MANILA, Philippines—The science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote a novel in the 1960s, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” about a kingdom of hermaphrodites, its inhabitants being neither male nor female most of the year, but going through particular periods where they could become either male or female, a period marked by intense sexual desire and reproduction. You can imagine how interesting the novel becomes, including a passage referring to the King being pregnant.
On our own planet, human hermaphrodites, in the sense of individuals possessing both male and female genitals, are extremely rare, and are not able to reproduce. But we might be coming close to a situation like Le Guin’s fantastic kingdom of shifting bodies and reproductive roles, not through nature but through medical technology. I’m referring to the news about a “pregnant man” in the United States, who says he is expecting to deliver in July this year.
Thomas Beatie was born Tracy Lagundino in Hawaii to a Filipino father and a Caucasian mother. In interviews with American media, he says he grew up feeling he should have been born male. Psychologists call this “gender dysphoria,” which can be quite serious as the individual finds it difficult adjusting to the body he or she is born into.
A more common term used to refer to such individuals is “transsexual” and, in recent years “transgender” has also been used. People often confuse “transsexuals” with “homosexuals,” presuming, for example, that all male homosexuals want to become women but this is inaccurate.
Transsexualism is a matter of gender identity, while homosexuality refers to sexual orientation. Most male homosexuals are content with being male, just as most lesbians want to remain female. A heterosexual male, on the other hand, may actually find himself unhappy with his male body and will choose to become female. Even after surgery, the individual, now female, will continue to be sexually attracted to women, so what we would have is a heterosexual male going through sexual reassignment to become a lesbian.
Confused? You should be, but try now to imagine people like Tracy Lagundino as they grew up, feeling they were born into the wrong body. Modern societies have actually been crueler to transsexuals, trying to force people into rigid “male” and “female” roles.
This was not always the case. Many societies have recognized transsexuals and transgenders all through history, creating particular roles—usually as religious functionaries and healers—where they could live in this “in-between” category. In the Philippines we had the “babaylan,” men who dressed as females and performed religious rituals.
Surgical transformation of anatomical sex is more radical, but fairly recent, intervention. The first recorded case of this kind of surgery was that of Sophia Hedwig, whose physicians were able to alter her genitals in 1882 and transform her to Herman Karl.
But it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that such operations became more common. Today they’re done in many countries in the world, neighboring Thailand even cashing in to offer the surgery as part of medical tourism.
The terms “sex change operations” and “sex transplants” are not quite accurate. Surgery—which does not involve transplants—is only a part of a long process of sexual reassignment that includes counseling, a trial period where one lives as the “other” sex, and hormonal treatment.
Hormones are powerful: a male taking estrogen will develop breasts, put on more adipose or fatty tissue, and develop a finer complexion. Female transsexuals take testosterone, which can also bring about very dramatic effects, including the growth of a beard and body hair.
The process for females wanting to become males is much more complicated than going in the other direction, often involving more than one surgery. They’ll go through one to flatten their breasts, and then another to remove the uterus and ovaries, and still another one to reconstruct the external genitals. Even after surgery, they need to take testosterone to keep male external features.
Sexual reassignment usually means sterility for both male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals since vital reproductive organs are removed. But when Tracy Lagundino became Thomas Beatie, she chose not to have her uterus and ovaries removed.
After sexual reassignment, Thomas became legally male. He married but his wife, Nancy, was ironically the one who could not have children because her uterus had been removed to treat a medical problem.
When Thomas and Nancy decided they wanted to have a child, Thomas stopped taking testosterone. This allowed his internal female reproductive organs to take over, and within four months after he stopped the testosterone, his menstruation returned, which meant he was ovulating again and could get pregnant. Artificial insemination did get him pregnant but he miscarried. This second pregnancy seems to be holding up and he expects to deliver in July.
You’re probably all disoriented now with the pronouns (e.g., “after he became pregnant”). Thomas himself admitted in the interview with the lesbian and gay magazine Advocate that his pregnancy “sparks social, political and legal unknowns.” He described how he and his wife faced discrimination and opposition from physicians while friends and family “have not been supportive.”
Thomas appeared recently on Oprah Winfrey’s television show, and has been featured in various newspapers and magazines, complete with photographs. The story made it to CNN just this week, the newscaster shaking her head as she reported on “the pregnant man” together with another news report of a woman biting a Pit Bull terrier who had attacked her dog.
Both in old (newspapers, radio and television) and new (Internet) media, there are brewing word wars over the pregnant man. American conservatives are furious. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said the mass media shouldn’t have featured the story, but then drew more attention to the issue because of his ranting against the pregnancy. Others ask about the future of the family, and how the child will grow up.
Yet if you look at the couple, they look quite ordinary, except for Thomas having the moustache right now while being very pregnant. I suspect he’s keeping the moustache as a statement. After the baby arrives, they’d actually pass as another average American couple, Nancy the mother and Thomas the father.
Thomas, in the Advocate interview, put it simply: “Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.”