Guest Blogger

What Man and What Woman?

Filed By Guest Blogger | February 03, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender, gender identity, intersex

[Editor's note:] This guest post is by Mark Casey, a cultural and political commentator whose work can be seen in such places as the Baltimore Sun, The Santa Monica Daily Press, and The Flyer Group. He welcomes comments and can be reached via his website,

Mark Casey.jpgOn August 14, 1956, Brian Sullivan was born to two loving parents in New Jersey. When he was eighteen months old, at the advice of Brian's doctor, his parents packed up and moved to a new town. There, they renamed him Bonnie Sullivan, and raised him as a girl.

Years later, Bonnie found out that just before the move, her gender had been surgically assigned by her parents. At her birth, it was unclear whether or not Bonnie was a boy or a girl.

Around the same time, in 1966, 18-year-old Erika Schinegger was the reigning world champion in female downhill skiing. Then, the International Olympic Committee discovered through medical testing that Erika had male chromosomes (XY) and disqualified "him" from competition—to Erika's complete surprise.

Both Bonnie and Erika were born with a condition known as sexual ambiguity—or intersexuality—which is an umbrella term for a wide variety of conditions where physical or chromosomal traits, which typically define a person as a male or female, are unclear at birth.

Bonnie has since changed her name to Cheryl Chase, and is a vocal advocate for intersexed people. And with good reason. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as many as one in every 4,000 births displays some degree of sexual ambiguity.

Yet, despite these thousands of cases across America, the promise of keeping marriage between "One man and one woman" is still a major talking point for politicians everywhere—even to the point of amending our constitution to enforce it.

No policy debate in the last fifty years has been more discriminatory or insulting.

Jennifer Maher, a senior lecturer at the Indiana University Department of Gender Studies, agrees that the phrase is discriminatory, adding "And it makes little sense. If someone is found to have Androgen Insensitivity Disorder... then the phrase becomes moot, or at least much more complicated."

Androgen Insensitivity Disorder is just one of many well documented genetic conditions which can result in the lack of a clear identity as male or female.

Meaning, it's long been clear to doctors that language like "one man and one woman" doesn't even have a place in medical textbooks, let alone in the United States Constitution.

Of course, enforcing rigid definitions of gender is nothing new. While it's the prerogative of any private organization to define gender however they like, the disturbing thing is how often the male/female choice is forced upon people by their government.

Social security, driver's licenses, even birth certificates—all demand a designation of either male or female. And even though most intersexed people happily choose one of the two genders, not all do. Many people prefer to define themselves as "third," "trans," or "inter," gendered.

Bottom line: It's not hard to include a third option for "unspecified" or "transgender." And that's exactly what many organizations do, including the Harvard Business School, which includes a "transgender" option on its introductory applicant form.

For elected officials, however, "one man and one woman" is purely political—and it has nothing to do with how things shake out in the real world.

Politicians, particularly those on the right-wing, like to capitalize on people's inherent fears and prejudices. So limiting marriage is much more about gaining the support of homophobic voters than it is about realism.

That's why it's so painfully ironic that a policy which discriminates against people who are born into a certain body—created by God, if you will—would be so popular with religious leaders and voters.

And while much of the debate over a marriage amendment revolves around its obvious purpose of discriminating against homosexual couples, the simple fact is, it should never have even gotten that far.

Still, it may be a long time before the government gets around to recognizing intersexed citizens, or even before the idea of a third option next to "gender" on a form makes sense to most people. But one thing is clear: writing "one man and one woman" into the constitution merely stokes the flames of ignorance, and it further complicates an already misunderstood issue.

We should be reducing the instances of gender discrimination as our knowledge grows, not adding to them.

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It's even sillier than that. For example, the same couple, depending at what point along a timeline, might be alternately considered a straight couple or a gay couple. How, you ask?

A natal male is coupled with a natal female = heterosexual and can marry;

The natal male transitions and is a female partnered with the natal female = homosexual and can't marry;

The transitioned MTF is partnered with the natal female who transitions FTM and is partnered with a male = heterosexual and can marry.

These are the same two people in the same relationship. How does it make any sense that at one point they are worthy of marriage, but not at another? It also brings into question the usefulness of even labeling relationships as gay or straight.

As for the choice of 'trans' on an application, there are many people who have transitioned who wouldn't care to use that designation. So that isn't a comprehensive solution, either.

Also, I thought Cheryl's name had been Charles.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 3, 2008 10:27 PM

Excellent post, Mark! I know and admire Cheryl--she is one of the most intelligent, high-powered people I have ever met. I wish we had an option for "trans" or "other" gender identity and, more importantly, that it wouldn't immediately confer a second-class sort of citizenship due to ignorance and bigotry.

This brings up many interesting questions....
I know quite a few IS folk most have taken up ether male or female sex/gender roles. The few i know who enjoy their IS status may not be happy with having their legal sex be Trans.

In many states including California the IS person doesn't have any real say so in choosing their sex I know of one person who very nearly had her life destroyed because a doctor did a blood test and found out she really was Female. She was pseudohermaphrodite. California law requires That medical information pertaining to a person's sex be reported to the health department for the purposes of issuance of a new birth certificate. Since she was borne in California there was nothing she could do. She ran a business that was related to the construction industry and word got out...

Thankfully her main clients were understanding and she only lost a few small contracts, not the big ones.

This is not such clear cut issue....
They things are hurt some people..
if they were to be changed then it could hurt others.

Take care

This is a fascinating article to me. It covers the whoel "marriage act" issue from a POV that isn't usually discussed in the mainstream conversation about it--even by those of us who are against it, we usually go for the "we shouldn't descriminate against sexuality" argument. It's never thought of as actual physical descriminating. Bravo on this piece.

Rory, while I agree with your basic point that it makes no sense to determine whether a marriage is illegal based on physical sex/genitalia, the situation is even more complicated than you think. In two famous, or, perhaps, I should say infamous, cases - Littleton v. Prange from Texas, and In re Estate of Gardiner from Kansas - the Supreme Courts of both states held that marriages between a trans woman and a man are illegal same sex marriages, despite the fact that both women had completed SRS and had changed their birth certificates from male to female, and that both men knew about their partners' history prior to the marriage. In both cases, the courts basically said, "once a man, always a man." There are, however, a few cases to the contrary -- intermediate appellate court decisions from New Jersey and Florida, a trial court decision from California, and an immigration judge's decision in an immigration case - that recognize the validity of a marriage between a trans person (the Florida and California cases involved FTMs) and a person of the sex "opposite" to the trans persons post-transiton sex.

Thus, although many people assume that trans marriages are legal, and some GLB people resent trans people for that supposed advantage, the picture is far from clear. Consequently, I always advise my trans friends who intend to marry not to assume that their marriages will be upheld if challenged, and to protect themselves as much as possible through mutual wills, medical directives and other means, which, if properly drafted, should apply regardless of the validity of the marriage.

I also hold out hope that the constitutional amendments and statutes banning marriages not between "one man and one woman" will someday be held to be unconstitutionally vague and, therefore, unenforceable for exactly the reason pointed out in this article -- the inability of the medical and scientific community to say definitively in any given case, who is a "man," and who is a "woman." At the moment, that seems to be our only real hope of invalidating these same-sex marriage bans through litigation. It won't be easy, and it will require the perfect test case(s), but it could happen.

Thanks, Mark, for bringing the issue to the attention of the public.


There are two important issues here: (1) gender is not a binary dichotomy; it is a continuum, and (2) gender and sexual orientation are distinct issues.

I think life would be simpler if folks just understood this.

We are who we are, and we love who we love. These are deeply personal matters best left to us and our Creator, and government has no business sticking its nose into it in an effort to dictate either.

An interesting couple of examples from Indiana about how this messes up when logic sets in:

#1 - Man and woman get married. Man changes gender to female. They stay married. They're now "gay married" but it's legal still.

#2 - Two lesbians have a relationship. One transitions to male. Now they are able to get married and it's considered a "straight marriage."

How is anything different? What's the arbitrary measuring stick again? *sigh*

Thanks for guest posting, Mark.