[14 July 2009]
Lisa May Stevens was known as Michael until the age of 22. It was only then that she discovered that she was born intersex, and that this was concealed from her by her parents and doctors. Having been brought up as a boy, she decided to live as a woman, and then later on as a man.
Suffering persecution that extended to shootings and rape, and after three failed marriages, she discovered that neither gender was right for her. Lisa May has the most remarkable story of the intersex people profiled in Gerald Callahan’s book. Having lived unhappily as both male and female, she has now settled on staying the way she naturally is, and proudly declares herself a hermaphrodite.
As such, she is also the best example for Callahan’s hypothesis – that gender is not a dichotomy of male and female, but a continuum in which male and female are the hypothetical poles, and that we all occupy a space somewhere between these points. The question raised by this, then, is how our genders are assigned.
The most obvious method is outward appearance, but there are sometimes ambiguities. Examining one’s chromosomes might seem to be more accurate – are they XX or XY? But this does not account for outcomes such as XXY, XO and XXXYY, nor for cases where the appearance of a person’s genitalia does not correlate with their chromosomes.
We are left with upbringing. Some believe our gender is informed by the way we are raised, and therefore that it is acceptable to assign a gender to an intersex child. The case of Lisa May Stevens suggests otherwise.
About the first third of Between XX and XY is dedicated to a history of sexuality and how gender has been perceived. This is necessary background, but things only get really interesting once intersexuality itself is examined in depth.
There are revealing asides on intersex animals: we learn of fish that change from being male to female at different points in their lives – some of these are even capable of changing from female to male and back again. Even more fascinating is the case of the spotted hyena. The females are the dominant gender of the species, and female spotted hyenas have ambiguous genitalia, with extended clitorises that hang down like phalluses. These appendages also function as the opening to the hyena’s vagina, meaning that mating and giving birth is difficult.
A brief investigation into examples of human cultures in which there are people who live as neither male nor female is also interesting. The berdache people of some Native American tribes are one example. They take on some of the social roles of the gender they were not born into, and hold a place between male and female.
Fascinating though this is, it does not illuminate the argument of this book any further, as the berdache method of gender identity seems to focus more on cross-dressing (social matters) than intersexuality (biological matters). The berdache are neither hermaphrodites nor transvestites, Callahan tells us, adding that ‘Our words cannot easily hold this world’. This is a pertinent point, reminding us that there are many people throughout history and societies that defy simple male/female gender identifications.
Callahan attempts to make his book a piece of creative writing as well as a study into intersexuality. His language is at times unnecessarily flowery: ‘It might have been one of those Los Angeles days when the soup rolled in off the sea and sopped up the sky’ he says, describing the day when one of his case studies was born. This is a shame, because his subject matter is interesting enough not to need such accoutrements; and although there are sections that delve into the heavily scientific discourses of foetal development and the makeup of cells and chromosomes, it is fully accessible to unscientific readers such as myself.
According to Between XX and XY there are 65,000 children born each year who are, according to our societal conventions, apparently neither male nor female; and when they grow up, like Lisa May Stevens, many are happiest living as neither of the two genders—but something inbetween. One of Callahan’s interviewees effectively sums this up for the binary gender-inclined:
We are placed into a world that has the openness and understanding to accept an intersexed person as a perfectly normal human being, and it is the fault of the medical community that has shunned, shamed, hidden, tortured, humiliated, traumatized, and continually discriminated against us because of how we were born, to the point that there are people who remain ignorant about people born with ambiguous genitalia, chromosome disorders, and hormonal variations that make us the unique people we are.