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Jamie Lee Curtis, Hermaphrodite?

From the Mailbag: Show biz rumors question actress's true gender

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Updated Aug. 23, 2013

Dear Urban Legends:

I've heard from a few places that Jamie Lee Curtis is genetically male. I know it is genetically possible for something like this to happen -- Ms. Curtis is the only famous person I've ever heard linked to this "problem." Have you heard anything about this one? One of my best friends is convinced it's impossible.


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Dear Urban Legends:

Several years ago, a colleague who was married to a doctor told me that when her husband was in medical school, one of the professors brought up Jamie Lee Curtis as an example of someone who was born with an unusual chromosome structure (some variation of XXY).

The story goes that she had (at birth) both female and male sexual characteristics. I was unconvinced by this tale, but my colleague (not one to exaggerate) insisted that it was common knowledge in the medical community. Have you heard this one?



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Dear Urban Legends:

Is it true Jamie Lee Curtis is a hermaphrodite? I heard she admitted it on Oprah.



Dear Readers:

Celebrities are always telling us that fame has its downsides, lurid gossip being one of them, and few could make a better case than actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who for two decades has been saddled with rumors that she was a hermaphrodite at birth (or, as it has been more crudely put, "born with a penis").

This has never been proven, mind you, but most folks seem satisfied with the argument that the info was passed along by a friend of a friend who happens to know a doctor who was told about it in medical school, so it has to be true (or some variation thereof). If that doesn't convince, they may point out that Curtis adopted her two children instead of conceiving. Oh, and she has a unisex first name!

None of which, of course, proves anything.

What is a hermaphrodite?

The word hermaphrodite comes from Hermaphroditus, the name given to the son of the ancient Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite. According to mythology, Hermaphroditus was so loved by the nymph Salmacis that she prayed they could be united as one person — and literally got her wish. The two were transformed into one being who was both male and female.

First used as such in the 15th century, hermaphrodite is an all-but-obsolete medical term (clinicians now prefer intersex) for a set of conditions characterized mainly by genitalia which are either "ambiguous" (i.e., not clearly male or female) or at odds with the subject's chromosomal gender. Depending on the specific symptoms, hermaphroditism / intersexuality may be the result of a genetic anomaly or a hormonal excess or deficiency during gestation. It has been estimated that as many as 1 in 2,000 children born in the United States are diagnosed with ambiguous external genitalia, of whom a very small percentage undergo "sex reassignment" surgery in infancy.

The specific condition most often attributed to Ms. Curtis is AIS, or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. People born with AIS are genetically male (defined as having one X and one Y chromosome) but are resistant to androgens, the hormones responsible for male sexual development. As a result, they display female physical characteristics despite being genetically male. "In its classic form (complete androgen resistance), the person appears to be female but has no uterus, and has sparse armpit and pubic hair," states the MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. "At puberty, female secondary sex characteristics (e.g., breasts) develop, but menstruation and fertility do not."

Why Jamie Lee Curtis?

It bears pointing out that Ms. Curtis was neither the first nor the last female celebrity to whom gender ambiguity has been attributed. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Mae West endured similar whisper campaigns during their respective heydays, according to Paul Young, author of L.A. Exposed: Strange Myths and Curious Legends in the City of Angels (St. Martin's Press, 2002). So did '80s disco star Grace Jones, and, more recently pop music divas Ciara and Lady Gaga. One thing all of these famous performers have in common is some degree of androgyny -- either in appearance, or behavior, or both -- that sets them apart from "normal" women. Curtis, who easily passes for "butch" when she dresses down for a role and has her hair cut short, has also been singled out for what film critic Bill Cosford once called her "androgynous appeal."

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