The Indonesian Hermaphrodite
Intersexuality in the S. Pacific and around the world

It's a girl!" Ulung Sakmala and his wife Sriwati were pleased with the genitalia of their first child, born 11 months ago in the West Javan village of Sukadamai, Indonesia.

See also...
... by Hank Hyena
... in the Whoa! section
... from September 21, 1999

"Let's call her Triwulan!"

The girl's parents bestowed a charming, feminine name upon the tot, and inserted tiny gold earrings into her earlobes. Sriwati and Ulung -- a poor scavenger who sells cardboard collected from garbage bins -- were ecstatic for 49 days.


On the 50th day, Sriwati discovered "a strange tumor-like growth on the child's vagina," notes The Jakarta Post. The appalled parents watched the protuberance grow larger until eventually urine leaked out of ... the penis?!

"It's a ... boy?!"

Dukun (sorcerers) were hastily consulted, but they were unable to explain why a male organ had arrived on the vagina of their ... son? The gold earrings were abruptly removed.

"Let's call ... him? ... Alan?"

A doctor petitioned by Sriwati and Ulung said, "this [case] is from God." His advice is to wait until Triwulan/Alan is two or three years old; perhaps one genitalia will have overwhelmed the other by then in a territorial crotch-war. Sriwati and Ulung are now praying "for a miracle."

Their savings are scant; there's not enough cardboard in all Sukadamai to finance the delicate operation that they believe is required to cure Triwulan/Alan's "abnormality." What's wrong with this picture?

Two-to-three people out of every one thousand are born hermaphroditic (claims Robert Edgerton's 1964 study published in American Anthropologist), and almost every culture tries to "fix" this minority. But Triwulan/Alan isn't at all "sick," say an increasing number of medical and social scientists -- the only disease exists in the crude societies that can't categorize more than two genders.

In The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, the god Hermaphroditus is "a double-sexed being ... with womanish breasts and long hair." Classicists gush that he/she was as handsome as his father (Hermes) and as beautiful as his mother (Aphrodite). One assumes that this mythic model would render the Greeks benevolent to their double-gendered offspring, but no... They invariably destroyed them at birth, as the Romans later did.

The Dark Ages continued this plague of Euro-terror against hermaphrodites, who were regarded as "dangerous, portentous monsters" (Paolo Zacchia, Questionum medico-legalium, 1653). Intersexuals could be burned at the stake, or find their ambiguous organ -- an enlarged clitoris or diminutive penis -- cruelly amputated. Genital surgery remains, the same medieval solution that most modern physicians prescribe; Triwulan/Alan seems slated to get his/her perfectly peeing penis snipped off in a "cosmetic" operation that rather arbitrarily "assigns" gender.

The Navajo people of the southwest United States are one exception to the global intersexual bias (the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Tahitians are others). The Navajo include hermaphrodites in their mythology, but unlike the Greeks, they cherish human beings formed in this image. The Navajo group hermaphrodites in a sacred category of people called "nadle." Parents rejoice at their births -- they believe the child will bestow wealth and blessings on the community. Nadles are often promoted to the heads of their households, because they're considered capable of attaining the productive skills of both sexes. Disputes between men and women are mediated by nadles, who are believed to have "curative powers."

In New Guinea, the Sambia tribe believes the world was invented by two people with small breasts and tiny penises, and they recognize a third gender, call "kwolu-aatmwol." Nearby Hua and Bimin-Kuskusmin tribes also have an intersexual category, as do the Tahitians, who call them the "mahu." In The Dominican Republic, a three-village region has a "Guevedoche" classification for genetic males born with their scrotums resembling labia, their penises clitoral or absent, and their testes hidden. But none of these societies regard the Third Sex with high esteem.

Back in Java, little Triwulan/Alan crawls around with her/his happy, hermaphroditic genitalia. Sriwati and Ulang examine her/his crotch every day; they worry about when-and-what-and-how-much to cut off, as they scavenge tons of cardboard to pay for the surgery. If the little Indonesian he/she lived in a world as gender-generous as the Navajo's, there would be no stress, no sadness in this household. There would only be smiles, and plenty of genitalia for everyone.

Hank Hyena is a columnist for, and a frequent contributor to Salon.