Girls that look like boys. Boys that look like girls. Now let’s get to the real heart of the matter: changing sex. Let’s talk about transsexuals, transgenders, and intersexes.
The parrotfishes are a family of fishes with toothy “beaks” that some use to graze algae from coral reefs, and some use to graze the reefs themselves, eating the animals inside and letting the crushed chalk fall to the floor. If you’ve ever stood on a white tropical beach, nearly all the sand between your toes was made in the mouth of a parrotfish. What millions of tiny polyps take hundreds of thousands of years to create, parrotfish destroy in a few bites. But they make the sand. Up to 200 lbs of it each, per day.
One thing that fascinates me about parrotfish, besides their appetite for destruction, is that they sleep in mucus cocoons. The mucus is secreted from their mouths, acting as a form of mosquito netting for parasites, a tripwire system for predators, and a screen to block off their scent. The mucus is high in antioxidants, which may mean it helps repair their bodies as they sleep, as well: a self-generated hospital bed.
But the reason they are today’s animal is that they are all born female, and can all eventually become male, changing both color and size. It’s called sequential hermaphroditism, and it’s not uncommon in tropical fish — in fact, it’s the norm. The “usual” kind of hermaphroditism — having both male and female gonads at the same time — is called simultaneous hermaphroditism, and is more common in invertebrates like snails and worms. (There is one tropical fish that is truly intersexed: the Hamlet, which possesses both male and female organs at the same time. In mating rituals, mating pairs take turns being the “male” and “female” in exchanges that can last several days.) While some tropical fish, such as parrotfish, sheephead, and damselfish, are protogynous – female-to-male – others, like the clownfish, are protandrous. Remember “Finding Nemo”? Yeah, in the real world, the mama fish would have been twice the size of the dad fish, and because clownfish change sex to fill roles in a strict social hierarchy, Nemo’s dad would have turned into Nemo’s mom, and Nemo would have turned into his ex-father’s/new mother’s mate. Whether the dominant fish in a species is male or female, he or she will fight vigorously to keep his or her lessers from transitioning so that he or she retains the throne.
Confession: Though I grew up in one of the most gay-friendly towns in America, and had two high school friends and probably ten college friends and acquaintances who transitioned female-to-male, there was a time when I didn’t “buy” the whole transgender thing. Oh, I still called my old friend Emily by her new name, “Zeke,” and struggled with pronouns long stuck in my mouth, to be polite. But some part of me kept saying, Hey, what gives you the right? If gender is a social construct, and you didn’t grow up with that construct on you – the pressures and expectations placed on boys and men – how can you really call yourself a boy or man?
But then, I was saved by biology. Because I learned just how thin, porous, and insubstantial the line between “male” and “female” really is. We love this dichotomy, this whole Venus/Mars thing, and there are some very incomplete generalizations you can make based on the sexes. But the fact is, a shot of testosterone will make a female cardinal sing like a male, though she’s never sung in her life. A shot of estrogen, and a male will breastfeed his young. There is hardly any line in biology that can be tripped more easily than the one between the sexes. We must look beyond the X and Y, and recognize that our masculinity and femininity are the products of a clear quantifiable liquid in a test tube, and nothing more. Our sex is not special, nor even stable. What lies beneath, the androgynous truth, is what is us.