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Sexual Ambiguity in Life and Literature

abstract:A recent article from the BBC News reported that the South African 800m world champion runner, Caster Semenya has tested positive to male genetics. This not only leaves her stigmatized with the ambiguous sex label, she could be banned from competition with women. In the face of this exposure, she withdrew from a scheduled race today. Media has sided on the outrage of a disclosure that should carry rights to the patient-doctor confidentiality agreement. The knowledge brings unimaginable psychological repercussions for Caster, because she has been raised female her entire life. While this very public medical debate takes place within the media and the IAAF, it reminds me of a collection of writers who tackled the topic by giving their characters intersex qualities and describing a scenario about its effect in their lives. Not only is it fascinating to learn what science currently understands, it is interesting to see how society handled sexual identity as reflected in literature at various periods of history. Learn about the four “types of sex” that current experts use to classify us, and discover (please help us add to the list) the novels, plays and poems that deal with intersex.


September 13, 2009

Science And Intersex

BBC News health reporter, Emma Wilkinson wrote:
Diagnosing intersex conditions, the umbrella term given for a wide range of developmental differences in the reproductive and sexual systems in the body, was asked of Peter Bowen-Simpkins, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Peter is an expert in these conditions, explains there are four types of sex: "There is your phenotype, which is what you look like, your psychological sex, which is what you feel like and usually the same as your phenotype, which is related to how you have been brought up. There is also your gonadal sex, which is whether you have ovaries or testicles, and your chromosomal sex, which is what combination of x, or y-chromosomes you have. It is the chromosomes that direct, through the production of hormones, the development of a baby in the womb down a male or female route. A diagnosis of an intersex condition is not just based on anatomy but is dependent on genetic, hormonal and other factors. The World Health Organisation points out that gender is a social construct. When people refer to gender testing, what they are really talking about is biological sex. A person's view of their gender may be different from the biological sex assigned to them.

As you would expect, the history of treatment for conditions of intersex has changed according to societal values. In 1990 Dr. Jorge Daebul presented a paper to the American Association for the History of Medicine that describes the shift from an accepted variation occurring in nature to a condition requiring medical intervention, and the treatments that ensued. It is his belief that the impetus for classifying intersexed individuals as diseased or abnormal sprang form 19th century medicine’s obsession with establishing statistical normals. Once normality was defined in this artificial, statistical way, anything which deviated from the norm was by definition classified as abnormal. The field of Pediatric Endocrinology formed in the 1950s and since that time doctors use of laboratory tests determined infant's sex and it was deemed by the physician to take it upon themselves to lie to the parents and perform "corrective" surgery. This practice has since evolved to a totally different approach where the patient is allowed to develop as nature intended and then is given a choice by a certain age and based on their psychological identification to decide their own course of medical or surgical intervention.

Literary Intersex

Writers through the ages have used this topic to see what challenges it presents social hierarchies and to explore the complexity of gender and desire. As one of the most fundamental aspects of identity, it's fascinating to see the issue reflected in the characters and plots of the literary world, and to watch society's response through history.

Shakespeare wrote his romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1800s based on an earlier piece of literature, "The Knight's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written around 1595. I've not read the latter but have much enjoyed reading and attending various productions, both live and on screen, of the former. The play remains one of Shakespeare's most popular works.

Jessica Meme writes in her essay:

"It's a comedy about love, love that is bound up in magic and ritual, a highly erotic fertility rite that is full of mishap and danger but still has a happy ending. Described as a celebration about what constitutes a couple, it explores fear and the relationship between love and imagination. The characters we meet in the play are derived from ancient literary sources and courtly romance. Shakespeare, has used an eclectic mixture of half-classical-half-medieval myth, folklore, tradition, blended regality, festival, magic and popular tradition, to express the metamorphosis in the human condition, that of love to marriage. Although portrayed as a dream, there is a dark undercurrent to the play that suggests this is possibly a nightmare. There are implications of rape, hints of violence and death threats. Indeed, it has been described as 'a most truthful and brutal violent play.' The emphasis is on the liberation of the human condition and how it is potentially destructive. The darker side of human nature is portrayed through sex, love and comedy. The play shows what can happen when the perceived structure of the outer world breaks down and how separateness and stability of identity are lost. The link between love, imagination, and reason, are keys to the main theme of transformation and change. As its title suggests, this is a play about dreams, and their often illogical, magical, and sensual character. Midsummer's Night is a time of craziness, of mirth and magic. "

Jeffrey Eugenidies
Of course most avid readers today have read and digested Jeffrey Eugenidies award-winning novel, Middlesex. It was Oprah's 58th pick. Wikipedia describes the story thus. "The narrator and protagonist, Calliope Stephanides (later called "Cal"), is an intersexed person of Greek descent who has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. The bulk of the novel is devoted to telling his coming-of-age story growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the late 20th century. This story, however, is intertwined with elements of a family saga, meditations on the era's zeitgeist and bits of contemporary history."

Ursula LeGinn
The Left Hand Of Darkness, writes a blogger at Library Thing, is set in the future on a distant planet called Gethen, or Winter, which is in the midst of an Ice Age. The inhabitants of Winter are human, but with a twist — they do not have two genders. Instead, they are androgynous most of the time, except when they go into kemmer, or become sexually active, at which time they may become either female or male. This simple difference has given rise to a vastly different culture than ours; the politics, social mores, folklore and day-to-day life of Winter are all disclosed through the observations of a Terran diplomatic visitor on a mission to persuade the Gethenians to join the cooperative of human-inhabited planets.

But underneath all this is a rather simple story, really, of the development of a friendship between two men who at first are literally aliens to each other, but who come to discover that their similarities are much greater than their differences.

Questions for discussion with any of these books

  • What were the attitudes surroundng sexuality and gender identity over the years in society and when did they begin to resemble today's?
  • LeGuinn's novel is a future imagined world where beings select their own gender when reproduction is required, but otherwise remain gender neutral. How would imagining a world like this effect our abilities to think beyond our own cultural circumstances?
  • Eugenidies novel has a single character, Cali, who is a hermaphrodite he gives historic information relating to ancient Greece and Turkey, which I now understand is one of three places on the planet where the incidence of this condition is statistically greater, (the others being Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea.) What would you do if your child were born with ambiguous sexual genitalia? Or you discovered your best friend was intersex?
  • My daughter took a course in "Feminine and Trans-gender Sexuality" while at Berkeley and she possess a very inclusive attitude toward all forms of sexuality. Do you think liberal educations contribute to alternative behavior, or at least the public expression of it, and do you agree or disagree with the new same-sex marriage laws being passed around the States, Canada and the world?
  • With gay and lesbian suicide rates well above their non-gay/lesbian counterparts statistically, what do you think society's role should be?
  • On the issue of competitive sport, what do you think will happen to Caster Semenya, and how will that effect the future of testing athletes, and competition rules?

Additional Resources

Is it a Boy or a Girl? The Discovery Channel Documentary
Wikipedia Entry for 5-alpha-reductase deficiency
Boys Don't CryThe 1999 movie starring Hilary Swank who won an Academy Award for her role as Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon. Well worth viewing if you missed it before.



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