10 things you probably didn't know about hermaphrodites

photo by dalbera

The South African runner Caster Semenya recently withdrew from a competition amid speculation about her sex. The rumor is that she is intersex — or a hermaphrodite, as they used to say in the olden days. If it’s true, then it’s too bad she withdrew, as we would have loved to see the world of international athletics try to wrangle this one. After all, it’s not like they could force her into the operating room in order to compete. Plus, it’s a subject rife with misunderstanding and stubborn rumors, and the more people talk about this stuff openly, the better. For now, we’ll try to clear up a few things as best we can:

  1. The term “hermaphrodite” comes from Greek mythology: Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was joined with a nymph, Salmacis, and the result was one being with the physical traits of both sexes.
  2. That said, the word “hermaphrodite” has fallen out of fashion; these days “intersex” is the preferred term for people of ambiguous gender. Typically, this means that the person’s genitalia are either not clearly male or female, or are at odds with their chromosomal gender. ( ”Hermaphrodite” is still used in botany to describe a flower that has both male (i.e. pollen-producing) and female (i.e. ovule-producing) parts. It’s seen in many common garden plants.)
  3. And that said, The Intersex Society of North America is now advocating for the term “disorders of sex development” to be used in medical contexts instead of intersex, so that anatomy and identity are not conflated. (Of course, some people don’t like the term ”disorder,” either…)
  4. Despite the fact that med school professors to this day cite Jamie Lee Curtis as a classic example of an intersexual, this is an unsubstantiated rumor. And no, she didn’t admit it to Oprah, despite what you read on the Internets.
  5. For a while there, Lady Gaga was taking some of Jamie Lee’s intersex rumor mill heat — until she came right out and said that she wasn’t. “I’m not offended,” she said. “My vagina is offended.”
  6. And Caster Semenya is in other good company when it comes to the rumor mill: Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Grace Jones, and pretty much any other famous woman who looked good in pants has been rumored to be intersex.
  7. It is estimated that 1 in 2,000 children born in the United States is diagnosed with ambiguous external genitalia. A small percentage of these undergo “sex reassignment” surgery in infancy. The medical profession used to be fully in favor of “corrective” surgery early on; these days advocates in the intersex field are working to convince them otherwise. The debate rages on.
  8. In Star Wars, the Hutts — yep, that includes Jabba — are intersex.  So are all the creatures in the video game Spore. Same goes for the Hermat species in Star Trek: New Frontier. (And no, we didn’t know any of this off the top of our heads.)
  9. Jeffrey Eugenides’ amazing 2002 novel Middlesex — he also wrote the equally amazing The Virgin Suicides – is narrated by a hermaphrodite named Calliope Stephanides. (Now that we did know off the top of our heads.)
  10. In some non-Western cultures, intersexuals find themselves at home in a third gender category, e.g. The Hijra of India and the kathoeys, or “ladyboys,” of Thailand. Considering that we still don’t-ask-don’t-tell in this country, we’ve probably got a couple of centuries to go before we catch up. (Though we really hope we get proven wrong on this.)