A Personal Preface

In order to better understand the essay that follows it will be helpful if readers know something about my life and the manner in which it has influenced my presentation of gender identity issues, specifically the controversies surrounding intersexuality.

I myself am a disabled and intersex person. At birth I was assumed to be a normal girl, and was therefore raised as a girl, but in fact I was a so-called "true hermaphrodite" of the late-virilizing kind. Despite being raised as a girl, I identified as male and secretly began calling myself David at the age of nine. During my teens I led a double life, as a girl in my parents' home (to please my family) and as David among my friends and in the nearby city. Eventually my body began to masculinize, becoming muscular and developing a functional phallus, body hair and beard.

My gender identity is male and heterosexual, but in my youth, while still rather feminine looking, I was continually persecuted as a gay male, and gay men assumed that I was one of their own. Thus I had many gay friends. This phase lasted several years, between the time I was being erroneously perceived as what some would have called a "butch dyke" masculine girl and my final virilization. During that time I never self-identified as a female or a lesbian, or participated in the lesbian subculture. After my body lost its confusing feminine looks I was no longer publicly assumed to be a lesbian or an effeminate gay man, nor was I persecuted for what some might have assumed to be my homosexuality.

I tried to carry on my life as a normal (but increasingly disabled) heterosexual man. Eventually, due to my human rights activism, those opposed to my work sought to publicly defame me by making up stories that I was a male-to-female transsexual, a female cross-dresser seeking male privilege as a Hindu monk, or a masculine gay man. Because my slanderers could not understand what I was, they called me everything in the book. Since I was being considered for a responsible position as head of interfaith communications for the World Vaishnava Association in India, I decided to address the accusations about my gender and sexuality by making a brief public statement concerning my intersex condition and unusual history.

In addition to the lack of understanding of my intersex nature, illnesses and disabilities contributed to perceptions on the part of both Hindu and Protestant fundamentalists that I was somehow an accursed bad-karma abomination or a sinful demon being punished by God. As readers of BENT will understand, the chronically ill and disabled suffer greatly under all forms of fundamentalism. During my time amongst fundamentalist Muslims and Hindus, I was continuously reminded of my great "hidden sinfulness," which (according to my self-righteous healthy judges), was being "revealed by God through infirmity" to publicly humiliate and humble me.

My own experience as an intersex person, combined with my research, has convinced me that unraveling the biological mysteries of human gender identity will be most profitably approached through the study of both human and animal intersex conditions, including natural sex-reversal. Because the post-Victorian-era "modern" fields of religion and psychology have failed to pose appropriate questions it stands to reason that they cannot provide the answers we need regarding human gender identity and sexuality, or the place of the "third gender" in human social systems. Only when we set aside the religiously charged and politicized framework in which these questions have been immured will we be able to allow the cooler heads of science to investigate the mysteries of neuro-endocrinology and physiology where the answers we seek are more likely to be found.

My experience as a religious person (a vowed monk and now a Sannyasi) convinces me that through "appreciation" we can discover the unexpected beauty and goodness hidden within each unique and mysterious human life, while we empower the common virtues as well as the more rare human gifts. If, instead, we allow ourselves to fall into the habit of "depreciating" people, we contribute to the dis-abling of our fellow beings. Depreciation is dis-abling and its effect is the opposite of empowering. This is where personalism comes in. Impersonalism demands nothing from us. It takes openness and vulnerability to get to know people, to be personal with them. If we don't know any men, women, or children; any gays, straights, or intersexed persons; if we do not associate with Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, humanists, or pagans; if we shun blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, "crips," mentally ill people, or those who are cognitively impaired the inevitable result will be that we impersonally lump them together, we depreciate them as a class.

BENT invites the participation of readers that identify with or sympathize with two classes, gay male and disabled. As BENT readers and writers share their stories, personal relationships grow and a community begins to form, a development especially noteworthy in a world that has de-personalized and depreciated persons viewed or self-identified as gay or disabled.

To be sex and/or gender atypical and disabled as well is a great challenge--even for those privileged "white" males of European heritage we hear so much about. Now imagine being a disabled black Lesbian Jew or Christian in the Arab-Muslim dominated Sudan. The fact is that disabled people of color get less and worse care even in the affluent USA. What about access for and quality of medical care for gay people of color?

As we learn to look at one another more deeply we may be inspired to take a regular spiritual inventory of ourselves, so that we can humbly assess how other-centered or truly loving we still need to become. Through sharing our experiences we can break down the barriers of impersonalism and help to empower each other. How can we be satisfied with being members of a "class" when we could be members of a loving, empowering community?

 

THE SELF IS INFINITELY MORE THAN THE SUM OF SOME BODILY PARTS

 

ONE

"Same Sex" Marriage, Defining Male and Female, and
the Right of Intersex Persons to Be and to Marry

Jerry Falwell and his cadre of ill-informed homophobic marriage defenders are still at it. The premise of their "One Man and One Woman" Marriage Initiative (http://www.onemanonewoman.com/) has been endorsed by President Bush as an appropriate basis for an amendment to the United States Constitution. We should all welcome it, because medical challenges to such a law will prove, ultimately, the impossibility of using medical criteria to define a "man" or "woman." The many kinds of intersex persons who cannot fit any chromosomal or anatomical definition of male or female will have to have their constitutional rights upheld. The reality of such persons will never permit a simple chromosomal, gonadal or genital definition of male or female, man or woman.

By trying to force a legal medical definition of "man" and "woman' for marriage purposes, Falwell and his followers are in for a real shock from God and Mother Nature. Already the International Olympic Committee has entangled itself in a nightmarish legal mess by trying to define "male" and "female" for athletic competition legal purposes. The Committee had to stop genetic testing as a result of the surprising number of intersex persons who were being kept out of the Olympic Games because they could not pass the Committee's "sex" testing.

The reality of life on Earth is infinitely more complex than the common misunderstanding of male or female so passionately espoused by persons like Mr. Falwell and the promoters of the marriage amendment. Hoping to influence what they see as the moral decline of our nation, these marriage defenders base their case on a belief in human sexual dimorphism that has no grounding in objective reality. Neither is their misunderstanding Biblically based: you will find no mention of sex chromosomes or mixed-sex gonads anywhere in the Bible. The Falwellian idea of male and female is one based on out-dated 19th-century and early 20th-century science, an era when scientists assumed that animals and humans came in only two models, with only two kinds and expressions of sex chromosomes, an era when XY=male and XX=female. Modern science knows that this is simply not true.

Consequently, the key to the ultimate defeat of this misguided marriage-protection legislation is the fact that no purely biological definition of male or female will ever suffice. Chromosomes cannot be used to legally define every human because not all humans are merely XX or XY. Some are chromosomally XXY, XO or Mosaic. The astounding fact is that Mosaic persons can test XX, XY, XXY, XO (or something else) in various parts of their bodies. Further complicating the human mix are naturally sex-reversed people, who may possess XX chromosomes with male anatomy, or XY chromosomes with female anatomy.

Neither can gonads (ovaries or testes) or other reproductive parts be used to define every person's sex, because some otherwise "normal" men have a uterus (Persistent Mullerian Duct Syndrome) and some intersex chromosomal "women" have a functional penis and testes. Thus there are completely "sex-reversed" (this is the medical term) individuals whose physical appearance, including genitalia, is the opposite of their sex chromosomes, so that Complete-AIS XY "genetic males" may have female anatomy and function sexually just like normal XX women, while Complete-CAH XX "genetic females" may have external male anatomy, and live their entire lives as normal men.

Such naturally-occurring sex-reversed people have, traditionally, been sex-assigned and raised as their anatomical sex, not their so-called chromosomal or genetic sex. There are also men and women born without genitals, as well as intersex persons born with both a functional vagina and a functional phallus. Furthermore, some intersex people are so-called "true hermaphrodites" (a medical label that is being phased-out as offensive), possessing ovotestes, or both testicular and ovarian tissue in their mixed-sex gonads. Although most intersex persons are infertile, some can and do biologically parent children or successfully give birth. In 2001, when I was compiling a survey of the best and most recent research on sex differentiation and intersex conditions in vertebral species (including our own), I read a number of scientific reports on intersex and sex-reversed animals and humans who had fathered or given birth to healthy offspring. Yes, there are XY women who have given birth to normal children. So reproductively successful XY sex-reversed females are not limited to other species; fertile and infertile (with treatment) XY human females have given birth. [See terminal note.]

TWO

Increasing Intersexuality in All Species: Our Legal and Moral Responses

The feminization of all species due to environmental estrogen-mimicking compounds is a serious problem worldwide, called by some a crisis and an epidemic. In some badly polluted areas, the incidence of XY feminized intersex persons has doubled in the last twenty years. Since more and more people are born every day who cannot be sex-assigned according to traditional chromosomal differentiation, what will Mr. Falwell and his "man-woman" marriage crusaders want the legal establishment to do with these souls?

The increasing incidence of intersexuality means that such individuals will themselves need to challenge any simple dimorphic definitions of gender identity in order to secure their basic human rights. One wonders if more and more informed people in government, anticipating a legal nightmare on the legislative horizon, might try to block the passage of a federal marriage amendment. The institution of marriage cannot be "defended" by discriminating against a vast number of intersexed human beings.

So, let the ill-informed bring on this amendment, and then let science respond with the question: "How will we define "male" and "female"? I welcome the ensuing struggle, which will once and for all end the legal-medical tyranny of anatomical parts over people who do not fit neatly into our society's fantasy of a simple, sexually dimorphic species.

The proposed amendment is exactly what is needed to bring national and global attention to the scientific, medical and human rights questions that surround the issue of assigning gender identity. Simplistic definitions of male and female, or man and woman, are the fantasy of inexperienced and poorly educated people like Mr. Falwell. Such bigots would benefit from learning about the medical, legal, and pastoral needs of intersex and sex-reversed people and their families.

In the real world, humans come in a staggering variety of biological conditions that range from the standard-issue XX=female and XY=male, through an extremely complex continuum of intersex states, all the way to the naturally sex-reversed XX-male and XY-female. Increasingly, we humans exist in every state possible and viable between "normal" male and female and chromosomally sex-reversed male and female. In fact, estimates for various population groups range from 1 in 2000 to 1 in 100 for persons born with some atypical sex differentiation or intersex condition. The difference in these statistics is due to which conditions are included. When common female virilizing and male prenatal failure-to-masculinize conditions like hypospadias are included, the more accurate frequency of 1 in 100 intersexuality is statistically reflected.

Unfortunately, for psychological reasons, common "mildly" intersex conditions like hypospadias and phallic clitoral size are not usually included in intersex statistics. Thus denial operates to obscure the actual frequency of these atypical conditions. Whichever statistics are used, we can see that a large number of people will not fit into any one-size-fits-all legal-medical definition. As I write this a furious medical ethics debate rages about how to "treat" and assign sex to the ever-larger number of intersex persons born every day. At some point this medical ethics problem and the legal issue of defining "man" and "woman" for marriage purposes will merge. When they do, a new era for human rights education and activism will begin.

Education about the medical-legal impossibility of defining male and female is the key to a human-rights-centered outcome in this politicized struggle. The sanctity of sacramental marriage (in any faith) cannot be preserved by denying the existence and basic human rights of part of the human race.

© 2004 Bhakti Ananda Goswami
Header © 2004 Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER ("Adam and Eve" by Albrecht Dürer)


NOTE
For examinations of the issues raised in the foregoing discussion I recommend two online resources where readers will find millions of scientific journal citations, including hundreds of papers on intersex and sex-reversal in humans and other species:

Editor's note: The author has contributed chapters to two books of related interest: Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex and Embracing Earth: Catholic Approaches to Ecology.

 

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Born in 1949, I had Polio with brain-stem involvement and brief total paralysis at the age of five. Later complications resulted in heart and brain damage. The progression of Post-Polio Syndrome left me bed-ridden for extended periods. For the last year my doctors have been experimenting with high doses of testosterone IM, which have improved my overall condition enormously. Circulatory, respiratory and Post Polio Syndrome musculo-skeletal problems make travel very hard on me, so I have given up attending conferences and lecturing, and have recently had to resign from my leadership duties promoting interfaith research and communications for the World Vaishnava Association. Living as a Catholic hermit (under private vows) I am now turning most of my energy from both public activism and private pastoral duties to trying to improve my health and to write several books on the subject of my Master's Degree (History of Religion, Comparative Religion and Theology), and at least one book on the subject of sex differentiation, gender identity, sex dimorphic behavior and sex signaling responses in social species.

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2004