A couple of months into our electronic relationship

| April 14, 2018

5. The Opposite of Sexwith Lisa May Stevens(Excerpted from the book Lousy Sex, by Gerald N. CallahanThe simple declaration of “boy” or “girl” at childbirth directs the rest ofmost children’s lives. And if you asked someone to tell you about his or her self –or anyone else’s self for that matter – sex always comes up near the beginning.But, in spite of what we have been told about human and animal sex, every year,worldwide, more than 65,000 human babies aren’t boys or girls.A couple of months into our electronic relationship, Lisa May Stevens sent me somepictures of herself. In one of these photos, she wore a black gown, showed quite a bit ofleg, and looked like a southern belle – strawberry­blonde, about 5 feet 10 inches tall,hazel­eyed. For all the world, like a southern belle. She isn’t though. She’s anhermaphrodite from Idaho.And Lisa May Stevens is a friend of mine.We met about eighteen months ago, when I sent her an e­mail. At the time, I hadgotten hold of an idea I couldn’t shake, and I needed her input. At the same time, anidea had taken hold of Lisa May, an idea that life might not be worth the troubleanymore. Our meeting was, serendipitous.Ever since, we’ve stayed in touch.“Hermaphrodite” sticks in a lot of people’s throats, or it’s pitched by people as ataunt, often by children, but not always.Though coined by Pliny the Elder to describe humans with characteristics of bothsexes, when speaking of human beings, the term “hermaphrodite” gets a little slippery,like an icicle in summer.Hermaphroditic plants, on the other hand, form a firm group of individuals knownfor their ability to take either or both roles in sexual reproduction. And mosthermaphroditic animals, though they rarely self­fertilize, can at least perform eitherparty’s role in sex and reproduction. No matter what odd thoughts may have slitheredinside of Gaius Plinius Secundus’ early Roman amygdala , no human has ever beencapable of such contortions or contributions.For all of these reasons, I don’t like calling human beings hermaphrodites. LisaMay insists on it, at least when it comes to speaking about her. She made that clearfrom the outset.Since our first meeting online, Lisa May has twice come to Fort Collins, Coloradoto visit. In person, Lisa May is a presence. Her face carries the marks of her masculinepast, so do her hands. But her arms remind me of my mother’s arms, and beneath herblouses or dresses, her figure is unmistakably feminine.Her genitalia, she tells me, strike her as male and female all at once. That seemsto please her, a great deal. In Lisa May’s story there is a hero and a heroine, and whenyou look at her, you see both.Every time Lisa May and I have gone anywhere together, people notice that. Oneevening at dinner, it seemed like a little tsunami rose from beneath our table and spreadacross the room as whispers passed and eyes rose from cups of chai or plates of curryto steal glimpses of Lisa May.You might think people would admire her. And some do, but most do not. Mostpeople seem to find Lisa May’s appearance unsettling. Others become angry, as thoughLisa May had committed some sin against humanity. Regardless, everywhere she goes,people notice her.Lisa MayI always seem to ride the first wave. I love being out front and the shock­and­aweeffect. Of course, that fades as most people see me move, gesture, and speak. Butfrom some, I seem to sense hostility, or maybe fear. I still haven’t figured that one out.They look, then look away, and soon look back. They watch my movements, my laugh,my gestures. Then their eyes go from my face down my body. Usually they stop at mylegs, since I do know how to use those legs to draw attention away from my face. Mymother had longer legs than I do. She could command a room like a general. I know theeffect legs have on people. Mother taught me well, and in the last two years I havereturned to her ways. I’d rather people see me as sexy than as a dog dressed up.ExpectationsOnce, taking Lisa May back to her motel, I stopped to pick up a cigar. I askedLisa May if she wanted to come into the store with me. Along with rows of cellophanewrapped cigars, cigar stores – almost any time of day – contain a few men, cigar­smoking men, if you know what I mean. To my surprise, she did.Again, Lisa May made waves. She seemed unaware of her effect on these men.I certainly was not. Nothing offensive, but looks that could have extinguished athousand cigars sputtered behind those men’s eyes.Unmet expectations? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails; sugar and spice andeverything nice; pink and blue; boys and girls; men and women; black and white –expectations born of a certainty about sex that equals our certainty about gravity?Perhaps.As early as four years of age, most children understand that everything comes intwos, and only in twos – mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, does and bucks, boarsand sows, hens and cocks, innies and outies. But that doesn’t seem to reflect someinborn sense of the permanency of sex as much as it suggests that by age four we havealready heard the idea so many times that, for most of us, it has become fact.Later, well­meaning teachers tell us that chromosomes do that – push us intoone corner or another, then bind us up with iron, and leave us there. Chromosomes arefinal as flint, they say. Y = male, Y­not = female.And that provides the rigid grout that cements the scales of our beliefs into place,firmly and finally. Unless we meet someone like Lisa May. Then, as the plates heaveagainst one another, our Earth shifts, and tsunamis are born.But, Lisa May’s not the problem. In fact, she’s the solution to the problem.Fishy Sex: Defining NemoThrough shared catastrophe and intractable time, we and fish have grown oldtogether – man and alewife. But the whole time, fish have been outdoing us.Twenty­five thousand species of fish have been identified and named, buteveryone who studies fish is certain there are thousands more. In all, at least 10 12 (that’sa trillion) individuals on this planet call themselves fish.Humans weigh in at one species and about 6 billion individuals. A pothole in theroad of life compared to the crevasse that fish have cut. In fact, among the vertebrates,nobody outdoes the fish. Ranging in size from the Philippine Island goby (about one­third of an inch long) to the leopard­spotted leviathan of the whale shark (about fifty feetlong and weighing several tons), no other vertebrate animals compare to fish – not fornumbers, not for sheer variety, and not for sexual creativity.More (perhaps a lot more) than 100 species and twenty families of fish arehermaphroditic, and here we begin to stretch the limits of what we mean byhermaphroditism, what we mean by male and female, and what we mean by everythingin between.Hermaphroditic fish come in two common forms – simultaneous hermaphroditesand sequential hermaphrodites. Simultaneous hermaphrodites have the nifty gift of twosets of genitalia at all times. Sequential herms, as Lisa May calls them, like to rattleback and forth between the sexes, one morning a vixen, the next a lothario.Hamlet fish are one­ to two­inch­long, gold­and­yellow fish found mostly in theCaribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They haunt the rainbow­colored reefs in those warmwaters, working like little yellow blimps among the sea rods and fire corals searching forfood. When they are not hungry, thoughts of sex often dance like little sugared plumsinside their tiny heads.All hamlet fish have both male and female sex organs all the time. That makesthem simultaneous hermaphrodites and, apparently, more than a little randy. But thesefish do not fertilize their own eggs. Nothing so banal would suit them. Instead, hamletfish engage in sexual rituals as varied as the tales of Scheherazade.First, hamlet fish trysts involve multiple matings that last for as many as threenights. And during all of that time, these fish take turns being the “male” or the “female”partner. So, over the course of a single tryst, each fish takes all imaginable roles in thesex act. For such small fish, their lust is great, not to mention their endurance and theirpenchant for creativity. And when all the sex finally grinds to a halt, both partners arepregnant.“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”Black sea bass, one­ to five­pound fish that spawn from Florida to Cape Cod, onthe other hand, cover the range of hermaphroditism. In fact, some hermaphroditic seabass, do, in effect, mate with themselves, though some intricacy is necessary toovercome what seems like an intractable mechanical barrier.In the watery light that shivers across the sandy flats of eastern coastal waters,some bass spawn as many as twenty times in a single day. Because sea bass haveboth ovaries and testes, these animals are, by definition, simultaneous hermaphrodites.By any other standard, these fish defy preconception and sport a given sex as brieflyand as quickly as the fluttering frames of a rolling movie film.As they spawn, black sea bass alternate between being egg­laying females andsperm­spouting males, a transformation that takes these fish only about thirty seconds.That act makes for lots more fry and the rest of us black with envy.Among other sea bass, sex is a bit more constant, but only a bit.With these bass, if two females find themselves in a local sea­fern bar and bothhave sex on their minds, one of the bass simply transforms herself into a male,complete with a dramatic color change and a big boost in testicular output of sperm.Then the remaining female spawns, and the nascent male covers the eggs with spermnewly born from freshly formed testes. Problem solved.And that’s not the last of the fish tales, not nearly.For decades, maybe centuries, people have known that lots of fish changedsexes. But, it wasn’t until 1972 that marine biologists began to figure out what motivatedthese fish to up and abandon their lives as males or females and sprout the genitalia ofthe opposite sex.Not surprisingly, it turns out that the whole motivation thing is complicated. Everyfish seems to have its own set of rules and reasons for swapping sexes.Beyond black sea bass, wrasse – two­ to four­inch­long fish, striped or saddledwith black and yellow pigments – flutter in the tepid currents near coral reefs around theworld. Some wrasse make their livings cleaning parasites and scar tissues from otherfish. Because of that habit, wrasse also swim in lots of home aquaria around the globe.Regardless, in aquaria or in the hollows among glittering corals, most wrassebegin their lives as females. But chance graces one or two of these fish with testes. Asthey grow, wrasse develop complex social structures, and by the time these fish reachadulthood, they live in harems of female fish controlled by a single dominant malewrasse. This “alpha” male, through physical domination and perhaps his chemicalpresence, forces the females to remain females. The force­fed females develop apecking order with the “alpha” female running the show among the girls. That mightseem job enough for a wrasse, but her greatest moment is yet to come. When the onemale wrasse dies, over the course of a few days, the alpha female becomes the alphamale and takes over the harem for himself. From veiled damsel to a bearded sheik in aday or so.And then, there are the clownfish – Nemo and all his family. Because they looklike some fanciful child’s idea of how fish should look ­­ thumb­sized and bright orangewith vertical black and white stripes – these creatures are extremely popular aquariumfish.Clownfish spin a similar sexual tale, but one with an opposite twist. Dartingamong yellow sponges and purple anemones, these fish also assemble themselves intogroups made up almost entirely of females. But among clownfish, only the largestfemale in the harem can mate with the single large alpha male. If the large femaleclownfish dies, the big male hands in his testes, conjures himself a set of ovaries andbecomes a female. After that, the largest of the young females leaves behind her egg­laying days and acquires a skill with sperm. Among clownfish, the few and the proudbegin life as females, swap gonads for the grander life of the leader of the pack, andthen – for the greater good – reclaim their ovaries and lay eggs as sweetly as anyclownfish that ever graced the sea. A tripartite tryst with a sexual subtext unlike any wehumans might have imagined.No matter how hard we may try to squeeze these fish tales into our humanstories, sex (to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane) remains “not only queerer than we imagine,but queerer than we can imagine.”Lisa May is different – given the chance, she will tell you she’s fully aware of that. Butjust how Lisa came to be different is a remarkable tale. Some of Lisa May’s cells havetwo X chromosomes, others have an X and a Y chromosome. Some of Lisa May’s redblood cells are AB some O. But, as incredible as that may seem, that isn’t what makesLisa May’s story remarkable.What makes Lisa May unique is that Lisa began her life as two people – one aboy the other a girl. The doctors call Lisa May a chimera and a true hermaphrodite. WithLisa, true hermaphrodite means that she has reproductive tissues of both sexes –probably beginning with one testis and one ovatestis (a combination of ovarian andtesticular tissue).Human chimeras arise in several different ways, but few begin like Lisa May.Inside of her mother’s womb, Lisa May began as two – two zygotes (the single cells thatresult from the fusion of egg and sperm). One of the two probably would have become –since it contained and X and a Y chromosome – a bouncing baby boy. The other heldtwo X chromosomes and was destined for girlhood. But before either of their dreamsbecame reality, the two zygotes grabbed hold of one another and fused into a singleliving thing – part boy part girl – much like Hermaphroditus (the son of Aphrodite andHermes) and Salmacis ( a fetching nymph) fused by their gods into a single being.Scientist call Lisa May’s beginnings a tetragametic fusion – the product of fourfused gametes – two eggs and two sperm. The rest of us call her amazing.Turtle SexEven as they lumber up from the sea and carve their way across moonlitbeaches to lay leathery eggs, sea turtles don’t seem to have sexes. From a distance, orup close for that matter, turtle biologists themselves often cannot tell a boy turtle from agirl turtle. If you want to know the sex of a turtle, you have to use histology – thatrequires taking a piece of the turtle, which neither turtle nor investigator much care for –and subjecting the collected tissue to critical scientific analyses. Only after that, can aturtle be pronounced boy or girl. But even then, turtle sex involves a lot of assumptions.And if the weather is unusually cool, a newly hatched turtle may have no sex at all.Turtles don’t even have sex chromosomes, and genes don’t seem to play anydirect role in deciding whether a turtle will end up as a girl turtle or a boy turtle.Turtle sex is mysterious.At the heart of that mystery, lies – like a glowing coal – the temperature of thesand and the sea and the air, the temperature of the pond and the forest and the river.A shift in the wind, the slippery movements of clouds, a storm front, a warming trend,and the sexes of turtles drift – another male, a few less females – one direction or theother, and a turtle’s future looks a little pinker or a little bluer.Somehow out of all that ­­ and the turtle itself, of course ­­ the warmth and thewarp of the sea lay down the course of turtledom like a highway. Turtles can do nothingbut follow – and that includes sea turtles and tortoises as well as land turtles andtortoises – all marching to a single drummer, the weather.Lisa MayLisa May wasn’t born Lisa May. She began life as Steven. But even then, whenSteven’s father wasn’t around, Lisa’s mother often called the baby “Lisa.” Something ofa confusion for her, but only at first. Her mother dressed Lisa May in girl’s clothes andtalked with her about the ways of women – how much makeup to wear, how to tease,how to stop, and how to please her mother. Lisa May soon figured out the rules andhow to be her mother’s daughter and her father’s son. Reality had little to do with it.Practicality ruled Lisa May’s childhood. Her father hated Lisa; her mother could dowithout Steven. Lisa May did what needed doing.But once Lisa May left home, reality reared its cyclopic head. The easy movebetween sexes just didn’t work so well anymore. Lisa May needed one sex, a fixed,hard­and­fast sex. She settled as Lisa May for a while. But after a traumatic rape, shereached out to Steven. She took hormones – major doses of testosterone – she boundher breasts as tightly as she could, and took a job as an ironworker. Steven workedhard and made his way in the world. He met people and made friends. Later, he marriedtwice – both times to women with bisexual tastes. He divorced, he struggled, he triedsuicide and failed.It’s not an easy thing to do, move between sexes. I find I did some of this (opt for Stevenor Lisa) as a habit rather than thinking about it. In the end though (if this really is theend) I remembered how I was taught at a very young age and how Lisa is secondnature for me. I just had to let go of Steve. But to let go of something, even when itseems like a ball and chain, is not as easy as one might think. At times, I have fondmemories of life as Steve, but as Steve my objectives in life were less clear. With Lisa, Iam more focused on things that matter to me, gentler, more accepting of life’s ways.But I do have one clear fault as Lisa – I trust people way too much. I will be working onthis a lot in the near future, a whole lot.‘Gator SexBetween 1948 and 2006, the state of Florida lost nineteen people to alligators.That’s nineteen for certain. It seems likely that a few others who stopped showing up forroasted crawdads and banana fritters at the Lost Hope Crab Shack also ended theirlives in the arms (and jaws) of a ‘gator. ‘Gators are of mean temperament andgluttonous appetite. And they are noisy.A snout, long and big as a suitcase, filled with saw­blade teeth, those vertical slitsin the center of eyes that pop out of their heads like the headlights on old sports cars.And then there is that tail, armored and as full of fight as a python. Alligators do evokesomething reptilian, something buried inside of humans a long, long time ago.Alligators hibernate in the winter, stop eating when the temperature drops below73 degrees Fahrenheit, and make sex while the sun shines. Like turtles, alligator sexhas nothing to do with chromosomes. Sex comes to alligators from their surroundings.Alligators, crocodiles, and caimans don’t have sex chromosomes, and insidethese creatures, there is no consistent genetic difference between males and females.Instead, the he/she bifurcation fork splits its tines after fertilization. And the road mosttraveled by the zygotes depends mainly on the weather. Male or female is left to thevagaries of sunlight, water, and wind.When the mean ambient temperature is between about 88 and 90 degreesFahrenheit, nearly equal numbers of males and females hatch from American alligatorclutches. But when the mean temperature falls by as little 2 degrees, Americanalligators stop producing any males. The same thing happens when the meantemperature rises about 3 degrees above 90. Crocodiles and caimans appear to havesimilar pacts with the weather.In the end, just what makes an alligator or a crocodile or a caiman a he or a sheisn’t clear. It might be hormones produced by the hypothalamus, it might be somethingelse. Whatever it is, it watches the skies and the sands with the eyes of a prophet,waiting for just the right push from a star’s light.Lizard SexLastly, there are lizards – another scale­plated, prehistoric­looking, bug­eyed linkto our past. Lizard sex is a little easier, and safer, to study than that of alligators andcrocodiles. So, in studies of temperature­dependent sex determination, lizards havebeen slightly more popular as research subjects. All three families of geckoes do it.Some iguanas do it. So do a lot of other lizards, but not all. Sex as a warm hand on acold body.Sex in the SunFor a raft of animals, sunlight and sex are inseparable. Whether many creatureson this Earth become males or females is purely a matter of where the mercury fallsalong the length of its glass tube. In the laboratory, the sexes of some frogs will evenreverse when the temperature is raised or lowered. Whether that happens in the wildisn’t clear, but it seems likely. Soil temperature, pond and ocean and river and rock andswamp temperatures – driven by the light of a star almost 100 million miles away –make turtle and crocodile sex, push lizards onto lifelong paths, flip fish from male tofemale, and make alligators fat with hormones.Some argue, that ‘gator sex is a prehistoric idea since gone south. But lizardsevolved much more recently than alligators, and lizards far outnumber big amphibianslikes ‘gators and crocs. So, the sexual ambiguity of lizards can’t be so easily tossed offas some ancient aberration.Are we really who we seem to be, or have we been misled by millennia of themisinformed?A turtle’s sex defines nothing. Turtles, all turtles, are just turtles. Sex is a costumeworn to deceive the bloodied eye of time. A sham to make more turtles.Fish fake sex simply to entice a lover and ‘gators have no opposing sexes, justsex. Lizards wait for a fickle photon to plant their seed; and frogs, regardless of theirinitial bent, find what’s necessary to further frogdom.No one of these creatures is first of all a boy or girl, a bull or a cow, Mars orVenus, or even last of all. And no one of these creatures would ever imaginethemselves opposite of or at war with the other sex. Because, half the time they are theother sex, or something in between, or might have been if the Sun had simply shown foranother hour or two on the day he or she was born.For me, at the gnarled root of that tree lies one tough acorn.Teachers and textbooks, clergy and color TV all remind us that sex is as fixedand firm as the iron hoop of a human chromosome. Only two possibilities exist, andthose two are as different from one another as night is from day. But try telling that to aturtle or skunked­eyed ‘gator who has seen starlight turn an amorphous chunk ofprotoplasm into a boy or a girl or something else. Try telling that to a sea bass about tofertilize her own eggs or a saddle­backed wrasse at that slippery point between egg­layer and sperm sprayer.Lisa MayIn 2006, Steven and Lisa May parted company once again. Nothing about Steve feltright to Lisa anymore. She quit the testosterone and began a well­designed andsupervised regimen of estrogen. Her breasts swelled, her voiced crept up the scale, hermind quieted. Then Lisa May fell in with a group of people whose lives were more likehers. None of them, of course, had a past or set of chromosomes that could match LisaMay’s, but they thought differently about sex – how you got one and what you might dowith it – differently from most of the rest of us. And that appealed to Lisa May. One ofLisa’s new family had her breasts removed as the first stop on her road to manhood.Lisa may admired that too.Sex change makes some people in this world edgy, others angry – it puts a crackin the whole sex­as­concrete thing. But it doesn’t bother Lisa. In fact she encouragedher friend to treat his sex like he might his mind. If after all these years your thoughts oryour sex just don’t make any sense any longer, perhaps it’s time to change them.I have learned to walk though deep water without losing a step, to flick my hair to oneside or the other, and of course how to smile the smile that stops traffic. When othersstare at me, I just look past that and smile at each one. That breaks the ice. I often

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