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In contrast to Money's assertion that gender identity becomes fixed at about three years old, Imperato-McGinley(1) claimed that the development of a gender role is flexible until at least teenage. She based her ideas on groups of Dominican children with 5alpha reductase deficiency, an inherited condition.

The children were brought up as girls but, at puberty, their breasts were said to have failed to develop and their clitorises enlarged greatly to resemble small penises. Their voices deepened, facial hair developed and their bodies became muscular like a man's.

It is said that they readily assumed male gender identity when their bodies masculinised. They put on men's clothes, adopted men's activities, developed sexual relationships with women, and "in every way considered themselves men."

The study has given rise to much debate. Some writers assert that prenatal exposure of the brain to testosterone, combined with hormonal changes of male puberty, gave them a male identity. In other words, the sex of rearing had been overridden by biology in the determination of their adult gender identity.

Others insist that, since it was a well-known phenomenon in the locality, biology had nothing to do with it - their culture expected them to change their roles. This is not the only instance where supporters of either the nature or nurture camp may use the same piece of evidence to support their views,

Some writers tell us that, in spite of having been brought up as girls, the children said that, as early as twelve years of age, they became concerned about their sexual identity. By adolescence the suspicion had become absolute. They simply didn't feel like girls. Different writers describe different views of their culture. Some suggest a very strict division between the sexes, with strict social taboos which kept them to their assigned gender role. Other writers describe a culture with laissez faire attitudes to gender.

Certainly, boys had much more freedom, which was at least some incentive. Also, in most cultures, including ours, it is considered to be a far finer thing to become a boy than to become a girl. One wonders what would have been made of boys turning into girls.

To inject a little realism into the story, the event came as no surprise to anyone. It was a common occurrence in the area, and had been for generations. In fact the villagers had a name for these children - guevedoce - "eggs" at twelve.(2)

The physical changes are reported in the various descriptions of this topic as if they had happened overnight. In fact, even if the child was genuinely mistaken for female at birth, undeniable signs would be appearing during childhood. The problem was dihydrotestosterone. Fetal testosterone had still been operable so, if the brain sex theory were true, and their brains had been masculinised, they would have been tomboys and at odds with their culture. In any case, the signs of genital change were appearing even at age of seven, and they felt "different".

Yet, as Herdt(3) points out, they did not change role until their teens, as they were expected to.

He writes "It is hard to see in this forced outcome nearly twenty years after birth strong evidence for a hypothetical effect of male testosterone-exposed brains overcoming gender role socialisation. I am impressed much more by the continuity in gender development that was interrupted only by the ultimate failure of the hermaphrodite's body sexually and reproductively to deliver what was necessary for her to fulfill her social destiny"

What they had, in effect, was an extended clitoris without a urethra, so as adults, while sexual penetration was possible, intromission was not.

There is a difference between gender identity and role. They began living in the female role then changed to the male role, as custom dictated for people in their position. What their identity was, we submit, is far more subtle. Central to the issue is whether they saw themselves, not just as girls, then boys, but as a special kind of girl, or boy. It seems most likely that they primarily regarded themselves as, that is, their sense of self was, guevedoce, just as they always had been.

It was reported that, out of eighteen subjects, 17 had changed over successfully to a male identity and 16 to a male role. Herdt suggests a less rosy picture. While one remained as a female and was married to a man, another considered himself male but dressed as a woman, and a third had become a hermit.

The Simbari Anga people of New Guinea are also familiar with 5alpha reductase deficiency. Their culture involves an even more rigid demarcation of the sexes. In the normal course of events, after male initiation rites prior to puberty, the two sexes are kept rigorously apart. Ritualised oral sex occurs between men from puberty to premarital age.

LeVay(4) suggests that, in spite of this barrier between the sexes most of the affected individuals changed their gender identities, "albeit with much turmoil." Once again we see a bipolar view of gender identity imposed on a non-Western culture.

The people of Sambia are quite aware of hermaphroditism and see it as a sad quirk of nature. There is a rumour that babies are inspected very closely at birth by their mother and, if any genital abnormality is seen, they are occasionally killed. Nevertheless, in general, the baby is brought up as a male, or more accurately as a boy child.

It does not, however, go through the pubertal rites, but enters a separate social category, as kwolu-aatmwol, which can be considered to be a separate gender role, and the child's identity is constructed within that role.

  1. This a standard study quoted in most psychology and sociology textbooks. See
    Gross, R.D., (1987) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, London: Hodder and Stoughton
  2. Most writers suggest that it means "penis at twelve" however it would appear to be a corruption of the Spanish "huevos a doce" or "huevas a doce"
  3. Herdt, G., (1994) Mistaken Sex: Culture, Biology and the third sex in New Guinea. in Herdt. G., (ed) Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York: Zone Books
  4. LeVay, S., (1994) The Sexual Brain, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NEXT The circumcision that went wrong.

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Bland, J., (2002) About Gender: Imperato-McGinley
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12.05.98 Last amended 20.01.02