When South African track star Caster Semenya was recently identified as intersex by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), much of the world was shocked to discover that not everyone is 100 percent male or female. News anchors scrambled to define terms such as “intersex” and “hermaphrodite” while doctors were forced to explain how modern science determines sex to begin with. There were outcries over Semenya’s right to privacy and the “shame” of her being globally pronounced anything less than purely male or female.
All this commotion would likely surprise those of the world’s ancient cultures, including the Vedic, who demonstrably possessed a more rational understanding of sex and the gray area existing between male and female. While gathering resources for my book, Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, I came across no fewer than forty Sanskrit words describing gender-variant people ranging from the “dviretas,” “with both male and female reproductive tissue” (Caraka Samhita 4.2.17), to the “shandha“, or “men behaving as women” (Sushruta Samhita 22.214.171.124). All of the many known types of sex and gender differentiation, both anatomical and behavioral, are described within the vast canon of Sanskrit literature.
Modern science has only recently caught up with and perhaps surpassed the Vedic diagnosis. For instance, we now know that beyond the common chromosomal patterns of XY male and XX female, there are also men with XYY and XXY and women with XO and XXX chromosomes. Such variations produce various intersex effects. More significantly, variations in embryonic hormones can override the chromosomes and cause an XY boy to appear or behave female (to various degrees) and vice versa for an XX girl. Hundreds of related sex and gender variations have been found in both humans and animals, and they are much more common than previously thought. If we include all types of gender differentiation from bisexuality to the most rare form of intersex, approximately 30 percent of all humans can be placed within the “gray” or “gender-different” category!
Why, then, all the fuss and misunderstanding about gender differences in humans? Much of this is cultural. While ancient cultures were typically familiar with and able to accommodate gender differences, modern societies seem to prefer stigmatizing and hiding them. Intersex babies are surgically altered to pass as either male or female while transgender and homosexual persons are rebuked for any gender behavior deemed different from normal. Modern Vaishnavas are also highly reluctant to accommodate or even acknowledge the “in-between” or “third” sex, despite various references in our own scriptures.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna implores us to understand both the spiritual and material natures properly because only then can we correctly utilize things in his service. “To follow another’s path,” he says in verse 3.35, “is dangerous.” Caster Semenya, although gender-different by nature, was likely pressured into assuming a “100 percent female” role and is now suffering from the simple untruth of it. The real shame, however, is not Semenya’s but rather modern society’s insistence on a “two-gender only” paradigm despite its limitations, artificiality, and potential for harm. Fortunately, Caster Semenya herself is keeping the whole incident in proper perspective: “God made me the way I am and I accept myself,” she told the South African You magazine. “I am who I am and I’m proud of myself.”