Male Pseudohermaphrodism, Mouse Ovaries, And The Science Of Sex And Gender

Some Gazan teens suffer from a rare condition in which they are born appearing female, but develop male characteristics at puberty. They're now awaiting sex changes — a process that a new genetic discovery may one day make easier.

According to CNN's Ivan Watson, Palestinian cousins Nadir Mohammed Saleh and Ahmed Fayiz Abed Rabo suffer from male pseudohermaphrodism, meaning they appeared outwardly female from birth to puberty but actually had malformed male sex organs in their abdomens. At puberty, they began to look more like boys, making social life difficult. Nadir's father says, "They used to travel by car to girls' school and back. Because of their facial hair, it was difficult for them to go out into the street. Psychologically they were distressed." So both decided to begin living as boys.

Male pseudohermaphrodism is so common on the Gaza Strip — perhaps due to widespread cousin marriage — that their family already had a name for the process: "the transfer." Now they want sex change operations so they can have male sex organs, which they need in order to change their Palestinian identity card to "male" and gain access to higher education opportunities. Of course, the fact that said opportunities are (apparently) restricted to men with male sex organs speaks to an idea of gender division — and gender hierarchy — that makes little sense when we understand how complicated human sex and gender really are. And if Caster Semenya's ordeal is any indication, the rest of the world is no better at this than Palestine.

But new research might further this understanding somewhat. Scientists have found that switching off just a single gene in adult female mice causes their ovary cells to change into testosterone-producing cells like those in male testes. The cells couldn't produce sperm, but researcher Robin Lovell-Badge says, "If it is possible to make these changes in adult humans, it may eventually remove the need for surgery in gender-reassignment treatment." He notes that, "If this does become possible, it's likely that while treated individuals would make the right hormones for their new sex, fertility would be lost."

The study also has implications for how we think about human sex, since the gene in question is present in all mammals. Steve Connor of the Independent writes,

One of the great dogmas of biology is that gender is fixed from birth, determined by the inheritance of certain genes on the X and Y sex chromosomes. [...] The findings suggest that being male or female is not a permanently fixed state but something that has to be continually maintained in the adult body by the constant interaction of genes to keep the status quo – and the gender war – from slipping in favour of the opposite sex.

As Rebecca Boyle of PopSci points out, scientists don't yet have a corresponding way to transform female cells into male cells. And the research is too nascent to materially help Nadir and Ahmed, who are appealing to the international community for help obtaining the sex change surgery that's not available in Gaza. But advances in sex research may help demolish the notion that human sex is a simple either-or matter (it may even be environmentally influenced: stressed pregnant women are more likely to spontaneously miscarry male fetuses). And this might make the lives of people like Nadir and Ahmed — and Caster Semenya — a lot less distressing.

Rare Gender Identity Defect Hits Gaza Families [CNN]
From Minnie To Mickey (And All They Did Was Turn Off A Gene) [Independent]
Switching A Gene In Adult Mice Easily Transforms Females Into Males [PopSci]
Girls On Top [The Economist]