This book is so loaded with information and detail that I am forced to focus on that which is my primary interest for this paper: intersexuality, and how both sex and gender are constructed (besides other labels we take for granted, like gay, lesbian, transgender, heterosexual, bisexual, etc.). Our history, science, and language allow for only two types of bodies on the biological continuum – male and female, at the outermost ends – but there are all kinds of bodies. Bodies with components normally attributed to males and females, and even DNA which scatters itself all over this continuum as possibilities (Fausto-Sterling, 31). This idea that there are only two bodies, two sexes and two genders is so ingrained at such an early age that by preschool, the damage is already done and we believe such a dichotomy is truly natural.
Hermaphrodites have always existed, but how were they treated? Cultures varied – Jewish law treated them largely like women – they could not inherit, serve as priests or witnesses, or be in the presence of men when menstruating. In early Roman times under Romulus’s rule, hermaphrodites were seen as cursed and promptly thrown into the fire after birth. Before them, the ancient Greeks considered them downright God-like. In the middle ages, early medical practitioners did not see sex or gender as fixed, but agreed that all kinds of bodies existed on the biological continuum. This surprises some, who see the medieval era as a time of repression and ignorance. However, willingness to find a place for hermaphrodites in scientific theory did not translate into social acceptance: hermaphrodites were considered rebellious, disruptive, and even fraudulent (Fausto-Sterling, 34). While Hildegard of Bingen denounced hermaphrodites as a “disorder of sex roles and a threat to the social fabric and religious order,” outright condemnation was mild at this time (Fausto-Sterling, 34).
During the renaissance, biologists and physicians were not the only ones attempting to define and regulate the hermaphrodite. Consider Marie/Marin Le Marcis of France in 1601 – s/he decided to wear men’s clothing at age 21 and marry the woman with whom s/he lived. S/he was initially arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake, but was later released on the condition that s/he wear women’s clothing till age 25. Two crimes were committed: sodomy and cross dressing (Fausto-Sterling, 35).
In England, cross dressing wasn’t forbidden or condemned the way social class violations were. In Italy, the same year Marie/Marin was arrested, a soldier named Daniel Burghammer gave birth to a healthy baby girl. S/he confessed to being both male and female. Church authorities this time handled the case, christening the child Elizabeth and declaring the birth a miracle while granting Burghammer’s wife a divorce, suggesting Burghammer’s ability to give birth was incompatible with the role of husband (Fausto-Sterling, 35).
Then there is the story of Thomas/Thomasine – probably the most fascinating of all. In a Virginia colony, 1629, where regulation of the hermaphrodite had largely transferred to the legal system, Thomas/Thomasine was examined by one doctor after another, each one offering different opinions. The judge, in a most flabbergasted way, legally declared Thomas/Thomasine to be both, and was ordered by the court to wear both male and female clothing to show everyone her/his status as both.
The point of these stories is to show how different countries legally and religiously handle hermaphrodites. In Italy it was disturbing, in France gender bending was condemned and in England it was distasteful but they worried more about class transgressions (Fausto-Sterling, 35). All over Europe and later America, the core of laws and politics centered on sex: inheritance, judicial punishment, voting, community participation, etc. The structure of society was sex, so those falling in-between made a few judges and priests uneasy. Typically, with the exception of the unusual case of Thomas/Thomasine, hermaphrodites were expected to “pick that which prevaileth” and stick with it. The punishment for reverting back could be severe. Most who chose a gender to follow chose to be male, and that’s not surprising – as James, born in 1915, raised as female and later becoming a man, told his half sister – “it is easier to be a man. You get more money (wages) and you don’t have to be married. If you’re a girl and don’t get married people make fun of you,” (Fausto-Sterling, 43).
In the 19th century, biology emerged as a science with far more authority than previously seen, and declared the hermaphrodite to be an abnormal body in need of correction. Hermaphrodites could not be “fixed” before, new medical science allowed this possibility. Biologist Isadore Geoffrey Saint-Hilare was instrumental in this regard, founding a new science called Teratology: the study and classification of unusual births. Two important principles guided this science: that nature was one whole (even hermaphrodites) and those hermaphrodites came from abnormal development which could only be understood by studying normal development (Fausto-Sterling, 36).
This resulted in what is known as the hermaphrodite vanishing act. While Teratology offered natural explanations for extraordinary bodies, it also redefined them as pathological and in need of a cure through scientific, medical means. The irony is that scientific understanding is being used to obliterate precisely that which was illuminated (Fausto-Sterling, 37). By the middle of the 20th century, hermaphrodites had all but disappeared, in the name of “correcting nature’s mistakes.” The implicit assumption underlying all of this was that underneath any body was a male or female just waiting to be released.
This science expanded in unprecedented ways to the social arena. Under the guise of “scientific advancement” medical men and scientists insisted on fundamental differences between male/female, white/black, Jew/gentile. Some were more deserving of rights than others. In an era where “all men are created equal,” this seems paradoxical, but science was merely being used to invalidate claims for social and political emancipation, especially in regards to voting, marriage, and slavery.
To make this point more clear, we must push toward the present time – where handling of the hermaphrodite by medical doctors is the norm. Additionally, it has become imperative that doctors catch them at birth, unlike in the past where numerous medical texts outlined case studies of living, breathing hermaphrodites, including “practicing” hermaphrodites and non-practicing hermaphrodites (Fausto-Sterling, 42). Books like the 1937 Genital Abnormalities, Hermaphroditism and Related Adrenal Diseases, by Hugh Hampton Young, was remarkable in its lack of judgment while being filled with scientific insight. Medical treatments were always optional for the patient.
The shift in ideas – that hermaphrodites can and must be corrected as soon as possible – seemed genuinely humanitarian. It was a social emergency, how will they fit in if they’re not fixed? Medical science allowed fixing, and society was structured around sex so finally the opportunity to not need to accommodate them was considered scientific advancement. But there was more – the unexamined assumptions that there are only two sexes, that heterosexuality was normal and those specific gender roles defined healthy males and females. Like the field of psychology in the 20th century, scientific advancement seemed to improve treatment and handling, when in hindsight we actually just made things worse.
When a hermaphrodite baby is born, doctors scramble, panic, and declare a medical emergency. Parents are often not notified, the baby is often “fixed” before they can consult with others or talk to adult hermaphrodites. When they are notified, doctors use terminology like “sex chromosome anomalies,” gonadal anomalies,” or “external organ anomalies,” and refer to some aspect of the child’s physiology, not that they constitute a category other than male or female. Doctors see the case as so urgent that they tell the parents it is very rare, and that there is unlikely anyone with whom they can consult (Fausto-Sterling, 51). In 1969, Christopher Dewhurst and Ronald Gordon wrote The Intersexual Disorders, at a time when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique critiqued these strict suburban gender roles. Dewhurst and Gordon display a nearly panicked tone when people fail to conform to these gender roles in regards to the hermaphrodite: “one can only attempt to imagine the anguish of the parents. That a newborn should have a deformity affecting so fundamental an issue as the very sex of the child…is a tragic event which immediately conjures up visions of a hopeless psychological misfit doomed to live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration,” (Fausto-Sterling, 47).
Hermaphrodite births are a lot more common than most realize. At a rate of 1.7%, a city of 300,000 has 5,100 people with varying degrees of hermaphroditism (Fausto-Sterling, 51). I say varying degrees because just as male and female are not static and independent categories, neither is the hermaphrodite, except as science has defined it. There are CAH girls (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) and AIS boys (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome). There are vast and incredible cases of males with breasts, genetic females with penises, and cases of hermaphrodites with both male and female sexual parts, known as true hermaphrodites. There are hermaphrodites with an ovotestis on the inside but normal male/female development on the outside. There are “hidden hermaphrodites” who appear initially to be girls at birth but whose DNA is male and during puberty, the body begins to reflect this. There are hermaphrodites like those with Klinefelter’s and Turner’s syndrome, whose DNA is not male or female. What is a scientist to do? In order to move beyond these labels and categories, the sex/gender system would need to be abolished. In my opinion, as cynical as it might sound, I don’t think that could be done. Humans have existed with this system, in various shapes and forms, for thousands of years. We can blame whatever we want but it’s still there, ingrained in our heads, our brains. Our existence is still contingent on the sex/gender system, and even for me, it is hard to imagine a genderless society.
I love science, and appreciate how much understanding into the hermaphrodite has been done. I admit it is nice to have a label for my own form of hermaphroditism. ISNA has done incredible work in trying to stop infant genital mutilation, of which was only causing more problems later in the lives of hermaphroditic people. But when it comes to knowledge and the pursuit of science, background introspection and the big WHY must be answered – what do I already think about this? What biases or assumptions do I already have about this subject, whether I want to admit them or not? Those assumptions will influence my results. Why is it necessary to study this?
In a way, no science is ever really objective. That was Fausto-Sterling’s whole point: “once again, we see that experiment and culture co-produce scientific knowledge, while such hybrid knowledge in turn shapes the social debates we have about humans,” (Fausto-Sterling, 226).
 I will specifically use the word hermaphrodite throughout this paper, rather than intersex. Most hermaphrodites hate that word, but I am not that hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodite as a descriptor is also much older than intersex, and would be more appropriate for use when discussing hermaphrodite history.
The word Hermaphrodite comes from Greek lore. In one story, Hermes and Aphrodite make a baby so perfectly endowed with all their shared beauty that the only name they can think of is Hermaphroditos. In another story, the child is a beautiful male with whom a water nymph falls in love. Overcome with desire, she embraces him and they become one (Fausto-Sterling, 32). Early biblical interpreters considered Adam to be a hermaphrodite, only splitting into male and female after falling from grace.
 A practicing hermaphrodite is one who straddles both male and female roles/identities. I fall into this category.
 In theory, a true hermaphrodite (with a functioning ovotestis producing either male or female hormones or sperm/egg) could give birth to its own child, but this has never been documented. In practice, the external genitalia and accompanying ducts are so mixed up that exploratory surgery is required to see what’s there and what’s attached to what.
 Klinefelter’s is usually a combination of XXY or YYX DNA/chromosomal structure. Turner’s is a mosaic, with XX/XO or XY/XO – the latter of which is also my chromosomal structure. One doctor once told me to think of the O as “filler DNA.”