Guest Post, Jane Hoppen: The Whip-tail Lizard: Lessons in Nature and Biology

In BetweenMy inspiration for my debut novel, In Between, derived from my reading of the Navajo myth of creation, as translated by Hosteen Klah. Throughout the myth, Klah makes reference to individuals he calls nadles. The nadles are intersex beings, bridges between the sexes, and they are revered by the Navajo nation, never changed at birth. And I think they got it right. Never have there been only two genders, and to date there are more than 15 known biological variations in which a human can be born. Sophie Schmidt, the main character in my novel, is born with a variation called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, in the early 1960s. At that time, and still very often today, parents of intersex babies are pressured by the medical community to have their babies surgically changed into as much of a male or female as possible. Most often the female gender is chosen for these babies, as constructing male genitals is a much more complicated process. Our society, it seems, would rather continue with this strategy, rather than accept the existence of a third gender, or many different intersex variations. The need to protect our society’s male-female paradigm has made this group of people a very secret sect in our society.

In that regard, I think we could learn a lesson or two from nature and basic biology itself. All members of the whip-tailed lizard population found in Arizona and New Mexico, for example, are female. These lizards are perfectly adapted to the environment they live in and, as nature dictates, they don’t want to dilute their good genes with male involvement. The lizards have developed the ability to reproduce asexually, with some of the female lizards stepping up to fill the male’s role with a surge of testosterone.

Many more examples of biological and sexual variations can be found in the animal kingdom. Some oysters can change sex more than once during life. In oysters, the organs that produce eggs and sperm consist of sex cells and surround the digestive organs. From there they branch into the connective tissue and tubules. Some pigs have an ovotestis formation—a melding of the ovary and testes. There are marsupials with pouches even though the reproductive tracts are male. Others have hemipouches and hemiscrotums with female reproductive tracts. To date, scientists have classified and documented more than 470 animal species with sexual variations that are neither male nor female.

The bottom line is that biological variations exist in both the natural and human world, and we need a way to embrace that fact, rather than continue to find ways to work around it. The time has come for us to challenge the long-standing paradigm that insists on the existence of only males and females and to acknowledge the many people who live with one of the many known intersex conditions.

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