"So... Which sex are you?"
"I don't know. My doctor hasn't told me yet."
(c) 1996 Baltimore Sun. All rts. reserv.
WHAT ARE YOU: MALE, MERM, HERM, FERM OR FEMALE?
BALTIMORE MORNING SUN (BS) - Sunday March 17, 1996
By: William O. Beeman
Edition: F Section: Perspective Page: 1F
Word Count: 1,054
ARE THE CATEGORIES "man" and "woman" so obviously clear that
they need no further explanation?
Legislators throughout the nation trying to prevent the recognition of
"gay marriage" contracted in other states obviously think so. They have
introduced legislation that would grant official recognition only to
marriages between "a man and a woman."
Perhaps Mr. Burns and the other legislators who are pushing these bills
don't realize it, but their passage would unwittingly nullify or prevent
millions of supposedly heterosexual marriages.
Why? Because the marriage partners will not meet the medical definition
of being "a man and a woman." To make matters worse, most of these couples
will not know that they are illegally married.
Between 3 million and 10 million Americans are neither male nor female
at birth. Additionally, as adults they may be genetically of the opposite
gender from that which they and their parents believe them to be.
The medical term for persons of ambiguous gender is "intersexual."
Estimates of the numbers of persons who may be born intersexual ranges from
1 percent to 4 percent of all children born today, according to Dr. Anne
Fausto-Sterling of the Division of Biology and Medicine at Brown
The difficulty in determining clear-cut specification of gender arises
because there are at least three ways to define it. Two are biological and
one is cultural.
The first biological definition defines gender in terms of chromosomes.
Males have an X and a Y chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes. The
second biological definition assigns gender in terms of male and female
In the third, "cultural" definition, males are people who lookand act
"male," and females are people who look and act "female." Americans
generally want everyone to fit the third, cultural definition, even when
people have biological characteristics that are not strictly in accord with
a two-gender system.
One cause of intersexuality seems to be the posession of an abnormal
number of chromosomes only one or more than two. A second cause stems from
the fact that all humans, no matter what their chromosomal makeup, have the
biological capacity to develop either male or female genitalia and
secondary sexual characteristics while in the womb. Developmentally, some
babies are born with male or female chromosomal makeup and with both male
and female genitalia, or with some of the genitalia of the opposite
Dr. Fausto-Sterling points out that there is a smooth continuum between
100 percent biologically male and 100 percent biologically female with many
possibilities in between. She calls those with both testes and ovaries
"herms." Those with testes and some female genitalia but no ovaries are
"merms." Those with ovaries and some male genitalia but no testes are
"ferms." This gives the possibility of five rough biological groupings:
male, merm, herm, ferm and female.
Most intersexual Americans are unaware of their true biological gender
because under current medical practice, physicians reassign the gender of
intersexual infants at birth. Such infants are surgically altered and given
hormonal treatments so that they will fit into one of the two "cultural"
categories male or female. The test is usually not chromosomal, but rather
based on the "viability" of the genitalia to eventually appear normal.
Often the parents are not fully informed about what is happening to
Dr. Fausto-Sterling calls this medical reassignment a "surgical
shoehorn" designed to force intersexed infants into rigid cultural
categories that have little to do with biological reality.
As a result, there are perhaps millions of XX males and XY females
living in the United States today. These are cultural males with male
genitalia who are genetically female, and cultural females with female
genitalia who are genetically male. The film star Jamie Lee Curtis is one
well-known individual who is genetically male, but phenotypically female.
The legislators have obviously not consulted with scientists in their
zeal to eliminate "gay marriage."
William O. Beeman is an associate professor of anthropology at Brown
Pub Date: 3/17/96