersex traits, with atypical genitalia.
Others born with an intersex difference came to doctors with medical complaints, like a hernia. Once physicians could do surgery and look inside the body in the nineteenth century, they discovered that some patients had an incongruence between their external and internal reproductive parts. Sometimes physicians tried to convince their patients to change their gender if doctors believed they had been living in the “wrong” gender. Usually people just ignored this advice (doctors noted their “stubborn refusal”) because it would have been too difficult for them to change at that point in their lives. Generally, physicians encouraged heterosexuality, and so they wanted people’s genitals to match the particular sexual desire they were drawn toward. Doctors thought that those uncertain about their own sex might be attracted, transgressively, to the “wrong” sex!
We don’t know much about General Pulaski’s body, except retrospectively. His skeletal remains now suggest that he had a pelvis that resembled that of a woman. Did he have Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, which could mean XX chromosomes and atypical genitals as well? Had he been born in the mid-twentieth century, physicians would likely have urged his parents to surgically “feminize” and “normalize” his genitals so that they conformed to his chromosomes. But as we can see from his case, he did just fine without that. And that’s the wisdom that some intersex people are trying to impart to physicians today: that their bodies don’t need medical intervention unless there is an underlying metabolic concern or other medical necessity. Many today oppose unnecessary cosmetic surgeries, which can leave lasting scarring, incontinence, diminished sexual sensation, snd psychological trauma. They don’t need “fixing,” and they certainly don’t need bodily alterations that do more harm than good, as so many intersex and human rights advocates have shown.
Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.