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What Can ‘Guevedoces’ Teach Us About Gender Politics?

Whichever Gender Neutral Restroom Sign via Amazon

How would your raise your child if you didn’t know what their biological sex was until after they reached puberty? Would you raise them as a “girl” or “boy”, or would there be some gender neutral option?

Dr Ann-Maree Nobelius, public health expert, provides a few good definitions that I would like you to keep in mind as you read this post:

“Sex refers to biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs. Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.”

Often, the two terms get conflated. In everyday life, we hear it happen, rather innocently. A pregnant mother will get asked, “Do you know the gender of your baby?” or Moms-to-be will have ‘Gender Reveal’ parties!

We’ll fill out forms that ask us to mark our “gender”- male or female.

Many countries have already begun to change this binary thinking. In 2012, Sweden added a gender neutral pronoun to their National Encyclopedia. The country had long begun to debate the inclusion of such pronouns. In 1994, linguist, Hans Karlgren, suggested the word ‘hen’, as neither ‘him’ nor ‘she’, but ‘hen’ to address the clunky ‘he or she’ phrasing in sentences.

In English, we are increasingly using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral alternative when referencing a person whose gender preference may not be known, or when gender preference is inclusive.

How we think about gender identification and socialization has become a more open conversation about fluidity, biology, stereotypes, norms, and traditions.

Having just put this information into the foreground of your mind, think about my opening question again– but I’ll rephrase:

If you could not determine sex, how would you teach your child what behaviors were socially accepted as masculine or feminine, so that they could identify with a specific gender role? Would you simply allow their actions and behaviors to determine how they chose to self-identify, or would you attempt to mold them based on your preference, the way they looked, or something else?

In a small community in the Dominican Republic, this happens. A child may be born and their sex may not be revealed until they are over a decade old. It’s known as Guevedoces, which translates to ‘penis at 12’. Locally, another term used for these children is “machihembras”, which means ‘woman first, then a man’.

According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), this phenomenon has also been noted in small communities in Papua New Guinea, Turkey, and Egypt.

Before we begin to consider the socialization aspect of this development, it’s important to breakdown how this happens. For the first weeks of a fetus’ development, it is neither male nor female. After about two months, hormones begin to join the party and, typically, the fetus will get two X chromosomes or an XY pair. Voila! Female or male.

Image: Courtesy of Whitehead Institute

Image: Courtesy of Whitehead Institute

Along the Y chromosome in the XY pair, the Y is calling the shots and dictating the development of sex organs. However, with guevedoces children, males appear as females because they seem not to have working copies of an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase. This enzyme takes testorone and turns it into something called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is responsible for sex development and primary sex characteristics, like a penis. Without it, male genitalia looks to be more like female genitalia.

When puberty finally shows up at around 11, 12, 13 years old, testosterone kicks in and brings with it a deeper voice, testes and a penis. Congrats! It’s a boy!

The condition is inherited. It’s an autosomal recessive disease that was comprehensively studied by Cornell Medical College researcher, Dr Julianne Imperato, in the 1970s. The National Library of Medicine states that in order for an autosomal recessive disorder to manifest, two copies of an abnormal gene must be present. Basically, both mom and dad of an individual with the condition carries one copy of the mutated gene and they each pass it along to their child.

http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/924291-clinical#b4

Prader scale reflecting the degree of virilization of the external genitalia (via emedicine.medscape.com)

Officially called 5-alpha reductase deficiency, children born with this are typically raised as girls until puberty. Some choose to undergo surgery to continue life as women after the testes and penis descend. While others go on to live as males and assume masculine gender roles.

This biological circumstance definitely challenges more traditional views regarding the construction of gender and socialization. In places like the community in Dominican Republic, where such an event happens more regularly, how children are engendered within society may be different. This type of social response makes sense.

For example, among the Dominican Republic and Papua New GuineaSambian villages where this happens, both cultures believe in three sexual categories: the male, the female, and the pseudohermaphrodite.’Pseudohermaphrodite’ is a type of linguistic prescriptivism that helps to acknowledge those members as being inclusive of the community, rather than apart or ostracized from it. Examining these relationships presents a real opportunity to reconsider how we think about the gender stereotypes, assumptions, etc., within our own society.

Gender is a really powerful social motivator and dynamic throughout the world. One of the coolest contributions that anthropology has made in regards to sex vs. gender is the research that helps to pull apart and dissect notions and beliefs that the social and political differences between men and women were inherent and natural, instead of learned and prescribed.

The social relationship and responses that are reshaped due to the change in biological circumstance can be analyzed from a number of theoretical frameworks, because it flips what we think we know on its head.

Learn More:

5-alpha reductase deficiency: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/5-alpha-reductase-deficiency

‘Guevedoces’: Rare Medical Condition Hides Child’s Sex Until Age 12: http://www.livescience.com/52247-guevedoces-girls-boys.html

‘The Guevedoces’: Gender metamorphosis at work:  https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~issues/articles/13.1_Kelley_E_The_Guevedoces.html

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