Interview With the Hermaphrodite

The many faces of Lynn Harris

As you talk to Lynn Edward Harris, he changes. When you first meet, Harris is a soft-spoken gentleman in his late '40s. He is elfin and elegant, with the frail, pale handsomeness of some tennis-playing dandy out of a Fitzgerald novel. Then, as Harris is speaking, his metamorphosis begins. He'll be discussing a painful subject—and there are so many painful subjects—and as he does so, he will raise a delicate hand to his chin and look at you with the tragic eyes of a spinster aunt. At such moments, he is not simply an effeminate man; it is as if he has somehow actually transformed into a dear, middle-aged lady before your eyes.

As your conversation progresses, Harris becomes many people. One moment, he looks like a shy 14-year-old boy dressed in Daddy's clothes, but then he'll remember somebody who wronged him 15 years ago, and boom, he has become an uncomfortably intense, wiry tough guy who could probably kick your ass. Later, when he's finally calmed-down, he'll tell you about his wild and decadent days in the Los Angeles of the '70s, and his petite features will crinkle into a weary Keith Richards leer.

The most amazing moments come when Harris tells you about the '60s, back when he was a mixed-up teen with big hair, a padded bra, and a face pleasant enough to look upon that it won him the crown of Costa Mesa Junior Miss in 1968. As he talks about his youth, the years melt away, and for an instant, he somehow becomes that lost girl again.

Harris has been many people in his lifetime, but none of them seems to have been very happy.

Harris is a man. Sort of. He is also a woman. Sort of. He is both, although it could be argued that he is neither, or that he is a third sex. Harris is a hermaphrodite, or intersex, possessing both a vagina and a penis that is, he says, about 2 inches long when erect. He has female chromosomes with male genetic patterning, male hair patterns and skeletal structure, and no breasts. He urinates from beneath the base of his penis. He has some mixed ovarian and testicular tissue. His voice is an eerie, androgynous purr. If you met him on the street and he told you he was a man, you'd believe it without question. If he told you he was a woman, you'd probably believe that, too.

A QUESTION OF THINGIES

For centuries, the western world had no "girls," as such. From Plato's day to the Renaissance, anatomists believed that there was just one gender—male—and "females" were simply males with inverted penises. Nowadays, we believe in the concepts of "girl" and "boy," but what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl? It's a complicated question, but modern science has a simple answer.

You see, it's all a question of thingies. When a baby is born, its thingie must be longer than an inch to be considered a penis and shorter than 3/8 inch to be considered a clitoris. A boy must have two healthy testicles and a urethral opening at the tip of his thingie, while a girl must have a pair of ovaries in her tummy and a urethral opening at the base of her thingie.

But what happens if a child is born with an unusual thingie—a thingie, for instance, that's longer than 3/8 inch but shorter than a full inch, or a thingie with one opening on the tip and another at the base? What then? Well, that kid is in trouble. In almost all cases, pediatric urologists will assign the child a gender, and then they'll get busy with their scalpels. If the thingie is boy-sized but the urethral opening is located down at the base, doctors will re-route the opening so that it reaches the thingie's tip. If an ambiguous thingie is on the short side, doctors will usually assign the child a female gender, snip away any excess tissue, and prescribe estrogen at puberty. Sometimes, they'll even construct a vagina for the child using a piece of its bowel tissue—a vagina the child will unfortunately never have feeling in.

Physicians will usually consult with a child's parents about all of this, but it's not unheard of for doctors to proceed without informing the parents about their child's condition or to actually go ahead with these procedures over the parents' objections. Apparently, anything is better than letting a child face the horrors of growing up with an ambiguous thingie.

Sadly, the evidence strongly suggests that all the tinkering these doctors do with the privates of newborn hermaphrodites does far more harm than good. Although doctors do everything they can to keep young intersexes from finding out the truth about their bodies, as they grow up, these children can't help but realize there's something unusual going on. Many "girls" will find themselves growing into enormously tall lesbians with linebacker shoulders and voices deeper than their dads', while "boys" will wonder why they're so short and their butts and boobs are so big. These hapless children will often be subjected to mysterious injections and surgical treatments, treatments that will render them sterile and incapable of ever having an orgasm. For many hermaphrodites who've been surgically "corrected," sex is actually painful.

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