Once during one of those long lectures in medical college, our lecture told us a story of a mistaken identity. A girl who was supposedly thought to be a boy at birth was reported at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH) 8years after birth. Born in a remote village, the traditional birth attendant actually thought the rounded head and abnormally large clitoris was a small penis. Of course, she was circumcised and her vulva removed. The difference was clear eight years later when her breast started developing. The perplexing question on my mind then was ‘’why did it that long to spot a simple error?
Usually, in society, the most recognized sexes are male and female sexes. These sexes are usually defined based on a person’s anatomy; a person with breasts and a vulva, female, while a muscular chest void of mammary glands plus a penis constitutes as male.
We are used to filling out male or female in official documents when asked to identify our sexes. That would mean one is definitely either female or male. But what if that is not always the case? What if it were possible for a person to be both? Or what if a person could be said to be neither male nor female? Very few people have ever heard or seen such phenomenon, but science proves that it exists.
The term intersex is a broad term used for an array of conditions, characterized by a reproductive make up that doesn’t suit the classic definitions of female or male. The reproductive anatomy of an intersex constitutes the features of both the male and the female of their species. This condition is also known as hermaphrodite (a congenital condition where an organism, or in this case a person, has the reproductive structures of both sexes).
A person may be born having pronounced external structures of a particular sex, but with the ambiguous internal structures of the opposite sex. Or in another instance, a person may possess a mix of the gonads of both sexes. E.g. is having both a clitoris and testicles.
CAN AN INTERSEX HAVE A CONFUSED GENDER IDENTITY? ARE THERE ALTERNATIVE GENDERS?
Just like our society has recognized the sexes to be male and female, it has also separated gender identities to fit into these categories. Thus, the terms masculine and feminine genders have been borne to describe the social characteristics of the male and female sexes, respectively. It is widely believed that certain characteristics are reminiscent of both sexes. For instance, a male who shows interest in the activities that are believed to be typical of females, is said to be feminine or lack masculinity. Conversely, a woman with interests that are believed to pertain to males is registered as a ‘tomboy’. This only goes to prove that the masculine and the feminine genders are just a broad classification for the term. A person may not be socially inclined to identify with either. So where does that leave them? Definitely not without a gender identity.
An intersex may become perplexed as to which gender roles to identify with, if their sexual make up was previously unknown and only a new discovery. If congenital (from birth), gender roles characteristic of the dominant hormones in the person, are the roles they’re likely to naturally identify with.
Some intersex, upon coming into knowledge about their rare reproductive make up, may seek to make use of the numerous options made available by medicine, in order to be just either one of the sexes. This may help them identify with a particular gender, either masculine or feminine. While some may go down this route, it is possible that others may comfortably identify with both the masculine and feminine genders.
In a bid to explore, some intersex persons may take advantage of their unusual anatomy to explore the sexual possibilities inherent.
HOW TO KNOW IF YOU'RE A HERMAPHRODITE
Some signs of hermaphrodism are as listed below;
- Congenital (at birth) ambiguous genitalia – in this case, it is usually unclear what the features of the genitalia are. There may be structures pertaining to both the male and female sexes.
- A very small penis – this may be indicative of the presence of internal female genitalia.
- An abnormally large clitoris – in hermaphrodites, this may also seem like a glans penis.
- Apparently undescended testes in boys. This may turn out to be ovaries.
- Labial or inguinal (groin) masses in girls. This may turn out to be testes.
- Partial labial fusion.
- Non-rudimentary breasts in males.
- Anovulation, hirsutism, masculine voice in females. This may signify the absence or stunted development of ovaries. It is usually rare.
- Hormonal imbalance, in females especially.
Some other characteristics may not be physiological or physical aberrations. They may be behavioral. E.g. males turning their waists while walking, interests in feminine attractions etc.
WHAT CAUSES INTERSEX?
AIS is the most common cause of 46, XY intersex. There are several other causes which include:
· Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is identified as the most common cause is hermaphrodism. This simply refers to an increase in the size of the adrenal glands, due to an increase in the number of its cells.
· Maternal exposure to male hormones (testosterone) during pregnancy.
Tumors producing male hormones; usually ovarian tumors.
DO INTERSEX MALES GET PERIODS?
According to Wikipedia, some ‘men with the rare (about 1 in 100,000) condition persistent Müllerian duct syndrome where a womb has developed in a male fetus’. An anatomically intersex human that possesses a functioning menstruating womb but external sexual organs which are unclear in form, may menstruate. Some men with a rare condition of persistent Muillerian duct syndrome where a womb has formed in a male fetus may predispose the males to getting periods.
CAN INTERSEX MALES GET PREGNANT?
In some very rare genetic conditions, genotypical males develop in the same manner as females and have the structures physiologically needed for gestation. Some intersex women have been pregnant, carried their fetuses to maturity and given birth.
CAN AN INTERSEX PERSON GET THEMSELVES PREGNANT?
The snail of the phylum mollusca is a known hermaphrodite, albeit definitely not human. Although they are referred to as neither male nor female, this is not the case with humans. Humans usually have a definite sexual description, i.e., they are either male or female, but with slight congenital modifications. The mollusca have the ability to reproduce by themselves, as they possess the anatomical structure for this purpose. But is it possible for humans too?
Contrary to the general misconception, there are no documented cases in humans, where both the male and female gonads present carry out the normal physiological functions of reproduction simultaneously. In fact, humans born with both gonads are usually infertile; although there have been rare cases of fertility in humans considered to be actually hermaphroditic. But this possibility depends on the degree of the irregularity of the reproductive system anatomy.
WHAT PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION IS INTERSEX AND HOW MANY ARE THERE?
Like all findings from researches, there will not be a definite answer to this question. Inferences can only be made. The most thorough available research has intersex persons constituting an estimated 1.7% of the population; which makes being intersex not very common. The now defunct society of North America stated that, experts in sex differentiation would place the incidence of hermaphrodism at bout 1 in 1,500 births or 1 in 2000 births.
LIST OF FAMOUS INTERSEX PEOPLE
Cheryl Chase, also known as Bo Laurent, U.S. intersex activist and founder of the Intersex Society of North America, apparently embraced her intersex state by adopting the gender identities that came with it. There’s also Hiker Chiu, founder of Oii-Chinese, Katherine Connella, U.S. actress and writer; and Eleno de Cespedes, a 16th century intersex person in Spain.
Aside from the few health issues it could pose, hermaphrodism is not exactly a deadly condition unless the extra anatomy is such that it constitutes a health risk. In fact, it has become a source of curiosity; it has been a source of research, enquiry, today to everyone. Who isn’t interested in educating themselves about the coexistence of male and female gonads? There are endless possibilities to the aberrations of the anatomy of the reproductive system; and hermaphrodism is only newly becoming an acceptable phenomenon in today’s society.
The term, intersex, has been coined in an attempt to trivialize the condition, turning it into a culture and an identity. Of course it is referred to as having an identity of its own, after all it no longer falls under the ‘either male or female’ classification of sexes. If a male can identify with a gender different from the female’s, why not the intersex?