Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Intersex Day of Remembrance: Birthday of Herculine Barbin

Intersex Day of Remembrance, also known as Intersex Solidarity Day, is an international awareness day that aims to draw attention to the issues faced by members of the intersex community. It is observed on November 8, marking the birth anniversary of Herculine Barbin (see below).

Sex characteristics of intersex people do not allow them to be distinctly identified as male or female.

Intersex Day of Remembrance was created to raise awareness of intersex and highlight the challenges faced by intersex people. One of the most important issues is non-consensual interventions to modify the sex anatomy. As of 2015, Malta is the only country that has outlawed them.

While Intersex Day of Remembrance is celebrated more in Europe, Intersex Awareness Day (October 26) is primary marked in English-speaking countries, particularly in North America. In some countries, two weeks between the two events are marked as “14 days of intersex.”

Herculine Barbin was born on this day in 1838. Barbin was a French intersex person who was determined as female at birth and raised in a convent, but was later reclassified as male by a court of law.

Most of what we know about Barbin comes from her memoirs. Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d'Angély in France in 1838. She was assigned as a girl and raised as such; her family referred to her as Alexina. Her family was poor but she gained a charity scholarship to study in the school of an Ursuline convent.

According to her account, she had a crush on an aristocratic female friend in school. She regarded herself as unattractive but sometimes slipped into her friend's room at night and was sometimes punished for that. However, her studies were successful and in 1856, at the age of 17 she was sent to Le Chateau to study to become a teacher. There she fell in love with one of the teachers.

In 1857 Barbin received a position as an assistant teacher in a girls' school. She fell in love with another teacher, Sara, and Barbin demanded that only she should dress her. Her ministrations turned into caresses and they became lovers. Eventually rumors about their affair began to circulate.

Barbin, although sick her whole life, began to suffer excruciating pains. When a doctor examined her, he was shocked and asked that she should be sent away from the school, but she stayed.

A later legal decision declared officially that Barbin was male. She left her lover and her job, changed her name to Abel Barbin and was briefly mentioned in the press. She moved to Paris where she lived in poverty and wrote her memoirs, reputedly as a part of therapy. In the memoirs, Barbin would use female pronouns when writing about her life prior to sexual redesignation and male pronouns following the declaration. Nevertheless, she clearly regarded herself as punished, and "disinherited," subject to a "ridiculous inquisition."

In his commentary to Barbin's memoirs, Michel Foucault presented Barbin as an example of the "happy limbo of a non-identity," but whose masculinity marked her from her contemporaries. Morgan Holmes states that Barbin's own writings showed that she saw herself as an "exceptional female," but female nonetheless.

In February 1868, the concierge of Barbin's house in rue de l'École-de-Médecine found her dead in her home. She had committed suicide by inhaling gas from her coal gas stove.