High Concept

Quelle Différence?

Biology dooms the Defense of Marriage Act.

Before Alfred Kinsey took up human sexuality, he studied wasps–thousands and thousands of them, whose bodies he minutely examined. Yet when asked what he could say about The Wasp, he replied that he hadn’t really seen enough specimens to generalize.

Such is the study of living things. It isn’t physics. It doesn’t offer eternal laws, true everywhere in the universe. Sure, there are rules (“if you can’t stand algebra,” says theorist John Maynard Smith, “stay away from evolutionary biology”), but their status is more like a weather forecast than the Voice of Eternal Truth. If you meet a scientist who believes in creationism or the existence of God, odds are he or she is a physicist. Plants and animals manifest themselves in trends, probabilities, continua. Saying “chimpanzees do this” is qualitatively different from saying “quarks do this.” The quarks obey, now and forever. The next chimp up could surprise you.

Part of biology’s charm is this way it has of humbling us with things at once unimaginable yet beautifully alive. It’s a charm at odds with the cartoon version of life in which American politics traffics. Consider the main point of the “Defense of Marriage Act” passed recently in the House–that marriage represents the “legal union between one man and one woman.” The Defense of Marriage Act is expected to clear the Senate if it reaches a vote there, and President Clinton has said he’ll sign it. Similar clauses are already on the books in the 15 states that ban same-sex marriage, and are in bills introduced in 21 others. The act is grounded in the notion that there is a fixed and natural order to matters sexual, in which there is but male and female. The problem with that is the inherently fuzzy nature of Nature, to which gender is no exception. In fact, the biological line between male and female is so blurry that should the Defense of Marriage Act ever go to court, the definitions of “male” and “female” that might result could wind up invalidating the marriages of millions of nongay congressional constituents.

The making of the sexual body in the womb is a complicated, many-stepped affair, in which there are many possible outcomes. This is true even at the level of the sex chromosomes. Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes, all shaped like Xs, except for one lone Y chromosome in pair 23 if you’re male (Y is the gene with the instructions for making a boy). The XX pair of a typical female is what International Olympic Committee is testing for when it tries to weed out the supposed transvestites from the actual girls. But some girls are born with only one X chromosome instead of the crucial pair. Others have an XY pair, but the male-making gene on the Y doesn’t succeed in being heard, either because it’s defective or because another gene has failed to make the necessary receptors. Before the 1992 Olympics, a study in the British Journal of SportsMedicine concluded that about one in 500 female athletes flunks the gender test. Some of these women might have arrived at the games knowing they were different–one genetic anomaly, for instance, can lead a baby to develop as a female, but without ovaries and a uterus–but others probably had no idea that they were unusual, and slunk away from the stadium shocked and traumatized.

Not that all chromosomal oddities yield females, either. About one in 500 males would also fail a gender test. A man with Klinefelter’s syndrome, for example, inherits not one, but two X’s from a parent, as well as the necessary Y from his father. He thus has a chromosome “pair” that reads XXY. Aside from small, firm testicles and infertility, Klinefelter’s syndrome doesn’t mark someone who has it as ambiguous. He looks male–especially if he’s been taking testosterone from puberty onward, as medical doctrine recommends.

The International Olympic Committee stubbornly continues to screen for gender, but the International Amateur Athletic Foundation, which manages many non-Olympic competitions, abandoned the procedure six years ago, after a medical panel concluded that the only fair way to establish gender is with a thorough physical. So fine, you say. Genetic testing won’t be the basis for our great republic’s defense of marriage. A plain old physical will do. That should cover genetic exceptions and take in transsexuals as well–except, perhaps, for the many partial transsexuals who live as women, take female hormones, may or may not have breasts but do have a penis, rather like the character in TheCryingGame. Is such a person a man or a woman, Your Honor?

Actually, in the majority of cases, a physical exam for sex characteristics–intrusive and humiliating though it would be–probably would answer the question. But that is not because all babies are born with clearly distinguishable genitalia. What in most fetuses turns either into a penis and scrotum or a clitoris and labia can also develop into something in between. And while most babies are born with either ovaries or testicles, some are born with both, or one of each. Many cultures have categories for such in-between people; in India, for instance, they’re called hijras, dress as women, and are expected to have sex with men.

In America, however, medical doctrine for the past 40 years has dictated that babies born with ambiguous sex organs be surgically corrected. Estimates on the percentage of babies born with some sort of sexual ambiguity range from 1 percent to 4 percent (that’s some 3 million to 10 million people, notes William O. Beeman, an anthropologist at Brown University). It’s a sufficiently common occurrence in hospitals that at least one training video exists showing doctors how to make an intersexual baby into a proper girl–one whose vagina can accommodate her future partner’s penis. It’s also common enough that different medical subprofessions have evolved different responses. “Pediatric urologists make boys,” says Cheryl Chase, founder and head of the Intersex Society of North America. “Gynecologists and endocrinologists make girls. Of course there tend to be more girls made, ‘cause surgeons say ‘it’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole.’ ” She estimates there are some 2,000 operations on American intersexual children a year.

Chase herself was born with ambiguous genitalia, and was designated male until she was surgically made female at the age of one and a half. The procedure included the removal of her too-large clitoris. As you might expect, one of the ISNA’s top priorities is persuading parents of intersexual kids to ignore the advice of doctors and let the child grow up with the genitals with which it was born. At least then, says Chase, a decision about surgery could be made by the patient.

N >ot all such operations are performed on babies, though. One form of intersexuality results from a lack of the hormone needed for male traits at birth, so that the child seems female. At puberty, though, testosterone kicks in, and the “girl” finds herself with descended testicles, a large, penislike clitoris, and other male traits. Chase says she was recently contacted by a woman who, after she started to change, was told at the age of 12 that she had cancer and that her ovaries needed to be removed. What really happened during the operation was the removal of her clitoris and her newly activated testicles.

Once again, other societies are more sophisticated about this than we are. In the Dominican Republic, a girl whose genitals change late is called a guevedoche–“penis at 12.” Among the Sambia of Papua New Guinea, she (he) is a kwol-aatmo: “Female thing turning into male.” Among the Americans, though, there is a very small number of terms to cover a vast array of gender ambiguities. Instead, we have the knife and the law. Like the medieval villagers who tried and hanged a cock because it laid an egg, Americans think they can trim or legislate away the polymorphous obstinacy of nature. They’re wrong. There’s the cock, and there’s the egg. Plain as the genitalia under your belly button, if you have eyes to see.