Friday, August 22, 2008

The Blurred Lines of Gender

The Washington Post has a long and interesting story this morning about Stella Walsh, a Polish-American Olympic athlete who set or matched the world record in the 100 meter dash six times. Upon her death, according to this story, there was a controversy:
Walsh, [Cuyahoga County, Ohio, coroner, Samuel Gerber] wrote, had had a mixture of male and female chromosomes. She had no internal female reproductive organs, and possessed an underdeveloped and non-functioning penis, "masculine" breasts and an abnormal urinary opening. Gerber said that Walsh's sex was likely ambiguous at birth, and that she could have been raised a boy or a girl. But perhaps mindful of the charged environment, he added that Walsh "lived and died a female. . . . Socially, culturally and legally, Stella Walsh was accepted as a female for 69 years." The Runner's Secret: A Blurry Line Can Divide Male and Female Athletes

Her ex-husband once told a reporter that he felt "stupid as hell" about marrying her, that they had only had sex a couple of times, "and she wouldn't let me have any lights on."

The International Olympic Committee was asked to open the case and consider taking back medals she had won competing as a female, but declined.

I am skipping a lot of this article, it is very readable but not concise. Here's the meat of the story, it seems to me:
Modern scientific techniques might have provided an answer to an old question: Did Stella Walsh really cheat?

The answer appears to be no.

Experts on human sexual development say it's not accurate to call Walsh a man, as many media sources have in the years since her death. The reality, in fact, is far more complicated.

Walsh's condition is uncommon, but not unheard of. Severe cases of sexual abnormality -- "testicular feminization," in which a genetic male has some or all of the characteristics of a female -- occur in about one in 20,000 births, according to the National Institutes of Health. Milder sexual abnormalities, such as an undescended testicle, occur in about 1 percent of all births.

These abnormalities occur in the developing fetus and go by various medical names -- congenital adrenal hyperplasia and androgen insensitivity syndrome, among others. The labels for children with mixed anatomical or genetic characteristics are ever-evolving and much more imprecise: "mosaics," "hermaphrodites," "intersex."

The confusion over Walsh's sex appears to have started immediately after her birth in rural Poland. Although Walsh's first name in Polish was often given as Stanislawa -- a traditional female name -- the Austrian historian Erich Kamper found a birth certificate sometime after her death that indicated she was baptized with a boy's name.


Starting in the 1950s, parents began sending such children to surgeons for genital reconstruction procedures. But the children often suffered from sexual identity issues as they matured. The contemporary approach is to wait until a child reaches puberty or later, at which point the child can make his or her own decision, says psychiatrist William G. Reiner, who has studied 400 children with genital abnormalities. The best way to determine such children's sexual identity, says Reiner, who directs the University of Oklahoma's psychosexual development clinic, is simply to ask them.

Montgomery County voters may be asked in November whether to allow discrimination against people like Stella Walsh. Our County Council voted unanimously to prohibit it, and a small group of local extremists has distorted the issue in a so-far-successful effort to relegalize discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

These are hard topics -- it's impossible to say definitively, scientifically, whether Stella Walsh was a man or a woman. I think the wisdom is in that last phrase: The best way to determine [a person's] sexual identity ... is simply to ask them. You can count chromosomes and test for hormones, examine someone's genitals, but importantly the gender of a person is whatever they believe themselves to be. Some people are uncomfortable with that, that's understandable, it would be easier to live in a tidy black-and-white world, but we don't. The kind thing, the right thing, the moral thing to do is to offer equal opportunities to those who have been dealt a difficult hand in life.
Eric Vilain, a leading authority on genetics and sexual development at UCLA's medical school, says that in ambiguous cases, no one test can strictly define what's "male" or "female."

"I'd be damned if I could judge" sexuality, Vilain concludes. "There would certainly be cases where I could not come up with a definitive answer. . . . If you abide by some social construct hoping it will give you a clear-cut distinction, I think you're in for a lot of trouble."

In the end, the strange saga of Stella Walsh might have left behind a legacy of more than records and medals. Her track career raises some profound questions about human beings.

Such as: What's a man? And what's a woman?

"What it tells us is there are different degrees of maleness and femaleness -- a range," says Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian, a former pro golfer and an orthopedic surgeon who practices in North Carolina. "There are," he says, "all sorts of shades of gray."


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