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Lammas 2003, Vol 2-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
book cover with female and male faces on mountain, "The Left Hand of Darkness," Ursula K. LeGuinDo Not Remove this Label: Sex and Spirituality

In 1994, Lifeline Theater of Chicago made a play out of Ursula Le Guin's science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, in which all the characters are sex-neutral except when in heat. I sat in the theater, really longing to suspend disbelief. The excellent cast, makeup, and costumes did everything possible to create and maintain the illusion. Yet as each character came on stage, I unwillingly but unerringly "sexed" the actor. This interfered with my experience of the play, but I couldn't help it. I'd read that humans are hard-wired to identify another person's sex before any other quality, but now I'd experienced it first-hand.

If we can't help making sex distinctions, no wonder our species is so primed for us/them thinking and its bloody outcomes.

Le Guin also produced a novella called The Lathe of Heaven, in which the main character is an "effective dreamer" -- what he dreams becomes reality. When he dreams about solving racial conflict, he wakes to a world in which everybody's skin is a nice elephant gray.

What's the sex equivalent of that solution? Either everybody's the same sex, or the number of sexes proliferates to the point where the distinctions are meaningless.

Enough science fiction. Back to science, where recent research seems to be supporting deep physiological differences between men and women. This is not a new concept but, this time around, it's carrying less of the overt "male good, female bad" baggage.

At the same time, there's research showing that the sexes are proliferating. One to two babies of every hundred born is in some way different from the standard male or female.(1) There are hundreds of intersexual variations. And as sexes proliferate, so do genders.

What's a Woman?
Sometimes I think sex identity is so slippery there's no way to make rules about it. Many Dianic witches say a woman (for purposes of woman-only ritual) is one who was born with a womb, and raised female. Oddly enough, though, this familiar definition would include:

  • a person born with a womb and raised female, who later became a female-to-male transsexual
  • an intersexed person with a womb and a mix of male and female genitalia, who was raised female

and exclude:

  • a person born female by chromosomes and genitalia, but without a womb, who was raised female
  • a person born female by chromosomes and genitalia, with a womb, who was raised as one gender until the age of five or ten and then switched to the other gender

You may say these situations aren't common. Most women fit handily into the familiar definition, and are comfortable applying that definition to each other. Surely this is just another example of thinking things to death.

Yet sexual ambiguity -- not just gender identity, style or politics, intersexuality symbolbut physiology -- is more widely known than it used to be. The figure quoted above (one or two intersexual babies per hundred births) means that 1.3 to 2.6 million intersexual babies are born each year, worldwide. This number may increase, if it's true that environmental toxins contribute to intersexuality, as some studies suggest. In the U.S., at least, the immediate and often secret "fixing" of sex-ambiguous newborns is becoming less automatic and more a complex set of family choices. The issue is public, thanks largely to the activism of intersexed adults. So more children are growing up intersexed.

At the same time, more people born as a "standard" sex are changing it later. In 2001, the City of San Francisco began providing insurance coverage for sex changes.(2) Lucent Technologies does, too. (3)

A lifetime of reading science fiction makes me wonder if people who aren't precisely male or female are nature's way out of the gender standoff, at last. Faced with enough ambiguity, we might have to make decisions on a personal rather than categorical level.

But meanwhile, the inter- or transsexual individuals are looking for friends, community, the everyday and the sacred -- as we all are. Some of them are self-identified as male or female, and others reject those labels. In the big cities, there are enough people to provide an affinity group for any identity or issue. Not true for smaller cities and towns -- and not true for people who don't need or want all their friends to be just like themselves.

Binary or Continuum
a circle of womenIn another century or three, maybe sex will be popularly regarded as a continuum. Now, in 2003, it's still a binary issue. When female/male isn't clear enough any more, we move on to female/not-female. This is no abstract distinction -- it's faced on both sides of the entrance to any woman-only space or event, whether it's a Lammas ritual, a music festival, or women's land. What's the gatekeeper's choice? Pretend there are only two sexes, and use intuition? Follow a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, as the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival does? Use divination? Hand out a questionnaire? Some cases would require blood tests and body searches. What a political and practical quagmire!

One possible solution would be to respect the self-defined sexual identity of each person, and count on affinity over time to sort things out. This approach would lead immediately to another quagmire: As the gate opened to let in one set of self-defined women, another set would be leaving.

The departing group would have any number of reasons: they felt unsafe (based on painful experience, or fear of it). Their boundaries weren't being respected (they heard the old patriarchal messages, "You can't have anything that's your own," and "I'm coming in and you can't stop me"). They had left their male partners and children and friends behind for this occasion to be with women, and now were disappointed. They had come with their female partners to a place where they could be open, and now they had to be wary. And especially where spiritual and magical work was planned, the energy just wouldn't be the same.

The Gatekeepers' Gift
Twenty-five years ago I'd have brushed off the "energy" argument, though it matters to me now. Then, as now, I was uneasy about separatism as a life-choice. But I would never contest the profound impact of woman-only space.

I got lost alone, in full darkness, with no flashlight, on my first-ever night at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. City-woman's panic (fear of rape, fear of violence) squeezed my breath and drummed in my ears and then I got it: There were only women here. I took a long breath, and as I let it out I realized I was among tents, and what I was hearing, here and there, were the sounds of orgasm. fence with open gateI was safe, though lost, and those other women were safe, though loudly ecstatic. It was fine to be exploring in the dark.

I owe that experience to the gatekeepers at Michigan, whose criteria for entrance hadn't yet crossed my mind. I was a young and not-yet-lesbian feminist who believed in equal rights, equal pay for equal work, and NOT in separate but equal. I thought feminism would succeed as sex differences diminished. My more radical friends considered this an impossible and undesirable idea. As I recall, none of us were thinking about intersexuality. Neither were we expecting the women's health movement to stimulate new mainstream interest in how women work, genetically, biologically -- how differently from men.

Now we have more information -- maybe even enough information to explain WHY in a mixed-sex group the energy's just not the same.

What's New on the Sex Frontier
The current issue of Psychology Today has an article called, "The New Sex Scorecard," by Hana Marano.(4) According to Marano's article, there are biological reasons why women:

  • Are far less likely to experience a whole range of disorders from autism to schizophrenia.
  • Get depressed more often than men in the years between 13 and 53.
  • Have smaller heads but equal intelligence and superior "concentrated processing power and thought-linking ability." (Turns out that women have 15-20% more gray matter.)
  • Have faster blood flow to the brain, thus less cognitive loss as we age. (This is why mid-life crisis is often worse for men. It's also why there should be more crones in government.)
  • Are "hard-wired for a big-picture, top-down take" on things, while men "focus first on minute detail, and operate most easily with a certain detachment."

Articles like these, and the research-based papers behind them, are becoming more common, though some continue to be challenged on grounds of sexism.(5) And I wonder if these researchers of femaleness and maleness have really taken intersexuality into account.

There's always the possibility that new results will be used against us, to enforce some false notion of the good old days. But it's also possible that at some point we'll know enough about what sex really means so it becomes common knowledge, one of the many ways of organizing what we know about ourselves and other people. Like perceptual recipes, Myers-Briggs, class, birth order, dominant-handedness.

We may not, in this lifetime, reach the point where we choose whom to play/celebrate/ritualize with based on each person's gifts and knowledge rather than any of the zillion available labels. Patriarchy and sexism might have to disappear first, and a host of other isms. We might have to evolve past the deep survival fears coded into our bodies along with sexuality.

The fact is, our species is evolving.

The fact is, our species is evolving. Marano quotes research that shows men are becoming (are you ready?) more like women: After millennia of emotion-free sex on the side, extramarital sex now carries emotional involvement for men, so it endangers the primary relationship for men as it does for women. "The double standard for adultery is disappearing," said one researcher. "It's been around for 5,000 years and it's changing in our lifetime."

Sexualities are proliferating, genders are proliferating, definitions are becoming more rigid in response or failing altogether, and the gatekeepers' work is more challenging every year. We can't pretend that the distinctions are obvious, or that they don't exist. Maybe in the (very) long run, the best we can do is allow reality to change, and to change us.

In the immediate matter of who's invited to the Lammas ritual, my best thinking so far is that the people who do the work get to make the decisions. What I myself will be working toward, for the foreseeable future, is to treat each person as a worthy manifestation of the divine(6), and to do my heartwork and spiritwork with my heart- and spirit-friends.

(1) "How Sexually Dimorphic Are We? Review and synthesis" American Journal of Human Biology, Volume 12, Issue 2, 2000. Pages: 151-166.
(2) S.F. to Finance Gender Reassignments
(3) Lucent's Coverage of TS Medical Needs
(4) The New Sex Scorecard, Psychology Today (online).
(5) "He and She: What's the Real Difference?" The Boston Globe
(6) I learned this phrase from Karen Snider, who learned it from Connie Capera.

Graphics Credits
The Left Hand of Darkness, book cover.
+ Intersexuality Symbol, courtesy of Gillyboy's Gay Graphics
+ Women's Circle and Gatekeeper, copyright © 2003, Sage Starwalker (staff artist). All rights reserved.
Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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