5. The Opposite of Sex
with Lisa May Stevens
(Excerpted from the book Lousy Sex, by Gerald N. Callahan
The simple declaration of “boy” or “girl” at childbirth directs the rest of
most 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 some
pictures of herself. In one of these photos, she wore a black gown, showed quite a bit of
leg, 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 an
hermaphrodite 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 had
gotten hold of an idea I couldn’t shake, and I needed her input. At the same time, an
idea had taken hold of Lisa May, an idea that life might not be worth the trouble
anymore. 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 a
taunt, often by children, but not always.
Though coined by Pliny the Elder to describe humans with characteristics of both
sexes, 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 known
for their ability to take either or both roles in sexual reproduction. And most
hermaphroditic animals, though they rarely selffertilize, can at least perform either
party’s role in sex and reproduction. No matter what odd thoughts may have slithered
inside of Gaius Plinius Secundus’ early Roman amygdala , no human has ever been
capable of such contortions or contributions.
For all of these reasons, I don’t like calling human beings hermaphrodites. Lisa
May insists on it, at least when it comes to speaking about her. She made that clear
from the outset.
Since our first meeting online, Lisa May has twice come to Fort Collins, Colorado
to visit. In person, Lisa May is a presence. Her face carries the marks of her masculine
past, so do her hands. But her arms remind me of my mother’s arms, and beneath her
blouses or dresses, her figure is unmistakably feminine.
Her genitalia, she tells me, strike her as male and female all at once. That seems
to please her, a great deal. In Lisa May’s story there is a hero and a heroine, and when
you look at her, you see both.
Every time Lisa May and I have gone anywhere together, people notice that. One
evening at dinner, it seemed like a little tsunami rose from beneath our table and spread
across the room as whispers passed and eyes rose from cups of chai or plates of curry
to steal glimpses of Lisa May.
You might think people would admire her. And some do, but most do not. Most
people seem to find Lisa May’s appearance unsettling. Others become angry, as though
Lisa May had committed some sin against humanity. Regardless, everywhere she goes,
people notice her.
I always seem to ride the first wave. I love being out front and the shockandawe
effect. Of course, that fades as most people see me move, gesture, and speak. But
from 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 my
legs, since I do know how to use those legs to draw attention away from my face. My
mother had longer legs than I do. She could command a room like a general. I know the
effect legs have on people. Mother taught me well, and in the last two years I have
returned to her ways. I’d rather people see me as sexy than as a dog dressed up.
Once, taking Lisa May back to her motel, I stopped to pick up a cigar. I asked
Lisa May if she wanted to come into the store with me. Along with rows of cellophane
wrapped cigars, cigar stores – almost any time of day – contain a few men, cigar
smoking 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 a
thousand cigars sputtered behind those men’s eyes.
Unmet expectations? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails; sugar and spice and
everything 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?
As early as four years of age, most children understand that everything comes in
twos, and only in twos – mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, does and bucks, boars
and sows, hens and cocks, innies and outies. But that doesn’t seem to reflect some
inborn sense of the permanency of sex as much as it suggests that by age four we have
already 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 into
one corner or another, then bind us up with iron, and leave us there. Chromosomes are
final 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 heave
against 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 Nemo
Through shared catastrophe and intractable time, we and fish have grown old
together – man and alewife. But the whole time, fish have been outdoing us.
Twentyfive thousand species of fish have been identified and named, but
everyone who studies fish is certain there are thousands more. In all, at least 10 12 (that’s
a trillion) individuals on this planet call themselves fish.
Humans weigh in at one species and about 6 billion individuals. A pothole in the
road 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 one
third of an inch long) to the leopardspotted leviathan of the whale shark (about fifty feet
long and weighing several tons), no other vertebrate animals compare to fish – not for
numbers, not for sheer variety, and not for sexual creativity.
More (perhaps a lot more) than 100 species and twenty families of fish are
hermaphroditic, and here we begin to stretch the limits of what we mean by
hermaphroditism, what we mean by male and female, and what we mean by everything
Hermaphroditic fish come in two common forms – simultaneous hermaphrodites
and sequential hermaphrodites. Simultaneous hermaphrodites have the nifty gift of two
sets of genitalia at all times. Sequential herms, as Lisa May calls them, like to rattle
back and forth between the sexes, one morning a vixen, the next a lothario.
Hamlet fish are one to twoinchlong, goldandyellow fish found mostly in the
Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They haunt the rainbowcolored reefs in those warm
waters, working like little yellow blimps among the sea rods and fire corals searching for
food. When they are not hungry, thoughts of sex often dance like little sugared plums
inside their tiny heads.
All hamlet fish have both male and female sex organs all the time. That makes
them simultaneous hermaphrodites and, apparently, more tha
n a little randy. But these
fish do not fertilize their own eggs. Nothing so banal would suit them. Instead, hamlet
fish engage in sexual rituals as varied as the tales of Scheherazade.
First, hamlet fish trysts involve multiple matings that last for as many as three
nights. 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 the
sex act. For such small fish, their lust is great, not to mention their endurance and their
penchant for creativity. And when all the sex finally grinds to a halt, both partners are
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
Black sea bass, one to fivepound fish that spawn from Florida to Cape Cod, on
the other hand, cover the range of hermaphroditism. In fact, some hermaphroditic sea
bass, do, in effect, mate with themselves, though some intricacy is necessary to
overcome 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 have
both ovaries and testes, these animals are, by definition, simultaneous hermaphrodites.
By any other standard, these fish defy preconception and sport a given sex as briefly
and as quickly as the fluttering frames of a rolling movie film.
As they spawn, black sea bass alternate between being egglaying females and
spermspouting 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 both
have 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 sperm
newly 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 changed
sexes. But, it wasn’t until 1972 that marine biologists began to figure out what motivated
these fish to up and abandon their lives as males or females and sprout the genitalia of
the opposite sex.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that the whole motivation thing is complicated. Every
fish seems to have its own set of rules and reasons for swapping sexes.
Beyond black sea bass, wrasse – two to fourinchlong fish, striped or saddled
with black and yellow pigments – flutter in the tepid currents near coral reefs around the
world. Some wrasse make their livings cleaning parasites and scar tissues from other
fish. 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 wrasse
begin their lives as females. But chance graces one or two of these fish with testes. As
they grow, wrasse develop complex social structures, and by the time these fish reach
adulthood, they live in harems of female fish controlled by a single dominant male
wrasse. This “alpha” male, through physical domination and perhaps his chemical
presence, forces the females to remain females. The forcefed females develop a
pecking order with the “alpha” female running the show among the girls. That might
seem job enough for a wrasse, but her greatest moment is yet to come. When the one
male wrasse dies, over the course of a few days, the alpha female becomes the alpha
male and takes over the harem for himself. From veiled damsel to a bearded sheik in a
day or so.
And then, there are the clownfish – Nemo and all his family. Because they look
like some fanciful child’s idea of how fish should look thumbsized and bright orange
with vertical black and white stripes – these creatures are extremely popular aquarium
Clownfish spin a similar sexual tale, but one with an opposite twist. Darting
among yellow sponges and purple anemones, these fish also assemble themselves into
groups made up almost entirely of females. But among clownfish, only the largest
female in the harem can mate with the single large alpha male. If the large female
clownfish dies, the big male hands in his testes, conjures himself a set of ovaries and
becomes a female. After that, the largest of the young females leaves behind her egg
laying days and acquires a skill with sperm. Among clownfish, the few and the proud
begin life as females, swap gonads for the grander life of the leader of the pack, and
then – for the greater good – reclaim their ovaries and lay eggs as sweetly as any
clownfish that ever graced the sea. A tripartite tryst with a sexual subtext unlike any we
humans might have imagined.
No matter how hard we may try to squeeze these fish tales into our human
stories, 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. But
just how Lisa came to be different is a remarkable tale. Some of Lisa May’s cells have
two X chromosomes, others have an X and a Y chromosome. Some of Lisa May’s red
blood cells are AB some O. But, as incredible as that may seem, that isn’t what makes
Lisa May’s story remarkable.
What makes Lisa May unique is that Lisa began her life as two people – one a
boy the other a girl. The doctors call Lisa May a chimera and a true hermaphrodite. With
Lisa, true hermaphrodite means that she has reproductive tissues of both sexes –
probably beginning with one testis and one ovatestis (a combination of ovarian and
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 that
result 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 held
two X chromosomes and was destined for girlhood. But before either of their dreams
became reality, the two zygotes grabbed hold of one another and fused into a single
living thing – part boy part girl – much like Hermaphroditus (the son of Aphrodite and
Hermes) 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 four
fused gametes – two eggs and two sperm. The rest of us call her amazing.
Even as they lumber up from the sea and carve their way across moonlit
beaches to lay leathery eggs, sea turtles don’t seem to have sexes. From a distance, or
up close for that matter, turtle biologists themselves often cannot tell a boy turtle from a
girl turtle. If you want to know the sex of a turtle, you have to use histology – that
requires 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 a
turtle 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 any
direct 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 the
sand 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 cloud
s, a storm front, a warming trend,
and the sexes of turtles drift – another male, a few less females – one direction or the
other, 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 the
warp of the sea lay down the course of turtledom like a highway. Turtles can do nothing
but follow – and that includes sea turtles and tortoises as well as land turtles and
tortoises – all marching to a single drummer, the weather.
Lisa May wasn’t born Lisa May. She began life as Steven. But even then, when
Steven’s father wasn’t around, Lisa’s mother often called the baby “Lisa.” Something of
a confusion for her, but only at first. Her mother dressed Lisa May in girl’s clothes and
talked 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 and
how 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 do
without Steven. Lisa May did what needed doing.
But once Lisa May left home, reality reared its cyclopic head. The easy move
between 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, she
reached out to Steven. She took hormones – major doses of testosterone – she bound
her breasts as tightly as she could, and took a job as an ironworker. Steven worked
hard and made his way in the world. He met people and made friends. Later, he married
twice – both times to women with bisexual tastes. He divorced, he struggled, he tried
suicide and failed.
It’s not an easy thing to do, move between sexes. I find I did some of this (opt for Steven
or Lisa) as a habit rather than thinking about it. In the end though (if this really is the
end) I remembered how I was taught at a very young age and how Lisa is second
nature for me. I just had to let go of Steve. But to let go of something, even when it
seems like a ball and chain, is not as easy as one might think. At times, I have fond
memories of life as Steve, but as Steve my objectives in life were less clear. With Lisa, I
am 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 on
this a lot in the near future, a whole lot.
Between 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 for
roasted crawdads and banana fritters at the Lost Hope Crab Shack also ended their
lives in the arms (and jaws) of a ‘gator. ‘Gators are of mean temperament and
gluttonous appetite. And they are noisy.
A snout, long and big as a suitcase, filled with sawblade teeth, those vertical slits
in 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 evoke
something reptilian, something buried inside of humans a long, long time ago.
Alligators hibernate in the winter, stop eating when the temperature drops below
73 degrees Fahrenheit, and make sex while the sun shines. Like turtles, alligator sex
has nothing to do with chromosomes. Sex comes to alligators from their surroundings.
Alligators, crocodiles, and caimans don’t have sex chromosomes, and inside
these 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 most
traveled by the zygotes depends mainly on the weather. Male or female is left to the
vagaries of sunlight, water, and wind.
When the mean ambient temperature is between about 88 and 90 degrees
Fahrenheit, nearly equal numbers of males and females hatch from American alligator
clutches. But when the mean temperature falls by as little 2 degrees, American
alligators stop producing any males. The same thing happens when the mean
temperature rises about 3 degrees above 90. Crocodiles and caimans appear to have
similar pacts with the weather.
In the end, just what makes an alligator or a crocodile or a caiman a he or a she
isn’t clear. It might be hormones produced by the hypothalamus, it might be something
else. 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.
Lastly, there are lizards – another scaleplated, prehistoriclooking, bugeyed link
to our past. Lizard sex is a little easier, and safer, to study than that of alligators and
crocodiles. So, in studies of temperaturedependent sex determination, lizards have
been 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 a
Sex in the Sun
For a raft of animals, sunlight and sex are inseparable. Whether many creatures
on this Earth become males or females is purely a matter of where the mercury falls
along the length of its glass tube. In the laboratory, the sexes of some frogs will even
reverse when the temperature is raised or lowered. Whether that happens in the wild
isn’t clear, but it seems likely. Soil temperature, pond and ocean and river and rock and
swamp 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 to
female, and make alligators fat with hormones.
Some argue, that ‘gator sex is a prehistoric idea since gone south. But lizards
evolved much more recently than alligators, and lizards far outnumber big amphibians
likes ‘gators and crocs. So, the sexual ambiguity of lizards can’t be so easily tossed off
as some ancient aberration.
Are we really who we seem to be, or have we been misled by millennia of the
A turtle’s sex defines nothing. Turtles, all turtles, are just turtles. Sex is a costume
worn 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, just
sex. Lizards wait for a fickle photon to plant their seed; and frogs, regardless of their
initial 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 or
Venus, or even last of all. And no one of these creatures would ever imagine
themselves opposite of or at war with the other sex. Because, half the time they are the
other sex, or something in between, or might have been if the Sun had simply shown for
another 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 fixed
and firm as the iron hoop of a human chromosome. Only two possibilities exist, and
those two are as different from one another as night is from day. But try telling that to a
turtle or skunkedeyed ‘gator who has seen starlight turn an amorphous chunk of
protoplasm into a boy or a girl or something else. Try telling that to a sea bass about to
fertilize her own eggs or a saddlebacked wrasse at that slippery point between egg
layer and sperm sprayer.
In 2006, Steven and Lisa May parted company once again. Nothing about Steve felt
right to Lisa anymore. She quit the testosterone and began a welldesigned and
supervised regimen of estrogen. Her breasts swelled, her voiced crept up the scale, her
. Then Lisa May fell in with a group of people whose lives were more like
hers. None of them, of course, had a past or set of chromosomes that could match Lisa
May’s, but they thought differently about sex – how you got one and what you might do
with it – differently from most of the rest of us. And that appealed to Lisa May. One of
Lisa’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 crack
in the whole sexasconcrete thing. But it doesn’t bother Lisa. In fact she encouraged
her friend to treat his sex like he might his mind. If after all these years your thoughts or
your 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 one
side or the other, and of course how to smile the smile that stops traffic. When others
stare at me, I just look past that and smile at each one. That breaks the ice. I often
spend way too much time even food shopping. But who cares?