Monday, May 28, 2007

sexing the marrieds

One of the things that’s puzzled me about the marriage debate – i.e., who gets to – is, if marriage is going to be restricted (via constitutional amendment, even if only state constitutional amendment), when will the time come that the government will face the problem of defining once & for all what a man is, what a woman?

An essay by Alice Dreger at the Intersex Society of North America website recently came to my attention. She talks about the experience of the International Olympic Committee in determining who gets to participate as a woman or as a man. Dreger says, “There isn’t any rational way to decide, in many cases.” Naturally, rationality and human behavior coincide accidentally, but, what the hey, law likes to claim it’s all about rationality, so let’s play pretend.

“The International Olympic Committee [IOC] figured out the high frequency of intersex the hard way. Before the 1936 games, athletes were allowed to sort themselves out. But then Hermann Ratjen cheated by trying to pass himself off as a woman and, though Ratjen lost, he set Olympic officials off on a quest for the ultimate divider of males and females. First they tried genital exams, but that didn’t work so well. They found that a lot of athletes had confusing parts. (Intersex.) Then in 1968 the IOC turned to buccal smears for would-be competitors in female sports. The idea was to rout out anyone with a Y chromosome. That didn’t work well either; a number of women athletes had Y chromosomes because they were born with androgen insensitivity syndrome [AIS]. (Intersex again.)

“…For a few years, the IOC in fact did try to insist that AIS women were men; once they figured out which women had AIS, they tried to get them to give back their medals. But the medical establishment, to its credit, rallied around these women and explained the facts of biology—especially intersex—to the IOC. And so the IOC finally gave up gender verification.” A genetic XY with AIS is actually at a disadvantage when competing against an XX athlete as AIS prevents all metabolization of testosterone, whereas XX athletes can take advantage of some.

“If history is any guide, as gay marriage prohibitions make their way through the courts, a scientific expert here and a medical expert there will offer up one little gene or one type of anatomical tissue that might be used as a male-female sorting mechanism. But such a sorting system simply won’t accord with what people see on the outside and feel on the inside. The fact is, every anatomical bit you think of as female (breasts, XX-chromosomes, even ovarian tissue) can be found on someone who has looked and felt like a male since birth. The opposite is also true.”

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