November 8, 2017: Today is Intersex Day of Remembrance, which is also referred to as Intersex Solidarity Day. It is observed on this day every year, on the anniversary of Herculine Barbin’s birth.
Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d’Angély France in 1838, and was assigned female at birth. She never felt like she quite fit in with the other girls at school; she was awkward, and not at all graceful or feminine looking like her friends. At puberty, she did not begin to menstruate, her breasts never developed, and some fine, facial hair appeared on her chin and cheeks.
Adding to her sense of confusion, Barbin found herself attracted to some of the other girls and teachers. At age nineteen, she received a position as an assistant teacher at a girl’s, where she fell in love with another teacher named Sara.
During their scandalous affair, Barbin started feeling excruciating pain in her groin. The physician who examined her was shocked to find that her body was in all respects a typically male, except that she seemingly had a vagina. But upon closer examination, he realized that genitalia was actually ambiguous, undeveloped male organs. She had no uterus, and her ovaries were actually undescended testicles.
In today’s vernacular, she was Intersex.
After speaking with the Bishop of La Rochelle, he agreed to arrange for a doctor to examine her. Dr. Chesnet confirmed that although she had a “small vagina,” Barbin was truly a male with a very small penis and testicles.
The matter was presented to the civil authorities, who declared that Barbin’s birth records were in error, and declared that she was male. She changed her name to Abel Barbin, left her teaching job and her lover, and started presenting as a man.
Abel moved to Paris, where Barbin had trouble finding even menial employment despite an impressive education and resumé. Unable to adapt to his new role, he lived a life of poverty and isolation. As a way of coping with his depression, he started chronicling his life story, which was discovered and published by Michel Foucault in 1970s.
Herculine Adélaîde (Abel) Barbin committed suicide in his small flat in Paris, February 1868.
My place was not marked out in this world that shunned me… Herculine Barbin
Last night, Betsy Driver won a seat on the Flemington, New Jersey borough council. She is believed to be the first openly Intersex person to be elected to public office.
Like so many Intersex infants and children, Driver was a victim of Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), a misguided, barbaric practice that tries to force Intersex children into what they deem acceptable gender roles. There is nothing wrong with the Intersex child; it’s society that has the problem.
At three months old, doctors started performing what they politely called “genital normalizing surgery” to make her conform to their notion of what a female body should look like. They amputated her entire clitoris, because, “… it was larger than what the doctors considered acceptable. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, it wasn’t diseased or causing me any medical problems but they considered it a social emergency.”
“When I was born, the doctors who delivered me were unable to clearly tell my mom and dad whether I was male or female. After a couple days, they found a uterus and ovaries. From that moment forward, my body was medicalized and surgically altered without my consent.”
Today, we remember all the victims who suffered these unnecessary surgeries, the victims of societal rejection who took their lives because of isolation and despair, and those who never had the opportunity to live the lives they were born to live.
And we give thanks to those who overcame the pressures of society and survived despite the ignorance and bigotry that tried to define them. And we congratulate Betsy Driver for leading the way to our acceptance.