Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Circle round, and I'll tell you the story of Herculine Barbin.

There was a child in France named Alexina Barbin who was born in 1838. She grew up just like any other little girl. But poor Alexina didn't think that she was pretty. She had been sickly all her life, but things got worse as she went into puberty. She was flat-chested and was embarrassed by her mustache and sideburns. She was an orphan and her birth family was poor, but she somehow obtained a scholarship to study in a convent.

While at the convent, she became friends with an aristocratic fellow student. Alexina had a crush on her and would sneak into her room at night, which got her into trouble. Regardless, she did well in her studies and was sent to a school for teaching when she was seventeen years old.

Eventually, she got the job as an assistant teacher in an all girl's school. She fell in love with another teacher named Sarah. Alexina demanded that only she should dress her. The two became lovers, and rumours began to circulate throughout the school. It was during this time that Alexina began to suffer from excruciating pains.

Alexina went to the doctor for a physical examination. The doctor told her that she had to leave the school, but wouldn't tell her why. Alexina was greatly disturbed, so she went to confession and asked the Bishop to send for a different doctor. This doctor told her the truth, and it would change her life forever. Alexina wasn't a girl at all. She had a small vagina, but also a small penis with testicles. Alexina was a hermaphrodite (hermaphrodite is considered a historically derogative term, nowadays you would call her an intersex person).

Because of this new information, there was legal action. The courts declared that the now twenty-one year old Alexina was legally a male. He was forced to leave his job and his lover. His name was changed to Abel Barbin. There was a short media frenzy, newspapers called him/her a "preternatural monster." He moved to a seedy, poverty-stricken section of Paris and began writing his memoirs. At the age of twenty-nine, Abel was found dead in his room. He committed suicide by inhaling gas fumes from a stove. His finished memoirs were laying on his bed.

It's impossible to know what Alexina/Abel would have felt about what happened next. The man who conducted her autopsy gave her/his memoirs to a psychologist friend of his who had it published. They have been re-published several times, and have inspired many other works of art. The novels Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides all have Alexina/Abel's diaries to thank as a resource. Barbin appears as a character in several plays: A Mouthful of Birds, Herculine, and Hidden: A Gender. The case also inspired the French film The Mystery of Alexina.

So what does this have to do with naming? It has everything to do with naming.

Did her mother, or anyone working at the orphanage, know that something was decidedly different about the girl with the prissy name? You do have to undress a child for some things. Did he/she choose to switch identities from Alexina to Abel, or was that something the courts decided he "should" do? And where the heck does the name Herculine come from?

One of the first signals that a name communicates is gender. You have to pick one. Boy or girl. But what if that's not where you're child's identity is? I've always wondered what name I would give to a child with ambiguous genitalia. It's rare, but not impossible. It's one of the reasons I keep an unisex name list.

But I don't think that American society, who freaks out over little boys with pink toenails, knows how to deal with intersex children. Studies show that if you wrap a baby in a yellow blanket and give no gender details, people will react with confusion and alarm. In that way, not much has changed since Herculine's time.

But in general, Neo-Pagans are overwhelmingly supportive of intersex people. Some believe that they should be revered because they are a living mixture of the God and the Goddess. There are even intersex deities, although for the life of me I couldn't tell you their names.

I could not find any information as to when precisely the name Herculine Barbin began to be used in reference to Alexina/Abel. Originally, the memoirs were published as The Story and Memoirs of Alexina B. It wasn't until later editions that it had the name Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. The only scientific article in English that I could find refers to her as Adelaide Herculine Berbin, which confuses the issue even more. Either way, I'm relatively certain that Herculine is an invented name that did not exist before the Barbin case. A combination of the manly Hercules with a feminine French -ine ending. It's fitting.

I'm not writing this profile because I expect the name Herculine to catch on anytime soon. I'm writing because I am honestly curious if there is anyone besides me that thinks about how to give a happy life to an intersex baby and give him/her a positive outlook on his/her unique identity, starting with a name that can flow between genders along with him/her. In this world were people believe that Madison can't be used on a boy anymore because more parents are giving it to girls.



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1 comment:

  1. I think this kind of gets into a sex=/=gender thing. Having known a few intersexed people myself--not terribly many, but a few--I believe that the majority of them end up identifying more strongly with, if not exclusively as, one gender over the other. Just because they're intersex doesn't imply they're also genderfluid. Sometimes their parents choose to operate on them as babies, to make them "normal", and they end up transitioning to the other sex because their parents chose wrong. Oops.

    Personally, once my hypothetical intersexed child was old enough to say what gender they are, I would raise them as that and help them align their body to it... Would a unisex name help or hinder them in getting along with their gender identity? Not sure. I know that sometimes transgendered people try to make do with a unisex name, but it usually doesn't work out as well as they'd hoped... if there's any question it's best to have a name that's clearly one gender. I suppose it really depends on the situation. Actual genderfluid people are, in my understanding, very rare. In that case, even speaking as a transgendered person myself, I'm not completely sure what I would do... not sure my pronoun dance skills are up to that! Herculine/Herculine/Herculineself?

    In this story, Alexina clearly identifies as female, which is likely why she committed suicide. Her story is, unfortunately, quite similar to many transgender people today (although Alexina wasn't even trans... she was just female!). I guess not much has changed after all...


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