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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, August 23rd, 2009
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Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes

by Gerald N. Callahan

Breaking the Binary

A review by Leanne Mirandilla

Male/Female. Two checkboxes, and only one choice. But according to immunologist/pathologist Gerald N. Callahan, the answer isn't that simple. In Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes, Callahan sets out to demonstrate that the assumed existence of two separate, "normal" sexes is shakier than we might think. Through scientific and sociological research, he shows that the sexual binary is merely an assumption, not fact.

Anyone who has dabbled in gender theory will be familiar with the concept that gender and biological sex are separate. While our biological sexes are fixed at birth, gender identity "results from the interaction of many different factors, including genetics, prenatal environment...pre- and postnatal hormones, and childhood psychosocial and environmental factors," writes Callahan. Not only are there more than two genders, but the argument could be made that there are as many genders as stars in the sky. Callahan shows that this is not only true of gender, but of biological sex as well.

Around 2,000 children per year in the U.S. are born intersexed, due to a variant set of chromosomes (not simply XX or XY), or various enzyme or hormone deficiencies. Callahan explains each of the different types of intersexuality and profiles several intersexed individuals. These profiles are easily the most riveting part of the book, illuminated the struggles of each person in a society where nothing is as strictly regimented as gender roles. Intersexed people face misunderstanding, misdiagnosis, abandonment by their loved ones, assault and depression -- yet most of Callahan's subjects maintain hope in the midst of it all.

Humans did not always view male and female as two polar points, or marginalize anyone who defied categorization. Callahan points out alternative views on the sexes: In the Ancient Greek and Renaissance periods, the common opinion was that women and men shared more similarities than differences. In certain non-Western cultures, intersexed individuals take on specific social roles, co-existing harmoniously with the rest of their society or even being revered.

But Callahan's chapter on how intersexuality is viewed in non-U.S. cultures lacks the thoroughness and depth that is apparent in other areas of the book. He mentions how hijras (South Asian men who are either intersexed or choose to take on a more feminine role) used to be revered, but neglects to mention that today they are marginalized and often brutalized. Also, Native American "men not-men" are more transgendered than intersexed, and so appear out of place in this narrative.

Callahan's writing style is both accessible and engaging; it reads more like creative non-fiction, a la Malcolm Gladwell. His turns of phrase can range from wonderful ("sex leaves us unclasping ourselves, struggling for breath") to over-the-top sugary ("the faint candles of our eyes could light only the shallowest of this world's dark pools"). And his work adds to the relatively few discussions of intersexuality in popular culture -- Jeffery Eugenides' 2003 novel Middlesex being perhaps the most recent example. Callahan's message -- that the rigid notion of "woman" and "man" is more construct than biological fact -- has the potential to change the way we view ourselves and our genders.

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