I woke up this morning in horror as I listened to the two DJ's on my local Virgin radio station talk about Lady Gaga, Caster Semenya and "hermaphrodites." They were talking about the media frenzy surrounding these two public figures and whether they were, "hermaphrodites." The DJ's made several inappropriate jokes that indicated their ignorance on the topic and perpetuated misinformation. They even finished the segment with a parody of Lady Gaga's song "Poker Face" with the words changed to "she'll poke your face; have you seen her tiny weiner?" This is one of the most popular radio stations in Montreal and I'm sure parents driving their children to school were frantically switching the dial to try and avoid answering questions on this topic. Here's some information to help you answer these tough questions.
The first point to make is that the term "hermaphrodite" is scientifically inaccurate and quite offensive to use in reference to people. Although it is a term that many are familiar with due to biology classes that explain various organisms that have the ability to change sex during their life cycle, or even to have complete sets of both male and female reproductive organs. This is generally not the case for human beings. The preferred term is either "intersex" or having a "Disorder of Sex Development" or DSD. Individuals such as the South African sprinter, Caster Semenya, have one of several different developmental pathways that cause them to embody physical elements of maleness and femaleness. Oftentimes, these cases go unnoticed because when they are born doctors only inspect their genitals to assign a sex category on their birth certificate, and a child's sex and gender are considered fixed from that moment in time. However, there are several other factors that contribute to the body's development of male and female attributes.
Sex Determination 101
There are three main factors that shape how the human body develops sexually: chromosomes, gonads, and hormones. Chromosomal sex is determined by ovum and sperm that combine their genetic material to create a new organism. The egg (ovum) always contributes an X chromosome, and the sperm contributes either an X or a Y. Females develop from XX sex chromosomes and males develop from XY chromosomes. These are the first factors that impact the process of sex determination (B. Smith, 2007, p. 200). In rare cases, children are born with different chromosomal combinations including XO (Turner Syndrome) and XXY (Klinefelter Syndrome) which impact their sexual development.
Gonadal Sex describes the type of sexual organs that develop in an organism: ovaries, testes, or a combination of both. Most ovaries produce estrogen, progestin and ova and most testes produce steroid hormones and sperm. Early in development, the gonadal tissue is undifferentiated. If a Y chromosome is present, it stimulates production of testis determination factor (TDF) protein which causes testes to develop. In the absence of this protein, ovaries develop. In other words, all embryos start as female and will develop as such unless TDF is present to create testes. The third influence in the sexual development of a child is hormones. Hormonal sex is determined by the levels of chemical produced by the endocrine glands. These shape the development of internal organs and external genitalia. All bodies produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, but at different levels and they impact bodies in different ways. If a Y chromosome is present and testes have formed, they begin to secrete hormones that prevent a uterus and vagina from developing and stimulate the production of testosterone and the growth of male structures such as a penis and scrotum. In the majority of births, these three determining factors work together to create a body with a reproductive system that is clearly recognizable as male or female. However, in approximately 1.7% of all births children have a variation on the themes of maleness and femaleness and are intersex (Fausto-Sterling, 2000).
How many sexes are there?
In a famous and controversial article published in 1993, biologist and feminist Anne Fausto-Sterling made an argument for expanding our sex categories from two to five (Fausto-Sterling, 1993). Her five categories included: males, females, herms ("true" hermaphrodites), merms (male "pseudo-hermaphrodites"), and ferms (female "pseudo-hermaphrodites"). This article produced a firestorm of debate, and although Fausto-Sterling no longer advocates for such a system (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, p. 110), she argues for expanding our notions of maleness and femaleness and not limiting our definitions of these terms to the size and shape of a person's genitals. She supports a position advanced by Suzanne Kessler who believes that giving "genitals primary signifying status ignores the fact that in the everyday world gender attributions are made without access to genital inspection...what has primacy in everyday life is the gender that is performed, regardless of the flesh's configuration under the clothes" (Kessler, 1998, 90). I support this argument as it emphasizes the importance of understanding how gender-- the way we identify and are socially recognized-has greater day-to-day importance than our sex, however, there are important descriptive terms that can help us understand the variability in the sexes. I propose the following four terms to help us understand the different bodies and sexual categories that are currently used. These categories were selected due to their use in research and activist communities, and the fact that we currently rely heavily on such medico-legal categories to organize and understand bodies and how they interact in the world: male, female, transsexual, and intersex. Although these terms are contested and imperfect, in the interests of developing a shared introductory vocabulary, they are what I propose for now.
As explained earlier, there are three main biological systems that contribute to creating the sex of an individual. For females, they have an XX genotype, their genitals (external sex organs) include a vagina, clitoris, and labia; their gonads (internal sex organs) include ovaries and a uterus; and their bodies produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone in quantities that cause their bodies to ovulate, menstruate, potentially support a pregnancy, and nurse a newborn. Since reproduction of the species is the primary reason for biological sex differentiation, the key elements of the sexed body are related to procreating. Does this mean that women who are XX and have vaginas, but aren't able to get pregnant are less female? That XY men with penises who don't produce sperm, or can't ejaculate are less male? I pose these questions here in order to encourage the reader to begin to critique the way biology and scientific discourse have shaped and limited our thinking.
Gender is the range of social and relational characteristics that mark our bodies as belonging to one of several social categories. The most common categories are: boy/man and girl/woman, but they are not the only possible ones. There are also individuals who identify as transgender, two-spirit, and genderqueer. Gender is different from, but related to sex. Gender is a complex set of situated relationships that describe how we identify ourselves and how others choose to interact with us in the world. It is informed by the sex that we are assigned at birth, and although many females develop a gender identity as a girl or woman, and many males identify as boys and men, many individuals also develop gender identities that vary from this familiar pattern. Genderqueer is an identity that has been embraced by individuals who feel that their gender identity does not fit clearly in the man/woman binary, even if they have undergone some physical transformations to make their body fit more closely within a male or female form.
So what about athletes?
Sex is a medico-legal category that has been created by doctors, scientists, and bureaucrats in order to categorize and recognize various types of bodies. Scientists have defined sex as the biological characteristics of an organism related to one's reproductive capacities. These characteristics include one's external genitalia, chromosomal makeup, hormones and reproductive organs. Sex is also a legal category that is regulated by countries and sports associations such as the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations, as every individual is assigned an official sex and must go through lengthy physical and psychological processes to secure permission to formally change how they are legally recognized. According to the science of sport blog in the 1996 Olympics, 8 women were identified as genetically male but were still allowed to compete as females.
Most people have been taught to see the world as divided into two halves: male and female. Unfortunately, this division that is taught from the moment a child is conceived is an oversimplification that ends up inflicting a great deal of pain and suffering on many people. Although many human beings are comfortable in and proud of their male and female bodies, and their gender identities, there are many individuals who are not as comfortable in or proud of their bodies or identities due to the narrow definitions of sex and gender our society has created. Ms. Semeneya has dealt with this public scrutiny of her sex and gender with strength and poise stating: "God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I'm proud of myself," http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2009/09/10/2009-09-10_caster_semen...
As for Lady Gaga...
The internet mill has been active speculating whether Lady Gaga was transsexual or a cross-dresser (the preferred term instead of "transvestite"), after a photo surfaced that seemed to indicated that she might have something in her underwear that more closely resembles a penis than a vagina. YouTube has several videos citing presence of "manly hands" an adam's apple and "tranny" wigs and clothes as evidence. Her response to the controversy was to respond on her blog by stating, "I'm not quite as outrageous as I look - underneath all this I am deeply moral and actually a really nice girl," she told More!. "I look so wild but I'm not. In the bedroom I like to wear pearls around my neck - I really am a lady!"
So how do I answer children's questions?
My advice to you is this: tell children that a person's sex is something only a doctor needs to know to provide adequate health care. All we need to know as friends, colleagues, family members, fans, etc. is the gender identity of the person. Face it: whether a body can support a pregnancy or produce sperm is of little consequence in our relationships with people. We all look a little different, and would be quite offended if someone wanted to inspect our genitals to decide who we are and how to treat us. All that really matters is that we treat people with respect, call them by the names they choose for themselves, and appreciate diversity in all of its forms. If you have scientifically-minded kids, then I encourage you to share with them the science behind how bodies develop, but ultimately it comes down to our gender identities and expressions, and the only "test" for that is how a person tells the world they want to be recognized. Lady Gaga gives us the clue in her name, and Caster Semeneya competes and identifies as a woman. That's all I need to know.