The Independent on “intersexuality”, Herculine Barbin

Sarah Leaver: A 34-year-old playwright and actress from Brighton, Sarah is currently staging an adaptation of the memoirs of the 19th-century French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin. Although her chromosomal make-up, or karyotype, is XX (female), six years ago she discovered that she was born with an internal male testicle, which was removed when she was two years old without her knowledge or that of her parents. [Caption from The Guardian]

Recent piece by The Guardian The Independent mentions the play by Sarah Leaver based on Herculine Barbin:

The actress and playwright Sarah Leaver is also using art “to expose what lives between the lines”. Her play, Memoirs of a Hermaphrodite, currently running at London’s Oval House Theatre, tells the true story of Herculine Barbin, a 19th-century intersexed Parisian whose musings were published by the French philosopher-sociologist Michel Foucault in 1980. Barbin began life as a girl, but faced misunderstanding and contempt when she fell in love with another woman, and was later discovered to have both male and female genitalia. Forced to become a man, she descended into depression and poverty, and died in tragic circumstances.

Thankfully, Leaver’s own tale is far happier. “I’ve always felt in between the genders,” she says. “As a kid I wore boy’s pants, played football, and ran around with my top off.” Having supportive parents meant this was rarely an issue, and it was only in her teens and twenties that she started to question her identity: “I didn’t feel I was in the wrong body, but I knew there was something that made me different.”

Six years ago, after watching a documentary on intersexuality, she asked her GP to check her medical history. It transpired that an operation she’d had as a toddler in 1977 to remove a “hernia” had in fact been to remove a male gonad – but neither she nor her parents had ever been informed. “It was like finding the missing piece in a jigsaw,” she recalls. “Part of me was relieved, and part of me was really angry. Why had the doctors hidden this from me?”

Despite her anger, Leaver, who is now 34, regards herself as pretty fortunate. Her condition – she hasn’t yet sought a specific diagnosis – is at the mild end of the intersex spectrum, as she has XX chromosomes, ovaries and periods, and has experienced few health problems.

Through the play, she’s turned her frustration into “a force for change”, and hopes others will do the same: “More and more people are speaking out about being intersexed, and the time feels right for celebrating and embracing our differences; not hiding them away.”


3 Responses

  1. This is from Independent, not The Guardian!

  2. Our languages show the difficulty we have to conceive more than two sexes – in this case defined in terms of chromosomes – and two genders – the actress is speaking of gender when speaking of different types of clothes. Even if there are biologists who attest the existence of more than two sexes, the language has not follow the lead. The prefixes ‘inter’ and ‘trans’ try to evade the issue even when the issue is the object of discourse. In spite of Butler and the emergence of queer theory, to my knowledge, nobody has explicitly address the discursive quandrum in contrast with feminist theories, for example. The confusion between sex and gender does not help matters. This ‘anomaly’ is now medicalized. Without the knowledge of the parents or at their request, physicians try to ‘correct’ it by means of operations, at birth, if detected at this stage, or later. Binarism is so ingrained in the culture that even the inter- or trans-sexuals speak in terms of choice of one of the sexes. Gays too are not at ease when addressing this bio- social issue. I have no solutions either but think it is time for gays and queers to address and appropriate this issue, by reflecting and analysing the problem (and the power) of naming, for example.

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