Tuesday, November 11, 2014

H is for Herculine Barbin

I have been wanting to cover more historical people who are intersex, so today H is for Herculine Barbin.  Most of what we know about Barbin’s tragic life comes from her memoirs.

Herculine Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d’Angley France in 1838.  She (pronouns will change throughout this story) was raised female.  Her family was poor but sent her to study at a convent school on a charity scholarship.  She had a crush on a girl there are and was punished for going into her room.  In puberty she never menstruated and remained flat chested.  In 1857 at the age of 17 she graduated and went to Le Chateau to become a teacher.  A year later she got a job as a assistant teacher at a girls school.  She fell in love with one of the teachers there, Sara, and the two had an affair.
 
Barbin was often ill and suffered excrutiating pain.  She had talked about her condition in confession.  She asked the Bishop of La Rochelle, Jean-Francios-Ann Landriot for permission to break the silence of the confessional to see a doctor.  Doctor Chesnet examined her in 1860 was shocked to discover she had a small vagina, small penis and internal testicles.

A judge made a legal decision to declare Barbin officially male, with the name Abel Barbin.  This made the news in some of the French papers.  He (told you the pronouns would change, this is how it is in the memoirs) left Sara and the girls school and moved to Paris and lived there in poverty.  There he wrote these memoirs, reputedly as a part of therapy.  Obviously very depressed the memoirs say he felt punished, disinherited and subject to a “ridiculous inquisition”.

In 1868, at the age of 30, Barbin was found dead.  He had committed suicide by inhaling gas from his coal gas stove.  The memoirs were found beside his bed.


Herculine Barbin is a very important figure in the intersex movement.  The memoirs were rediscoverd by sociologist and gender theorist Michael Foucault who published them is 1980.  The French film The Mystery of Alexina and the play Herculine are based on her life.  She also is a character in the plays A Mouthful of Birds by Caryl Churchill and David Lan and Hidden: a Gender by Kate Bornstein.  The books Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides and Orlando by Virginia Woolf were inspired by the memoirs.  Her birthday, November 8, is the international Intersex Day of Rememberance.

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