Last week's issue of NEWSWEEK had a cover story on gender identity. I was a little disappointed in it, because it dealt almost entirely with people who choose to transform from their physical sex at birth to the opposite sex (the transsexual or transgender phenomenon). The article made only one brief reference to individuals who possess external genitalia different from their chromosomal sex. I'd hoped the magazine would discuss the many varieties of ambiguous sexuality, more common than most people realize. The Wikipedia article "Intersex" goes into considerable detail and makes a good place to start on this topic.
In science fiction, sexual varieties other than the binary male and female can be normal and typical of a species, rather than a rare anomaly as in human beings. I just bought a DVD of the first season of the excellent TV series ALIEN NATION, whose Newcomer species has, in effect, three sexes. In addition to the male and female as we know them, Newcomers include another type of male called "binnaum" (if I have the spelling correct). These men don't fertilize female ova, but their intervention is necessary to prepare the female for conception. This act of preparation is a solemn and joyous ritual, and the husband feels no jealousy over the binnaum's coupling with his wife. Moreover, among Newcomers husband and wife share the process of gestation. Part-way through pregnancy, the pod containing the fetus is transferred from the female's body into the male's pouch. The Newcomer detective in the series, George Francisco, becomes a father, and his human partner has to deal with the mind-boggling situation of working with a pregnant man.
Because the Newcomers' culture has been crippled by slavery, and now they are trying to fit into our society, this show doesn't give the full impact of the potential effects upon society of the sharing of pregnancy by men. What if human males, like Newcomers and seahorses, bore the babies? Throughout the world, the biological fact that women bear and nurse babies has shaped women's position in society. There's a famous essay (I think it appeared in an early issue of MS) about what would happen if men menstruated and women didn't. The essay, building on the premise that anything men do (including having periods) would be glorified, envisions men bragging about their periods, barring women from the priesthood because only someone with monthly bleeding can reenact Christ's sacrifice, etc. I'm not so sure about these conclusions, though. Isn't it possible that the very fact of monthly bleeding is one of the phenomena that historically contributed to women's marginalization in the first place? For a contrary view, however, I once read a feminist utopia (or dystopia) framed as another voyage by Gulliver, who ends up in a country where women dominate, in a satirical reversal of the middle-class family structure of the 1950s. Whereas in our real-world society, women's biological functions of pregnancy and lactation result in their being assigned the child-care role, it works just the opposite in this novel. Because women bear the burden of pregnancy, birth, and nursing, men stay home and do all the other child care as well as the housework. (I kind of like this idea!)
Octavia Butler wrote that her story "Bloodchild," in which young human males allow centipede-like aliens to lay eggs within their bodies, was her "pregnant man" story. In this tale she explores the emotional complexity of the young protagonist's both loving and fearing the alien female whose reproductive process might kill him if the grubs growing inside him aren't removed in time.
Ursula LeGuin's classic novel THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS attacks the problem from a different angle. The natives of her alien planet are sexless (not hermaphroditic) most of the time. Only during the periodic heat period called "kimmer" do they feel sexual desire and develop external sexual characteristics and the ability to reproduce. Whether a person becomes male or female during any particular kimmer period is purely random, except that if exposed to an individual expressing one sex, the second individual automatically responds by becoming the opposite sex. So anyone can become pregnant. In fact, the novel begins with the unforgettable line, "The King was pregnant." Whatever caste and class distinctions exist on this world, they have no relation to sex roles, because there aren't any.
Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series includes an alien, elf-like species called the Chieri who are hermaphrodites. Enchanting, androgynous figures, they express either male or female traits depending on the partner they're with. In THE WORLD WRECKERS, a man from Earth falls in love with a Chieri whom he first meets in female form. When her hermaphroditic nature becomes obvious, he realizes he loves her regardless of her (by Earth standards) ambiguous sexuality. This plotline was very daring for its time and would stand out as a provocative exploration of inter-species romance even today.
I'd like to see more spec-fic romance exploring such themes as multiple sexes and male pregnancy. Earlier posts have talked about the concept of "soul mates." How much of falling in love is purely emotional and spiritual, and how much depends upon physical compatibility? How far can love go to overcome what might seem insurmountable differences in biology and family structures?