Sunday, September 13, 2009

Intersexuality and Same-Sex Marriage

In the last year, proponents of same-sex marriage have launched a slew of pop initiatives in opposition to California's Proposition 8. Everything from American Apparel tees to star-studded FunnyorDie videos have been used in an effort to increase public support for gay rights. After all that, though, the biggest boon to the same-sex marriage campaign could be a South African track star.

Last week the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported that gender tests conducted on Caster Semenya--the South African middle distance runner who rose to prominence by winning the 800 meters at last month's World Championships--showed that the 18-year-old has a chromosomal abnormality that caused her body to develop without a womb or ovaries, instead she has internal testes that produce testosterone.

The Guardian reported last week that Semenya is receiving trauma counseling.

The developing story of Semenya's intersexuality brings to light how complicated the issue of gender identity really is. In a recent essay for The New York Times, Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, writes, "The fact is, sex is messy." Dreger recounts the story of a boy named Matthew who lead a "male-typical" life and had a long-term girlfriend only to find, at the age of 19, that he had ovaries and a uterus. According to the Intersex Society of North America, roughly 1% of all live births exhibit some degree of sexual ambiguity.

If the border between male and female is ultimately tenuous then maybe it would behoove proponents of same-sex marriage to make a more pragmatic, more scientific argument. If Caster Semenya were a U.S. citizen, would it be illegal for her to marry a man?

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