Interview With the Hermaphrodite
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.
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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.
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.
As he was showing me out, Harris handed me a copy of an enormous yellowing bundle of paper; it was his autobiography, I, the Hermaphrodite (or More Lives Than One). He told me he had been shopping it around to publishers for years, but so far, he'd had no serious offers. Given the fantastic tales he'd been spinning all night, I couldn't imagine how any publisher would pass on Harris' story. Christ, his life should have been a best-seller, a miniseries, a major motion picture. But once I began to read the book, it didn't take long to figure out why no mainstream press had picked it up. Written in a style equal parts William Burroughs, Jackie Collins and Ed Wood ("There was little to say to the young man who inadvertently had managed to provide me with a few minutes of carnal delight but which fell short of any consummate gratification"), I, the Hermaphroditeis a book of wonderful, transcendent strangeness. It is also so exhaustingly lurid that reading a single page can leave you feeling like you've just attended a noisy, all-night orgy. In the course of the book, Harris has dalliances with an award-winning playwright, a married minister (and the minister's church organist), a top studio set designer, a "Marine-on-leave porno star," a variety of television and film personalities, a Lebanese smuggler, and many, many more. While I can't help but wonder if more than a bit of artistic license was involved in the book's creation, I've learned that where Harris is concerned, the more impossible something sounds, the more likely it is to be true.
What follows is the most accurate portrait I can offer of a unique individual who wears many faces and never stands still.
A LIFE IN PINK (AND BLUE)
When Lynn Harris was born in an Orange hospital in 1950, he was pronounced female by a doctor who he now says must have been "half-blind." As he grew, Harris was neither an extreme tomboy nor a girly girl; he and his younger sisters played with dolls, with Harris invariably taking on the daddy role. He climbed trees and loved to play games, although he disliked the "rough sports." He took an interest in woodcarving, as well as ballet. The only thing about him that was obviously unusual was his intelligence; by age 3, he could recite Shakespeare.
But early on, Harris knew there was something strange about his body. One day, when he was about 5 years old, he lifted up his dress and tried to ask his mother about the strange thing that was growing between his legs.
"Put your dress down," she hissed, "and don't look at it!"
In many ways, that moment set the tone for Harris' future relationship with his mother. Today he describes her as a "very moralistic Roman Catholic," and when he speaks of her, you can hear a lifetime of hurt and frustration in his voice. Harris grew up dreading his mother's harsh words and worshiping his glamorous, remote, character-actor father. Harris' parents separated when he was still a child, and Harris stayed in Costa Mesa while his father worked in Hollywood, coming down for all-too-infrequent visits. The arrangement left Harris in the hands of his mother, who steadfastly refused to accept his claims that there was anything strange about his body. In a strange way, this was a fortunate turn of events for Harris; had his mother taken him seriously, he probably would have ended up being surgically "corrected." As it happened, Harris pleaded for years until his mother finally took him to an endocrinologist when he was about 11. The doctor performed a brief exam on a fully clothed Harris. Without seeing Harris' budding penis, the doctor agreed with Harris' mother: further diagnostic tests were unnecessary, and treatment was not indicated; the child was clearly a girl. It was another lucky break, although it sure didn't seem that way to Harris at the time.
"You see," Harris' mother gloated. "I told you it was all in your head! Now stop all these wild imaginings!"
But as his teens progressed, it became increasingly difficult for Harris to believe that his problems were simply wild imaginings. He began to grow facial hair, and his voice dropped until it was lower than that of the boys in his class at Newport Harbor High School. His breasts and hips stubbornly refused to blossom, and he had no real periods; every few years, he found a bit of blood in his panties, but that was it. Perhaps most troubling of all was the question of Harris' vagina; he couldn't find one, not even when he looked with a mirror.
Desperately seeking an identity, the young Harris threw himself into acting, where he could hide behind costumes, makeup and characters. He performed in a batch of school plays, usually playing parts—a butch female Army colonel, for instance—with a prophetically androgynous twist. In just a few years, he won 14 acting trophies. He worked hard at being a great actress, almost as hard as he worked at being the proper, pretty young lady his mother wanted him to be. Harris subjected himself to a drag-queen-like daily regimen of two hours of makeup, shaving and padding; he waxed himself so often and bathed in so many toxic depilatories that he now says it's a wonder he has any skin left. To keep his body hidden in gym class, he changed clothes in bathroom stalls and always took care to shower alone.
Harris began to enter local beauty pageants, despite his mother's warnings that the judges would never pick a padded girl. Much to his mother's amazement, he took home several trophies. Harris was the first Costa Mesa Junior Miss in 1968. He still has a picture of himself in a gown and tiara—looking a bit like a young Shelley Winters—standing alongside A.L. Pinkley, then-mayor of Costa Mesa. Along with the crown, Harris was awarded a college scholarship, something he's still proud of.
"I'm proud of all the things I did as girl," he says. "I earned that crown!"
Harris approached femininity with a jock's determination, and he now attributes his aggressive, competitive edge to the male hormones that were coursing through him. "I was determined to be the best female of any female I knew, and I went over the top," he says.
But no matter how much he fought it, Harris couldn't deny what was happening to his body. Every day, when he looked in the mirror, the face that looked back at him looked less and less female. On the street, people sometimes stopped him to ask if he was a man in drag.
Harris' sex was ambiguous, but he had drives as strong as any girl—or boy—his age. He yearned for romance but was frightened by the prospect of sharing his unorthodox anatomy with a lover. Nonetheless, at 18, Harris lost his virginity in the time-honored tradition of teenage girls across America:with his knees up in the front seat of his date's car. The venue, however, was the only thing traditional about the evening; Harris' date was a divorced older man who blindly struggled to penetrate him for two hours, at one point grunting, "Do you even have a vagina?"
Finally, he found one; a tiny thing, with a hymen so tough that Harris now feels it should have been slit surgically. The deflowering hurt like hell, but at least Harris knew he actually had a vagina. In more ways than one, he had at last, he says, "become a woman."
With the '60s swinging all around him, Harris left home at 19 and moved back to Hollywood to seek his fortune as an actress. The outline for Harris' book describes these days as [ahem] "a cyclone of discotheques, movie premieres, and swingers' parties offering recreational sex with men AND women."
He began appearing in LA theater productions, supporting himself with beauty retail and other work. Finally free to see his own doctors and learn what was really going on with his body, he began taking estrogen in an attempt to regulate his menstrual cycle and increase his bustline. In 1972, still in his early '20s, he began experiencing hot flashes, fluctuations in blood-sugar levels, rapid weight gain and other symptoms of menopause, symptoms that weren't alleviated until one of his doctors suggested "reverse therapy": a course of male hormones. Desperate for answers, in 1973, Harris checked himself into La Mirada Community Hospital for three days of tests and exploratory surgery. The doctors there eventually diagnosed him with what they called "a hermaphroditic situation":Stein-Leventhal Syndrome, a congenital condition that affects one in every 10,000 births. They warned him that his body would continue to "masculinize" over time, adding that there was little he could do to stop it.
Harris reacted to the news by running out and buying higher heels and putting bigger pads in his bras. He'd always lived as a woman, and he didn't want to be anything else. Seeking images of "masculine" women, he would look up pictures of the brilliant but famously non-photogenic Gertrude Stein in the encyclopedia, anxiously wondering if eventually, he would look as nasty as she did. Many women fear the loss of their looks with age; poor Harris also had to fear the loss of his very gender.
When he tried to talk about his situation with his family, his parents predictably went into full, furious denial.
"Nothing's wrong with you," Harris' father roared. "If you let on to your boyfriends that you're some kind of freak, you'll queer your marriage chances forever!"
Touchingly, one of Harris' sisters worried that she might "catch" his condition and grow a penis, too.
THE CURTAIN FALLS
By Harris' account, as the '70s wore on, he appeared in a string of Z-grade movies (mainly horror films with such titles as Meat Eater and Mother's Day, all of which have proved remarkably difficult or impossible to track down), became an international call girl, and ended up in hot water with the Vegas mob, among many other spicy if incredible-sounding misadventures. He also continued working in live theater, but his increasingly masculine-looking body made leading-lady roles hard to come by, and by his late '20s, he was already playing middle-aged mothers. He was growing disenchanted with acting, realizing for the first time, what a crutch it had always been. He had been pretending to be a woman for years, and it wasn't working anymore. Despondent and lost, he turned to a "spiritual counselor" for advice.
"You've always been so unhappy as a woman," the counselor said. "How much worse off could you be living as a man?"
Feeling he had nothing left to lose, Harris took the advice, and almost overnight—"cold turkey," he says—he gave up the womanhood he'd been fighting so long and hard to hold onto. He let his beard grow in, bought a male wardrobe, and changed his middle name from Elizabeth to Edward. (He didn't change his first name, feeling that since the feminine form of Lynn usually ends with an "e," his name was already masculine enough.) He embraced his new role so thoroughly that he even decided to have his name and gender changed on his birth certificate. The Los Angeles Superior Court agreed with his request, but the bureaucrats in Sacramento balked because Harris' petition was not accompanied by the customary affidavit from a doctor stating that Harris had undergone sex-reassignment surgery. Harris complained and was issued a new birth certificate that stated his middle name as Edward but still gave his gender as female, a development that Harris says drove him to "suicidal feelings." He persevered and eventually received a new Certificate of Live Birth for Lynn Edward Harris, male. Harris believes that his case set a precedent for the first legal sex change without surgery.
That was 20 years ago. Since then, Harris has worked a variety of jobs (until recently, he was working as a film-production bookkeeper, although as I was writing this story, he was laid off) while devoting most of his energy to representing the hermaphrodite community. He has appeared frequently on television and radio, as well as in magazines, newspapers and books, and he has become a prominent speaker and essayist on intersex issues. He says he does it partly to educate people about intersexes and partly as a response to all the years of denial and repression he endured.
Although he has reached something of an understanding with his father, Harris and his mother didn't speak for 10 years; it's only now that they are making the first steps toward understanding.
BOTH SIDES NOW
One of the wackier Greek myths involves a Theban named Teiresias. During his youth, Teiresias came upon two snakes coupling, and, perhaps repulsed by the sight of all that wiggly snake love, decided to separate them. Separating a pair of snakes mid-screw sounds like a dumb move under any circumstances, but Teiresias was especially foolhardy, as the ancient Greeks believed that snakes were creatures with strange, magical powers. As soon as he brought his staff down upon the female of the pair, Teiresias found himself transformed into a woman.
He spent a few years that way, until one day when he was out for a stroll, and he came upon the same snakes again. This time, he struck out at the male (apparently he still hadn't gotten over his issues with snakes having sex) and promptly found himself changed back into a man.
Not long after, Zeus and his wife, Hera, were debating whether men or women enjoy sex more. Zeus felt sex was better for women, while Hera believed men got more out of it. They called on Teiresias, since he was the only person who could answer the question from firsthand knowledge. Teiresias responded that women experienced 10 times more pleasure than men, a reply that so infuriated Hera that she blinded him on the spot.
Like Teiresias, Harris has looked at gender from both sides. And like Teiresias, he has come away from the experience with attitudes that are bound to cause controversy.
"Women today are getting greedy," Harris says. "They bitch and moan about maternity leave, and then they bitch and moan if somebody doesn't open the doors for them."
Harris is quick to admit that some of his anger with women is based on envy. "Look, I never asked to be a man, and I do miss the accouterments of womanhood. . . . But these girls today, sometimes I feel like telling them to just shut up and realize how good they've got it."
In his book, Harris describes himself as bisexual, but today, he seems to have little sexual interest in women. "Women are decorative, like pretty statues. I like to look at them, but psychologically, mentally, there's nothing there I'm attracted to."
Harris lives as a man and has relationships with men, but he takes pains to point out that he doesn't consider himself gay.
"I do not understand the gay lifestyle," Harris says. "Most of it seems so warped and distasteful. Those terrible parades and the bathhouses and things like that . . . These gays are beset by vice addictions and social disease, and that all has nothing to do with me. I'm much more mainstream. Besides, I'm still involved with the same gender I've always been involved with, so how could I be gay?"
After years alone, Harris is now seeking someone to share his life with. In recent months, he has placed some personal ads, but so far, the response has been disappointing. "These men see an ad for a hermaphrodite, and they expect some beautiful woman with a penis. They see me, and I'm like a little boy with the wrong equipment. I spoil their fantasy."
Harris' androgynous build sometimes causes him problems in public, too. Although he had hoped that the days of being approached by strangers and asked if he was in drag would have ended when he began living as a man, this has not been the case.
"I still get that stuff sometimes, and people can be really rude about it. A few weeks ago, I was at an antiques show, and a black man came up and asked if I was a man or a woman. I was furious. I mean, can you imagine the nerve?"
I ask Harris what he told the man.
"I called him a coon, and I turned and walked away."
THE FACES BEHIND THE FACES
As all of this may indicate, Harris is a moody and sometimes fierce personality. I learned how fierce when I took a few days to respond to one of his e-mails and Harris furiously called the Weekly's editor, insisting that I was a charlatan who'd run off with the manuscript of I, The Hermaphrodite, that I was going to take it to a publisher and use it to make my fortune. Needless to say, I returned the book in a hurry.
Despite his flaws, I can't help but admire Lynn Harris. He has lived too many hard lifetimes in his 49 years, and yet, of the countless faces he has worn, the two that come through most clearly today are the lost, approval-seeking teenager and the gentle, middle-aged dandy. Through all the anger and the hurt, both of these faces keep peeking through, and when they do, they are beautiful.
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