30 August 2007

Intersex: Case studies

By and Zoe Brain
Cosmos Magazine
The Western world defines gender in two distinct categories. But in reality, gender is a spectrum. Why does society, and even science, struggle to understand and accept those who are somewhere between male and female?
Intersex: Case studies

1932 Olympic gold medallist Stella Walsh had both male and female characteristics. Credit: Bettyman/Corbis

This article is a boxout that goes with our feature – Intersex: The space between the genders, read the full article here.

The writer

HERCULINE BARBARIN was a 19th century French hermaphrodite who was treated as a female at birth but later redesignated a man after a scandalous affair and a medical examination.

A hermaphrodite, she started her life as a pious girl in a Catholic orphanage, growing into a bewildered adolescent enchanted by the ripening bodies of her classmates, and becoming a passionate lover of a schoolmistress. After the affair was revealed she was reclassified as a man.

By the age of 30, she was alone and desolate. In 1868 she commited suicide in a miserable attic in Paris. Her eloquent, erotic memoirs were found by Michel Foucault in the archives of France’s Department of Public Hygiene, and published along with the graphic medical descriptions of Barbin’s body before and after her death.

The gold medallist

STANISŁAWA WALASIEWICZ (also known as Stella Walsh) was an athlete and Olympic gold medallist.

Born in 1911 in Wierzchownia, Poland, her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was three months old. She started her athletic career in Cleveland and represented Poland at the 1932 Olympics, winning the
100 m gold medal.

Walasiewicz continued to compete professionally and in amateur track and field, moving back to the U.S. where she took out American citizenship and married boxer Neil Olson. She won her last U.S. title at age 40 in 1951, and was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975.

In 1980, aged 69, she was a bystander in an armed robbery in Cleveland, and was tragically killed. An autopsy revealed that she possessed male genitalia, although Polish research also indicates that she displayed some female characteristics. Detailed investigation more recently has also revealed that she had the male XY pair of chromosomes.

Controversy over her gender remains unresolved, although official documents and history record her as female.

The skier

ERIK SCHINEGGER is a former Alpine skier. He held the title of world champion women’s downhill skier in 1966, back when he was recognised as female and known as Erika Schinegger.

Schinegger was born in Agsdorf, Austria, in 1948. While preparing for the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, a medical test by the International Olympic Committee determined that Schinegger was chromosomally male, and disqualified him. Born intersexed, he had been raised as a girl and was surprised at the news. The case prompted the committee to require chromosomal testing of all athletes.

Schinegger decided to live as a man and transitioned, undergoing medical treatment and changing his name to Erik. He married and became father of a daughter, Claire.

Together with Marco Schenz, Schinegger published an autobiography in 1988, My Victory over Myself: the Man who became a Female World Champion . He was also the subject of a 2005 documentary film by Kurt Mayer called Erik(A). Today he owns a children’s ski school in Austria.

Zoe’s story

I ALWAYS KNEW I wasn’t a normal guy. But I didn’t know what I was. I thought I was a slightly weird male who had this peculiar delusion, one that was quite harmless, that I should have been born female. I always had problems, my body just didn’t feel right. My brain body map didn’t conform with reality. For example, I had to suppress my natural instincts and train myself to walk not using my hips — to walk more like a man. But the problem became worse with age, even though I’ve fathered a child.
And then, for reasons which are not entirely clear, my hormonal balance changed quite dramatically in the space of two to three months when I was 47. I lost a third of my body weight; changed shape; my skin texture changed in terms of oil content; skin conditions that I’d suffered for more than 30 years cleared up over night; my eyes changed colour; and I lost two centimetres in height.

Basically I had begun a transition from one physical gender to another. My genitalia — which weren’t normal to begin with — atrophied. I went from the low end of being a relatively normal male, who felt like woman, to being something that wasn’t really male at all.

Genetically, I’m still male, but my appearance is that of a female. This is 80 per cent the result of a natural change and 20 per cent the result of hormonal treatment with some cosmetic surgery. However, this transitional process will take several more years before it’s completed. I’ll be in my fifties before my sex is properly settled.

My body changed before I did. Had my body not changed, I would not have voluntarily submitted myself to a process of transitioning via surgery and hormone treatments. I didn’t have the courage, and I would have kept on pretending to be a man, trying to be a man, trying to be the best man any girl could be, but knowing I was a fake.

It is confusing. And it’s upsetting, and it’s embarrassing and it’s not suitable for children and it’s not safe for work — so people don’t want to talk about it. Transsexuals often speak of the 50-50 rule, which holds that 50 per cent of transsexuals are dead before they reach 50. I can really appreciate this when you hear well-meaning people who say, out of ignorance, the most appalling things and hold the most appalling opinions.

People like me have been described as the spawn of Satan. Well, how does one argue against that? I can show that I’ve led a pretty decent life, that I’ve contributed to society, that I’ve tried to be a good parent. But society, in return, has largely denied my very existence.

Empowerment of individuals is so important if you’re intersexed or transsexual. They’ve been put through enough hell in their lives. Cases like David Reimer’s clearly illustrate the folly of surgical intervention without consent.

Unfortunately, the David Reimer case — which opened up the debate on the downside of normalising surgery without consent — is now being used as an argument to stop transsexual surgery. There are plenty of people who are genetic males who identify as females and request corrective surgery but now they’re being told that, based on David Reimer’s case, if you’re a genetic male then you’re a male, full stop, and you shouldn’t be mucking around with modifying the body. “If you want surgery then you’re mad,” they say. “Psychotic, and you need drugs and sedation.”

And yet a growing body of scientific evidence suggests otherwise — that gender is specified or hardwired in the brain before birth, around 12-16 weeks after conception. Genital development happens in the middle of the first trimester, neural development at the end. Children ‘know’ that they are a boy or a girl before the age of six. This has nothing to do with their body shape or upbringing, it depends on the neural development that was programmed in long before they were born.

Some people have normal bodies and normal brain development, but cross-gendered genitalia. This is the group traditionally known as the intersexed. But others have normal bodies and normal genitalia, but cross-gendered brains, and these people are known as transsexual. The groups aren’t mutually exclusive, though most of the intersex lobby groups, while sympathetic to problems being experienced by transsexuals, tend not to actively include transsexuals. They don’t want to be lumped in the same category because I think transsexual problems are more problematic to define and work through.

So, what am I? After the transition I really wondered about this. Am I male? Am I female? Am I some sort of mix? You know, what the heck, at the end of the day, I’m me!

NEWSLETTER

Sign up to our free newsletter and have "This Week in Cosmos" delivered to your inbox every Monday.

>> More information
Latest
issue
CONNECT
Like us on Facebook
Follow @COSMOSmagazine
Add COSMOS to your Google+ circles