By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The doctors who perform these procedures are following a theory—dreamed up in the '50s by John Hopkins University sexologist John Money—that babies are born psychosexually neutral and that if a doctor sculpts a child's ambiguous genitalia within a few months of birth, normal psychosexual development should follow. Money's theory soon became medical gospel, and little hermaphrodites have been paying for it ever since.
But while Money was scribbling in his notebooks, John Hopkins urologist Hugh H. Young was also doing some interesting work just across the quad. Between 1930 and 1960, Young conducted extensive case studies of unaltered hermaphrodites who grew up to be far happier and healthier than those unlucky children who fell into the latex-gloved mitts of the medical establishment. "Emma," for instance, was an unaltered and very naughty intersex who had both a functioning vagina and a "penis-sized" thingie and was fully capable of having heterosexual sex with both men and women. She lived as a traditional homemaker with a husband, a well-vacuumed carpet, and an oven full of warm TV dinners, although Emma apparently didn't fancy marital relations with her husband much (she referred to her vagina as her "meal ticket") and often had extramarital frolics with girlfriends. Whatever you might say about Emma's unorthodox lifestyle, she certainly sounds like she had a lot more fun than her surgically altered sister/brothers.
So, in the face of Young's studies, why did Money's theory catch on? Some critics suggest that it was a result of the era in which Money worked; the '50s were a conservative, repressive time when gender roles were at their most rigid, a time that was notoriously tough on those who wouldn't—or couldn't—fit in. It was also an era when antibiotics still worked, when doctors were constantly devising new vaccines and surgeries, and it probably looked like illness itself might be eradicated by the year 2000. Hermaphroditism was an "illness," and a brave new generation of doctors set out to "cure" it. Sadly, the cures they devised were actually a step back from the prescriptions doled out by the doctors of medieval Europe, who sent their hermaphrodite patients off to have sex with virgin corpses. Like modern cures for the intersexed, the necrophilia method was both ineffective and unutterably foul, but at least in ye olden days, patients got away without having their genitals mutilated.
Historically speaking, hermaphrodites have had it rough. While there have been hermaphroditic gods in the religions of India, Egypt, Mexico and other cultures (even some translations of Genesis describe God as being "of both sexes"), people have been far more comfortable with mythical hermaphrodites than they've been with flesh-and-blood ones. In Greek and Roman times, a hermaphrodite birth was considered a bad omen, and they were usually drowned. In the Talmud, they got the worst of both worlds. Like the fellows, they weren't allowed to shave or be alone with women; like the girls, they couldn't serve as priests or inherit their father's estates, and they had to stay isolated from men while they were menstruating. In medieval Europe, hermaphrodites were required to decide on a gender and stick with it, with dire consequences if they strayed outside their chosen role; in the 17th century, one Scottish hermaphrodite who lived as a woman was buried alive after impregnating a local lass.
In the early decades of this century, hermaphrodites (or "half-and-halfs," as they were commonly known) were displayed in freak shows across America, forced to strip in dark, stinky rooms and display their genitals for gawking hillbillies. Mondu, a "half-and-half" who toured Europe and the United States in the 1920s, used to pass around a pamphlet that declared him to be "brother and sister in one body, the ninth wonder of the world. . . . There is real drama and a touch of genuine comedy in this mysterious process of evolution which forces a girl to shoulder the responsibilities of a man without having been prepared by a masculine training and a boy's background."
THE MODERN MONDU?
If anybody could sympathize with Mondu's dilemma, it would be Lynn Harris.
As hermaphrodites go, Harris has been fortunate. He still has the genitals he was born with, reached adulthood without being drowned or buried alive, and was never forced to have sex with a virgin corpse. But Harris has been fortunate only when you compare him to other hermaphrodites; compared to you or me, his life has been full of Dickensian drama and comedy of the blackest sort.
The first time I visited Harris at his smallish, artfully furnished West Hollywood apartment, our interview turned into one of the longest, most fascinating conversations I've ever had. We started talking sometime in mid-afternoon, and the next thing I knew, it was pushing midnight. He let me flip through his scrapbook, which is full of pictures of Harris as a little girl, as a zaftig teenage beauty queen, as an anxious-looking young man with a wispy beard. One particularly memorable set of photos had a twentysomething Harris as a glamorous, Bowie-esque androgyne, fully made-up and shaving his face. He showed me his female birth certificate, along with the male birth certificate he was issued in adulthood, and a stack of articles about his case from publications ranging from the most scholarly medical texts to such tabloids as The Globe. We never even stopped to eat, and by the end, we could hardly hear each other over our growling stomachs.